ST. THOMAS CHURCH
Proctor sat in the pew as if in a doctor’s waiting room. An apostate to more than one faith, neither repentance nor epiphany had brought him there. Houses of worship served a different purpose in his world, more akin to neutral ground or safe houses. Most lacked the infrastructure for proper surveillance, much less scraping the data off parishioners’ devices. There was an assumption that whatever could be learned in church wasn’t worth the effort.
On the rare occasion he’d suffer through a wedding or a funeral, he tried to appreciate the history of it all. These places brought about the first epoch of globalized thought control. They codified and spread the same artifice that once brought a quick-witted Neanderthal to say I alone know why the sky is angry and exported it to the world. In a war for minds, the Vatican had built the first intercontinental ballistic weapon.
History did little to ease Proctor’s concerns for the present.
A voice came from the pew behind Proctor.
“Well, this should be good. I imagine this is about those loose ends of yours.”
“Your phone,” Proctor said, less a question than a prompt.
“Well naturally I put it on silent after I called every contact I have and told them I was coming here to have an off-the-books confessional with you, Robert. It shouldn’t be hard for them to find, after I left a trail of Wonder Bread slices on my way from Thomas Street.”
“Cates, we don’t have time for this.”
“Courier, restaurant on the upper east side, one failed attempt on a disabled company Visa, one successful attempt with my personal Amex. Since we’re dispensing with pleasantries, you can explain why I’m wasting ten minutes of my life in this manila envelope of an opium den.”
“They have it,” Proctor snapped.
Cates searched Proctor. Irritability gave way to undivided attention.
“I spoke to them the day the magazine was released. Steven Walker was tapping his foot the entire time. Irregularly. I didn’t recognize what it was at first, not until they outright said they had it.”
Cates leaned back in the pew, trying to take in the idea. It was still out there. Out of reach, but no longer a hypothetical. At some point Miyamoto had given it to them.
“Explain to me why we’re having this conversation,” he said, forcing calm.
“They know about the group. All of it.”
Cates sat with it for a moment.
“Robert, aren’t you the one who said we should have destroyed it? Now you want to help get it back?”
“Cates, I don’t care what you do with it anymore. Weaponize it, narcotize it, sell it, it doesn’t matter. If we don’t deal with this, it’s going to bury us. All of us. If that means you get your nuclear option back, I just ask for the courtesy of a head start before you use it.”
Cates considered the back of Proctor’s head for a moment.
“Okay. I’ll buy that. I assume you have some thoughts on how to proceed.”
“First, stop the bleeding. They can’t be seen as a legitimate threat. There’s a case to be made they’re authenticity signalling, monetizing public distrust.”
“An inoculation against themselves. Careful, Proctor. This is sounding familiar.”
“It buys us enough time to figure out our next move. And we’ll both have to pitch this to 29.”
“I don’t see that being a problem. Any sign they have a dead man’s switch on this?”
“Nick, they’ve had eleven years to work this out and they are not stupid people. We have to assume their redundancies have redundancies. Besides signalling that they aim to unseat everything we’ve done in the last seventy years, I have no idea what they actually want.”
A priest passed, truncating the conversation.
“Do you remember what you said when you first brought me in?” Cates said.
“I remember being under the influence, which says enough.”
“You said that past a certain point, incrementalism is not enough. You have to tear it all down and start over.”
Proctor gave him a look. They were done.
Cates stood to leave, then snapped his fingers.
“Where’s your phone?”
“My phone’s sitting on my desk. Yours is actually at a restaurant downtown where you had the bucatini and the ’84 Chateau Montelena, paid successfully with your AMEX the first time, and left a better-than-average tip. Because your courier wasn’t your courier to begin with, and I want you to remember who you’re dealing with.”
Cates started down the aisle.
“I’m not the one trying to forget, Robert.”
Proctor stayed in the pew, a gulf of time and deniability growing between him and Cates. In the distance, an organist sat down in the balcony above the pulpit. The instrument was enormous, an extension of the architecture, the walls breathing and vibrating with every sustained note. Without the pageantry or framing of a sermon, the organist began to play. The piece was stately and inaugural, welcoming and assertive. The first movement of a trap.
