Elijah is here awaiting trial for the premeditated murder-for-hire plot of his friend and former chief of staff, Ben Rupert.
The news broke the day after he arrived here. It’s the biggest story since I-can’t-remember-when.
“Why would they let him come here?!” I practically shout. “I thought they weren’t supposed to allow murderers in class-three confinement!”
I’m at Eric’s cabin, and tonight I insisted on the hard stuff. I’m a few shots in, and cradling a mug of beer. Eric is being a good sport about it, trying to calm me down.
“Just remember, he’s not a murderer yet. He’s innocent until proven guilty.”
I give Eric a sharp look.
“It is a little strange,” Eric admits. “It’s the first I’ve seen them let an accused murderer book a cabin and roam the island freely. I guess wealth does come with some perks.”
“And why does he get so much time to prepare for trial? I got less than twelve hours for mine.”
“A, they always give more time to prepare in serious cases. B, you really should have insisted on representation at your hearing. Sounds like you basically got railroaded… a good lawyer would have got an extension to prepare an argument, find some good precedent, and probably could have kept you out of confinement while you paid your debt. Then again the odds were stacked against you with a guy like Francesco. But still, you probably could have got the release threshold down to five or ten grand–”
“Can you just let me vent?” I ask. But I know the truth is, he can’t. He really can’t help but look at things from a logical, rational perspective. That’s actually why I like spending time with him. But right now, I could do without it.
Eric flashes a sympathetic smile. “Look, it’s a big island, just avoid him.”
“He’s two cabins down from me!”
“Lock your door at night.”
“I love how not getting attacked is my problem. Talk about blaming the victim.”
Eric shrugs. “You’re right. That’s not fair. And it’s also the natural state of the world. Getting struck by lightning isn’t fair. It’s not your fault. And you don’t deserve it. But you still shouldn’t stand in a field during a lightning storm.”
“But-” I start.
Eric interrupts, “I know you aren’t ‘standing in a field.’ But you can’t reason with predators anymore than you can reason with lightning.”
Eric gets up and fumbles around in some drawers. He drops a set of brass knuckles that thud on the wooden table.
I look at him skeptically.
“What? If you’re actually concerned, you should be prepared to protect yourself.”
“Aren’t weapons prohibited here?” I ask sheepishly.
“Yeah, and so is alcohol. Besides this isn’t a weapon, it’s jewelry, four rings all joined together.”
I smirk, and pick up the knuckles. They are even heavier than I expected. They look hand pounded, like an ancient Roman cuff bracelet a warrior might wear.
“Where did you get these anyway? Don’t they search packages?”
“I’ve gone through a lot of hobbies here. This was the metalworking phase about six or seven years ago. You’ve already drank out of a pounded copper mug from the same era.”
“Well thanks. I guess it can’t hurt to have the option,” I say. And it does make me feel better.
“Better to have them and not need them, than need them and not have them,” Eric says.
On video Majorie looks tired. She has bags under her eyes, and without the usual smile she’s lost her glow. I avoid the subject for a couple minutes… but we both know it’s coming.
“So, how’s the new roommate?” She asks, forcing a smile.
“I was pretty shocked to see him. Do you think he did it?”
Majorie looks away, and blows air out of her mouth in a long sigh, “I don’t know. I’m having a tough time thinking of a motive… at least one that is strong enough for murder.”
“What about the video of Ben jumping off the building,” I ask, “They must know it was a fake if they arrested Elijah.”
“That’s the thing… I don’t think they actually have enough evidence. Rumors have started getting out that it wasn’t a suicide. The task force got pressure from Gulf Sails to clear it up. I mean it’s the first murder on Gulf Sails in, what, a decade?”
“So if they could prove it was a deep fake, then they would have something solid on Elijah?”
“Well yeah, it was Elijah’s people who turned over the video in the first place. So if they could prove it was faked that would at least give them another path to go down for the investigation.”
“You mean they could put pressure on his underlings to start talking?”
