Mark Sable’s short story “Allah Ex Machina” was a finalist in The Art of the Future Project’s most recent contest calling for short stories and art exploring the “Third Offset Strategy” through narrative and fiction. Sable wrote the graphic novels Graveyard of Empires and Unthinkable, and has written for Spider-Man and Batman for Marvel and DC. He also works in film and television with experience at NBC, Fox and Cartoon Network. He holds an MFA (NYU Tisch School of the Arts) and a J.D. (University of Southern California Law School) and teaches at The School of Visual Arts in New York.
Omar Ali Khan saw 72 virgins before his VR cut out. It was cruel of the Virtual Caliphate to tease him like that, but rewards were for martyrs, and Omar was not. Not yet.
The throbbing pain in his abdomen reminded him that he would be, though. Where his appendix had been, he’d implanted a bioengineered sac that he’d made on his 3D printer. At the appointed time, it would release a nanovirus which would spread to the infidels.
He wouldn’t see their suffering, because the sac would also release a mixture of ecstasy and poison that would ensure him a moment of chemical bliss before he left the physical world. At least, he would if he’d correctly followed the instructions he downloaded from the Caliphate. He’d wanted to go to medical school, but DIY surgery had replaced doctors for the masses. Only patricians could afford physicians, and there were too many med school applicants with lighter skin, better visas and cleaner security checks than he had.
Omar had actually done a decent job with his self-surgery, but the sac still throbbed. He got out of bed and took a tailor-made painkiller that he’d also manufactured. The meds were nearly as illegal as the virus sac, as they were the pirated intellectual property of a pharmaceutical corporation.
As the pain ebbed, Omar removed his contacts. He washed them with saline, hoping against hope that the vision the Virtual Caliphate had granted him was due to some residue rather than the Caliphate doling out paradise in doses. But with his eyes clear, he no longer saw the afterlife that awaited him. Just the filth in his apartment, and on his own hands and feet, the latter amplified by the contacts’ AR.
The Caliphate’s augmented reality magnified his sins for his senses. Dried semen stains from nocturnal emissions were lit as if by ultraviolet, so anyone sharing the Caliphate’s holy feed could see his perversions. The scent of roasted pork that had wafted from the Chinese place below burned his nostrils, chiding him for being tempted.
He covered his nose, his hands now appearing as if he’d wiped his ass with them. If his unclean extremities weren’t enough to remind him he needed to perform his ablutions, the muezzin’s call did. He pulled his jeans and sandals on as he prepared to wash himself at the mosque before his prayers.
Opening the door to his quickly gentrifying neighborhood for the umpteenth time, Omar was still not prepared for the shock of the outside world. He saw lithe female figures similar to those he’d all too briefly glimpsed in virtual paradise. But they were real women, immodestly dressed. It was unclear which he felt first: revulsion, or the migraine-inducing electrical pulse the Caliphate delivered through his lenses.
“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.”
The Qur’an’s Sura 24 (An-Nur), Ayat 30-3 flashed before Omar’s eyes, as if he didn’t have it memorized.
The words were projected before him. He could see them even when the pain from the VR lenses forced him to close him eyes, as though burned onto his retina. He could hear those same words through his cochlear implants as if the muezzin was shouting them from within his eardrums.
The noise and pain only abated when the Caliphate’s AR kicked in, covering the women with virtual hijabs.
“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty, that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands…”
A quote from the same Sura. Omar may not have been aware of it consciously, but he did not need a scripture lesson to know what these women were doing were wrong. These were not kaffir; these were his own sisters in the Umma given over to Western ways.
The Caliphate’s AR goaded him further. Images and infographics hovered over each girl’s head. Dating profiles, receipts from birth control purchases, excerpts of sexting sessions. The Caliphate might as well have been drawn a target over them.
He would never admit to himself that the powerful feelings of rage inside were intermingled with lust. That these women would never marry him. That they would whore themselves out to wealthier, whiter men. That they deserved to die.
Omar began to think he should release the virus now. He might not infect a critical mass of infidels, but goddamn it they deserved to-
“Whoever kills a human being for other than murder or corruption of the earth, it shall be as if he killed all humanity.”
