For Diane, who saw me.
And for my father, who gave everything.
11 YEARS AGO
In an antiseptic white room, Ethan Fraction and Steven Walker were a stain. The interrogation had yielded mostly screams and fluids, leaving their surroundings an asymmetrical Rorschach. Fraction was short a molar and a full complement of fingernails. Walker sported fresh ligature marks around his neck and an assortment of stab wounds. The agony technicians responsible for this had long since packed up, leaving the two to mull over the situation and bleed.
They knew who had brought them in, but a journalist's itch had them picking at why. The things their interrogators asked were opaque-- proper words in nonsense order. It didn't track. No one even brought up the desert, the derelicts, or the cures, just a document. An article of which they knew nothing. Getting black-bagged, donating plasma to the floor, and playing twenty questions for keeps was not how they had seen their Saturday going. An hour after their interrogation, still tied to metal chairs, they'd begun to wonder about their chances at Sunday. The gravity of the situation wasn't lost on them. Regaining consciousness, Walker had the presence of mind to address it.
"You don't think we made a mistake with all this, do you?" Walker asked.
"What? No," Fraction said. "If we made any mistakes-- and I hesitate to say we did-- it was offering them such a small bribe."
"What? I kept telling them: I will pay you a dollar to let us go. One whole dollar," Walker added, his giggling punctuated by a bloody cough.
"Right," Fraction cackled, "because at some point I'm just gonna run out of teeth, and then what're you gonna do?"
"Yeah, I mean, there's really only one way to hang somebody, and they already--"
A buzzer went off, the door in front of them opening not a second later with an echoing, metallic pop. A tall, thin man with a shaved head stepped out of the comparative blackness of the vestibule. A dark suit rendered him just hands and head in negative space; means of deed and intent. Pulling up a chair in the light, he seemed at ease, in his element. This was his show.
"So, nothing?" he asked, parts confounded and amused. "I went to all that trouble, and you don't actually know anything? Jesus, if I'd known that, you might still be sitting at the bar and I could be at the Met." he said.
The boys gave him a look. They'd been to the site. The data Miyamoto handed them was extensive, and they'd nearly gone public with it. They knew a little more than nothing. The man saw them doing the math and walked it back some.
"Well, nothing actionable. I know she told you about the op, and us, and the NES, but I mean, if you knew what I thought you knew, oh my God," he said, his eyes turning wide, "there wouldn't be enough bleach in the world to clean up this floor."
“Well, now I feel ungrateful for wanting a new tourniquet,” Walker deadpanned.
The man gave a smirk. He couldn't help but respect their irreverence in the face of blunt force trauma. They weren't operatives, just kids; twenty-four and in over their heads. But they'd kept it together. If he'd found them on his own, he might have recruited them. Instead, Miyamoto had, making a dead-end of them after she'd gone to ground. The boys were in a state, though. Flashes of light and ringing noise shot through Walker, and the salt left on his wounds stung with every movement. Fraction still bled from his fingers, a pool forming on the white tile underneath them. It pushed into the grout like a vein, pulsing intermittently toward the drain at the center of the room.
"You know why we don't kill people like you?" The man asked, cocking his head to the side. "It's nothing as sophomoric as martyrdom; martyrs sell t-shirts, not revolutions. You're going to walk out of here tonight because I want you to shout what you know from the rooftops.
"See, the narrative ecosystem takes apart dangerous ideas like an immune system. Even if industry and government don't kill your story, people want to adhere to the social contract-- and your story doesn't. They might even be cynical enough to have already accepted something like it in the abstract, but if you confront them with the reality of it, they’ll cast you out like lepers.
“Even if it does get out, shock and novelty have a shelf life. The sentiment would shift to resignation, and like PRISM or MKUltra, it’d just be a fact of life.”
The red line barreled ahead between the tile. A kind of dread washed over Fraction and Walker as the man spoke, pulling back the curtain on something they'd thought a paranoid fantasy. This man wasn’t even walking between the raindrops, he was scheduling the storm.
