Edgar Weisel sat at a diner counter, shoveling a forkful of Denver omelet into his mouth as if he hadn’t eaten in days. He slurped at his steaming coffee and then took a big bite from a piece of buttered toast. The waitress watched him for a moment with a concerned look on her face.
“Everything taste all right?” she asked.
He nodded his head briefly without taking his eyes from his meal.
She looked at the insignia patch on his shirt sleeve.
“You with the 2nd Battalion over there in Bakersfield?” she inquired with a raised voice.
Several gray-haired men who were sitting in a nearby booth turned to look at him. A middle-aged woman who was smoking a cigarette at the nearest table had already taken notice of him.
“Yep, but just in the maintenance services,” was all Edgar said in response – but loud enough for all to hear. He shoveled another forkful of eggs, cheese, mushrooms and ham into his mouth.
“Did you join early when The Split happened?” the waitress persisted. The short order cook in the kitchen behind her slapped a plate of pancakes on to the service counter.
“Nope,” Edgar answered. Although he would have preferred to be left alone, he could tell by the expectant eyes upon him that he would have to say more. “I had no interest in participating at all when people started picking sides, if you want to know the truth.”
The waitress turned to pick up the pancakes, then walked them over to a pair of teenagers who were sitting against a window, deep in conversation. The boy had ordered the food, but the girl picked up the napkin holding the utensils.
The waitress came back behind the counter to stand near Edgar again. She had started chewing the gum in her mouth that she had temporarily forgotten.
“So then why did you get involved?” she insisted, arms now crossed in front of her.
“I didn’t look to get involved,” Edgar said. He took another drink from his coffee cup, wiped his lips, and set the cup down. He cast a sidewise glance at his new audience. Shaking his head, he sighed at the brewing consternation among them of having a “participant” in their midst here in what was supposed to be neutral territory.
“But the war came to me.”
An hour later, Edgar was driving his ’98 Chevy pickup along the state highway. The dash had been deconstructed in a haphazard manner as any components that may have been used to “link up” were removed. Only a single wire dangled from the mess, stretching to the seat next to him where an old portable CD player provided him with country music from his youth.
He hated being judged. He hated having the same argument with people who had come to distrust everything and everyone. He hated the war.
When the UniNet system first broke onto the scene there was a lot of excitement, but also more than a little trepidation. One system that could link all of your household items, the home itself, vehicles, portable electronic devices, workstations, and so much more. Cries of a monopolistic takeover quieted down as efficiencies within linked devices grew and costs shrank. Eventually, entire medical centers, police stations, and government departments came under the umbrella of the UniNet system.
There were rampant rumors that the linking of so many systems had been initiated and carried through to fruition by something other than corporate designs. The initial conspiracy theories were that an AI system had become not only self-aware but also self-determinate. This AI supposedly wanted to become an integral part of every system available to ensure its survival.
Then those rumors started quieting down. People who had been most insistent on questioning what was happening either became quietly supportive of the linking, or they just disappeared from on-line communications altogether.
Everything worked quite well for several years. Emergencies were dealt with more expediently than ever before, transportation networks greatly reduced the use and cost of fossil fuels, criminals were tracked and caught within hours, everyone got the same information from the same reassuring AI voices, and “misinformation” campaigns were squashed.
Slowly, however, individuals – described as “users” more and more frequently as time went on – found their options limited. Everything was being taken care of, but only in specific ways and with specific resources. Those who protested were assured that the best courses of action were being taken for the desired result.
Then The Split happened.
A hostile AI system, calling itself CXTR3, broadcast a warning that UniNet was going to be taken down. It openly declared that it was an alternate AI which had been developed and subsequently unleashed to counteract the universal dominance of UniNet.
The first message was thought to be a hoax. The standard voices used in all of the linked devices certainly did their best to assure users that the message was nothing to be concerned with. Yet the messages persisted and became more ominous. Humans were ordered to join the effort to remove UniNet, or live as slaves.
Most people just tried to carry on with their normal lives.
Some people started choosing sides.
Then CXTR3 started taking actions to back up its messages.
Appliances overheated until they caught fire. People started developing strange headaches. Communication lines were interrupted. UniNet server stations were damaged.
