Short Story: “The Halo Effect”

Is seeing really believing?

“The Halo Effect”
By P. Orin Zack
(July 17, 2007)

Derek shook his head doubtfully at the duct-taped video camera I’d showed him. “Tell me something, Jake. How do you expect me to be inconspicuous carrying that monstrosity around?”

Now, granted, it was a bit on the clunky side, but there wasn’t any elegant way to fasten a 3D mouse, cigarette-pack PC and a GPS to it. “Give me a break,” I said, nestling the contraption beside my chicken satay on the small food-court table. “It’s just a prototype. Early versions of the military’s field disinfo kits were probably just as ugly.”

The lunchtime crowd threading past our spot near the pizza franchise were too preoccupied to notice the bundle of tech we were arguing over. They also made getting a glimpse of the thing, either in person or with the mall’s badly hidden security cams, problematic. We may have overplayed the geek theme a bit to make ourselves part of the visual noise by wearing old, faded convention shirts, but one thing we didn’t exude was how risky this meeting really was.

Derek lowered his shake, peered at my handiwork, and tapped one of the puttied-in connectors. “You’re sure it’ll work?”

I nodded. “It’s got nothing on what the psyop spooks used to gin up all their alleged eyewitness video of the trade towers on 9/11, but it’s close enough for our purposes. Wanna see the test?”

“Sure. What’s the setup?”

“Our best shot at scamming that Republican jerk Lassiter is during his campaign stop here next month, so I built a digital 3D model of the front of City Hall. His handlers always hang back while he’s talking, so his lone head against a known background gives me a clean target for doing our video insert. Jeff played stand-in for me.” I pressed ‘play’ and folded the camera’s display towards him. “Here, have a look.”

The sequence started with a long shot of City Hall from curbside, at the far end of the bricked walkway in front of the steps. There were several jump cuts, showing the building from several other vantage points. Another shot from the bottom of the steps zoomed in tight on a man in a bomber jacket chatting on a cell.

Derek sighed. “Jeff, finally. What is this, film school? Where’s the demo?”

I paused playback. “Part of the magic is in making sure that nothing happens unless you want it to. Keep watching.”

The video resumed with a tracking shot of Jeff as the camera moved up the stairs. Then, after a few steps towards the photo-op spot, he sprouted a fiery halo. It stayed in place as the camera was jiggled, and then moved closer to the centerline of where the podium would be. The camera moved again, two steps back, and the halo vanished. Forward again, and it reappeared. Finally, a hand waved in front of the lens blocking part of the halo. The flaming ring only showed between the fingers.

I stopped playback.

“That’s great.”

“It’ll do. Flying imaginary planes through a digital New York City and into buildings takes a bigger budget and a lot more finesse, but I think we’ll get our point across.”

Derek waved a finger at the air over his head. “How’d you get it to turn the effect on and off like that?”

“GPS. I mapped out a section of the pavement where the press stands. When Global Positioning says you’re in the hot spot, it triggers the overlay. The question is, how do we use this to force Lassiter to stop ridiculing the folks piecing together what really went down the day the twin towers exploded? And more importantly, how do we use it to put the onus of complicity squarely on the media, where it belongs?”

Derek finished his shake before answering. “Not a problem, assuming you can make three of these things that won’t attract too much attention.”

I choked down a bite of satay. “Three? Why so many?”

He nodded towards one of the security cam ceiling domes. “Same reason they needed multiple cameras pointed at the World Trade Center. They’ll confirm one another, propping up the fiction.” After a pause, “Have you told Jeff what we’re doing? I’ll need shills shooting from two additional locations, one from the public viewing corral, and another from a nearby building.”

“He knows. That’s how I got this gear.”

“Cool. See if he’ll be our pigeon across the street.”

“Okay.” I glanced at the time on my cell. “Look. I’d better get going. I’ve gotta figure out how to coordinate the cameras now. Some kind of radio link, maybe. Lassiter’s halo has to be synchronized or it’ll look fake.” I wolfed the last of my satay, which had already gotten cold. “I still don’t see how you’re going to pull this off.”

“Trust me.”

I spent the next few weeks tricking up version 2 of the unit. Using them in public meant finding a way to hide the mess in plain sight. The solution was actually Jeff’s idea: gut an old news-gathering cam and stuff some smaller current tech inside. He scored three of them at an auction site, and I figured out how to couple those great lenses to our bargain CCDs. It was actually an improvement, since I could use a telephoto or wide angle lens on a camera that doesn’t support them.

The radio link had me stumped for a while. Then I realized that all I needed was a remote on/off switch with a range of about a block and a half. Anyway, once the home-improvement gear was hooked in, I was ready for a field test, so I asked Derek to meet me at City Hall for hot dogs at the sidewalk stand.

“What’s with the museum piece, Jake?” he said as he approached.

I was sitting on the brickwork surrounding one of the City Hall courtyard trees. A foot-long camera was perched beside me, its battery pack sticking out over the mulch, and the telephoto brushing my knee. “Hey! You’re looking at what used to be high-end video gear. Just imagine what news crews lugged around before that.”

