After travelling 93 million miles, the morning light crept into an apartment at Greenwich and 13th. It came to rest on Nate Adler, face down on the bedspread and wearing yesterday’s clothes. At first glance, it appeared he’d been attacked by a series of falling pianos. On closer inspection, he was spectacularly hungover.
He came to, albeit glacially. Aching and dehydrated, he turned to his nightstand and found a note attached to two large bottles of water.
Dear Future Nate,
Ohio sucks. Also, I may have broken
our your body with alcohol.
“Such a dick,” Nate groaned into his pillow.
He rolled out of bed and shuffled away with a bottle, wondering if he’d be the first person to give his epitaph from the shower.
Knowing what he did about Manhattan real estate, Nate had expected a place small enough he’d be able to cook while showering. Ash had instead referred him to “their guy,” and what he got was palatial by local standards. He had a bedroom. Already furnished, the place had a warm, contemporary feel. To his greatest shock, he was somehow able to afford the place without learning the market value of his bone marrow.
The night came back to him in pieces. Watts pitching a journalism crash course for him. A friendly argument with Nord about the Kardashev Scale. Ash disappearing with Fraction and Walker for an hour. Losing to Sprinkles at Mario Kart. The cute girl from marketing. Esra’s inexplicable concern for him. Meeting Walker’s wife. Laughing with people on the elevator ride down. The night air on the cab ride home.
Making breakfast, he flashed back to the call with his mother, talking like his expulsion from the city was a foregone conclusion. Did she just not understand what he was doing? Could she only see him as a child? Or had doing so little with her own life make it unbearable to watch him surpass her? It was such a weird juxtaposition; we miss you, come home before you fail completely.
It was only after he’d finished eating and handled the dishes that it occurred to him; she hadn’t said the first part.
His dad’s disinterest was almost a relief, comparatively. At the very least, his absence provided contrast to her invasiveness. The most that Nate could say– though he wouldn’t– about their relationship with was that it was amiable. Every now and then there would be glimpses of something else; showing up for a swim meet or piano recital. Nate used to read into those exceptions to the rule. He wondered now why he’d bothered. It just took too much energy to maintain a narrative wherein his father cared for his family as much as his work. He wondered: was starting a family something perfunctory for their generation? A line item between marriage and dying with the most toys?
Stepping onto the sidewalk, Nate grinned. Two months he’d been in the city, and the effect hadn’t worn off one bit. Everything seemed to matter there; every atom charged with narrative and possibility. For the first few weeks he kept expecting to wake up in Columbus, flattened by it. Instead, he kept waking up in his bed in New York, doing work he was excited about. Every morning was marked by the elation of knowing that this was now his life.
The elation took a back seat as Nate checked his phone for the first time in fourteen hours, noticed he had 577 emails, and realized that Jamie was right: he was probably going to be famous.
“Everyone?” Fraction said.
“Everyone.” Ash said.
“Every shop capable of what we need in the amount of time you specified.”
“Jesus fucking– everyone?”
Regrouping that morning in the hangar-sized conference room, Ash was watching Fraction go through the five stages of grief in fast forward. He’d doubled back from depression to denial, which was essentially an act of bargaining. The night before they’d discovered that Bill McCutcheon was willing to play dirty, and he was pretty good at it. Somehow he’d found the printers producing next month’s issue—it randomized every month—and either made them a solid offer or an even better threat. Suddenly every capable printing house in the country was leaving them on hold ad infinitum.
“How the shit did he pull this off so fast?” Fraction said. “You don’t—”
“No, he’d never call an audible this fast,” Walker said.
“I seriously hate it when you two talk in code,” Ash groaned.
“We’re not talking in code,” Walker said. “We’re lying through omission, it’s completely different.”
“When men say things like that, do they realize they’re not in anamorphic widescreen?”
“I regret hiring you so often,” Walker muttered.
“Yeah, yeah. Guys, I know you don’t want to push back, but I’ve talked to seventeen reputable shops outside the country who could ship it for the week after. The longer we wait, the closer it gets to being two weeks. Then three, then four.”
“The problem we’re solving isn’t losing the printers, it’s losing the week,” Fraction said. “This one has to be on the stands the morning of the fourteenth.”
“Then at least tell me why,” Ash said.