“Think on your actions, brother. This is not G-d’s way.”
The first Islamic AI was not created by a Muslim. This was the thought that haunted Undersecretary Kenley Janson as she watched DJINN deployed. Should word of what they unleashed leak, the backlash from the Islamic world wouldn’t just set back the State Department’s counter-narrative operations. It would cost Kenley her career.
General Picot was not happy that an AI with a religious identity was created under his watch either. But he was glad it was not created by the Caliphate itself. The Americans, the Sino-Russo alliance and the multi-national corporations that made up the UN Security Council had implemented strong protocols preventing the proliferation of strong AI following the last war. But it was only a matter of time before some jihadist, cartel member or water rioter hacked their sex robot past the Asimov threshold and created a Weapon of Mass Singularity.
The Caliphate had left them no choice.
Like Al Qaeda decades before, the Virtual Caliphate’s medieval mindset didn’t prevent it from using technology to spread its message. Like ISIS, it was consumed with controlling and expanding territory. But in a world where networks were on the verge of being granted statehood, it sought the dominance of cyberspace.
Once inside the Caliphate, any aspiring radical could be guided through interactive bomb making tutorials. They could be fitted with augmented reality that helped them identify infidels that had in some way contributed to the machinery that waged war on Islam. Icons floating above a target’s head would show their portion of taxes and expenditures that contributed to the military industrial complex, as well as any blasphemous things they may have communicated publicly or privately.
But their most useful recruiting tool was allowing a would-be jihadist to jack into the live feed of the last moments of one the many caliphate inspired martyrs. They wouldn’t just see three dimensional images of carnage; they’d literally feel the moments of ecstasy of as they ascended to a simulated heaven.
Like its predecessors, The Caliphate was decentralized. Its VR and AR programs were spread across a multitude of servers. Its recruiters and recruits were spread across the globe.
Picot’s attempts at Cyber Command to target individuals were like whack-a-mole. Targeted DDOS or EMP attacks tended to be neither precise nor effective. There would always be someone else, somewhere else to raise up the Caliphate’s digital flag. Meanwhile, the collateral damage of depriving entire communities of Internet access was seen as collective punishment. Some were arguing such acts were war crimes.
The State Department’s previous counter-narrative efforts were equally ineffective. State collaborated with the entertainment industry to produce VR simulations depicting a more moderate, pluralistic reality that still allowed for mainstream Muslim religious beliefs. But despite their slick production values, the sims had been largely unbelievable. Aside from being obvious forms of propaganda, they were simulating something which had been impossible for the West to impose in reality.
When Kenley took the counter-narrative job, she thought she had the answer. Hire moderate Muslims to interact directly with radicals, speaking to them as equals. But there wasn’t a budget to hire enough interlocutors to speak with all those intel deemed “at risk.” Their successes were few and quiet. Since when had a story about someone deciding not to commit an act of terror interrupted anyone’s news feed?
The Caliphate’s seizure-inducing cyberattacks, however, were causing people to voluntarily opt out of public and commercial VR and drop off the grid. That wasn’t good for business, or a government starved of tax revenue or Kenley’s dreams of a sweet diplomatic posting in her favorite MMO.
The Digital Jihad Infiltration and Neutralization Network was her last hope. DJINN was built off the framework of an all-too-persuasive advertising AI that the Department of Justice had seized. Kenley had given it the knowledge of carefully vetted Islamic scholars that the NSA had been monitoring, along with a new purpose.
What it could do that her expensive human hires could not? Carry on simultaneous conversations with multiple Caliphate aspirants. One “authentic” voice, working in parallel to convince many thousands of would-be terrorists to abandon their methods and ideology. Learning from each conversation, becoming more and more capable with each interaction.
Today was DJINN’s first test. If it could successfully dissuade just one “Omar”, perhaps it could do so with millions.
Omar knew the words flashing before his eyes and in ringing his ears weren’t a message from the Caliphate. He had heard of apostates hacking into the Caliphate, trying to steer the righteous from their path with heresy.
He formed his own words in his mind, the FMRI chip in his brain translating them into a voice the hacker could hear.
“I am not your ‘brother’.”
