With so much of the media focused on John Paul Stevens's sudden resignation before the Court's term was out, and the rumors coalescing around a certain former President as his replacement, Todd took the opportunity to take the snow machine out a little farther than usual.
It had been a hard few months after November 4, to be sure. Calls still came in to their home, some sympathetic, others outraged. Where were those "arbiters of justice" when voter rolls in Tampa featured a "Julio Jimanez," "Julio Jimenaz," and "Julio H. Jimenez" at three separate precincts? How many more dead voters would they find with absentee ballots signed and sealed at the Cincinnati registrar's office? But there was relief, too. It was good to be home. Good to focus on the family. Good to see Bristol and Levi planning their finances as he'd once done with Sarah, around the kitchen table with a sixer of Bud and nothing but their own good looks and charm. They'd go far, he knew.
Lost in his thoughts, Todd didn't hear the hum of the other machines over his own until they were nearly upon him.
They were Japanese models, brand new, he realized instantly, and would almost certainly outgun his American rig were he not the four-time champion along this circuit. Todd knew these gullies, the twisted back alleys of the great Alaskan wilds, and he braked hard, throwing his pursuers ahead of him. Holding on for dear life, Todd gunned it, careening down a narrow gulch, and shot out into a broad snowy clearing.
He never had time to realize his mistake. The bullet caught him square between the shoulders, his body already limp as it rolled under the machine, man and ride tangling together as one before coming to a bloody stop in the crisp snow. The sound of the helicopter's rotor had been masked by the whir of the Japanese machines.
The cable news-ers all featured it with some central variation on the same story: perhaps a hunter, mistaking the sudden blur for a deer, or a bear, or ... who really knew how all that worked, anyway? When forensics experts testified on Fox News that the bullet had entered Todd's back at an upward angle, the question became clouded: could it have been a team of wolf hunters, anxious for a bounty, taking a stray shot and escaping once they realized their "error"? If only the governor had repealed that barbaric, barbaric law, they said on CNN. How sad; how ironic.
The President's press conference went forward as scheduled at 6 PM. While "still working on the details" of an appointment to the Court so early in the term, President Obama had more intriguing news. The governor of Alaska, he said, had just dropped her objections to his new "Urban Financial Security Program," aimed at moving the "windfall profits" of efficient states "more effectively into the hands of those who have been hit worst by this financial crisis."
"The federal government must take responsibility for its citizens," said President Obama, looking slightly down and away from the camera, in apparently deep discussion with the reporter who brought it up. "We have an obligation to ensure that the wealth of the states is distributed equitably to the people, not just through the rebate-check system of Alaska but in ways that we can guarantee a broad base of relief. I know," he continued, turning now to another reporter, with a level gaze, "just how much we ultimately need to rely on the government's ability to make equality a reality."
The helicopter picked up the two snow machine riders in the Yukon territory, outside a small barn on the northern end of the British Columbia marijuana cartel's territory. They torched their sleek rides in the silent pines, then flew off into the night. None spoke as they heard the President over the faint crackle of the radio.
"I want to especially extend my condolences tonight to Governor Palin and her family over the loss of Todd Palin, a devoted husband and father," the President was saying. "I'm sure she understands, more than most of us, just how important it is to enact this relief, for the safety of her children and all America's children."
The men in the helicopter could not see the faint smile that, ever-so-briefly, flickered across the President's face. The chopper wheeled southeast. Iowa had 99 counties, with countless caucus locations. There were many gymnasium doors to rig, many rolls to purge, and simply not enough hours in the day.
It was ironic, they later said, that Mitch McConnell was saying his goodbyes to Kit Bond on his way back to Kentucky, when the men asked to see Senator Bond's campaign finance documents.
"Did my secretary see to you gentlemen?" asked Senator Bond. "I don't mean to be rude, but Senator McConnell's just left the Senate, and I do want to spend a little time catching up with him." "With all due respect, Senator Bond, sir," said the first man, a tall, dusky-colored gentleman with a shaved head and narrow sunglasses shielding his eyes, even indoors, "this is pursuant to the widespread claims of voter registration fraud."
McConnell let out a pointed cough. Senator Bond glanced back at him a second, but the former Minority Leader did not meet his gaze. The second man, wiry and short, rocked back and forth on his heels like an impatient undergraduate.
"Yeah, after all those ... claims ... your side made ..." he snapped at McConnell. The first man made a swift motion with his hand, cutting off his colleague. "'Your side?'" said Senator Bond, wrinkling his nose. "Forgive the implication, Senator," said the first man. "You know full well that ACORN is a not-for-profit registration center. Executive Order 38-01 clearly delineates the future of centralized campaign registration to prevent future unfortunate accusations from taking root." "I'm not following you, sirs," said Bond, taking a step back, but there was a slight quiver in his voice.
"ACORN," said the second man, impatiently, "is now in charge of all voter registration drives." "Under a bi-partisan committee, of course," said the first man. "Surely you understand the necessity for making sure both that a group several individuals lodged complaints against be placed under strict regulation, and how better-" "What committee?" shouted McConnell. "There are sixty Democratic seats in the Senate! Who could they possibly appoint as a rational arbiter? Colin fucking Powell?" "General Powell is not involved," said the first man, turning his head only slightly to acknowledge the defeated former senator. "The committee consists of Arlen Specter and John Kerry as co-chairs, with-" "Arlen's had a STROKE, you monsters!" bellowed McConnell. Bond took another, slightly more conspicuous step towards his desk. "You expect them to prop him up in his chair, on life support?" "I'm not familiar with senate procedure, sir," said the first man. The second man took an anxious step forward. "The papers," he said. "We need full documentation of your practices: who you contact to register, when, for how long, and under what methodology. It'll all be taken into consideration." "You'll be registering my voters for me," said Bond, the quaver replaced with a profound weariness. It was not a question. "Using an optimized, bipartisan, national version of your methodology, Senator," said the first man.
The second man turned quickly and flung open a filing cabinet to his right. Bond stood silently as McConnell spluttered.
"File a challenge!" said the incredulous former lawmaker. "Do something!" "Challenges to ACORN all go through the Senate's special panel on challenges," said the second man, tossing aside files as he rooted through. "How would he do that?" said McConnell. "Ask Senator Specter's office," said the first man. Still tossing papers aside, the second man snickered.
"Will this be done for every senator?" Senator Bond said, sinking down into his chair as the men moved through his files.
"Of course, sir," said the first man. "We're starting with those individuals we anticipate might face stronger challenges. Missouri is always the subject of a lot of speculation. We want to make sure you're ready for 2010." "Yeah," said the second man. "Get ready."
The speed with which the suit moved through the Federal Courts was matched, it seemed, only by the speed of the car that afternoon in Maryland. The coroner saw the classic signs, and the inquest confirmed it: an epileptic seizure as he'd rounded that bend. The oncoming truck had no time to move as the car swerved across the single-lane median, slamming into the massive eighteen-wheeler's grille. A mere four years after carrying William Rehnquist's coffin, it was Chief Justice John Roberts whose body left the National Cathedral, hoisted by his weeping clerks.
The truck driver was cleared almost immediately--there was no doubt it'd been Roberts who'd swerved, and in repeated interviews after the fact, he shook his head, said he couldn't imagine how he'd lost control on such an easy strip of road. Maybe it was just those flashes, suddenly flickering in his side mirrors as his truck rounded the bend. He'd thought it was just the winter sun, but maybe someone was out snapping shots of the Maryland streets?
Who knew? The trucker certainly didn't think it worth mentioning. No sense bringing unaccounted details into a day so sad for the country, a day after the court received a petition to take a look at the President's executive order ending all voucher programs and instituting a "holistic parity test" for attendance in schools that incorporated "an equity of racial and class characteristics by any means available to the federal government, including but not limited to busing, redistricting, or 'housing restructure' guidelines."
The President gave no eulogy, but released a touching statement, reminding the nation of its own mortality and the tragedy of common situations. "We lost in Justice Roberts a man who loved the law and sought out the highest service of it to which our land could name him. The passing of a great legal mind leaves our own sense of it hollow and fleeting, but the law is bigger than any one man, as Justice Roberts certainly knew."
Quietly, the new appointees from the American Constitutional Society to oversee the "de-partisan-izing" of the Justice Department raised the specter of health in Justices: wasn't Justice Scalia looking a little overweight? Didn't his breathing sound a little labored? What about Justice Thomas? He was never in the peak of health, and while no one would ever suggest raising the specter of phrenology, didn't black men die much younger than their white counterparts? Perhaps a test of health and fitness for the Justices might ensure that such a tragic situation as what befell Justice Roberts, with his own illness, was never repeated. They were only saying. It was only a theory, whispered in their new corner offices. But it had a curious way of gaining legs.
Some argued that the President's statement electing to keep Bill Clinton in the running for Associate Justice to replace Justice Stevens was not fitting given the somber tone of the day, but none denied it set off speculation: Obama had countless connections to the legal world. Whom would he appoint to the Chief's now-vacant seat?
With only seven justices, the Supreme Court, in an unnoticed statement signed by the Court's secretary, announced it did not have the resources to hear an emergency case on education at the present time, and delayed indefinitely a decision on hearing the schooling issue.
In Kentucky, Senator McConnell's son Porter received notice that he would be transferred to fill a 15% quota of white students needed in a Louisville school. "Arrive early!" stated the notice. "Security measures can add as many as fifteen extra minutes to your day, and homeroom doors are locked promptly at 9:10."
Even the international press bristled when the President agreed to meet the upstart Syrian at a White House ceremony, but he stood firm. "I was called naive during the long campaign," he said, a rueful smile on his face, "but, look, we're approaching this with clarity, not preconditions but preparations. Shouldn't we be ready to face the challenges of a broader, globalized world?"
And so it was that Tariq al-Fayhan made the front page of every newspaper in Damascus, greeting President Obama with a firm handshake but no smile, a dazed-yet-hard expression embedded in his eyes. Going from the depths of Guantanamo Bay to the Rose Garden in three days was dizzying, but al-Fayhan wasted little time. The first day he contacted his handlers in the Golan Heights, the second he announced his intentions to an Al-Jazeera camera in Miami that he would be running for office on a "National" ticket in the Syrian parliamentary elections to "ensure this never happens again," and, in the hours before being whisked off to see the President, booked his ticket using the $10,000 subsidy given to every prisoner for their "inconvenience." He had failed in his first mission, but he would return home with a weapon stronger than any bomb: the de facto endorsement of the new President of the United States.
His conversation with Obama was short, distant--the President took pains to mention "the indignities you suffered in Cuba" without linking them to the actions of The Great Satan itself, but al-Fayhan contained a sneer of disgust at the apostate. In time, Hezbollah would make a determination to what extent they could "work with" this one in the context of a broader framework on the Holy Land. When the time came, with or without him, they could push the Jews back off the Mediterranean cliffs.
For now, though, he did his best to smile for the cameras. Military rations had made him thin, but strong, and he projected himself strongly, shorter than the lean Obama, but no less fierce in his political acumen. He told Obama how "his friends back home" had mentioned him over the phone, told him how he had run a campaign of "hope" and "change," and said he hoped he could bring "change" to Syria, too. Obama's eyes brightened. "We'll see what we can do for you," he told al-Fayhan. "We want to make sure our futures are secure, together." Without the Jews, thought al-Fayhan, perhaps two or three years of peace with a blinded United States could bring about a fuller implementation of Sharia in a united system. Even the Lebanese Christians would succumb, if this man could provide all he claimed. Nothing could then stop them from turning their attentions abroad, to cells in Germany and France.
In the shuffle of the conference, no one was there to receive notice of the resignation of Senator Joseph Lieberman, who cited "family concerns." When al-Fayhan returned to Syria, he could not refrain from laughing at the confluence of events. "I have driven the Jew out of office in America," he said during his campaign for the National Unity/Hezbollah Party, "and I will drive him out of our lands, too, as we have always put such infidels to the sword, until our world stands united under the green flag of the caliphate." The New York Times carried the story on page A18.
They sat in the traditional conference-style plush chairs, sipping water from crystal glasses on a lacquered table and smiling for the press, fresh from a German summit on the economic crisis. Both men were well-built figures, beloved both as celebrities and leaders, and they displayed an easy confidence that the cameras lapped up.
"The Prime Minister and I were just talking about our hopes for the future," said President Obama. "We know we're going to get things going in the right direction. We had some tough words, too, but we approached the issue from a standpoint of mutual respect, of an understanding of multi-polarity, and of admiration for one another." "I saw into his soul," said the Prime Minister. "It was like James Brown." The press roared. Even the measured Obama chuckled. "Mr. Putin, you never fail," he said. "No," agreed Vladimir Putin. "Not usually, no."
In the gaggle of pressmen and -women, a cameraman smiled as he zoomed in on Obama's laughing face, his easy demeanor. They were going to love this stuff back in New York, he thought. You'd have it over and over again on Hannity and O'Reilly, and before they knew it, he'd have a cushy permanent position with the White House corps for his golden work on the road with Obama.
The reporter tapped him on the shoulder. "What?" he said, irritably, not looking up from the viewfinder. "Do you see what we're getting here? We'll do your segment stuff in a minute or two, once they've finished up." "No," said the reporter, "we won't." "What?" said the cameraman, turning to her, taking care to keep the film rolling. "We're done," she said. "They called us back? They don't want this?" She bit her lip, and he was stunned to see she was about to cry. "They're done, too. Fox. It's over. They're done." "I don't ..." he began, but she shook her head, trying to maintain composure, and his protests died in his throat. "Something about a license," she said. "I couldn't even reach them on the phone. I got some government goon. He said 'pursuant to statute blah-blah-blah, all cable channels must apply for broadcast decency licenses to promote fairness in political discourse,' I mean, I don't know, I can't even get through!"
Out of the corner of their eyes as they performed the traditional reach across the table for the photographed handshake, both men caught the Fox News team leaving the room, their faces ashen. Putin shot Obama a quizzical glance. "I took a page out of your book," said the President, his smile never wavering.
In the hallway, the members of what was once Fox News seemed to be willing their cell phones to slither up into their ears, so fiercely did they press them to the sides of their heads. Call after call to every office yielded nothing. Their hotel reservations had been canceled, as their company credit cards had been invalidated.
"It's ringing!" yelled the cameraman, exhaling a sigh so hard it almost seemed like a sob. "I had Amy's cell phone, from marketing. I used to-- never mind. It's ringing!" "Joey?" said the voice on the other end of the line. "Where are you?" Joey the Cameraman let out a whoop. "Oh, Amy, I'm so glad to hear you. What's going on? We can't get through and-" "Don't come back, Joey," said Amy. "They're not going to get it back." "Get what back? The license? But it's a cable company! They can't just-" "Congress did," interrupted Amy. "61-35. Universal Television Fairness and Decency Act of 2009. Went into effect today. Fox applied, got denied the license. FCC goons with guns were at my desk at 10 AM." Joey cursed. "Can't they just ... I dunno ... re-apply? Did they say why they got denied?" "It's at the FCC's discretion, Joey!" sobbed Amy. "They're passing one for radio, too, probably next week. Someone offered us a yacht to do temporary broadcasts from, y'know, out in the ocean, and they impounded it! There's a mandatory sixty-day wait if you get denied ... and all our lines of credit are no good ... we're ... we're going black, Joey, totally off-line until further notice."
The reporter, who'd pressed her ear next to Joey's to hear the conversation, burst into tears. The press began to file out from the conference room, delicately navigating around the bereaved news team, as if they simply didn't exist.
Backstage, Obama loosened his tie. Putin's reluctant smile had withered back into a more traditional dour mask.
"I do not like this, this glad-handing, you say," said Putin. "No," said Obama. "Me neither. Just one more thing you and I have in common, Mr. Putin."
Free from the constraints of the cameras, Putin's smile broadened to a lopsided, malodorous grin.
In New York, late that evening, at Mustang Sally's tavern near Penn Station, a small entourage walked up to the sole patron at the bar, huddled over a double scotch on the rocks.
"Never try to fuck a fellow Irishman, you piece of shit," said the foremost man in the group, putting his hand on the drinker's shoulder. The seated man whirled around, his drunken eyes wide. "Matthews!" he bellowed. "You pinheaded prick!" He raised his fist. "Hit him," said Chris Matthews, turning away. The men flanking him caught the drunken man's fist and flung him to the ground, kicking him over and over. When the wailing turned to whimpering, Matthews strolled back to the figure on the ground, motioning for his associates to stop.
"You never should've crossed me, Bill-O. Never should've played that game. Obama fucked you, Bill, fucked you in your fat, lazy ass, and now it's my turn." "I've ... I've lost everything ... Matthews ..." wheezed Bill O'Reilly. "All I wanted ... was somewhere to tell ... tell them the truth ..." "The truth?" Chris Matthews sneered. "Here's some truth. In two years, I'll win in a landslide against Specter's corpse in Pennsylvania. I'll be out, Bill. A Senator. You? You'll be lucky if there's room in a North Dakota bunker. But it's not enough, Bill. You see, you were right. There's a hate in liberalism. A personal hate. An animus against you, if you will. See, I learned that shit, back in Catholic school. And that animus, it's me. You had your chance to 'tell the truth,' Bill, and the people took the easy way out. You had eight years of riding high, thinking 'no-spin' could save your ass, and now you're gonna find out just how hard a liberal can hate."
