At a time when the right wing media can pore over viral videos to extract narratives of its choosing, and the White House itself shares deceptively edited clips on official feeds to support its policies, so-called information warfare is entering a new theater. This speculative short story imagines what could be the final battle. Enjoy. -the ed.
“I hope America is ready—ready for holy war.” There was a taunting, almost impish smile beneath the glaring black eyes, which was what worried him most. Collins squinted at the live newscast of his terrorist, frowning, his pulse quickening. Why would he be smiling. Most of these militants were kids, right, indoctrinated and pushed to this stuff at an impressionable age. Wouldn’t he be nervous, at least, on some level?
“The infidels must pay. And they will.” The muscled figure slung what looked like a Kalishnakov over his shoulder with one arm and pointed into the camera with the other. “You will pay.”
Collins’ breath quickened, and he could feel his armpits moisten under his polo. He thought he was going to be sick. It was too much. A short chorus of “Allahu Ackbar” rose from the airport screen’s tinny speakers. The image was grainy, that always helped, but not enough this time. It was clear that there were at least six of them, faces hidden to varying degrees by masks and keffiyehs. Only the leader’s visage was obvious; angular cheekbones accentuated by a black turtleneck atop desert-tone camo pants.
The clothes were too clean; the whole thing was too much Che, not enough Laden. The militants were standing in front of the bed of a rusted truck, a tarp draped over its ominous cargo, as the reporter turned away, leaving the group angrily hoisting their weapons to the sky.
“There you have it,” the reporter said, stepping forward. A chyron flashed below.
- EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: TERRORIST CELL FOUND IN REFUGEE CONVOY HEADED TO BORDER -
A small crowd was looking at the oled screen at the airport gate, but most passengers only glanced up idly between other devices and distractions. Collins fidgeted, started to pace the terminal. Wasn’t anyone scared of this shit anymore?
It was too far, too much. His nostrils stung with the pale smell of humanity in transit. Anxiety pricked at his pores, and he could hear his own heartbeat in his convex chest. Too much.
Mohammed pried his eyes open, rubbed his throbbing head. The cacophony was unbearable. The electric crackle of the refrigerator down the hallway of the one-bedroom apartment, the thin whine of the alarm clock next to him, the soft drone of cable news, the whooping churn of passing cars on the elevated highway out the window. Sounds he’d barely noticed before crushed his senses now.
There was a timbre to being alone, he had learned, and it was not a quiet one, but the opposite. It was incredible how much work one voice, or the movement of one body, had done to obscure the bombardment of meaningless noise. Without her, the sinister trivial sounds invaded everything. They announced themselves aggressively as exactly what they marked: the voided substance of pointless routine.
At least he could turn the TV off. He was fumbling for the off button when he turned his bleary gaze directly at an image of what appeared to be himself, filling the news.
It wasn’t, of course. It never was. His terrorist was a hit.
Turlock’s laugh was hearty and merciless.
“Jesus, Ed. The only reason you’re not running this fucking place is you’ve got less faith than a spoon-fed atheist.” The thick flap of skin that dangled underneath the old man’s chin was starting to accumulate a wispy clump of peach fuzz, Collins noticed, and the strands shifted as he spoke, like weeds on a windy hill.
Turlock threw back the last of his rye rocks, shaking his head, savoring the bemusement. “Too much,” he laughed. Collins allowed himself to smile.
The segment was playing again, it’d been playing all day, wiping that scandal clean out of the cycle, and this was the part where the chyron flashed.
Convoy Headed to the Border. Convoy. Those were easier times.
It had been his suggestion that they retire the ancient ‘caravan’ terminology—its star and threat level had hopelessly dimmed over the years, how could nobody have seen that—and upgrade to ‘convoy,’ that had probably sealed up that first promotion. Easier times.
“It’s fucking hilarious, really,” Turlock nearly yelled, “the Times is down there interviewing the whole wetback parade, and you’ll appreciate this—they’re quoting people, actual immigrants, who aren’t sure they’ve seen them themselves, but have ‘oh si’ heard about this Middle Eastern crew joining up.”
“Amazing,” Collins said. He’d seen the headline, Rumors of Terror Rack Convoy, Despite Absence of Evidence, and it was perfect. It was nothing.