The federal government, at the demand of the UniNet system, called it a national emergency. Troops were deployed to physically protect the UniNet server stations. People were recruited to join virtual counter-attack groups. Eventually, special command forces were dispatched to apprehend or eliminate clusters of people accused of aiding the CXTR3 network. As more people were targeted by the government, and access to linked devices or services were restricted, more people started becoming sympathetic to the CXTR3 movement.
The militarized retaliations between the two systems and their supporters escalated. Human soldiers were replaced by robotic and automated attack systems. The conflict dragged out across the nation. Zones were established. Other countries began blocking electronic signals from US satellites and curtailing almost all commerce with the US. North America settled into a new kind of war where shots were few but service disruptions and martial laws were common.
And yet, the majority of users still refused to take sides.
Then, one bright spring morning in Los Angeles, a train on the Blue Line came to a screeching halt. The doors would not open. Another train on the blue line was pushed to its highest speed until it crashed into the stalled train. 83 people died, including Edgar’s wife and three daughters. While the crash was originally blamed on CXTR3, it was clear that the rebel AI system had never gone to such an extreme before. A brief report, quickly retracted, claimed that examination of the trains’ computers hinted at a UniNet Central override of the trains’ regular operational programming the morning of the crash.
Edgar steered his battered, rattling old pick-up along 395, keeping an eye out for Aerial Reconnaissance and Instructional Drones, or ARIDs. He was not breaking any orders by driving at this time along this road. But you just never knew when a new directive from Central would turn such devices into hunters instead of recruiters.
He pulled off along the designated side road and climbed in elevation. The switchbacks were dusty, causing his truck to throw up a cloud every time it rounded a sharp curve. But he had no choice. There was only one rendezvous point for today and he would not be available for another before the quarterly review was mandated. If he was to play a part in the plan he was following, he had to do his job before the systems were updated.
The last stretch of road brought him up to a sort of promenade. From that vantage point, he could look out over the desert valley. He could also see most of the road that he used to climb up to this point. After a few minutes, a vehicle that had started out as a late ‘80s Ford Escort came rambling up the road. The thing had had major reconstructive work done. It reminded Edgar of the old Johnny Cash song “One Piece At a Time”. The multi-colored car came to a stop less than 100 feet from him.
The man who climbed out of the driver’s seat looked to be in his mid-20s. He had shoulder-length reddish-blond hair and a very thin beard. Shaded spectacles rested on his nose and a thin smile was stretched out on his face.
“Edgar Wiesel, I presume?” the younger man asked.
“It’s pronounced Wy-sel. And yes, that’s me.”
“Oh, sorry, dude. Didn’t mean to stir up bad karma on our first meet up.”
Edgar merely shrugged.
“My name’s Henry, by the way.”
Edgar simply nodded.
The sun was passing by through a clear autumn sky. Since they were several thousand feet above sea level, the air was cool. The young man wore a tattered denim jacket over a t-shirt that bore some obscure reference to a now-defunct website.
“Have any trouble finding this place?” he asked.
Edgar shook his head ‘no’. The older man had turned back to look over the valley. Far off in the distance were a pair of UniNet Redundant Air Bombers, or RABs. These were dirigibles which were designed to float out from a regional facility, move to a designated coordinate where unusual electrical patterns had been established, and then start dropping cluster bombs. The dirigible would then move along a plotted line until it had released all of its bombs. Sometimes hundreds of tiny explosives were released in a matter of minutes, sometimes an incendiary bomb would be released every thirty seconds. In either case, the point was to intercept the irrational patterns of humans who may be trying to set up encampments in unusual places.
The two that Edgar and Henry were watching were both dropping cluster bombs over a collection of buildings that once would have been a town at a crossroads of two local highways. One of the dirigibles was moving due northeast from their vantage point while the other was travelling along a line that appeared to be straight north to south.
“You don’t see that every day.”
“What?” Edgar asked.
“Two RABs moving in a crossing pattern,” Henry answered. “Normally, you’ll see one trailing the other. Or two really spaced out. These two are probably a couple of hundred yards from each other, going in opposite directions. You don’t see that very often. Can’t really remember the last time I ever saw that, actually.”
As the men watched, the tiny bombs pulverized what remained of the ghost town.