“It’s the kind of important where we can’t,” Fraction said, at once soft-spoken and clear. That string couldn’t be tugged at.
Ash turned, took a moment, then turned back to them. The last time she saw that DEFCON-3 look on their faces, they’d been cornered at a New Year’s party by Don Lemon. This was real.
“What are the minimum requirements for an acceptable product? Down to the paper stock, how do we lose deadweight and make substitutions? Are there specialty shops that aren’t on the industry radar? Is there a weak link in the shops Bill got to?”
“All good questions. Let’s start throwing bodies at ‘em,” Walker said. “Round up whoever you want. If they say they’re on deadline, send Sprinkles.”
Sprinkles, who had been in the room the whole time, laced his gorilla fingers together to crack his knuckles.
“Seriously, how long are you two going to run this gag?”
“I wouldn’t threaten his employment status in front of him,” Fraction said. “He’s armed, and he just bought a boat.”
Ash turned to apologize, only to see Sprinkles was suddenly wearing a sea captain’s hat.
To: Nathan Adler (email@example.com)
From: Thomas Ayer (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Subject: Interview Request
My name’s Tom Ayer, I’m a senior editor at Buzzfeed. I loved your piece in The Subvertiser, and if you’re game I want to talk about doing an interview with you. Broadly, I’d like to talk about the magazine, your work there, and what it’s like inside the whirlwind of these last few days.
We’d start with an informal, off-the record chat, then have a couple conversations for the article. Since this will be a feature, we’d also need you to come in for a short photoshoot at our offices. Get back to me and we’ll start moving!
Thomas R. Ayer
Senior Editor, Buzzfeed
To: Nathan Adler (email@example.com)
From: Anu Singh (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Hello Nathan, I’m in booking at MSNBC, and we’d like to have you on as a guest during our 3pm slot this coming Tuesday. Our executive producers and host enjoyed your most recent article, and they think you’d be a fascinating interview. Please reach out at your earliest convenience and we’ll set it up. We’re very much looking forward to hearing from you.
Associate Producer, MSNBC
To: 212-344-6620 (You)
From: 440-508-4621 (Saved Contact: Jason Larraz)
What’s up, household name? You’re gone two months and you’re already FAMOUS NEW YORK WRITER NATE ADLER? Seriously buddy, so fucking proud of you, and not even a little surprised. Let’s do a call, alright? I think you may need to catch me up on a thing or two.
To: Nathan Adler (email@example.com)
From: Debris Anoinek (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Hi Mr. Adler,
I’m a junior at Norman Thomas High II, and hopefully a Columbia j-school student in a couple years. Your article basically blew my mind. Nobody thinks that way, right? If you think you’re the most important person in the universe I guess you’d don’t consider that your story’s a statistic, not some big adventure. So of course nobody’s going to see the relationships or the patterns you talk about, they can’t see past their own nose.
I’m off-track. We’re supposed to interview a journalist for our media unit this year, and I wanted to ask if I could talk to you for it. I know you’ve probably got a thousand better things to do, but it would be a half hour tops, and it would mean a lot.
Thanks for your time, and I hope to hear from you.
To: Nathan Adler (email@example.com)
From: Theresa Zeldin (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Subject: “The Subvertiser” Article
I’ve had more than a few students approach me with rather grand ideas. A post-doc once believed he could prove that all human behavior could be distilled to algorithms. Another told me with the patience of a kindergartener that the human race is a single entity of which we’re all cells. I must hand it to you, though, I’ve never read anything that was both a high concept delusion and aggressively ignorant. Traditionally, I would not take the time to craft correspondence such as this, but in light of your magazine’s popularity and the nature of your thesis, I feel a professional obligation.
What you’ve described in your magazine article is a sort of theory of everything, and like all such theories, its only purpose is to offer post-hoc justifications for the chaotic nature of our world. There is a fine line between genius and madness, and experience provides me the perspective to judge this text as being nowhere near it. The “narrative ecosystem” is just another garden-variety conspiracy theory, a pop-sociology fantasy founded on correlation dressed up as causation. I’m sure you’re quite proud of your article, and suffering from delusions of its veracity, but I would urge you to immediately retract it and refrain from publishing such work in the future. Some of us spent our lives thoughtfully contributing to social science, and the sight of it polluted with this faux-iconoclasm is frankly sickening.