Turlock changed the channel, and again. CNN, local, MSNBC, even the gods-honest BBC were airing truncated snippets of the interview.
“This is it, Ed,” Turlock said, a skewed note of sweetness in his voice. “This is the one.” They watched the terrorist point, the allahus roll, the unease of the various anchors introducing the story, as if movements in a symphony. Finally, the older man shut off the stream, and looked down at his desk.
“There is, however minor, one issue.”
Mohammed had made the call first thing in the morning, a single minute past eight. He had not slept well, though he had not slept well since the day.
“Mohammed,” Art said, picking up after a single ring. “I have meant to call you so many times, I assure you. I am so very sorry for-”
“It is quite alright,” Mohammed said softly, with empathy. “To be honest, those calls rarely help, despite any intention.” He watched the numbers flash on the microwave across the counter from his seat on a stool in his kitchen.
“I am sure.” Art was perhaps his father’s oldest friend, and thus perhaps his oldest link to whatever it was that came before whatever this was now, and a former prosecutor of some renown. He had represented his father before the business went under years ago. “I am still sorry.”
Mohammed allowed a pause.
“Thank you,” he said, swallowing. “This call, however, is in regards to a matter entirely unrelated,” Mohammed said evenly. Circumstance had long attuned him to a mode in which even his starkest fury was processed through dulcet conveyance. “It seems rather urgent. I did not know who else to call.”
“Have you by any chance been watching the news.”
The watchdogs scanned, the journalists dug, the timelines ran like livewire. They were all still raw from a couple years ago, when someone from InfoWars spliced a local newscast with a CGI deepfake render of a dead ISIS militant, so everyone cross-checked the crosschecks and did it again—scanning news backlogs, meme archives, reddit and 4chan, Youtube freecasts, everything—Collins could feel the panic in the posts as the Media Matters bloggers pointed out discrepancies in fade and contrast, grasping, knowing too well they sounded too much like the conspiracy theorists they spent their days dressing down.
A day went by, then two. Not a single mainstream outlet attacked their story. The analyses came back, and it was verified—it was, the results determined, live footage, in the field, captured on location.
Collins sat in his cluttered first-floor suite, surrounded by dark wood and walls lined with books by the foot. Takeout steak sat half-eaten at his desk. The TV was on, and Collins stared into it, letting his eyes unfocus, letting his right knee bounce.
The president had called the troops to the border, 70,000 this time. Some outlet noted that it was the largest deployment of troops on domestic soil in modern history and CNN was there, watching the first division arrive, the anchor saying something about climate refugees and increased migration that pitched tensions higher than ever et cetera. Collins smiled, changed the channel. They were riding along. Images of troops, surecut determination creasing their brows, animating their locksteps.
Collins nodded as if to a beat, keeping the minor issue back of mind. The lawyers said not to be worried, it was all perfectly legal, and was simply the product of a little misunderstanding. And nothing could dampen the sturdy elation he felt as Turlock had handed him the phone with the welcoming nod, and nothing could strike from memory the president’s tone as he’d said, curtly but invitingly, ‘Call me Eric,’ before offering his thanks. Nothing.
The segment threw to the candidate, who was sweating even more obviously and profusely than the liberal blogs. Microphone in his face, he stammered something about needing more information but also the need to be strong but also a need to be careful, when pressed for comment. Collins grinned giddily when that clip ran, that was his new favorite. Perfect. Aliquid pulchritudinis. His tongue worked a ligament of beef stuck in his teeth, by the right canine.
Then the primetime panel cut to what looked like a press conference. Somewhere in LA.
“It is true,” Mohammed said, those familiar glaring black eyes now fixed again with purpose, with righteousness. “I spoke those words. Most of them. Some were warped. But,” he paused and cleared his through. “I am an actor. Those words were spoken for a filmcast. A movie. They were lines delivered—I was, somewhat regrettably, cast as a terrorist, and now they have been taken somehow, in some way, deeply out of context. No one even bothered to tell me about any of this.
“There was a crew, costars. I am sure all present for the scene will vouch for me. They can corroborate this disgrace.”
