Don’t forget to check out the other two pieces of fiction being published today, here and here!
The sun sets over the Ob, its reflection stretching back upriver and turning the icy blue waters to shimmering gold. Houses dot the riverside, tiny and precarious, seemingly ready to break off and float downstream in a rush of slush. Following the river northwest, these specks of built environment grow in size and volume, until fingers of concrete obscure and smear the reflection of the sky. The river shines with humanity’s oil-slick fingerprints in a rush of unnatural color. Blue and gold reassert themselves deeper into the city. Projected from a skyscraper wearing the skin of an Orthodox church, a three-story virt burns NBN’s logo into the sky. The trademark towers over Market Square, reflection rippling in the water. The logo spins and vanishes; the show is about to begin.
A familiar voice announces: “This is the News Now Hour, the modern voice of Siberia.” A chorus of synthetic chimes follows this announcement, granting the corporate tagline an almost ecclesiastical tone. Marketing says this kind of thing is important, it builds trust and brand recognition. For Yelena the sound barely registers at a conscious level. By now, it’s second nature to smile, look directly into Camera Two, and introduce herself as if she wasn’t already a household name.
“I’m Yelena Papova Belkin. In our top story tonight, explosions rocked materials extraction facilities on the Yamal Peninsula in a shocking terrorist attack. This eruption of violence punctuated five days of senseless economic waste, as radical environmentalists blockaded the property of the region’s largest employer. Private security has managed to restore order, but the terrorists responsible are still at large.”
As Yelena shrinks to a talking head in the corner, the control room fills the rest of the screen with freshly edited video. We open on a drone shot: dozens march in lockstep across the pockmarked landscape. Next, we’re in forced perspective, gazing up at the most square-jawed and photogenic prisec officer the camera crew could find. He pulls down the mirrored visor of a riot helmet. As his face disappears from view, we pan across security’s front line, and the sun glints off guns and visors arrayed in copy-and-paste formation.
“Please be advised,” Yelena reads out, “footage of this violent incident may not be suitable for sensitive viewers.”
In the control room, data holograms orbit Vera Ivanovna Shuyskaya as she conducts a symphony of live broadcast production. “That got their attention.” Eye-tracking metrics leap and an inkling of a smirk brings the smallest touch of expression to her carefully composed image; it seems almost out of place between her tight bun of dark hair and her expertly tailored grey suit. With a glance, she cues an editor to cut to grimy-looking shaky-cam footage of the blockade. It takes a bit of work to make a series of immobilized trucks crewed by exhausted locals look active, let alone threatening, but this sort of optics management is routine under the guidance of any of Pravdivost’s expert consultants. Under the direct supervision of their chief executive, it’s art. An opportunity presents itself when an irritable demonstrator throws an empty drink canister at the camera operator. In first-person, we run like we’re being shot at, camera bouncing like live digital stabilization was never invented. “Cut now!”
Foot traffic in Market Square lurches to a halt, all eyes are on the news virt. Behind Yelena, a red-orange fireball blooms. More shaking, more running, then a drone shot replays the moment from above. The camera lingers as the melted frames of cargo haulers spit flame and belch thick, dark smoke. After a reverent silence, the broadcaster looks somberly into the teleprompter and continues to read.
“Authorities were forced to deploy Armoured troops to restore order following the explosion. As the investigation is still ongoing, the count of dead and wounded is unknown. We can only speculate on the damage done by this sudden and unprovoked attack.” A cut to the facility’s main gate, where a small crowd can do nothing but watch it burn from outside.
Those same flames reflect in Vera’s eyes as the data displays shuffle to the sides, her monitoring holo of the live broadcast taking center stage. She basks in this perfect moment until it is disrupted by an impertinent voice.
“Vera Ivanovna, may I ask you something?”
Anyone in the control room who can risk taking their eyes off their monitor turns to watch a junior editor’s career end in real-time.
“Spit it out, then.”
“Well, isn’t this a bit much? Don’t get me wrong, it’s dynamic, it’s cinematic. Just, it doesn’t seem real.”
“And what do you know about reality?” she spits back, smiling a little to herself. This lecture has been lying dormant in her brain, just waiting for the right question.