Proctor tapped out a text on a burner. Somewhere In the financial district, a scruffy 21-year-old courier in a rented suit got his cue to finish eating and head uptown with a phone. Given that the kid looked like reheated shit, he was concerned he might not fit in at the five-star restaurant. Proctor told him to act as entitled and superior as humanly possible. In a place like that, the only difference between broke twenty-something and nouveau-riche prick, he’d explained, was a higher thread count and an absence of empathy.
Cates’s barb echoed. Proctor thought back to meeting him as a young man, eager and steadied by his conviction in their work. Did that Nicholas Cates live anywhere beneath all the arrogance and conceit, or had he long since been chemically erased? If so, who bore responsibility for that? They’d all made their own choices. If Proctor could claw his way back to himself, it stood to reason Cates could do the same.
This is what he told himself.
Since the magazine’s release, Walker’s lectures had been at capacity. With a relatively small class, it was safe to say the other three quarters of the hall were made up of people “auditing” the course. Most were students drawn to a newly-minted counterculture figure, but there were other faces he recognized; journalists he’d worked with, others who wouldn’t even for the hazard pay.
Most figured that if there were any sort of a window into the magazine’s inner workings, it happened twice weekly in a classroom on the Upper West Side. Save for Fraction and Walker’s antics and the magazine itself, the Subvertiser was an informational black hole. The magazine had no website, no social media presence, and refused almost all press inquiries. Walled off by industrial-strength non-disclosure agreements, even the most mundane operational details were state secrets.
The attention economy was a knife fight for eyeballs and metadata. To win, all the Subvertiser had to do was not play. For the time being.
“Okay,” Walker started, “I hear a lot of voices that aren’t mine, and that’s deeply depressing for me under the best of circumstances. So, please stop ejecting sound from your faces and have a seat.
“Also, I noticed a couple people from the New York Post here today; please stay after class, as we need to discuss the quality of your work.”
Everyone who did not work at the Post had a laugh and settled in.
“Today I want to start with a question. What is the real reason we went to the moon? Take a second to think about it.”
Walker let it sit with them for a moment and scanned the crowd. He saw faces he knew from the Times, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair. Faculty. Former students. And, somewhere in the very back, his wife.
“Let’s start with you,” Walker said, pointing to a kid in the fifth row back.
“To beat the Russians in the space race,” he offered.
“When you get a moment, you’ll have to tell me what the second search result said.” Walker pointed to a dark-haired girl on the aisle. “With the Drop Electric shirt. Go.”
“Knowledge, at the end of the day. Patents expire and government changes, but we’ll always have what we learned. It’s easy to be cynical about—and I won’t act like there wasn’t a military element to it—but maybe there was something in all that that wasn’t just transactional,” the girl said.
“You know, you may have just given a very sharp answer to the question you would have preferred I’d asked. Not bad. You’re right that knowledge isn’t all that lasted, though. The moon landing kicked off the New Testament of the American economy and cemented us as the marquee global superpower. I’d say you can’t buy that kind of power, but adjusted for inflation, apparently 283 billion can.
“Okay, one more. Yeah, Sharif,” Fraction said, pointing to a student.
“We were twenty years into the petrochemical era by the time Russia was putting dogs in space. It wouldn’t take a genius to realize there was a finite supply of oil on the planet, and what industry could do to the environment. I wonder if someone had the foresight to realize we’d need to leave the planet at some point.”
“Okay, two great answers and one spectacular example of outsourced brain activity.”
“So what was it?” Sharif said.
“Well, that’s the thing. Nobody understood the point of the question.”
LONG LINES (TITANPOINTE)
Proctor emerged from the elevator into the amber glow of reception. The floor-to-ceiling windows looked out on a sea of dunes and a burning orange sky: a panorama of the end times. The desert did little to offset the building interior. Reality warped within the 18-foot ceilings and concrete walls, reconfigured into something cinematic and ominous. The outside world somehow seemed less real, less tangible by comparison. Here, noise and chaos found form and order. Here, fact stood apart from fiction. A strange point of pride for a house of lies.
