Somebody’s gotta exterminate the bad guys. I guess it might as well be us.
We’re deep in the bowels of frigid Siberia, holed up in a portion of the Trans Siberian Tunnel. On the surface, Siberia is just the flip side of hell — twenty-five degrees below zero at noon. On a bad day in January, it can get even colder than Mars.
Venture outside and you might lose your nose. But underground the air is warm. We’re deep in some Russian-made death trap fifty feet beneath the permafrost. It’s a network of tunnels that stretch for miles, where American intel only goes so far.
There’s a saying in the army: hurry up and wait. That’s how we live our lives.
We’re sitting across from each other with our backs against the tunnel: me and Rogers, Jefferson and Lovingood. The other guys are talking and smoking — it’s all you can do when you’re waiting to kill.
A rumpled cigarette is smoldering between Jefferson’s lips as he doles out the cards. He’s got these long brown fingers that seem to move at the speed of light. He’s quick with his hands and even faster with his mouth. He’ll steal the Skittles out of your MRE if you’re not watching.
“What you got?” asks Rogers.
I look up. “Three. You?”
“We’ll go six,” I say to Lovingood.
He writes down our bid on a crumpled scrap of paper.
“What d’you have?” Jefferson asks his partner.
Lovingood takes his sweet-ass time, rumpling his baby face as he scrutinizes his cards. “I got four. You?”
“Three.” Jefferson raises his eyebrows. “Well, lock it up, then. Shit.”
Jefferson is a hustler at cards. He started playing with his granny when he was six years old, but he tends to screw himself when he opens his mouth. That’s why I’d rather partner with Rogers.
Rogers is smart, quiet, and dependable. He wants to be a surgeon.
I throw down a three of hearts, and Lovingood tosses in a five. Rogers puts down an ace with a look of triumph, but Jefferson slaps down a four of spades.
Me and Rogers swear.
“Eat shit, motha fuckaaas!”
“Asshole,” Rogers mumbles.
I shake my head, but before I can say a word, I get an alert on my Optix. It’s timed — I don’t get a signal here. I just have to hope that the other team is in position.
Jefferson’s smart-ass expression disappears instantly, and the rest of the team falls silent. It’s go time.
They stub out their cigarettes, and we throw our cards into the middle. Jefferson scoops them into his pack, and I grab my headlamp tacked up on the ceiling to make sure that the whole team is ready.
We all trained with the green berets in close-quarters combat, but our unit has one specific purpose: We’re pursuing a node of the Bureau for Chaos that’s responsible for hijacking a fleet of self-driving cars. They drove into the crowd after the Yankees won the World Series, killing thirty-two people from five thousand miles away.
Before that, the Bureau hacked the blast furnace at an Ohio steel mill. Six workers were killed, and nine were injured. That node was in China, and we took them out.
The Bureau spans the entire globe, but each cell operates independently. No job is too big or small. In their corner of the dark net, all death and destruction is celebrated equally. And yet we still think technology is our friend.
I check one last time to make sure everyone has all their gear. We won’t be coming back this way.
I meet Rogers’s gaze. We’ve done this before. “Stay alert, stay alive.”
“Stay alive, sarge.”
Once I knock out my headlamp, the darkness is absolute. I can feel the rough walls of the tunnel around me, but that sense of groundedness is dangerous, deceptive. It’s not uncommon to take a route through the tunnels only to find a branch that’s closed off or collapsed.
Stick to the map — that’s the first thing they teach you in training for this. Wandering off course is how operatives get lost, and men who take detours rarely surface again.
As we move, I focus on the sound of boots behind me and the tangy stench of sweat. In total darkness, every other sense is amplified. You learn to see with your ears.
We march through the tunnel for what feels like hours, branching off where the map tells us and trying to memorize our route in case the worst should happen. Without the map, they wouldn’t have to kill us. We would wander these tunnels until we starved.
I know when we’re getting close to the point of contact. The tunnel widens, and the thermal imaging on my Optix detects a body around the corner. He’s big and burly, and he’s alone.
I flash the beacon attached to my pack to signal my team to stop. There are seven of us, including me. We have to work flawlessly from here on out or risk tipping off the entire node. One tiny screwup and they’ll scatter like rats — never to be seen again.
I scuff my feet and watch the guard approach to check out the source of the noise. I’m the closest. I flatten my body against the wall of the tunnel and wait.
