Elijah was telling the truth. Or at least part of it.
A Gulf Sails Board Member, Ander Dion, is suspected of extorting Ben Rupert before Ben died.
As soon as the new year hit, news broke. Then it came out that Dion had influenced the decision to hire the third-party investigator who urged the arrest of Elijah Braze.
And like Elijah said, the investigator did have a small conflict of interest. He owns about $25,000 worth of shares of a competing real estate company in Gulf Sails.
Elijah is clearly a sexual predator. But maybe he’s not a murderer.
Never-the-less, he’s still here on the island. (And I’ve woken up in a cold sweat more than once, after nightmares I don’t want to repeat.)
The investigator was fired, and the joint Gulf Sails/ Paradisia task force brought on someone new who in addition to investigating the death of Ben Rupert is now looking into the last investigator, and Dion.
Ander Dion resigned his position on the board, but says it was just because he would be a distraction. He says the decision to hire the investigator was based on merit, and that the conflict of interest is a small one, almost impossible to avoid given the number of industries Elijah is involved in.
He claims he is innocent of everything, including extortion of Ben Rupert, and that the media is just spinning the facts to make him look bad.
Plus, the revitalized task force insists it still has enough evidence to convict Elijah.
Francesco, the leader of Paradisia where Gulf Sails is docked, says that he can’t trust Gulf Sails anymore and insists they leave port within a week.
Gulf Sails will be leaving a number of platforms behind, people who defected and will now stay docked at Paradisia permanently.
“It’s like a ghost town,” Majorie tells me when I finally wish her a happy New Year on January 3rd. “So many people have left. Like, a quarter of the platform slots are empty. It looks so weird. Remember that club out on the northwest spoke, Giorgio’s? Not a dance club, the bar and restaurant. It also had a marketplace, and hosted events.”
“Yeah,” I say, “my family used to go there when we felt like slumming it for seafood.”
“Ohhhkay. Mine went when we wanted to indulge.”
I feel my face getting a little pink with embarrassment.
“Anyway,” Majorie continues, “They left, and took the whole neighborhood with them. Giorgio’s platform is the center of a new, like, 20 or 25 platform community. And some of the platforms were apartment complexes, so there are like 1,500 people just from that one incident who just floated away.”
“That’s crazy, but I guess I can’t say I’m surprised. Wasn’t that neighborhood full of the fringe type? They always had the dumbest complaints at community meetings.”
Majorie laughs, “That’s true, I remember them complaining that they always kept that side of the island pointed north, so they never got the good sunsets or sunrises.”
“Yeah I remember the CEO was like, uh, doesn’t it say that in your contract? That’s why it was cheaper… And they always wanted to veto neighboring platforms if they didn’t like the business or the style.”
“Still they had a sort of appeal to them, like a fisherman village feel mixed with Meditaranean port. I loved walking through there on the weekend, when they’d have street markets. People selling home grown veggies and homemade crafts. I kinda want to go visit the place in a few months… see what it’s like on its own.”
I smile, but can’t think of much to say. My heart sinks at the thought of her going off on an adventure in a couple months without me.
“So I’ve been getting great results from your analysis,” she says with pep, changing the subject.
She’s talking about the program I made to analyze videos against a cache of deep fakes versus real clips, to see if the patterns match up.
She says, “I’m already making more money just knowing who and what evidence not to waste my time on. And it’s so much easier to find corroborating evidence that it was manufactured if I already know it in the first place. Seriously, definitely worth the money I’m paying.”
“That’s great! Well definitely keep them coming. Glad I’m helping.”
“How’s work on the interface? Can you send me the tool yet?” she asks, once again.
“I’ve still got a couple snags to figure out,” I say.
But the truth is, I could probably let her use it now. There would be a couple issues I’d have to work with her on ironing out. But the real reason I don’t want to send it, is because, well, it’s mine.
Once I let go of the tool, I’m not that much use to her anymore, she could just analyze her own videos. And I know that probably sounds horrible, but what am I supposed to do, just give away something I poured all that work into it, which is now making me money I need to get off the prison island?
I doubt she would mind if I brought up some kind of licensing, but I just don’t know how to navigate that, what to charge, how to make sure it doesn’t just get out without me getting something from it. Maybe I should just release it as a free tool online, and make money from website traffic.
“I could help you fine tune it,” Majorie suggests, “After all, I am your first user, and successful test case,” she winks.
“It won’t be long,” I promise.
“It definitely has a lot of potential beyond just me using it too. Imagine if we could work together to get it recognized to use in official settings. Then you’d be making baaank. But that’s a ways off. I’m sure you’d have to have studies done, and get it reviewed by experts…”
“Sounds exhausting,” I say.