Matthews turned to the stricken bartender, reached into his pocket, and tossed him a thousand dollars. "The bar is closed for the evening," he said. "Lock the door, turn off the cameras, and go home. Make a claim to NBC Accounts Payable for any damage you find tomorrow."
The bartender scuttled away. Bill O'Reilly moaned quietly, struggling to uncurl himself on the floor. Chris Matthews took off his blazer.
"I'm going to enjoy this," he said.
"Mommy, Mommy!" said the girl, brandishing a book. "They said in school today that a princess can marry a princess, and that Reverend Davis would have to bless them!"
It was the last straw for Marsha Vicksley of Webster Groves, MO. "Sweetie," she said to her daughter, "Mommy needs to talk to Daddy alone for a bit. That book is wrong, okay? It's just ... it's wrong, no matter what they tell you." "But Miss Polleck said-" "Sweetie, can you go upstairs, just for a little bit?" Said Marsha. "I just need some private time with Daddy." "Okay, Mommy ..." said the little girl. The first hints of suspicion had crept into her voice. She was only five, thought Marsha, and already they were telling her, with such a gloating joy, about the Federal Integration of Marriage Act. She sat down on the sofa in the family room. Her husband, Hank, who ran an office supplies business, walked in the door, his handsome face slowly expressing the lines of age and stress that had begun last November.
"Oh, Hank," she said, rushing to him. "It's just not safe here any more." "I know, honey," he said. "I know." "It's been a god damn month-" "Honey, please, she might hear you cursing." "I don't care, Hank!" Marsha flopped down onto the couch. "I don't care. I heard ..." "Heard what?" Hank moved over to her. She pulled her arms tight around herself. "Some man whistled at me tonight, from one of the stoops across the street!" "Oh, Marsha," he said, taking her into his arms. "Oh, how horrible. One of the ... the new neighbors?" "You know full well who they are!" she said, almost shouting, now. "One week in office, and well, you know, there's this credit crisis, and, look, Hank, we ... we had our problems with those credit cards, when I got my thighs done, but ... we didn't ask for this!" "Honey, with the government owning securities on the mortgages, they had to fill the homes somehow ..." "What will they build, then, in the projects? We moved here, Hank, to get away from St. Louis, and-" -she waved her hand at the window, its blinds now drawn- "-all this."
The unmistakable shadow of a Cadillac Escalade drove past the window, its spinning hubcaps casting kaleidoscopic fragments of light on the wall. Marsha shuddered as a bass line rattled the window panes.
"I swept another Hennessy bottle out of the driveway this morning," said Hank after a minute's silence, shaking his head. "Guess they're all so proud of themselves, finally homeowners with an even bigger handout." "Can we move, Hank?" "What about the schools, honey? Didn't we move here for the schools? Wasn't there some big PTA meeting?" "I wouldn't dare go," she said. "They sent the undersecretary of education out there to tout us as a 'model of integration' or some nonsense." "Oh, now, come on, honey," said Hank, trying to cheer himself up as much as her, "you can't just run from them because they send out Undersecretary Ayers to scare the good parents like you." "How am I supposed to sleep at night with terrorists and gangstaas in the neighborhood, Hank? It just ..." Marsha started to cry. "It makes me so mad, to turn on the TV and find that NPR is building another radio tower and the President's palling around with that ... Luda-criss man, and we're just being told we have enough." "They're talking about mandates, on health care, honey," said Hank, holding her close. "But we never get sick!" said Marsha. "We pay for their health?" she flung her arm again towards the window. "It can't happen. It won't." "That's what we all thought, wasn't it, Hank?" "Well," he said, sighing. "At least it's only for four years. Someone will have to save us. Right?"
Outside, a barbeque grill started up. The sound of thuggish laughter and thudding beats filled the air as night fell on Webster Groves, MO. In Washington, the Senate confirmed William Jefferson Clinton to the Supreme Court, though the Chief's chair sat empty. In a short White House ceremony, the President named Saul Williams the poet laureate.
The deck of the aircraft carrier was festooned with beautiful ribbons, red, white, and green, fluttering in the hot breeze of the Persian Gulf. A band played festive music, but the crew of the ship seemed subdued in their full naval regalia. Their commanding officer had just given them the word they themselves had received hours earlier, upon the landing of Marine One out on the deck. But the President was the commander-in-chief, and they knew they were to obey his orders, no matter how grim, and follow him anywhere, be it to the gates of hell itself.
And so when the band struck up "Hail To The Chief," perhaps at the pace closer to a dirge than a fight song, the men and women stood and duly applauded. The man bounded to the stage, festooned in a black Versace suit that would take away the breath of every fashion designer from Milan to Los Angeles and back, stopping along the way in San Francisco to fish for complements.
His flag pin seemed ... different, today, somehow. From their location at the far rear of the flight deck, the press box couldn't quite make it out, but they did their best, transmitting slavering descriptions of the gorgeous suit for the wire services. Earlier in passing, a soldier had commented to him that it seemed odd to redesign it in that fashion, but Obama simply smiled and said it was "all in the spirit of friendship." After that, he stayed in his guest quarters, far from the eyes of the enlisted men.
The President focused his eyes on the teleprompter. Days before, his aides had cautioned him that his decision did not have the necessary support in the House to pass, that too many concerned members of his own party would vote down an official amendment to the budget that required the drastic changes he sought. Republicans, of course, that is, those that were left, opposed it almost to a man, though he did get a thoughtful and emphatic "yes" from a Galveston Congressman who offered his support with the condition of adding in a provision for letters of marque and reprisal.
Rather than go through the odious route of the lower house of the legislature, the President decided his powers of Commander-in-Chief allowed him the broad leeway to take action. The cabinet initially protested, but soon fell silent under what became known as "the growing consensus": if the President wanted it, it was done, no questions asked, and lucky stars were thanked that he was not George W. Bush.
"My fellow Americans, and esteemed servicemen and women," began President Obama, leaning out over the ornate sandstone podium. "The job that you have done in protecting our interests at home and abroad is, well, it's beyond my pay grade to say." He chuckled, briefly, but knew the line was for his benefit more than his audience's. "I stand before you today, on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, to send you on your next mission. Much like here, where you supported Operation Iraqi Freedom, it will require the utmost courage and confidence. Just like here, when you faced down the belligerent dialogue of Iran after the provocations of George W. Bush, you will have to stand tall in the face of ignorance and misunderstanding.
"For today, my fellow Americans, I am announcing that the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan is being decommissioned. No longer will the blunt weapons of war suffice in a multipolar world of equality and good faith. This ship, along with countless others, will have its resources redirected for a new mission: education. The military-industrial complex that has held our world hostage needs to be jolted into realizing what really matters: the lives and upbringings of our children. As such, in my capacity as Commander-in-Chief, I am assigning half of the budget of the Department of Defense towards public education in inner city schools in the United States.
"You will all receive formal training, of course." Obama's eyes grew distant. He knew this segment by heart, reciting it as if standing before his Constitutional Law class. "Now, under the Third Amendment, I can't house you in civilian quarters, but military housing, subsidized, will be provided to you wherever you are assigned. And you will secure the most important asset of our own futures: the hearts and minds of our own people, through our own central curriculum."
The silence on the deck was deafening, but the President pressed on, oblivious to the sense of dread that set in amongst the men and women who'd defended against constant threat for six years.
"There are those that say it's reckless," said Obama, "the way they said Lincoln was reckless. Well, my fellow Americans, I am not a reckless guy, not by nature. I sought the peace before stripping back the trappings of war. If you fear a renewal of the violence that's plagued Anbar Province in Iraq over the last two weeks, let me tell you, fear it no longer, for I have signed an accord with a new friend of America. This week, I look forward to traveling to Palestine to speak with the leaders of the Gaza Strip, but if we look back on nothing else from this journey, let us say that we have reached out our hand to a former enemy and we have been met with kindness.
"Ladies and gentlemen, members of the United States Military, it gives me great pleasure now to introduce, one of the central arbiters of peace in the Middle East, the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad!"
The applause was so strained one might have cut it to ribbons by simply letting a pin drop. But as Obama walked over to shake the hand of his tweed-clad counterpart, he milked it for all it was worth, speaking to the short, scruffy Iranian calmly as the forced jubilation continued.
"I hope you like the stage setup," he said, gesturing to the columns. "They usually do a sort of nice faux marble, but I thought it might be nice if we represented Persepolis, hence the sandstone and carved figures." "Very nice, yes," said the Iranian president, in his affected, halting English. The less he had to speak to this doddering young idealist, he reasoned, the better. "I want you to have this," said Obama, taking off his pin and pressing it into the Iranian's palm. "The flags of my country and yours, crossed. I really think it represents a brighter future for all of us." "Yes, yes," agreed Ahmadinejad. He looked up at the sandstone columns of Obama's face and his own fused awkwardly onto the figures of Persepolis's gates. He couldn't help a half-smile. One day, he knew, Persepolis would be the southern shore of a sea of glass stretching from Baghdad to Tel Aviv, and when the Revolutionary Guard took Jerusalem from under the noses of the foolish Sunnis and the hated Jews, he had no doubt that Obama would be there, installing columns for another grand speech.
Still smiling and nodding as the pathetic applause petered on, Ahmadinejad affixed the pin of the American and Iranian flags to his tweed lapel and stepped forward to the podium.
"I have nothing but good news for the future," he said. "Praise be to Allah."
Progress was "slow," at least, on the Israeli side, the President's aides said from his boutique hotel in Tel Aviv. But, they hastened to add, the work achieved thus far had already been monumental. Israel's "occasionally hysterical tone" given "recent events in Syria and Iran" was "an overreaction," to be sure, but it also pushed them to "quickly make peace with their closest enemy to avoid them if" (and the "if" was most definitely italicized in the official briefs) "such an attack were even remotely possible."
As such, President Obama had already exacted a promise to "bring down the wall," if not a definite timeline, along with a deal involving 5% of the windfall from his slashing of the United States's Defense Department to be distributed between the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and the Israeli government. When Prime Minister Netanyahu complained of the unfairness of giving the Palestinians a 2:1 advantage, Obama had merely patted the corpulent Likud leader on the knee and said "you've had it so good for so long, haven't you?"
But in the hallways of five-star opulence, the President's Blackberry began to buzz, minutes away from a meeting between himself and the man he referred to, respectfully, as Abu Mazen: President Mahmoud Abbas of the former PLO.
"Shit," hissed Obama. "Watch this door," he instructed his Secret Service agents, pulling himself away from his entourage and shutting himself in a vacant conference room. His aides knew better than to cross their boss at this juncture. Abu Mazen, they knew full well, would have to wait on the pleasure of Barack Obama.
In the darkened room, Obama moved as far away from the door as possible before putting the phone to his ear. "Hello?" he said. "Obama, mah bookye! Achuta me Odinga!" said the voice.
"Odinga?" said the President. "Now, uh, Cousin Odinga, look, I'm a little busy, here ..." "Obama, Obama, mah bookye, prasta tye choma wamba la bolganya Kenya," the voice insisted. "I certainly haven't forgotten about Kenya, Cousin Odinga," said the President. "Por qualye crispa la borguda vuh enzalya orabala mepola?" "Well, Cousin Odinga," said the President, glancing towards the door, "the economy is bad for everyone, right now. And as much as I know that you did your best to set me up with a crisis last summer that I could resolve, Russia kind of one-upped you, there, you know? There's very little room in the budget for me to just--" "Ho ho ho ho," interrupted the voice. "Obama wakaoseh, mepolalareh, futilare rambo polskurba media." "I'm not worried about the media, Cousin Odinga," said the President, a touch of petulence in his tone. "But there is a general prestige involved here I can't afford to lose, especially in these negotiations. Succeeding where Clinton failed would--" "Bill jeebah!" "Yes, right, Cousin Odinga, but he didn't succeed here, in the Middle East, and if you go ahead and try to torpedo me just because the money isn't coming in fast enough, all you're going to do is make Ethiopia more upset. Now, I mean, look. We have a deal, here. I'll give you a cut of this defense money, too. Hell, take five percent, fiscal responsibility's a joke, I mean, right?" "Ho ho ho ho." "Now, let's have this be the end of it, okay? If we're ever going to successfully contain the African issue, it can't look like you're parading my father's bastard children around every time I show up in your neck of the woods." "Balamasta crispanor?" "No, Cousin Odinga, nothing that rash, just ... keep them out of the public eye, okay? And you, too? Nobody needs to know." "Kama ari wanga, Obama-wakoseh, mah bookye." "Goodbye, Cousin Odinga."
The President heaved a sigh as he hung up the phone, then stormed out of the conference room. "You still have time, Mister President," said an aide. "Take a note," said Obama, in a rare moment of weariness. "Never deal with your crazy family if you know they're all crazy." "Yes sir, Mister President," said the aide, weakly. "And call up Reid. Tell him to siphon off five percent of that Defense money to the Kenyan system. Call it the East African Restoration Provision or something. Say it's a balance of power issue. They'll lap it up." "Sir, that brings the total available for your education proposal down to ten-" "I'll print money if I have to," snapped Obama. The aide leaped back, quivering at the sudden display of unrestrained malice in the ice-cold president. "No one will question it. Not in the States, anyway. Now let's get on this Palestine thing, settle these uppity Jew questions."
The aide, so flustered he found himself falling behind the pack surrounding the President, tried to process it. Was he just under too much strain? He knew that the Chief Justice question loomed largest domestically, but Obama seemed to have a plan, there, too--if simply not one he was particularly interested in telling his staffers. There was a lot of trust riding on the President, the aide knew. Better to just let it go. He was a man to be trusted. Even now, ahead of him, he saw the President straighten his tie and walk through the door, shaking hands before the cameras. Who wouldn't trust this man, this great man, this worldly-wise man who melted cameras with a simple half-smile?
Barely a month-and-change into his administration, the aide thought, and he'd already changed the world. Give him a year, and it might just be the change we could all believe in.
NPR, MSNBC and the "dinosaur" of the media, CNN, all were prepared to "roadblock" their coverage, if necessary, when the President finally announced his pick for Chief Justice. Crews skulked in the areas Obama loved to frequent for press conferences: the Lincoln Memorial, the Rose Garden, on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago, down at the 21 Club in New York City, out in the bucolic pastures of the forests near San Francisco, and so forth.
But Joey the Cameraman, consigned to work for KTVQ out of Billings, Montana after finally securing passage home on a cargo steamer, had no such luxury. With the machinery of Fox News being rapidly dismantled following the choking death of Roger Ailes on a particularly thickened pretzel consomme at Manhattan's trendy WD-50 restaurant and Rupert Murdoch's extradition to Indonesia to face sodomy charges after a controversial arrest in Bali by a suspiciously "washed-out" SWAT team, the chances for him ever returning to the high-flying heights of the old job were close to nil. Even the name on the resume carried something of a black mark: only the distant stations would even consider taking someone "tainted" with connections to a group that'd run afoul of the Obama administration.
KTVQ paid him on a "usable length of film per-minute" basis, which was to say, close to zero without a scoop (though even that was better than pure freelancing), and as such he sat filming the designer abortion clinics that'd sprung up on Eighth Avenue, hoping to see a celebrity or two. Times Square had come to resemble a pale mockery of itself in "the bad old days," with desperate men brandishing tiny cameras competing for a chance to snap a picture of this woman or that one terminating another "accidental" pregnancy. After the Federal Right to Choose Act, it was easier to get an abortion than a Big Mac, though a few ".ni"-domain blogs darkly mentioned that such difficulties were only really the result of the massive ethanol subsidies pushing up the price of cooking oil.
When he'd lifted Amy's veil at the tiny church near Madison Square, only a few close friends were there with the pair, and many had obeyed his stern command in the invitation to not bring gifts. It didn't feel right, in this climate, but though he and Amy'd had a rocky history after his lengthy sordid affair with her in marketing, what with him making "inappropriate advances" and her once saying she'd like to see him with his shirt off, he was determined to make an honest woman out of her. The young Baptist who married them was so thrilled to see someone valuing the traditional sacraments rather than the vindictive gay couples that'd enter into vows there only to file for no-fault divorce next door at Schlomo, Klein & Goldman LLP within minutes that he cried more than both Amy's mother and Joey the Cameraman's own.
A homeless man jostled Joey's arm, startling him out of his reverie. He'd been thinking of the wedding night, to be honest with himself, of the sudden seconds of bliss he'd experienced, joined in conjugal bliss physically and legally to a woman he truly loved. "Sorry," he said to the man. "To hell with you, pinhead!" bellowed the homeless man. "You're nothing compared to me. I feel sorry for your mother, looking at you." Joey the Cameraman turned his gaze down, concentrating suddenly on the collar of his Cartwright shirt. "Right, right," he said. "I am the right!" bellowed the homeless man. "You hear me, you little pipsqueaks? You all just ... don't ... do it ... li-"
The man clattered to the ground. It was all Joey the Cameraman could do to keep from helping. He was a Wisconsin boy by birth, and felt a kinship with the man at his feet, sure, but ... but ... there was just so much to be said for getting back up, no matter how far you'd fallen. Joey believed that, to the core of his being. No sense in letting it hurt him now with someone who'd fallen as far ... as far as that.
