1. How It Started Minoo and Sahar were both texting me clips from the protests, but I ignored them because I couldn’t watch more women dying. Instead, from my glassed-in office, I observed as John onboarded our three new interns. The office angels watched, too. We saw John shake each of the interns’ hands. We tracked him as he guided the interns to Hernán’s desk for their I-9s and NDAs. We stared as John walked them to Andrea’s cubicle to set up their summer emails. This is how I knew John’s hands never touched any of the new interns. Not the skinny one with the black and green ponytail. Not the giggly one with the dancer’s body and tentacled shoulder tattoo. Not even the tall one with the Bambi eyes who kept twirling a wet lock of blonde hair around her index finger and then absently chewing it. Especially not her, I thought, as the angels tittered and snarked, off-key. He made a whole production out of pointedly not touching her. No, his hands just hovered. A couple of inches behind Bambi-Eyes’ shoulder blades as he guided her around a cubicle corner. A little to the left of Green Ponytail’s waist as he pointed her toward the bathroom. To the side of Tattoo’s arm as he talked her up to Nikhil in video editing. It was like the interns all had invisible bodies outside their bodies. Like they were wearing transparent, puffy bodysuits. And even though John didn’t touch a single hair on their actual bodies, his hands were all over their invisible curves. The office angels felt sick. They mimed dry heaving into imaginary trash cans, their opalescent feathers shimmering along their arched backs, their wretches clanging like broken organ pipes. I was about to mime my own dry heave back at them when Sahar texted a gif of a woman’s swollen, bloody face, and all the sudden I felt so sick I almost threw up for real. “WE HAVE TO HELP THEM,” Sahar shouty-capped at us. I sent a breaking heart, and Minoo “liked” it. “Yes but HOW????” Minoo replied. “With your . . . ART?!?!??!” Sahar ignored the slight. Or pretended to, anyway. “I HAVE A PLATFORM,” she texted. “I CAN BE THEIR VOICE. TELL HER LEILA.” But I didn’t. I didn’t want to. The truth is I was as sick of Sahar’s vapid success as Minoo was. As far as we were both concerned, Sahar was a lucky fraud. I used to believe she was brilliant. Back in grad school, I truly thought her art would change the world, as cheesy as this sounds. Her thesis – the original one – was a one-sixteenth-scale paper mâché of the Vakil Mosque, with all the mosaic pieces cut from small bills in the diaspora’s most popular reserve currencies. She used anti-counterfeit holograms to make it glitter. The first time I saw her working on it in her studio I actually gasped. But halfway into her last semester, she threw everything out. One day she decided she didn’t believe in her project anymore, and that was it. The fountain whose blue she’d cut from Euro 20s went into the studio building dumpster. So did the impossibly delicate mihrab and the facade-in-progress, with its half-finished pointed arches. The piece she replaced it with was nothing but a haptic body suit linked to dozens of haptic gloves. One “honoree” at a time donned the suit and stood alone in the center of a white room. Everyone else was given gloves and kept at a distance with a huge circle of line ropes. The idea was that the gloved hands would trace out caresses in empty air, but the suit would be getting so many signals all at once, the person wearing it couldn’t disentangle them. Instead, it would feel like being held by an invisible force. “Like wearing a trust fall,” Sahar said in her exhibit notes. She called the piece “Holy.” Minoo actually laughed out loud when Sahar announced the title. I was sure they wouldn’t let her graduate. But we were both wrong. Everyone except us loved it. Sahar won the school’s top thesis prize, and a month later SFMOMA pulled her into their special exhibition on new tech. Then the pandemic hit, and the whole world was touch-starved, and soon people were queuing up for hours outside museums in Sydney and Singapore and Dubai in the hopes of snagging a scalped ticket on the eye-popping resale market. That’s how venture capital got involved. Investors approached Sahar with a plan to scale “Holy” up. Every city would have its own white room. The gloves would retail for hundreds and ship anywhere with a post office. In just six months there were “Holy” franchises on three continents. Sahar went on morning talk shows and gushed about hope and love, and now her lifestyle blog has sponsorship from mineral water and memory pillows. It’s gross. Then again, so is what I do now. At least Sahar is still, technically, making art. “Let’s figure out how we can help at drinks tonight,” I texted. But my lack of urgency pissed Sahar and Minoo off. Minoo switched languages because she knew I hated it when I couldn’t keep up. Sahar immediately hearted what she sent. “I can read that,” I lied, in English, scrambling to copy her text into Google Translate. Except when the page loaded, I couldn’t make sense of it. Half the sentences were garbled. Was Minoo calling me shameless? Or the ones killing the women? Or both? The only part I was sure of was what I could read on my own. “The women need help. Now.” Minoo was right. By lunch, three more women were dead. They’d all been beaten into comas. Two had been raped first. And these were just the ones we knew about, Minoo kept reminding us. Hundreds more had gone missing less virally. Girls who hadn’t taken airbrushed selfies. Women whose videos of singing and laughter weren’t racking up thousands of “likes.” The regime could be torturing them, Minoo texted. Right now. Right this second. They could be killing them and hiding the bodies. Sahar agreed. All day she’d been reposting and hashtagging. “Amplify!!!!” she urged her followers. “Call your congressman!!!!” I’d been liking her posts out of obligation, but it felt futile. Already the algorithms were muting us, I could tell. The more I engaged the more my metrics dropped. And even when Sahar’s posts got traction, it didn’t seem to matter. All anyone offered was thoughts and prayers. I tried to comfort myself that it might not be as bad as it looked. “Let them be fake,” I whispered as I scrolled. The office angels folded their wings around me reassuringly. But when I texted to ask whether this could be another bot storm, like last year, when two factions of the exiled opposition got into a meme battle, Minoo had no patience for my wishful thinking. “STOP DISTRACTING YOURSELF,” she shouty-capped back. “ASK, WHO BENEFITS FROM KEEPING WOMEN’S DEATHS QUIET?” It was a fair question. I knew because making things go quiet on the Internet was my company’s whole business model. “Reality massage” was what John called it when he explained our service to new clients, and each time I heard him linger on that ‘g’ like he wanted them