Cameras strobed, the feeders glowed. The hotel conference room was packed, more people than he’d ever seen squeezed into one place before. Beside him, his agent clasped and unclasped her hands. Behind him, Art nodded.
“I do not know how or why this footage of me ended up used in this fashion, but I will not stand by and let my likeness be used for this purpose and in this context,” he said. “The American people deserve to know the truth.” Slowly, steadily.
“And the truth is I have lived in California my entire life. I am an American citizen. I am not even a Muslim. I am Christian. Not that it should matter, but in, in a matter of speaking.” He pressed his hands flat to the top of the podium, applying pressure evenly.
“But I have never been anywhere near any migration movement. If I had, threatening anyone would be the last thing I would do. I am descended from immigrants and it is immigrants that even now make this country great,” Mohammed said, his voice cracking slightly. His eyes burned. Despite themselves, there was a murmur of cheer from the press pool or whoever else was assembled there. “I am outraged that my likeness and words have been used against those people who are seeking safe haven and a better life.”
He glanced at Art, who mouthed his next cue. “I am sure you will want to know, but right now, we are considering how best to proceed with legal action,” he said. “I thought it important to begin with the truth, as quickly as possible. Something is very broken in this country, and perhaps, by beginning to fix this, we can begin to fix the things that made this outrage possible at all.”
There was a brief interminable pause where it was unclear to observers later and even to himself then whether Mohammed was on the verge of openly weeping or screaming with rage, but it was only a temporary and human glitch.
“Thank you all for coming,” he said, managing a wan smile.
His agent stepped forward, indicating that there would be no questions.
The wan smile disappeared into a well of shuddering grief that was nearly universally agreed to appear genuine.
Well he looked nervous now. Collins let the rest of the clip play, and then watched as the station they were on threw to the terrorist scene at the convoy; they were all doing that, comparing the footage side by side. Then the Democrat calling for an FCC investigation into the network, an emergency congressional hearing. The network was airing talking heads casting doubt on Mohammed’s story around the clock, pointing out inconsistencies in his story and hinting at gaps where he might have traveled to Mexico. Snap polls showed the public was split between Mohammed and the network, skewing Mohammed. And his name was goddamned Mohammed. Their momentum was sapped. The word hoax was gaining currency.
“How did this happen,” Collins said, turning around.
It was only when confronted with gross incompetence that he managed to muster the authority he otherwise found elusive. The conference room felt like a rainforest. Outside the glass wall-length windows, Manhattan was a gray escape.
Turlock sat reclined in his chair at the head of the table, rubbing his chin.
“Our partners at Malog-Réal spent no fewer than five years perfecting RMS tech,” Collins said. A suit in the back of the room mouthed ‘real-time media seeding’ across the table, to another, who quickly nodded. “I personally oversaw the final stages of field testing,” Collins said. “The risk factors were high, that was a given. There were no guarantees the RMS would seed all local devices seamlessly, with clear picture.” Which was the true leap, as far as Collins was concerned—within the radius of the RMS beacon, any smart camera, any live-streaming networked device, would be seeded with the selected pre-shot footage, integrated immaculately into the setting as if it were present, tangible. An environment-responsive, multidimensional deepfake, conjured in realtime. Collins remembered the first time he looked down at his phone with the camera on, saw his perfect terrorist threatening the world from behind a fern in MR’s office, and looked up to see nothing but the dismal corner of the fluorescent-lit startup lab. It was a marvel.
“And deployment was a success, technologically speaking, and I—it could not have gone better,” he continued. “But the very least. The very least we could expect was for legal to have us on solid footing.”
Four fleshy, balding men—two with different approaches to a comb-over, two without—sat at the other end of the table, looking chastened and perspirant.
“And then you don’t even clear the subject?” Collins almost squealed.
“We did. We did. We did. We did.” Their voices were thick and cragged.
“It was all in the contract.”
“You were instructed to find a case suitable for this purpose, who was both fully aware of the ultimate usage rights, and amenable to the nondisclosure terms,” Collins said, now leaning his skeletal frame over the table. “This was made very well clear.”
