Authors: John Birmingham
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Politics, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Dystopia, #Apocalyptic
“Man, being president sucks.”
“Try being married to the bozo who’s always complaining about how much being president sucks.”
Kipper flinched as Barb pinched a small fold of skin just below his Adam’s apple while trying to fasten the top of his dress shirt.
“Oh my God, Kip. You are such a baby. It’s lucky none of your marines can see you right now.”
marines,” he protested, finally stepping away from his wife to peer around her shoulder at the full-length mirror in the bedroom of their private quarters.
He was a wearing a fucking penguin suit. With tails and everything. It was all he could do not to make little barking penguin noises.
“Do I really have to do—”
“Yes, Kip. You really have to. It’s part of the job.”
Kip turned from the mirror as Barbara fiddled with her earrings at the antique dresser in their bedroom.
“Come on, Kip,” she teased. “Rhyming couplets aren’t the worst things you’ve had thrown at you the last couple of years. It might even be fun.”
Maybe. If he was allowed to get a few beers in, and who knew, the poems might even rhyme. He could hear the musicians, some sort of small local chamber orchestra, playing downstairs. Violin music and the growing murmur of a small crowd pushed up through the dark wooden floorboards of their bedroom. Kipper mentally ticked off the hour, at least, he would have to wait before ripping the top off his first brew.
“Mister President, if you’re ready, sir.”
Barbara smiled at their protocol chief. “Oh, Allan, he’ll never be ready, but I’ve done the best I can. Let’s go downstairs.”
Kipper hadn’t seen anyone appear at their door, but he wasn’t surprised to find him there. Privately he referred to Allan Horbach, the White House protocol chief, as Casper because he was always spooking around somewhere, although admittedly Kipper needed more protocol wrangling than your average president. Barb and Allan fell into a hushed but animated conversation as the three of them made their way down the hallway toward the main staircase. As the background noise swelled to a reasonable roar, Kip estimated that there had to be nearly two hundred people crammed into the reception area on the ground floor of Dearborn House. He’d long ago done away with a good deal of the formality that made these events so punishing, meaning he did not now have to endure that nearly unbearable moment when Allan announced their arrival as though he were stepping onto the bridge of an aircraft carrier or something. Even so, as they came down the stairs smiling and waving, it seemed as though everybody there turned as one toward them.
And then, just like stepping off the bank into a deep, fast-flowing river, he was pulled into the crowd.
Half of Seattle had somehow crammed itself into the music room and formal parlor of Dearborn House. He winced to see the Greens’ leader, Sandra Harvey, bending the ear of his appointments secretary, Miss Hughes, and made a note to remind Annie that when Sandra came calling, he was always out. He had just enough time to register Jed Culver, his chief of staff, deep in conversation with Henry Cesky, the construction magnate. He wondered what dark schemes those two could be cooking up, and then Allan was suddenly at his side, gently directing him by the elbow toward the British and French ambassadors who appeared to be arguing over something to do with Guadeloupe.
He was pretty sure that was a country, not a tapas dish, but not sure enough that he wanted any part of the argument.
“Mister President,” said Horbach, “we must greet the ambassadors, then the speaker of the House, the governor, the …”
Kipper zoned out. They were no more than a minute into this reception, and already he was screaming inside. He had no idea how Barb smiled and chatted through it all as though she were actually enjoying herself. Christ, maybe she was. The next thirty minutes passed in a painful series of meet ‘n’ greets with a procession of dignitaries, foreign guests, senators and Congressbots, and Seattle City Council officials, all of whom had been elected well after he’d left the City Engineers Department. It was with a truly pathetic sense of gratitude that he spotted Barney Tench, his old college bud and now reconstruction czar, working the buffet over by the windows.
“Barn! Man, how you doin’?” he called out over the heads of the crowd, instantly drawing the attention of about fifty or sixty people to Tench, who was caught stuffing a giant piece of crabmeat into his mouth. Allan Horbach actually face-palmed himself, and Barb gave him a small kick in the back of his leg.
“But I need to talk to Barney,” he protested. “It’s about work.”
“Not now, Mister President,” the protocol Nazi insisted. “Mister Ford is about to perform.”
“The poet?” said Kip. “Oh. Great.”
Back through the press of the crowd they went, every step blocked by somebody who wanted a small piece of his time, all the way up to the front of the room, where Kip was introduced to a thin, nervous-looking man in a slightly ill-fitting suit. He instantly felt for him. Ford looked no more comfortable than he did.
“Mister President,” said Allan Horbach, “might I present our first poet laureate of the new age.”
That’s what we’re calling it now
, he thought.
When did we start calling the end of the fucking world a new age?
He shook Ford’s hand and leaned in close to be heard over the crowd.
“Don’t worry, buddy; by tomorrow this’ll all just be a terrible nightmare.”