“Killing you is a waste of ammunition and janitorial wages, because whether you keep quiet or scream your story at the top of your lungs, it becomes inert.”
Silently, the red line reached the drain. The man leaned forward.
“This is truth that oxidizes as fiction.”
Fraction considered that.
“Yeah, you’d probably better kill us.”
11 YEARS LATER
At the corner of Park and 34th, Fraction and Walker were seen staring into space, transfixed by something in the distance. The boys stood in the shadow of 3 Park Avenue, the sun just grazing them from down 34th where it charged the September air. They were motionless, save for Fraction’s smoking. Buses wheezed past, traffic cops shouted, pedestrians offered counsel of getting out of the fucking way; all background noise.
A year prior the boys had been tasked with launching a magazine for their publishers, a dubious career choice in the waning days of print. There had been other opportunities, even some flirtation with taking over institutions like Time, but they’d wanted a clean slate. Eventually an opportunity presented itself. In a show of strength, Lawlor and Franck Publishing announced the launch of Alpha; a red-state Esquire for the non-cognitive set. It was a strange move for the two men, who were both politically ambiguous, and once wore hazmat suits to the state with the lowest average IQ. Most in their field had written it off as opportunism. That much was true, though offset somewhat by the fact that they had no intention of doing any of the things they said they would.
"This is going to be the single greatest day of our lives," Walker said.
"I know," Fraction replied. "Who do you think comes at us first?"
Walker sought clarity. "Professionally?”
“Definitely the analytics firm.”
“You don’t think they’ll be too busy with, say, jail?”
“I mean, they do get a phone call.”
“Hm,” Fraction said, muffled by his cigarette. “Next time I get arrested, I'm gonna use my phone call on 911.”
Walker stifled a laugh. "The social companies, then. Sandberg'll be picking out horse's heads by dinner."
"Hey, speaking of which, did you ever get that jacket made out of Secretariat?"
"No," Walker said, disappointed. "It turned out to be a fake. But-- I am assured this belt used to be Seabiscuit."
Weighing the possibility they'd be buried in their outfits that day, they'd dressed for the occasion. Walker was in a black Tom Ford suit and overcoat, a look Fraction called "sociopath mannequin nouveau". The outfit cost enough to qualify as real estate in some countries and was, for alarmingly precedented reasons involving a troop of girl scouts, flame-retardant. For his part, Fraction showed up in gray jeans, and a black zip-up hoodie under a black racer jacket; so, pretty much the same thing he wore every day.
"I wish we'd been alive to do this in the seventies," Fraction sighed. "The city was damn near bankrupt, anything on a right angle was covered in graffiti, burning down buildings was practically a professional sport."
"The Bush years would have been incredible. Imagine being a proper blasphemer in early 2002. The tourists could have chased us down Broadway with pitchforks and torches, price tags on their FDNY hats fluttering in the wind, classic Sinatra blaring in the background. The exact opposite of being the Beatles."
"Or imagine the shit we could have pulled on Wall Street during the financial crisis. Fashion shows with the homeless, a parade of blind people with walking sticks and SEC credentials, and a fifty foot tall Christmas tree made out of ceramic cocaine and defaulted mortgages."
"Hey," called a voice behind them. "No new evil plans until the end of the day. Finish the one on your plate."
Ash MacRae, their 23-year-old office manager, appeared between them, coffee in hand. Without asking, she took a drag from Fraction’s cigarette and gave it back.
“Stunt our ambition all you want, but don’t you dare screw with my cancer habit,” Fraction said. “Since when the fuck do you smoke?”
"Since I woke up and remembered what we were doing today," she said. Fraction paused, then reached into his pocket and handed her a cigarette.
"Today's going to be goddamned incredible," Fraction effused. "We're going to install an evil cola machine in the break room, have a ritual sacrifice, and blow up our careers beyond recognition."
