A month or so ago, Adam Penenberg asked if I’d read and blurb an advance copy of his debut novel: a journalistic technothriller called “Virtually True”.
“True Ailey is a journalist in a strange land, exiled by his network to a damp Southeast Asian republic gouged out a war-ravaged peninsula weeping monsoon tears. When his friend is murdered, True sets out to find the killers, and in the process untangles a vast conspiracy that threatens to upend the global balance of power.”
The journalistic aspect of the question appealed to me — while at Forbes, Penenberg famously busted serial fabulist Stephen Glass, and he is now a professor at NYU teaching the next generation of journalists how to, well, not be Stephen Glass. The technothriller part I was less sure about: I can count on the fingers of one finger the number of books I’ve enjoyed in that genre.
Still, Adam is a fantastic writer so I agreed to take a look. And, you know what? He actually pulled it off — “Virtually True” is pretty damn great. Great enough that I was very happy to provide the glowing recommendation that now sits on the book’s Amazon page. And great enough that I was very eager to share a chapter here on PandoDaily.
It’s late, the hours leaning closer to dawn than midnight, the sky soaked gunmetal gray by desperate city lights. And it’s tomorrow, not yesterday, in Luzonia—a republic recently gouged out of a war-ravaged peninsula, a land weeping monsoon tears on the other side of Greenwich Mean.
Inside Bar 24-7, True Ailey sniffs the sweaty air, asking himself why he agreed to meet here. Like the surrounding city and country, it’s dysfunctional, dangerous, brimming with prostitutes with unripe berry eyes and naked except for bar codes tattooed on their wrists (a government regulation), hustlers, fortune hunters, drug dealers and addicts, alcoholics, soldiers on leave, guerrillas from Southeast Asia’s post-millennium ethnic cleansing wars; all of them scarred, True sees, with that distant look, like they’ve seen more than you.
Bar bravado in a score of languages flows over and around him, accompanied by plastic music. True’s first foray into Bar 24-7, a landmark that never closes—has never closed, even for a nanosecond—in 20 years. Dots, blobs, and dashes of light dance around the room, spelling patterns on the walls and ceiling. Is there a message, a symbol in there? He cuts through the crowd, not meeting stares of lust or challenge, catching glimpses of infrared corneal transplants, robotic arms that can slice and chop mere mortals like himself, plastic skin grafts melted over burn wounds, bulging stacks of artificial muscle uncamouflageable under camouflage.
He’s juiced, adrenaline coursing. Intuition is 60,000 times faster than thought but equally accurate; that and that alone will help him navigate this violence-infested sea. True moves quickly, arms pinioned to his sides, hands palm-side up: No threat here, Jack, in the universal language of the body. Like riding a cresting wave of pure information or shooting through clouds of 3-D data, numbers, digital images, sound that is not sound but waves, raw data factored by DNA computers.
But before these points are points they are trillions of dots squished together, each dot made up of trillions of other dots, veering off on tangents and funneled back into minuscule shapes that combine with other shapes to make the patterns that produce the dots that form these points that can be plotted so that one day True can interpret them.
At least, that’s how he looks at it.
There. Alone at a table. Staring at True with onyx-tinted eyes and hair, slick designer ringlets chiming by his ears. The affluence of the clothes contrasts with the texture of his skin, which is dry, and spotted as crushed moth wings.
Images slash through True. The memory of awaiting his own execution: the shivering steel of a gun barrel brushing his temple, the click of an empty chamber. Then another: the fear of dying when he wasn’t ready. Then a familiar voice. Reprieve.
He swings his leg over the back of an empty chair, sits.
“You’re late,” the man says.
True shakes his head. “Right on time.”
He grabs True’s wrist, twists it in order to better view the screen. “My internal clock’s not in synch. It’s this damned urban lifestyle. In the jungle I tell time just by looking at the sun.”
True unearths the slightest traces of a Pakistani accent buried beneath many lands, many years of estrangement. “Aslam, you’re one multi-talented zealot.” Glances at Aslam’s wrist-top, notes its complexities. A brand-new model, twice the RAM of True’s, with built-in surveillance hardware, debugging software, weapons detector, DNA check, a cornucopia of video monitors and microphones. True’s seen the commercials. “What’s wrong with your wrist-top?”