If you continue with this, Mr. Adler, there are those of us who will have no compunction about revealing the nature of your work.
Autopilot delivered Nate to the foot of 3 Park Avenue before he could even scratch the surface of his inbox. This, he told himself, was not happening. This was a dream he’d wake up from any minute. He was him, not the character he felt being sketched around him. He’d spent the last four years holed up in a university library, working in a field of study so specialized it didn’t exist, and now people were asking him to talk about it on national television. Any sort of due diligence meant weighing the evidence on whether he was in fact in a coma, psychotically delusional state, or poorly-written simulation.
Disconfirmation came in the form of a homeless woman who spat on his chest and demanded he return the moon to Blockbuster; standard Midtown fare.
This was, in fact, happening.
“It’s fucking Whack-a-Mole,” Fraction lamented.
A smattering of staffers had set up a war room, dotting the conference table with laptops and coffee orders. The dry-erase wall named a litany of printing houses, all executed by marker. Every shop they contacted came back with an estimate of Bill-McCutcheon-just-called dollars and you’re-completely-fucked cents. No matter where they surfaced, the same mallet waited for them.
“We’re meeting deadline even if we have to bleach copies of Dog Fancy and handwrite the articles,” Walker said. “Ash, get us a hundred thousand back issues of said publication.”
“Yeah, I’m going to veto that, you’ve had enough coffee to kill a small horse,” Ash said, her eyes unmoved from her screen. “Utah’s a no-go. Still waiting on the guy at Staples corporate, but I still think multiple locations is a logistics nightmare.”
“It would be worse for them than us,” Fraction said, slowly pacing near the door. “If we order at capacity from each one, it won’t matter if he gets half of—how do you keep getting in here?”
Arms folded and unamused, Esra stood in the doorway.
“You must be Esra Dawson,” Ash said, moving to greet her. “It’s so nice to meet you and please give me all of your ammunition on them.”
“…I like you. Fraction uses a nightlight like a six-year-old,” Esra said.
“My hallway’s dark,” Fraction shot back. “Can I help you?”
“Yeah, does the building have a freight elevator, or is it just the standard type in the lobby? The movers are asking.”
“See, this is why I was here last night. Since I used to represent you, my firm has lent me out in the hope I can prevent the situation from getting worse,” she said, ending on a tart smile. “Which it absolutely will anyway, no matter what I say or do. Now, even though my job has become a pointless suicide mission slash babysitting job, I’m going to make it work for me. So, here’s the deal: you’re the scenery in my movie, not the other way around. Ninety-nine percent of my time here will be spent doing pro-bono work for causes that actually matter. The remaining point one percent is for when your people need to be protected from you.”
The office hummed beneath the silence.
“Can I work for you instead?” Ash said.
“I am replacing you with a cardboard cutout of yourself, I swear to God. Ana can crank one out in thirty minutes,” Fraction said, wandering back to the conference table.
“The building has a couple of freight elevators,” Walker said, sober and accommodating. “I’ll call down and tell security to expect you.”
“Thank you,” Esra said. This version of Walker she could handle. “How’s Alice?”
“She’s good, you just missed her last night. She’s busy. The gun lobby wants her dead, which concerns me a little. I keep expecting the ghost of Charlton Heston to start haunting the living room.”
“You still not thinking about kids?”
“She’s happy being an aunt, I can’t keep a houseplant alive. You should get in touch, though. She really did like you a lot.”
“I should,” Esra said. A pause. “How are things with him?” she said, flatly.
“Standard Fraction. I think he likes having the kid around, though,” Walker said, gesturing at Nate moving through the bullpen.
“What’s that about?”
“We abducted him from Ohio,” Walker said.
Esra just looked at him. Waiting. Unblinking. Walker relented.
“There’s this series Fraction was going to write for the magazine; heady, esoteric stuff. Then a college buddy who’s teaching at Columbus reached out. We’d asked him to talent scout a little, and he says he’s got this student who’s kind of already written Fraction’s piece. We brought the kid out for a meeting, and Fraction made an offer on the spot. His nam–“
“Nathan, I know,” she said, still looking out to the bullpen. “He always wanted a little brother.”