“We understand that. We received verbal and signatory confirmation when we sent the team to the client’s door for the final rights acquisition meeting. We had every indication that he accepted the terms. Again, we have the signed contract and a verbal affirmation on record.”
“Then let me rephrase Ed’s question, if I may,” Turlock said, standing up, “and repeat: How the fuck did this happen.”
The four hoarse men shot a web of exacting and disconcerted glances amongst themselves. “It has come to our attention, since the acquisition, that the client may have been in a state of pronounced grief during the visitation. That may account for his subsequent professed lack of familiarity with the arrangements.”
“Fuck this. Fuck it. Fuck. We’re going to LA.”
Mohammed sat next to Art on the faded couch that his wife had picked out when they had first moved into the apartment together. It was bright blood orange, and he had initially hated the audacity he felt it broadcast in their small living room. He had argued against it as vehemently as one could without starting an actual fight, before relenting. Then, as it faded with age, and the audacity softened with it, he came to genuinely appreciate its tone. Until its sinewy sine curve dove south again. It was on this couch that his wife had told him that, now that they were getting married, she would be reaffirming her belief and practice in Christian Science, which as he knew, she had been raised to observe.
The announcement had shocked him. But he protested it less than the couch.
Now he sat in a daze, unconcerned about hue or boldness, thinking nearly of nothing, a small buried rage the only real motor in his body.
“This contract is actually quite vague,” Art was saying. “It stipulates that they do own all usage rights for all existing mediums—global film, limited series, the right to use likeness to promote all of the above, and, here, I think it’s in here: ‘right to distribute likeness in digital products’. Again, it’s vague—vague enough that there is a case, no doubt. What they have done, however they have done it, is unprecedented, in context of contract law at the very least. Though I wish you would have run this by me before you signed it.”
Mohammed nodded, drifting. Now that he’d thought back, he did remember the two men who’d come to the door, talking quickly in blue suits. They had a brown leather briefcase with papers in it; still, he cannot remember a single word that was uttered; he had assumed they were with the insurance company or SAG or who knows, he let the wash of words run out and signed what they gave him and turned them away before again collapsing into the immense pain of expired audacities.
On the flight, as the parched tan expanse of the nation was fed slowly through the portal to his right, Collins scrolled through the posts, reading it all, ingesting everything, especially in friendly territory. A colleague once said that he was the only person alive who read the comments to relax, and it was meant as a joke but it was also true.
-Probably kept the Turban at home to look bette for the cameras
-One thing everyone is overlooking: It would be easy for the Dems and/or operatives with enough Soros funding to locate the terrorists and offer them enough money to turn sides. Nothing would make conservatives look worse. Best ROI on a campaign investment possible. This is likely what happened.
-One word: Liar. Well, two: Sharia Law..
-Guy kindof looks like another Mid- Eastern Guy, figures hes broke, this is easy money lawsuit watch him go to the DNC
Together, they painted the familiar nebulous picture, a constellation of ideas and impulses of varying veracity, few true but each valid, orbiting each other according to the gravity of the greater project at hand, which was protecting traditional American values from invasion.
But this, he saw now, his thoughts crystallizing, is just what the old man knew intuitively. What had begun as an exercise in self-soothing now yielded a potent reminder, an epiphany even, of Turlock’s Law—perhaps he would call it that in the memoir someday—that it did not matter how unbelievable, how hamfisted the article in question appeared, so as long as it fed like a neat river into the damp body of confirmation. That, given the proper avoiding of cognitive dissonances, nothing was, nor could ever reasonably be, too much. Rather—the more direct the sloganeered simulacra, the better, the more the foe resembled an action movie villain, the easier. If they had the right villain.
The room felt cramped, ridiculous. The entire morning had unfolded like a parody of a prestige business show, beginning with the ostentatious limousine that had been sent to his door. Mohammed now sat far away, at end of a nondescript, beige-hued room that felt like the belly of a file folder.
“Thank you for taking the time to meet with us, Mr. Aboukir,” Collins said, extending a hand, quickly retracting it. “We are well aware the situation we have put you in must be inconvenient, and we just want to say, believe it or not, this was never our intent.”
Mohammed said nothing.
One of the four lawyers sitting next to the thin, ashen executive cleared his throat.
