Writing > Beneath the Surface

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Tally made their way up the stairs from the New York Times archive room, sealed package in hand. They waved across at Greg, in the adjoining records room, and beckoned at him.

Greg spoke a few words to the others over there, and then came over. "Hey, Tally. What's going on?"

They raised the package, writing front, and presented it. "This is what's going on."

Greg didn't recognize it at first, but then his eyes widened. "Whoa. Is it time already?"

Written on the front of the package was a simple phrase: Do not open until July 15, 2022.

Tally smiled as they thought back to when it had first arrived. It was postmarked August 1, 2021. "Do you remember your bet as to what this might be?"

"Uh.. I think I bet on anonymous donation. What did you bet on again?"

"Bomb threat. Either way, today we find out! Come on upstairs with me."

The package had been addressed to Jan Hullis, the News Editor of the NYT, and pretty high up on the food chain. Greg might have objected to going with them, but he'd met Jan, and knew her pretty well. It was doubtful she'd have a problem with him there. She'd actually shown some interest in the package herself, back when it had arrived.

Jan looked up from her desk when they got upstairs, glanced at the clock, and then nodded at both of them. She wasn't alone in there, either. Tally didn't know the older man standing near the desk, but he did look familiar.

"This is Stan Billings, with Security," Jan introduced him. "He'll be opening the package with us. You can stay," she added quickly, "but only if you follow his lead. Understood?"

Greg and Tally both nodded. Tally was realizing just how seriously Jan was taking this.

Mr. Billings examined the package closely, even running a wand over it for metal traces. Apparently satisfied, he tore the end and opened it up, sliding a small black device onto the desk. Frowning, he picked it up and turned it over. Tally could see a flash drive attached to it, whatever it was.

"What is it?" Jan asked.

"I'm not sure, ma'am. That powder in there looks like a kind of phosphorous. It ignites on contact with air. There's a timer on this, too. If anyone had opened this package before this morning, it would have burned itself to dust. Whoever sent this wasn't messing around."

"Are we in danger?"

Billings shook his head. "I doubt it. There's not much powder in this thing. It could only burn someone if they were actually holding onto it when it ignited."

He detached the flash drive and handed it to her. "With your permission, I'll take the rest of this down to the Security Office for analysis. Please use the laptop I provided for that flash drive. There's no telling what kind of malware might be on there."

Jan thanked him and he left. She plugged in the drive, turning the security laptop around so they could all see it together. "Looks like there's one file on here. A video."

A man sprang up on the monitor. He was African American, mid-fifties, with a tidy, graying beard. He was well dressed, but also looked a bit overweight. The recording was set in the day or late morning, and there was a large arch in the distance behind him. Tally recognized it as the one in St. Louis. Giving them both a curious look, Jan hit 'play'.

"Hello, world," the man started with a broad smile. "Greetings from last year! As I record this, it is August 1, 2021, and I'm here in St. Louis, where this whole story will unfold."

He glanced back at the arch behind him briefly, and then his smile faded a little. "My name is Jameel Daniels, of Daniels Systems, and I'm here to talk about police shootings. Specifically black people shot by police."

"Black people make up about 14% of this country, but we're shot by police about 32% of the time.  This is a matter of statistics. No matter what cultural, systemic, or ethnic reasons you might want to use to explain this, the numbers are clear. They have been for a long time. But I'm not here to talk about the past, so much as the future. Or, from your perspective, the present."

He gestured behind him. "I chose St. Louis because, of the 100 largest cities in the  country, this one is by far the worst offender. Or rather it is as of this recording. I predict that by the time you watch this, St. Louis won't even be in the top ten anymore. It probably won't even be on the list! I can't tell you how many people will be shot by police here in the next year, but I can tell you that those numbers will match the demographics of the people living here."

His smile returned, smug to the point of arrogance. "How could I know this? Why would I risk my reputation and my company by saying something so impossible to predict? I suggest you ask me in person. I will come back here, to Malcolm W Martin Memorial Park in front of the Arch, in exactly one year. I'll hold a press conference right here to explain everything, and then I'll turn myself in to government custody, for whatever charges they might want to bring. I hope to see you then."

He reached out to the camera, and then paused. "Oh, you should know I sent little packages like this one to every major paper in the country. If you don't show, you'll probably get left out in the cold." At that, the video came to an end.


A few hours later Tally was standing near the door in one of the larger conference rooms as Jan, her boss Sandover, the Managing Editor, Mr. Billings, and people from Crime, Science, and City departments all gathered together there.

Tally had always valued their job as Jan's assistant, but they felt a bit overwhelmed by all this. Jan gestured at Mr. Billings to start.

"There is a Jameel Daniels, born in Tampa, in 1964. He was in charge of a small electronics firm called Daniels Systems, but the company went belly-up four months ago. They declared bankruptcy, liquidated all their remaining assets, and basically just disappeared. We're tracking down some of his employees, but he's still in the wind. He has no siblings or cousins we could find, and his father died four years ago in a car crash. His mom retired back to Tampa, and is still living there. I've got Jimmy on a plane down there to interview her."