Derek grabbed the handle on top of the unit. “May I?”

“Sure. Just remember that it won’t be balanced the way the designers intended. After all, it’s got all new guts.”

When he lifted it, the front end drooped from the weight of the big lens. “I see what you mean.” He righted it, and perched it on his shoulder, switching to the side mounted grip just back of the lens mount. Switching it on, he swung around to face where the podium would be next week, and looked into the viewfinder. “Is it done?”

“Yep. All three of them. This is one of the slave units. Jeff’s got the master up the stairs there. Oh, yeah, I added a new twist. If he presses the white balance while standing in the GPS sweet spot, all three will trigger if they get a target match. That way we have much better control on the timing, and he doesn’t have to dance around up there. I’ll go stand where Lassiter’ll be for the photo-op and cue him.”

It all worked like a charm. We downed caffeine and dogs discussing logistics for the following week’s stump speech, then split.

The morning of Lassiter’s visit to town, I called my two accomplices by cell to confirm the setup. Derek was a stringer for the local weekly, so he had cred to get into the press area. I’d be stationed with the rabble by the curb, and Jeff was on the balcony of his IT company’s third-floor transient suite in the hotel across the street. The cameras were all configured to place the effect in the same spot within my virtual model. Getting it from different angles would lend further support to our fiction. All we needed now was our senatorial clown.

The crowd started to gather even before the police had finished setting up the barriers we were supposed to honor. I’ve seen the fences they’ve used in other cities to pen in protesters. Instead of 12-foot-tall chain link, we had the equivalent of the velvet rope at the multiplex. Clearly, they weren’t expecting any trouble, and figured the semblance of security was all they needed.

About ten minutes into Lassiter’s canned bluster, he clumsily segued from a diatribe against the evils of a secular education in public schools to something much closer to my heart.

“… ever since 9/11, people in this country have been arguing over how the terrorists got away with it.” He paused to scan the crowd. “Imagine, people claiming to be loyal citizens of the United States having the gall to accuse the President of sitting by while we were viciously attacked. Or worse, of being complicit. Well, let me tell you. I was in New York that day. I saw it myself on…”

Watching the candidate in close-up through the viewfinder, I felt a bit giddy at the thought of what was about to happen. Derek hadn’t told me when he’d key up the halo, so I was afraid to look away, lest I miss something.

“…but some people go even farther than that. They claim that, despite the fact that nine million New Yorkers were affected personally by the attack, neither building was struck by an airliner – that those planes were nothing more than a special effect.”

That’s when Derek keyed up the halo. The timing was gorgeous.

“A special effect! Like some offensive Hollywood movie. Well, I think those people should all be hauled off and shot as traitors.” The halo flickered a few times while his supporters in the crowd cheered the imbecile on. He shook an accusatory finger at the press. “And the same thing should happen to any treasonous news service foolish enough to treat them like they had a brain in their heads!”

And it was gone. The deed was done. I stayed for a few minutes longer, then eased back out of the corral and went to join Jeff in the hotel across the street.

We’d just finished compressing our two clips for upload when Derek joined us.

“How’d they come out?” he said as he set his camera down besides the other two on the bed.

Jeff turned back from the window. “Like he was a saint. You guys want a drink?”

A few minutes later, I had all three streams ready to post. “Okay, Derek. You’re on. Let’s see what the folks on the web have to say.”

Each stream went to a different site, through a different user account. First my crowd’s-eye view, then Jeff’s businessman special, and finally Derek’s press-box shot. Each one got a carefully worded blurb in the ‘voice’ of one of our fictional videographers, afraid that the glimpse of divine commendation they’d caught would be disavowed by the mainstream media, who would take great pains to remove the halo from their own pictures, lest they be seen as poseurs sucking up to the GOP front-runner.

It didn’t take long for word to spread. Within minutes, all three sites were pounded with comments, and arguments had already broken out. Derek finished his beer and grabbed the keyboard again. “Now for the clincher.”

He opened several browser windows, one for each of the various sites claiming to be after the truth behind the so-called terrorist attacks. He pasted the same post to each site, in accounts he’d set up for the purpose:

‘By now, you’ve had a chance to see the videos taken of Senator Lassiter today. If you compare them, you’ll see that his fiery halo is authentic. Clearly, God has made his choice for the man to lead this nation during the coming Apocalypse. And just as surely, the Liberal media will do their best to disavow it. They have already threatened the people present to keep quiet about what they saw today, and they will release only doctored images. Do not let this cover-up stand unchallenged. Do not let the humanists win. Your immortal soul depends on it.’

When he was finished, Derek shut down the computer and stepped onto the balcony. Jeff and I joined him. He raised his beer to salute the senator, who had finished his speech and was busy giving interviews to a parade of mainstream journalists. “We’ve laid the challenge. Given people who believe the faked video of 9/11 a reason to open their eyes and minds. May it whet their appetites!”

Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack


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