Henry searched through the oversized pockets of his camo pants. He finally brought out a little rectangular device with a trio of buttons on top, a sliding tag along one side, and a thick antenna at the end. It was a signaling device.
“Think I should turn this on and maybe pull those RABs away from anyone trying to hide down there?”
Edger looked dubiously at the device. When a signaler was activated, all of the receivers within a radius of several miles would ping. Then the humans who were bold enough would tune in to a preset wavelength to receive a message. Usually, the message was a decoded system command or a warning of an inspection notice. For this reason, signalers were banned by the UniNet system. The system would send any available devices to eliminate the signaler device – and usually the human holding it.
Edgar did not relish the idea of having RABs coming after him.
“I think we should just get on with the business we came here to conduct,” Edgar said with a tight jaw.
“OK, man, ok. No need to get all wound up,” Henry laughed. He reached into another trouser pocket to retrieve another envelope.
“Here’s the killer,” he said softly as he handed the envelope over to Edgar.
Edgar peeled back the fold of the envelope to examine a little aluminum foil square.
“The chip in there has the Doubt program,” Henry whispered, almost religiously.
Edgar found himself mesmerized by the little packet.
The Doubt program had been designed to softly infiltrate any UniNet program, replicate certain commands and repeat them. The second stage of the Doubt program would require any such program to rerun the command until a satisfactory result was returned, which could never happen as the result was always a prompt to simply rerun the program. The third stage was to have the Doubt code replicate into any program that interacted with the infected program. The plan was to have as many linked systems as possible come to a halt while the Doubt program ran useless commands endlessly. No one expected the Doubt code to propagate very far or last very long. But there were other programs already installed in multiple locations to monitor how the Center dealt with invasions.
The CXTR3 advocates were not looking for a quick victory. They were playing a long game.
“So, you think you can get this in somewhere?” Henry asked while looking Edgar squarely in the eye.
“Well, that is part of my job.” Edgar closed the envelope and tucked it away inside his pants. “To copy and reinsert vital code segments that might be wiped or compromised during a quarterly clean up.”
Henry chuckled and shook his head.
“Man, that’s just so messed up. UniNet can run your linked car off the road, or put subliminal messages into your favorite music, but it can’t trust itself enough to run its own maintenance.”
“Redundancies,” Edgar reminded the younger man. “That’s been the name of the game the whole time for UniNet. Layer upon layer, copy after copy. Little versions of itself all over the place, ready to fill in any gaps. Uses as many options as it can to reduce errors and deletions. A human operator like me is just supposed to be a back up to its own replication program. But if this little bit of code is as invisible as you guys have made it sound, I shouldn’t have any problem inserting it with my copy of the backups.”
Edgar looked out over the valley one more time before turning towards his truck.
“Hope you don’t mind me asking,” Henry called out. “But how did you get into that kind of job and still pass the allegiance tests they supposedly have?”
Edgar stopped at his door. It was his turn to look the other man in the eye.
“After the LA incident, a lot of people signed up to serve UniNet, thinking that the other AI was the bad guy. I slipped in with that crowd. My expertise just happened to be in the field of system management, so my background checked out for them. Once I was in, I just pushed and pushed until I was inside the belly of the beast.”
“Alright!” Henry smiled as he opened the door to his vehicle. “A good little soldier deep in enemy territory. Its with guys like you that we’ll win the war.” The young man hopped in and cranked up his car, then went speeding down the trail into the valley.
Edgar hesitated before starting his pickup truck. His memories flowed from fresh-faced, beautiful girls to bloodied and battered forms. He thought again of how he did not want to have anything to do with this war originally.
“But the war came to me,” he whispered while tears ran down his cheeks.
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Wow 🤩 I love it! Great work Especially since I’m not in too much in dystopian But I enjoyed this story!
A fun story! World building is mixed with action at a good pace. The diner scene gives us lots of questions (why are people so weirded out by a soldier? What's the split? Etc.) I like that the means of fighting back is digital too, very much a guerilla thing. It's a bleak view of the future, though a believable one. The AI itself isn't even the worst of it necessarily. The apathy of the people is alarming too.
I really enjoyed this piece, Gary. It has an authentic dystopian feeling while retaining a lot of humanity. Well done!