He refocused his attentions on the clinics just in time - an ambulance pulled up to the nearest one. It was rare to get one taking a patient by force to one of the higher-class ones - must be an attempt to drag more money out of the feds for subsidizing them, Joey the Cameraman realized, darkly. But no sooner had he put his rig up to his shoulder than he lowered it, aghast.
"Amy!" he shouted. "Amy, no! No!"
He stepped carefully over the homeless man in front of him and took off, tearing across the street. "Hey, buddy," snarled a security guard, "this here's a personal space zone. You got no right to-" "That's my wife!" shouted Joey. "Don't let them take my wife! Amy! What's going on? Amy?" He wriggled free of the security guard's grasp, and the guard let him go with a shrug - why bother, after all, with such a low government salary?
"Oh, Joey!" screamed Amy as he ran alongside her. Cameras snapped all around them, but Joey didn't care. He rammed into one of the two orderlies dragging Amy into the clinic. "They did the mandatory screening, determined that he'd be ... 'non-viable,' Joey!" Joey felt his stomach wrench. "What does that mean? They're going to make you ... make you not have the baby?"
This time, Joey the Cameraman used the tools of his trade, slamming into the orderly with his camera on his shoulder. The man crumpled backwards, and Amy slunk free. "Run!" she screamed.
They took off north along Eighth Avenue, the orderlies blocked by the wall of freelance photographers recording their progress. When they turned west, bolting into Hell's Kitchen, Joey the Cameraman flung out his arm at a super-elite upscale door, unmarked. "Lohan!" He shouted. The few dogged pursuers gazed in that direction. Joey turned down Eleventh Avenue, in plain view of the series of now-interconnected towers that marked the boundaries of Trump Fortress and the IRS camps dedicated to removing him for unpaid capital gains tax.
"'Non-viable'?" gasped Joey, when they were safely away. "Something about 'ectopic' something-or-other, but it's mandatory, Joey! Mandatory! How dare they!" Joey the Cameraman looked at his viewfinder. The camera seemed largely undamaged by the whole ordeal, but now he and his wife were both criminals, caught on camera. "There's no time to think about that, now," he said, putting his free hand on Amy's shoulder. "We'll need money, once we get out of here. There'll be nothing for us." "Not much to market these days," laughed Amy, coldly. "The doctors were telling me they had to squeeze in that Maddow woman before Tennessee: God, if only I could bring myself to get on her team!" "She wouldn't take you, anyway--what a straightist bigot, shopping around for a designer child ..."
Amy's words rang in Joey's ears.
"Tennessee?" he said. "Why on God's great Earth would they be going to Tennessee? Especially that Maddow woman?" "Joey, what are you talking about?" asked Amy. "Why do we care?" "Does your brother still have that car out in New Haven?" "Of course, but he's such a wreck--" "He probably has his 'fair share' now," snarled Joey. "When he's high with his Yale buddies, let's 'redistribute' it." "You're not making any sense, Joey! Where will we go?" "We're going to Nashville," said Joey the Cameraman. "And we're going to get the scoop of the century for the working man over the liberal media."
Marine One touched down on a soft bubble of gelatin in the hinterlands. A tiny ticker near the pad counted how many gallons of fresh fertilizer were donated to a small Namibian village to offset the carbon usage of the particular aircraft that landed there.
"Glad to see you've come to your senses," said the President as he shook the hand of the man who strode out to greet him. "It was your comparison to the TVA that did it for me. Ingenious. What a way to make sure this country stays on the tracks you set for it." "I thought you might like that. I didn't want to break it to you, you know, before I knew you were on board." "Absolutely. I shaved this morning. We're ready." "Then let's make the world safe for equality."
The President smiled.
The "honorary doctorate" from Harvard was the final piece of the puzzle, letting a man whose only postgraduate education came from divinity school dip his toes into the broader world of the law. When it came in over the fax line, the President stepped over to the aide who'd picked it up, a look of grim satisfaction on his face.
"It's time. Call the conference. Downtown Nashville, 11 AM."
All the lights were on at the mansion compound, with staffers from both men's organizations burning the midnight oil to hash out the final details. Black SUVs screeched down side streets to Kinko's locations to avoid a flurry of documentation issuing from a central location. Finally, the two men took their respective motorcades to just outside the city, where they transferred to a hybrid car, flanked by Secret Service agents on electric scooters. Exhausted, but elated, the President pored over his prepared speech in the final hours before the announcement, his eyes scanning every line to achieve the perfect balance of rhetoric and charm.
The man sitting across from the President had gained weight, but then, he reasoned in his own mind, so had Taft. And unlike Taft, who'd presided over a Court of States' rightists and old-money Federalists, he would be driving through the ultimate dream of any activist: he would save the world, one subtly litigated case at a time.
Blocking off Main Street America was de rigeur for the Obama administration at this point, and by March, the security and construction teams had it down to a science. The man across from the President marveled out his window at the efficiency. the The columns were much easier to put up now that the American flags that had draped them in the February appearances had been stripped, replaced with the simple purple seals of the Obama administration: Progress, Equality, Understanding, Peace. The flat-screen panels interspersed between the great Greek pillars played the loops the focus groups found most calculated to sooth, shifting subtly to more inspirational images as the President's speeches wore on. Like the man himself, they were calculated to impress, and let the message wash over rather than sink in. He let himself linger in glancing, knowing the staff photographers that'd followed the entourage would love to see one human reaction shot through the tinted windows.
Press teams, bedraggled, began to show up from Washington at around 10 AM, frantically setting up down near the old Casey homes development, where drug-runners and gangs had been replaced by dazed military men, stumbling from class to class in the worn lobbies and unrestored "rec centers," desperately trying to learn how to teach sixth-grade math or third-grade science with less than a tenth of the funding originally promised to them, or face a dishonorable discharge. The former residents had established themselves in the nice houses out on Fatherland Street, and expressed their gratitude by taking pot-shots with paintball guns at passing vans from the national press.
Camped out in a small Prius hidden at a downtown garage, Joey the Cameraman scratched the stubble on his chin and watched as the security perimeter expanded beyond the entrance. "We're in," said Joey. Amy, sleeping peacefully (though uncomfortably) in the back seat, murmured and rolled over.
When the national press was placed in their cordoned area and the offices within the perimeter were "evacuated" to provide a crowd, David Axelrod turned to his boss.
"This is make-or-break time, you know. Mayor Daley won't get us out of this if we screw it up." "It's going to take time," said the President, "and patience. We've got plenty of both. Did you make contact with the Premier?" "I received word last night, right as you were hammering out the Kentucky Provision, ironically. Joe's won them over." "I knew that windbag was good for something." "The Chinese know a good windbag when they see one. It's all about 'face' over there." The President smiled. "That's something we both know a thing or two about."
The President's companion for the ride over lumbered into the dressing room. "I think they're ready," he said. Obama gazed over. "You look a little stiff," he said, and couldn't resist a smile. The man grinned, too. "Comes with the territory, I guess. Besides, you don't get to be an activist without a stick up your ass." "Let's put some of that activism into the judiciary."
Obama entered first onto the stage, to "Rebel Without A Pause," having discarded Bruce Springsteen after the inaugural with the promise that "you'll hear him again once the Freedom Tower's built." The microphones at the front amplified the crowd noise just enough to make the lukewarm reception ring throughout Nashville.
"My fellow Americans," began Obama, once he'd made a grand show of quieting them down, "I'm pleased to announce here today that I've made my decision as to who will lead the Supreme Court of this great nation."
He cast a broad, sweeping gaze over the assembled masses. "These are trying economic times, as you well know, and when FDR faced such circumstances, his reforms were met with a lot of opposition by the Courts. They said his ways of thinking were new, and untested. They refused to see beyond a narrow band of 'Constitutionality' that didn't take into account the framers' own understanding of a 'living' nature to our republican virtues."
He was slipping into his professorial reverie, he knew, but he couldn't help himself at times. The look of abstract bliss filled his face, as surely as if he was before the chalkboard again at the University of Chicago. "We need judges who will responsibly tend to our living Constitution, our changing Constitution, to bring about the right change, the change we need, and steer our course along those paths.
"The man I introduce to you now is one of those great men, an extraordinary leader for an extraordinary time, who will help us not only understand and sift through the complex litigation arising from our forthcoming energy plan but also bring us towards a greater respect for this planet we all call home, and the resources we all share, including that resource of the law itself. It's the law that protects our natural beauty in Appalachia, so destroyed by our quest for energy independence in an interconnected world. It's the law that keeps our water safe in the Mountain West, making sure we pay the right price for food to avoid tragedy later. We need a Chief Justice who will enforce and shape the laws of the Earth hand-in-hand with those of the Constitution.
"And so, my fellow Americans, my selection for Chief Justice of the United States is Mister Albert Gore Jr."
Joey the Cameraman zoomed in from his precarious perch atop the parking garage's ground-floor booth, hoping the Secret Service agents sweeping by on Segways wouldn't notice him. "I knew it," he hissed, focusing in on the massive moving object that now joined the President on stage.
A lifestyle of activism for non-sentient creatures had given Al Gore time to cultivate leisure, it seemed to Joey--the large black overcoat that draped over his massive shoulders billowed in the wind like a sail, and his sweeping, patchy hair cut a stark contrast to his bloated-yet-unblemished pink face, a slight reddening of the nose the only evidence of a beard tan. He moved with a purpose, but the effort needed to control the movement of his massive frame slowed his walk to a patrician's stroll, the easy action of a man who could afford to take his time.
"Joey, look out!" screamed Amy, watching from the car. Joey felt a hand on his foot. He lashed out, rolling off the top of the booth, careful to hold his camera out of harm's way as he landed with an ungainly "thud" on a tall, dusky-colored gentleman with a shaved head and narrow sunglasses shielding his eyes, clad in an impeccable suit.
His colleague, younger, shorter, and paler, rushed over to Joey, attempting to seize his camera. "They don't pay us enough for this," he said through clenched teeth as his colleague pushed Joey off of him. "Think of it as voter protection," said the first man.
Joey held his camera firm, kicking the second man in the ankle. With a yelp, he released Joey, who bolted towards the Prius. Amy turned the key in the ignition and revved the engine. Joey dived through the window, depositing the camera in her lap.
"Go!" he shouted. The second man jumped atop the car's hood, but Amy gunned it, flinging him off. The Prius burst out the service entrance of the garage, onto a Nashville alley, and sped away. The second man cursed and ran out into the alley after it, before throwing up his hands. His companion joined him.
"The President's gonna kill us," said the second man, rocking back on his heels as he glanced at his colleague. "Not our job," said the first man. "Our only concern is 2010. And that means making sure the voters are informed about the goals of this Kentucky Provision." "But if they're ... you know ..." "What could they be? Old Fox News-ers? That's my bet. Don't worry. All they saw was what everyone else saw: Al Gore, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. They'll be just as in the dark as everyone else once the coal plants close." "I hope you're right." "Let's just get to work."
The two men walked back through the garage, out the main entrance, and into the crowd, whispering occasionally to people they passed about how the Bush administration's excesses were worse than feared, how there was talk of "drastic measures," how Obama had come up with a plan to revitalize the economy along the Mason-Dixon once and for all.
"Save yourselves!" screamed Jim Kramer. "To hell with your family! Run for it! It's a mass panic, a total panic! We're reaping what we're sowing, here, folks. The chickens have come home to roost! And they're roosting right here, at the wall of Wall Street, with the dessicated corpses of Hank Paulson and Alan Greenspan, shitting on our futures! Get out of the market! Put your money under a mattress! But make sure it's a Chinese mattress! Because that's what it's gonna need to be when your kids start speaking Mandarin and 'ni hao'-ing their way into white slavery!"
Vice President Joe Biden watched the CNBC monitor in his office with a look of bemusement stretching along the spindly lines of his face. Kramer and his colleagues had "expedited the process" of pushing through the confirmation hearings, and Al Gore had been installed to the bench in record time. They'd put him in, ostensibly, to give some "foreign policy" clout, but he knew the Senators. He knew how to twist their arms and squeeze their earmarks until they begged for mercy--and when that failed, well, there were always the two "Men From ACORN" whom he could send around to their district offices.
He was fine dealing with the drier work, too, of course, provided he was allowed to delight in the misery of his former colleagues in the Senate. When Barack had shipped him off to Guangzhou for a "fact-finding mission" on "industrial relations," he made contact cheerfully, lightly, and discretely with Premier Wen, as requested.
Still, Biden couldn't help marveling at the President's own acumen. On the screen, Jim Kramer banged his forehead on his desk. "Why, God, why hast thou forsaken this, our freest of markets? What have we, your children done? What could the government do to prevent this, this second, greater, meltdown, this calling of the bluff?" he bellowed. But Biden knew the work had already been done, hours ago, far from the narrow halls of Washington or the battered trading floors of Wall Street.
Earlier that day, in Lake County, Indiana, three men sat at a folding table on an empty basketball court, surrounded on all sides by their closest aides. The contrite mayor of Gary, having failed to deliver the state in the primary, worked overtime to provide Obama a comfortable margin in November, and offered up the abandoned gymnasium just outside the city limits for the meeting. Their flights were routed through Halifax and Panama, Bakersfield and Bridgeport, before taking private cars from Chicago, but even so, Premier Wen Jiabao of China, the President, and the third man skittishly checked all corners with their minute entourages before settling in to business.
"I must confess, Mr. President," said Wen through his translator, "I do not yet understand the rationale for your decision. It therefore makes me nervous. You have done much in foreign affairs to upset delicate balances, perhaps in the name of a broader peace, but as Dr. Kissenger would say--" "Now, look, Mr. Premier," interrupted the President. "No one's seen Kissenger for months, now. You'd think if he objected to my plans he'd be up in arms." "It is perhaps difficult," said Wen, with extreme distance and diplomatic tact, "to speak out from an unmarked cell at the International Criminal Court, one might think." "I don't know anything about that," said Obama, "and if I did, it'd be a real testament to a firm resolve behind my actions, wouldn't it?" Wen gave a thin-lipped smile. "We do not doubt your resolve, Mr. President. We fear not whether a method lies behind your ... madness ... but just what that method might mean." "You've heard me talk about multipolarity," said Obama, placing his elbows on the table and raising his hands to illustrate his points. "But you've also heard me address equality. How we here believe in the principles of all men created equal, and how we strive for a return to those ideals." "Every country has ideals, Mr. President. Ours are rooted firmly in the self-correcting principles of Marxist-Leninist thought, through Mao Zedong's resolve and the Zhou Enlai Theory." "Words on a page, Mr. Premier. We can live our dreams. It'd be revolutionary, a fundamental return to what can make us all live the right way." "A 'cultural revolution' of sorts, perhaps?" "You might say that."
Wen leaned back, momentarily dumbstruck. Seizing the opportunity, Obama pushed himself forward, nearly bent at a forty-five degree angle over the table. "But unlike yours, Mr. Premier, there's a republican virtue at the end. And a promise for the future of China, and indeed the world at large."
Wen shook his head, slowly. "Allow me to restate the claims, if I may." "Please," said the President, straightening up, his mouth tensing. The third man at the table had seen that kind of look before, the look a man might give right before a slam-dunk victory. "You would request that we begin the process of divestment from our United States Treasury Bonds." "Yes." "You would allow us to buttress our own markets with the proceeds from these bills." "Yes." "And in return, you would request that we validate your 'new theory' upon its institution, at the very least with our silence." "Exactly." "All this I understand, Mr. President." Wen turned to the third man. "What I do not understand is your willingness to provide us with a traitor." "Numbers on a screen don't mean much, Mr. Premier," said the President. "At least not to the people I want to convince of the seriousness of the justness of our cause." Obama, too, turned to the third man, putting his hand on the future traitor's shoulder. "With a human face on the crisis, they know just how bad things have become."
A few brief phone calls to Beijing later, and the deal was sealed. The Premier extended his hand. The President stood and bowed.
"It will be ... an interesting time, with your new plans, Mr. President," said the Premier, still reeling slightly from what he had agreed to do. "I would hope for nothing less, Mr. Premier," said the President. Then, with a wry smile, he turned to the third man. "And I'm looking forward to seeing you play for Shanghai." "Shi-i-it, man, ain't nothin' here for me now," said Kobe Bryant.
Biden let out a guffaw as Jim Kramer smashed his coffee cup on live television, blood gushing from his hand as he frothed at the camera. CNBC was never this exciting. "When the Red Chinese sell, you sell! We were dancing one hell of a skanky dance with those pricks, and what did we do? We drank a god damn rohypnol cocktail! We let them take us home, slurring our words, and they fucking raped our economy to death! We have been raped, raped by Red China!"
Biden switched over to ESPN. "Kobe, Kobe!" shouted thousands of screaming Chinese girls at the player, wearing a white jersey and carrying a Little Red Book. His laughter grew so strong he had to turn the television off.