Majorie shrugs, clear her throats, and says, “I guess that’s the theory.”
“Can you send me the video?”
“Why?” she asks reflexively.
“Well, I’ve been working on something ever since you told me about the technology they use to analyze deep fakes. They look at it forensically, the files, the meta-data, down to the ones and zeros. They’re trying to see if anything has been altered, added, or tweaked. But it’s almost impossible to tell, that’s the entire point of the deep fakes. What they should be doing is looking at the outputs.”
“Well isn’t that the entire point of deep fakes, that the outputs look real?” Majorie asks.
“Of course, they look and sound real to humans. And everything at the chip level looks real enough to the technology analyzing it. But I had a hypothesis that when you analyze the outputs, there would be a slight difference between real and fake videos.
“I was rewatching some old movies to write about on my blog. The special effects used to be really bad, you can see the cuts in the film, the model cities for explosions, the impossible ninja moves, that sort of thing. But over time they got better and better. It looked almost real… until the directors would go too far and start making it look fake again because their ideas outpaced the technology.
“It’s like they were getting close to reality, never quite syncing up, and then passing back into the absurd. Then they would make the effects better and better again until they were back for another shot at the real thing.
“So I decided to test my hypothesis, that given enough data, there would be unique patterns for deep fakes versus real videos. I put together two databases, one with unaltered videos and one with known fakes. I coded a basic program to analyze and plot things like voice, posture, gait, movement, and just graph it out.
“Both of them, the real and the fake videos, look like a mess when graphed out. You get nothing from just looking at them. But when you overlay the plots, you start getting a picture of the differences. The deep fake plots aren’t as tight, they are more jerky, with sharper edges, and the real ones are much smoother in general.
“To be fair, you would need a lot more data and a better analyzer and grapher to really build a decent program. But I asked my friend Brenton to create a random mix of ten fake and ten real videos to test. I analyzed them, and got 90% accuracy, just by comparing the two graphs with the naked eye. I’m sure if I can write analyzing script I can get it even more accurate.”
Majorie’s mouth is hanging open and she’s looking at me like I just seamlessly landed a triple back handspring.
“Dege. This is amazing. I had no idea you knew how to do all this.”
“What?” I laugh, “No, it’s all pretty basic. Anyone could have done it. The code is really rudimentary, and–”
“Well, no one else did do it. Is there any way you can send me the program?
“I feel like it would be a lot easier to just send me the video. It’s not one nice cohesive program right now. There are a lot of moving parts I haven’t uploaded to the cloud yet.”
“Yeah, hmm… I just don’t think I can send you the video with the prison surveillance. I don’t want to overstep my bounds with the investigators.”
“If they want your help, seems like they wouldn’t mind? Well anyway, let me see if I can get the program glued together a little better, and more user-friendly.”
“That would be amazing! Um… in the meantime… Are you looking for extra work?” Majorie asks.
“What do you mean?”
“I have all these clients who send me video evidence. It’s not like your program would hold up in arbitration or anything. But it would at least give me insight into which of my clients are sending me fake evidence, which are being tricked themselves, and who is worth my time.”
“Yeah… sure, I would love to help.”
“Great,” she says, “I have about 15 I can send you now to get started, and pay per analysis? Maybe if your program is good enough we can get you out of there much sooner,” she winks.
The hair on the back of my neck pricks up a second before I hear his voice.
“The whole world has gone mad, Dege.”
Elijah takes a seat on my rock wall, looking out towards the ocean. I am working out on my deck, enjoying the cooler evening hours when the sun has dipped below the island’s horizon. I reach into my pocket and slip my fingers into the brass knuckles I’ve been carrying around. The cold metal takes some heat out of my elevated heart rate, like a stress ball.
Elijah is waiting for me to respond, but I don’t. Not sure what I would say even if I wanted to. Seconds pass. Finally he looks my way.
“You don’t believe the whole thing do you?” he asks, incredulously.
“I haven’t given it much thought,” I lie.