"Sure, but we're still doing dinner at that place around Union Square, right? I'm gonna need some guac with my career suicide," Ash said.
"Well," Walker smirked, "we should probably keep at least one promise today."
The magazine’s offices consumed the top floor of 3 Park Avenue. The skyline’s sorest thumb, it rose 42 stories of burnt-orange brick above ground. The only building to sit at a 45-degree angle to the city’s street grid, it was an exercise in irreverence, its bones built contrary. On the 42nd floor, an elevator opened into a dark vestibule of a reception area. It was a literal black box marked by a few chairs, a reception desk, and a flimsy paper banner reading "Alpha Magazine" in Comic Sans. A hallway just long enough to stunt line of sight led into the offices proper; a bright, sprawling, open concept bullpen outlined by offices and conference rooms.
Booming music heralded Fraction and Walker's arrival, drawing the staff's attention to the entrance and obliterating all productivity. They walked in blowing kisses and raising their arms in triumph, a parody of entitled spectacle.
"Terrible subordinates," Fraction shouted. "Zero day has arrived! Today we embark upon a morally dubious, anarchic journey the likes of which the world has never seen. Those who survive this endeavor will regale their children with tales of paradigm shifts and minimal bloodshed. Others will have their parking passes taken away."
"To those of you who dutifully adhered to your airtight nondisclosure agreements," Walker continued, "we thank you with a 10% salary bump and expanded dental coverage. Those who fell prey to our false flag bribery operation and broke their NDAs will now be led out of the building by security. While HR has informed us that blending you into some kind of a Soylent Judas concoction is 'murder', you should know that we really, really wanted to do it."
"Now if the writing staff would join us in conference room 1 for our meeting, and a zero day surprise we're almost positive won't result in violence," Fraction said with bombast.
In said conference room, a new face greeted the dozen writers trickling in. Some offered cautious waves and faint hellos. All were returned with cold eyes and silence. In any other workplace, this kind of thing would be unorthodox, but the magazine's staff had acclimated to consistently bizarre happenings. Most offices had theme days, birthday cake, and the occasional party. The magazine engaged in less traditional exercises, like Design-a-Cult and Crustacean Deathmatch. Whether it was a shared love of the absurd or garden variety Stockholm syndrome, the better part of the staff had come to lean into the madness.
Fraction and Walker came in last, casually seating themselves at the head of the table, and immediately engaged in a best of three rock/paper/scissors game. The loss seemed to devastate Fraction, who cursed and clenched his fists--a move that would have served him better a moment prior. Having just won the right to do so, Walker proceeded to lead the meeting.
"Good morning. Before we get into it, some of you may have noticed the man in the corner wearing the gorilla suit."
Absolutely no one had missed this.
"This is Sprinkles, our new personal security detail. You'll be seeing him around, but we do not recommend engaging with him. He has no sense of humor to speak of, does not enjoy wearing that outfit, and can only communicate with the handgun stored in his secret gorilla pocket."
Sprinkles didn’t move, but something in the dead, black eye sockets of his gorilla costume articulated rage.
"And remember," Fraction chimed in, "because Sprinkles is a gorilla, he has total diplomatic immunity; anything he does is good and legal."
"That's absolutely not how that works," Ash said from beside Walker.
"Honestly," Fraction said, "you'd be amazed at how much is legal just because of a typo."
"You guys can not make this entire meeting about the gorilla," Ash said, bringing it up a couple decibels.
"Fine," Walker said, "but only because I'm pretty sure you stole my keys."
"I did, actually," Ash said, grinning proudly.
"Adler, let's start with you," Fraction said, pointing across the table to a young man. "And don't test my patience, lest our terror ape will fill you with anger holes!"
Fraction had threatened simian violence against Nate Adler, the youngest of the writing staff. A slight, unassuming twenty-two year old, he had the distinction of being the only one in the group who wasn't actually a writer by trade.