When he comes around the corner, I grab him from behind and garrote him with a piece of wire. He struggles — they always struggle — but I dig in my feet and wait for him to die.
The guy is shorter than me but much broader. He’s got a wiry black beard that stinks of sweat and hands the size of baseball mitts. He fights me like a dying hog — a mass of meat and hair and limbs.
Finally, the guard goes limp. I lower him quietly onto the ground and signal the rest to follow me down the tunnel.
As we move, I keep my eyes peeled for any sign of warmth and movement. That guy was probably just the lookout. The real muscle will be farther in.
We round the corner. I see the door. My thermal imaging is picking up three bodies on the other side, but there could easily be more. I signal Rogers to go ahead with the battering ram. My heart is pounding, but it’s the guiding pulse of this mission.
I grip my rifle and prepare for entry. He breaks down the door, and my team pours into the bunker amid a confusing jumble of voices.
The instant I blaze through the door, I realize our intel was off. Instead of the two or three hackers we were expecting, I’m blinded by the glow of two dozen computer monitors.
The blinking server lights give a starry backdrop to the filth and wires. The computers are resting on old doors laid across stacks of cinder blocks, and at least ten hackers are still sitting in front of their screens. They’ve been down here for weeks, by the look of things — sleeping on cardboard pallets among the servers bought and paid for by Russian oligarchs.
I yell out commands in Russian, but it’s too late. The hackers scatter.
Rogers takes out one of the guards, and Jefferson covers me while I slip to the left. I shoot another guard squarely between the eyes and yell for the hackers to get down on the ground.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a man raise his rifle. I turn and put a bullet in his brain, but that brief distraction costs me.
A shot meant for me misses by inches, and I turn in time to see the expression of cold shock smack Jefferson across the face as a guard releases a burst of fire.
I watch in slow motion as his brow furrows. I see the pain flash through his eyes before he staggers and falls to the ground.
I shoot at the guard. He goes down. Then a man in a heavy green jacket aims his rifle at Lovingood. I unleash a storm of bullets, but it’s already too late.
Lovingood collapses, and I yell for Rogers and the others to go after the hackers. I dive behind one of the servers and take aim at the man who shot Lovingood. He grunts, but it wasn’t a kill shot. I shoot him again, and this time he’s gone.
I sprint out from my hiding place to get to Lovingood. He’s lying in the dirt in the middle of the bunker. The bluish light of the computer screens gives his boyish face a cold, dead look, and blood is pooling beneath his head.
I crawl across the bunker to Jefferson, whose chest is heaving with pain. Blood is spewing from the top of his skinny thigh, and I can see the flicker of desperation in his eyes.
I reach around to grab an Israeli bandage from my pack, but his hand shoots up and grips my wrist. “I’m all right . . . Get the kid.”
At first, I don’t know what he’s talking about. He’s not all right. He’s bleeding to death.
Then I see movement in my periphery. I look up just in time to see a lone figure in a hoodie grab something out of one of the computers. I shout out in Russian, and he makes a break for the tunnel.
I take aim and unload six rounds in his back. The hacker freezes and drops to the ground. Something rumbles just above me, but I barely notice.
When I cross the bunker and flip the body over, blood turns to ice in my veins. Two wide brown eyes are staring up at me in surprise, a thin line of blood trickling from his temple. He’s got light-brown hair and a face that’s baby smooth. He can’t be a day over fourteen.
The distant rumble grows louder, and I feel the quake beneath my knees. I look up and realize the walls are starting to crumble. A flash of fear rips through me, and I open my mouth to call out to my team.
A second later, something heavy pummels me in the back of the head, and then everything goes dark.
I come back to life with a gasp of air.
I choke and cough like a dying man, soaked in my own stale sweat. I blink fast in the blinding daylight and try to place where I am.
I’m not in the Siberian tunnel. I’m back in LA. The bedsheets are tangled around my legs, and I’m not wearing any clothes.
There’s a girl perched on the end of my bed who looks as though she just tumbled out of a cologne ad. Her dirty-blond hair is tangled and teased, and her thick nightclub eyeliner is perfectly smudged. She’s got her long legs tucked beneath her — black thong, no bra, and one of my T-shirts.
“Are you okay?” she asks, big sooty eyes wide with concern.
“Fine.” I sit up and instantly feel as though I’m going to be sick.