Jan looked at Crime next. Tally didn't know the man reporting from there, but his eyes looked a little crazed. "I don't really know how he knew it would happen, but it looks like Daniels was right. Over the past 11 months, maybe more, there has been a marked decrease in race-related crimes in St. Louis. Four people were shot there last year, but one was hispanic, two were white and one was black. The current demographics between white and black are about 50/50 there. Arrests show about a 50/50 correlation based on race. Police stops are about the same."

He looked even more rattled as he went on. "I got in touch with our office down there. According to Alex Simms at the Crime desk, the changes were attributed to the Mayor's new race relations initiative started last year, but apparently even he was surprised at how well it was working. Alex sent me a few of the police reports he was able to get ahold of, and they're... weird."

Before Jan could ask, the poor man went on. "In every case, starting about 11 months ago, police officer reports were basically the same as previously, except for one entry. Whenever a cop was asked to identify a suspect that hadn't been caught on camera, they were able to describe height, weight, hairstyle, gender, clothing, and everything else, except for race. When asked why, none of them could explain it. They came up with various reasons, usually that they didn't get a good look at the suspect, but it was universal. According to Alex, they all read that way. In fact, it seemed the police themselves weren't even aware of it until he started asking about the reports."

Tally was getting a bad feeling about all of this. What was happening down there?

"Camera recordings seemed unchanged," the crime guy went on, "but Alex noted that the race was only identified after the person was, based on their birth certificate or driver's license."

He paused once more. "Here's where things get really freaky, though. I sent a picture to Alex, of a black man I know here in New York. I asked him to tell me the man's race.. and he couldn't."

A deep silence fell on the room. Tally felt that sense of unreality again. How was something like that even possible?

The science woman stepped forward. "I'm afraid we only have theories about this so far. There's a part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus that's responsible for face recognition. If that area in the brain is damaged or oxygen-deprived, there have been cases documented where a person couldn't even recognize their own family members. Theoretically, this Mr. Daniels could have located the portion of the brain that identifies race as well, but how someone could have affected the entire St. Louis police department at once, not to mention Alex Simms and God knows how many others.. Well, we're still investigating that," she finished. She didn't sound too optimistic.

The next report described how other papers were doing similar investigations, and seemed just as stumped by what they were finding. A few others gave their reports, sounding similarly flabbergasted by what was happening, before they finally tapered off. Jan left the silence hang for a few moments, before speaking up.

"If there is some kind of.. phenomenon.. affecting everyone in St. Louis, I understand why any of you would want to keep away. I'm not asking anyone to go with me when I go to interview Mr. Daniels. I have to assume he'll be there in two weeks as he promised. He staked his entire reputation on this, and pulled off.. what I can only call a miracle, to make it happen." She glanced at her boss, and shared a nod with him. "Mr. Sandover and I will make the arrangements, but we still have two weeks to figure this out. Get back to work, people."

Before the room cleared, Tally had already decided they would go along. Whatever was happening down there was just too important to miss.


The next two weeks were absolute insanity.

Word spread like wildfire, over the entire globe. Citizens, world leaders and entire nations clamored for answers in this unprecedented situation. Mutual distrust was set aside, at least temporarily, in favor of mutual curiosity.

St. Louis was put under immediate quarantine. Travel into and out of the city was tightly restricted at first, until the US government got a better idea of what was happening. They classified the whole situation first, citing national security concerns, but the people weren't having any of that. Massive outcries from nearly every city forced the military to back down. The quarantine was maintained, but congressional representatives everywhere bowed to the overwhelming demands of the public and forced the military to share their findings on this.. situation.

It seemed the effect was limited to St. Louis itself and less than a mile around it. People actually used spray paint to draw a line outside the city, or more of a curve as they found out. The strange part was that most of the 'edge' of this thing was unfixed. Sometimes a person who thought they were inside this area wasn't, and sometimes the reverse was true. The area inside the city itself was always covered, but if you got too far out, there was no way to be sure. It was difficult to test, but the areas that had been confirmed as the edge quickly became tourist destinations. People would take a step over the line, and then get pictures on their phone. Then they'd step back outside, and have that 'aha!' look as they examined the pictures again.

The effect was therefore temporary. It seemed that whatever was affecting peoples' brains ended as soon as they left, and a lot of people did just that. For people who stayed, though, life seemed mostly unchanged.

There had been a massive manhunt for Jameel Daniels, as well. His video had leaked to the public almost immediately, so everyone knew what he looked like. It turned out his mother was nowhere to be found- her life in Tampa was a fabrication. Most likely she was living under another name somewhere else in the country. As for him.. no sign was found.

Then, the morning of August 1 at exactly 8am, the effect ceased. The line outside the city became meaningless, and everyone, everywhere could see race again. What Tally found strange was how they all reacted. They would have expected relief, but saw none.