"What's your bandwidth like right now?" Fraction asked.
"Um, I'm probably ahead of schedule right now. We're just talking about art for the--"
"Terrific, because I just fired Witwer for breach and we might need to send you to Wales," Fraction said.
"Wait, what now?" Nate said, suddenly a great deal more alert.
"Is your passport up to date?" Walker asked.
"I think--" Nate said, cut off again.
"We'll expedite it if we have to," Walker said, waving him off. "How do feel about interviewing a terrorist? You know what-- not important, just talk to Fraction about it tomorrow. Rob?"
"New draft's in your inbox, Lara's ready to lock art once you approve it," said Rob, a senior writer in his mid-thirties. "Can we talk about doxxing? Because I'm almost definitely getting doxxed over this thing."
"All I'm hearing is that you want a free weekend at the Westin," Walker said.
"Yeah, because I'm gonna get doxxed!"
"Watts, where are you at," Walker said, gesturing to a woman in her early thirties.
"Well, I've got this lead on a New York magazine that's performing weird experiments with a gorilla," Nicole Watts said. "Pulitzer material."
"You say that, but David Remnick tried the exact same thing with a penguin costume in the early 2000s," Walker shot back. "Anyway, how was Langtouzhen?"
"I might have come back with a little more than I bargained for," Watts said, her tone sobered. "We talked about a piece that assumed the █████████ story was crap but explore the implications of ████████ █████ █████████, right? Well, it's real. The █████████ ████ ███ ████████ is six now."
Fraction and Walker groaned out expletives, while the room stared at Watts in disbelief. Sprinkles was either unphased or too consumed with that month's issue of Modern Bride to be bothered with the revelation that a █████ █████ had been ██████ in █████ █████.
"Sorry," Nate said, "did you just say you ████ ██ ██████ ██ ████████████? This happened?"
"Yep," Watts said. "We got the ████████ ████████ out of the country and had it ██████ here."
"Watts, this is news! We don't do news," Fraction whined.
"Okay, then do we give giant stories to the Times about █████ ███████ in █████? Because it's either that, or we just sit on it. Listen, it may be news but it also lives firmly in the category of █████████ █████. Do you want to give ██ ████ ████ ████████ ██ █ █████████?"
"████████████," Fraction said. "███████ ███ ███ ██████ ███ ███████████████ █████████████ ██ █ ████ FUCKING DORA THE EXPLORER ███████ ██ ██████ ████."
"Well, ██████ ███ ████████ ████████ ███ █████ █████████ █████ ██████████████ absolutely no way I can train a dolphin to shoot a gun that fast ████ ███ ████████████████████████ █████ ███████████ ████," Walker added.
"█████████ ████ █████████████ █████ ███ ██████████████ ████████ ██████ ███ ████████████ █ ████ █ ████ ███ ███ ██████ crank calling Dean Baquet ████████████ ████ ████," Watts said.
"███████ ███ ██████ ███ ███," Fraction said.
"████ ██████ ██ ████ ██████ ██ ███████ ████ ███ ████████████ ██ ████████ ███████ ██████ ██. ███ ██ exact change for a bucket of anesthetic ███ ████████ ████ ██ ███ ███████████████."
"██████ ██████████ ███ █████████ ████████████ ██ ████████ ███████ ██████ ██. ███ █████ ██████████ █████ ███████ ███ duffel bag full of walnuts and heroin ██████ ████ ██ ███ ███████████████."
