This story originally appeared in Black Clock 9, released during the U.S. election season last year. As such it was written while the candidates were on the campaign trail. (I voted for Obama.) For more on Black Clock, visit their website and their blog. “Goat Variations Redux”, describing four absurdist/realistic alt-histories, is a companion piece to “The Goat Variations” published in Other Earths (as mentioned on the Emerging Writers Network today). Please note this story contains bad language and intolerable actions…
â€œRecorded by geologists and physicists alike, an odd pulse passed across the world on September 11, 2001, coinciding with the President of the United States reading a story about goats to children in a Florida classroom after (during?) the tragedy in New York City. Scientists have found no explanation for the phenomenon, but here at XQ Central, we know thatâ€™s when the parallel universes started splitting off . . . . â€ – From the XQ ConspiraCy Blog
1: Heâ€™s wearing a black military uniform with medals on it, sitting in the chair, reading. Heâ€™s much fitter, the clothes tight to emphasize his muscle tone. But his face is contorted around the hole of a festering localized virus, charcoal and green and viscous. He doesnâ€™t wear an eye patch because he wants his people to see how he fights the disease. His left arm is made of metal. His tongue is not his own, colonized the way his nation has been colonized, waging a war against bio-research gone wrong, and the rebels who welcome it, who want to tear down anything remotely human, themselves no longer recognizable as human. His aide comes up and whispers that the rebels have detonated a bio-mass bomb in New York City, now stewing in a broth of fungus and mutation: the nearly instantaneous transformation of an entire metropolis into something living but alien, the rate of change become strange and accelerated in a world where this was always true, the age of industrialization slowing it, if only for a moment. â€œThere are no people left in New York City,â€ his aide says. â€œWhat are your orders.â€ He hadnâ€™t expected this, not so soon, and it takes him seven minutes to recover from the news of the death of millions. Seven minutes to turn to his aide and say, â€œCall in a nuclear strike.â€ What will happen? What will change? He doesnâ€™t even care, just wishes his metal arm would stop throbbing.
2: Heâ€™s gaunt, eyes feverish, military personnel surrounding him. Thereâ€™s one camera with them in the classroom, army TV, and the students are all in camouflage. The electricity flickers on and off. The school building has reinforced metal and concrete in the walls. The event is propaganda being packaged and pumped out to those still watching in places where the enemy hasnâ€™t jammed the satellites. Heâ€™s fighting a war against an escaped, human-created, rapidly-reproducing intelligent species prototype that looks like a chimpanzee crossed with a Doberman. The scattered remnants of the hated adept underclass have made common cause with the animals, disrupting communications. His aide whispers in his ear that Atlanta has fallen, with over sixty-thousand troops and civilians massacred in pitched battles all over the city. Thereâ€™s no safe air corridor back to the capital. In fact, the capital seems to be under attack as well. â€œWhat should we do?â€ He returns to reading the book. Nothing he can do in the next seven minutes will make any difference to the outcome. He knows what they have to do, but heâ€™s too tired to contemplate it just yet. They will have to head to the Heartland and make peace with the Ecstatics and their god-missiles. Itâ€™s either that or render entire stretches of North America uninhabitable from nukes, and heâ€™s not that desperate yet. He begins to review the ten commandments of the Ecstatics in his mind, one by one, like rosary beads. Heâ€™s in mid-sentence when the aide hurries over and begins to whisper in his ear â€” just as the first of the god-missiles strikes and the fire washes over and through him, not even time to scream, and heâ€™s nothing any more, just part of another split-second ossuary.
3: Heâ€™s in a suit with a sweat-stained white shirt and heâ€™s tired, his voice as he reads thin and raspy. Five days and nights of negotiations between the rival factions of the New Southern Confederacy following a month of genocide between blacks and whites from Arkansas to Georgia: too few resources, too many natural disasters, and no jobs, the whole system breaking down, although Los Angeles is still trying to pretend the world isnâ€™t coming to an end, even as jets are falling out the sky. Except, thatâ€™s why heâ€™s in the classroom: pretending. Pretending neighbor hasnâ€™t set upon neighbor for thirty days, with guns, not machetes. Bands of teenagers shooting people in the stomach, the head, and laughing. Extremist talk radio urging them on. A million people dead. Maybe more. His aide comes up and whispers in his ear: â€œThe truce has fallen apart. Theyâ€™re killing each other again. And not just in the South. In the North, along political lines.â€ He sits there because heâ€™s run out of answers. He thinks: In another time, another place, I would have been a great President.
