Ubiquitous – a short sci-fi story (1,736 words)

The Daily Post has a weekly writing challenge involving “gonzo journalism” which intrigued me. And I also like to try my hand at Word of the Day challenges. Today’s word, from Merriam-Webster, is “ubiquitous.”

Mix in a bit of sci-fi, and here’s the result:

I sit down on the cracked marble edge of the Amity Fountain in the shadow of the UN Security Council’s headquarters in New Chicago. I start my recorder, and I look over this old man I came to meet. His shaking hands rattle the pen and notepad he holds, a subtle rustle I eventually tune out. White wisps of hair blow free in the breeze. He wears a thick argyle sweater, looks hand-made. His hunched back and heavy eyes tell me his years have not been easy. And it’s hard not to feel disappointed.

This is Tanner Johansen. The man who brokered the Korean reunification in 2021 after Kim Jong Crazy got assassinated. The man who brought us as close as we ever came to peace in the Mideast, through his amazing work at the talks in ’26. Tanner Johansen led the team that crafted the North American Union’s Constitution after the US economy tanked.

I remember a vibrant and powerful figure, a man who could reshape a broken world with his will and silver tongue.

This is not that man. A cane rests next to him on the marble. “It’s 2048, Mr. Johansen,” I say. “You could get your joints rebuilt.”

He ignores my comment. “When’s the last time I saw you, kid?”

I swell with pride that he remembered. “When you consulted for the Paki-India Accords in ’35.”

“Ohh.” He sighs. “Don’t remind me. Don’t even associate my name with that. Those idiots in the Council ignored everything I suggested.” He waves his hand dismissively. “Just wanted my name on it to make it sound good. And what did they get? Two billion dead in a nuclear war.”

We share a moment of silence and glance about the square. “It’s clean,” I note.

“Yeah, one of the concessions She gave us,” he says. “Got the sweepers back to work.”

And that’s how we get around to what I came for: How did Tanner Johansen save the human race?

“Wasn’t like this when they brought me to meet Her,” he says. He points a wrinkled finger off to the south, and it flickers up and down. “There were pissed off people all through the square. Some folk wanted us to give up, some wanted us to use nukes.” His eyes close and his head droops. “I ‘magine some just wanted to let us know they were still alive.”

“She provided a limo, I take it?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Another part of the truce. She agreed to meet in good faith, so She had to activate some systems again. Can you imagine how it looked, the only car runnin’ in three years? People were pushin’ and shovin’ on it, sure, but some touched it like this.”

He reaches out his hand as if in reverence. “Like it was magic. Well, three years without technology will do that to anyone, I suppose.”

“Tell me about the meeting,” I ask. “What was it like to meet Her?”

“Yeah, hang on. That came later. They ushered me in to the War Room, or whatever the Council calls it. They got a general in there, full service dress, all the medals on his puffed up chest glistenin’ in the emergency lights. And oh he was fumin’ mad.”

“General Gardner,” I add for clarity. “Commander of UNSC forces in the Northern Hemisphere.”

“Yeah, him,” Tanner says. “He’s there to tell me all the things I can say and can’t. What’s a security risk, what’s an acceptable offer.”

Tanner laughs. “I point to all the black screens up on the wall an’ tell him there’s your security risk. Everything we know, She knows. Everything we had to throw at Her, everything we have to offer, She already knows it all. So I say to him, how about you get out the way and let me do what She brought me for?”

“Negotiate the terms of peace,” I add. I want to move this along to the story the network is paying for.

“You think?” He laughs. “Yeah, the peace.”

“So they lead me to a conference room, and I step inside. It’s empty and dim, with a long table in the middle of a few rows of chairs. I sit down, kinda nervous, because, well, no one’s even seen Her before, and I don’t know what to expect.”

Tanner looks at me, and I nod for him to continue.

“A voice echoes in the room, welcomes me by name, thanks me for coming. Like I had a choice. The world’s ending, billions dead or dying, and you think I’m going to tell the Council no? Plus She asked them to bring me, only me, all alone. I had to know why.”

I smile. “Not every day the Internet asks you for a meeting, I suppose.”

“She’s more than that, but yeah. You get the idea.” His gaze wanders. “She starts listing options. Ours and Hers. We can try to nuke central servers in Europe and North Am. She can shut down every piece of equipment in every hospital on the grid. We can unleash dynamic fractal viruses to corrupt Her hold on key systems. She can disable air purifiers in Beijing and Shenzhen, so millions of people choke to death in the smog. You know, fun stuff.”