“You don’t look fine.”
The dream explains why she’s looking at me like that. I sometimes thrash around in my sleep, which tends to freak girls out. It doesn’t explain my splitting headache, but it isn’t the first time I’ve woken up like this.
I glance around the apartment and see the evidence of last night’s escapades. There’s an empty bottle of tequila on the coffee table and Styrofoam boxes oozing sweet-and-sour pork.
“You hungry?” asks the girl, whose name I don’t remember. “I know a place where we can get —”
“No,” I say, pinching the skin between my eyes. There is no way I’m sharing a meal with this girl. “I’m not hungry.”
I glance at the clock. It’s almost nine fifteen. “Shit.”
I throw off the sheets and jump out of bed, nearly knocking her over on my way to the bathroom. I fly through the doorway and turn on the shower. It takes twenty minutes to get hot water in this place, which means I’m going to be taking a cold one.
I slam the door behind me, but it just bounces off the jamb. My apartment complex is one of six they slapped up with machines in less than three months. Everything about them is brand spanking new, but they might as well be made of cardboard and gum.
I glance at my reflection in the mirror. I’ve got deep circles under my red-rimmed eyes and dark hair sticking up all over the place. The shadow of a beard is creeping in along my jawline, and I’m in serious need of a haircut.
“You need to get to work?” calls the girl.
“Yeah,” I yell, grabbing my toothbrush. “I’m late.”
I jump into the frigid shower, hoping she’ll take the hint and leave. Everything about my apartment is designed to discourage overnight guests. There’s no filter on the tap and no food in the fridge. I don’t leave clean towels lying around, and I’m always out of toilet paper.
Girls don’t like it here, and I keep it that way for a reason.
Just as the water starts to feel warm, I turn off the tap and grab my towel off the floor. I feel scruffy, parched, and out of sorts, but there’s no time to shave. Cassandra is going to be pissed.
I fly out of the bathroom and head straight for my hamper. I pull on a plain black T-shirt and a pair of wrinkled athletic pants. My shoes are around here somewhere, and once they’re on, she’s gone.
I look around. The girl is back in last-night’s dress. It’s a skimpy black number that barely covers her ass. Progress.
“All right,” I say, hoping she’ll get the hint. “It was nice to meet you . . .”
For the life of me, I can’t remember her name. It might have started with a D, but I really can’t be sure.
“We should party again sometime,” she says, cracking a flirtatious grin.
“Uh . . . I don’t think I’ll be partying like that again for a while.”
I don’t mean to be a dick, but I really want her to leave.
“Well, if you change your mind . . .”
Shit. She’s lingering. She’s waiting for a hug or cab fare or something, so I do the gentlemanly thing and ping her a car. I charge it to my account and give her a very pointed “See ya later,” when what I really mean is “See you never.”
“Bye,” she says, doing that thing girls do where they look over their shoulder, as if they expect you to ask them to stay.
Not a chance.
Waving her off, I grab a protein shake from the fridge and head out the door. My car is parked in the garage across the street. I hit traffic as soon as I pull onto the main drag. I am so — fucking — late.
I set the destination to work, lean back, and close my eyes. It’s been a long time since I’ve had that dream, and I wish I could gouge that memory out of my brain.
It’s been two years, and nobody wants to talk about the cyberterrorist assassinations carried out on the president’s orders. It’s funny how quickly patriotism can slide into the territory of national embarrassment.
When I enlisted, people were scared. The Bureau was hijacking air-traffic control and derailing passenger trains. It was terrifying because attacks could be carried out anywhere. The terrorists didn’t even need to enter the country.
The day I turned eighteen, I walked into an army recruitment office and enlisted with 18X. I was deployed to China when I was twenty-two before being shipped off to Russia. That day, the tunnel collapsed, and the other team had to dig us out. I’m the only one who survived.
I was discharged six months after that extermination gone bad. My reward for eight years of service was a one-way ticket to the army shrink. The doctor diagnosed me with a personality disorder, but what I really had was a temper and too many unanswered questions.
While I got a career-ending diagnosis, the American people got a new lease on life. The new president promised to end the war on cyberterrorism and quietly withdrew our troops from Russia, Turkey, and China.
The conversation turned from national defense to global cooperation, and the American people forgot that we were still entrenched in cyber war.