to think of hot oil and Thai parlors, I felt a little sick. I hadn’t planned on going into this kind of work. I hated myself for doing it. I’d always imagined I’d use my life for something brave, or at least good. But then I graduated from art school, and my mom needed an expensive new lymphoma treatment. And it turned out the hyperrealistic deep fakes I’d done for my thesis on democratically elected war criminals had left me with a depressingly marketable skill set. Now, in exchange for stock options and a six-figure bonus scheme, I take real life and make it look a little more like what our clients want it to. The work is meticulous but not difficult. Mostly, I remix old clips of corporate news conferences. I dial back giddy earnings projections and soften promises about stock buybacks. Occasionally I scrub out a slur or ugly joke, and once I even crafted a posthumous apology from the CEO of a power company for a massive grid failure. That one went viral instantly. Usually, though, our engagement team needs thousands of bots to get our posts any traction. And of course, the original clips stay out there, too. Determined people still find them. But John never promises to wipe away the past. Our only service, he tells clients, is creating a fuzzier present. And it works. It still shocks me how well sometimes – how easily people’s self-righteous certainty gives in to confusion. Stock prices start rebounding in minutes. Reputations reset in mere days. It works even when people should be fired – even when they should be jailed. I wanted Sahar and Minoo to understand this. I wanted them to know that the people killing the women might’ve hired companies like mine – and, if they had, our likes and hashtags wouldn’t do much. They might even make things worse, in fact. That was the sick thing about how firms like mine made fakes go viral. The more real fury and grief people put out there, the easier it was to piggyback on it to game the algorithms. I was trying to find a way to say all that in a text when John knocked at my door. He had some concerns, he told me, and wanted to touch base before our pitch meeting. The office angels bristled. “Concerns?” “I was looking over your proposal,” he said. “And it’s good. Great, really. Especially for what they’ve given us to work with.” The office angels rolled their eyes. “But?” I said. “I just- I know this is a big ask. But can’t we get a little closer to the client’s vision on this?” The office angels gathered round me as I gamed out diplomatic ways to explain why that vision was stupid. The client’s goal was to make an attempted coup look less bungled. A couple of weeks before, video of their detained mercenaries had leaked. Three fishermen had netted the mercenaries as they tried to swim ashore. Footage of locals pointing and laughing had spawned late-night jokes and spooked investors. So we’d suggested fuzzying up the narrative. We could remove the company insignia from the mercenaries’ uniforms, we told them. Then we’d spread the story that the men were really part of a drug cartel or lost marine biologists. “In three weeks, people will forget this had anything to do with you,” John promised. But the client didn’t want their embarrassing truth blurred out of focus. They wanted a bald-faced lie. “Make them greet us as liberators,” they said in their initial sit-down. “Make the locals look up at our men in awe.” I’d had to bite my cheek to keep from laughing in front of them. I’d assumed John thought the request was ludicrous too. But apparently not. Apparently, he’d convinced himself that nailing this project could open up a whole new market for us. “The thing we have to keep in mind,” I told him, as the office angels nodded their encouragement, “is that the reality we start from shapes what’s possible. Indifference I could make into politeness. And politeness I could maybe make into a real welcome, gratitude even. But these guys are being mocked.” My voice trailed off, and I slumped in my Herman Miller chair. An office angel put a translucent mug of Chamomile on my desk. “I hear you, I do,” John said, even though he clearly didn’t. “Let’s revisit this tomorrow.” He was turning to go when the office angels reminded me about the interns. I tried to ignore them, but they mimed more dry heaves. I told them I didn’t want to bring it up, but they crossed their wing-arms and stamped their webbed feet. And right then my phone buzzed. Another dead woman, I suspected. But I didn’t want to look. Anything was better than looking. So, I asked the angels’ question. “Hey, what happened to the other interns?” John paused, a hand on my doorknob. “The other interns?” “You know, the ones from our list?” John’s face opened into a wide empty prairie of confusion, and for a minute all I could do was blink back at him. The office angels were adamant he’d hired the hot interns on purpose. I was less sure, but I, too, had suspicions. There were at least a dozen more applicants who would have been perfect for the intern spots. I knew because, back in March, I’d spent half a Wednesday with John making the long list. Every single one we picked had off the scale GPAs and portfolios full of spectacular montages. They were all far more talented than they’d ever need to be to help us splice together viral deep fakes. So, why weren’t those others filling out their I-9s? The office angels wanted John to explain. I wanted to hear his answer too. What happened to the pudgy ones? The ones with awkward cheekbones or who haven’t yet found the right eyebrow line? The ones who were shy and gangly, like Nikhil, who’d spent his intern interview mumbling into his sneakers about editing software pros and cons? But John just stared at me, doe-eyed, and then I reached for the tea mug, forgetting my hand would go right through it. My arm got sloshed, and warm invisible wet sopped into my sleeve, and I couldn’t do a thing about it. Not with John there. “Haven’t you noticed that all the interns you picked have something in common?” I pressed on, battling the urge to shake my dripping hand dry. “Oh. Oh. Yeah.” John smiled broadly, his whole body relaxing. “I fought hard to make sure we hired all women. I know that’s important to you.” The angels gawped, and I was flummoxed. “But what about the other women?” I stammered. And immediately John was confused again. “I mean, we only have three intern spots. We couldn’t hire everyone.” It was at drinks that Sahar first thought of the suits. Minoo had been sobbing the whole evening, and we were worried about her – so worried I hadn’t even tried bringing up John’s bad ideas and air gropes. Minoo kept saying she needed to be there – that we should all be there. “The way to save them is more bodies,” she wept into her cucumber sake mule. “The way to help is to get out in the streets.” Sahar and I exchanged looks. Minoo was right, as far as I was concerned. From here, all