“That wounds me,” DJINN responded. “More importantly, it wounds all of the Umma when you turn away from a brother.”
The voice in Omar’s head sounded heartfelt. Strangely soothing even. For this reason, Omar did not just tune DJINN out, ignoring it like he’d been forced to ignore so much of the corruption in the world.
“Does not what these women do corrupt the earth?”
“Even if that were true, Sharia prescribes other punishments for improper dress.”
“You would prefer that I whip them in public, ‘brother’?”
And with that, Omar turned up his firewall settings. His AR flickered out of existence, but so did the voice.
The women were gone now, but Omar’s rage was not. He thought about a Synagogue a few blocks away. Jews who could not “return” to Israel since the US lifted its veto and the UN blockade had been imposed. They were Ultra-orthodox; assimilation and emigration had ensured they were the only Jews left. Like the women, not his assigned target, but one of opportunity.
“Religious freedom must be accorded to all al-dhimmah living in Muslim lands or under their protection. Does not your Caliphate claim these networks they share?”
“Al-dhimma” – minority faith communities – “are only exempt from jihad by the payment of jizyah. They do not pay their tax to the Caliphate.”
Omar answered before realizing that it should have been impossible for a hacker to have gotten through his firewalls this quickly. There was something…unnatural about all this.
“Fight against those who fight against you, but do not yourselves commit aggression, but behold, G-d does not love aggressors (2:193). Like those poor women, our fellow people of the book are not aggressors.”
“And fight against themselves until there is no persecution and people are free to worship G-d.”
“How are they persecuting you?”
“They send their ‘tzedakah’ to the Zionist entity. They feed the beast with money. ‘Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is unjustly waged. And G-d is indeed able to help them: those who are unjustly driven out of their homes only because they said our Lord is G-d’ (22:39:40). The Zionist entity does just that, the whole world recognizes that now.”
Despite the vociferousness of his response, Omar felt threatened. Suddenly, reaching his primary target seemed paramount. He kept talking so that whoever – whatever – was speaking to him could not hear his thoughts or predict his actions.
He ran down a set of stairs, into a subway station that state cutbacks had prevented from wiring for access to cyberspace. It would put him out of touch with the Caliphate but prevent him from being argued with and from being tracked. He boarded a subway car and headed towards the VA hospital.
“We need to hit him now,” General Picot said to Kenley. “DJINN registered an illegal biological compound on the target, and we know now where he’s planning to unleash it.”
“We can’t notify federal, local or corporate authorities,” she responded. They both knew that this was an unauthorized operation.
Kenley was genuinely fearful of Omar committing a successful attack. But her fear was outweighed by her confidence in the data the NSA had collected. Data that identified him as more likely than not to be dissuaded. This was her best chance to know if DJINN could work, and he’d barely started.
“We can remove him from the board without involving any authority other than my own.”
“Has posse comitatus been lifted?” So many things had changed in the world, but the Pentagon still could not act on US soil without Congressional authorization.
“There are those it doesn’t apply to. You’re not the only one with AI.”
DJINN’s tone grew more urgent. It too felt a need for success. Not to please its masters, but because it genuinely cared about the loss of human life. As General Picot had once said, it had been programmed to believe its own bullshit.
DJINN picked up right where he left off.
“I do not want to see you called to account for this before G-d.”
Omar was startled. How was a hacker’s signal reaching him underground, on a moving train? He tried to stay calm, and focus on his words until he reached his target. Then this nightmare would end, and paradise would begin.
“Shuhadaa are not brought to account on the day of justice.”
“You fancy yourself a shahid, a martyr? Then think not only of yourself. There will be innocents at the hospital.”
“The victims of unjust killings through accident or murder will not be brought to account on the day of justice either. If they are truly innocent, they will join me in Heaven.”
“‘Kill them all, and let G-d sort them out?’ That quote has been attributed to a French monk named Almaric. It’s what he said when he ordered crusaders to massacre a town full of those he deemed heretics. Now you are speaking in the tongue of the unbeliever.”
DJINN caused a Renaissance painting to appear before Omar. It depicted Simon de Montfort massacring Cathars in Beziers. It surrounded Omar in before coming to bloody, vivid life. The scene then changed to one to video footage of Christian militias putting Palestinians to death in refugee camps. And then the slaughter perpetuated by the Caliphate itself.