The attacks didn’t stop. If anything, they became more and more frequent. But the Bureau for Chaos quieted down, and corporations began to accept hacks as a necessary cost of doing business.
I get to the gym just a few minutes late and pay six dollars to park on the street. I slide in with a group of young moms, hoping to avoid Cassandra’s ire, but there’s no sneaking past the eagle-eyed bitch.
I freeze, willing myself not to be provoked. I hate every fucking second I spend working for her, but I really, really need this job.
“You’re — late!”
“And getting later all the time,” I remind her, forcing an accommodating smile and pivoting slowly on the spot.
At six foot three, I tower over Cassandra by at least a foot, but she still manages to cut me down to size.
Don’t be fooled by her Bowflex body and perky little boobs. Cassandra is a drill sergeant in spandex.
“Your class is waiting,” she snaps. “They’ve been waiting on you for eight whole minutes. Do you realize how unprofessional that is? A few of them already left!”
“Sorry doesn’t cut it. Come see me after,” she says. A customer just walked in, which is my cue to escape.
ONYX is one of those ultra-trendy gyms in West Hollywood where people go to see and be seen. The floors are a shiny polished black, and there are mirrors covering every surface.
I skate through the lobby toward the back activity suite where my class is held Monday through Saturday. It’s called Muay Tight, which is one step up from Booty Bootcamp.
I waltz in a good ten minutes late and earn several dirty looks from the women who pay two hundred dollars an hour to be here. I don’t know what it is about kickboxing that excites them, but they’re here and it’s a job.
“All right!” I say, clapping my hands together and striding toward the front of the room. “Let’s go to work!”
I ping the sound system to queue up the gym’s playlist — some horrible custom EDM mix. We start every class with fast-paced shadowboxing, and twenty stick women start to move with the music.
The gym has rigged lights and lasers to flash with the beat, which gives the impression that we’re in a dark club somewhere and these women are fending off unwanted advances. The heavy bass rattles my skull, and I will myself not to puke all over the front row.
I lead them through the warmup, trying to guess how many of them have had work done. I spot six pairs of fake boobs, nine suspected nose jobs, and a whole lot of surgically enhanced lips. Everything in LA is fake.
After warmup, we move to the bags, and I shout out the ONYX-approved list of positive affirmations: You can do it! Come on, ladies! You are strong! Harder! Faster!
I’m not supposed to correct their technique or give any feedback that could be construed as negative. I learned that lesson the hard way after one edgy model/actress left my class in tears.
As the hour wears on, the music changes to let everyone know we’ve entered the “hard burn” portion of the workout. I’m supposed to ham it up with extra affirmations. The lights go wild, and my head pounds harder. A few of the women cheer as they pummel the bags.
This is my life now. I’m a professional cheerleader.
Finally, it’s time for the cool down. My enthusiasm has tapered off, but they’re all too tired to care. The lights come on as I stretch them out, and I get to my feet to let them know the class is over. Time to return to your pathetic lives.
The women start to pack up their duffle bags and pat the sweat off their boobs. One woman wearing just a sports bra and booty shorts makes a beeline through the crowd, and I busy myself with my Optix just in case she tries to talk to me.
She clears her throat and waves a hand to get my attention. Great.
I flip off my Optix and paste on a smile. She asks if I’m a trainer here. I say I’m not. She asks if I give private lessons outside the gym. I know what that means.
I brush her off as nicely as I can, fantasizing about having my way with a big fat burrito the second I get out of here. But the woman follows me across the room, and I freeze just inside the shiny glass doors.
I feel as though I’ve seen a ghost, and I do a quick mental check to be sure I’m not hallucinating. The woman is babbling on about her glutes. I am definitely still in hell.
Staring back at me from across the gym is someone familiar and wildly out of place. The man is tall and broad and going bald. He’s dressed in jeans and a black bomber jacket, but he wears the army on him like a second skin.
I haven’t seen him in almost two years, but in this moment, it feels like yesterday. It’s my old captain, Beau Humphrey.
I roll out of bed with the immediate feeling that I’ve overslept. My heart is pounding against my ribcage, and my brain has been trying to wake my body for several minutes. It’s five fifty — I’m already late.
I snatch my glasses off the nightstand and throw myself across the cloud of blankets. I careen into the kitchen, where Kiran is making coffee.