“It’s a smear, a desperate attempt to take down someone successful. It has the whole city divided. My supporters are fleeing, taking their platforms to dock at Paradisia, or elsewhere. A whole contingent linked their platforms into another community as a protest.
“Gulf Sails is just so desperate to take the blame for poor Ben’s death off them. They are willing to send an innocent man to prison because of social pressure!”
He keeps pausing to see if I have anything to say. Then he continues stream of consciousness style, like he’s thinking out loud.
“But they miscalculated. That was the real breaking point. People won’t put up with it! They won’t. The way they handled this from the getgo just reeks of corruption. You know the chief investigator they hired has ties to competitors of mine?”
He looks at me, expectantly, waiting for an answer.
“I didn’t know that,” I say monotone, pretending not to be interested, but the truth is I am making a mental note to look into that later.
“Why would I murder one of my best friends?” He scoffs, looking back to the ocean. “It is a cleverly orchestrated smear that I will be cleared of in just a matter of weeks.”
When he says “weeks” I swear I hear his voice crack. Elijah clears his throat.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret,” Elijah says, looking back to me. “Ben was being extorted by a high up Gulf Sails executive. That’s why he killed himself. Don’t believe me, just keep an eye on the news. It was getting out into the public, that’s why they moved on me with no evidence whatsoever, so they could get the drop on the news cycle. That’s what this is all about. Apparently these days justice is whatever the public believes!”
There’s something in Elijah’s eyes… I think he’s worried.
Suppose he is lying, and this all comes crashing down on him while he’s still here in pretrial detention. He realizes he’s going to be confined for the rest of his life. He thinks, might as well get my kicks in while I have the opportunity.
I’m actually concerned under those circumstance that he might try to rape me, if he has nothing to lose. I don’t know, maybe I’m just freaking myself out, maybe he was just drunk and displaying a fucked up sense of humor at the club in Barracuda on Halloween.
But it’s boring into my mind the insanity that I even have to consider such a course of events.
“I brought you something,” I say to George. Christmas is approaching, and I was feeling the holiday spirit. I’m still curious as to my connection with George, if we really are family. But another part of me just wants to break down this barrier.
I hold out the bottle to him.
“What, some of Eric’s whiskey?”
“I worked for it.”
“Well la-dee-da, why are you giving it to me?”
“I was just thinking about what you told me before… how trade breaks down barriers.”
“Trade,” He says sternly. “So it’s not a gift then? Call me cynical, but as I suspect of any gift, it’s not actually free, eh?”
“I… well… no, just… maybe just, like, don’t be such a hard-ass all the time?”
“Not worth it,” he says, and starts to head in.
“Wait! Fine, yes, it’s not a gift. But maybe you would be willing to trade this bottle of whiskey for another history lesson?”
“You can read about it on the internet cheaper.”
“It’s the analysis that’s valuable…” I say. “As much as I searched, I couldn’t find any sources that talked about the far-reaching economic effects of interracial fucking.”
I think I just managed to get a smirk out of him, but he hides it well, clears his throat, and puts back on his gruff look.
George stares at me for a while. “Alright come on, kid. It’s been a while since I’ve got to preach my opinions on the collapse of the USA.”
He’s still a dick to me the entire time we talk history. He makes me feel really stupid sometimes, and practically yells at me for asking apparently dumb questions.
But if I look at it from a comical perspective, like is this guy seriously this salty, I can handle it. I think the shots he keeps pouring me helps as well. Holy shit this guy can put them down.
“No, fuck that bullshit nation-state nostalgia,” he practically shouts as we are closing in on finishing the bottle. “It was the same in the city-states of Machiavelli-era Italy as it is now. A shitload of small conflicts still result in far less death and destruction than the large global catastrophes that empires create!”
I hold my hands up, “I’m not arguing, I was just asking a question. Seems like the big governments existed for a reason.”
“Yeah, for the same reason gangs exist. To wield power through violence! And in the process they plant some flowers and make sure no one else beats you up, so stupid people can’t imagine living in a flowerless, violent world.”