we could send was tweets and mercenaries, and neither would do any good. But if she went back, they’d kill her, Sahar and I both knew. Just like all the other women. And we were afraid that was what Minoo wanted. For months, she’d been sending us depressed, middle-of-the-night texts. I blamed what she’d had to do to keep her visa. Ever since graduation she’d been stringing together six-month residencies and tiny arts fellowships, and it was wearing on her. One week she’d be in a barn, the next in some desert adobe, and two months after that she’d be couch surfing, again. The frustration of it was turning her work gory. Boring, too, if I’m being honest. Back when we first started school, she didn’t care about war or politics. What drove her was obscure theories on optics. She obsessed over sun dogs and spirit photography and spent her whole first semester turning her studio into a pinhole camera. Slowly, though, her rage built. I first saw it the night we got drunk on four-dollar wine and Sahar started talking about how revolution was imminent – how the people back home were ready to rise up. Minoo snapped. “Do you realize no one cares what you diaspora idiots think? You haven’t been back since you were eleven. You’re basically a tourist.” Sahar didn’t talk to her for a week, and it took the rest of the school year for them to really forgive each other. In the meantime, Minoo vented her anger at the lefty film bros in our theory course. Two dropped after she pointed out, in front of everyone, they’d misquoted Marx. And a third nearly cried, when she told him, “You really think you want a class war? The suburb you grew up in is richer than 99% of the world. So why don’t you put your own head on a pike and leave the rest of us out of it?” Back then, though, Minoo kept all that out of her art. Projection was her big thing. She liked to layer light to make strange textures. Light could remake the world if it was only harnessed, she insisted, and, wandering through her thesis, I couldn’t disagree. The piece was seven rooms, each bathed in moving color, all of them pure, breathtaking abstractions. “Moods,” was what she called it, which to me seemed not nearly grand enough. It wasn’t until after we graduated that her art took on her angry edge. First, she looped blood and dripped its red glow down Beverly Hills mansions. Then she spent a summer beaming tanks onto random pickups. A couple of months ago, she even tried to splash footage of Iraqi casualties onto the gates of a Marine base, but hardly anyone noticed and even fewer cared. The Marines didn’t even bother to arrest her. The installation she’d come to town for was supposed to be a creative reset. The plan was to project dead women radicals onto the low clouds above some warehouses slated for redevelopment. Audre Lorde. Gloria Anzaldúa. Yuri Kochiyama. It was sponsored by the Oakland Public Library, and she’d been staying at Sahar’s to get it ready. But she didn’t believe in it anymore. “What’s the point?” she wailed in the middle of the sake fusion bar. “Nothing we do here makes a difference.” “Minoo-jan, the women need you here,” Sahar tried to calm her. “The women need you alive. You can be their voice.” I cringed. It sounded as dumb in person as it had over text. Minoo thought so too it seemed. “But who are we talking to?” she sobbed. “The killers don’t listen. Not to us.” “We’ll make sure their deaths aren’t forgotten,” Sahar kept trying. “Their stories will live on through us. We’ll give their lives meaning.” Minoo threw up her hands, nearly taking out a tray of saketinis. “What will that change?” she demanded in the exact same disgusted tone she’d used with the class-war film bro. “Besides, of course, getting you more clicks.” This cracked Sahar’s facade of condescending patience. “Spare me your self-righteous bullshit, Minoo. Holy is already worth forty million. So go kill yourself on principle if you really feel like it.” As sick as it sounded, I wanted to savor the moment. Ever since Sahar got media training, she’d mostly kept her petty side hidden under new age cliches. I tried to catch her eye to make sure she knew that I’d never been fooled by the hydrated, organic, I-float-on-clouds-of-enlightened-bliss image she sells to her subscribers. But I couldn’t. She wouldn’t look at me. And by then the hoodies at the next table were staring, and the waiter was hovering nervously. So I bundled Minoo into her jacket. Sahar picked up the tab. As we shuffled out onto Mission, Minoo apologized. “It’s killing me not to be there, you know?” I did. My eyes were wet too. This week had been hard on all of us, I was about to tell her. Sahar jumped in first, though. “Wait,” she said, her face suddenly alight like it was the night she threw out her Vakhil Mosque project. “Wait. What if we could be there?” Minoo snorted out a laugh. “You? How? You’re going to smuggle yourself over the mountains? Hire a guide with a donkey and black market kalishnikov?” Sahar refused the bait. “No. No. The suits.” “Please, please, tell me you’re kidding,” I heard myself say, less to Sahar than to the universe, a small, desperate prayer. But Sahar was not kidding. She was deadly serious. 2. How It’s Going What I need you to understand is that I wanted to believe. Even at the beginning, when I was sure it wouldn’t work. Especially then, maybe. For the women’s sake. And also because it was beautiful. That’s what killed me about Sahar sometimes. She could make anything, even empty things, so stunning people wanted to devote their lives to them. And I would’ve given anything for the suits to be able to really protect the women. I mean, millions of hands coming together from all across the world, taking kicks and punches and even bullets in the women’s stead? It’s so perfect, so breathtaking, just thinking about it makes me want to cry. Sometimes, even now, I have the most gorgeous dreams about it – about how inside this haptic human force field the women live relaxed and happy. They never notice the blows crashing against the distant palms and wrists and fingers surrounding them. They never have to know their would-be killers want them dead. Every hit just dissipates, like breeze on pristine glass. But that night wasn’t a dream. Before we were even in the car, Sahar’s venture capital network had put her in touch with an anonymous group setting up a satellite network. The whole Uber ride back to her place, she was texting them. They’d been moving components in since the protests started, she explained to me and Minoo, her face glowing green as she typed. She was trying to convince them that the suits complemented their mission. She narrated it like a play-by-play. The suits would empower the people, she told us she was telling them. Plus they were light. And the luxe mesh hardly added any bulk. Whoever she was talking to was intrigued, but wary. First, they weren’t sure if their network