I can see the tops of his chocolatey thighs under his robe, which is more of Kiran than I’d prefer to see on any given day. It’s his “gettin’ some” robe, which means pocket-square guy must have spent the night again.
“Whoa. Where’s the fire? Someone running a sale on tacky T-shirts from the trunk of his car?”
I look down. I’m still wearing my “Pretty Fly for a Jedi” shirt with no bra, but I’m too excited to take offense.
“It’s today!” I say in a rush, fumbling with the deadbolt and the three chain locks on our door.
“It’s today? Like today, today?” All of a sudden, the snark is gone. Kiran knows what this means to me.
“Go!” he shouts, his robe rippling with his enthusiasm. “Go! Go! Go!”
I fly out of the apartment toward the stairs, narrowly missing Mr. Meyers in all his open-robed glory. He’s lived in the building since dinosaurs roamed the earth, and he is perennially suspicious of hipsters, iced coffee, and any modern form of communication.
“Morning, Mr. Meyers!” I shout as my bare feet slap down the stairs, picking up a hundred years of dirt and grime as I careen toward the lobby.
I’m out of breath by the time I reach the bottom and throw my body against the door. I’m immediately assaulted by a swirl of noises and people — mostly the sporty set out for an early jog with their neon jackets and pale hairy legs. There are club kids still in their torn black tights and a few bums slumped in the shadow of the first stairwell I pass.
Even running down the street barefoot in my cupcake pajama bottoms, I only attract a few alarmed stares. That’s the beauty and the curse of New York City — it takes a lot to get people’s attention.
By the time I reach the little bodega around the corner, I’m gasping for air. The stitch in my side feels like the blade of a knife, but I am victorious. It’s only two minutes past six, which means the papers will still be warm from the presses.
I cast around for the familiar neat stack. I’ve been writing for the New York Daily Journal for more than two years, but today is the first day I’ll see my name in print.
“Hey, you,” says a voice. “Pajama girl.”
Raj, the owner, is staring at me with that familiar pucker-lipped disapproval.
“Can’t you read?” He points at the front door, which is papered in so many signs that I have no idea which one he’s referencing. “No shoes, no service.”
I roll my eyes. Not even Raj can get me down today.
“I just need a copy of The Journal.”
He continues to scowl. “No shoes, no service.”
I let out a groan and navigate around the teetering display of sunglasses to the dwindling section of newspapers that are still in print.
I get a shiver as I sweep the first glorious copy off the stack. It’s still warm, and the feeling that rolls through me can only be described as orgasmic.
I sigh. The big grabby headline on the cover? “Volkov Is Our Past, Present, and Future.” A particularly evil-looking shot of the Russian president fills the cover page, with a smaller subheading referencing the latest Russian cyberattack — a heist on a branch of the US Treasury.
I scan the front page in a frenzy, eyes peeled for the two sweetest words in the English language: Magnolia Barnes. Magnolia Barnes.
Cliff always gets the final say on the headline, but he promised me my byline. Damn him burying me somewhere in the metro section.
I rip open the paper, feeling a little more desperate the farther my eyes travel down the page. My gaze lingers on a feature on one of the New York–based tech startups that’s launching a satellite office in space before moving to a profile on the Maverick Enterprises wunderkind Tripp Van de Graaf. Gag.
I get all the way to sports and feel my fury bubbling over. Where the fuck is my piece?
I flip through the whole issue, but I’m not in there. Neither is my story about the city councilman redrawing district lines to sway his party’s chances at victory.
“What the hell?” I don’t immediately realize I’ve said this out loud until the bodega falls silent. I look up and realize that an older Hispanic woman is scowling at me from across the counter.
“Get out of ze way,” says Raj. “You’re blocking my customer.”
I narrowly miss the very grabby hand of a Wall Street guy reaching around me for the cooler and elbow him out of the way.
Cliff promised me, and he flat-out lied. Two years I’ve slaved for that man — taking every junk piece he threw at me to fill out the online edition. Hell, I’ve even been pimping out my integrity for Topfold — our parent company’s more profitable, clickbait-y publication.
Layla Jones, my sham alter ego, has been raking in the views. But today Cliff promised me a byline as a real honest-to-god journalist. In print — which, as my dad would say, is the only thing that matters.
“This isn’t a li-vary,” says Raj in annoyance. “Five dollar.” His accent clips off the last “s” to make “dollar” sound singular.
“It was four last week.”
