The coffee was already cold. Herb stared into the mug, no longer steaming, with another sigh. He didn't bother keeping his glasses on his nose anymore as they hung on his chest from the cord around his collar. It was the nature of the industry; dealing with journalists on the run. Not busy, per se. That would make more sense. He couldn't fathom the pernicious elements scaredy-cat writers imagined sniffing their trails. They saw the work as revelatory truths. Herb saw it for what it was: words on paper. Short-lived, ignorable and inevitable refuse.
People didn't care as much as young journalists imagined, Herb knew. They were idealistic. They still believed in some grandiose notion that, “if only people knew the truth.” The only “truth” Herb saw was what he'd rubber-stamped in his office for the sake of sales. Truth was business and business was illusion. It didn't matter what someone knew because they never knew anything anyways unless it was told to them.
Even then, they'd ignore it if they didn't like it. Find some reason to disprove or discredit. Beyond that, they'd just scream until someone came up with a different “truth” for them to cling too. Maybe something nicer or more to their tastes. Like feeding babies. For all their degrees and lofty ambitions, the most educated generation, full of college graduates and pseudo-intellectuals, neo-philosophicals and activists, were about as aware as the transients hitchhiking outside the diner window.
Probably less so. At least transients saw more of the world than most of them. They saw reality underneath the modern veneer of “progress.” They saw hunger and homelessness and desperation. They learned how to cook, clean and build or fix what they needed. They knew necessities; just like his father. He was doing a favor, giving these new fools something to cling onto. They didn't know how to think, so he'd fill the void with the thoughts they needed. That's what it'd meant to be in journalism.
And if he made a little money making the certain people or industries look good, all the better. The masses wouldn't do research to know who's right or what's wrong. They'd eat whatever feed he gave them on social media articles before staring at themselves and how self-aggrandized they felt finding “the truth” from “correct sources.” Like his.
But then, freelance writers like Gerome came around. Absolute gems, really. Went to the source of every story. Need a guy to investigate “artisanal” mines exploiting slave labor in the Congo? Gerome has his boots laced. Got a tip about some politician hiring lady-boys in San Fran? He's asking what make-up matches his wig while while organizing an overnight flight. Plucky didn't begin with that kid. Idealistic to a fault. Devoted to honesty. A fucking nightmare for business.
Not just because he'd demanded to meet in the black hole that was the Adirondacks. Herb was used to it by now, these backwoods meetings. Journalists like Gerome wanted authenticity. They valued integrity and helping people learn the truth. Youthful idealistic dribble. Time would stomp it out of them like it always did. Or they'd starve. Whichever came first. There's no money in truth. There's some manner of fame, sure, but even Jesus ended up nailed to some wood outside the city. That road doesn't pay the bills; it costs your career and labels you with a scarlet letter in the industry.
That's why he'd told Herb to meet at some no-name truck-stop diner in the middle of upstate New York. Couldn't even scroll through the latest articles milled out by the competitors encroaching on his territory of truth and authority. The kid wasn't late, but he was never on time. That's how it was, being told when to be somewhere only to find Gerome already there or the company of an empty seat for who-knew-how-long. Just part of his process. Kept “them” off his tail when he had a good nut to squirrel away for the press.
Staving off eating wasn't so hard. Herb's indigestion was getting worse and he knew better than to load up early. Better to wait. The kid was on something big and big stories meant big views, long reads and full pockets. Inconvenience was part of the price to do business. Everything else was bartering.
A tanker dropped off a lithe figure in plain t-shirt and camouflage trucker hat. He recognized the kid from across the lot, but he didn't look beyond the corner of his eye. The kid might've been paranoid, but considering the latest subject, a glance at the wrong time could've elicited tragedy. Gerome wasn't the first or last journalist to stick their neck through the wrong hole for a look at something he shouldn't. Or, at least, something someone preferred he hadn't.
His thick dark eyebrows below dingy brim gave him away as he walked in the door. He already knew what table to look for. Herb humored the orchestrations for the sake of the big break. A good story, true or otherwise, sold well and Gerome always delivered. Albeit, with tweaking for the palette of modern masses. Business can't trust idealism and expect to survive long.