was compatible. Then they weren’t sure if they’d have space. “They’ll update me in the morning,” Sahar announced as we pulled up to her SOMA loft. What, exactly, Sahar thought the suits would do was unclear. She had us start testing as soon as we were inside, but the results were ambiguous. It was true that, if we stiffened our palms just right when we were wearing the gloves, whoever had the suit on was protected, at least a little. The suits weren’t armor, exactly. But they could redistribute force when we flexed and braced our knuckles. Sahar had her boyfriend do trial hits with a rolled-up umbrella. Each time our hands absorbed the blow. Or some small part of it, anyway. That’s what was confusing. The hits still landed. So hard, sometimes, that Sahar staggered. But even though Sahar’s boyfriend swore up and down he wasn’t pulling punches, he couldn’t quite manage to kneecap her, like he expected. “What the hell, babe?” he said when she hardly flinched at a jab to the ribs. “You might really be onto something here.” Sahar was so giddy she was radiant. “Just imagine if there were a hundred of you wearing gloves. Or a thousand. Or a million. Think how powerful the women would be. No one could touch them.” I looked to Minoo, expecting a snarky comment. But to my shock, Minoo too was grinning. “Maybe this could be something,” she said to no one in particular, her voice too calm, too fascinated, almost rapturous. I felt sick to my stomach. Have you honestly not thought about how it could go wrong? I wanted to say. How drunk are you? Except then I noticed how red her eyes were, and I didn’t want to make her cry again. So I faked a smile and reminded her to drink water. And when she went to wash her face, I grilled Sahar in whispers. What if the Internet stays throttled? I demanded as Sahar relaxed on the couch, her boyfriend massaging her shoulders from across the room. Or what if the suits go out of range? What if women count on this and die? Sahar insisted her new allies were already on it. “There’s an op team on the ground,” she brushed me off. “In a few days they’ll have every major urban area covered.” “So this is a brand new network?” I pressed. “Totally untested? And you’re just going to send women out onto the streets, hoping and praying it works?” Sahar smiled at me pityingly. “I know you never believed in Holy, and that’s fine. But can you at least try to put your negativity aside? For the women’s sake?” I stammered that Holy wasn’t the issue. The issue was that she was rushing this and putting women’s lives at risk. She shook her head at me like I was an idiot. “Women’s lives are already at risk. So we should wait around and do nothing? Sometimes you have to act before there’s proof.” By then my head was swimming the way it had when Minoo texted me Sahar’s first splashy magazine profile. I was two weeks into my new reality massage job and obsessed with dressing well and sitting up straight so that John and the others would think I looked professional. But when I opened the link I went dizzy and forgot where I was. Had the whole world gone delusional? I remember thinking as the office angels steadied me. What was everyone else seeing that I wasn’t? There were no angels in Sahar’s loft that night, but for the sake of the women I did my best to get a hold of myself. I breathed like the office angels taught me, counting out textures – the fuzz of my fleece, the hard, cold rivets on my jeans, the tight ridges on my fingernails, the rough neoprene of the haptic gloves. I steeled myself to tell Sahar that if she wanted me to believe in her suits she had to at least pretend to consider the obvious. Like, what if the network did hold – what would happen when women tried to use the suit in field conditions? How would the gloved people around the world know when to tense their fingers? Would someone follow each woman around with a video camera? And what if there was a lag? Or the cameras fell into the wrong hands? Or, what if the suits worked too well? What if our hands stiffened the mesh so much the women couldn’t run? Right then, though, Minoo stumbled out of the bathroom, and as she did all three of our phones chimed with the same alert. We read it in silence. A doctor had been arrested. A woman. For treating protestors. Her trial was the next week. The regime wanted to execute her. Minoo’s eyeliner was running again. She pointed to Sahar’s suit and said she wanted to try. Sahar nodded and wriggled out. Minoo took the suit carefully, reverently almost, pulling it over her leggings and sweatshirt, the mesh stretching tight where the fabric bulged. Then she pressed the umbrella into my hand. “Do your best,” she told me, as Sahar grabbed my gloves. I promised I would, and I meant it. I wanted her on my side. I wanted her to feel in her bones just what a mess this could become. And I also wanted, just as badly, to put my all in and fail. I wanted to be convinced the suits really could work. I didn’t get either. I told myself I was going to hit Minoo like I really meant it. Each time I wound up my arm, I felt the weight of the umbrella in my grip and readied myself. But when I went to take the swing, it was like the air got thicker and my limbs had drag. My body refused to move like I expected. To fight Minoo I had to fight myself, also. Even so, I landed a few. One so hard that Minoo yowled. But was it enough to give her any sense of what the women would be up against? I had my doubts. Before I could share them, though, Sahar asked Minoo how she felt, and Minoo said, “Powerful. Like I could do anything, save anyone.” I winced. Minoo was being duped – lied to, really. And I was helping. But she was also smiling, like I hadn’t seen in years, like she used to back in school, when she was in her studio with her projector. I didn’t need to burst her illusion, yet, I told myself. My misgivings could wait until morning. Minoo really needed rest. It was a mistake. I underestimated Sahar, like always. At dawn, I dragged myself home to shower, and by the time I was out the first 100 suits had shipped. They’d arrive in three days, Sahar texted. The promo video was live before I got to the office. The angels watched it with me, their wing feathers tickling my cheeks as they leaned in close. “What if you could protect them?” Sahar said, over b-roll of dead girls laughing and singing. “What if we, all over the world, could take blows in their stead?” Here, the shot cut to Sahar posed in front of her loft window, her skin glowing, her hair straight and shiny. She held up two gloved hands. “Well, now we can. With these gloves, each one of you watching can fight for them.” The next few days were chaos. Replies started coming in as soon as the video was posted. At first they were all thank yous. You’re a hero, they told Sahar. A savior. A genius. Then the glove orders started. “I bought three pairs,” someone