For Diane, who saw me.
And for my father, who taught me to fight.
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.”