4: Heâ€™s feeling stupid in the small chair, reading the goat story. There are no god-missiles here, no viruses, no invasion. The Chinese and Russians are only on the cusp of being a threat. Adepts here have no real far-sight, or are not believed, and roam free. Los Angeles is a thriving money pit, not a husked-out shadow. No, the real threat here, besides pollution, is that heâ€™s mentally ill, although no one around him seems to know it. This pale, vacuous replica has a head full of worms and insecurity. He rules a country called the â€œUnited States,â€ squandering its resources, compromising its ability to function. When the aide comes up and whispers in his ear to tell him that terrorists have flown two planes into buildings in New York City, thereâ€™s blood behind his eyes, as well as a deafening silence, and a sudden leap from people falling from the burning buildings to endless war in the Middle East, bodies broken in blood and bullets and bombs. The future torques into secret trials, torture, rape, and hundreds of thousands of civilians dead, two million people displaced, a country bankrupted and defenseless, ruled ultimately by martial law and generals. He sits there for seven minutes because he really has no idea what to do.
The fungus cometh and in the shattered bunker President McCain laughs through a mouthful of blood. The last emergency sequences were overrun and they had to fall back even after heâ€™d emptied a clip from his Glock into the heads of those creeping nearest. â€œAh, Tootsie,â€ he says to his golden retriever, cowering in a corner. â€œSometimes I wish I was back on the bus. Itâ€™s a helluva a thing to be President.â€ Blood wanders down his forehead, near the green crater where the fungal presence has manifested. It pulses and itches, and with the drugs to keep it under control now gone, McCain knows he only has a few hours of free will. As it is, the titanium door of the bunker tinkles and echoes with the sound of those on the other side.
On his side, itâ€™s just him, the dog, and fifty dead marines; heâ€™d had to turn the flame-thrower on them himself, just so more of the Colonized wouldnâ€™t rise to challenge him. Laughing bitterly as he did it. If he hadnâ€™t help kill the congressional resolution condemning the past President for internal use of nukes, the damn things might not have mutated so fast.
Heâ€™s lost the last of his hair, and shifting somewhere in the mottled red-and-white is a rough map of the world â€” half at war, half at rest, as if war were life and rest were death.
The sounds behind the titanium are getting louder.
â€œTootsie, my old friend,â€ McCain says, sliding down beside the dog, wincing against the pain of the wound in his leg. â€œTootsie,â€ and itâ€™s as if he is about to give a speech but thinks better of it. He doesnâ€™t think he has a speech left in him. Heck, Tootsie was just a photo op prop that happened to stick by him.
The world is like a furnace. The world is like a vast POW camp. The world smells of burnt human flesh, and outside the entire U.S. has become a colony of something that does nothing but Colonize, without thought or need.
â€œWhatâ€™ll it be, Tootsie?â€ McCain asks with a bitter laugh. Prisoner of war. Prisoner of peace. Prisoner of war again. â€œI could blow your brains out, sure, but what would be the point?â€ Theyâ€™d just bring him back, and it might be worse living as an echo. It might be much worse. â€œIâ€™ll just sit here,â€ he tells the dog. â€œIâ€™ll just sit here a moment longer.â€
If this were a movie, weâ€™d leave him there, slowly panning back, the gun in his lap, his head on the dogâ€™s neck as it whimpers, eyes focused on that point in the middle distance that meant he was waiting for his own dissolution. You wouldnâ€™t see the crater in his forehead explode, or the thing that comes out, briefly, like the gunner in a tank crew, and then goes back in again. You wouldnâ€™t see him rush to open the titanium door, greet what crawled in as â€œold friend.â€
There would just be the defiant red-tinged eye, the close-up so you couldnâ€™t see: the trembling lip, the shuddering breath.
President Hillary Clinton is one of the first into Kansas City, at the head of an armored column of tanks, mobile missile launchers and prisoners of war, stripped of their Ecstatic insignia. Itâ€™s largely symbolic, since Clinton took the Heartlands by rendering vast stretches of it uninhabitable through tactical nukes and ceding special reservations, mostly in the Western states, to the Doberzees, so she could stop fighting a two-front war. But she takes an unguarded, well-earned satisfaction in the pageantry, the bodies of the defeated lining the route forced to display the smiles and waving of a people being liberated.
â€œItâ€™s still not pacified, Madam President,â€ the General behind her murmurs. Heâ€™s been murmuring for days now. Wear your flak jacket. Donâ€™t put yourself in the line of fire. The banal nature of his concern makes it more tolerable when she turns and is reminded that the urbane voice comes out of a creature whose form makes her nauseous. The first and the last. After the Ecstatics are disarmed, sheâ€™ll turn her attention to the West and the only thing the General will be doing is scratching his balls in a zoo.
â€œTheyâ€™re fucked, General,â€ Clinton says, â€œtheyâ€™re not thinking about me. Theyâ€™re thinking about finding food and heat to last the winter.â€
The dust the column sends up also sends a message. The federal government is here to stay. Sheâ€™s going to give them universal health care whether they want it or not. What Bush started she plans to end. Consolidation and then the iron fist â€” in a velvet glove.