commented. “Five,” said another. “A dozen,” said someone else. I put my phone down and tried to concentrate on my pitch for John’s mercenaries. I couldn’t, though, because the angels were up to something. Ever since they’d watched Sahar’s video, they’d been gathered in front of my desk, busy with a project I couldn’t figure out. It looked like a trench or a moat. Or a grave, maybe. I was so enthralled by them I didn’t hear John knock. He’d brought the interns by to introduce themselves. They did, and I was startled at how confident they all seemed. I’d been nothing like that at their age. And wasn’t Green Ponytail a refugee, like I was? I wanted to ask her, but I’d forgotten her name. John was explaining how he was putting them on the mercenary pitch when my phone buzzed. And buzzed. And buzzed. Minoo, I saw. “I’m in the middle of something,” I told them. “Could this wait?” John apologized, but Green Ponytail dug in her heels. “It’s great to be here,” she told me. “I really admire your work. I’m looking forward to learning from you.” It was so frank and open I was dumbstruck. Before I could get my wits together to say thank you, though, John had her hooked. He pulled her door-ward without touching her, his arm at her invisible waist, her expression gloomy, annoyed. Or that’s what I thought I saw. I looked to the office angels for confirmation. They weren’t paying attention, though. They had power tools, now, and were putting up scaffolding. “That’s kind of you. Let’s talk,” I blurted at Green Ponytail’s receding hair. Then my phone buzzed a fourth time. For once Minoo wasn’t texting about dead women. Not directly anyway. No, this time it was that Sahar’s post had gone viral all wrong. Creepy trolls had gotten ahold of it. “Feel women up for freedom,” they were saying. “Boob grabs for democracy.” “Grope for hope.” “This is horrible. What a mess,” I said. But Minoo was weirdly sanguine. Shouldn’t Sahar have seen this coming? she asked. I blinked and sipped my coffee. She had a point, I admitted to myself. The sex stuff was exactly why Holy hadn’t produced suits for private distribution. They didn’t want the suits showing up on cams, or in sex clubs. It would ruin the brand, Sahar thought. Franchise owners had to promise to keep things PG, too. The penalties for violating protocol were massive. In public, though, Sahar was acknowledging none of this. “You’re the perverts, you’re the disgusting ones,” she kept telling the trolls. This egged them on, and they started posting lewd gifs. “You OK?” I asked Minoo. “I’m fine,” she texted. “You sure?” This just annoyed her, I was pretty sure. For a couple of minutes typing bubbles appeared then disappeared then appeared again. Then nothing. So, I tried to work on the mercenary pitch. Maybe we could sell a compromise, I’d been thinking. Scrub the insignia but fix up the mercenaries’ body language. Make the soldiers seem prouder, taller, less pathetic. My test clips kept going wrong, though. Fake smiles came out like grimaces. And straightening their backs made them look too stiff, like they were injured. I gave up and watched the angels work. They were laying down plumbing, it looked like. They hammered and soldered, their feathers going prismatic as they bent and grunted. And in front of my window, columns were rising. There were some by my desk, too. Sahar’s text was what snapped me back in. Despite the trolls, she was as optimistic as ever. “Posts are getting traction. Glove sales off the charts. On track to exceed Friday’s targets 10x.” Minoo responded with a thumbs up. I said nothing. Instead I texted Minoo, privately, to ask how her installation was going. At first she didn’t write back. And when she finally did it was just more dead women and girls. Another sixteen-year-old, this one with a sound cloud. A master’s student. A mother of three. “Do you really believe we can help them?” I asked. This time she answered right away. “I believe we have to try.” We didn’t notice when Minoo disappeared. For the next day and the day after, she was still sending us posts, as usual. They came from Muslim Twitter mostly. “See,” women there kept saying, over screenshots of porny viral memes. “This is why we have to cover.” Most of the memes showed Sahar in a haptic suit, alongside gloved hands making lewd gestures. Others promised happy endings for the women over stills from Hollywood harems. One had taken an actual image of the protestors and photoshopped a massage parlor sign into the background. “We cover because men are disgusting,” the women repeated, over and over. “This is the only way we can protect ourselves.” When Sahar tried to tell them it shouldn’t be like that, they shouted her down. She was naive, they said. The world was what it was, and she should accept it. Only men were ever sympathetic. A few posted things like, “This is OUR holy war,” and “True believers must lower their gaze.” But then dozens of other men started calling them weak and Westernized. One even parroted the regime’s gross line: “The veil is our flag. If it falls, all is lost.” “What do I even say to this?” Sahar asked us, after hours of getting nowhere with her pushback. “Do these people really believe this stuff? What century are they living in?” Stop feeding the trolls, I started to text. But I got distracted – work was a mess. John really had put the interns on the mercenary pitch, and right then Green Ponytail came to ask whether we should give them their guns back. “What? Why? Did John really suggest that?” I asked, and she looked at me with what, I was pretty sure, was contempt. Then my phone buzzed. Minoo had texted me privately. “I think I understand now. All this time I tried to be a projector. But, really, I’m the screen.” I should have checked on her right then. She only ever sent things like that when her grants got rejected or she couldn’t reach her mother because the Internet was down again back home. But all day the angels had been frenetic, and by then I couldn’t think straight. They’d put in a reflecting pool. And a fountain. And, from what I could see, they were ringing my office with pointed arches. Plus, the pitch was falling apart. Bambi Eyes had unshackled the mercenaries’ arms. The hands were all wrong, though. They looked too tiny, and misjoined, like the mercenaries were melted dolls, or maybe huge thalidomide babies. I was trying to coach her through a fix when John popped in to say the client was coming by the next morning. “Already? But this is a mess.” John shrugged. “They want this taken care of ASAP.” I took him aside. “Look, the interns are great, but I’m not a miracle worker. If we go with this, it’s going to look bad. Really bad. We’re talking completely fake. A joke.” I tried to show him. I pointed out the flipper hands and mis-sized AKs. I zoomed in on the misplaced shadows. “Plus the mercenaries’ vibe is wrong,” I added. “They look constipated, not confident. And