In the day of Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and Patreon, it's only a matter of time before crowdfunding platforms diversify their targets even further. Today's Terraform is a grim look at where they might be headed next. Enjoy -the eds.
Out of the shower his bare feet immediately gather up fluff from the carpet. He slubs down on the edge of the bed; the side of the mattress buckles under him. Droplets of water from his hair trickle down the back of his neck. He pretends it’s her touching him. Delicate fingers, stroking the back of his neck gently.
Her photo is still on the screen, her face tilted slightly downwards, flatteringly. Hazy light.
“CHRIS – TUFF – ERRRR!”
His mum, yelling again. He flicks from one tab to another. He still can’t decide.
Justin showed him how to get there, originally. The site is not exactly the dark web, but it’s not basking in the sunny uplands of the internet, either. When Justin first showed him Chris had been embarrassed about his own ignorance in VPNs, onions, black markets. He started trying to teach himself so that he wouldn’t look stupid. He sold a couple of games last week, a bit of weed the week before, and mentally assigned the proceeds to this. He has got it down to two: Mia and Kamila. The pictures are all much the same, not much between them, to the untrained eye. But he’s been lying here for hours, flicking back and forth between them.
In her main picture Mia is leaning casually against a low wall in her fatigues, a valley behind her, her stance that of a holiday photo.
Kamila is crouched down, laughing at the camera, her rifle propped up next to her. They both look relaxed. Happy, even—as if fighting a famously brutal civil war is the same as being on an extended camping trip.
No, fighting a war must be better than that. It’s the camaraderie, the feeling of purpose. And they’ve probably got better tents, for a start. Or maybe it’s just nicer camping out in a warm country. Not that these are the kind of girls to complain. Or to worry about their hair, even though their hair still looks great.
Kamila was at med school before the war started, and her profile says she’ll go back afterwards. “I have learned a lot”, she adds, “particularly about shrapnel wounds. And how to operate under pressure!!! ;)”
He can picture her in a field hospital or huddled down behind a wall with her hands pressed to another soldier’s bullet wound, shouting “stat!” Then she’s rushing an encampment with a dozen other female fighters. They overrun the male soldiers easily, kick the guns out of their hands, shoot a couple, herd the others into one room so they can be more easily guarded, while they secure the perimeter.
He imagines Kamila shouting secure the perimeter!
Her long hair tied back. Or loose? Could you overcome enemy forces with your hair down?
“CHRIS. TUFF. ERRRRR! NOW!”
“COME! ING!” he shouts back, then mutters “ fuck off, stat,” under the covers.
He clicks on the support Kamila! badge under her profile picture. His account has seventy quid in it at the moment. His finger hovers over the different options. The ideal one is way beyond him: actual chat sessions, and live ride-along on one mission a month. He chooses a mid-level support option – personal update videos, access to photos – thinking he’ll up it in a month or so if she still seems cool. He clicks through, then back to her profile. He dresses fast, and slips her into the pocket of his jeans.
She tries another angle, but under the thin strip of bathroom light no angle is flattering. Also, it’s hard to get the rifle in shot while at arm’s length. Briefly she pictures a selfie stick you could fix to the end of the rifle, like a bayonet. Probably Rasheed could knock one together, she thinks, and then pictures the now-abandoned tourist shops down on the promenade: the selfie sticks and keychains and snow-globes blanketed in masonry dust.
She is due on duty in fifteen minutes. A message beeps across the screen; it’s Safia, asking if she’s on her way. She ignores her and tries a couple of filters on the photo, trying to decide if it improves it at all. There’s one slightly hazy patina they’ve nicknamed civil war vintage. It makes everything look like a war that happened thirty years ago. Which is, in the end, everyone’s favorite kind of war.
Trip-running her way down the stairs, a cat streaks past her and she wonders where it came from. It’s not the neighbours’ cat; she hasn’t seen that hefty tabby in a while. In the few seconds as it shoots past her ankles she sees that it’s very small. Dirt-colored, or just dirty. She feels a fleeting lightness inside her as it disappears into the scrub at the edges of the carpark across the street. Something of her has gone with it, out into the darkness, seeing with different eyes and creeping closely over the stones.
She wishes she’d caught a photo of it. Automatically, she thinks of the profile, and whether the eternal popularity of cats would work on this site, too. Then she shrinks back in distaste from both impulses. She hitches the rifle against her shoulder again, an unintended movement to try to twitch the thoughts out of her mind.
She’s patrolling the edge of town with Safia in the twilight, but finds herself thinking again about the profile. It's become a useful distraction. It fills the time. There is time between watches, between drills, between the now less-frequent forays out of town, between waiting on the roof of an apartment building, eyes trained on the street, muscles held tense.
It's a space beyond. They've been encouraged to engage with it, with care, of course. Personal photos and videos. Operational pics and videos to be signed off by an officer before posting, to avoid making public anything that could provide enemy intelligence. Once a month they’re assigned an irrelevant area to patrol and it’s live-streamed. The sponsorship all goes to the platoon. She’s not interested in the money. She wonders idly how many sponsors she might have—she has never cared, she assures herself, never checked—when the shockwave knocks her to the ground.