“Za price just vent up.”
My gaze narrows into a glare, and I beam him five bucks from my Optix. What a rip-off.
I shove past Wall Street guy and stumble back to the apartment in shock. I must look as though I’m entrenched in the most hideous walk of shame ever, but I don’t even care.
By the time I reach the third floor, I’m completely deflated. I catch Kiran on his way out. He’s ditched the porn-star robe for a pair of black Lycra shorts and a studded leather vest, and his bright-purple mohawk is in its full upright-and-locked position.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he says, stopping me with a leather-gloved hand before I walk right into his bike tire. “What’s wrong?”
I let out a wobbly sigh and hold up the paper. I’m too devastated to tell anyone — even my best friend.
“They misspell your name or something?”
I shake my head, fighting back tears. “He didn’t put it in.”
“Your article?” he says, his warm brown eyes crinkling in sympathy. “He didn’t put it in at all?”
I shake my head again. I’m on the verge of a total meltdown, but Kiran doesn’t have time to lend me a shoulder to cry on. His main gig is as a bike messenger, and he’s competing with a whole fleet of delivery bots for business.
“I’m fine,” I lie. “I’ll be fine.”
“You’re not fine,” says Kiran, instantly dropping his breezy smart-ass facade. He knows that this is serious.
“I’m okay,” I choke. “You go on. I’m just gonna finish up a Layla piece before my shift.”
“Fuck that,” says Kiran forcefully. “If I were you, I’d put on some pants” — his eyes flicker down to the dancing cupcakes on my PJs — “march my ass up to The Journal, and tear Cliffy a new one.”
I let out a heavy sigh. “You think?”
“Abso-fuckin-lutely,” says Kiran, that familiar fire in his eyes. “This is bullshit.”
“It is bullshit.”
“Cliff strung you along for two years.”
“Posting Layla Jones fluff pieces.”
“Get mad, girl! Go get in his face!”
I glance behind him into the apartment. “Pocket-square guy go home?”
Kiran rolls his eyes. “Um, first of all, pocket-square guy has a name. It’s Brom. Second of all, that was one time. And he went to work.”
Wow. Kiran must really like this guy if he’s defending pocket squares.
“Well, you better get to work, too, so you can afford an adult-sized robe,” I say.
“You get to work!”
I laugh. Kiran always has a way of making me feel better about life. He wheels his bike into the hall, belting out a shrill rendition of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” that’s sure to piss off Mr. Meyers.
I slam the door behind him and run into my bedroom before my Kiran high wears off.
The floor is strewn with dirty clothes. I don’t even remember the last time I did laundry. I snatch a pair of tangled-up jeans off the floor and pull them on over my ass. It’s feeling a little extra juicy these days after late nights fueled by food-truck burritos and the entire Hostess snack line.
I cast around for a clean-ish shirt before realizing that I’m wearing the last clean thing I own.
I snap on a purple zebra bra under my Jedi shirt and grab my green army jacket with all the pockets. I careen into the bathroom and choke on Kiran’s lingering cloud of spray-on deodorant.
I look as though I just escaped from a mental hospital. My wild blond curls are a tangled mess, and my bright-green eyes are tinged with red. I splash cold water on my face and smear on some tinted lip gloss. I can’t find my sexy librarian glasses, so I’m stuck wearing my gigantic square tortoiseshell ones.
Forget mental hospital escapee — I look like a fortune teller from hell.
I grab my messenger bag off the futon and storm out of the apartment, earning a dirty look from Mr. Meyers down by the mailboxes. Instead of glaring back at him, I force a crazy-eyed smile and throw my weight against the door.
Kiran and I are lucky. We live in a rent-controlled apartment on the Lower East Side that used to belong to his aunt. It’s a much better place than we should be able to afford, but every month is still a gamble when it comes time to pay the bills. That’s when we find out if it’s going to be a takeout month or thirty consecutive days of spaghetti and cereal.
I take the subway to Midtown to talk to Cliff, flipping through my feed to find where he buried my article.
It isn’t there.
The entire digital edition looks different. It still reads New York Daily Journal at the top, but underneath is a line of tiny text that says “Part of the Futurewise Media Network.”
I frown. Futurewise Media owns The Journal and Topfold, but they haven’t been very public about it until now. I glance through the technicolor projection from my Optix at the people shuffling on and off the subway car. Most of them are commuters with their brains buried in Topfold.