the locals are off too. Look at how they’re smiling at nothing. No one will care about the liberators if the people greeting them seem demented.” John didn’t see what I saw though. “You’re being too hard on yourself. It’s fine, really.” And when I tried to push back, he pulled me off the project. “Leila’s got a lot on her plate,” he told the interns. “You take the lead on the rest.” “Are you kidding me?” I whispered, after he’d collected them in his hover arms and pushed them out of my office. “Don’t stress. You’re overthinking,” he whispered back, one foot in the hall. “People always see what they want.” I was furious and ready to keep arguing. But just then Sahar announced the gloves were online. I refreshed and refreshed, scanning for the live feed. All that showed up was a slick video of suits being unboxed. Halfway through it, Sahar’s disembodied voice launched into a speech about security protocols. “We want to show you the suits in action,” she said. “But more than that, we need to keep the women safe.” That was why there was no video. Not now, not ever, she explained. The gloves and suits were live and linked, though, she promised. Then it cut to her, wearing the gloves, tracing fierce arcs against a backdrop of San Francisco fog. “Believe in women,” she said, turning to the camera. “And believe that every one of you watching now has the power to help.” I was thunderstruck. “Is this a joke????” I texted. “No feed at all?” Sahar wrote back right away. “This is so fucking typical. I’m working day and night to get a revolution going, and do my friends support me? No. Just criticism and negativity. UGH” I wanted to tell her to get over herself. This isn’t about you, it’s about the women, I was going to say. Except right then Green Ponytail passed my office on the way to the bathroom. And when I tried to flag her through the glass, she looked right at me, then looked away. “Hey!” I said, loud enough to be sure it carried. She kept her head down. So, I followed, forgetting about the reflecting pool. I stepped right in. My mules were soaked. I didn’t let it stop me though. “Do we have a problem?” I asked, when I caught up to her by the sinks, my feet dripping. We did, it turned out. She was pissed because I’d said the fake wasn’t ready for primetime. “If you don’t want to be my mentor, fine,” she said with an assured self-righteousness I couldn’t remember ever having myself. “But do you really have to sabotage us? Pulling the ladder up behind you is messed up.” I tried to explain that I wasn’t sabotaging anything – I just didn’t want our team to embarrass us. “Screw ups follow you in this industry,” I said. “Especially for people like us. My parents were refugees too, you know. No one pays to massage away our mistakes.” She squinched her face like she’d smelled a fart. Then she said John was the only one here helping her. “Just because he says he’s helping doesn’t mean he is,” I told her. But she’d toweled off her hands by then and left the bathroom without a word. It was happy hour before I realized Minoo had never chimed in on Sahar’s glove post. “Can you believe Sahar?” I side-texted. Then I called, and it went straight to voicemail. “Minoo?” I tried again. “Minoo? You there? Call me.” For an instant I was sure I saw three dots. Then, nothing. I checked my email, and three more girls were gone. Disappeared, their families were saying. My mother had sent a local news clip. “Right now they could be dead,” their aunt in California was pleading to the crew. “These people that have them, they’re monsters. They rape girls. They rape boys. They’ll kill anyone.” The reporter didn’t seem to know what to say. “Thank you for telling us your story,” she offered as she took back the microphone. I tried Minoo again. “Seriously, where are you????” By then, the early evening sun was streaming in, and I was getting uneasy. The office had turned a strange color. Bluish-purple. Or, rather, pink and blue, dappled. At first I thought it was something outside – toxins, maybe, or some kind of tech ad. But when I looked closer, I saw it was coming from my windows. They were still glass, but there was a pattern to them now. A mosaic, I realized. That’s when I finally saw it. Sahar’s thesis – the first one, the one I’d loved. The office angels had pulled it from the dumpster. “Minoo?” I texted. “Minoo?” I tried again a few minutes later. “Minoo?” I said a few minutes after that, even though by then some part of me was sure she’d never answer. “Minoo? I wish you were here. I wish you could see this.” We heard nothing from Minoo for three full weeks. All we knew was that when Sahar got home that night, Minoo had packed up her stuff. “She wouldn’t really go back, would she?” Sahar asked. Then, an hour later, “I mean she’s committed. But not that committed, right?” And, the next morning, “Am I crazy for worrying?” Minoo was probably off in a yurt with a projector, I reassured Sahar. And when Minoo’s installation went live that night I started to mean it. The show wasn’t what she planned. Instead of U.S. radicals, she projected dead women and girls. I could see them all the way across the bay. They were laughing and singing in the fog. I sent Sahar a picture, and she sent back a broken heart. And for a few days after that, things felt almost normal. Work got busy with a new meal prep service whose celebrity spokeswoman kept flubbing talk shows. And the Internet got bored fast with Sahar and her gloves. By Friday, Holy was no longer trending. By the end of the next week, the Happy Ending memes were mostly forgotten. I didn’t hear anything about the suits or the new satellite network either. They probably weren’t working, I figured. And that was for the best, I told myself, since I needed to focus on setting the interns straight. “You have to look out for yourself,” I explained when I took them for coffee. “You can’t trust just anyone. The world is full of people who will use you.” Bambi Eyes and Tattoo looked at each other, horrified. “What about solidarity?” they asked. “What about women helping each other? If we never trust anyone, how will things change?” I tried to clarify that I didn’t mean trust no one. “But make sure you put yourself first,” I said. Neither seemed persuaded. Green Ponytail was even more suspicious. Just when I thought we’d moved on to negotiating signing bonuses, she looked me over like she was seeing me for the first time. Then she asked I question I had no good answer for: “Wait, why should we trust you, then?” Two days after that, the first video of Minoo was posted. Or, at least I was pretty sure it was her, though I didn’t want to believe my eyes. She was running from something in the dark, narrating her flight in whispers: “They’re after us. They want to kill us. But we have a secret weapon. The whole world is fighting with us now.” Sahar shared the link with her followers. In just three hours it