“Have you ever been to a protest?” she continues. “Show of hands, anyone? Don’t be shy, I promise we already know.” Scattered nervous laughter follows, but not a single hand goes up.
“And how many of you have been to a sensie? Everyone? Good. Now keep your hand raised if you’ve seen ten sensies. Fifty? A hundred? I bet you’ve lost count. Each and every one of those films has given you a sense of how the world should look, should work, should be. Sure, your conscious brain knows it’s fiction, but you’ll still internalize it. You’ll react plenty before that pesky conscious brain decides to sort out what’s real.
“People don’t think in facts, they think in stories. We just tidy up that information to speed up the process. Now be quiet, this next part is important. Get ready to roll mugshots.”
Hundreds of kilometers away, hidden in a disused shipping container, Bankhar is nearly ready for showtime. Their setup is nothing fancy, but it should get the job done. Behind a little desk, a tarp hangs from the wall, a makeshift green screen. After a few attempts to secure the top edge of the tarp to the ceiling, Bankhar says “fuck it,” to no one in particular. They hop over the desk and zoom in the camera to hide the sagging section out of frame. Good enough, clock is ticking.
On a holo-monitor hovering above the tripod, Bankhar walks into frame. Only, beneath their close-cropped curly hair, their face never seems to quite settle. An ocean of continuously shifting features looks into the camera, ready to flood any facial recognition system with junk data. With a snap of their fingers, they go live.
Without warning, Yelena disappears from the news holos. In her place, an aggregate of faces announces “we interrupt this bullshit to bring you some real news.” Behind them, footage of the fire abruptly cuts to a display of the editing room’s file system.
“Something about this just doesn’t add up, and we’re going to find out what it is.” They can’t help their smug, shifting smile. “Blockade efforts were working. A handful of stalled cargo haulers were already dealing more economic damage than that explosion ever could have. Why don’t we see what really happened?”
The smile melts from Bankhar’s faces as the words “Access Denied” flash behind them in big red warning letters. “Damn it. Guess I’m going to have to do this the hard way. Hold on a moment, folks, don’t go anywhere.”
Reaching under the desk, they find a skulljack cable and click it into place. Their expression goes blank as they stare past the camera into the net. This quiet stillness only lasts a moment. Bankhar shatters it with an anguished scream as a spasm nearly knocks them off of their seat. But the screen changes, hundreds of timestamped file names scroll past behind them. They cycle through snippets of video almost too fast, stopping on a scene of mechanized infantry advancing on the blockade in powered Armour. The blockade line is completely unready; most of them were asleep five minutes prior. A panicked protester in pajamas and a parka makes a run for it, but falls to a bullet in the back.
Back in the control room, Vera is an island of calm in a rushing current of IT and security staff. “I don’t know what happened,” one editor stammers, “all of the sudden I didn’t have control of my machine.” Suits from upstairs and techs from downstairs huddle around him as the former group demands impossible solutions from the latter. Public relations advisers and media consultants brainstorm and bicker about ways to spin the interruption, knowing that every second the broadcast continues will make their job that much harder.
Vera skims through her contacts and pulls up “Ivanov, D.” A hologram bust emerges from her PAD, depicting a man in a modern-cut double-breasted suit, his hair side-parted immaculately. “Drago, have you—“
He cuts her off. “Yes, I’ve seen. We are investigating. We will find them. It’s our network after a—”
Vera returns the interruption.“Fine, just let me know when you have a location. I’ll contact the client, I imagine they’ll want to handle things in-house.” She terminates the call; talking to people who aren’t terrified of her can be such a bother. Fortunately, most of the control room knows their place.
“And we’re back,” a producer shouts, “get ready to roll mugshots.” Staff cheer, a hero’s welcome for a sys-op jacking out, until Vera silences everyone with a glare.
“Come on, people, we still have a show to run.”
With the return of Yelena Popova’s familiar face, normality is restored. “We apologize for the interruption, for the airing of footage our network has deemed distasteful, and for the harsh language. We will have more on this situation following an internal investigation. One thing is clear: the eco-terrorists responsible for this shocking act of violence won’t stop here—unless we stop them.”