George flops into his seat, and finishes the rest of the bottle. “And it looks like you’re all out of learning tokens,” he says, slamming the bottle back to the table. “Kindly make your way to the exit, thank you for participating in George’s history lesson.”
It’s weird without all the festivities leading up to Christmas that typically happen living at home. It’s the type of stuff that I always grudgingly took part in… but now I miss.
My family does come to visit on Christmas, which is really nice of them to change their plans to spend time with me.
I hug my parents, and even go in for a hug with my little brother. While in the embrace, he makes sure to remind me, “You’re a disgrace to us all. You’ve shamed the family, and brought dishonor on our house.”
“Great to see you too Raji.”
And honestly, it is. I miss his stupid, sarcastic, peevish sense of humor.
My dad opens up a little. I think he is proud that I am living on my own, entertaining guests, and working hard.
The conversation takes a strange turn after the mulled wine and rum cake dessert.
“You really should get into spa culture, Dege. Well… maybe not on a prison island.”
“It’s always been a little too homoerotic for my tastes,” I say.
“Well the lab test put me somewhere between 32 and 36% homosexual. So maybe that’s my outlet… if you believe it’s genetics.”
“Wow, that’s pretty gay dad,” Raji says.
My dad scoffs, “You should see your mother’s-”
“Ollie! Those results are meant to be kept private.” My mom scolds. “I could sue you for telling them.”
She’s kind of joking, but it is technically true. And she’d probably win something small.
Then it’s New Years 2100 and it might be the worst day of my life. I tried to talk to Majorie, but she was busy.
I video chat with Craig and Dean for the first time since I asked Dean for the money to keep me out of here. I already apologized in a text for putting him in that position, and since then he’s reached out every week or so. He even offered to mentor me to help me make the money quicker.
They are getting ready to go out for the night, with a few other friends. They link me in to the big screen, and I get the full view of the living room, with all the festivities.
It’s too painful. I manage to keep up my happy appearance for a few toasts. But even though I have my drink on my side, there’s an energy I can’t tap into. It’s just not the same being on the other side of a screen.
I’m exhausted after only a few minutes, using every ounce of energy to make sure I don’t infect their mood with my crushing disappointment at being left out of the turn of the century festivities. I sign off quickly.
This sucks. The day I have been dreaming about for my entire life, slipping away.
After marinating in my own pity for a while, I head to Eric’s. Then we both walk over to the main pavilion where the big party is for the night.
The female prisoners from the other island are here visiting for the New Year’s Eve party. And to my shock, some of them are pretty attractive. I didn’t bother to go to any of the meetups when they came before.
I’m not sure why I assumed they would all be ugly… I think I was too influenced by old movies and TV shows about prison.
The post nation-state world just hasn’t left its mark on popular culture as intensely yet. I suppose that’s because there is less of a concerted effort to push one particular narrative. And now I realize I sound like George…
A young woman comes up to me and pulls me onto the dance floor without a word.
She’s probably about my age, and is wearing a lot of eye make-up. As we dance to something electronic sounding, I start wondering what she did to get here. Probably some kind of theft or fraud. I wonder if it was to buy drugs. I’m judging her even though I’m in the exact same position.
When the song is over we have a conversation. After about 15 minutes of talking, I realize I haven’t gotten anything out of it. I’m just bored, and know a little bit more about her party-life in Florida before her asshole ex-boyfriend (read: sugar-daddy) “falsely” (I’m sure) accused her of stealing from him.
She’s pretty. Pretty enough that I wouldn’t have hesitated to pursue her in the past. I wouldn’t have cared about how mind-numbing her personality was. But now I don’t want to.
At first I assume it’s just because of Majorie, but I don’t think that’s all of it. I just don’t have the energy to be around someone like this for a night, even if the reward is great sex.
She gets the hint as my contributions to the conversation trail off. She storms off, clearly annoyed, muttering something under her breath.