Proctor tossed his coat on a chair in his office, checked his messages, and set out for his 9am. The status quo enveloped him as he walked the halls. Another division head reminded him he’d lost their bet on the Mets/Phillies game. A friend in payroll thanked him for his wedding present. The facilities manager asked if he was coming to their weekly pickup game. Smiles, waves.
The situation with Cates had him building track in front of a moving train. Even Proctor’s best possible outcome would see the place razed to the ground. Cates and the others were the best bargaining chip he could muster. Handing them to the board was the Hail Mary that might absolve him of the sin of releasing Fraction and Walker upon the world. If it came down to it, he was willing to go to ground to save his skin, but not with Article A in the open. Not with Cates and his people sacrificing everything at the altar of entropy.
A half dozen department heads waited on Proctor at the traffic meeting, senior staff he’d chosen when he took over as division head. Most were his own hires from years past, a few poached from rival managers. The essential commonality amongst the group was that at one point or another, every one of them had called him on his bullshit.
“Okay, it looks like a wrench has wandered into our gears. Unless your department’s on fire, it’s all hands on deck for this one,” Proctor said, wary but upbeat. With a tablet in hand, he began paging through datasets and visualizations mirrored on a seven foot monitor. A three-dimensional, polygonal structure appeared onscreen, rotating and expanding as his hands danced across the tablet. “You’ll all remember the module incorporation we were tasked with earlier in the year.”
The room broke out in groans and expletives; a collective this again?
“I remember learning to say ‘clusterfuck’ in sign language,” Yasmeen said. “Why is this back on our plate?”
“Well, to our great surprise, it turns out that banking on a fifteen-point causal pathway opened us up to some vulnerabilities. Our plan for getting from a projected senate loss to a two-point spike in institutional trust has been felled by– and I am not kidding– a flock of geese.”
Groans. Expletives. Incorrect use of the word mallard.
Proctor zoomed in on the model onscreen, isolating the fifteen point path and highlighting one red node.
“You’ll recall the back half of the module lives or dies on this State Department envoy to Germany. We’re now going to have to perform a pretty graceless patch job since State decided to fly commercial, and the plane’s engines got gummed up with unprocessed jacket lining.”
“I have a logistical question,” Parker said. “Was there enough goose debris for a jacket?”
“Excellent question,” Proctor deadpanned. “I’m told that a men’s large would be feasible, as the turbines took in the entire flo–”
A knock on the open door. Cates.
“Our ten o’clock got bumped up. They want us now,” he said.
“Shit. Guys, the brief’s in your mail, and Yasmeen’s running point. I should be back in an hour.”
“You know, it might do more for institutional trust if we just let the plane crash next time,” Yasmeen said, eyeing Cates as they left.
They didn’t speak on the walk to the elevator. For his part, Proctor wasn’t sure anything he said would really be heard. This wasn’t the college sophomore he’d recruited. Had that kid had long since been shelled, reconfigured as a vessel for conceit and superiority? A closed circuit of ideology. There was no talking to someone like that, just the expectation others will listen. What did it take to pull someone back from that, he wondered. What lure was there for someone who saw nothing outside themselves but an abyss?
The desert glow vanished behind elevator doors. First a pew, now Proctor was stuck with Cates in a confessional. At least it’s an unholy alliance, he thought.
“The year after the Second World War ended, the only reporting that made it out of Japan was sanitized to the satisfaction of military censors. Reporters could not sneeze without Douglas MacArthur’s signoff. The few snippets of truth that saw print were short on details, and functionally buried. They didn’t want people hearing about the bomb’s radiological effects, much less the testimony of those unfortunate enough to survive it. America didn’t know that while it was throwing ticker tape parades, Japanese civilians had become the first to experience radiation poisoning en masse. Then, John Hersey showed up in Hiroshima.
“At 32, Hersey had already won a Pulitzer and been offered the role of managing editor at Time— which he turned down to go write at the New Yorker. His was the first substantial, unfiltered account to make it back to the States. The New Yorker ran an entire issue dedicated to the stories he brought home, and that was it. People knew what the bomb really did to the Japanese. And what one might do to them. From there, building holocaust delivery devices on the taxpayer’s dime was a harder sell.