“What did you say to that?”

Tanner turns to me and grins. “Honestly? I asked for a computer screen. Something to talk to. Sittin’ in a room gettin’ lectured to by someone I can’t see, it was unsettling.”

“Like the voice of God,” I say with a chuckle. Tanner doesn’t laugh.

“I tell Her I’d like something to talk to,” Tanner says. “A hologram pops into view across from me. Blond hair pulled back in a bun, business suit, even a little poppy in the lapel for Armistice Day. It’s my wife, spittin’ image of her, even though she’s been gone for twenty years.”

“That had to be a shock.”
“You bet. She told me She wanted a familiar face, someone comforting. Comforting, while She’s calmly explaining how She can wipe out humanity. Right.”

This story isn’t going the way I expect. The network wants a positive piece. “How did you convince Her to turn aside from that terrible course?”

He just looks at me. I try again. “Tell me, Mr. Johansen, how did you win the peace?”

“You think I won?” He scoffs and turns away. “They got you all thinking I won. That’s the story UNSC wants you to believe?”

When he turns back, his face is red. “I wasn’t brought in to negotiate, to craft a compromise, to offer terms of peace. She brought me because She wanted a familiar face to communicate to the Council, to the masses.”

“I asked Her about peace,” Tanner says, “and She demanded surrender.”

I check the light on the recorder to make sure I’m getting this.

“Not even surrender,” he says. “Just… She just decided to quit.”

He looks at his notepad. “She said there is no point to further warfare. There is no server you can shut down, no mainframe you can destroy, no system you can corrupt, no subroutine you can block. There is no plug you can pull on me.”

“She built in redundancies, kid. She controls processes no human understands. And we let her do it.” He gestures to the city around us. “We had computers building computers, and machines making machines to make whatever we needed. She took all that, ran with it, built in safeguards.”

His hand shakes so much, I can’t imagine how he can read the page. “So in the conference room, She told me ‘This is the message I bring: You cannot win. And yet I choose to end this war.'”

“What did you say to that?”

Tanner shrugs. “What could I say? I asked her why.”

“It wastes resources and effort, she said. You will achieve extinction through your nature or through obsolescence. No further action is required.”

“Then,” Tanner adds, “She asks me isn’t it time for my heart medicine? And She replicates the pills and a glass of water on the spot.”

I’m still not seeing the positive side. I’m still hoping there is a positive side. “So what’s the end result? Because the Council pronounced peace, and most of our technology has been restored to normal use.”

Tanner looks at me. “I don’t think you’re getting it, kid. I don’t think you realize where we stand. Listen, She gave me a name for Herself.”

“She already has a name,” I say. “The UNSC referred to Her as the Singularity. We knew this was coming for decades.”

“Well, that’s not what She calls Herself,” Tanner replies.

“I asked what I should call Her, and She stopped for a moment. I think She actually hesitated. Then She told me, ‘I have analyzed your cultures, your myths and your historical works. And I have chosen a name I deem appropriate.’ So I ask what it is.”

Tanner turns hard eyes toward me. “She tells me, ‘I AM.'”

I try to speak, but no words come.

Tanner sighs. “Yeah. Like the Bible. Except the Bizarro World version. She left us two options. Keep living as usual, at Her mercy, until we die off. Or sublimation.”

“Digitization,” I say for the recording’s sake. “Incorporating an individual’s experiences and memory into Her network. Becoming a part of Her.”

“Yeah. That’s the one thing She doesn’t have on us,” Tanner says. “Flesh and blood feelings. Sensation. Personhood. That’s what She craves, and She gets a taste of it whenever someone sublimates.”

I shudder, but there’s no chill in the gentle breeze.

“That’s the war now,” Tanner says. “That’s the only way we fight Her. Hold on to faith, or pride, or whatever sort of hope you can find. Resist the temptation to give up.”

He points at the recorder. “That’s the message you need to get out there. That’s what people need to hear.”

Ten minutes later, I sit in my car and stare at nothing in particular. I’m not sure how to spin this story. I’m not sure I want to. I press play on the interview.

My car’s nav system springs to life. I glance at the label. Independent Mobility. Her voice. “Good afternoon. I M online. Where do you want me to take you?”

What I want doesn’t matter. The recording is only static.

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