I should be grateful. A few thousand people spending ten to twenty seconds in one of my stories will earn me a cup of coffee or half of a kung pao combination plate. But it just makes me feel like more of a fraud.
I get out at my stop, and my heart starts to pound in my chest. People blaze by in a blur of noise, and I can hear the steady beep of construction machines outside. A load of tourists bump past me in their rush to board the subway, and I push through the crowd with determination.
I will not take no for an answer.
I zone out on the short walk to the Futurewise Media building. It’s a towering silver skyscraper just a block from Times Square. The Journal offices are on the forty-fifth floor, and they share the building with at least a hundred other publications.
I shove around a small fleet of delivery bots filled with the staff’s coffee orders from across the street. They’re glorified coolers on wheels equipped with cameras, sensors, and GPS, but they deliver on the cheap. I pretend to trip and kick one over on my way to the elevator. Take that, robots trying to put Kiran out of work.
Everyone in the elevator is immersed in their feeds. It’s easy to tell the businesspeople from the content creators. The finance and ad people are all in suits — fresh and glowy from morning spin class and artisan avocado toast. The content creators are sloppy, jumbled, and exhausted. Most of them are in jeans and T-shirts like me.
They’re deeply entrenched in their own stories, making minor corrections and refreshing their views. Some of them are even dictating replies to comments in low rapid voices. Engagement is the name of the game in immersive journalism, so rapid-fire responses are key.
The elevator dings, and I almost lose my nerve. I don’t want to talk to Cliff, but it’s that or stew in silent misery.
A guy with a Jesus beard and a frizzy black ponytail pushes past me, and I resist the urge to kick him in the seat of his skinny jeans. I’ve never met him, but I’ve watched his stuff. He’s a tech journalist for Topfold whose job is to review the latest gadgets and patches. He thinks he’s God in scraggly coffee-breathed form.
I grit my teeth and shuffle toward Cliff’s office, blinking in the bright light coming through the enormous windows. Every inch of available wall space that isn’t glass is covered in screens. They’re playing a mix of digital news networks and Topfold’s trending stories. One of my own — a Layla Jones piece — flickers on over the water cooler.
Sadly, “Around New York in Eighty Pizzas” is my most viewed story ever. It scored a seventy-eight when we ran the idea through ViralGauge, but even the algorithm underestimated its success.
The story is ten whole minutes of hot cheese goo stretching itself from the pizza to my mouth and greasy pepperonis glistening under red neon lights.
The week I tried eighty pizzas for the story, I gained four pounds and developed a raging case of cystic acne. But that hedonistic masterpiece put Layla Jones on the map and lives on as one of the go-to stories for tourists hoping to get a bite of authentic New York–style pizza.
I reach the glass walls of Cliff’s office. At first glance, he seems to be yelling into thin air. He’s swimming in a blue cylinder of light beaming from his Optix, but as I look closer, I can just make out the ashen face of another hapless writer.
Cliff wears his Optix as a single titanium stud that looks utterly out of place in his dark thicket of eyebrows. One end projects the image in front of his face and bends the sound of the call toward his ear. The other end is a micro-cam that picks up his image and voice.
Cliff looks like the crotchety high-school principal in every movie ever made. He’s got greasy olive skin, thick sausage-y fingers, and a ring of curly black hair that looks like pubes. He’s always got stains on his wrinkly button-downs, and he’s always spitting and sweating.
I knock. Cliff keeps talking but waves me in, and the tiny camera swirling from his Optix recalibrates to capture his movement. His office smells like fast-food grease and old gym socks.
As I slink in and slide the door shut, I am hyperaware of the fact that Cliff manages dozens — if not hundreds — of writers. I’m barely a blip on his radar.
He finishes his rant and disconnects the call.
“Good morning,” I say, momentarily forgetting my resolve to be cold, sharp, and demanding.
“Is it?” says Cliff. “If I get one more call from some jack-off defending Lisa Strauss’s fashion choice at the MTV video music awards, I’m going to kill myself.” He lets out a sigh and slams back into his rolling chair. “What can I do for you, Maggie?”
Suddenly, every shred of anger and disappointment I felt this morning rises up in my throat. It comes on suddenly like a flash of inspiration, only it’s bitter, heated, and out of control. I reach into my bag, pull out the paper, and slap it down on Cliff’s desk.