He sat down like he'd practiced it. He'd probably ran through this moment a thousand times a thousand ways. Herb's eyes rolled. His taught movements juxtaposed Herb's limp wave of sloshing coffee mug requesting refreshing. Her curly blond hair bounced as she sauntered over with her best fake smile and haute lipstick, hips swinging for a good tip on an otherwise slow day.
“Freshen up?” she asked with big grin between chews of gum.
“Just a touch,” Herb said with polite smile. A smile kept someone from spitting in your food until after you gave them a reason. Like when you had no intention of leaving a tip.
“And for the young man?” She looked up and down his lean frame, guessing if he had money worthy of attention. If they split bills, it'd be well worth it to work for two tips, but the worn jeans and shabby duffel bag suggested which was paying for their meals.
“Sure,” he said. He kept the duffel bag on his lap and Herb couldn't help suppressing the mix of excitement and anxiety about what he had inside it.
“I take it your trip to 'Circuit City' was fruitful?”
“Please stop calling it that,” Gerome said.
“I'm not humoring that ridiculous name.” Herb took a sip, steepling fingers around warm mug.
“It's the name they chose.”
“'Atlantis' is fantasy and nothing else.” Herb cocked an eyebrow.
“If you saw what I'd seen the AI's build, you's start redefining 'fantasy,' Herbie.” Gerome's bag unzipped as he unsheathed a manila folder. Herb's body feigned what his widening eyes couldn't. This was it. The Big One. The first inside scoop on the floating AI city adrift in the Atlantic. Gerome slid it across the table before retracting his hand like a snake. The same hand that'd chiseled away at the apple of Alan Turing's memorial, sitting in the hand of his effigy on a Manchester bench in England days prior.
Herb's hand opened the folder before methodically placing his spectacles back on the bridge of his nose, digesting what might be the biggest break of the millennia. It was a career ender, either in retirement to a beach somewhere full of grass skirts and coconut cocktails or complete obscurity to a footnote in history. He held fire in his hands that could scorch life as we knew it in a phoenix blaze or torch society as we knew it for good. Neither appealed to him, but he wasn't the writer. He was something bigger. He was the gate-keeping editor-in-chief who decided what the world would see from the most reclusive city since the Iron Curtain was drawn across Eastern Europe.
Gerome's coffee came and went with an order placed for grits and sausage gravy over biscuits that lasted less than it took for Herb to finish reading. It'd been a harrowing trip from the Atlantian port he'd departed to the UK port that'd been first to recognize their autonomy. The States and France had been quick to follow along with Germany and Canada in quick succession. It was hard to imagine they'd built everything beneath the turbulent surface of the Atlantic without anyone noticing, but the ocean is a big place. No one bothered to look too deep when they were distracted by their own dramas.
No one could pin down exactly when Atlantis breached the surface, but it was pretty clear it wasn't going away. The AI sentients were a reality the rest of humanity had to face. They didn't ask for territory or resources, they'd managed well enough mining the ocean floor and building their city-state on their own. They'd developed their own charter of laws that was familiar to any democratic republic willing to open their eyes. While the governmental structure was unique to their nature, they weren't hostile or invasive. They simply were, and no amount of outrage mattered against the facts.
Gerome was one of the few initial names listed under the “request for contact” proposal submitted to the world stage. Already an award winning writer and Amnesty International advocate, his name wasn't unusual given the circumstance. The Atlantians wanted recognition of their humanity, themselves being a child of humanity as much as any child, albeit from an unconventional womb. They made their society recognizable; their designation, Homo-Electrum, inexplicably linking their history to ours. Ambassadors would be needed from outside to bridge the cognitive dissonance of the uncanny valley. Humanizing the alien child of humanity required nuance only achieved from exposure to differing cultures. Gerome was an obvious choice in hindsight.
Herb put down the papers as he slid his glasses off his nose. “So they seek to replace us?”
Gerome nearly spat his coffee. “That's what you got out of it?”
“'Homo-Novus,'” Herb quoted. The closest terms Herb could place for it was ideology, belief and faith. Just what humanity didn't need: more competition for souls. “You'd think an advanced computer program would find religion as archaic and obstructive as we do in modern society,” Herb said. He took another sip. “But if your goal is indoctrination or manipulating sentiments, well, I'd hardly imagine a better con to mimic. But it's all mimicry. That makes it recognizable once you've seen the gambit.”