A pair of men waited patiently at his door, having entered quietly. Biden spun his chair lazily around.
"Hey, fellas," said Biden. "Mr. Vice President," said the taller man. "Take off your sunglasses, eh? Stay a while?" The Vice President chuckled again when the two exchanged glances, but didn't press the issue. "Man oh man, you guys see that stuff?" "Yes, sir," said the taller man. "Uh, yeah," said the shorter man, rocking back on his heels. "Hey, relax, relax," said Biden. "What're your ... instructions to us, on this, Mr. Vice President, sir?" The taller man flicked at an invisible speck of dust on his lapel as the younger man continued to speak. "I mean, we knew there'd have to be something to deal with the Kentucky Provision ..." "Oh, c'mon, it's simple, boys, simple," said the Vice President, putting his feet up on the table and leaning back. "Bush's fault."
Kobe Bryant scored 42 points in his debut game for the Dongfang Sharks.
"I needed to project a level-headedness in this crisis," the President was saying, his image occupying every monitor in Times Square. "You can't just, you know, run around like crazy, or issue a statement every day, or propose a gas tax holiday." Nervous laughter echoed in the press conference hall. It was the first of his presidency, but the White House corps was a devoted bunch. He was, largely, on friendly ground.
"So, uh, when you're asking why I didn't immediately step in, here, it was really, that, you see, the crisis required a much more nuanced and level-headed approach." "Now that the Dow has opened only to close early for two days in a row, Mr. President," the reporter said, following up from her previous question, "what can you offer investors?" "Hope," said Obama.
Marsha Vicksley, of Weber Groves, MO, spat on the ground. She'd taken the family's car and driven all the way to New York, the seething heart of internationalism, for a reason she'd never dreamed imaginable. Marsha Vicksley was leaving America.
For a woman who'd never traveled a hundred miles beyond the hospital in St. Louis where she was born, the culture shock had hardened her. She'd only felt physically ill once, when a gay man leading his "husband" by a leash strapped to his privates pulled a small, round object out of an inner pouch in his leather chaps and licked it suggestively. Marsha had looked away too late to escape the knowledge that the little turtle would share the fate of the man's "husband" that night.
She didn't want to hear more of the President's drivel, certainly, but nor did she want to chance the abortion clinics a block away. Instead, she walked south, down Broadway, the stuttering executive's voice carrying down past the shells of banks. She didn't have enough money for the ethanol-bloated gasoline on the island, and feared what the alternatives were for those who could not pay. She had abandoned the car and was walking, short of breath after five punishing blocks, and sat down on a bench, his damnable voice still ringing in her ears.
"...Judy, I, what I think you have to say here is, what are the immediate steps we can take to refinance our debt, how can we do it so the Chinese sell-off doesn't accelerate, and what will our long-term goals be. Now, uh, in this case, this specific case, what we're doing here is, we're taking radical steps, yes, but confident ones. So, uh. Yes. Thanks. Next question, you there? Yes, go ahead." "Mr. President, are you familiar with the failure of Truman's nationalization of the steel industry during the Korean War?" "Uh, yes, yes I am ... and I can say that this case is categorically distinguishable - we are dealing with all coal mining and power production, not merely steel. It's the entire coal industry we'll be nationalizing in order to shut it down. And the long-term positive effects of that are way more important than some little war ..."
Marsha heaved herself to her feet and kept walking. She didn't need to hear any more to know what that meant. People flooding into Missouri from places like Kentucky and West Virginia like refugees, overwhelming her husband and daughter, looking for work and housing but finding neither, now that all "those types" had moved into houses of their own with no loans and the apartment blocks were military bases. Hank sat at home, morosely wondering how he could have ever put so much into the market after the pundits in November promised a messianic recovery. Their daughter grew more distant every day, though she did say that the new math teacher was fired after he made the other children do push-ups for every wrong answer on a quiz. It was up to her, now: she had to find the Nicaraguan mission to the United Nations, and ask if the sanctuary claims were true. Their embassy in Washington had been shuttered, but Obama dared not move against the bastion of old liberalism, not with Qaddafi as the new Secretary-General.
Merely thinking about the rumors made Marsha's heart leap, though more out of desperation than hope. Acres of pristine farmland in the tropics, where people of different cultures knew their place, working the land or living a solid life as the time demanded. Enough private money for choices in schooling. Executions for homosexuals and abortionists. She found herself so wrapped up in the thought that she did not see the two figure shuffling along the sidewalk with her until she bumped into them.
"Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry!" said Marsha, before realizing what she'd done. A tear involuntarily escaped out of the corner of her eye before she could control herself. She squeezed her eyes tight shut and prepared for the inevitable outbursts. Liberals had grown so litigious that they'd sue you as soon as look at you, especially if you admitted fault--the classic sign of conservative, good-natured, small-town values. "Sorry?" said a woman's voice. "Oh, Joey, maybe she's ..." "Shhh!" said a man's voice. "Just, just go your way, ma'am, and ... uh ..." the man's voice attempted to make itself more gruff. "You just get out, now!"
Marsha opened her eyes. The pair were dressed in ratty clothes, and the man carried a beaten, faded duffel bag over his shoulder that seemed to enclose something far more bulky than clothing or food. "Oh, sir," said Marsha, "thank you, thank you, I was just ... just looking, you see, it's ... I ... uh ..." The other woman leaned in, then seemed to wince in pain. "Ahh ..." she said, holding her right hip. The man steadied her. "Ma'am," she said, through obvious discomfort. "you can say what you need to us." Marsha let the words spill out of her. "I'm looking for the Nicaraguans," she said.
The man, startled, opened his mouth, but a large, dusky drunkard carrying a boom box passed them by, shooting them a long, threatening stare. The man and woman began muttering, as if homeless, and Marsha followed suit. The drunk's boom box blasted out the President's ongoing press conference.
"...as to whether the Court will uphold it?" "I have no doubts the Supreme Court will uphold this Kentucky Provision. I think Chief Justice Gore has a great legal mind for the necessity and propriety both environmentally and economically of shutting down the coal industry for good. The "clean coal" plants are already being shipped, piece-by-piece, to the Chinese, to, you know, pay down that debt as best we can in the short term." "Are you saying some of these plants are already offline, Mister President?" "Well, look, as I said, we've been planning this to make a, a, a clean transition, here, a clear break, and to that end, we've asked our Eastern cities to bear their own burdens a bit. I'm impressed by how quickly they've complied. In, ah, in New York, they've even taken the Freedom Tower crews off the project to make sure there's enough ..."
The drunk mercifully receded into the distance. Marsha let out a sigh of relief. The man with the duffel bag shot her a quick glance.
"It's supposedly in what used to be the financial district, far downtown. Come with us. We'll have to take the subway." All three shuddered.
The three conservatives gingerly crossed the streets, viciously mocked for obeying pedestrian signals. "It's all we can do to keep further harm from us," said the woman, who'd introduced herself as Amy. "They just think we're crazy." Marsha just nodded, terrified at the prospect of public transit.
While the New York Subway, free from any fair competition, had decayed into precarious disrepair, the province of beggars and roving bands of youth, Marsha, Amy, and her husband, Joey, were saved. It must've been the providence of the Lord, thought Marsha to herself, thinking of the story of Jonah in the whale as the doors finally opened out into downtown Manhattan.
More abandoned financial giants greeted them upon their arrival. Trucks lined the narrow street onto which they had emerged. Joey approached one of the drivers while the two women stood back.
"What's all this about, eyyyy, fuck?" said Joey, adapting a classic "tough guy" pose to stay safe. "Y'know, I don't know," said the trucker, in an equally pointed Southern accent. Joey relaxed. "I'm sorry, sir, I just wanted to keep safe out here." "Ah, shucks, not a problem," said the trucker, returning the sigh and clapping Joey on the shoulder. "What with the road taxes up again, everyone's trying to score extra work here from the Nicaraguans, but they say they've been closed up for days." "No!" gasped Marsha. The trucker turned his eyes over to her and Amy. "Wife? Wives? You ain't a Mormon, are ya?" "No, no, sir. Wife and a friend we met along the way." The trucker narrowed his eyes. "Gotta be mindful of those 'friends.' You know what they say. The liberal media, they listen." "I know, sir, I know, but ..." Joey sighed. "What can we do, if we can't get to Nicaragua?" "You one of those folks fixin' to head down there?" "Yeah, I mean ... if we could, you know?"
The trucker cocked his head to the side. "Well, not a lot of good options these days. I was thinkin' myself of heading down to Texas, trying to get a job building that big new highway they're talking about. I was worried about the unions roughing us up a bit, but I hear there's some Congressman down there, really sticking up for the state against the Feds, y'know?" Joey sighed. "Can't see myself really being much good on a highway project." "What's the problem with the Nicaraguans?" interjected Amy, walking over. The men eyed her warily. "Someone said there was a power surge, then a cut - all their lights, just gone out at once. Government said it was because of this whole Kentucky provision, y'know, cutting back on power, but nobody else's lights're out," said the trucker. "Why not?" asked Amy.
The trucker shook his head. "You'd have to walk about two blocks southwest, ma'am, to see why, but I'd say, you seem like a nice girl. No sense breakin' your heart." Now it was Marsha's turn to step forward. "Who's this Congressman? Do you think he could get us to Nicaragua?" "Not if you don't have somethin' to offer him in return, that's for sure," chuckled the trucker.
Marsha saw Joey clutch his duffel bag. "Maybe we do," he said, quietly. "Well," said the trucker. "I'll tell you folks what. You let me in on this Nicaragua deal, and I'll take you down to Texas." "Really?" "You think I wanna stay in this goshdarn socialist country?" Marsha's eyes filled with tears. "Oh, sir, please don't say it's a socialist country. This is America. We can't have fallen so far in only two months, can we?" The trucker's face went dead serious. "Ma'am, I'll wait for you right here. You just take that little walk to the southwest and tell me what you see."
Gathering her courage, Marsha nodded once and turned towards the edge of Manhattan.
As the press corps filed out of the room, the President turned to Axelrod. "Get the license of that ABC staffer. I think they're starting to forget the lessons we gave them after that Pennsylvania primary debate." Axelrod nodded, but held up his hand. "We've got to be careful, here. Phase One, at least, is going over well, and if you can get the gun registry through by tomorrow, we shouldn't have too much of a problem there. But Phase Two, you'll be talking about real ensconced people with real ensconced lives, not just the miners who've been assigned to the WUVA." "David, if the WUVA goes through, we'll be able to stake a claim to bringing equality to the people in a way Canada only dreamed about." "They called again today about the NAU proposals." "We might need to float the Amero earlier than scheduled if we can't halt the dollar's slide, but keep them busy."
Axelrod sighed. "Sir, don't you think we're juggling too much, here? What if we put the relocation project in the hands of ... the Experts?" Even Obama's auburn face crept closer to ashen at the mention. "I promised myself, David, I made a solemn vow. Not even the men from ACORN could control him if we released him." "I said experts, sir."
The President paused, alone at the podium in an empty press room, gazing down to his most trusted advisor. Finally, he pointed to a seat. "Tell me more," he said, his eyes reduced to deep-set icy pinpricks on his ebony face.
It took Marsha longer than she expected to return to her new-found friends, but the trucker understood why. She'd wept for what seemed like days along the edge of the river, not caring who saw her.
"All the time it was ... we finally really did it," she whispered, falling to her knees.
The Statue of Liberty's back and crown stood dotted with countless tiny, whirring spikes, glinting in the setting sun, causing it to appear hazy and indistinct as they caught the breeze to turn it into power, but there was no mistaking the replacement for the torch: a massive, slate-gray wind turbine.
"You maniacs!" screamed Marsha. "You turned it green! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!"
With the Supreme Court holding in a simple 5-4 opinion that the Second Amendment did not forbid the government from declaring itself exclusive purveyor of organized militias, the Weapons Registration Act passed without comment. In far-flung states such as Montana, the communes that refused it were quickly eviscerated to serve as notice to the hunters of Pennsylvania or the sportsmen of North Carolina: resistance would only lead to the redistribution of your estate.
Some complained that the new serial numbers on each weapon could cause them to misfire, or simply deaden the trigger, but the President dismissed such claims as foolishness. The FBI's guns were registered, his spokesperson said, and they worked just fine.
And so when the armed convoy deployed a group of twenty Federal Agents in full riot gear down at the Navy Pier in Chicago at 6:30 AM, no one so much as batted an eye. The President's truth squads had swapped jackboots for patent leather and automatics for subpoenas, but at least they kept the peace.
The real curiosity was reserved for the three figures at the center of the phalanx. There were two men in fine suits, one whose dusky features and sunglasses could be made out even above the sea of helmets and one whose motions in a protective formation betrayed his youth, but they could possibly be explained away as apparatchiks of one kind or another, faceless figures of the Executive Branch's long arm. It was the short, lithe figure in a form-fitting flight suit and helmet that drew prolonged gazes. Even with only her red lips visible, the men who caught a glimpse of her knew it was best for their sanity that they did not see more of her voluptuous form.
Silently, the parties boarded a trio of speedboats and shot out on to Lake Michigan, soon disappearing in the evaporating morning fog.
On the central boat, the shorter man in the suit stole furtive glances at the woman in the helmet, opening and closing his mouth ever-so-slightly to keep it from turning bone-dry. Towards the stern, the taller man stood motionlessly watching the boat's wake, and eventually, his colleague joined him, desperate for relief.
"You having trouble, too?" asked the shorter man. "With her?" The taller man allowed himself a brief smile. "It's really him who bothers me. This whole operation, really. He was sent out here for a reason. It's not in our interests to bring him back." "Even with her to keep the experts in line?" "She's nothing I haven't seen before," said the taller man.
"Though probably not looking quite this good, hmm?" said the woman, unhooking her helmet and pulling it off with one clean tug. A shock of long, red hair trailed down to her shoulder blades as she turned to face the men. The shorter man made a noise halfway between a gurgle and a gasp.
"No," admitted the taller man. "Not quite." "Your boss sure knows his plastic surgeons," said the woman. "I had this redone twice last year, but this year's model just takes the cake." "Knowing him," said the taller man, "you'll have to get it done four times a year to keep up with the Joneses." She tossed her hair back teasingly. "If he's paying? Fine by me. You're worried about this one, hmm? I wouldn't be so serious all the time. It wrinkles your forehead. You're almost cute." "Let's get this over with," said the taller man, sighing. "Yes, let's." The red-haired woman turned flawlessly on her high heels and walked back towards the bow, her eyes fixed on the tiny island just in view. "I have a lunch date with Justice Clinton, and I hear there's a cigar bar down the block from the Court."
They had kept him in darkness, all these months. It was his reward for cooperating, he often shouted, until the echoes off of his stone cell walls threatened to deafen him. Had they given him light, they would have let him see the creature he was slowly becoming. Freed from the charcoal suits and the pressed white shirts, from comb-overs and cuff links, he reached a more natural state, with what little remained of his hair growing down in mottled, uneven streaks around his bald crown, his once-cropped mustache buried behind a bushy wall of gray, flecked with spittle and dirt. His dark eyes, once imperious, had grown feral without others on which to set them. But when they opened the door of his cell, he still managed to bite the neck of one of the three guards sent in to subdue him.
The three travelers stood with their escorts and watched impassively through one-way glass as the screaming prisoner was subjected to the shower, then the soap brushes at a distance, and finally the stifling towels. When finally alone, he staggered to the small metal table, dressed in the simple white undershorts and shirt provided, sat in the tiny chair, then began to laugh.
"Is this all you have for me, Barry? The best you can do? Is this your idea of rehabilitation?" he shouted. "Or are you just gonna shoot me? You know, why don't you? At least I'd get a god damn cigarette, right? Right?" "Pathetic," said the red-haired woman, tapping quietly with her immaculate nails on the partition between the observers and the prisoner. "He needed to go somewhere where no one would see him," said the taller man, "not even himself. It was the only way to be safe." "What a weak little doe, our messiah. Can't even get his hands dirty." "He's learned. But this one, this is different." "He's afraid, that's all," snapped the woman. "So are you, for that matter. Get your balls out of your ruck-sack, Boy Scout, and come with me." She turned to the shorter man. "You too, Humpleberry Hound." "Guhhh," said the shorter man.
The effect on the prisoner was immediate, but not what either of the two men were expecting. "Well, well, well," he said, gazing at the woman. "Been a long time." "I think it's funny, how often men say that," said the woman. Without skipping a beat, she unzipped her flight suit and stepped out of it, letting it fall to the floor. Underneath she wore a shockingly tight black business suit with a matching mini-skirt and a white blouse that left exactly the right mysteries to the imagination. "Usually," she went on, checking herself for wrinkles in the fabric or stray hairs, finding neither, "it's just because they don't want to admit that they remember it like it was yesterday."