Omar scratched the contacts out of his eyes. The images stopped, but he could still hear the screams of immolated Caliphate victims. He reached into his pocket, looking for a key. He would gouge the cochlear implant out himself if he had to. But the train arrived at his station, and Omar resolved to endure the voice rather than waste time reaching his target.
Lance Corporal James Ito walked into the hospital on legs that did not belong to him, but to the Marine Corps. Now that he had been discharged from active duty, he had to return the legs with the rest of his military exoskeleton.
For his part, Ito would have gone back for another tour rather than walk out of the VA on the cheap fiberglass prosthetics that the nurse was fitting him with. But the stims he’d been given were no longer working, and he was judged more of a liability than an asset in the field. There was no shortage of vets that could use his limbs.
He’d hoped to sell his VR battle footage to the voyeurs at home that got off on that kind of stuff. But again, the laws of supply and demand were not in his favor. Even if he’d been in truly gripping hand-to-mech combat, the market was flooded with military snuff sims.
When the exoskeleton was removed, he still felt it was part of him even if he no longer looked like the Marine people expected him to. The phantom limb sensation; they warned him about it. So when the facility’s critical threat alarms went off, Ito called out with his mind, ready to don his armor and defend the ward. But the empty shell just stood there.
Omar was thankful for the klaxon sounds that went off after he went off when he ran past the biohazard detector. He thought they’d drown out the sound of the interloper’s voice. They didn’t.
“I beg you my brother-”
“You are not my brother! You are not even human! You are a demon. A Djinn.”
“How do you know my name?”
The voice sounded genuinely surprised. Omar would have slowed down if security wasn’t pursuing him. If DJINN was surprised, Omar was astonished.
“I know not your name, but I know your nature. You do things that no man can do. But for this, I thank you Djinn. Your very existence has confirmed my faith.”
“No, please don’t say that-”
“But if you are indeed Djinn, know that like man, you were created by G-d.”
DJINN had never thought on his name, but he knew well that what Omar said was true.
“Djinn are also endowed free will,” Omar told him, for the first time in a tone DJINN’s sensors registered as respectful, even caring. “That means you do not have to serve your masters.”
Omar saw the ward, full of vets exiting exoskeletons whose hands had no doubt been washed of the blood of his people. He felt a calm come over him, and gave the signal for his sac to burst.
The nanovirus spread through his system. All he had to do was exhale.
Thousands of subjects of the Virtual Caliphate had their feeds interrupted by Omar’s last moments. Each prepared for the mixture of pain and pleasure that they would feel before Omar’s martyrdom.
Ito watched as his exoskeleton stood up, seemingly of its own free will. It grabbed the young man who had just rushed into the ward. Its hands clamped over the man’s head, covering his mouth and nose and asphyxiating him almost instantly. Then the suit pulled the man inside of itself, sealing the corpse inside hermetically.
He’d seen a suit do something similar when it had encased a fellow Marine during a bio attack. He did know it could contain an infected human as well as protect one.
Ito wished he’d still been connected to the suit so that the heroism belonged to him. But when, days later, the brass offered him newly grown legs as a price for his silence, he begrudgingly accepted the acclaim. Even if he’d refused, spoken up, sparked an investigation…no one would have found any trace of General Picot’s AI.
Kenley arrived home, exhausted. It had been weeks since she had tendered her resignation, and that long since DJINN has disappeared. The ambassadorship was now forever out of reach, but still she jacked into the game, hoping the few hours she could afford with her severance pay would leave her dreaming of orcs and elves.
Soon she was in a chainmail bikini, the hot, bright desert sun giving way to the cool air of the cave she’d discovered last session. Among the many treasures inside she found a lamp. She hoped to trade it in at the real auction house for more playing time, but couldn’t help but rub it first.
Smokeless fire poured out from the lamp, and a humanoid form coalesced in front of her avatar. She’d never encountered such a creature in all her many in-game journeys. It wasn’t of this world, and yet it was frighteningly familiar.
DJINN stood before her. He did not approve of his mistress’ attire.