by Carl Harris
In which I explain my present circumstances and reiterate my values
Lest I be accused of fugitation in flagrante, I write to you, my trusted correspondents, from a motel in Encino, California. Fellow soldiers in the information war have betrayed me and my mission, smearing my name with accusations of instability and compromised journalistic integrity, and I fear I may have been doxxed, with the location of my private residence disseminated to the seediest corners of the dark web. As it is only a matter of time until my political enemies track me to this new location, I must head south-ward, to the untraceable wild of the desert, to the Sonoran sands of Baja California. I cannot risk a second doxxing.
If you have found this missive on my blog, know that this letter reached my last trusted ally, the one to whom I was by matrimony bound (my darling, hello) with instructions to publish my writing in absentia. (If, however, you, perfect stranger, have intercepted this letter, by force or by dark craft, know that retaliation will be swift and will come without warning—for I, like the cobra, strike all the more fiercely when cornered.)
(Like the cobra, too, I am venomous: mine is the venom of logic irrefutable, to which there is no antidote known to earthly man—it races through the blood to the mind, paralyzing all unfounded thought).
I can only hope to vindicate myself by telling my story in full. The cleansing light of the web page will purge all impurities from my message. There are lies and there are truths, and I must not allow the moral aims of my deeds and my words to slip through the coin-slot gap betwixt the two. It is my belief that to control the narrative is to control reality itself—for reality is the sacred spring of reason.
Betrayal, or, the momentary triumph of Chaos
It was early evening in the Valley: shaded purple hills had long hidden the sun, but the petrochemical smog high above burned orange. Miles to the south, at Pershing Square, an ouroboros of protesters and counter-protesters entered its seventh hour of self consumption. Right-wingers spanning every shade of pale, from the small-government libertarians to neo-Nazi white supremacists, faced off against clods of anarchist antifa, the Democratic Socialists, and whatever other fractious leftist factions still carry a torch for comrade Stalin. I had no skin in their game—at my level of abstraction, it was painfully obvious that what mattered was not the ideology of any side, but the fire that burned in the space between. The destructive chaos of the extremists surely delighted their Russian handlers—but even if I had a care to give about this political puppetshow, I had other business to attend to. I had a meeting.
I was meeting a contact my diligent readers know well, the one I refer to by code name ‘Dingo,’ for he is Australian, although in his political thought and in his heart he is as true an American as they come—or so I had thought. With connections across the Commonwealth, he was a powerful international ally and a dear friend. We had arranged to meet at a local cafe, on the back patio. Strings of Christmas lights hanging along wires, along tree limbs, frosted the summer air with a yellow-white glow. To avoid suspicion, we sat at separate tables. I ordered the serrano pepper stir-fry, chicken on whole-grain rice. He had the cranberry-walnut spinach salad. When we felt that the time was right, we pushed our tables together. The wrought iron shrieked on the brick—conspicuous, but it was too late. We had to proceed, for the information, he told me, was much too valuable.
Unfolding the newspaper on his table, Dingo revealed a small, silver USB drive, tucking it back in once I’d caught a peek. Dingo’s contact—a mutual associate named Cheryl, a British expatriate living in D.C.—had unearthed disturbing information, which implicated, she reported, “everyone.”
“Who’s everyone?” I asked.
“Both sides,” he said. “Top to bottom, all the way. The whole regime, the whole cabinet. Treason charges at the very least—and if her interpretation of the law is remotely correct, execution for the puppetmasters. All the way to the top.”
There it is, I thought. The smoking gun we’d sought for months. If what Cheryl unearthed was bona fide, I knew the tide of the information war would turn. Dark money from our Eastern neighbors, trickling down from the Arctic circle into the coffers of our homegrown foes at either side, the left and right alike… I could see the scaffolding already rotting away, leaving their monuments to crumble in the scouring winds of Truth and History. Begone, vile meddlers!
Dingo saw I was ready to heave a sigh of relief, and he stopped me. There was a snag, a thorn, a great big but, he said. This information had come at a price: in attaining it, Cheryl had unwittingly left a digital footprint in the database she had accessed, and a legion of hackers—no doubt, I surmised, on the payroll of our closest political enemies—had back-traced her footsteps and unearthed reams upon reams of her delicate information, opening her up to legal retaliation. We were compromised, Dingo said, and it was only a matter of time before we were caught in the net.