“You didn’t put it in,” I say.
Cliff gives me a blank look.
“My redistricting piece,” I add, suddenly flustered. “The scandal — a full-on middle finger to the democratic process.” I rip open the paper to Tripp Van de Graaf’s smug face. “Instead it’s full of this shit.”
Cliff is still staring at me as though he thinks he might have me confused with someone else. It’s as if he doesn’t even remember the piece.
“You said it would be in today’s issue,” I press, working to keep the waver out of my voice. “What the hell happened?”
Suddenly, he groans and puts a hand to his forehead. “Oh, no . . . Not this again.”
“Look,” he says, thrusting his head forward like a matter-of-fact rooster. “It was out of my hands.”
“What was out of your hands?”
“The decision came from up top. And it wasn’t just you.”
He sighs. “You know how hard it is to hawk an actual print newspaper this day and age?” He lets out a dark guffaw. “It’s 2075, for cryin’ out loud. People don’t read anymore. They’re only consuming immersive content.”
“But this is important,” I growl.
“Believe me, I know. But the boys upstairs are lookin’ to cut costs. You know Futurewise just got bought by Maverick Enterprises?”
“Of course you don’t. You’re a ‘creative.’” He puts the most condescending air quotes around the word. “I don’t get that luxury. It’s my job to deal with this mess, and I just got word from our new corporate overlords that we’re not takin’ any more freelance content for The Journal. From now on, all the news copy is gonna be AI-generated.”
“The algos already tell us what people want to read . . . This just streamlines the process. The program A/B tests hundreds of ideas, gathers up all the little tidbits it needs from the web, and generates the text — all in a few minutes.”
“That’s not reporting,” I say, shaking with rage. “That’s a term paper — and not a very good one.”
“What can I say, kid? If it bleeds, it leads. People will consume whatever the Topfold algorithms slap in front of their stupid faces. If we want our paper to be part of the conversation, the stories have gotta be just as sexy.”
“But this is the news!” I scream. “Not ‘Who wore it better?’ We’re the fourth fucking estate!”
It occurs to me at this moment that Cliff’s office isn’t exactly soundproof. I can sense people watching me from the other side of the glass, but I don’t care.
“Keep your shirt on, kid. They still need more Layla for Topfold. You’re raking in the views with that food porn. Keep it comin’.”
“This is bullshit,” I say, my voice low and deadly. “You already gave my story the green light. You said if I killed it, you’d give me a byline.”
“Well, I guess you didn’t kill it,” says Cliff with a shrug. “Take it up with billing. We’re done here.”
Cliff settles in and touches his Optix. This is his way of saying he’s done with me — finished, problem solved, on to the next thing.
I can’t believe it. He’s dismissing me. After all the work I’ve done for him — all the blood, sweat, and tears I’ve poured into my articles over the last two years — he still treats me like a piece of shit.
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Keep your voice down.”
“No!” I shout. “I’m one of the few real journalists you’ve got left, and you treat me like garbage!”
“Oh, you’re a real journalist now?” he says. “Tell me. What the fuck is this all about?” He gestures down at my T-shirt and wrinkled jeans. “Is that the look of a true professional? Or are you just so full of integrity that you can’t be bothered to put on real clothes?”
I open my mouth to form some snarky reply, but no words come out.
“Listen. Unless you want to be writing Layla Jones clickbait for the rest of your life, you’d better clean up your act and show some goddamned respect.”
I fall silent. It’s not the moment of silence before the clap of thunder or the I’m-gonna-get-you kind of silence. It’s full of shame and sadness, and I have to get out.
I turn and shove my way out of Cliff’s office before the waterworks start. I can feel the humiliation scorching my face — the heat of failure burning me from the inside out.
People are staring. I hate them all. I will not give them the satisfaction of a show. I will get to the elevator before I completely lose my shit.
On the way down to the ground level, I focus on my breathing. It’s low and shallow, and it’s the only thing keeping me tethered to the earth.
I reach the lobby in a daze and stride purposefully toward the door. The delivery bot I kicked is still there, turtled in a pool of somebody’s cold coffee.
I get an idea. It’s the surge of clarity after the storm, fueled by rage and the manic energy of someone who’s got nothing to lose.
I take a deep breath to stave off my tears and click my Optix to record. It’s Layla Jones live — and it is a doozy.
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