On the next batch of videos she sends me, there’s a strange one in there.
It’s a video of Elijah Braze, meeting with two guys. They aren’t wearing any anti-facial recognition glasses or anything, and can be easily identified. They’re gang members.
I remember that Majorie mentioned gang members had stayed at the hotel during the time that Ben killed himself, and were suspected of being hired by Elijah to kill Ben.
You can even make out some of the conversation. So this seems to be the damning piece of evidence the task force has on Elijah.
But when I analyze it with my system, the video is a deep fake. Elijah never met with the gang members–at least not in this video.
“Hey you didn’t tell me you were sending a video related to the Ben Rupert case,” I say, next time I chat with Majorie.
“Wait, which video?” she asks, sounding shocked.
“Oh, I… I must have sent that by accident.”
“Where did it come from?”
“It was just another piece of evidence the investigators sent me.”
“Well do you know where they got it?”
“I… don’t know. I guess it would be from the security system of whatever restaurant they were meeting at.”
“Well, you’re going to want to tell the investigators that whoever they got it from is a suspect. The video’s a deep fake.”
“Oh, wow. That’s crazy, I will definitely tell them. Thanks for letting me know! Glad I accidentally sent it to you.”
“Yeah, but there’s still the main video of Ben’s suicide I haven’t had the chance to analyze. That could confirm, at least, whether or not it was a suicide.”
“That’s true. Hey, I’m sorry, I gotta run, something just came up for work, I’ll talk to you soon,” and Majorie signs off.
It doesn’t add up. Someone is trying to frame Elijah for Ben Rupert’s death, whether or not it was an actual suicide.
And I’m still trying to figure out how the Gulf Sails Board Member, Ander Dion, fits in.
Even if it was a suicide, caused by the Board Member extorting Ben, why would he go to such lengths to make it look like a murder? I doubt they would try to somehow prosecute him for a suicide. And blaming Elijah for the death doesn’t cover up evidence of extortion.
So then the whole thing would have to be aimed at Elijah. Maybe it’s something to do with Elijah’s sizeable stake in Gulf Sails?
As the weeks wear on, little more happens with the Ben Rupert investigation. The investigators maintain that they are sorting everything out, and preparing to try Elijah for the crime. Gulf Sails’ reputation hasn’t recovered. The island sailed to Lapachicola early, soon after Francesco kicked them out of Paradisia.
And Francesco still maintains that Elijah is being falsely prosecuted. In fact, he’s the main relentless voice hammering away at Gulf Sails for being corrupt.
And Gulf Sails doesn’t have any one, singular cult-personality to counter his voice. Elijah was the biggest personality on the island, had the most celebrity. And the Gulf Sails CEO just isn’t a showy guy. So right now, Francesco is winning the battle of public opinion.
I didn’t get it at first, why Francesco would want to part ways with one of Paradisia’s biggest money makers of the year. But seeing the results now, it’s starting to make sense.
He keeps preaching that Gulf Sails is greedy and toxic, and that people need a simpler, less money-focused way of life. They can opt-out of the rat race by living in (or off the coast of) Paradisia. His numbers are swelling, and he doesn’t need to rely on Gulf Sails anymore to subsidize his society. Now it’s stand-alone, with less counterparty risk, and his power has increased.
A few weeks after the New Year Crenshaw pulls me aside and asks if I’ve had any more trouble with Elijah.
“No, I’ve barely seen him since New Years’, he doesn’t even look my way.”
“Good,” Crenshaw says, “I didn’t want to have to extend my sentence here. But I would have.”
When I ask Eric about this later, he tells me how Crenshaw put the fear of god in Elijah one day when they ran into each other on the main path.
I would have loved to see how the blood drained from his face, and how that cocky posture deflated for a few moments. But hearing Eric describe the cowering apologies is almost as satisfying. Never thought I’d make such good friends in prison.
Unfortunately, that night I still wake up with a start from another nightmare about Elijah preying on me. I’ve taken to sleeping with the brass knuckles on my fingers.
By early February, my conversations with Majorie are finally drifting away from being consumed by Ben Rupert’s murder, or suicide, or whatever it was. She’s got a little more of her glow back, but I can tell there’s still anxiety in the back of her mind.
“Hey, remember how you mentioned wanting to check out that new neighborhood that floated away. The one centered around Giorgio’s?” I ask Majorie.
“Yeah, they’re growing too, I think they’re calling it New Sicily. What about it?”
“If you wait until this summer,” I say, “Maybe I can join you.”
She’s surprised, and the first honest smile that I’ve seen in months breaks out on her face. “Really? Things are going that well?”
“Yeah, I paid down seven grand of the debt in January. At this rate, I could be out in May.”