“Just got it.”
Aslam hedges. “I don’t know how to set the clock.”
True smiles. A sitcom moment. “Well, it’s hard to stay up on the latest technology.”
Across the planet, from within the tiny nooks and crannies that pass for new republics to the monstrous regional trade alliances subjugating the world’s economy, the words latest technology are ever splattered in ad copy and mooed in jingles. But the words have become essentially meaningless, day-old technology as stale as yesterday’s aspirations or yesteryear’s inspirations.
“What’s with the new businessman look?” A suit with a roll of six buttons, equipped with UV shield. True fingers the lapel, shiny black and aqua-colored beads with super tensile strengths. “Bullet- and laser-proof?”
“Bomb-resistant, too, a few unk-unks aside.”
Unk-unks—unknown unknowns. True imagines Aslam taking part in some contentious board meetings. “I suppose it’d depend on the bomb.” True watches Aslam drain the dregs of his drink. A bloody Caesar, ostensibly. “I thought the Koran forbids alcohol.”
“Please. It’s been a rough day.” Aslam smiles and slaps True’s back. Walks his fingers down his spine. “You’re skinny as hell, although that didn’t stop every bar girl in this zone from giving you the once over.”
“Why’d you want to rendez here?”
“I’ve always wondered. Why’d your parents order you with avocado eyes? Don’t people assume they’re lenses?”
“You’re not worried about being marked?”
“What for? Copping enemies of the state’s bad for business. Besides, I’ve left the insurgency.”
“I was wondering, since I never saw you in a suit before.”
“Camouflage isn’t a suit?”
Aslam stepping off a precipice. His face has been stung by the sun’s unfiltered rays, ravaged by countless bouts with melanoma. Reflected in Aslam’s eyes, True can almost see replays of battles—violent orange and black explosions cracking holes in the earth. War exacted a tremendous toll. True wonders if he’s the same man he left behind, years before, in Kathmandu, where his mind floated skyward in a hashish haze.
Aslam lights a bidi, slips the smoldering end into his mouth, a security from years of smoking in jungle cloak. Puffing oblong rings, “The world is changing, changing in ways you can’t imagine.” Taps his chest. “Look at me, True, how I’ve changed.”
Except for the suit, designer ‘do,’ and flowery cologne, he’s the same. True tells him so.
“Okay. I left because things were crashing. We were starving, our weapons were shit, we weren’t claiming any new ground—or converts—and couldn’t count on support.”
True knows this, that the economies of Arab nations crashed with the recent discovery of alternative energy sources, solar cells, cold fusion, and fuel concocted from corn, wheat, barley, household garbage. No oil exports, no income; no income, no weapons, no training, no insurgency. He lets silence pressure Aslam for an explanation.
“I was headhunted. Jacked into major legitimate business. Better than eating roots and shitting in the woods.”
It’s inconceivable to True that the man of a dozen insurgencies would now be shimmying up the corporate ladder. “You? Hired for corp work? As what? Head of guerilla marketing?”
“Never mind. It’s you we’ve come to discuss.”
“Who’ve you sold out to?”
“I’ll rephrase the Q. Who do you work for now?”
“It doesn’t matter to you yet.”
But it does. True’s a journalist who’s shot off the data runway so many times he isn’t sure he ever left; smoked targets for scillions of bits of raw data, the lifeblood of his profession, and this helped him crack stories, spill news to an info-addicted world. More than once he became entangled in webs of information that took on a coherent shape only later, megabits of evidence that helped him uncover conspiracies, odd factoids here and there that were the springboard to a major epiphany, uncrunched numbers disproving statistics, a verbal slip, a gesture out of place, a break with habit that led to pay dirt. The trick is to keep pressing, suck up a crumb here or there until you can make sense of it.
Aslam’s eyes fall on a VR weapons game. A pudgy tourist in khaki is leading an assault, missiles and stealth planes cloaked invisible until firing. Out of the jungle a few weeks and already Aslam’s eyes are giving him away.
“So,” True says, “you’ve booted into a gig with a weapons contractor.”
Aslam’s eyebrows modulate. “Forget me. I’ve got something for you.”
“What? A scoop? You’ve left the insurgency and converted to Judaism? Now that would be a ratings star.”