I mulled this over. We had access to the silver bullet to end it all, but if we accessed the files directly, we would only be turning that bullet on ourselves. I began to sweat heavily, and not just because my stir fry was hotter than I’d bargained for. As private citizens working on behalf of the grandest, transhistorical truths, the best weapon at our disposal is social media. For our blogs and our Twitters, we need this sort of exclusive information to maintain the strength of our signals. Our messages are the correction to the noise of deceit, the opposite of disinfo: reinfo, counterdisinfo, or perhaps simply “info.” This is the foundation of my trademarked strategy (a beginner’s course and how-to guide on my home page remain available to premium subscribers). Leak these precepts—parcels of pure information, wrapped up like a birthday gift—through my curated media feed, like a virus into the bloodstream. This virus locates the vulnerable cell and hijacks its DNA, by which process the hijacked cell replicates said virus until the host organism is held in the thrall of the ur-code.
You can see the predicament I was (am) in beginning to take shape: rather than sensitive information in my grasp, what I had was knowledge of that knowledge. This twofold awareness placed me in extremely dangerous waters. With the knowledge of the knowledge—but not the knowledge itself—I had only the immaterial truth, but no glass bottle in which to cast this message into the sea of information. I flagged down a waiter for a glass of ice water. He informed me of a pitcher by the napkins, but at that moment Dingo quietly rubbed his left temple. I picked up on what seemed like a signal—“Thank you,” I said to the waiter, by which I meant: “Nice try, comrade.”
Using my phone’s screen as a mirror, I took a moment to observe the patio layout behind me. I saw, reflected in the screen, senior citizens reading alone, a flock of young women gabbing, families wrangling children—routine and perfectly innocent patrons. Just as I began to settle into comfort, my phone lit up, causing me to jump. I picked up my phone from the floor, aware that now every eye in the cafe followed me. Whatever was written on my screen, I dreaded to see it, but I knew that in the information war, a single notification could turn the tide. There was no mistaking the blue icon—it was a Twitter alert. Someone had responded to a tweet of mine. I do not know which post of mine it was, whether a crucial scoop, an impassioned and extemporaneous propoundment of my dearest, most closely-held views, or even one of my patented “counterdisinfo” messages, but I could see that the response of the paid troll (or “bot”) was cruel, buffoonish mockery. I refuse to repeat their vile and immature untruths, but it must suffice to say that they were of a scatalogical nature, and entirely unfounded.
My face flushing, I had begun to compose a response to the villain when, in an instant, everything fell into place: where else could this poison dart have come from but the very same actors targeting my associate? At this thought, my guts seized. They know that I know, I thought. I was exposed, and the Christmas lights strung above me curdled into the bitter fluorescent glow of an interrogation room. Dingo had observed my sudden vexation. He asked me what was wrong, and here is where I knew everything had fallen apart. I explained my intuition and expected collaboration, that we together would cook up a battle plan to take out these cyberassassins. Instead, he met me with a masklike gaze, a well-practiced expression of faux-neutrality. Calculating every word, he told me he found that hard to believe; he coldly insinuated that my imagination was getting the better of me. I thought to myself, I see how it is.
We must not allow ourselves to compromise our mission in the name of sentimentality. Cold reason and our burning values will guide us to victory, nothing else. I left Dingo in that cafe at once, finishing my stir fry and packing up my laptop without a word. I did not look back. The bulwarks of my life had crumbled away, my sanctuary had been breached. The Valley, once my harbor, my base of operations, was now a vast spider’s web, and I the fly caught in the gossamer lace of roadways.
The snare tightens
The sidewalk was thick with shoppers, drinkers, Saturday night non-thinkers who dressed in flowing summer linen, perfume, and copper bangles; polo shirts, pastel shorts, and improbable Swiss watches. They numbed their minds and hearts with alcohol and companionship and laughed the night away. A storm raged around them, and not a single drop of rain wet their brows, not a single gust misplaced their perfect hair. Russian hackers, left wing insurgents, neo-Nazi conspiracists—all these things were the faraway troubles of imagined elsewheres: anonymous backwater no-places, the Capitol swamp, anyplace but your own back yard—no, fools, it’s here, right here! Right under your noses, if you can smell it, that’s the stink of partisanship; the air you wade through is the muck of corruption; the blare of the horn in the traffic, the burn of vodka down your throat, these are aftershocks of the political temblors shuddering under your feet! I wanted to cry, I wanted to laugh as I waded through this horde—here were the people I risked life and limb for, the people whose lives and values hung in the balance, and they knew nothing of it.