"████ ████ ████ ████ ████████████████ █████ ███ █████████ ████████████████ ████████ ██████ ███ ████████████ █ ████ █ ████ ███ ███ ██████████████████ ████ ████ ████████████████████████ ███ ███ ██████████ █ taxidermied sheep ██████████████ ██████ ████ █████████████ ████████ ███ █████████████ ███ ██████ ██████ █ █████████████████ ███ ████ ███ ████ █ ████████████ █████████████ ███████ ██████ █████ ███ ████████████ █████████████ ████ ██████████ ████ █████████████████ ██ ███ ██████████████ ████ ███████ ██ ███ ██████ ███ ███ ██████████ ██ ██████████████ ██████ █████████████████ ██ ██████ ███ █████████████ █████████ ██████ █ █████████████████ ███████ ███ ████ █ ████████████ █████████████ ███████ ██████ ███ ███ ███ ███ ██████████ ██ ██████████████ ██████ █████████████████ ████████ ███ ███ ██████████ █████████ ██████ █ █████████████████ ███████ ███ ████ █ ██████████ ██ █████████████ ███████ ██████ █████ ███ ████████████ █████████████ ████ ██████████ ████ █████████████████ ██ ███ ████████████ ██ ████ ███████ ██ ███ ██████ ███ ███ ██████████ ██ ██████████████ ██████ █████████████████ ████████ ███ █████████████ ███████ ████████ ███ █████████████ █████████ ██████ █ █████████████████ ███████ ███ ████ █ ████████████ █████████████ ███████ ██████ █████ ███ ████████████ █████████████ ████ ██████████ ████ █████████████████ ██ ███ ██████████████ ████ ███████ ██ ███ ██████ ███ ███ ██████████ ██ ██████████████ ██████ █████████████████ ████████ ███ █████████████ █████████ ██████ █ █████████████████ ███████ ███ ████ █ ████████████ █████████████ ███████ ██████ ███ ███ ███ ███ ██████████ ██ ██████████████ ██████ █████████████████ █████," Watts said.
"Motherfucker," Walker muttered. "Fine. Let's take a walk and figure this out. Sprinkles, we're gonna need you to handle things from here," he said, walking out of the room with Fraction and Watts.
The staff turned to Sprinkles. After an expectant thirty seconds, he simply lifted his hand and pointed to the door.
"No, that makes sense," Rob said, realizing the meeting was over.
At 1pm, the office lights dimmed and a pipe organ intoned as Fraction solemnly made his way to the centre of the bullpen. He clasped the hands of nearby staffers, offering dubious blessings and large sums of defunct currency. Ash sat with Nate at his desk, muffling laughter with her hands.
Nate leaned over. “What’s happening now?”
“This,” Ash said “is honest-to-god proof that we have the greatest jobs in the world.”
Nate gave that some thought. “Did I join a cult and not realize it?”
“Technically yes,” she said, “but did you hear about our expanded dental care?”
As the overture concluded Fraction spoke, backed by the underscore of a Baptist church sermon.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if I have ruined the schemes of the wicked, it is only because I have thrown monkey wrenches off the shoulders of giants. Our business of words is replete with titans. Edward R. Murrow. Jane Mayer. William F. Buckley. Christiane Amanpour. Michael Lewis, if he pays me the ten bucks he owes me. And while we would do well to remember and exult their good works, so too must we mind those who would undermine our craft. So, we begin a new ritual: The 3pm Rat Sacrifice.”
A distant voice called out, “Dude, it’s 1pm.”
“Fuck off, Rob, I’ve got a haircut at 3.
"Each month an offering will be made at the expense of those whose press passes should bear a scarlet letter. We begin with the worst of the worst: Julian Assange.
"The albino weasel who once haunted the Ecuadorian embassy in London described himself as a journalist. Opinion journalism is one thing, but Julian and his cadre of self-righteous pricks are in the business of laundering and weaponizing intel stolen by nation states. They're just this side of state-sponsored terrorism, and they do it all in the name of the fourth estate."
Fraction held a hard drive aloft.
"This was liberated from Wikileaks one week ago, immediately after it was delivered. Within is a significant data dump from France's Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs. It is the only copy, and we're going to damage it beyond repair."
Walker pushed over a cart carrying various implements of destruction. He lowered a face shield and sparked up a blowtorch as Fraction spun up a cordless drill.