Amachi double-taps the screen and the picture shrinks and disappears, hopefully before her mother has the chance to see it.
‘And where is your brother?’
She means the little one, not Edozie. Edozie is away in Lagos at university and he won’t be back again for a month.
‘He’s here. He was here a minute ago.’ She looks under the table where her homework is all laid out.
Obinna is her mother’s golden boy, a baby born ten years after she’d stopped expecting, or indeed wanting, babies. He was already the family prize, but since their father’s death six months ago her mother has lost any remaining perspective on her youngest child. She won’t let him out of her sight. Amachi wishes she could be the same thing to Obinna as Edozie is to her – a sort of unpredictably benevolent god, a bridge of useful information between her and the adult world – but isn’t sure that will ever be possible. At the moment she can’t picture him ever being old enough to hold a real conversation with.
Edozie would be furious if he knew she was on this site; shameful if he realized she’d got there by watching him. She did not think he’d done anything other than idly navigated to the site and looked through some of the profiles – he would never throw money away like that – but he didn’t know that she looked through his internet search history. She skipped over the porny stuff – ugh – but everything else about his rather distant, almost-grown-up life was catnip to her. She gathered scraps of his life like a naturalist surveilling a shy and dangerous species. But until she realized they were poor now—she saw him slipping the cash from the newest of his two jobs into their mother’s handbag—it never occurred to her to do anything with those sites.
Only after she racked her brains for a job she could take on without her mother or brother realising did she alight on this possibility.
Her first instinct was to mimic someone closer to home: to fake a militant from the terrorists in the north, responsible for the bombings she sees on the evening news. She saw their profiles on the site, all platitudes and angry speeches. In the end they were much too close, and she was afraid. She didn’t want to ape their pious language and she felt queasy at the thought of them seeing her profile, recognizing that it was fake. Somehow she felt that they would see her behind it. Though the whole point of the site is to be untraceable, every contact through it seared clean.
Besides, there were no women among them, and women seem to be the most popular. They clearly bring in the most followers and money. She found herself instead returning again and again to the women on the site. Women nothing like her, fighting in a war a thousand miles away. Their pictures were easy to mock up. She found women on Facebook posing against similar backgrounds; she copied, expanded, expertly photoshopped them with camouflage and weaponry. It was no more difficult than touching up a picture of herself, or dressing a doll. She added excitable commentary in English.
She quickly picked up a few sponsors. They send her messages, in English. Some of them are teenagers, eager and deferent or full of bravado. Some of them middle-aged men, world-weary or affecting it. Some of the messages are obsequious and some are obscene. She responds when she feels full of bravado herself. Sometimes she loses her nerve and abandons the site for days, or even a couple of weeks at a time. She might lose a sponsor or two, but most are faithful, even when they don’t get much back. Now her online account is getting fat she is worried again, but now about how to launder the money in her mother’s and brother’s eyes. Where to pretend it came from.
“It’s not illegal, is it?” Chris asked Justin, once. He said it despite himself. Justin: “‘Course it is. Look, it’s like torrenting. Yeah, okay, it’s illegal. Nobody actually gets arrested. Or hardly anyone. You’d have to’ve downloaded half the internet. You’d have had to support an entire army.”
They did, though, didn’t they? Arrest people for torrenting. At one point. He remembers something years ago about some teenager, the police turning up at the door with a fine for thousands because of all the movies he’d copied. And that was the film industry. This is different. This is a war.
Unless wars are less important, since they’re not about copyright. Who would even sue you? Plus, we’re on the right side, he comforts himself again. Not just the morally right side, but the official right side as well. In some ways it would be cooler if they weren’t. But at least it’s safer that they are.
He pulls the covers up over his head and activates his phone in the muggy darkness.
There she is.
Pain like a sonic boom is blowing out the paper walls of her skull. In waves. There is a warm summer smell, of grilled meat and smoke. But when she opens her eyes it’s still early evening and Safia is holding a cloth tight to her leg. Safia’s scarf, which was a lovely sky-blue and is now black with blood.
She tries to say, ‘I’ll do it. I can hold it. I’m awake now.’ But the pain makes her mouth the wrong shape and the words aren’t words. Still. She puts her hand over Safia’s and Safia slides hers out from underneath, so that the pressure remains steady. Safia twists to kneel, looks around the wall, takes aim. Fires, steadily, once, twice. Again. As soon as Safia’s attention has shifted, she peeks beneath the scarf. Blood pumps out, renewed. She presses down again.
I am here, she thinks. I am here now. I am here.
There is something in her pocket, pressing uncomfortably into her hip. With her free hand she angles it out of the pocket. The camera has actually come on by itself, activated by the button on the side. She laughs at it.
And takes the scarf off the wound again. The golden-hour light makes it glow. The black, black blood pulses through her trousers.
It photographs well.
Nan Craig has written fiction and journalism for the New Scientist's Arc magazine, New Statesman, and Vice, and also writes at nancraig.com.