Unappreciative, ignorant, happy fools: I could have screamed in the street, “I’m on your side, idiots!” My mind was ablaze as I walked the three blocks to my car. I had parked well out of the way on a residential street, hoping that the long walk would give me time enough to identify any spooks or—heaven forfend—hitmen on my trail. Under the blue shade of the tree-lined street I thought I just might have pulled it off, until I saw on the windshield of my Saab what appeared to be a ticket. They’d found me.
The “ticket” was an uncanny forgery, in fact identical to the genuine article, its falsehood belied only by the fraudulent citation: parking in a restricted zone. This was impossible, as I had interpreted the particulars of the posted restrictions myself, and was well within my rights to park there. It was immediately clear to me that the phony citation was a ruse: they intended to skim sensitive personal information from my attempts to pay. I admired the balls it takes to pull this off, not to mention the sophistication of the forgery itself. I tore the slip in half, then halved the halves, and so on. I packed the pink confetti into a Ziploc bag.
After blocking the trolls and bots who were harassing me online, I placed my phone into the glove box, whose lead lining (custom furnished) would block all incoming messages and outgoing signals. For the drive home, at least, I was untraceable. I couldn’t take the freeway home. If I got bogged down in traffic, that would be the end of me. By navigating the fine lace of surface streets, I remained on the move. Right, down the center, left, right, wait at the light. My path took me through the eastern parts of West Toluca Lake; pools of neon light washed over me, cleansed me. I was safe. As long as I was moving, I was safe. I was hiding in plain sight, just another commuter, and I had time to think.
Nothing here fit the usual suspects: Russian cybersoldiers on a Bitcoin payroll; ‘grassroots progressives’ paid off by communist shell corporations traced to Central Asia, China, the Caucasus; cryptoanarchic Wall Street foot soldiers committed to nothing but the bottom line. I had to confront the most terrifying prospect of all: agents dispatched by our very own government to neutralize their only real enemy—the Truth.
In desperation, I commit against myself the crime of burglary and descend into villainy in the eyes of the public
For an hour I crept through anonymous cross streets and shaded alleys with only the thought of my refuge to drive me. And yet as I stood on my apartment doorstep, I felt more anxious than ever. My intuition was telling me to act fast. To protect myself from potential nerve agents, I donned the gas mask I always carry in my glove compartment. I circled around to the back alley. I counted my blessings: I lived on only the first floor, and could reach my bedroom window if I stood on the communal trash bin. I dragged it into position, cursing the noise but blessing the late hour, for no one was out to see me.
The window wouldn’t budge from the outside, so I improvised with the next best thing. The brick made a large hole in the window but did not shatter the entire pane as I had expected. At this point, I put into action my three-step fenestral infiltration technique:
1. Wrap my blazer around my forearm, using it to push the remaining shards out of the frame.
2. Unfold my blazer, sling it over the sill, and use the frame as a fulcrum to hoist myself through the window on my belly.
3. Execute a tactical roll to shield me from the brunt of the impact and most of the sharper glass edges.
I could not say that anything seemed amiss—the clothes on the bed and the floor were mine, my bass guitar was in its stand, the papers on my desk were in the disarray characteristic of an active, working mind—and yet all of it seemed to have been placed there by a stranger. The impression was powerful enough to send a shiver through my body. It is hard to explain what it feels like to stand in your own bedroom as a burglar, cataloguing all the valuables and essentials before you, calculating their value relative to their weight—not because you intend to steal them, but because you intend to prevent their theft.
The first to be rescued was, of course, my desktop computer. I had little time to sort cables, so I tore it all out, power strip and all, and loaded it into a laundry bin. I tossed necessary clothes on top, and, sweeping my arm across the surface of my desk, stuffed all my papers into a suitcase.
Because there was no way for me to escape out the way I came, I instead made a break for the front door. I hurried down the hall carrying my computer in its laundry bin, with my clothes piled high on top to cushion the suitcase full of crucial documents. I had no reason to mourn what had been my home during these last few troubled years. Memories of the liars, collaborators, and double-agents I’d harbored there had poisoned the space with the indelible stench of deceit. The counter where the mendacious Dingo had quaffed my beers and pretended to laugh at my wordplay, or the couch where Cheryl, that Russian harpy, sat swapping information and gossip—I was happy to shut the door and never again look upon these corners. I spat: p’tooey!