“So the government had to start telling a new story, one that captured the imagination in a trap of their design. They repackaged rocket development as the apex of human achievement— the means by which human beings would reach outer space. Now, ‘beating the Russians’ wasn’t flirting with doomsday, it was a matter of national pride.
“Sit with that for a second. A flimsy emotional construct was all it took to get the electorate onboard with building the tools to end the world a hundred times over. And it worked because we never questioned their premise.
“That said, it’s not as if the program existed just to hoodwink the public. As is often the case with base/superstructure relationships, the latter can take on a life of its own. Yes, the space program was tied to weapons of mass destruction designed by a Nazi scientist moonlighting as a theme park consultant, but its cultural footprint exceeded the minimum safe distance. It punctuated our place in the world and cemented the idea of American exceptionalism.
“So, was it nuclear proliferation or a pioneering spirit? Why did we go to the moon?”
The same girl raised her hand.
“What’s your name?” Walker said.
“Okay, Ms. Yates, is it door number one or for number two?”
“Neither. It’s the exit.”
LONG LINES (TITANPOINTE)
From his office, Proctor looked out on the ruins of a Mayan city. What had been civilization’s best path forward, now a museum-grade cigarette butt. He wondered if they’d suffered the same fantasies of continuity that had befallen the Western world. Had they marveled at their accomplishments and thought an infinite horizon lay ahead? A scholar of tyranny had once described post-Cold War America as subscribing to “the politics of inevitability.” With the USSR gone, the thinking was that no meaningful resistance to Western democracy remained. In time, America’s benevolent imperialism would roll across the world, gifting it with proper civilization. Had the Mayans been so staggeringly naïve? Had they forgotten what it was to lose?
A full day had passed, but Proctor was still reeling from the meeting with the board. Cates had been deferential to Proctor, lauding his vision and grateful just to be included. The performance was impressive enough that it took Proctor a moment to notice the bulk of the questions were directed at Cates, who’d only just been made a department head.
The project was received with enthusiasm. Members praised Proctor as an innovator and thought leader, unwavering in their confidence. Forgoing any meaningful deliberation, the proposal was approved. Proctor and Cates left the room with a free hand and a blank check.
Had the meeting lasted another five minutes, Proctor might not have made it to the men’s room where he threw up.
“Please, elaborate,” Walker said, ceding airtime.
“You’re giving us two stories and saying that’s the whole game, these two ideas about, you know, a multibillion-dollar project. You’re putting a box over our heads and telling us that’s the world.”
“Because then you get to decide what’s in that box. And maybe more important, what’s kept out of it.”
“Ms. Yates, you have won the washer-dryer set. No one questioned my premise, so I got to make the rules. Now, Where else do we see this dynamic at work? You, the stock photo of the all-American quarterback.”
“Narrow that way down.”
“Current events get explained in narrow terms, and that’s kind of the end of the conversation. After that, people just shout talking points at each other instead of doing any real thinking.”
“Right– the further you deviate from the boundaries of talking points, the more dissonant and difficult you make things for an audience. And what we’re talking about today. Framing.
“Who sets the terms for a narrative? How are they able to draw a box around something and convince you that’s the whole world? And what questions aren’t you asking as a result? When I force you to choose between two explanations for the space program, what am I taking off the table?”
“Which was it, by the way?” asked the stock photo of an all-American football player. “You asked which explanations was correct. I understand the point of the exercise, I just wonder if you had an opinion on it.”
Walker paused, cocking his head at the kid. If he really did play football, he hadn’t been at it long enough yet for a traumatic brain injury.
“If you’re asking if I have a preferred reading of it, yeah,” Walker said. He took a small fob from his TA.
“Where nation states are concerned, most conflicts are rooted in the acquisition and retention of resources. That means it will always come down to us versus them. Always. Those conflicts permeate every relevant function of the institutions involved. The cold war was as much about messaging as it was military might and economics. When the USSR put a pointy disco ball in space, they were sending us a message about dominance.
“The point of the moon landing was to send our reply: we can obliterate you any time we want.”
“Is that why Apollo 11’s launch coordinates are on the spine of your magazine?”
A grin crept onto Walker’s face. Wordlessly, he walked over to the kid.
“What’s your name?”
“Austin,” he said, leaning in, “I’ll tell you, but you have to promise you won’t tell anyone else.”