“Given the amount of stress this unfortunate development has no doubt added to your life, we are prepared to offer a generous additional fee in the form of a bonus,” the second lawyer from the right said. The third one passed a paper across the black oval conference table. “Please look at the document. We are prepared to offer a preemptive settlement of a value tenfold the original agreement.”
“And again, please accept our apologies,” Collins said, though no one had yet apologized. Mohammed still said nothing.
“Of course,” another lawyer continued, “because of the sensitive nature of this work, we are going to ask that you recant your public denial, and that you decline the invitation to testify before Congress next week that I understand has been extended.”
Mohammed looked Collins in the eye for the first time since they’d been seated.
“This is an abomination,” Mohammed said quietly. He looked at this blank man, these wavering bodies, these conduits.
“You have not heard the number yet,” Collins said, as winningly as he could, an amateur imitating a television negotiation.
Mohammed gave the faintest shake of his head. Collins said the number.
“You had no right,” Mohammed said. “You have sullied my name and reputation, and you have delivered me a disgrace at a time when,” he trailed off. “You have exploited my person and my situation, and I admit I am ashamed I allowed it to happen.”
“Yes, we are also sorry to hear about your-”
A swift hand and pure black eyebeams halted the words with a force unknown to the easy. “Do not speak my wife’s name,” Mohammed spat in a burst, “or reference her again in any way.” He let the mad pulse feed his words. “This is an abomination. What you have done. At first I did not understand, it seemed too much to be true. It overwhelmed. But of course it was true.” He shook his head. “The hate you are capable of.”
Collins grit his teeth and squinted into the man, as if he were trying to make something out through static. Mohammed did not notice him.
“I do not care about your figures, and of course I will testify,” he continued. “I do not, would not, live with your money, and I will not be intimidated.”
With that, he stood, and Art and his agent and his growing entourage of aides did the same.
“The worst of this, perhaps, is you have knowingly and willfully perpetrated a hoax on the American people,” Mohammed said. “You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
It had the sound of a line that was going to be used more than once. Collins flinched.
Mohammed looked down at him with detached malignance, and walked in a clumsy daze to the door. Four sighs let out, in unison.
Collins paced the network’s largest conference room, with eyes on what else. Outside, in the streets, the annual climate march, a faint din somewhat less disruptive than adfill. He had not slept.
The hour had begun with the protests outside the central military encampment north of the border. There were as many protestors as soldiers, maybe more, despite the barren locale. The network framed the shots with the soldiers in the foreground, the mob behind them faceless and menacingly kinetic, with sharp angles and implied anger. The soldiers looked heroic, American, underdogs.
The official line was the Army was still preparing to neutralize a terrorist attack.
Then the throw.
Mohammed, clad in a crisp black suit, stood silently behind the table in the packed chamber as oaken chaos eddied around him. Across from him, the senator began.
“You are here today to testify that that was not you in the video segment that has been circulating widely, that you have no affiliation with any terrorist organization, and that this video was created wholesale, as some kind of newfangled hoax? Remember, be clear and honest in your answers—you are under oath—as this is a matter of utmost national security.”
Mohammed nodded and sat down, drawing the mic closer to him. “Yes, that is correct.”
“You may begin.”
“I will begin by clarifying that is indeed my likeness pictured in that video, but I recorded that scene as part of what I understood at the time to be a fictional piece of entertainment.”
In New York, Collins braced himself, eyes wide to the screen. Above the flowing chyron, the doors to the congressional chamber burst open, and a booming call thundered from beyond. Framed perfectly against the side panel of bullet point factoids and the running text, another figure, one that appeared for all intents and purposes identical to Mohammed, suddenly stood defiantly in the aisle.
“Hello, brother,” the newcomer snarled, and turned first towards the congressmen, then the crowd. “Know this: My brother is not lying. My brother thinks I am dead. Yes. Brother. Why did he never mention that he had a twin brother? Was he embarrassed perhaps, that his brother was doing what he never could—and leading a jihad to the very doorstep of America? Perhaps.”
So far, so far.