“I thought I was going to have to cut in for a second there,” Elijah says as he slides up to me, on the edge of the dance floor. He’s dancing in front of me, yelling over the music.
I’m backed up against the kitchen counter bar, so I start to walk left but his hand shoots out to grab the counter, and block my exit.
“Hey man, I just want to talk,” He says, still gyrating to the music. “I mean we’re both in the same boat here.”
“I don’t want to talk to you,” I say, moving right instead. But he’s right in front of me, and I can’t inch away without squeezing between him and the bar. He keeps dancing, closer and closer to me as I edge my way to the right.
“Look maybe we got off on the wrong foot, but I think you have the wrong idea about me.”
“Well you’re reinforcing that idea right now!” I yell. Now I’m at the end of the counter and there is a wall in my way.
Elijah’s is smiling but he still manages to look pissed off. He doesn’t like it when he doesn’t get his way. I start to push past him but his arm goes to the wall, blocking my path. I break the other way, and he grabs my arm. My other hand goes reflexively to my pocket, but I didn’t bring the brass knuckles… making the mistake of thinking I’d be safe in public view.
“Didn’t you notice, Dege?” Elijah says, smile twisting, “We’ve accidentally stumbled under some mistletoe… and rules are rules.” With his free hand he grabs the back of my head to hold it in place so he can land a kiss directly on my lips.
I’m squirming away, but he is so fucking strong! Only when I feel him start to wriggle is tongue against my tightly pursed lips do I finally muster the strength to push him off balance enough to get out of his reach.
And as I storm away, wiping his saliva off my mouth, a small crowd around us actually oohs and giggles, as if I was into it! Like me pushing him off and storming away wasn’t a clear indicator that I didn’t consent to that.
“Oh, I get it now,” the girl I was dancing with cackles as I leave the pavilion
Eric is out there smoking a cigar with Brenton and Crenshaw, and stops me when he sees my face.
“This guy is so fucked up! A god-damn psychopath,” I vent to them after telling them what happened. I can barely get the words out straight, I’m still shaking with rage and embarrassment.
“Just hang with us,” Crenshaw says, “If that motherfucker comes near you again I’ll make sure his face can’t be used to sell anything but reconstructive surgery.”
And Crenshaw is big enough to fulfill that promise. He might not have the cut muscles of Elijah, but he is massive, and got his training street boxing.
Luckily (or unfortunately as I started imaging watching Crenshaw deliver a beatdown) I don’t see Elijah for the rest of the night.
And as midnight rolls around, I cheers Happy New Years with a few other cons, as fireworks blast in the distance, over the Gulf.
These ones are for us. A weak show by most standards, but at least we got any at all.
But as our short display of explosions ends, another fireworks show continues somewhere in the distance.
The explosions are so large and powerful that they mimic the rising sun on the horizon. A few seconds later the low booms follow.
It must be miles away. It’s not Barracuda, I know that, Barracuda is too far. But it might as well be. There’s someone, lots of someones, having fun out there. On their yachts or on their platforms. With family or friends. Kissing the girl or boy they love.
And then there’s me. Here. Watching from the outside. Just catching the outer susserations of their party. Whatever is extra. The bursts of lights and booms they don’t need that spill out over the ocean, and roll along it for miles.
They force you into it, force you to not quite take part, but be well aware of what you’re not involved in. Just listen, watch, know there is someone out there who isn’t you getting the full benefit of those fireworks. The champagne, the songs, the drunkenness, the camaraderie.
I wonder who the guys are kissing. What if Majorie is kissing someone?
“Stop it kid,” Eric’s voice breaks my trance. “I can see what you’re doing.”
I know he knows– if not the exact thing I was thinking, at least the rumination of things I can’t change. It does make me feel a fraction of a bit better– the validation that someone else sees what’s going on for me.
I manage a wry smile, nod to thank Eric, and turn back to the fireworks.
I’ll try to be stoic, and not bring down the mood for our prison island New Year.