“Why don’t you go join them?” asked Ozioma. Showing up behind Amaka on the balcony, the landlady lit an English-brand cigarette, leaned against the railings, and peered down.
“I used to be the dance queen of our village,” Ozioma went on, her eyes hazy with nostalgia. “Not trying to brag here, but not a single boy could take his eyes off me. My father hated when I danced, though. He threatened to hit me every time he caught me dancing.”
“Did you listen to him?”
Ozioma laughed heartily. “Why on earth would a child give up what they love because their parents said no? Eventually, I found a way that could allow me to at least finish the dance.”
“What was it?” asked Amaka.
“I would wear an Agbogho Mmuo every time I danced.”
“What?” Amaka’s eyes widened. The Agbogho Mmuo was the sacred mask of northern Igbo, representing maiden spirits as well as the mother of all living creation.
“See, my father had your exact expression when he saw me with the mask. He had no choice but to bow down, to show his respect to the mask and the goddess it embodies. Of course, after I was done with the dance, with the mask stripped off, I would get my share of scolding,” said Ozioma, beaming with pride, as if the memory had temporarily brought her back to the days when she was a young girl.
Upon hearing Ozioma’s story, Amaka felt an idea, blurry and shapeless, darting across his mind like a fish. He scrunched up his face, thinking. “The mask …”
“Yes, child. The mask is where my power came from.”
“Strip off the mask? Strip off the mask,” murmured Amaka.
All of a sudden, he leapt to his feet and kissed Ozioma on the cheek. “Thank you, oh thank you, my dance queen!” He dashed back to his room, leaving behind the hustle and bustle of the parade and a very confused Ozioma.
“Maybe spinning a lie and putting it in FAKA’s mouth won’t make his followers abandon their idol,” Amaka told Chi via video chat that afternoon, excited with his new discovery. “But stripping off its mask and revealing the hidden puppet master might.”
“No one knows who the puppet master is, though,” Chi replied.
“Exactly!” Amaka beamed. “Can’t you see? It means that the puppet master can be anyone.”
“So, you’re suggesting that …”
“I can strip off FAKA’s mask and make him any person you want him to be.”
Chi fell silent in the video chat.
“You’re a fucking genius,” Chi finally muttered.
“Ndewo,” Amaka said, preparing to sign off.
“Wait,” Chi looked up. “It means that you need to create a face that exists in reality.”
“A face that can fool all the anti-fake detectors,” added Chi, musing. “Think about the color distortion, the noise pattern, the compression rate variation, the blink frequency, the biosignal … is it doable?”
“I need time,” said Amaka. “And unlimited cloud AI computing power.”
“I’ll get back to you.” Chi logged off.
Amaka gazed at his own reflection in the dimming monitor screen. The adrenaline rush that had initially washed over him had faded. He saw on his face not excitement, but exhaustion and an unsettled feeling, as if he had betrayed a guardian spirit watching from above.
In theory anyone could fake a perfect image or video, at least well enough to fool the existing anti-fake detectors. The problem was the cost—computing power.
Fakes and their detectors were engaged in an eternal battle, like Eros and Thanatos. Amaka had his work cut out for him, but he was determined to succeed in achieving his singular goal: the creation of a real, human face.