“Just because you’re going to burn in hell doesn’t mean I will. No. A business proposition.” Aslam’s eyes, effervescent, back on the urge. “Listen, True. The world’s changing. Corporate power is still on the rise. Want my advice? Hitch on now. Soon government won’t govern shit.”
“Government already doesn’t govern shit.”
“So you know the way of the world. War is being revolutionized. Some of the new technologies in advanced stages of R & D are bound to change the global balance of power.”
“Some of the technologies are bad. Real bad. One corporation monopolizes them, that’s major trouble for the rest.”
“What’s some corporate battle technology got to do with me?”
“My idea. We need a digithead who can suss out some info. I said I knew the modeiant one.” Aslam coughs, extinguishes his bidi. “An ice cream habit.” Clears his throat. “I should nix the nic from my life.”
“Why don’t you quit?”
“No discipline.” Aslam stands, smoothes his suit. “I’ll get some drinks.”
Long strides to the bar. True covers Aslam with his eyes, ready to counter possible threats, but Aslam doesn’t seem worried. The bartender stands behind a hole protected by impenetrable clear plastic: money goes in; drinks, drugs come out. Barbed wire winds double helixes throughout the see-through shield, more decorative than functional. On stage, whores feasting on hardcore kink, all types in addition to the usual balloon-breasted amazons—freaks with skin tinted across the ROYGBIV spectrum, female bodybuilts with Popeye forearms and rice-terrace abs, chicks with dicks, dykes, gays, contortionists.
In this age of bargain beauty they strive to fill a niche, and when market forces dictate a change, the cost is a few tricks, a few hours of surgery, a few years lopped off a meaningless life. At the game center, a virtual siren beckons through a haze of incense and sex oils, her body rounder, skin a touch more radiant, curly jet-black hair glistening. More real, more alluring to True than the surrounding pros, whose by-the-hour leers he parries by pretending to read from his wrist-top.
Aslam hands True a Kamikaze.
“Ah, a tragic drink.” True sips, remembers days past when fiery drinks like this would KO his taste buds. Now, only a faint tingle. “Comes with a vomit-proof warranty. Goes down, fucks you up, is guaranteed not to return.”
“You’re going to accept this gig. Want to know the terms?”
“I don’t vet out data unless it’s for a story.”
“Why not? Your journo career’s maxed out. You fucked up, you’re stuck in Loser-onia, and you’ll never be able to reboot your career. The network is waiting for you to just make one little shitty-assed error so they can delete you from their payroll. Pretty soon you’ll be sitting home in some coffin apartment, hooked up to VR games, subsisting on government checks, jerking off to virtual babes.”
There’s something disturbing about hearing your life so perfectly described, True thinks, as if Aslam read his mind, was there the whole time, experienced the impotence of watching everything important to True combust. But Aslam was snaking through jungles furthering the cause of insurrection, was not around during this ugly time, was not witness to the destruction of True’s mind. “How do you know all this?”
“Donnez-moi un break. I know more about you than you can imagine.”
“Like first of all, you will data-retrieve for us. Assured. I also know what happened to you, how you ended up in the hospital an emotional bulimic. I also know what WWTV has planned for you. Believe me, my friend, you will not chill to the tune of it.”
“Tell me how you know.”
“I have a whole computer model on you, all known information, and not just the stuff in your dossier. I know all the times during the Pakistani-Indian war you chugged yogurt to cool out the spices when you shit. I’ve seen your dreams. I know what happened to the woman in your life.”
True’s cheeks turn the color of roast pork. “What happened to her?”
“That can wait. You see, I do know what it will take to get you to chase down the gravy train. And I can’t afford to dick around. I’m giving you a chance to leave this dead-end journo job, make some serious bucks, tell that shit anchor boss of yours to fuck off.”
“The model tells you under the right circumstances I’ll work for you?”
“Because you’re the best. Not just because I think so. Computer says so too.”
Aslam slaps the table, like enough of this bullshit. “So when you going infospace for us?”
“Like I said. I’m not going.”
Aslam pokes a splinty finger into True’s chest. “It’s not like you’ve been prospering. Look at your clothes. Look at you: You’re still a handsome gene-machine, that I grant you, but you’re thirty-five, passed Go more than a few times and none the healthier for it.”