"Oh shit," Fraction said, looking at the entrance.
"What?" Walker said. He turned his head. "Oh shit."
A woman in her late twenties marched in, dressed in exceptional business attire and looking rather a lot like she was going to murder someone. Fraction and Walker calmly unloaded their implements of destruction as she barreled toward them.
"What did you do?" she asked, just containing her anger.
"Well," Walker said casually, "we stole this hard drive from Europe, and now we're gonna smash it a bunch--"
"What did you do?" she repeated, patience thinning. "You know what, no, I'm not letting you have an audience for this. Where's your office?" she asked Fraction.
Fraction gestured behind himself wordlessly.
"Now," she said, pointing.
"Guys," Fraction politely addressed the staff, "we'll be in a meeting for a bit, but if you could go ahead and obliterate the hard drive full of French state secrets, it'd help me out a lot."
As they walked off, half a dozen staffers rushed the cart, scrambling for the best weapons.
"Talk," the woman ordered as Fraction shut his office door.
"I don't really have anything prepared," Fraction said with a shrug.
"Bill McCutcheon called me today. Directly. The crack of dawn, he called me up and asked some very specific questions about the two of you," she said.
"I certainly hope you told him I'm a cuddler," Walker said from behind Fraction's desk.
"The head of your company called me. He didn't call my boss, or a named partner, he called me to talk about the two of you. So I'm going to ask again, and you're going to disabuse yourself of the notion this is cute just long enough to give me an answer."
"What makes you think we did something?" Fraction asked flatly.
"I spent three and a half years keeping you two out of handcuffs. 'Fraction and Walker are launching the Fox News of men's magazines'? When they offered you the EIC gig at Maxim, you crammed an issue of the magazine into a jar of disinfectant and sent it back to them."
Walker let out a low chuckle, earning him a death stare.
"You wouldn't take this job if your lives depended on it. So there's, what, some built-in 'fuck you' to the company? Or McCutcheon? Are you just biting the hand that feeds you because you got bored?"
"You really think I'm that immature?" Fraction said, arching an eyebrow.
"For your thirtieth birthday you had an open bar and pyro at a Chuck-e-Cheese!"
"And did we not have fun?"
"IT BURNED DOWN."
"AND DID WE NOT HAVE FUN?"
A pause. Her body language disarmed and she collected herself. She did know them. If it were a prank, they'd giddily tip their hand. There would be an obvious exit strategy. Instead, diversion and deflection. This was something else. She tried again. Without anger, without insinuation. Just wanting to know.
"What is this?"
"You'll know in a few hours, just like everybody else," Fraction said, affording her some sobriety in his tone.
She searched him, then turned to leave, having come up empty. She left the bullpen, swerving to avoid the smoking wreckage of a hard drive.
Exasperated, Fraction clasped his hands over his face. Not two seconds later he removed them to find Ash standing in the doorway, eyes wide and expectant.
"I would like to know who that was," she said.
Bill McCutcheon emerged from a town car at the foot of 3 Park Avenue and marched into the building, lawyers in tow. There was no courtesy call or notice; he'd come with a no-knock warrant. He jabbed his thumb into the elevator button for 42 as if digging into an eye socket, and watched the floor numbers rise. The legal team did their best to remind him that murder was still very much illegal in the state of New York, but he was unmoved.
The doors opened to reception in time for Bill to see the "Alpha Magazine" banner fall down unceremoniously.
"Good afternoon, Mr. McCutcheon," the receptionist said with a smile. "You can head right in, Fraction and Walker have been expecting you."
Bill led the litigation swarm into the bullpen where they found Fraction and Walker presiding over a high-stakes game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Bets were taken and a whiteboard was set up to keep score. A quarter of the office looked on and cheered as four staffers viciously consumed marbles with fun-sized hippopotami, like a fight club sponsored by Fisher Price.