“That’s amazing, it can’t all be from analyzing the videos for me though, right? What are you doing? Did the blog take off?” she laughs, before catching herself, and smiling in a guilty way.
“Ha, no. Actually, you remember Dean? He’s been giving me business coaching. I started outsourcing a lot of my bug-catching job to people in places where labor is worth about half as much. And even though they are only making half as much as me, compared to their cost of living, it’s like twice as much where they live.”
“Very cool,” Majorie says. “You’re almost running a charity.”
“Are you being sarcastic?”
She laughs, “I’m only joking, it is good. It’s a great way to spread the wealth around the world, really, teach a man to fish, and all that.”
“Yeah, and it gives me more time to focus on building out the deep fake tool.” I stop short realizing she’s still waiting for me to send her the program.
And a bit of an awkward silence commences until she says mechanically, “How’s that going?”
“Oh, it’s kinda still a mess,” I say. “It was easy enough for me to put it together so I can understand it. I know code enough to get the results I want, but not the interface side, how to make it easy for the user.”
“Well we’ll have to work on it together once you get off the island. The task force already put together their case against Elijah. They decided the suicide video was fake, but I’m not sure how they are going to present it at his trial.”
“So they still have their sights set on Elijah? I gotta be honest, I don’t think he did it. If someone took the time to fake a video of him meeting with the hitmen… kinda seems like he’s being framed. I mean you have more experience than me with investigations…”
I can’t believe I’m defending the guy…
Majorie shrugs, “The investigators cut me out of the loop a few weeks ago. I guess they got all they needed from me.”
Work. Work. Work.
A month passes in a snap.
On my birthday, March second, Eric invites me over for a low key celebration. Crenshaw and Brenton are there, waiting with a toast to yell “Surprise!” (Not that I’m too surprised… I assumed they’d be there for poker as usual.)
“You know, 21st birthdays used to be a big deal,” Eric says to me, “Time for you to have your first alcoholic beverage.”
Crenshaw and Brenton laugh. Looks like they may have started the festivities a little early.
“You remember that, old man? Going to yah first bah on yah 21st?” Crenshaw says, his New England accent even thicker from the booze.
Eric smiles, “I’m not that old. Being born in the New Dark ages meant I was going to bars by the time I was 11. Maybe I went to my first real bar around 21 though… by then things were rebounding. There were actual commercial establishments available to people who weren’t elites.”
“And we wouldn’t be 50 fuckin’ years behind,” I hear another voice break in, “If people hadn’t let the politicians destroy society.”
It’s George. I look on in disbelief. Is he here for my birthday?
“Ah, gawd, here we go, Mr. Anti-establishment has arrived,” Crenshaw says, nudging Brenton.
“Oh just wait til you see–or rather hear–the present I brought with me for the birthday boy here,” George says, just barely acknowledging me. “Kid loves history. So I came well prepared to give him my insights on growing up in The Kingdom during reconstruction.”
And learn about The Kingdom I do. In fact I get much more than I bargained for.
It starts innocent enough. A basic–albeit condescending–overview of The Kingdom while we all play poker. How it was started by a large farming family in Georgia in the wake of the collapse. How they held everything together by keeping the area safe enough to grow food, keeping people fed enough to not go entirely crazy.
But by the time George was born two or three decades later in the late 2050s, The Kingdom was a full fledged government. Technically a monarchy, although it was run more like a business. And it sounds to me like there was a little bit of feudalism mixed in there too.
But apparently, according to George, they still had the “Puritanical Judeo-Christian tendency to legislate morality.” And that’s where things fall apart.
Mind you, by this point it had been a couple hours, and a few bottles of moonshine later. Eric had taken all our chips, demolishing us in Texas Hold-em.
The history lesson culminated in George drunkenly opening up–if you can even call it that–about what exactly got him landed on a prison island with a life sentence for murder.
“And those god-damn sons of bitches wouldn’t just let my wife die in a humane way. I had to do it myself!” He sobs, “I had to do it for her, she was so weak, she begged me, she begged me to take away the pain! And I had to do it with the tools I had available because they wouldn’t let me, let us, have the simple fucking medicine we needed! They had it right there. They used it to execute murderers, but when it came to a sweet gentle woman who just wanted to move on from her disease, they wouldn’t… they just couldn’t…”
George is grasping for words, exasperated, practically gasping for breath, now just bawling with his head in his arms on the table. Crenshaw, Brenton, and I are just frozen in shock, sobered up pretty quick.
We meet Eric’s somber gaze, and he signals us to leave with a flick of his hand.
We happily oblige.
One day I see Elijah as I make my way to the cafeteria. I’ve been pretty good about avoiding him.
But now he has his bags with him in the lobby where the airships land. And as usual, I’m caught staring in disbelief, trying to interpret what it all means.