His phone now a portal into a horrifying alternate reality, Nate turned it off and buried it in a desk drawer. Traditionally T-Mobile didn’t perform exorcisms, but he thought he might give it a shot later on. For fear he’d Google his own name from his computer, he opted to do research work in the lunchroom. Unplugging always felt unusually clear, as if some years-old itch had finally stopped. For once, the phone held no chemical allure; any dopamine hit would be laced with cognitive dissonance. Fear, it seemed, overpowered narcosis.
He was trying to gleam something useful from a nigh-incomprehensible academic text. Maps of Meaning, the cover read; the work of a long since culturally-disavowed academic. He’d started to wonder if the book was some kind of trap meant to lure readers in and bore them to death. It wouldn’t prove an issue for long, as seconds later Fraction would walk in with a megaphone and a vending machine.
“Terrible subordinates,” Fraction shouted to the dozen staffers eating. “Heed my words, lest I repeat them through a larger megaphone!” Fraction shouted as a pair of men installed the new addition. “You will notice the glorious rectangle bearing the name ‘Uncle Fraction’s Horrible Death Cola’. Rest assured, this is not some fever dream brought on by infection. We have crammed this electricity box with adventure! It promises wonder and revelation, for every can contains something singular and invaluable. Each one an undiscovered country in a twelve ounce aluminum cylinder. It is your unique privilege that you may now take all of your money and relocate it into this coin slot or the adjacent credit card hole.
“Remortgage your home. Pull the plug on grandma. Sell your children. The god Mammon hungers and it is through this portal he feeds!”
Two steps out of the room, Fraction returned to his place and clicked the megaphone back on.
“Oh, and one of the cans has a hundred thousand dollars in it.”
The staffers searched Fraction. He gestured to the machine. There would be no further explanation.
A few people tentatively searched their pockets for cash or cards. A copy editor approached, change in hand. There was a yelp of feedback as Faction dropped the megaphone and walked away.
“Adler, conference room. We need your brain and the drill’s finally charged up.”
Nate grabbed his things and followed Fraction, only for him to stop again.
They watched the copy editor make his selection: 5C. The boys had it custom-made; a black monolith with glass face and a keypad, stocked with identical cans. The staffer selected one of the fifty possible options at random (5C) and waited as a can slid to a receptacle. Tentatively, he pulled the tab. He imagined repaid student loans. Dental work. Reliable microwave oven technology.
Instead, the can produced a cloud of gas, immediately rendering him unconscious.
“Was that knockout gas?” Nate said.
“Knockout gas isn’t real. That was a fentanyl derivative.”
Someone announced that the man on the ground was still breathing.
“Huh. He lived,” Fraction noted. “Good for him.”
“I wanted to ask you something. My phone kind of blew up this morning–”
“Change your number, filter your e-mail, fake your death. Standard procedure; I’ve had to do it once or twice.”
“Well, I think I can handle the first two. Hey, is there actually a hundred grand in there,” Nate asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Fraction said. “Way at the back. And it’s stocked from the front.”
Pulled into the war room, Nate found the staff grasping at straws. They floated using other magazines as proxies, ordering through shell corporations. At one point, Ash had to shut down a serious conversation about time machines
THE FOLLOWING COULD BE OVERHEARD DURING THE WORKING SESSION.
CONTEXT WILL BE PROVIDED IN EXCHANGE FOR YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER AND ATM PINCODE
WALKER (OLYMPIC-LEVEL PRICK): We’re not going to have time to exhume Ed Koch today, are we?
FRACTION (WEAPONS-GRADE ASSHOLE): I’ll make it up to you. Next week we’ll dig up Giuliani.
WALKER: Giuliani’s not dead.
FRACTION: You think that’s what a living person looks like?
ESRA (LAW TALKIN’ GUY): He spilled the entire bottle of ketchup on his lap. It was his birthday.
ASH (10X AMMO): I would like it very much if you had evidence.
FRACTION (-30 FEET): I will send the gorilla over there, I swear to god.
NORD (APERTURE/EXPOSURE): No, for real try it. Walk into any room and slip it into conversation.
ANA (SATIVA, 15MG): “Is a hotdog a sandwich?”
NORD: In five minutes everybody will have resorted to physical violence.
ANA: It’s not, though.
NORD: Of course. Anyone who thinks it is has brain damage.
WALKER: I’m absolutely not kidding.
NATE: Is that even legal?
WALKER: Well, when you run the SDNY, legality’s kind of a choose-your-own-adventure thing.