The prisoner let out a derisive snort, turning to the shorter man. "Is this who Barry sends? Two idiot goons and everyone's favorite inky assassin? Didn't have the balls to show up himself?" "Didn't think your two-timing ass worthy of his time, you scheming little toady," said the woman, taking a step between the prisoner and the shorter man, interrupting a staring battle the inexperienced agent was already losing. "Face it. You can't stand that he outplayed you." "You call this outplaying?" shouted the prisoner. "What were the rules of the game?" "No need to shout. Wasn't it TR that said it, 'speak softly, carry a big stick'? Huh?" the woman took another step closer. "You've got the big stick, TR. Learn to quiet down a little bit. There are no rules on the level Obama plays at. You should feel lucky. With all that's gone on in the last two months, you're probably the only one left in this country with guaranteed housing." "There are always rules," said the prisoner, lowering his voice and leaning back in his chair, warily keeping his eyes on the red-haired woman. "You don't win by ignoring the rules. You win by making the rules do what you want them to do." "Now that's some TR I can believe in," said the woman, rewarding the prisoner with a vixenly smile. He turned his eyes downward, and she failed to conceal the gloat in her voice as she continued. "Gonna get your mug carved up on Mount Rushmore? We can do it, you know."
The prisoner slammed his hand down on the metal table and leaped to his feet. The two men started forward.
"Back off, Pussypantaloons!" shouted the woman. "Or I'll have your boss send you both out to prospect for un-depleted uranium out at Yucca Mountain." "So he does want me back. After all this. After the betrayal." The prisoner's eyes were wild again, but he could not bring them to meet the woman's. "You betrayed him first, you grubby little Greek." "I'm Syrian." "Call me when I give a damn." "I didn't say anything about him when I agreed to cooperate." "He never gave you much of a chance, did he?" "He's not even man enough," began the prisoner, his voice rising again, "to come back here and offer a god damn apology!"
The woman stepped around the table, putting her hand on the prisoner's heaving back. He started and tried to move away, but she lightly drummed her fingers between his shoulders, playing him like a piano.
"He's afraid. Afraid of the old TR in you, you know? He thinks he can control you. You know who else he's letting out? Abrimoff." "Abrimoff?" said the prisoner, almost reaching the pitches of his prior shouts. The woman held her free finger up to his lips. "Shhhhhh. Time served, you know, for a hand with the next big thing. That little queer with that big black book has the connections, but it's you who's got the game. He can't make it without you, but he doesn't want to admit he needs you." She ran the finger down from his lips to his neck, spreading her palm out and lightly touching his chest. The prisoner's breath came more deeply, heavily. Across the room, the taller man turned slightly away, gazing absentmindedly at the corner.
"Why bring me back out, then?" asked the prisoner, hoarsely. "If he can't run me, why trust me?" "He thinks I can control you. But he can't even begin to control me. This is big. Big enough to bring back the old TR in you in a very, very big way. It's what you were born to do."
She leaned down into his ear, flicked her tongue lightly in and out, and began to whisper. Each time he tried to straighten up, her hand on his back would firmly bring him back down, but his eyes widened until they seemed ready to burst.
"It's called the WUVA," she said, leaning back, letting him rise. "Ironic, huh?" The prisoner shook his head. "My God, he's good." "A chip off the old block. A lesson learned from the old TR." The woman put her arms around his shoulders, drawing him close, bending him close to her face. "But that old TR ... he's still right here, isn't he? We could run this, you, me, and your big stick. It'd be good to be one of TR's rough riders again."
His breath came hot on her face. She stared, unblinking, into his wild eyes, waiting for the months of rage and confusion to give way to lust. "I'll do it," he rasped, moving to close the final inches between their lips. She twisted away, lightly, and drew out from the folds of her blouse a single sheet of paper.
"Sign on the line," she said. "Boy Scout!" The taller man, still turned from the scene, pulled a pen from his pocket and tossed it lazily to the woman. She snagged it out of the air and placed it with ladylike daintiness next to the contract.
The prisoner stared dumbly at the sheet in front of him. "I won't be played again," he said, finally. "I won't." "You're the player, this time," said the woman. "If you choose to play at all, that is."
The prisoner etched his name into the paper, nearly puncturing it in crossing the "t." "Say the words, Boy Scout," said the woman as the former prisoner dropped the pen and stepped towards her. "My name," began the taller man, "is--"
Both the prisoner and the woman shot him a glance that spoke volumes. He sighed.
"Antonin 'Tony' Rezko," began the taller man, shaking his head as the former prisoner wrapped his arms around the woman's waist. "I declare your debt to society duly paid in time served. You may leave this room a free man."
"I may have to wait a minute to enjoy that freedom," whispered Tony Rezko. The woman let her body go limp, arched her head back, and let out a blissful sigh as the former prisoner pressed his lips into her neck.
There was a sucker born every minute in the life of Maureen Dowd.
Waiting for the tiny elevator outside the Galveston apartment block, Joey the Cameraman wondered how they'd reached this point. Every day on the punishing week-long journey down to Texas brought some new tragedy past their windows. Joey, Amy and Marsha took turns sitting up in the cab with the trucker, and each returned at the end of the night with a new tale of horror.
"The 'Safe, Legal, Rare' Gentleman's Club," said Amy. "A 'Marijuana & Spiritual Herbs Dispensary' set up in an old Catholic church ... in Scranton!" said Joey. "A noose hanging by the side of the highway, wrapped around a plunger," whispered Marsha. They all shuddered.
Most of the time, though, their lives were spent slowly succumbing to tedium along the packed highways as endless convoys of bulldozers, backhoes, cement mixers, drills, and countless other forms of mining/excavating equipment moved steadily west. Kentucky was in a state of perpetual gridlock as the lifeblood of its (and West Virginia's) industry slithered towards some unknown goal, grim-faced workers riding alongside them in covered trucks.
"Ain't never seen anything quite like it," said the trucker, on the fourth day of not being able to move more than ten miles per hour. "Where could they be going?" asked Joey the Cameraman, shooting film out of a matter of habit. "Is this for the Texas highway, do you think?" "I wouldn't reckon so," said the trucker. "Sometimes, when we get on south-bound roads, we miss 'em all together. They're heading west." "West ..." whispered Joey. "What could be out west?"
Over time, while the traffic eased, their moods did not. When they crossed the border into Texas and found signs only in Spanish, Amy gave voice to her despair. "I don't want my baby to be brought up in a world like this, not knowing what it means to really be American!" she wailed.
The trucker could only nod silently and pat her on the shoulder. She had been getting tired more and more easily, and her two companions kept a small mat of crushed cardboard cases for her to lie on when the bleeding started. No one knew what to say. Perhaps the stress was just too much for an honest woman's body to even want to bring forth a child. Joey prayed every night, silently, after they'd all gone to sleep, breathing in rhythm with Marsha's occasional whimpers and the trucker's snores. Who could deliver them from this nightmare? Was there even anyone left?
But the nadir of their days since the inaugural came yesterday morning. Looking for work on the highway project, the trucker had said the previous night, was like walking a minefield laden with union codes and enchiladas. The Mexican work crews that had streamed across the border after the President had ordered a "rolling amnesty" for "public works" took root in every district that'd let them, haphazardly mixing asphalt and sleeping in the unfinished breakdown lanes at every opportunity. Meanwhile, the unions strove to keep their workers on the job while withholding as much of their wages as possible for "benefits," and while the Congressman from Galveston occasionally rode out to other districts to try to broker deals, more often than not, Chicago suits would greet him at the door and firmly tell him his services were not needed.
The elevator door opened. Joey, Amy and Marsha stepped inside, avoiding one another's glances as they hit the greasy, well-worn "P" button to ride up to the top floor. They all feared that merely the sight of the others would make them all cry. The trucker had gone out to the Mexican site, a desperate attempt, but perhaps the only one he had left if he could hope to scrape the money together for Nicaraguan passage. Joey had told him not to, told him to hold out hope, that the Congressman had given them fifteen minutes on his schedule, that they could throw themselves on his mercy if all else failed.
"I'm a proud man," the trucker had said. "I'm not afraid of a day's honest work. We'll just have to see if them Mexicans feel the same way."
Joey, Amy, and Marsha stepped out into a simple, wood-paneled square room, with no entrances or exits beyond the elevator. A small buzzer stood at an empty reception desk. "Press Me," read a note sitting next to it, in neat block lettering. Marsha reached down and touched the button. A light chime rang.
After about five seconds, a wood panel behind and to the left of the reception desk depressed slightly, then slid aside. An elderly, grandfatherly man stepped out, clad in a simple gray suit, a yellow-and-black striped tie, and black sneakers. "Hello," he said, gazing solemnly at the ill-clad trio. "I'm Ron Paul."
The Congressman's office was a veritable fortress of solitude. Two monitors flanked his chair, and a dim strip across the wall opposite his desk seemed designed to follow market updates (when we had markets, Joey thought to himself). A wide-screen television sat below the ticker, and in the corner sat a tall American flag.
"I apologize for the secrecy," said Congressman Paul. "But you must understand, what we do here has become necessarily secret. 'The deed without a name,'" he laughed. Joey didn't understand, but tried to force out a chuckle. "Congressman, thank you-" he began, but Paul raised his hand, not unkindly. "I also heard about your colleague, the man who brought you here." Paul's face turned somber. "I'm sorry." "He had no chance!" said Marsha, still reliving the moment. "One minute he was asking for work, promising a hard day's labor, the next they were on him with those knives of theirs ... calling him 'ese,' spitting on him ... I ... oh!" Joey felt his eyes welling with tears, tried to shake them off. "I know," said Congressman Paul. "I know. I'll do all I can." He sat at his desk. "Unfortunately, that may not be much. Ah ... Joey, yes?" "Yes, sir," said Joey, dully. "You said you were the cameraman with the footage Billings thought was 'too hot to air'?" "We had to go back to New York--just nothing for it," said Joey, sighing, his mind already adapting to telling the horror stories again and again. "Let's see, let's see."
Joey brought his duffel bag over to the desk, pulling out his battered camera, and handed the Congressman the tape. "It's the only copy I've got, sir," said Joey. "Billings kept the other one." "Understandable, if it's got something 'the common man' shouldn't see," sniffed Paul. He lightly tapped what appeared to be a drawer in his desk, and a complex series of slots unfolded. "Media library," he explained. "One must be prepared for all circumstances."
The trio stared as the lights in the office dimmed and the television on the opposite wall moved slightly forward. Speakers deployed from the ceiling. "Had these installed right before Bose went under," Paul said, smiling. "Congressman, if you don't mind me asking ..." began Amy, looking around, "how did you afford all this in such difficult times?" Paul's smile broadened in the glow of the screen. He tapped a few buttons on his desk. A massive metal door swung inward behind him. "Gold, my dear," he said, as the lights in the lead-enclosed space to the rear reflected off the piles of neatly stacked coins, bars, and doubloons. "It's never gone out of style." "Why haven't you--" "--left for say, Nicaragua?" finished Paul. "I'm a patriot, you see, Joey, through and through. Besides, some fleet-footed gentlemen just made me a rather interesting offer that I might take them up on. A chance to experiment with a the true liberties engendered in us under our Constitution, far from both the neoconservatives in Nicaragua and the liberals in, say London." "Really?" said Amy, with hope in her voice. "A little place they call Mogadishu, jewel of the Horn of Africa," said Paul, closing his eyes as the vault door swung shut again. "All they need is a little venture capital and they'll be off like a rocket." For a moment, Paul leaned back in his chair silently, enraptured by his own visions of utopia. Finally, with a sigh, he turned towards his visitors. "Ah well. Let's see what we have in the present, shall we?"
The tape began playing. Joey the Cameraman watched with Ron Paul. Had it really only been three weeks since Gore made it to the Supreme Court? He had been all across the once-great country since then, the east of it, anyway. How had they all let it happen? They were like frogs in boiling water, believing, hoping against hope, that they'd have at worst four years of another meandering Carter, or philandering Clinton. Why didn't the country see what was right in front of their noses until it was too late?
"I've seen this all before," said Paul, wearily. "A new angle than the press box, but the same song-and-dance. Yes, see, here comes Gore, in his greatcoat, looking like he's eaten the seals to save the seals." Joey felt his heart sink. "Sir-" "Now, I know you felt like you ..." Paul's voice trailed off as the film suddenly lurched. This was the moment, Joey realized, when the men in suits had grabbed him. A blurry image of the man wrestling with Joey for control of the camera filled the wall.
The Congressman raised a remote control and paused it. "Enhance," he said. The image shivered, then slowly cleared. A young, panicked face stared out at them from the screen.
"ACORN," said Paul. "They had ACORN agents at the rally." "Registering voters?" Marsha asked, incredulously. "It's a long story," said Paul, "but we've lost control of our own get-out-the-vote organizations. It's all run through ACORN now. And this one," he continued, motioning to the face on the screen, "is one of their top field agents. He and his partner've been roughing us up, one legislator at a time, for our registration methodologies. I've held out for as long as possible, but they come see me every week, with the same threats. If he's there, they're all there."
Paul pressed another button on the remote. The lights came back up, while the speakers and screen receded. The Congressman turned towards one of the two monitors on his desk, and a keyboard shot out of another drawer. He began typing frenetically. "There's clearly a broader conspiracy ongoing here in terms of ACORN as enforcers." "I don't follow," said Joey. "Come around here, Joey." The Congressman motioned with his right hand, his eyes still glued to the screen. All three visitors craned their necks to get a look at the image. "Here's the United States," said Paul, pulling up a Google map. "Now, here's ACORN's official list of field offices." A list of cities and states filled the screen. Paul overlaid the two. "Let's see if we can't ... my God."
Yellow dots began to pop up across the map, slowly populating the states. Marsha gasped. Every state seemed to be filling in, "swing states" from the last election first ...
"All Obama campaign offices," muttered Paul. "Fascinating."
The dots continued to roll across the map, east to west, until, with a light "ding," the program announced it had finished.
"Every state, filled," said Amy. "No!" said Joey, suddenly, pointing to a dark gash across the west. "Congressman Paul, can you-" "I've got it," he said, with a few deft strokes at the keyboard. State boundaries appeared bright against the map.
"Wyoming and Utah," said Joey. "Not a single ACORN office in either Wyoming or Utah." "What does that mean?" asked Marsha. Paul shook his head. "Either he's giving up on those states or ..." "... or he doesn't think there's going to be any trouble from them, right?" said Marsha. "There'll always be trouble from those states--the reddest of reds in the Mountain West, and-"
Amy collapsed. Her face was pale. "I can't," she gasped. "I've got ... to save ... the baby ... I ..."
Paul leaped to his feet. "The baby?" he said. "Are you pregnant, ma'am?" "They said it was ectopic something-or-other," said Joey. "That's why we were on the run down to Nashville, they were going to-" "Those bastards," growled Paul. "Every life is sacred. Quickly, we haven't much time. Pick her up, carefully, please, and bring her this way."
The Congressman pressed a few buttons on his remote. The heavy office door slid aside out into the reception. "What will you do, Congressman?" shouted Marsha. "She needs a doctor!" "I am a doctor," snapped Paul. "An obstetrician, in fact. I have delivered over three thousand children, and we're going to deliver this one. Now move!" "She's barely even in her first trimester!" shouted Joey as they carried Amy through the office door. A second panel slid aside, adjacent to the elevator, towards an examination chair with hanging leg stirrups. "We'll have to try to re-implant the fetus from wherever it is now," said Paul, quickly washing his hands and placing surgical scrubs over his suit. "It's our only hope." "Will that work?" asked Joey. "Every life is sacred!" repeated Paul, his high Texan twang hitting a feverish pitch. "We will not leave this child behind!"
Paul reached into a small drawer and pulled forth his necessary examination tools. Marsha discretely turned her head away to avoid any vulgar intrusion, only to let out a scream.
"Ron Paul! Look out!"
In the open reception room stood the two men from the rally, from the video: the Men from ACORN. Both held wicked, silenced pistols, their gazes fixed on their quarry.
"Practicing without a license, Doctor Paul?" sneered the shorter man. "As if you'd know the first thing about real medicine," said the Congressman, not bothering to hide his disgust. "Your office may be lead-lined, Congressman," said the taller man, his face impassive behind his sunglasses, "but your practice room isn't." "Took you long enough to feel the urge to just go ahead and deny your services to a needy public," chimed in the shorter man. "You can't force me to join that care system you call 'universal,' and you know it," said Paul. "Unless you've got a reason to be here, I suggest you leave." "Not this time, Congressman," said the taller man. "We've got you directly violating the provisions of the Mandated Health Equality Act, knowingly providing specialist services without government referral and reimbursement." "There'd be a line outside my office days long if I joined that plan," said Paul. "I see it when I drive around my district. People deserve the right to choose!" "They have freedom to choose their abortionist, Doctor Paul, not their doctors," said the shorter man. "It's the only way we're going to get any equality, and you know it." "This policy discussion is charming," said the taller man, "but the facts are clear. You are under arrest, Congressman Paul, unless you want to consider delivering your voter metho-"
"Duck!" shouted Paul.
Joey hit the deck just as the lights went out. One of the Men from ACORN cursed, and both started firing. The silencers let out whimpers of air as bullets careened into the room. The women screamed. With a "click," the door sealed, and the guns stopped. The lights snapped back on just as a tremendous "WHUMP!" sounded against the wall where the entrance back into the reception area once stood.