"Bill," Walker called out. "You want next? They're playing for an actual NYPD get-out-of-jail-free card."
"We need to have a conversation," Bill said, piercing the cacophony. "Right now."
The lawyers waited outside the conference room where Bill planned to interrogate Fraction and Walker. Figuring their jobs hung in the balance, the staff got back to work, intermittently trying to scan the situation from their desks. Once Bill threw the magazine on the conference table, everybody had a pretty good idea of where things were headed.
"What the fuck is this?" Bill asked, planting a finger down on the first issue of Alpha.
"Real American voices speaking for the real America," Fraction said, reciting talking points.
"I've read it," Bill said.
"In that case, it's mostly hardcore pornography and repurposed Martha Stewart Living copy," Fraction replied.
"Feel like explaining this to me? Really guys, I'm all ears."
"Well," Walker said, a smirk creeping onto his face, "it's possible we haven't been doing quite as we were told."
"Yeah, I didn't have to get much further than Miss January and a fucking muffin recipe to figure that out on my own," Bill yelled. "What have you been doing with my money?"
The boys took a full thirty seconds to decide who would explain before finally agreeing to a division of labor.
"Well, the first thing we did was throw out the concept, because it was, y'know, stupid. Instead we hijacked the whole project in secret and made a magazine about dangerous ideas. You know, the kind of stuff you could never get away with if oversight, accountability, and advertiser concerns factored in," Walker said, gesturing to Fraction to continue.
"We spent a lot of money hiring people that needed to be bought out of their contracts, relocated, or just... differently incentivized. We renovated this place, because the layout sucked and I don't care how soothing it is, taupe is disgusting. What else... we changed the magazine's name, hired a Starbucks barista as our second in command, and dropped an ungodly amount of cash on the most unethical, mercenary lawyers we could find," Fraction said.
Silence hung over the room. Bill looked at the two of them like idiot kids gleefully confessing their misdeeds in the principal's office. He was almost impressed. It was an insane, ambitious gamble, however spectacularly it seemed to have failed.
"So, obviously you're both fired," Bill said, nonchalantly.
"Naturally," Fraction conceded.
"It would be irresponsible not to do that," Walker agreed.
"Okay, well, I'm really glad we're on the same page then," Bill said, shaking his head. "Did you seriously think you were going to get away with this?"
"Get away with it?" Fraction said. "Bill, our first issue hit the stands today."
That morning, the newsstand down the street from 3 Park Ave had been stocked exclusively with one publication. By the time Bill had arrived, it was on shelves in every major North American city. Its cover, a white custom sans-serif typeface against a red background, all but shouted at passersby. Bearing the name “The Subvertiser”, its cover blared the headline:
"I am going to suffocate you two in litigation," Bill said, almost laughing. "Now get the fuck out of my office."
"Nope," Walker said.
"As one of your lawyers is about to explain to you before he quits and moves to Milan, that would put you in breach," Fraction explained.
"Excuse me," Bill said, incredulous. "We have a pretty one-sided contract as far as autonomy is concerned."
"That's true," Walker said, "but you may want to take another look at it to see whose side it favors."
Bill looked down at the decoy "Alpha". When he read it, he'd been too angry to ask how it got on his desk. Or where his assistant was. Or why he hadn't had any calls all morning. Those questions began to delineate their own answers. This hadn't happened overnight, and it hadn't happened in a vacuum. There were collaborators hidden in plain sight, machinations stretching back months, maybe even years. Very suddenly, Bill realized that these two assholes had infected his company, and there was no way of knowing how deeply.
Then a lawyer knocked on the door.
At 5:36pm, a tall, thin man in a suit walked into into Times Square. His eyes panned from left to right, confirming what he already knew. The crass patchwork of solicitation that usually filled the space had been subject to an unusual ad buy. For an hour, every digital screen lining the area had abandoned its promotions for red panels with a graphic of an exploding lightbulb: The Subvertiser's logo.
