find it far more likely that the employee was behind this thing.”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“Well what are you saying, man? You’ve been rambling about this for—“
“—What I’m saying is…” Rephey saw the impatience building on his friend’s face and paused. He needed to slow down. “Okay. Yes. A pissed off employee with access to secure data and a connection to hackers? Definitely. Makes sense to me. I think that’s a given at this point. But those are the facts. I’m talking about the propaganda angle of this deal.”
“Man, I got stuff I need to do today. You think you can wrap this up by—“
Tebin had been trying to flag down the waitress, but something about the question turned his attention back to Rephey. “What?”
“Who benefits from this thing? Think about it. What does North Celosa gain?”
Tebin lowered his arm slowly as he considered. He knew his old friend was baiting him, but he couldn’t help himself. “Well. Revenge, I suppose. They feel they were made to look foolish so they strike back in kind. Eye for an eye and all that.”
“Which would make perfect sense if the North Celosans were actually taking credit for the attack,” said Rephey. “But they’re not. They claim they had nothing to do with it. This from a realm who draws a pretty good income for playing the bad guy. A few times a year they make some wild threat against us and we promptly cut ‘em a check. Imagine the payout they could get from something like this. In global stature, in nothing else.”
Tebin was about to speak when the waitress approached.
“I’m sorry, Sugar, we are just slammed today. You wanted your check, right?”
“Uh, yes, ma’am,” Tebin said to the older woman as he dug for his wallet. Rephey studied his friend a moment, then shook his head and leaned back in the booth.
She was right. The diner was packed. Even the counter stools beneath that insanely loud vent were occupied. Rephey glanced up at the muted telebeam above the grill. News. Mainstream. Looked like they were going on about that latest missing airplane. And why not.
Rephey turned to Tebin, who had settled back into his booth and was looking at him. Almost challengingly. Rephey leaned forward, stared his friend in the eye. “You think Wol Wym Bu wouldn’t love to be known as the guy who sucker punched Zamerida? I mean if there were even a hint of truth to the way the corporate media tried to frame this story then North Celosa should’ve been tripping over itself to claim responsibility. Yet they moved in the opposite direction from day one. Now tell me…does that make sense?”
A shade or two of smugness drained from Tebin’s face. “None,” he answered.
“Then we agree there was never any meat on that bone. So what about Nafy?”
At this, Tebin seemed confused. “What about Nafy?”
“How has Nafy benefited?”
Tebin scoffed. “Are we blaming the victim now?”
Rephey shook his head. “Again, those are facts. We’re talking propaganda. How has Nafy benefited?”
“You mean besides weeks of hype for a bad movie?”
“No, not besides that, including that. But how else?”
“I don’t know, man. Convenience?”
“Yes. Absolutely. Go on.”
Tebin, hesitant upon being pressed, quickly found that he didn’t have to search for an answer. “Well a hack by some evil regime on the other side of the planet looks a lot better than an inside job,” he said. “That data dump was a huge embarrassment, to a lot of people and on a lot of levels.”
“Not the least of which was Nafy’s private cybersecurity team.”
“Sure. So I guess the reasoning would be…if Nafy execs could convince the public that a dictator was trying to suppress their free speech, then maybe the idea of a disgruntled employee lashing out because of the way the megacorporation treats its people wouldn’t take root.”
Rephey was grinning. “Couldn’t have said it better myself. Now. What’ve we gotten out of this thing?”
“We?” asked a skeptical Tebin.
“We, the FS.”
“Oh, come on, man—“
“I don’t buy for a second we had something to do with that hack.”
“I’m not saying we did,” stated Rephey. “Though, in truth, I’m not ruling out the possibility we could’ve had some kind of hand in it.”
“But that’s for another conversation. For right now let’s just assume there aren’t any Zameridan fingerprints on the crime itself. Still, here we are presented with a really bad situation. And you know what we do with really bad situations in these parts.”
“I do?” asked an increasingly disinterested Tebin.
“Yes!” answered Rephey. “We don’t let ‘em go to waste! Remember? The Director of Staff in that interview a few years back?”
Tebin shrugged. “I guess so.”
“So if the maniacs upstairs, admittedly, are always looking to capitalize on crises, then it’s perfectly logical to look at this whole mess in terms of propaganda. To ask the question: Is there anything Zamerida gains from blaming North Celosa?”
Tebin started to say something then paused. Articles he’d read years before had suddenly begun pelting his brain. “Well,” he said. “There’s the Plexus thing.”
Rephey raised his eyebrows, nodded. “Indeed.”
Tebin was staring down at the table, processing. “For years they’ve been trying to reign in cyberspace. “I mean—“
“—Here ya go, darlin’,” said the approaching waitress as she handed Tebin his copy of the bill. “Anything else I can do for ya?” she asked, hands on hips.
“Uh, no, ma’am. We’re good,” said Tebin through a polite smile.
“Well you boys have a good day, alright?” the woman said as she turned to leave.
Rephey sat up, began reaching for his wallet. “What do I owe?”
“Nothing,” replied Tebin as he wrote in the tip.
“I invited you.”
Rephey shrugged, sat back, and waited for the conversation to resume. He looked over at the muted screen above the grill. Still airplanes and mysteries.
“I mean the Plex is pretty much the last frontier in terms of freedom.”
Rephey turned back to Tebin, who was staring out through the window.
“It’s untamed and they hate that,” continued Tebin. “They’ve been looking for ways to control it and so far they’ve failed. What were those pieces of legislation that got shot down?”
“HOTA and CICA.”
“Right,” said Tebin, turning to Rephey. “I read those are coming back now.”
“And others like it,” said a nodding Rephey. “Funny how that works, yeah? There’s a major hack within Zameridan borders, one the executive himself immediately decries as an act of cyber vandalism by a foreign realm—an accusation backed up by absolutely zero evidence, I might add—and suddenly a bunch of repressive laws voted down years ago are back on the table.”
Tebin hesitated, then nodded reluctantly. “It is a little—“
“I guess so.”
“You guess so. Come on, man, look at it! Do you realize that stupid movie wasn’t even mentioned by the hackers in their initial contact with Nafy? The movie wasn’t added to the mix until after the media started drawing that link. Next thing you know all anybody can talk about is how North Celosa hacked Nafy because it made a comedy about assassinating Wol Wym Bu.”
“You’ve got about a minute before I need to jump,” said Tebin, glancing at his datacell.
“The point I was trying to make goes beyond the cyberattack. I was using the Nafy thing as a case study to throw a spotlight on the system as a whole. Here we have a government and a corporation agreeing to let—no, encouraging—the media to run wild with a narrative both parties knows to be false. The benefits for the corporation are commercial and reputational and the benefits for the government are in the form of propaganda. They get to wag the boogie man at us as a means to ram through unpopular authoritarian legislation. Both parties agree to the lie, both parties win.”
Tebin stared at him blankly. “Ten seconds.”
Rephey shook his head in frustration, then leaned forward. “Government…plus corporations…equals fascism.”
Tebin sat motionless for a few moments, then smiled. “I gotta go.”
Rephey slumped back into the booth as his friend stood to leave. “You’re smarter than this.”
“So you keep telling me,” said Tebin as he walked away from the table.
Rephey watched his friend go, then smiled and collected his things. As he headed for the door moments later he glanced one last time at the telebeam over the grill. They were done with airplanes for the time being, and had returned to police funerals and racism. And why not.
There was a flyer on Rephey’s windshield when he reached his car. A week’s worth of free yoga lessons, it advertised, when you buy a membership at