As noon approached, a massive crowd gathered at the Malcolm W Martin Memorial Park next to the Mississippi, in sight of the Arch. Military and SWAT was there too, along with what Tally was sure were FBI, CIA, NSA, and a bunch of other acronyms they'd never heard of as well.

How Mr. Daniels was going to show up was a mystery. Most likely he wasn't going to make it. He'd already been snatched up by some black-ops group elsewhere in the country and was being tortured for information. That was the consensus of most people in the crowd, and Tally had to admit it didn't actually sound like a conspiracy theory. For centuries America's reaction to things it couldn't control was to destroy them. For things it couldn't understand, it would probably be even more paranoid.

At five minutes to noon, though, a gasp made its way through the crowd. Tally followed their gaze.. out to the water.

A submersible pod of some kind had just floated to the surface of the Mississippi. As everyone watched, it pushed its way ashore, on retractable tracks, and then stopped on the bank. The front opened, and out stepped Jameel Daniels, wearing the same suit and tie that billions of people had already seen on him.

Camera flashes blanketed the area, and Daniels covered his eyes against the glare at first. SWAT members immediately surrounded him. Tally couldn't hear what was going on at first, but it seemed clear he was being taken away, arrest or not.

One of the cameramen pulled out a megaphone, though, and turned it on. "Let him speak!" He demanded, pointing it at the 'arresting' officers. "We all deserve to know what he has to say!"

Many voices joined his, and the SWAT team seemed to hesitate. The crowd picked it up as well, chanting, "let him speak! Let him speak! Let him speak!" Over and over again.

Under the massive scrutiny of so many people, the military mind can't hold onto its fear of the unknown. Fear of the people they tell themselves they're protecting will eventually overcome it. As one the SWAT team paused, obviously getting instructions over their radios, and then backed off. The crowd started cheering in response.

Daniels reached into his pod and pulled something out. It was black, metallic. It looked vaguely like a pair of frisbees glued together to make a shape like that of a skipping stone. With it in hand, he stepped forward confidently, and the crowd quieted.

He looked up at the man with the megaphone, and nodded thankfully. At the megaphone man's insistence, two others came up next to Daniels, quickly hooking up speakers, and handing him a microphone. They'd obviously come prepared, despite the crowd's fears that Daniels wouldn't make it.

"Well, it's been a bit of a journey, hasn't it?" Daniels said into the microphone, and the crowd laughed a little at that.

"Thank you all for coming out here this bright day," he went on genially. "Thank you for braving the crowds, and the security forces, and the unknown. I promised you all answers, and I'm here to deliver.

"Years ago my company was experimenting with subsonic frequencies for one of our product lines. We discovered quite by accident, that a specific frequency affects the human brain." He held up the black device. "This is a subsonic frequency generator. My company spent years burying them in specific locations all over St. Louis, making sure the whole city was fully covered. I activated them remotely a year ago, and I shut them down remotely this morning." He dropped it on the ground. Glancing over at the SWAT team briefly, Daniels pointed back at the pod. "All the equipment is in there. Examine it to your heart's content."

He stepped in front of the speakers, looking back at the crowd. "That.. is how. Why is obvious. As a black man in America, I have plenty of reasons to want racism to go away and die. The big question though, is what now?

"Most of you don't have access to the most recent crime statistics, but your dear mayor has already commented on how things have gotten better in St. Louis. And not just for people who aren't cops, either. Racially-motivated crimes are down. How can you hate someone for being different if you can't tell that they're different? Discrimination in housing, in employment, in healthcare, all down as well. Computers can file a resume without bigotry, and for a full year, so could everyone else here! All of that is just the tip of the iceberg. I'm sure my good friends in the press have already released many stories corroborating that." Tally had to smile at that. They had been part of editing some of those very stories.

He sighed, still holding the mic close. "The results of my actions are clear, but now I have to ask, do they justify the actions themselves? Some of you feel violated by what I did. Some will say, 'he altered my brain! He took away my free will!'

"Maybe I did. For a full year my devices broadcast a constant stream of.. well, neutrality. Similarity between all races. Maybe that is mind control. But if it is, how does it differ from, say.. TV stations, many of which broadcast a constant stream of xenophobia, paranoia and isolationism? And have been doing so for much much longer than a year, I have to add.

"The trick about racial bias, is how people understand it," he said a little less severely. "Most explanations I've heard come from people who think that most of us are good, and the problem is just a few really bad apples. 'Some people just hate black people, and I'm not one of them,' they tell themselves. But since almost all racial bias is actually subconscious," he tapped his forehead, "when you lost the ability to see race at all, you didn't even notice! For months your lives were safer, more stable, and more peaceful, and it all happened without anyone realizing it. That is the power of the subconscious mind. It can protect us, even from ourselves."

He nodded back at the pod. "My technology is now available for the world to examine. If it matters at all, I want it on record that everyone, everywhere, should be able to do what I did, if they want. I'm turning myself in to government custody, as I promised. What you do now, is all on you."

Daniels smiled mischievously over at the SWAT people again. "Take me away, boys."


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