had 100,000 likes. Soon there were more videos. Minoo spray-painting revolutionary slogans. Minoo setting a scarf on fire. Minoo taunting a man with a baton. In most of them, Minoo didn’t bother with a hoodie or sweatpants – all she wore was the suit. Sahar’s suit. “What are you going to do to me?” she yelled at the baton man when he told her to put some clothes on. “Are you going to hit me? Kill me? Is that what God wants? Come on then. Do your best.” A few people told her she was embarrassing herself – that she could resist the regime without walking around half-naked. But Minoo ignored them, and Sahar called them cowards. “Do you stand with the women or not?” she asked her followers. “Because there is no middle ground.” Each morning more videos came. They’re still coming. The office angels and I have a routine down: They pray as I get my coffee. Then we watch together, their warm bodies holding my heart. “It’ll be OK,” they promise me as I scroll. “We’re looking out for her. There’s a plan. Trust.” I always try to, but I have my doubts. “She’s so far away,” I like to remind them. “Plus,” I ask, “do the suits even work?” The only answer they ever give is hugs and chamomile. It’s unsatisfying. I can’t make myself believe the angels. Still, though, just in case, each night I donned Sahar’s gloves. Then I punched the breeze. I struck at the air with everything in me. I shadowboxed for hours – with what I have no idea . And pretty soon, Minoo copycats started springing up. Some had their own suits. “Fakes,” Sahar was adamant. Others wore leggings and black leotards. In days, a small women’s army formed. They did dances and revolutionary flashmobs. And when these new clips went viral, the news segments restarted. “Where are all the missing girls?” anchors demanded. “Why are you holding them?” they asked their cameras. “When will you let them out?” The anchors couldn’t pronounce the girls’ names, but I didn’t care. Sahar didn’t either. Maybe the world will finally see, we told ourselves. Maybe now someone will finally save them. And for a little while it seemed like someone really would. Politicians got involved. The president taped a Fourth of July message. A congresswoman gave a speech from the House floor. I even called my own congressman for the first time ever, and his office sent a thank you note on official letter head. “I appreciate you bringing this to my attention,” it said. “People like you make democracy strong.” He did nothing, though. And more women died. Then Minoo burned another scarf, and after that she burned the dumpster she threw it away in. The regime was looking for her, she said in the voiceover, and she didn’t care. They’re afraid, she told the world. Keep going. They’re going to crack soon. She burned a second scarf for good measure. Then she winked at the camera and gave the regime the middle finger. Later that night, three hundred more dumpsters burned. Sahar amplified the clips, and #fire trended. That’s when the rumors about the cam girl started. There was a locked feed, anonymous posters started saying on anonymous chatboards. You have to know someone to get the password. Supposedly, it’s ten thousand an hour for access. A couple weeks later, an actual video leaked. The woman was on a bed in a darkened room. The sheets were burgundy satin. Tight black cloth covered her head and face. As for the suit itself, it was dark, silvery, its undulations barely discernible as they rolled across her. The angels and I watched twice before I texted Sahar. They couldn’t see much either, the angels admitted. Just a body. Not even that. A blurry outline. That and the connector count. Forty-nine active pairs of gloves, it said when the clip started. Then seventy-nine. Then one hundred and twelve. Then four hundred and two. Then the woman orgasmed. The video rocketed to the top of all the porn sites, and Sahar was furious. This is sacrilege, she texted, adamant the suit was a counterfeit. She promised her followers that Holy would never allow this. Especially not now, when women were fighting for their lives. She asked the cam girl to delete the video. The cam girl posted another. She sent an official take-down notice. The cam girl ignored it. Sahar got lawyers involved, but their threats did nothing, and she was mystified. “Could this be an op?” she asked me. “Could this be a sign we’re getting powerful?” It could, I told her. People faked things for all sorts of reasons. To cheer her up, I even showed her the mercenaries, which were number seven on a “Top Twenty Worst Internet Fakes of ALL TIME” listicle. In my heart, though, I didn’t believe it. The cam girl was real, and raking in money, I suspected. I knew I was right when what finally stopped her were other cam girls. First, two got suits. Then seven. Then a dozen. Then the original cammer posted a goodbye message. “It’s not worth it anymore,” she said. “Cheap copycats have flooded the market.” After that, Sahar gave up. There’s no path forward, she told me when we met for brunch. It was almost Labor Day by then – fire season. “I mean, how long can we do this?” She gestured to a sky choked red with smoke. The internet seemed to agree. People expected Minoo to stop. Demanded it, even. The project was tainted, now, they said. Sullied. It’s not the women’s fault, but they should find a new strategy, the conventional wisdom went. One that’s respectable. One that’s not crude – that hasn’t been compromised. Minoo didn’t listen, though. She kept wearing the suit and posting videos, and so did others. Lots of them. More than before. Too many to count. We’ll never stop, they all said. And they didn’t. Soon there were so many videos no one could watch them all. Flowing hair. Burning scarves. Dancing. Singing. I scrolled for hours and never reached the bottom. The office angels didn’t either. They spent all day and night at my monitor, their eyes bloodshot. They missed their prayers. They got depressed. I was so stressed from it all, I didn't notice the summer interns had left. One day I went to tell Green Ponytail to scrub a file, and she gave me her “yuck” face. That’s how I learned she no longer worked for me. Andrea from HR filled in the details. John and Green Ponytail were an item, now, apparently. They’d gone public the day her internship ended. I confronted John, and he made that doe-eyed clueless face. “What’s the problem?” he asked. “I mean, we’re two consenting adults.” Back on screen, everything was a conspiracy. Minoo was a plot to numb us, people said. Minoo worked for the Israelis, they speculated. Or the regime. Or the CIA. Or maybe she was a dupe, they considered. Maybe whoever was boosting her was using her to tire the opposition. At this, Minoo took offense. She worked only for the women, she said in her next video. And they were still killing us. We were still being raped. Someone replied that what we needed was revolution. Someone