The kid nodded. Walker clicked the fob in his hand, triggering the projector. Behind him, one word appeared onscreen in giant type: YES.
LONG LINES (TITANPOINTE)
Outside the windows of the main lobby, a skyline of limestone columns rose a half-mile into the sky. By that point, Yasmeen, Mal, Parker, and Chris would have seen the blank jpeg he’d sent and parsed out the metadata. Proctor waited, puzzling over the name of the place he was looking at. Hunan? Tian? No, Tianzi. The Tianzi Mountain Reserve. More than a thousand miles south of Beijing, a world away from smog and social credit scores.
“Sir, are you lost? Did you come to see one of your kids? Grandkids, maybe?” Yasmeen said on approach, the others in tow.
Proctor smiled, eyes still fixed on the scenery.
“You know,” he said, “I may have gotten a little turned around.”
Yasmeen wasn’t a syllable into her reply before the fire alarm cut her off. Emergency lights shot to life as the windows turned pitch black.
“Time to go,” Proctor said, nodding at the front entrance.
The team followed him out, leading a mass exodus of employees. Parker searched Yasmeen’s face. Eyes wide, she shook her head. They knew what the code in the empty file meant: leave your phone behind. Whatever was happening wasn’t technically happening.
Down the stairs and past the metal detectors, they left the building. Daylight confronted them on the New York City street, wrenching pupils open. The windowless, 550-foot exercise in brutalism that was 33 Thomas ejected staff from its front entrance, and sirens began to puncture the ambience of traffic and construction.
“Boss?” Yasmeen said.
“I’m hungry,” Proctor said. “Anybody else hungry?”
The team stared back at him, no less in the dark.
“Yeah,” Parker said, “Yeah, I think we’re all just starving.”
In the private dining room of a Tribeca restaurant, a waiter had developed a kind of selective deafness after being handed two grand. Strangely, anything that wasn’t a menu item did not register with him.
“So,” Mal started, “how exactly did you hack one of the most secure infosec operations on Earth?”
“You don’t hack the fire alarm when you can just set a fire. We needed a plausible reason to be off everyone’s radar for a while. Nobody’s going to bat an eyelash if we turn a fire alarm into an excuse for a three-hour liquid lunch.”
“How bad is it?” Chris said.
Proctor’s expression fell some.
“Thirteen years ago, I was part of an unsanctioned group within our organization that was experimenting with a cognitive stimulant. The drug exponentially boosted intelligence well past the genius level. Operating at that level, the group came to the conclusion that our mission at USIA was doomed. Playing 4D chess with the narrative ecosystem could not right the ship in time to avoid ecological disaster and global conflicts based on scarcity of resources. We believed the only logical path forward was to tear down our existing systems of government and economics and start over from ground zero.
There was no weighing the two situations against each other. One gave us a chance, the other slowly eased us into extinction. And it almost happened.”
“Sorry,” Yasmeen said. “What almost happened?”
“We got very close to doing something that would cause that collapse.”
The group was silent. Yasmeen looked over Proctor. She’d never seen him that shaken or ashamed.
“But we’re all still here,” she said.
“Someone stole the means by which we would have done it, a tool called Article A. I left the group shortly after. I saw what kind of person the drug was making me, and the costs outweighed the benefits.”
“What happened to the others?” Mal said.
“That’s why we’re here. The woman who stole Article A had gone to a pair of journalists and told them everything about USIA and the group. I interrogated them, and they didn’t know anything about what happened to her, or where Article A was. And then, following the tenets of a group whose wisdom was derived from pharmaceuticals, I let them go.
“A couple of weeks ago, Article A resurfaced in the hands of the two journalists we were so sure didn’t have it. I was going to use the group to get it back, and then hand them to the board, thinking that maybe I could save my career in the process.”
“Cates,” Yasmeen said. “He’s one of them?”
“He is. On Wednesday we went to pitch a project to the board, something we could use as cover while we cleaned this up.”
“But,” Parker said.
“The group— I called them the Sect— ten years ago when I left, there were only a dozen of us. The highest-ranking member was a department head.”
“And now?” Yasmeen said.
“They now make up over fifty percent of the board.”