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News & Features » July 2018 » “Virtually President” by John Joseph Ryan

“Virtually President” by John Joseph Ryan

In October 2017 we published An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon, a rare literary science fiction set in a future universe so gorgeously described and perfectly self-contained—and yet so harrowing and cruel—that its only parallel universe is our own. Solomon’s novel has inspired this speculative fiction series. We’ve been through the past, and we haven’t really learned from it. The present? We’re too busy attempting to survive it. So we’re asking you to provide us a glimpse of what comes next. Illustrate the essential choices we must make in the present that will lead us to your brilliant utopian future. Or, if you cannot anticipate utopia, provide us instead with your cautionary tale. Show us where we will fall if we—when we—fail to alter our course. Fri-SciFi stories are published on Fridays because we expect we’ll need the weekend to contemplate your vision. 

This week, Americans choose a sanitized virtual reality over living in a country divided.

Virtually President
by John Joseph Ryan
Washington, D.C., some years from now

The president’s national security advisor delivered the words she had dreaded hearing: “Madam President, I’m afraid you can no longer safely appear in public.”

Low conversations echoed throughout the dim underground chamber.

“I’ve contacted the speechwriting team, and—”

She stared at him, the electric azure of monitors flashing off her eyeglasses. He wondered if her glasses were in Augment Mode. As if reading his mind, she frowned. “I can’t bear being in AM twenty-four seven,” she said. “Especially not now.”

In recent years, clumsy Originalist assassins had announced their intentions via social media. The more adroit secretly assembled weaponry that had the capacity to reach the president—while she was in public. They pursued other targets too: the campaign headquarters of New Unionist Party members; voters suspected of New Unionist sympathies; their children. The populace’s outrage gradually numbed into head shaking and quiet despair. Amid this hopelessness Augmented Mode softened and even blocked out the terrifying real world. The electorate loved twenty-four seven AM. A menu of infinite scenarios let them virtually fly around other worlds, practice a confrontation with their boss, or make love with abandon. Even while they slept, special lasers beamed dream stimulants across their retinas. And AM was worth the cost of twenty-four seven streaming. In AM, you were neither an Originalist nor a New Unionist—nor one of the Unaffiliated festering in the suppurating wound of a nation stretched between those extremes.

But as a New Unionist, the president cleaved to the notion of the real Union, no matter how fervently the Originalists aimed to destroy it. Now, leaving her advisor, she retired to her bunker office. She stared blankly in its perpetual twilight as night changed to day above ground. At last, she knew what to do and where to do it. She texted her national security advisor and instructed him to assemble the Joint Chiefs in one hour. She would share all but one detail of her plan.


Two hours later, the president ascended in her private elevator. With the Joint Chiefs’ assent, that morning’s national address would make her seem to stand in front of the Lincoln Memorial. According to her advisor’s new directive, she would remain protected underground in front of a green screen to deliver her speech. Nationwide, citizens in AM would stream the White House feed and see before them the Memorial, the president accompanied by an admiring First Gentleman. They would hear the snap of the American flag and, if their haptic add-ons were sophisticated enough, would even feel the jostle of a massive crowd—of the sort that had gathered to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., speak—a crowd which was unthinkable now for being such a juicy target. Each viewer would control the view to the very limits of the credit they had to pay for it.

The point, of course, was to get their attention. If the gimmicks brought them in, they might attend to her message too.

It was, simply, Union. Union above all else.

The president left the elevator and entered a stairwell. She tapped open a file labeled “Keep Cool.” The file contained the kernels of her speech which she would arrange into her hallmark combination of coherence and spontaneity. She activated her glasses’ prompter feature so she could review those kernels seemingly projected before her as she ascended.

At the top, she caught her breath. She was relieved to see the indifferent beige of the wall, to feel the iron railing attached securely to it, to stand on the marble landing and smell the must of old time.

She punched a code into a panel, and after sturdy bolts retracted into the wall, a massive door swung outwards into the hallowed space of the Lincoln Memorial. Security personnel monitoring the monument reacted in shock to her verifiable, non-AM presence. They scrambled to form a protective yolk around her. She protested. A scattering of curious citizens, brave or foolish enough to assemble there, did not understand what they saw. They fiddled with their glasses. They murmured. Eventually, one authoritative soul asserted that the stream had been hacked by Originalists. Shouting erupted. A man shoved a woman, and another man punched that man in the face. The president cried out as the security team forced her away from the melee and back through the doorway.

“I’m really here! Take off your glasses and see!”

But no one did. No one believed her.

Her cries of “Union” were lost as the Memorial door sealed her within.


JOHN JOSEPH RYAN writes unusual tales, verse noir, and crime fiction. His work has appeared in River Styx, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder series, Out of the Gutter Flash Fiction Offensive, the Noir Riot anthology, Shotgun Honey, Suspense Magazine, and elsewhere. Ryan’s collaborative noir short, “Hothouse by the River,” was produced in association with the University of Iowa Center for the Book. His debut novel, A Bullet Apiece, was published by Blank Slate Press in 2015. A true and shameless corrupter of the young, John is both a teacher and a parent in St. Louis.


Do you have a story you’d like us to consider for online publication in the Fri-SciFi series? Here are the submission terms and guidelines.

—We are not offering payment, and are asking for first digital rights. The rights to the story revert to the author immediately upon publication.
—Your story should be set in a conceivable, not a fantastical, future. No dragons, please.
—With your byline, include the date or era OR galaxy or ship or planetary system in which your story takes place. Or both. But not neither.
—To be perfectly frank, we prefer dystopias. But feel free to surprise us.
—Your story should not exceed 750 words, and must be previously unpublished.
—Please include a short bio with your submission.
—Accepted submissions to Fri-SciFi are typically posted 1–3 months after the notification date, and will be edited for cohesion and to conform to our house style.
—E-mail your submission to info@akashicbooks.com. Please paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.

Posted: Jul 13, 2018

Category: Original Fiction, Fri-SciFi | Tags: , , , , , ,