else said the revolution was never coming. Someone else said the revolution was already here, and the media wouldn’t cover it. Just to be safe, I wore the gloves to bed that night. Then I started wearing them on errands. Then to work, even though I could hardly type in them. The women might need help, I said, whenever someone asked, too gently, how I was doing. Minoo might need me, I whispered to myself whenever the gloves started to itch. I kept the gloves on even when the rumors began that Minoo wasn’t real. She was just some dead girl’s social media account, resuscitated, someone claimed on Reddit. Her Instagram had been vacuumed and fed to AI, the post said. Now she was nothing but a deep fake. I begged the office angels to tell me it was a lie. You promised, I pleaded. You were supposed to be looking out for her. There’s a plan, they insisted. Or, there was. They were looking into things. In the meantime, they told me to sit tight. So, I kept the gloves on. I kept them on even when I hated them. I kept them on even when for weeks, and weeks, and weeks, there was nothing. No Minoo, no suits. Just more dead women. And more dead women. And more dead women. And more dead women. I still had the gloves on when the email came. The angels were next to me when my phone buzzed. They watched me fumble, impatient. “Well?” they asked when I finally got it open. There was a video. Two videos, in fact. I pressed play. 3. What Do You Want to See? If this were an exhibit, I’d ask you about the women you see with your eyes closed. Are these the ones you love? I’d say. When you picture them, what do you imagine? A shape? A color? A face? Then I’d ask how you see the other women in your life. The ones who cook for you, or who you cook for. The ones you sleep with. The ones you hate. And I’d tell you to always remember that when you see one woman you see all of us. But we aren’t in an exhibit hall. When the videos first came through, I was still at work, in fact. I’d been about to pack up for the day, the last one on the floor, as usual. The sun was setting through the bay fog. The angels’ fountain glowed warm orange. I had to read the email twice before I understood. ‘Your friend wanted a happy ending,’ was all it said. Then, the two videos. The first was just like the ones that started all this, a misty montage of a woman – Minoo – still full of life. In the opening shot, she laughs gorgeously, her long hair down. In the next, she leaps and shouts as background music crescendos. Then she’s smiling. Then, dancing. Then, she raises a fist. The final clip is a close-up in a calm, green field. “Life is a wonderful gift,” she says, twisting a bright flower between her fingers. “But if I have to choose, I choose freedom.” It was a fake, I told myself as the video faded. One any kid could make. Maybe a kid did make it, I was ready to believe. But when I opened the next video, my stomach dropped. It was Minoo, again. Now, in some kind of interrogation room. “Tell us who sent you,” a man’s voice demanded. “Who are you spying for?” Minoo stayed silent, her eyes angry and wet. Another man said he knows where her mother lives. And her little cousin too. The cousin who’s barely fourteen. And all I wanted right then was to hit the pause button. I wanted to look away and forget. But something kept my finger from moving. The angels, maybe. What I remember is Minoo telling the men that if they wanted to defile themselves, she couldn’t stop them. “God is the judge,” she said. Then, she whispered a prayer. The men were enraged. One slapped her. Two more ripped at her suit. “We’ll show the world who you are,” they said. “We’ll show them you’re an American whore.” Soon, she was naked, except for plain, white underwear. She shivered against the concrete wall. Still, though, she looked straight at the camera, defiant. “You’re perverts,” she said to the men. They slapped her again. “You’re perverts. All of you,” she screamed louder. She screamed it over and over, until one punched her in the face. When they stood her back up, her lip was bleeding. A red welt shone above her left cheekbone. But she didn’t hide herself or avert her eyes. No, she stood tall. That was how I spotted the writing. Black marker, scrawled across her breasts. “I am free and not ashamed,” I read in English. And below, on her belly, the script was so plain and clear I didn’t need Google Translate. “Woman is holy,” someone had written. I understood, then – far too late, as always. She’d expected this. From the very beginning, maybe. And she’d been ready. “What is that trash? Get it off her,” I heard someone say. On her face was the hint of a smile. I wanted the video to end there. I prayed it would end there. But it didn’t. So, I listened as the angels watched for me, praying the whole time that, somehow, it was all fake. The screams went on for an eternity. My body went hot and numb at their sounds. Let it be fake, I repeated, over and over. Let it be fake, let it be fake, I said to myself, even as I also wanted, so badly, to believe in Minoo – in Minoo the hero, Minoo the heroine. Minoo, who had done what none of the rest of us could. The screams got louder and louder. Let it be fake, I prayed, even as I felt Minoo’s terror in my nerves. Let it be fake, I prayed, even as I was sure my marrow was vibrating with Minoo’s own fury. Let it be fake, I prayed, as someone, maybe Minoo, screamed from somewhere, and the water in the reflecting pool turned blood red in the ugly sunset. Let it be fake, I prayed until everything was quiet again. Afterward, I asked the angels which video to choose. “That’s what I have to do, right?” I said. “Pick the version Minoo would’ve wanted out there? The bland memorial that people will share – that will get at least some small part of her message out? Or the piece she put her life on the line to make, the one that will get banned and scrubbed, maybe even from porn sites – the work of art that’s also the film of her rape?” No, the angels told me. There was another way to see things. One that whoever made that video couldn’t imagine. But Minoo could. And I could, too, if I wanted. I didn’t understand, so they opened me a blank page. Type, they said. Type what? I asked. What Minoo would want the world to know, they told me. Show them how Minoo would want them to see. So, I did. I wrote all night. Once I got going I couldn’t stop. And, now, it’s dawn, and you, wherever you are, wherever you’re reading this from, know why you have these two links in front of you. You can click on either, or both, or neither. The decision is yours. In the end it may not matter much. But whatever you do, ask yourself, When you look at Minoo, on the screen or in your mind’s eye, what do you see, and what do you want to? A world where she has something to be ashamed of? Or one where she can be free and alive? Beloved and respected? Holy, even?
by Leila Mansouri