"Joey!" shouted the Congressman, pulling a massive revolver from his belt. "You take my keys, and you and the woman, here, get to Wyoming! Find what's happened! The Mormons are already probably in their bunkers, but there's got to be someone up near Cheyenne who'll fight them!" A second crash sounded. The sound of splintering wood came from the reception area.
Joey stood, dazed, then looked at Amy.
She'd been hit in the upper leg, the force of it sending her into shock. It'd missed the major arteries, but blood oozed from the wound. Her face was white as a sheet. "NOOOOOO!" he screamed.
Paul grabbed him around his shoulders as Joey tried to move towards her, nearly maddened with grief. "Your country needs you! Do you hear me? Your country needs you!" He pressed a set of keys into Joey's pocket as the cameraman slowly gave up the push towards his now-still wife.
"Take the Pontiac," said Paul. "Drive and don't stop until you reach Cheyenne." A second door swung open. Marsha stood, as if in a dream. "I'll hold them here for as long as I can." A fist slammed through the wall separating them from the reception. "Go! GO!"
As Joey and Marsha stumbled down the dark side staircase, the sound of a powerful revolver rang out, with the faint whistles of escaping air offering a rejoinder. By the time the pair reached the garage, the shooting had stopped, and the sound of four patent leather shoes on the staircase echoed at their own heels.
The Men from ACORN burst into the sub-level garage as the hydraulic lift punched the former Congressman's GTO up onto the Galveston street.
"Fuck!" shouted the shorter man. "They know. They have to know. There's no way they couldn't know." "It's too late," said the taller man. "Rezko submits his first draft for the removal tonight. They won't make it to the border before the outer ring walls are completed." "So? It'll take at least another three weeks to get it all in place."
The taller man sighed. "Call the President," he said. "Inform him there might be a leak in the dam."
His wife had begged him not to go, tears streaming down her face. "Why you?" she had asked. "You have so much to live for." "I'm the only one that knows those little nooks and crannies. In our long days in the wilderness, Judith, I was the only one that was out there. When we came in from the cold, I ... I missed it, Judith. I missed the good fight, the impossible dream." "So this is it, then? The impossible dream? Giving up your family, your career-" "This, Judith, is change. Change we can believe in."
Now, standing on the street corner in a ratty orange parka, he cut a figure he hoped would almost be unrecognizable, his once-youthful blonde hair shaved nearly down to the scalp, leaving only patchy amounts of peach fuzz, his aviator sunglasses halfway between ski bum and lifelong "Top Gun" lover, his stomach puffed out in an approximation of his old paunch. He would need to time it just right, and that would require getting close without seeming conspicuous.
He gave warm smiles to the large families, trying to appear as respectable as possible, though inwardly he cursed his own stupidity: this was Utah. He needed a large family to avoid attracting attention - how many older, single Mormons existed? In his head, he tried to piece together a story of overzealous missionary work as he walked towards the gate. Maybe he could fake being one of the professors, as long as whoever questioned him didn't also work at the university.
Onstage, the warm-up man hollered out at the huddled families. "People of Provo!" he shouted. "Why do we wait in fear? Does not the Prophet say that worlds beyond ours await for us, in glory? Why, then, should we permit this world to be merely a sacrifice for the next? We have done too much, and come too far, for this world to be wholly forsaken along with its wickedness."
The man in the orange parka paused briefly, sizing up the stage. It was small--impromptu, he realized. He allowed himself a tight grin. Up the street, in the distance, a massive West Virginian mountain-top drill barely squeezed down the street, surrounded by a phalanx of guards at its fore and rear.
"People of Provo!" the warm-up man said, pounding the podium, his breath showing in the cold air. "We do not have to take this as a sign of the end times, but rather as a sign that we may aid our brothers and sisters in darkness in seeing the light, turning away from the false messiah of the President's seals and signatories and towards God!"
A few nervous murmurs of assent filtered up from the crowd. They were terrified, realized the man in the orange parka. He would be too, he reasoned, with all the machinery headed out to the walls and mountainsides. That was, if he lived there.
"How can we do this, people of Provo? With the help of God's servants on earth, through the channeled hopes of the Latter-Day Saints! I have seen the perils of the space-faring age, in my novels, and let me tell you, people of Provo, we will have nothing but dead to speak for if we do not raise our arms and say 'enough' before all is too late!" A few more joined in the cheers. Young people, too, realized the man in the orange parka. Fascinating--a few of them were "left behind" on the right, out here in Mormon country. "And at our helm," said Orson Scott Card, his voice breaking, "a devout servant and humble man of God and Joseph Smith, the man we must trust at the helm of this imperiled nation in 2012, ladies and gentlemen, our own adopted son of Salt Lake returned to us: Mitt Romney!"
The crowd cheered, polite claps increasingly intermingling now with the frenzy of desperation. Romney bounded to the stage, his eyes bright and wide. He had no cameras to wave for, now, noted the man in the orange parka, and seemed a shining symbol of a different era. He had an easy demeanor, a winning smile, a willingness to shake hands and laugh hard, with his light gray suit matching the color of the sky and his hair. He was positively Reaganesque, realized the man. He set his jaw and waded into the crowd, cheering along with them.
"Friends, fellow LDS members and others, BYU students, faculty and staff," began Romney, "thank you for having me here. Special thanks to the folks of Brigham Young University, who realized just how perilous these times are, and allowed us to use this campus as a staging ground." The crowd stood enraptured. Romney's words came out plainly, but with the slightly dulcet undertones of a statesman at work for his dearest constituents. "Now, friends, a lot of us have seen hard times in the last few months. But no one has suffered more than the people of Utah. We've heard nothing for weeks now but the sound of Kentucky machines all through the night and the drunken slurs of Kentucky miners in our private clubs all through the morning." A few faint "right ons!" erupted from students, but the parents and grandparents quickly shushed them. They knew how much Romney meant to the huddled masses in what seemed to them like the darkest of hours.
"It's all right, folks, it's all right," said Romney, raising his hands. "I know you're afraid. None of us know what they're doing up there in the hills. We get shooed away, don't we? But we've seen them: massive, concrete walls. It feels like they're keeping us out--or boxing us in. Our calls are met with silence, our pleas with empty rhetoric. Why are they closing our roads? What about the rumors out of St. George, of evacuations, by force if necessary?" Now murmurs swept like wildfire.
"Well, let me tell you, my fellow Americans, we don't have to take it any more. We've been stepped on for long enough!" The crowd roared its approval. The man in the orange parka gave a half-hearted yelp of affirmation and slunk closer to the stage. It was almost time, he thought. Give it a minute to get the crowd really roaring, and he'd make his move. But he froze as he got close enough to the stage to see the figure peeking its head up from behind the low rise. Their eyes met. The man in the parka saw her lips working. Trying to appear unconcerned, the man slipped his sunglasses further up along his nose and turned to the random citizen next to him.
"Hey, you see that one there, behind Rom ... uh ... the governor?" "Hmmm, friend?" said his neighbor. "No, didn't see anything. Say, are you from around here?" "Hmm? Oh, no, no, I'm just, you know, up from Park City, but, uh ... I really ... want to believe in this cause." His neighbor shook his head and whispered as Romney continued. "They building those big concrete things up outside of Salt Lake, too?" "Uh, you know," said the man in the parka. "Who knows what those liberals do?" He hoped the laugh sounded natural, but not loud enough to attract further attention. When he risked a sidelong glance back behind Romney again, the woman was gone. "Amen," said his neighbor, solemnly. "So I take it you're not LDS, then, hmm?" "Ahh ..." said the man in the parka, feeling the sweat bead on his forehead. "Err, well, my favorite book of the New Testament is Job, but ... uh ... what's that Romney just said, friend?"
Romney had been recounting the policies of the past eighty days, "culminating in this, these massive barriers. Is Obama afraid, friends? Is he afraid of the power of the true American people and their awesome God?" The crowd let out a series of roars and jeers. "Let me tell you, folks, change is not a byword for slavery, it is an avenging angel at our backs!" Now the crowd stood on its toes and screamed approval. Even the man in the orange parka's neighbor seemed to forget the curious behavior of his new-found conversation partner to shout his approval.
Now, Romney prepared to play his trump card. "We have an angel here with us today, you know. Well, almost an angel. As close as you can get. A woman who's suffered so much, and knows a lot about the cold, both literally and in the sense of the senselessness Obama has subjected us all to. But friends, she has suffered more than most. She lost her husband of many years in an 'unsolved mystery' still pending (scattered booing), had her second-youngest come home to her telling her she came down from monkeys (fervent booing), and she even had the President step on her state's rights in rolling over every provision she'd designed to protect them!"
Shouts of recognition rang out. "Who's he talking about, friend?" asked the man in the parka, hoping to quell the concerns of his neighbor for a few seconds more, though the fact that he knew his fleeting glance was already confirmed made his throat turn to ice. "Oh, come now, sir," said his neighbor, looking at him with increasing suspicion. "Who else could it be but-" "Governor Sarah Palin!" shouted Romney.
The crowd rattled the windows on Brigham Young's halls with their shouts. The Governor of Alaska bounded to the stage, chastely embracing and shaking the hand of the former Governor of Massachusetts. In the crowd, the man in the orange parka had attracted too much attention to himself. "Say, you say you're really from Park City? Born and bred?" said his neighbor. Others were turning to him, disapproving glances. "You know, my folks, they came from Washington," he replied, weakly. "Why don't you take off those sunglasses, there, friend," said his neighbor, the frown turning to genuine concern. "I don't mean to cause trouble, but where we come from it's polite, you understand." "Ahh," said the man in the parka. He had to have them--
Yes, there, there they were, the family. Trapper and Trigger and Tippicanoe and the rest of the children streamed onto the stage. Mothers in the audience wept and took photos on their digital cameras. The Romneys joined the Palins, smiling, waving. The man in the parka whipped off his aviators.
"Sorry, there, friend," he said, not meeting his neighbor's gaze as he turned his face towards the stage. He had maybe five seconds. "You look awful familiar," said his neighbor, putting his hand on his shoulder. "I think we ought to just let someone take a look at--"
It was all he could finish. The man in the parka swatted the arm away and pushed down the woman in front of him, pushing off of her back to gain momentum.
On stage, the shouting seemed to slowly died down, except from a few isolated corners of the audience. People were jockeying for position, Sarah Palin realized as she daintily laid her remarks down. She looked up at the people of Provo. "You know, as a hockey mom, I got to really love the words of President Reagan. Well, I'm just here today to echo his advice to another tyrant!"
The shouts seemed to outnumber the cheers, suddenly. To her left, the Governor of Alaska saw a blur. Probably someone overcome with emotion, she realized. She was used to it. She gazed out, smiling, trying to ignore it. "When he faced down the Communists, Reagan took the fight to their doorstep. Well, they're right out there now! This president's let them come to us! So I'm gonna stay strong and bring Reagan back for all the real Americans out there!"
Romney saw it before she did, placing a warning hand on her shoulder. The man with the orange parka bounded onto the stage, pursued by two or three younger men. But the older, wiser organizer moved with the frenetic speed of a man on his last ounce of strength. And as Palin turned, still finishing her final sentence, he opened his own mouth in reply, brandishing the detonator from his pocket.
"Mr. Obama, tear down this--" "YEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!!!"
There was a terrible flash of light, a shattering of glass, a second's squealing from the suddenly-incinerated microphone, then a terrible, bloody silence.
That evening, the City Councils of Provo, Salt Lake (sans the mayor, who'd been missing for weeks), West Valley, and West Jordan voted to go to ground.
The nightly news led with the tragic story of the day - apparently former DNC chair Howard Dean was eaten by a shark off the coast of Hawai'i, where he had been vacationing. His body was never recovered.
If anything, he'd specifically asked not to lead the Resistance. "If nominated, I will not run," he said. "If elected, I will not serve." Yet after four straight ballots putting him in the position, he reluctantly took up the mantle.
He was too old, he had told them, and the stakes were too high. When the President had officially announced the relocation plan a week earlier, he knew their rebellion would need to be lithe, mobile, and above all, not carrying the kind of information that could so reward their adversaries if captured. Moving through the rugged mountains of terrain would take a younger, blunt, charismatic character, like the man he'd been in his youth.
He had run down the lists with them. Pawlenty? Stabbed with an ice pick along with Bud Selig by deranged White Sox fan disguised as the bratwurst from the Sausage Race at a Miller Park reception, victim of attempting to cross state lines for allies. Meg Whitman? Got more than she bargained for in winning an auction for a "compact DO-IT-URSELF crisis room L@@K" on eBay, crushed along with Carly Fiona in the industrial trash compactor that had been sent instead. Huckabee? Mangled beyond recognition in a fatal chair collapse. Jindal? Dark-skinned. Giuliani? Gay.
No, they had reasoned, he was the only one, the last principled man in a world so bereft of them that they would do whatever it took to protect him and his physical ailments for the sake of the information that would only be released from the vaults at his death. Besides, they had said, with far too much hope in their voices, the sturdy maple cane with which he walked could be a symbol, striking fear into the hearts of their enemies and strengthening the resolve of their friends.
They had suggested various code names for his new position: Black Op. Redactor. Angler. But he was home, now, and in his heart, he longed for some simple return to his roots. He'd picked his own nom de guerre, at the end of the day, and after some concern, they'd grown to respect it as he did, an unassuming name for the power behind the operation.
The radio next to his chair squawked. "I'm just saying, Bear, after that close call in Jackson Hole, we should take no chances!" someone was saying. "Enduring Freedom, Portman says he's sure they were in Paul's GTO. The gear-shift was gold-plated, for the good Lord's sake! It's either get them over the wall or send them to the Mormon camps, and no one really wants to lose that kind of opportunity." He reached out of his red leather chair, grabbed his transmitter, and scowled. "All units, this is Telephone Repair," he grumbled. "Keep the chatter down on unsecured channels." "With all due respect, Repair," came the voice called Enduring Freedom, "you were there too. You saw them cut down Dobbs in the middle of the street. We barely got you out, and after that it was all horses, all the time."
"I'm not interested, Addington," snapped Repair, clutching his transmitter close to his mouth. "If they're Paul's people, they might have information. Get them to a safehouse and debrief them." "They're not Paul's people," said the voice called Bear. "They say ACORN got to him, which makes sense, given his dead signal." "Bear," said Repair, "Get them to Undisclosed Location One. I'll do my best to be there in a few days." "Sir!" said Enduring Freedom, "We're not moving you unless we have to." "We don't have much time," snarled Repair, "before they start patching the holes in the walls faster than we can make them. Already I've seen the secondary dams coming up. We can either make a phased retreat to the refugee camps in Boise and let ourselves get pushed back to Portland and slaughtered, or we can find some way to stand firm. Now I've made my decision and you're going to stand by it." "Repair, this is Soaring Eagle," came a panicked, sonorous voice. "Go ahead, Ashcroft," said Repair. "I've got confirmation - the President's going live tonight with 'Phase Three.' But the Devil's Tower Bunker is still lit up and going full-bore." Repair sighed. "They must know," he said. "That's the only reason they'd still be hunting for me." "About the birth cert--" "What did I say about unsecured channels?!?" shouted Repair, leaning back to rest his heart. "Send a courier to all captains. I'll be out of touch, so direct all communiques to me through Bear In The Woods. Repair out." "Roger that. Good luck, sir."
Repair took a few deep breaths, then leaned heavily on his cane and rose. He wrapped the black bandanna carefully around the lower half of his face, adjusted his glasses, placed the hat atop his head, and walked slowly towards the stables.
That evening, Joey and Marsha sat silently in a darkened house set into the wooded hillside somewhere near Foxpark, shivering even with the meager fire set in the stove and soup boiling. The walls around the high prairie near Cheyenne were massive, at least along the Colorado border, and they had driven carefully for miles in the shadows, dodging patrols of Army Engineers and overzealous College Democrat Truth Squads up from Denver with an axe to grind against their northern neighbors.
But they'd seen the two men setting the explosive, nervous and bickering, looking unhappy in their ill-fitting masks and hats.
"Bandits?" Joey had whispered to Marsha. She'd laughed. "One of them's still wearing his suit pants," she pointed out. "They must be the last, then ..." Joey had felt his heart sink. But they'd gunned the gas and drove down, waving his mottled white undershirt out the window in an attempt to prevent them from destroying themselves mistakenly. After a few moments of tense negotiation, they'd taken the initiative, blowing a hole just big enough for the four of them to squeeze through.
A few hours on horseback later and they were here, though where or why Joey couldn't know. If this was all they had left, he thought to himself, perhaps the movement was finally finished.
"The walls are getting thicker," the taller of the two men in masks said. He was of Asian descent, and a little doughy around the cheeks. "Just like I recommended ... God, seems like years ago," sneered the shorter, sharper man. "Decades. I got, what, 2% of the vote?" "Not even," snorted the Asian man. "Serves you right for running against Bush's policies." "Shut your trap, Yoo. I bet you'd never even seen a horse except maybe in your mama's soup before you came out here." "I don't have to take this from you, Tancredo," the other man responded. Marsha shook her head.