“What?” Ford looked shaken. “Oh. A joke. I see. Okay, then. Shall I read now?”
“I think the president wants to say a few words first,” said Horbach.
“Well, I don’t really
to,” Kip said, earning a glare from his wife, “but what the hell. We’re not getting any younger. Let’s do it to it.”
A bell rang somewhere as he ascended the small dais that had been erected and then tapped the mike.
“Hey, everyone, how you doing?” Kip said as the soft roar of two hundred voices finally trailed away. He winked at Ford. “As you all know, I’m not a big fan of these formal shindigs, but I do believe it’s important to pull on a monkey suit every now and then. As my grandmother used to say, if something is worth doing, it’s probably worth wearing a clean pair of pants.”
Polite chuckles washed up at him from the crowd, but no more than that, except for Barney, who was stuffing more crabmeat into his face at the back of the room and laughing such a big genuine laugh that Kip worried his old friend was in danger of choking.
, he thought,
these are so not my people.
“Anyway,” he continued. “Tonight is definitely worth pants.”
He gave Adam Ford a big thumbs-up and was rewarded with what looked like a real smile from the poet, whose eyes were twinkling a little more brightly the longer Kipper had the floor.
“Barbara and I invited you all here tonight to … well, hell, you know why you’re here. We’ve got us a new poet laureate!”
He boomed out that last, as though announcing that the local college football team had brought home the national championship. The applause and some of the whoops of approval that rolled back up at him from the floor were actually heartfelt this time.
“I’m glad to see you’re as stoked as I am about this,” said the president, settling into his delivery, “because this
totally stokeworthy. You know, a lot of what we’ve been about the last few years, it’s been little more than brute survival. Feeding ourselves, defending our homes, just keeping our kids alive, has been …”
He paused, searching for the right words. To the endless frustration of his staff, Kipper rarely delivered prepared speeches or even spoke from notes.
“... it’s been, well, calling it a challenge would be … inadequate. It’s been hell.”
The room was quiet now.
“Our world went to hell on March 14, 2003. That’s the only way I can describe it, because we still don’t know what happened, and frankly, I don’t think we ever will. I have hundreds of scientists still working away at this every day, throwing all sorts of theories and tests and experiments at it, trying to tell me where that Wave came from and where it took all our friends and families. They’ve been studying it for years now, and they are no closer to knowing. So perhaps it’s time to come at it from a different angle, a different kind of knowing. That’s why Adam Ford is here tonight. He’s not a scientist, he’s a poet, and from where I stand looking back at everything that’s happened since the Disappearance, I reckon his way of trying to come at the meaning of it all is every bit as valid as all those scientists writing all those reports for me. Probably more so.” He gestured to the poet to make his way to the microphone. “Adam?”
Loud applause carried the poet laureate up onto the stage and the president down from it. Ford pulled a single sheet of paper out of the breast pocket of his jacket and coughed before thanking Kipper and waiting for the minor roar to die down. When the room was quiet again, he read.
“This is a poem called ‘Aftermath,’” he said.
“They weren’t lost at sea. They are not missing in action.
We weren’t at their side as they breathed their last.
There are no bodies to identify.
They were here. Then they weren’t.
We’re left behind with nothing to point to,
No evidence that says, ‘This happened here,’
No shadows burned into the sides of buildings,
No mountain of glasses, suitcases, and shoes,
No pile of skulls, no handheld footage
Of papers and shattered glass raining down.
Just the near-infinite density of collected grief
That distorts our universe like a black hole—
Grief that we, who remain,
All bear as one as we search for our place
In this strange, new, far-too-different world.”
“No siree, Mister President, you do
get these from pettin’ kitty cats.”
James Kipper nodded, smiling doubtfully as the slab-shouldered workman flexed his biceps and kissed each one in turn. His Secret Service guys didn’t seem much bothered, and he’d long ago learned to pick up on their unspoken signals and body language. They paid much less attention to the salvage crew in front of him than to the ruined facades of the office blocks looking down on the massive, rusting pileup in Lower Manhattan. The hard work and unseasonal humidity of Lower Manhattan had left the workman drenched in sweat, and Kipper could feel the shirt sticking to his own back.
Having paid homage to his bowling-ball-sized muscles, the workman reached out one enormous, calloused paw to shake hands with the forty-fourth president of the United States. Kipper’s grip was not as strong as it once had been and had certainly never been anywhere near as powerful as this gorilla’s, but a long career in engineering hadn’t left him with soft fingers or a limp handshake. He returned the man’s iron-fisted clench with a fairly creditable squeeze of his own.
“Whoa there, Mister President,” the salvage and clearance worker cried out jokingly. “I need these dainty pinkies for my second job. As a concert pianist, don’tcha know.”