NATE: And why did Fraction get a million dollar parking ticket?
WALKER: I bet him ten bucks he couldn’t.
ROB (RECENTLY DOXXED): We can’t use that paper stock.
WATTS (███████): Ink adheres to it.
ROB: It looks like somebody hammered out a sheet of tree bark.
WATTS: Rob. You can put ink on it and it stays put.
ROB: This is the shit they use for religious tracts.
WATTS: You feed it into a machine, and when it comes out it has words on it.
ROB: It’s gonna physically grow a mouth and ask me if I’ve heard the good news about its lord and savior.
“Wait. I’ve got it,” Nate said. Heads swiveled, their eyes glassy from marker fumes. “Probably the biggest private printing operation in the world is just across the East River, and nobody’s using it.”
The room stared back for a beat. Fraction and Walker turned to each other, putting it together in stereo.
“How in the shit did we not– Jesus. Sprinkles,” Walker called, tearing the gorilla from the September issue of Yachting.
“C’mon, kid,” Fraction said, grabbing his cigarettes. “Field trip.”
The overhead halogens flickered on, revealing a printing press evidently designed by M.C. Escher. The production line cut its way through a warehouse-sized space, dormant but functional. Fraction and Walker nodded their approval from the entrance.
“The new owners, some holding company headquartered at a PO box, they bit off more than they could chew. They figured; prime New York real-estate, a landmark– you know, condos you can charge through the nose for,” said Andrei Nicol. Their guy.
“But, geniuses they are, found out pretty quickly that physically, legally, cost-effectively, it could not be done the way they wanted. There isn’t enough useable space for offices to be profitable, so that was out. I dunno. It’s been big-game hot potato since the sale in 2012. Cherit Group wanted to turn it into a boutique hotel, and as you can tell from the continental breakfast over there by the kid, it did not take.”
Nate toured the facility, taking in the scale of the thing. Magazines and newspapers were still around, but the existence of such a physical engine felt out of place or time. Test prints from the original owner’s magazine were still scattered around, deranged attempts at harmony in CMYK. For eight decades, this place ejected propaganda to the better part of the world; the beating heart of an entire religion.
Nate picked up a smeared attempt at the Jehovah’s Witnesses’s flagship publication: The Watchtower. Mouthpiece for a cult in Christ’s clothing. The most circulated and least read magazine terrestrially available.
The building had been a landmark for decades, crowned with giant neon letters beaming its name at Lower Manhattan; WATCHTOWER. Connected by underground tunnels, it was a sprawling complex of several buildings; one volcano shy of a supervillain hideout.
He snorted, looking over at the guys. They were trying to repurpose an actual cult’s printing press to publish a hijacked magazine because their parent company had blacklisted them from an entire industry. This is the most psychotically on-brand thing I’ve ever seen, he thought.
“Drei, the press– are we talking turn-key?” Walker said.
“So, they moved the printing operation to Canada years ago; buying a new one there just cost less than dismantling this one and moving it up there. This still works fine.”
“The guy say whether it’d meet our specs?” Fraction said.
“You’ll need a professional to make adjustments, but if the size and stock are what you said, it sounded standard enough.”
“Give us a second, Andrei?” Walker said, turning to Fraction. “It’s not that we can’t do it, it’s–“
“Yeah, it’s a lot of heat.” Fraction said. “Okay, let’s say it didn’t even look like it changed hands? They’re making free money, we get to hide behind their skirt.”
“They say no; do it through a shell corp with an almost identical name to muzzle it.”
“At some point we also need to talk about the part where Es is now working from the northeast corner of the building. Preferably before I jump or she throws me from the roof of said building.”
“I get the sense she’s perfectly happy not interacting– can we get back to–“
“Yeah. I’m not done with this though–“
“I am painfully aware,” Walker said, exasperated. “Even with a retrofit and staffing up, we can make deadline with days to spare.”
“Adler!” Fraction hollered. “Really good work, here. We were this close to firing you after your behavior last night, but you really pulled it out of the fire.”
Across the room, Nate’s head shot up.
“Wait, what’d he do?” Walker said under his breath.
“Nothing,” Fraction said. “I just like fucking with him. Andrei? We’re buying it.”
“Okay, so disassembly won’t be–“
“No, not the press. The building.”