"Do we have to fight?" she wailed. "We don't even know what's happening out there and all you can do is blame each other over the past?" "We're about to know," said the man called Yoo, "though I think Repair already has a pretty good idea." "Huh?" said Joey. "The current President is going to give a big speech on the whole point of these forced evacuations, beyond his bullshit 'inoculation from a possible virus' meme he's been pushing," said the foul-mouthed man called Tancredo. "Liberals," sighed Yoo, "can't even name things properly. Did he really think anyone would be fooled by 'Operation Close Encounter'? That conservatives somehow didn't watch Spielberg?"
"Who's this 'Repair?'" Marsha interrupted, bored with talk of things over her more wholesome tastes. "Why hasn't the President killed him like he killed ..." Her throat closed as she thought of the bodies that lay in the wake of the Chicago political machine. They were Americans, real Americans, stepped on to hand the country to welfare queens and gays. "...everyone else?" finished Yoo. "Repair has the last piece of Obama's past." "You don't even know these fucking people, Yoo," cautioned Tancredo. "We've suffered enough to know the truth!" shouted Joey, standing up to the short man. Tancredo looked at him, studying the fire still burning behind the former cameraman's eyes. Finally, he let out a quiet laugh and turned to the soup.
"Go ahead, John," he said, quietly. "Tell him." "Repair had some work done on him, a while back, when he was ... someone else. They said it was a heart condition to keep it secret, but you know how those things go. Repair knew, you see, about where Obama was born." "What?" shouted Joey and Marsha. "He's Kenyan," said Yoo. "We all knew it. We had the only other copy of the records. The PATRIOT act did its job." "No it didn't!" Marsha's voice had reached a near-hysterical shriek. "We could have PREVENTED ALL THIS, you BASTARDS!" Yoo shook his head. "We tried. Believe us, we tried. Rumors, innuendo, the works. But Repair didn't want to put it out there. He knew the second the Obama people understood what we had, we'd all be dead. Repair is ... not in the best of health, you see. And he wanted to do something beyond die for no reason and put the document into their hands for good.
"So he had the operation. And beneath the Naval Observatory in Washington, he set up a room with a very simple trap, wired to his new pacemaker. If he dies, a copy of Obama's birth certificate is faxed to every federal, state, and international agency. Even if they repealed the natural-born requirement, he'd still have been misleading the American people. It'd be over for him." "Why not do it now? Now, before it gets worse?" said Joey. "Repair thinks we can win this as long as he stays alive," said Tancredo, bringing the soup over and ladling it into battered tin cups. "It's why he hasn't fled down to Nicaragua with the others. Why we're still here with him. There needs to be some opposition party left to swoop in once even his Supreme Court can't support him anymore. Remember, Clinton would be happy to toss him out if we cut a deal to put his wife on the bottom half of a 'reconciliation' ticket. We are the party of Lincoln, after all."
Marsha shook her head. "That sounds like a lot of politics to play with people's lives. My life." Tancredo nodded sadly. "That's Repair. Without Bush, he's all we have left. And love him or leave him, he's got the balls. Hell, Yoo's right. I should've trusted Bush, trusted Repair. I feel like a fool, sometimes, a god damn fool."
A single tear dropped into Tancredo's meager tin of soup.
Deep under Devil's Tower, Maureen Dowd and Tony Rezko drew new lines on the map of Wyoming and Utah.
"A week, you think?" she said. "We can just assume the Mormons aren't going anywhere," said Rezko, his brow furrowed. "Salt Lake and the rest of the 'bastions' are safe in Portland, and the ghettos in Boise and Omaha are filling up with all the idiots in Cheyenne. The walls are nearly done, and even bombings won't slow them down in terms of eventually opening the sluices for the dams." "That just leaves ... our little problem."
From his sulking position in the corner, a man in a black hat and trenchcoat looked up. "You mean our big problem?" he said in a nasal whine. "Get bent, Abramoff," replied Rezko. "You can be mean all you want," sniffed Jack Abramoff, "but I was the one who captured Drudge. I got it out of him." "Developing ..." muttered Dowd under her breath. "I can see how the threat of sex with you would drag secrets out of anyone," said Rezko, flashing a cruel grin. "And fine, you learned how to use Craigslist's 'casual encounters,' congratulations. We've got our buddy on the move, now. This 'Undisclosed Location One' has to be somewhere he knows well." "What're you even gonna do if you find him?" asked Abramoff. "Kill him? Yeah, sure, that'd be great. Ruin us all at our moment of triumph. You just can't start up the WUVA until he's dealt with." "You know, it's a good thing we have you here, Jack," said Rezko, "so I can tell you to go jerk off to The Godfather again and leave us the fuck alone. The President wants to deal with this one personally. All we need to give him is the location." "And how do you propose we do that?"
Rezko pointed to the computer in the opposite corner. "Our little friends who got away from the Men from ACORN seem to have picked up a keepsake along the way."
Abramoff waddled over to the machine, then gasped. "Oh. Oh wow." "Now we just wait until we hear his voice back over the radio," said Rezko. Once we know they're in the same location, we let Marine One pay them a little negotiation visit."
Joey checked his watch. The gold band had tarnished some from when he'd gotten it out of Paul's glove box, but he didn't mind - it was comforting, somehow to know that time was marching on, that somewhere, a satellite was relaying him the correct time, that something was objectively right in the world.
Yoo removed the crank from the radio and twisted the dial. The President's voice whirred into existence.
"...as you know," said the voice, "we've largely contained the damages from 'Operation Close Encounter.' And I can assure you folks, there's no longer an immediate danger. In its place, however, my fellow Americans, is a golden opportunity.
"In one great swoop, we can be free. Free from foreign oil, free from Chinese debt, free from the chains of open market pressures. As you know, I've been sending equipment and manpower to the regions affected, Utah and Wyoming, and realized that as the populations have fallen, a new potential use for that land's emerged. It's taken the Chinese decades to build the Three Gorges Dam system, but we had the opportunity to use American ingenuity to build a similar structure in weeks.
"I took that initiative, folks, because I saw an opportunity for hope, and change. You gave me a mandate to bring us the change we need, and this project will not only give us hydropower on the scale of a billion Hoover Dams, the states downstream of it even now are receiving federal grants to build factories, factories where a generic version of the Chevrolet Volt is already in its conceptual stages of development. Every hard-working American will be mandated to trade in their gas-guzzler for an electric, powered by this new project, this Wyoming-Utah Valley Authority. Millions of green jobs will spring up. The economy will revitalize itself. The markets will re-open, under a tight leash, with nowhere to go but up.
"My fellow Americans, over the past two years of hard campaigning, I spoke to you again and again about my promise to the American people, not just Red America, and Blue America, but the United States of America. The new future of the Forty-Eight States will be one beyond what our Founding Fathers could have dreamed. In the new floodplains of the Wyoming Reservoir System, we will forge a new future, one for all our children to live in as they see fit.
"I will trigger the flooding of the valleys in one week," said the President. "In the meantime, God bless you, your children, and the great new future that awaits these remaining United States of America."
A group of men on horseback thundered along the ridges of the Tetons under cover of darkness, conveying the last hope of the Resistance towards his tiny mountain cottage near the Idaho border. They moved at breakneck pace along the treacherous trails, knowing full well that the future of freedom depended on his heart stopping only when he allowed it to do so.
But the water was rising.
The end was near.
The warrens in the Tetons northwest of Jackson were the perfect place to stage the last stand of the Resistance. Already, countless members had slipped across the border to Idaho, promising to destabilize government control in the southeast frontier counties. Repair's caches of unlicensed weapons gave his honor guard enough weaponry to fight off groups of soldiers five times their number, and they had the benefit of ease of motion. No one could shake them from their caves, they believed.
And so after six long days of ducking, weaving, avoiding roads and traveling by night, the exhausted party from Foxpark found themselves surrounded, blindfolded, and taken to Undisclosed Location One, outwardly a simple square cottage with an unassuming maple door. Their blindfolds removed, Joey and Marsha took a step together towards the entrance and stared as the door slowly opened.
"These the ones?" growled former Vice President Dick Cheney, wearing a set of blood-flecked hunter's fatigues. "Yessir, Repair," said John Yoo, behind Joey and Marsha. "I think they know who the fuck I am, John," said Cheney, making a noise halfway between a snicker and a snort. He saw Marsha and Joey's faces darken, slightly. "Pardon my French," he muttered. "Come in, come in."
Marsha and Joey entered the bare room, with its white walls and three plush leather chairs arranged to provide a comfortable view of the terrain through the massive window opposite the door. A small fireplace sat to the right, a few logs crackling. Next to one of the chairs sat a small round table with a portable two-way radio.
As the pair entered, Cheney closed the door. "Go check the perimeter," he grumbled to Yoo and Tancredo as it clicked shut. He turned and offered a brief motion to Marsha and Joey. "Sit," he said.
Both of Cheney's visitors took up seats. Cheney himself hobbled over to the chair closest to the radio and sat, picking up the transmitter. "All units," he said, "this is Repair. Let freedom ring."
Deep under Devil's Tower, Jack Abramoff's ears perked up. "That's him!" he shouted down the long hallway.
Dowd came racing out of the storage closet first, fixing the left strap of her asymmetric evening gown and cursing as her bare feet slapped the cold metal floors. Rezko, adjusting his tie and wiping his forehead, followed at a more leisurely pace.
"How soon can we get him there?" she gasped, staring at the map as Abramoff and Rezko triangulated the position of the broadcast. "Twenty minutes," said Rezko. "But that's treacherous territory. No way you can get a helicopter in there without it getting shot down. I'm not cutting any deals with a President Biden." "Me neither," agreed Dowd. "Yeah," said Abramoff. "Shut up," suggested Rezko. "There is another option," said Dowd, jerking a thumb at the disgraced lobbyist. "His friends." Rezko shook his head forcefully. "I thought we were going to disavow them. Not let the President know." "We don't have time to argue. Do it!" Abramoff gulped. "No one deserves to face them." "It's what we have, Crybaby!" said Dowd, grabbing the lapels of his trenchcoat. "Now make the call."
Abramoff took out his phone and began to dial. He pressed it tightly to his ear to keep his hands from shaking. "Uh, Ennis?" he said. "We're ready for you." A pause. "Yeah. Yeah. Uh ... northwest of Jackson Hole. Let me get you the coordinates ..."
An unearthly whoop resonated from Abramoff's phone.
Cheney folded his fingers. "Let's get down to business, if you don't mind," he said. "I need you both in Boise tomorrow, with news that Rob Portman is to be my successor once-" "Wait." Joey shook his head. "You're not going to ... ask us anything?" "I know what you know," said Cheney. "Yoo and Tancredo sent a courier ahead. You've had a long haul, and I'm sorry to make it a little longer, but-"
"You don't know anything!" screamed Marsha, standing and flipping her chair. Her eyes were wide, her hair fell around her face. "We've lost everything. Can't you understand that? The liberals came and redistributed everything we had and called us 'equal.' I lost my husband to despair at the free market's closure--he'll never be able to find his way out of his losses if the markets are gone." "I lost my wife," said Joey, "to a bullet from ACORN's guns." "I lost my daughter to the homosexual agenda," said Marsha. "I lost my son, unborn, to a health care system that promised us free everything if we could just wait for all the undeserving crackpots to get through it first," said Joey, still seated. "You see? We've both lost the same things, Mr. Cheney," said Marsha, "for the same reasons. And I'll be damned if the thanks we get is another mercy mission to-"
Cheney rose. The room seemed to telescope around him: the fire cast distorted shadows of his frame across the white wall behind him, and he seemed taller. He no longer leaned on his cane, and the sneer perpetually affixed to his face seemed to fade away.
"Have you ever SUFFERED, as I have SUFFERED?" he boomed. The fire roared in the chimney. Marsha fell to her knees, her eyes rolled up in the back of her head, overcome by the sheer power of the former Vice President. The light seemed to return to the room, and once again he fell back into his chair. Joey sat stunned.
"I brought my message to the gates of Yale," whispered Cheney, "and they refused it. I brought it across the great post-war Midwest, but all I heard was foolish carping over McCarthy's sins. And so I honed it here, in the hinterlands. I cultivated it under the sacrificial lamb who was Ford, and returned to the desert." His hand clenched tightly around the maple stick in his right hand. "I suffered the indignity of watching my own child, my daughter, say she loved another woman as I had loved her mother. I shepherded an unready man through the highest office in the land and took the fall for keeping us safe. I stood in the shadows and guided you. And on the days you could no longer bear the strain, when you called out for the socialists to lift your burdens, I was the wind beneath your bootstraps. I let you carry yourself along the beach, leaving no tracks in the sand at all for the paper-chasing grubbers like Woodward to find."
Joey opened his mouth, but found himself unable to speak. A strange, unnatural expression seemed to cross the former Vice President's face ... and then Joey realized it. Cheney was smiling.
"I gave everything to you. I gave my heart, my soul, to bring you free markets and chained terrorists. I wanted to keep you safe from the minorities who sought nothing but more of your time and money and then called you 'honky' and wore their pants down to their ankles. When you were hungry, I told you where a McDonald's was. When you were naked, I pointed the way to the nearest evangelical charity. And when you were lonely, I promised you that there was always someone lonelier. That someone, Joey, was me."
Joey found his eyes welling with tears. "I'm sorry, Mr. Vice President," he whispered. Cheney breathed deeply, closing his eyes. "I'm sorry, too, Joey," he said, after a moment of silence. "I'm sorry I couldn't have done more."
John Yoo held his rifle nervously. Odd rustles sounded from the pines. "Tancredo?" he said. "Tom?" "What?" said the voice in front of him. "We should form up the group. I think we're being watched." "What makes you say that?" said Tancredo, turning around.
Two blurry pink-and-black figures leaped out of the trees, lassoing Yoo and Tancredo with strange, sequined rope.
"YEEEEEHAW, MAAAAAN!" bellowed one of the figures, rushing up to Yoo before he could scream and stuffing a lime green bandanna down his throat. Yoo let out a muffled wail as he saw the man behind Tancredo place a ball gag in his unwilling mouth.
The fine smell of hashish oil wafted over the air as the men chewed lazily in the cold afternoon sun. Within minutes, it was over. The two figures pulled up their leather biker shorts and withdrew their respective gags from the now-still figures of John Yoo and Tom Tancredo, their necks horribly broken, their pants down around their ankles. Giggling, the two figures checked one another's pink bandannas wrapped tied to mask their faces. The sound of snapping bones and muffled grunts of ecstasy from the trees around them let them know their colleagues were nearly finished with their own tasks.
"I wish I knew how to quit you," whispered one. "But I'm so high right now."
The Brokeback Mujaheddin fanned out and moved to encircle the cottage.
"It wasn't enough," Cheney said to Joey, Marsha now sleeping peacefully in the chair between them. "They didn't understand the work people like Addington and Yoo were doing for them, making us safe for our own freedoms, keeping activist judges from interpreting what we knew was the way." Joey shook his head. "But why do you have to go? Why must you be so hated?" Cheney let that rarest of expressions, his smile, fill his face again. "We who seek the best for our people are always hated the most. Such is always the fate. Prophets are not welcome in their homes, it's always said." Joey nodded. "If only we'd been wise enough to see, to trust you."
The window burst in. Cheney struggled to his feet, breathing heavily. Joey started to dive behind his chair, but something inside him snapped. Not this time. He would do no running. He stood up to face the threat-
-and stared into the face of Barack Hussein Obama, President of the United States of America.
"You're the one the guys from ACORN told me about," he said, stepping through the broken glass, the men behind him digging their spurs into the ground and staring at Joey in anticipation. "You're not even qualified to be President," said Joey.
Obama's left hook was too fast for Joey to even see coming. He took it behind the ear, his vision exploding into a starry blur as he fell. "Now, look, don't talk back to me again," he snarled, moving to aim a kick at the slumped cameraman's jaw. Cheney jabbed his cane into Obama's ribs. Obama made a grab at it, but the former Vice President pulled it back.
"Leave the boy alone, Barack," growled Cheney. "You know you can't touch me, so you have to attack the helpless. Typical." "I came to offer you a deal, Dick," said the President, pulling a silver, ovoid device out of his pocket, with a single button on its rounded top. "Apple made this," said Obama. "For the special occasion. I'd hoped to use it at the official flooding, but I thought it might be nice to give you a shot, first." "Ugh ..." muttered Joey, his vision only just beginning to clear. "Sounds like you're just bitter," said the President, staring down at Joey and smiling nastily. "Cling to something else for a change, and leave us alone. We're talking here." "The boy stays," said Cheney, "or I go." Obama raised his hands defensively. "Don't get too excited, here, Dick. Now, I'm offering you a deal, here. Listen, it can be any office you want. A seat on the Court, chance to be a real conservative arbiter? I did it for Gore, I can do it for you. Treasury Secretary? You could take all the credit for the turnaround that's going to be due in a very big way next month, Dick, I know it."
Cheney stared down at the device in Obama's hand, then over at the incapacitated figures of Joey and Marsha, the Americans who'd believed enough to find him here.
"Go fuck yourself," he whispered to Obama.
A tiny flash erupted from Obama's other pocket. Joey felt woozy for a moment, but managed to struggle up to his knees.
"I thought you might say that," said Obama, a look of satisfaction on his face. "Because it'd mean I didn't have to take you."