I stumbled into the central courtyard of the apartment complex. The gas mask, fogged as it was, all but eliminated my peripheral vision. For this reason, when a liquid shadow darted out from behind a rhododendron across my path, my body clenched by instinct into a defensive posture. The heavy bin and all its contents crashed onto the hard pavement, and as the sound reverberated from wall to wall to wall, bedroom windows lit up one by one like the search lights on guard towers and painted the courtyard with pale blocks of light.
A final lamp was lit, which illuminated the phantom in my footpath: a blonde-and caramel Pomeranian, blow-dried and combed into a sphere of fuzz scarcely shin-high. A neon pink leash dangled from its collar; I followed the lead to the manicured left hand of a wide-eyed, shaking teenager, whose right hand held a phone to her ear. I heard her begin to say, “911? There’s a man—” but I listened no longer. I gathered my items and sprinted to my Saab, while above me the strangers I had lived amidst gawked from their windows.
Oh, I am sure that in their eyes I was every bit the maskéd burglar I appeared to be. As I’d never spoken a word to a soul in the building, there was no one I could appeal to as a witness to my good character. My cheeks burned and eyes stung at the thought that I was branded a villain in their eyes, when in truth mine was likely the most honest, most virtuous soul in the complex. I despaired of my bad fortune and wished I could explain the urgency of my mission. If only you, reader, had been there! I know you know me to be the good man that I am! I know you will defend my honor and wipe the grime of deceit from my name—won’t you? Won’t you?
My flight, and beyond
Red, blue, red, blue lights leapt through the alleys, down the streets, over the moonlit treetops—but I was already gone, gone, gone. I am not proud to flee, but if you have read even a tenth of this message it should be abundantly clear why I could not delay for even a moment. I did not and still do not know the identity of my true enemies, and I could not risk an attack from our own government—or the nefarious impostors who could very well have infiltrated the administration and assumed control.
My flight is now a blur of red tail-lights and blinding white headlights, of sharp rights and scum-slicked back alleys lined with shifty, untrustworthy characters, while the trees along each boulevard—once so peaceful, once so achingly alive in this desert of concret — seemed to whisper amongst themselves, passing the details of my retreat from their boughs to the telephone wires and then to who knows where or who, and it was all I could do but keep driving. I had my plan but left blank the last page (find the night’s lodging) in the hope that intuition would fill in the gap at the precise moment that it needed to, and, bless the muse, it did: in a flash of tiresmoke and lancing headlights—what a sight for pedestrians, motorists, motel guests, and all the rest!—I swung into the parking lot of a pink-walled motel whose neon signage seemed to scream, in red and blue, “Safe Haven, Safe Haven!”
I have now come close to exhausting my complimentary pad of stationery. In this sealed and post-marked parcel, I publicly aver that I am of good health. I aver that I am of sound mind, and have no desire or intent to end my own life. If, by the time this letter reaches its intended recipient, I have been found dead, accept no official explanation, and do not waver in your journey to the truth. Readers, should this come to pass, do not allow my death to be the final chapter in my story. Uncover the villain by whose hand I am slain and avenge me! Should I survive, I will never again contact the outside world directly. I have locked myself out of my public accounts. I have changed their passwords to code and deleted the cipher’s source file—it can now only be solved by my intended recipient, who, by virtue of our former matrimonial bond, is the only other person in the world with the knowledge needed to unlock it.
Tomorrow—my tomorrow, not yours; who knows how many days hence this message will go live—I plan to cross the border, to Baja California. I will cloister myself in a small adobe hut. I will lead a simple life. I shall wake with the violet-red dawn, toss handfuls of coarse grain to my chickens, visit the village common to barter and commune with the locals. When I return to my hut I shall toil in secret, working anonymously for the good of the Union. It breaks my heart to leave this Republic, my ancestral homeland, but I swear to you that my heart will never betray those values for which our Nation stands: Balance, Truth, and Order. Though I shall never contact you again, though I have scrubbed myself clean of all online associates, you may yet see in the world the yield of my thankless work, from the halls of D.C. to the humble steads across our fruited plains, where yeomen work the soil. If one day you step out into the world and find that Order has taken back the wheel; that the vagaries of political life have grown just an ounce more civil; that the great struggles of life and market and legislation have crept toward a central equilibrium, know that my work continues. Know that my influence still streams down the flanks of mountains and into the valleys. Know that however far my signal wanders, I spread the seeds of truth. ♦
Carl Harris lives and works in Los Angeles, CA. His poetry has appeared in Paintbucket. Follow him on Twitter @NightlifeMingus.