True’s gaze slides down his chin, his body, around slender arms and legs. Has to agree his is not the body of a prosperous man.
“How can you reject this more-than-generous offer?” Aslam’s Pakistani lilt is more pronounced in anger.
“I don’t work for corporations.”
“Well fuck you very much. What do you call WWTV?” Aslam scratches his arm, rolls up his sleeve to unveil a circular cicatrix on his arm and shoulder; the shape of the Ouroboros, True thinks, the tail-biting snake, the ancient symbol for eternal disintegration and rebirth.
“What happened? It looks like a laser wound.”
“The usual bullshit band-aid cuts and scrapes.” Aslam stares ahead, silent so long True thinks he may have forgotten about him. “A laser wound, but not what you think. You can’t imagine.” Traces the scar full circle. “You know, you will work for us. Just a matter of a few more clock ticks. It’ll take more than money to sway you, I know, but you’ll see reason eventually.”
“I am seeing reason. Besides, there’s an ethics problem.”
“There are no ethics in journalism.”
True, caught in a pale lie, doesn’t argue.
“How’d you know I work for a military contractor?”
“Who else would hire an ex-jungle insurgent?”
“You know, this weapon remains secret, the world will be irrevocably changed.”
“There was a time I would have jumped at this, feeding off the danger. But I don’t have the tools anymore. Since getting out of the hospital all I feel like doing is getting by, focusing on the day-to-day, not the grand scheme of things. It’s hard enough waking up every day.”
“Bullshit excuses. If you don’t hurry, it’ll be too late.”
“It already is.”
Aslam sips the Kamikaze, swishes it around his mouth, glares hard at True. “Sometimes, no matter how many times I tell myself not to feel anything, I can’t help myself. Months ago, before I left the insurgency, we set up camp near a river, and a little girl from a friendly village nearby, she must have been about nine, would bring us food. One day she ran off too far, and it was several hours before we realized she’d disappeared. The next morning we found her. She’d been captured by some ethnics, tied up and stretched over bamboo seeds. But these were not the regular variety of bamboo. They were the kind that grow very quickly, overnight.
“She was still breathing but the stalks had begun to climb through. And we were faced with a no-win: If we lifted her off, she’d die—there was extensive organ damage—and if we left her, she’d die anyway. Know what she said when I held a pistol to her head?”
“She told me she wanted to stand one last time.”
“She died.” Aslam crunches an ice cube. “But she took control of the little life she had left.
“True, you’ve given up the struggle. What happened? You once said there’s a whole world to be conquered with each act and statement.”
True knows Aslam’s lying. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
“I saved your life.”
True says, “OK. You saved my life. And suffered terribly for it.” There: the toxic guilt that poisons their friendship, that split-second decision that resulted in a half-dozen years of separation—yet still, in many ways, bonds them together. True hopes Aslam’s ready to bridge it.
But not this time. Instead, “Aren’t journalists supposed to keep their facts straight?”
True, torn between relief and the desire to let go of the past, takes Aslam’s lead. “It’s the unpleasant memories. Twice a year I get a monumental case of the runs, thanks to your cronies’ bowel-busting Moghul meals. But I’d wager your computer model told you that already. Don’t put too much stock in it. You think it takes everything into account, but it can’t. Trust me, reality is some messy business.”
They finish their Kamikazes, wash down another with another with another. True’s numb, a warm herring-boned crack of optimism spreading through him. He’s comfortable and confident in altered states. The room throbs with fourth-world tongues mixing with benzene melodies. Mercenaries play Blade Roulette, a game where contestants splay the fingers of one hand on the table, stab at the empty between, the winner the fastest to go three (pain-free) revolutions. Standing on tiptoes, peering over shoulders, Indian Dhobis flip paper dollar gliders into a betting pool, each sheet folded uniquely—into triangles, pentagonal stars, birds of prey, creased in much the way their ancestors marked laundry on the banks of the Ganges. Threats, insults, blood thick with aggression.