An aide beside her receives a message by carrier pigeon â€” the bright white flash of wings startles her for a second â€” and in another moment heâ€™s reading off a list of names to her. Far-right radio hosts. Political campaign strategists. TV talking-heads on Fox. Most of them are at the very least â€œrhetorical traitors, mad-dog bastards,â€ as she likes to say in private… â€œAll of them,â€ Clinton says. â€œEvery last one.â€
The aide, a fresh-faced kid who despite only knowing war since his teen years seems to have kept a kind of innocence, says, â€œAll of them?â€
Clinton smiles, feels the grinding of the plate in her jaw, inescapable consequence of the assassination attempt she survived, and puts her hand on the left side of the aideâ€™s head, caressing his hair. â€œEvery last one,â€ she says. â€œTheyâ€™ll only betray the country during reconciliation…People will forget in time.â€
The aide just looks at her, but he faithfully writes out the message, sends the pigeon back where it came from. She doesnâ€™t know if heâ€™s nervous because of the order or because the General unnerves him.
Sometimes the scar that runs up the right side of Clintonâ€™s face hurts for reasons she cannot fathom. Sometimes she wishes her husband had survived; he could never be faithful in the flesh, but he was always faithful to an idea. Without him, she feels like half a person. At times, leading her forces forward to eradicate the last fundamentalists from the Heartlands, she sees his ghost, so pale, so vital, so unattainable…and it nearly breaks her.
The new Black Panthers have President Obama in a prison cage, parading him from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial, everything not made of stone burning around them. Washington, D.C. is a blacks-only zone now and they mean to purge Obama of whatever isnâ€™t of their color. But if it hadn’t been them, it would’ve been the New Southern Confederacy.
He tries hard to keep a stoic expression on his face as he rocks back and forth, looking more as if heâ€™s royalty being carried on a divan than a prisoner being brought to his execution. As he stares out through the bars, thereâ€™s nothing he regrets. â€œI canâ€™t be responsible for every illogical thought in this country,â€ heâ€™d told his wife just a month ago, when it had looked like the D.C. federal army would hold against the radicals. But the years of neglect of the African-American parts of the city had finally had consequences: the rebels couldnâ€™t be rooted out, launched more and more muscular attacks from its protection. â€œI just want to solve problems. Thatâ€™s what I do. No one will let me do my job!â€
Perhaps he could have brought troops in from the South, but was it really better for the South to descend into chaos again? Not really. Better for D.C. to fall and be recaptured, even if it meant his death. At least his family had escaped, and perhaps Canada would finally intervene now.
The faces jeering at him, the ones who poke at him with the muzzles of their AK-47s and M-16s, donâ€™t affect him. He knew the risks, knew that his heritage wasnâ€™t a strength but a weakness in this situation. â€œEverything is black and white, literally, to everyone now,â€ he had told one advisor. â€œIf we govern from the gray, does that appease or infuriate both?â€
Someone tries to reach into the cage and cut him, but he flinches back, avoids the knife. After what happened in the South, it seems almost tame, almost like heâ€™s living out a scene in a made-for-TV movie. It has to be the shock. Or maybe he just doesnâ€™t care anymore.
They reach the steps of the memorial. There must be five hundred armed men on those steps. And he sees now, a tightness building in his chest, a fear constricting his capillaries, that there will be no last chance at oration, at oratory. They mean to burn him in his cage, to set it down and light the fires.
Obama puts his hands around the bars, and looks across toward the capital building, its dome full of black smoke while F-16s shriek overhead, powerless to help him. In another time, another place, I would have been a great President.
He never knows anymore if heâ€™s awake or dreaming, in the Oval Office or on his ranch in Texas. But he knows we all create our own reality â€” and he knows heâ€™s not ready, even after a third term. Not by half. Not after everything heâ€™s done for the people. Not after seeing the power of prayer made manifest: â€œMy fellow Americans, today I am suspending the 2008 elections in the interest of national defense and the fundamental security of the Homeland. Today at 8 a.m. central, suspected fundamentalists detonated a nuclear device in Boston. The death toll is in the millions, and our prayers are with the survivors. I am declaring a state of emergency for the duration of this situation…â€
The carpet in his office is such a plush and disintegrating green. The polish on the rosewood desk shines and shines.
â€œSee if we can make it happen,â€ he orders Vice President Reed, standing nearby. â€œOne more term. Just one more and . . . . â€
And there will be peace in Iraq/Iran and the borders will be secure and the dissidents crushed and businesses free to pursue whatever they wish to pursue and the press muzzled and immigrants jailed and and and and . . . .
The enormity of the vision overwhelms him. He stands with tears on his face and looks at Reed wishing he were Cheney and thinks, I could really use some coke right about now.