Slicing a path through the tourists, he arrived at Fraction and Walker, who were patiently waiting in a pair of dilapidated lawn chairs. He cocked his head, squinting at them.
"There are less complicated ways of getting yourselves killed, you know."
"We thought about torturing a couple of motivated assholes, but we didn't want to wait eleven years for the payoff," Walker retorted.
"Hah! You are funny, Mr. Walker. I'm genuinely curious-- what did you two hope to accomplish with all this? You know all about the birds and the bees, better than most.”
"We found an exploit," Fraction said matter-of-factly.
"Oh, you found an exploit," he said, a dismissal. "And what, might I ask, was that?"
He flinched. They weren't supposed to know that name.
"I know your more zealous days are behind you, but you still did what you did. And you didn't tell anyone," Fraction said, eyes narrowing. "Eleven years is a long time to compound your guilt, Robert, and since your bible study pals aren't--"
"Yeah, you can stop speaking," Proctor said, abandoning any veneer of patience. "Because this is not a conflict. This is a preamble to an extermination. You have exactly no power here, and your best case scenario is vanishing off the face of the Earth before I can reach my phone."
"Really? I thought it was telling you that we had Article A as a failsafe," Walker said.
Proctor went silent. The dull roar of tourists and traffic filled a full fifteen seconds of otherwise dead air. Finally, he let out a quiet laugh.
"You know, it occurs to me that I don't even need to take care of you myself. Bill McCutcheon isn't a dumb guy. He'll find a way to take everything back from you, and you'll never work again after that. Plus, there isn't one page in that rag of yours that didn't piss off someone with the resources to eighty-six you both. If a PR firm or a hedge fund decides to wipe you off the map, that's not my problem."
"I certainly hope not," Walker said. "We love being your problem."
Fraction took the long way home, walking from midtown to his brownstone in the Lower East Side. Listening to an old Unkle record, he could feel the sun sinking somewhere beyond the caverns of skyscrapers, its warmth still radiating from the sidewalks and buildings. As he made his way down Broadway, he saw the red cover of the magazine peeking out from underneath a woman's arm. A man was reading a copy as he waited for the bus. A newsstand that had nearly sold out of the issue. A smile crept onto his face, and it occurred to him there was one thing left to do that day. He walked up to the newsstand and bought a copy.
When he got home, Fraction thought to check his email for the first time since noon. 999+ unread messages. He sat down in his office to flip through the notes, a mix of praise and varying assessments of his sanity. He worked on replies to a few friends and peers, junking the rest. All things considered, they'd have plenty of other chances to ask if he and Walker had properly lost it.
Some fifteen minutes in, a brick crashed through one of the office windows. Fraction leaned his head over to see where it landed, and then went back to work. Moments later a second brick came through the window, leaving a hole in the glass.
“See, now I’m starting to think the first one wasn’t an accident,” he said to the empty room.
Fraction resumed typing, not particularly interested in finding a dustpan just then. His concentration was disrupted a moment later as a pile of bricks sailed through his windows, nearly scraping the glass off the frames.
"Hm," he said. Fraction reached for his phone.
Walker’s steps echoed through a parking garage as he took Fraction’s call.
"Hey, if this is about Brian asking for a quote for his newsletter, I sent him back a press release that just says THIS SENTENCE IS FALSE,” Walker answered.
“I'm honestly furious I didn't come up with that first. Hey, you don’t think we made a mistake with any of this, do you?” Fraction said as one last brick came through the window.
Walker searched his pockets for his keys.
“I don’t think anything I’ve ever done has been a mistake.”
Clicking the remote start from twenty yards away, he saw his Tesla explode.
"Hm. I'm gonna have to call you back."
Fraction stood to scan the office. After a minute, he picked up the phone and made another call.
"Jersey Masonry, how can I help you?"
"Yeah, I wanna sell some bricks."