Time to lock up the evening. On the way out True and Aslam run a gauntlet of narc dealers (many of whom are ex-U.N. peacekeepers), smugglers, travelers, and freelance guerrillas, the usual flotsam and jetsam living on the edge of a world teetering on the brink. Their shuffling whispers: Shrooms, VR FREEze, Cum Gum (Chew for that 2-minute orgasm!), Speed Cocktail. Aslam’s wrist-top pulses blood (read: potential danger). His computer scans the DNA of the dealers and ran background checks. Aslam doesn’t seem alarmed. He’s probably packing enough portable weaponry to wipe out a small country anyway.
Outside, the street is yawning. A robot cleaner—German foreign aid—scrubs the sidewalk in front of People Protectors, one in a worldwide chain of security equipment stores.
Vendors are setting up stalls. Sell flimsy sneakers, pirated video game programs, recycled clothing, perfume, noodles soaking in tripe and peanut sauce, day-old baby chicks fried on a stick. True decides to take advantage of the early hour and record some local color. Maybe save himself the trouble of creaking awake at the crack of dawn sometime.a
The wrist-top digitizes, reproduces everything in a 360-degree arc, including himself. True notices a Luzonian beggar in the small-scale gram replica. Young, maybe eleven, her front teeth a little large for her mouth, her cheeks hollow, stomach distended. A tattered t-shirt hangs down and clings to her ankles. True reads the shirt’s motto: Brown Tasty Cola, a local soft drink. Free advertising serving as clothing for the impoverished.
She hugs Aslam’s leg and he gently unclenches her. She grabs his pinky with two tiny hands. Aslam leads her to 24-7’s back alleyway where a drunk tourist is relieving himself, a stream of yellow soaking building concrete, unaware of a corpse heaped over a pile of garbage. Something is burning, probably pollution from a factory on a frenetic export drive, melting rubber and plastic for soles in order to meet the insatiable global appetite for sneakers. Or maybe the smell emanates from the wood-burning stoves the Luzonians crank up each morning. It’s possible someone commandeered wood from a factory’s dumpsters, is at this very moment searing toxic waste into the family feed.
True can hear their conversation. She asks for money. Her father is sick. The family starving. They want a chance at a better life. Or is it he’s heard this same woeful tale so often he now overdubs his own dialog? Aslam pats her head. Hands her some money.
The wind whips up and clears the air. True films a street scene—beyond, a church’s burnt-out shell, charred black and long ago stripped of valuables, next to a bomb crater between two low-slung buildings, held together by human ingenuity alone. He walks away from the bar, filming, the holoscreen floating at eye level.
Although his back is turned, True can see the light on Aslam’s wrist-top bleed red and his face drain of color. A flash of light, a surging, stinging sound, jet propulsion, coming around the corner. Aslam tries to leap out of the way, pulls the girl to the ground with him.
A muffled explosion. True watches Aslam heaved against Bar 24-7 brick while the girl, tourist, and cadaver are shredded by the blast; Aslam, due to his bomb-resistant garb, is in one piece. Later, True won’t remember tripping over his own feet as he rushes to Aslam, but the wrist-top records this, as it did his gargling scream. He does remember sliding to his knees, cradling his friend’s head in his lap.
“I can’t breathe.” Aslam gags. A swatch of metal cloth is lodged in his neck.
“I’ll get a doctor.”
“No.” Aslam’s lips quivering, squeezed blue. “Too late.”
“She’ll fix you up.”
“No. Too much damage. Inside.” Aslam shuts his eyes, corners crinkling.
A jewel of water rolls down Aslam’s nose, across his lips, drips onto the sidewalk. He looks up. “True, you have to help.”
“Save your strength.”
“The weapon. Not what you think.” Aslam’s in shock. Tries to continue, but True can’t decipher it. Manages, “I’ll contact you. I promise.”
“You.” Aslam silently mouths, “God is great.” One last shudder.
There will be no more breaths, no more tears, no more memories, no more wars. Aslam’s life no more. Memories: Aslam saving True’s life, later trudging over veiny Himalayan passes to Lhasa, then Kathmandu. The sensation of sticky blood on his hands urges him to reality. He shakes Aslam, seeks a pulse, signs of life, knows he won’t find any.
True runs his finger along the Ouroboros scar, wonders if Aslam will ever rise again.
Aslam, staring through one eye straight to heaven, doesn’t seem to know.
And True does something he hasn’t for a long time.