Collins pressed the palms of his hands together. The hardest part, if he was being honest, was simply finding the workable source material. Since their archive had no trace of Mohammed uttering the word ‘brother,’ for instance, they had to splice it together—from ‘broken,’ and ‘bother,’ words Collins had recalled he’d spoken in his little press conference.
Now the ballet would begin, the gamble.
Mohammed, jerky with nerves, had leapt to his feet to look towards the noise. On screen, it really did look as if the security detail were restraining him. Out of earshot of the feeds, one was whispering in his ear.
“Excuse me?” Mohammed could be heard stammering, confused.
It would do.
“And get your hands-”
Another bellow, from inside the courtroom.
“You don’t know your own twin brother? Unlikely. But I know one thing: You hate America as much as I do. As you can see, we have arrived. In fact, if I know you at all, merely seeing me, your blood, your truth, will inspire you to join me, even here. If you need inspiration, how’s this?”
The twin-Mohammed cast off his jacket to reveal a duct-taped bomb strapped to his vest. A loud stomp echoed in the hall. Collins squinted, looking for giveaways. The second hardest part was choreographing the real-life soundtrack cues, which was currently being carried out by a small team of able interns and Project Veritas vets. Collins was sweating again.
“Join me,” the new terrorist said.
Apparently without hesitation, the Mohammed behind the table turned and punched his security detail, a white man in his early forties, squarely in the jaw.
The presiding senator was yelling “order.” Art was calling Mohammed’s name, wheeling, hands on his cheeks.
Only Collins knew what the man he’d installed as security detail had just now whispered in Mohammed’s ear, melodramatically, as per instruction: Face it. You let Katie die, her and your son both, for nothing, in childbirth. You were not man enough to take her to a hospital. You are a coward and it is your fault they are dead.
As the rest of the detail tackled Mohammed, Collins sighed with relief. There were of course contingencies in place, alternate forks to the preferred storyline, but none as convincing. The feeds confirmed his satisfaction, rendered his relief a substrate of pure pleasure.
-Fukcing knew it
-Who could’ve seen *that* coming? Oh, maybe anyone who took five minutes to look at any of the facts outside the MSM’s preferred PC bullshit narrative.
-loll they droped that towel head like itwas nothing lol
-This is huge. This is what you get with Dem border policy. Everyone will see that now. Hope a sniper gets the other one before we have to pay any more for liberal ignorance.
-Pigfucker got pigfucked
Every stream, feed, and talk show, every right pundit left, they were blazing with a purity of purpose absent for months, maybe years; coalescing around the shared power of having known all along.
In DC, the puzzled faces in the room, swinging towards each cue, now fixated on the scrum at the witness table. On the screens, the doppleganger looked at it too, expressing something between cartoon rage and the having of second thoughts, yelled ‘Allahu Ackbar’ and fled the room.
Cameramen and anyone running a livestream on mobile checked and double-checked their monitors and screens, the impossible discrepancy, a sense of dumbfounded incomprehension falling like blackout curtains. They were the first and last to see this bifurcated view; the dramatic and robust scene through the screens, the confounding half-absent reality behind it, at once.
Mostly, Collins was tired now. There was little adrenaline left.
He found himself watching one freckled, fair-skinned cameraman in particular, the one with the long reddish ponytail shooting for CSPAN, who was glancing between screens and the fray with such pained incomprehension that his head seemed to somehow physically contort and cave under the pressure.
In coming days, he and the journalists and the Democratic congressmen and half the other eyewitnesses who had been in the room would loudly say to whoever would listen that there was no twin brother there, no suicide bomb, no nothing, and that the feeds must have been hacked, that there must be some mistake, some other reason why Mohammed punched that security guard.
Mohammed will be in solitary at a black site for the foreseeable future, under questioning about his terrorist ties, and thus unable to comment.
This time, it wasn’t an epiphany Collins felt as he watched the red-haired videographer alternate realities, inflating his chest as best he could, imagining for a second the room free of context and finding it pointless; what was forming felt more like a premonition.
This will be, it goes without saying, the highest rated story in the network’s history.
Collins leaves the broken gaze of the pale man and re-enters the stream, where, as the troops begin to move, as the alert for armed and dangerous jihadi in Washington goes red, as the martial laws enter into motion, there can only ever be more for the just enough rapt.