Behind Yelena, four disembodied heads float above their own names and descriptions. Esâ Afontov, Asja Erling, Tikhon Lebedev, and Batya Yakovlevich Osipov. “These terrori—suspected terrorists are wanted for questioning by local authorities in connection with the facility bombing. If seen, contact the News Now Hour’s tip line. As always, crime doesn’t pay, but informing does. Today only, we’ll double the credits we pay out. All you have to do is provide us with the whereabouts of any of these suspects, and accept payment in cryptocurrency.”
When the broadcast ends, staff begin to pack up their things and shuffle toward the break room.
“Wait.” Vera brings the entire room to a halt. “Now, I’d like everyone to line up against that far wall there. Orderly line, single file, just like grade school.”
The rustling of bags and briefcases subsides as the newsroom falls into formation.
Vera walks down the line, occasionally selecting a staff member with a silent point or a look. “If I pointed you out, step forward.” A handful of nervous producers, editors, and techs step forward as instructed, none daring to meet her eyes.
“We wish you the best of luck on your future endeavors. Now get your shit and get out, we have twenty minutes to the next show.”
The next morning, Vera takes her first meeting at The Riverside Cafe. It’s the hottest breakfast place in Market Square, but she bypasses the forty-minute wait as a waiter shows her to a table outside. On a crisp spring morning like this, it’s chilly but it’s beautiful, and thick, sweet coffee can keep her warm.
The client representative arrives before her drink does. They don’t seem quite comfortable, either in the environment or in their suit. The jacket stretches and curls around a weightlifter’s physique, nearly obscuring their tiny but prestigious Weyland lapel pin.
Vera welcomes them. “Sit down, relax. Enjoy the view! Try the coffee, get it orta şekerli, you won’t regret it.”
The client rep sits, stone-faced and silent, not even glancing at the menu.
“Look, I understand you have some concerns, but we’ve got everything under control. Trust me, Lesya, check your PAD.”
“Let’s stick to Aleksandra, shall we?” They draw their PAD from a chest pocket and begin flipping through a dossier. “Tsakhia Gantulga, huh?”
“Goes by Bankhar,” Vera clarified. “Last known coordinates are enclosed. This stubborn little shit tanked more neural feedback spikes than I’ve ever seen! If they can walk at all, I can’t imagine they’ve gone far.”
“Should be easy, then. I’ll talk to the severance department. Gotta admit, that’s some good work. How’d you find them so fast?”
Their awkward conversation stumbles to a complete halt as every virt in Market Square flickers and dies. Background music becomes a conspicuous quiet, and traffic cams droop their heads like slumped corpses.
“What the hell?” Vera looks around for a severed power line, or a transformer spewing sparks. Aleksandra stands up slowly, their hand inching toward the holster at their waist.
Flying directly over Market Square, far outside designated lanes, a hopper careens through the sky. As the vehicle zips overhead, a swirl of grey rectangles trails behind it. Individual pieces flutter through the air, landing softly in every corner of the plaza. Vera can’t help but be curious as she realizes those rectangles are pamphlets, printed on cheap flimsy. She snatches one out of the air.
“A Dozen Dead in Prisec Massacre,” the title screams. “The True Story of the Blockade Bombing.” The interior is filled with stolen data and stills from the unauthorized broadcast, interspersed with calls to arms. It’s nonsense, of course, but it’s dangerous nonsense.
“What are you doing?” calls Aleksandra as Vera tries to snatch more pamphlets out of the air. “It’s pointless. There are too many. Somebody already left with a handful.”
Market Square reawakens in a chorus of electrical hums and proprietary startup noises. Everything is as it was a moment ago, except for the snowfall of flimsy, and Vera’s demeanor.
“Damn it!” Vera crumples the pamphlet and reaches for her PAD, swiping through her recents to Ivanov. But what would be the use? Drago can trace anyone on the Net, but there’s no signal to follow, no network of proxies to unwrap, no security footage to run through facial recognition software.
“Damn it, damn it, damn it!” She spikes her PAD into the ground in an explosion of shattered plastic.
Glancing back at Aleksandra, she pulls her hair back into place and wipes the expression off of her face. “I guess we both have some cleaning up to do.”
Midnight Sun will be released on July 22, 2022, as physical cards via NISEI’s print partners and pay-what-you want files for downloading and printing at home!