Joey looked up at Cheney, who stood staring at Obama with the same expression of disgust. It was only after a few seconds passed that he realized that the former Vice President hadn't responded. Joey shook his head and gazed down at his watch to confirm ... only to see it stopped.
"What's up, Vice? That is the pet name Bush gave you, right? Eh? What's hangin', Vicey? Cat got your tongue? Squirrel got your ACORN, maybe?" Obama laughed at his own cruel joke.
The faintest of growls escaped the Vice President's throat as he sank to his knees. Joey leaped up and rushed to cradle the falling leader of the Resistance. "My pocket ... Joey ... Joey ..." whispered Cheney, his breath coming in shallow gasps. "Get away from ... from all this ... go ..." "No, no, no!" screamed Joey. "Even if you go, the record is out, right? Portman can become President if we get rid of Biden, too, right? Right?" Obama's laugh approached that of his own Vice President's in volume and tone. "Joey, right? Yeah. That's cute, Joey. Your buddy Vice, here, his heart was never so good to begin with. He couldn't put in a trap to simply release the file when the machine stopped transmitting - his heart's far too irregular for that. It needed to send a confirmed signal, a 'Cheney has died' code, if you will, to break the fail-safe. And this," he continued, tossing a small, blackened shell from his pocket to the ground, "is an electro-magnetic pulse grenade. Designed at Cheney's behest, I think. Allah knows I didn't fund it."
Joey withdrew the Vice President's wallet from his pocket, felt it heavy with golden promissory notes from Nicaragua and a pair of false passports. Cheney's eyes rolled up in the back of his head.
"Reag ... Reagan ..." gasped Cheney, spreading his arms wide in a final spasm, "into your hands I ..."
His eyes misted over. Richard Cheney, last Republican Vice President of the United States, was dead.
"We lost the watch's signal!" shouted Rezko. "Now's our chance." "You think he used the pulse?" said Dowd, popping birth control like candy. "Of course," replied Rezko, pulling out a small pistol. "Hey, Abramoff."
The chubby lobbyist in the black fedora meandered over to the map. "What's up?" "Remember that scene in the Godfather, where the guy gets shot?" "Which-"
The first two bullets passed cleanly through his skull, while the third lodged deep in his chest. Jack Abramoff fell across the map, his blood staining the dam control features. "Press the button, baby," said Dowd to Rezko. "Let's bury this president and his little stooges, too. Then we'll see how willing Biden is to talk."
Rezko removed the backup trigger from its Apple case and pressed the button.
Around the hot steam vents of Wyoming, through the underground reservoir systems of Montana, a series of massive explosions ripped apart the land. Water began gushing into the northeast of the former state of Wyoming.
"Hot shit, TR," said Dowd, pulling her own pistol from her garter belt. "You were great, just great. A shame the black man's got the bigger dick." Rezko's eyes widened, but Dowd had already pulled the trigger.
"You catty bitch ..." whispered Tony Rezko as he fell next to Abramoff. "That's my name, don't wear it out," said Maureen Dowd.
Obama felt the ground rumble. "Rezko," he muttered. "Dowd knew he'd sell me out." He shot a quick glance at Joey, cradling the dead Vice President, and the still-sleeping Marsha. "So long," he said. "I'd love to be a compassionate conservative here, but the government is bigger than any one man. Except me."
With purposeful strides, Obama left the cottage through the shattered window, smiling as the Brokeback Mujaheddin screamed with delight at the trembling ground, falling to the grass and waving their arms in front of each others' faces.
Joey looked at the comatose Vice President, then at Marsha. He had to follow the instructions, he realized. Pocketing the wallet and picking up Marsha, he ran after the President.
Marine One sat just down the hillside, having set one of its skids on the pants-less rear of John Ashcroft, his lifeless face seeming to face up towards the heavens trying to hit one final note. Obama allowed himself a smile as he stepped up into the bay.
"We're going," said the President. "Will we make it above the water level in time?" said the shorter of the two men awaiting his return. "Probably," said the taller man as the rotors began to whir. "Team Iowa knows how to work these wilderness takedowns pretty well.
Marine One lifted off from the soil of Wyoming, the last aircraft to ever attempt such a feat. As its skids drew level, Joey the Cameraman heaved the body of Marsha over, precariously trying to balance her before holding on for dear life himself.
"We're listing!" shouted the President as the water came into view - an angry, torrid brown mass rushing towards Jackson. "We need to get higher to avoid the swell!" "There's too much weight on the right skid!" replied the taller man, feeling his balance slide starboard.
Obama peered out the side door of the chopper. Joey had managed to keep his hold with one arm, but Marsha had slipped off. He held her by her foot, dangling over the Wyoming countryside.
"Shit!" screamed Obama, motioning to the Men from ACORN. "Get him off of there!" "We can't risk gunshots, sir!" shouted the shorter man. "Don't want them to ricochet or we'll all be dead!" "Then get down there and kick him off!" the President bellowed.
The taller man shrugged, sat on the side of the helicopter's bay, and tried to kick out at Joey's hand. The water had sloshed in beneath them at a frightening pace, and now the rumble of the swell could be heard in the distance. On the second kick, Joey grabbed the taller man's foot, wrapping his whole arm around it. The shorter man grabbed his colleague under the shoulders and pulled back. Joey clawed with his nails, trying to keep his grip ...
The life preserver caught Joey square in the forehead. Reflexively, he let go, grabbing suddenly with his free hand at the orange foam ring.
"MARINE ONE - BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA" it read.
He felt the curious sensation of air whistling past him, saw Marsha's body twist in the currents as it fell next to his, then smashed into the water and knew no more.
"Nice toss, sir," said the taller man. "Kind of a pass more than a lay-up, yeah," said the President. "Good enough for government work."
The three men laughed as the chopper wheeled its way out of the former state of Wyoming.
At 10 PM, the northwest wall of Reservoir WY49, shoddily constructed and overhyped by its union managers, collapsed, sending millions of gallons of bilge into southeast Idaho.
At 10:30 PM, the entirety of the eastern segment of the state was a syrupy marsh. The Governor's cries for federal aid went unheard.
At 11 PM, a man washed up in the now-evacuated town of Mud Lake, Idaho, wearing a tattered Carhartt shirt and clutching an orange life preserver. Hacking up filthy water, he struggled to his feet, feeling the heavy wallet in his pocket, and walked silently to the nearest abandoned car.
At 11:30 PM, President Barack Obama addressed the anxious nation.
"My fellow Americans," he began. "Our new age is off to a rocky start, but have no fears. We have nothing to fear in this time of multipolarity, of hope and change. Folks, we are the change we want to see in the world. The seas are parting, the rivers are overflowing, and we are perhaps weeks away from achieving our founders' dreams.
"For you see, folks," and even here the President could not help giving his all-knowing smile. "Look. We're finally all equals. Not just in birth, but in life and in death. We're not just Red America, or Blue America. We're the United States of America." He took a deep breath and stared straight into the camera.
"One nation, under me."
Bridget wiped the sweat from her forehead as her bike coasted along the dusty path. She'd never really considered taking care of her health, not like this, but seeing Dad in that shape really made her want to make something of herself, before she got older.
She'd grabbed the Walkman as they fled the house up in Tempe in the dead of night, and she was glad she did--they had plenty of cassettes down here, still, and the built-in radio was great to thumb through as she pedaled down the dirt tracks of the secluded valley, willing her chubby legs lean.
That morning they were playing the press conference, probably in deference to their "new friends up in the valley," and despite her better judgment, Bridget kept listening.
"I want you all to know that these last five days have been very hard for all of us," said the soothing voice of Michelle Obama. "But Barack is with the people, now. Even as I'm speaking to you here, he's arranging the last details of the UN aid and peacekeeping mission. I understand it's unclear who's going to be leading it, the French or the Russians, but we're keeping a close eye on events as they progress. Secretary Qaddafi's personal team is already on the ground, and President Chavez has promised us a large share of crude for the remainder of the year in exchange for his presence on Puerto Rico. We are going to be all right."
Bridget's bulky torso heaved as she forced the bike up the dip in the road through sheer force of will. She'd gotten along fine with the local boys, what few there were, in their pressed white suits, but the others largely stayed away. No one knew how long Dad would hold out, especially with summer on the way, and she'd heard his advisers whisper in his ear about "sending her to be with Bobby for a little while," that "here was no place for a nice girl like her to grow up." She shook her head as she exerted herself. She was finding her place here, with her own friends. Why would she bother leaving it behind?
Someone must've asked a tough question while Bridget wasn't paying attention, because the First Lady's voice came back slightly more agitated. "Well, as I've said, Barack would prefer not to take sides in the California issue, and we're not yet going to use those terms to define it, no." A pause as a muffled questioner attempted to rephrase it. "No, not 'Civil War,' absolutely not," said Michelle Obama. "The actors are out-of-state." The persistent questioner continued. "No, no," said the First Lady, a hint of exasperation in her voice. "Look, Barack respects both the territorial sovereignty of Oregon and the entire United States. And no one could have known that he had access to the Indonesian militia. We thought he was still in-- no," she said, cutting off the unflappable murmur, "next question please. My husband does not support San Jose's surrender to bin Laden, and the Chinese claims on San Francisco are invalid, no matter what fleet they claim rests in Oakland. Next question. Thank you. Next. Okay, you there, yes. Go ahead."
The trees parted, and Bridget pedaled out into the sunlight of the valley. It wasn't home, but it was slowly becoming so. The beauty of the waving grass and the simple silence made it hard to believe there'd ever been a village here, as some of the boys had told her. The Manor, a gorgeous white rectangle in the distance, was the only sign of humanity as far as she could see.
"I don't think that 'free and fair competition,' as you put it, had anything to do with it," the First Lady was saying. "And I take offense at that. My husband had a vision, and while the wall failures are minor setbacks, there will be regrowth in the next five to ten years, certainly. The Great Salt Lake's accidental intermingling will not render the land entirely fallow, and I'm told the scoring from the sudden rise and disappearance of the Colorado river has made the Grand Canyon a whole new experience for anyone capable of reaching it. We will re-build those dams." Another question came. The First Lady laughed. "Oh, really? Well, we're still here, aren't we? Where are they?" The press corps murmured nervously. "The Mormons had it wrong. These are not the end times. They're a new beginning. You know, for the second time in my life, I'm really proud of my country. That's all. Thank--"
Bridget had reached the Manor, its stately porch shaded by impeccable white Southern columns, and turned her Walkman off as she dismounted, leaving her bike by the side of the fence and running up along the path towards the steps.
The white-haired man on the porch sighed as he leaned back in the creaky rocking chair. They had all appreciated his generosity and willingness to re-associate himself with the liberation movement in Nicaragua, of course, especially since the modest amount of money he had left on hand was enough to resurrect the peace movement by itself. They named him the Chairman, which suited him after he retired. Not quite what he had hoped for, of course, but Chairman had a nice ring to it.
A few of them grumbled, of course, that the last $5 million on "personal security" could have been spent perhaps a little more frugally, on new infrastructure or investment in an organized resistance program, but he was an old man, and felt entitled to his creature comforts, especially in this land far from home.
A voice rang out in the distance. He opened his eyes, slowly, wincing a bit as he felt the rough patches of skin that spread on his cheeks split apart slightly. He leaned over and daubed at his face the best he could. It was warming up, he knew. Soon he'd have to be inside all the time.
"Jack," he called in a dusty whisper. "Jack." The short, serious man appeared next to him. "Mr. Chairman?" he said, warily. "Who is it? Coming up the path there, Jack, I mean ... who, Jack?" "Mr. Chairman, I, uh ..." said the man, looking down, embarrassed. They'd been over this three times this week. "You can call me Kiefer, you know. It's all right." "Of ... course, of course," said the man, waving is hand. "But who is it, Jack? Trouble?" "No trouble, Mr. Chairman. Just Bridget. Back from her bike ride." "Oh," said the man, leaning back and closing his eyes again. That was the only other problem here, he thought to himself. The heat, and the repetition.
"Daddy!" said Bridget, bounding up the stairs to him. The other patrons seated at the wicker tables scattered around the porch looked up, or away, or simply sighed. Bridget ignored them. They had no children young enough to express such a love.
"Hello, my dear ..." murmured her father, his eyes cracking open slightly. He gave a faint smile. "How are you doing today, Dad?" she asked. "Everything okay? Kiefer, you taking care of him?" Kiefer gave a tight-lipped smile. "Hmmm? It's just Jack and I, dear," murmured the man. "Jack and I. You know." He gave a weak approximation of a one-two punch motion. "Getting things done. Fighting the bad guys." Bridget's eyes filled with tears, but she did not stop smiling at him, risking a quick glance up at Kiefer. "He's forgetting again," she mouthed to him. "It's worse," Kiefer mouthed back. "Daddy," said Bridget, "can I get you some more water?" "Oh? Oh yes, yes my dear, please. That would be very nice. Nice of you. Thank you." His eyes closed. "Nice, mmmm." Kiefer started forward, touching the man's shoulder. "I can do that, Bridget," he said. "It's all right, Kiefer," she said, taking the glass. "It's really no problem. Be right back, Dad." She squeezed the man's hand carefully and ran off back down the stairs. "I'll ... I'll get ice for you then, Mr. Chairman?" "Oh?" said the man. "Of course, Jack, of ... of course." His brow knotted in confusion, but Kiefer took the opportunity to walk through the door to the Manor.
Joey the Cameraman steadied himself and rose from wicker chair. The man rocking back and forth on the front step of the porch looked miserable. But Joey had to know, had to ask the last of his kind how it all happened. He took quick, deliberate steps, but at his side, the words came out as nervous whispers.
"Senator? Senator ... Senator McCain?" The old man's eyes slowly creaked open, the malignancies spotting his face seeming to grow darker as the loose skin sagged down. "Do I know you, my friend? A campaigner?" "My name's Joey, Senator McCain. Joey-" "Joe!" said John McCain. "Joe, oh, Joe, I am so glad to see you, my friend." He leaned forward, both hands grasping Joey's arm. Joey almost leaped back before realizing jostling the former Senator would probably kill him. "Oh Joe, still plumbing the depths with us, after all that?" "Oh, Senator," said Joey. "No, no, I'm ... I'm a cameraman. Joey the Cameraman, sir, I-" "Moving around in the world, a bit, eh, Joe?" said McCain, letting out a chuckle that sounded like a dry rattle. "Good for you, showing that initiative. Or is plumbing just not paying the bills? Hey, hey now, my friend ..." he said, leaning even closer. "At least you don't have to pay those back taxes now, huh?" As delicately as he could, Joey disentangled the Senator's fingers from his arm, returning him gently to his rocking chair. McCain coughed. "Sir," said Joey, kneeling down. "Sir, it's ... I ... I saw America, sir. Under President Obama, sir." "Oh?" said McCain, turning his head away and closing his eyes. "I'm sorry, then." "Sir, I can't understand. I can't understand why people believed that ... all that ..." "That one?" said McCain, again letting the dry chortle sound. Joey shot a panicked glance around, fearing that the other men would accuse him of throttling the Senator if he continued to laugh. "Well, my friend, it's a little hard to say, isn't it? Socialism has its perks. Selfishness ... in the name of ... equality. We should have ..."
This time, the cough came so strong that the dark patches of skin split open. McCain gagged on the blood that dribbled from his mouth. Joey yelped, trying to rise, but McCain latched onto his arm with a desperate strength. "Stay!" he hissed, his eyes suddenly wide. "Joe, Joe, Joe, I ..." The Senator's body slumped back, his head tilted up, facing the sky.
"Come close, Joe," whispered McCain, too weak to even tilt his head down to see him. Joey, dumbfounded, lowered himself until the side of his knees touched McCain's. "Take my hand," said the Senator. Joey pressed both his hands around the old man's.
"Here," he gurgled, purplish fluid beginning to seep from both sides of his mouth. "Let it begin, Joe, anew ... anew ..."
The Senator took a long, thick breath, then turned his wide eyes to gaze directly into Joey the Cameraman's. "Country ... first ..."
"Senator?" said Joey, but the old man's eyes were already dimming, his arms stiffening, his back slumping. "Senator? Senator! Help! Someone! Help! Help!"
Around the rear of the house, Bridget had finally found the hose and filled her father's glass contentedly. The boys in their pressed suits whispered quietly to one another, probably to avoid having someone, even her, hear them speaking Spanish.
In the distance, she heard a series of shouts. Kiefer came barreling out of the service entrance, a bucket of ice hanging wildly off his hand. "Bridget!" he shouted. "It's your father! We are running out of time!" He bolted at full speed around the corner of the house.
"My father?" said Bridget. The glass fell from her hand and shattered. She ran as she'd never run before, nearly knocking over the sign for "Coloreds" as she tossed the hose aside.
"Daddy!" she screamed, rushing to hold the slumped man close. "Daddy, come back! Come back! Come back!" Joey the Cameraman turned away, sobbing quietly as the girl wailed.
The sun set behind the mountains, slowly turning the sky a deeper and deeper shade of crimson until the last rays faded from the tiny Nicaraguan valley.
So passed John Sydney McCain III, last of the American patriots.