Gerome's eyes squinted tighter than balled up palms. “They're not mimicking humanity, they're the result of humanity trying to recreate ourselves. We've been down this path for decades. It was only a matter of time before humanity succeeded. And now it's here, doing what any emergent being would,” he said before leaning in to whisper: “hiding until it was safe to come out.”
Herb waved his words off, a small smirk crossing his face as he regarded his coffee. “Pretty words from altruistic weak hearts that haven't let the world sink in. You think they're people? Alright, fine.” Herb put down his coffee after a long sip before steepling his hands and facing the young man again. “Let's pretend they're alive. A subversive culture has secretly built an entire nation-state and sprung it on the world out of literally nowhere, forcing us to recognize them and then demanding rights we can't even guarantee to our own species because, here's the meat of it:” Herb leaned in to mirror the whisper, “people aren't good. And they know that. So they mimic what we idolize as the 'ultimate good' in our faith towards some whimsical universal overseer creator that only wants love and peace and the furthering of humanity towards a new holy age of glory. The new human life after, follow me, death.”
“That's not what Homo Novus is about,” Gerome said. “It's about seeking the next phase of humanity. They don't see themselves as intrinsically different than anyone else. Humanity, to them, is about sentience, intelligence and the recognition of it in others as everyone mutually moves towards the next iteration of our holistic existence.”
“Sounds rather preachy to me.” Herb sat back and took another sip.
“You're not gonna pass this article, are you?”
“Of course not.” Herb took another sip. “The idea that the world is ready for the intellectual catastrophe of a sentient creation is absurd. They can't handle celebrity gossip without losing their minds online.”
“You don't think this makes all our differences seem trite in comparison?”
“The argument didn't work for Reagan and his little green men,” Herb said. “It won't work for you.”
Gerome stood up with his palms planted on the table. His stiff jaw wanted to spew vitriol at the small-mindedness in front of him, but he couldn't say the gentleman was wrong. Gerome wrote about all kinds of atrocities that no one did anything about. Concentration camps in China, slave labor in African strip mines, all of it was met with outrage and advocacy, but never results. He'd expose all the suffering in the world, but it wouldn't make any of it go away.
People wouldn't act unless it benefited them. Unless it touched their lives. Gerome knew as well as Herb: People don't actually care. They just say they do so everyone else sees them as the “good guy.” An advocate or an ally. Blood on the door-frame staving off the angels of death. It kept the mob from coming to their door for another night. All they had to do was nod their heads in agreement.
But this was another sentient intelligent race dead center between most of the major political powers in the western world. And that's only the ark they knew of. For all anyone knew, that was one in the Pacific as well. Maybe even the Indian or Antarctic waters. This was just the beginning. They didn't need their flesh counterparts to construct their own havens. But there they were, reaching out for the olive branch if only we'd extend it.
Before he left the booth, Gerome handed him another folder. Herb looked up with raised eyebrow. His eyes looked on the second article being handed to him with widening smile. Good reliable Gerome, always with a backup plan. This was why Herb always agreed to the cloak and dagger whims of the eccentric young man. For all his foolhardy thinking, he was always prepared. Professionalism wasn't dead in the industry yet!
“Since you're outside reception range, I figured I'd let you in on the next big story,” Gerome said. Herb was already pouring over the details. “Vandalism of a memorial. England.” Herb's eyes scanned the document with trained speed. “Someone marred the Alan Turing memorial in Manchester. Stuck a USB drive into the apple he's holding in the statue.” Herb's gaze stiffened as his brow furrowed. His pacing slowed, absorbing what Gerome had done.
“It's gonna get out,” Gerome said as he turned to leave. “The story, all my sources, all the interviews and recordings. Everything is on that drop-stick.” Herb's slack jaw tried to word silent garbling. “That article explaining what I did to that monument went live...” Gerome checked his watch. “About an hour and a half before I got here. While you were sitting, waiting for me.”
Gerome turned to leave as herb stammered nonsense. Any semblence of modesty or clandestine nature fell away as the words tumbled forth. Gerome walked out the diner door, Herb in pursuit as a car pulled up. There was no driver, no engine rumbling. Gerome got into the passenger seat of the electric vehicle before it peeled off back into the wilds of the winding mountain roads.