“That’s right,” Elijah says with a smirk, “I’m out of here. Like I said, my innocence would be proven. How sad in this day and age that you have to prove your innocence. But don’t worry. My replacement will be here soon.” He winks at me as he boards the airship.
What does that mean? Did they charge Dion instead? I haven’t seen anything about this in the news.
But the next day it hits, the big headlines that the charges are dropped against Elijah, and the investigators are preparing to charge someone else. But they haven’t announced who, pending the arrest.
It’s really a weight off my shoulders, Elijah being gone. The bad dreams go away, and I can finally sleep easy.
And around the same time, I realize the money I just made will reach the threshold to get me off the island by mid April.
I never honestly thought I could become this successful, let alone in under six months. I owe a lot to Dean’s guidance, but also the focus provided by the prison island. And of course the incentive to pay off enough of my debt so I can leave.
“Well it wasn’t the blog, was it?” The warden laughs.
God he’s annoying. I just give him the raised eyebrows and a smirk. But when I think about it, if it weren’t for the movie blog, I might have never thought about how to detect deep fakes: using the database of video clips.
“Hey Dege, if it’s okay, I’d love to get permission for Elba to contact you after you leave. You’re a pretty big success story… it’s not too often that someone becomes as productive a member of society in as short a time. We’d love a testimony, but I’d say there’s an opportunity for even more. I mentioned it to the higher ups, some sort of promotional deal…”
“Oh, really? Well yeah, you can contact me for sure. I’ll have to think about the rest.”
I imagine myself being the poster boy for a prison camp… not sure if that’s the image I’d want out there. Not that I could hide this episode in my life from anyone who bothered to look into it.
“Of course, and I’ll get in touch with more specifics. It’s been a joy having you here Dege, but don’t come back!” He laughs.
I can’t believe that I’m actually getting out of here this soon. It still hasn’t sunk in that I’ve paid my debt off in just six months when I thought it would take two years. And now, I’m actually making good money, I feel empowered, independent, useful, important.
The hardest part is saying goodbye to Eric.
“It’s days like today I question my sanity,” he chuckles, “living on a prison island…”
“Well you can leave for vacations if you want, can’t you? Take a break and come back.”
“I suppose I could. But I haven’t left this island in 25 years. Just been boycotting the real world. I don’t know what I would do with myself. I guess I’m just an old man stuck in my ways now,” he shrugs.
“Then I’ll come back and visit you,” I say confidently.
“I appreciate that Dege,” he says with sad eyes, “But I don’t want you to beat yourself up about it if you never seem to find the time.”
I scoff, “Come on Eric, of course I’ll be able to find the time.”
He pats me on the back, “Rodigio, it’s been great spending time with you these last few months. I don’t think my evening conversations will be quite as intellectually stimulating without you.”
I’d never really thought of myself as intellectual before.
As I’m walking down, with my things all packed, I pass George’s cabin. He’s outside, as usual, working in the garden. He stands up and walks over to his wall and looks at me. I stop.
Stand. Stare. Wait.
“We’re cousins,” he says. “Your dad and I are cousins.” Then he turns around and resumes what he was doing.
I just laugh.
“Hey, I might still hit you up online for another history lesson,” I say.
“At your own peril,” he replies, without looking up.
Down by the docks, I see the airship approaching from the bay. I look around, and breathe in the air, taking in the beauty of the shimmering green hillside. I still can’t believe this is what a prison island looks like.
There’s a salty breeze, and the soft sound of water lapping at the shore. And those birds… I never did figure out what kind they are, or where they came from.
I board the airship that will take me off the island.
To my shock, Majorie is on board!
I’m baffled. She came all this way just to fly back with me?
But no… She’s sitting in the prisoner section. She’s waiting to be transported to the women’s prison island en route to drop me back off at Gulf Sails.
“I didn’t know how to tell you,” she says, her eyes dissolving into tears. “But it’s not what you’ll hear. Believe me, it’s not what they’ll say about me!”
“What is it? I don’t understand.” But amid the sinking feeling in my chest, I’m starting to make sense of it.
“Rodigio, you’ve got to listen to me, and believe me. Whatever part I played in this murder was entirely by accident. I helped them, but I didn’t know what I was doing. They used me!” She breaks down in tears.
I want to comfort her for the remainder of the short flight, but they force me to sit in the visitor section, since I’m no longer a prisoner. All I can do is watch her cry from a distance. And think about what this means.
The realizations are washing over me.
The deep fakes. My analysis tool. The “suicide”…
Touch down. Doors open. Eyes meet.
As the guards lead Majorie off, I run after her. She turns and reaches for me.
But we’re torn apart.