Goodbyes

The very fact that media consultants still existed in an age when the government controlled the media said something about their cockroach-like tenacity. They had gone to great lengths, epic lengths, to make the President's victory speech perfect. Teams of janitors in chemical hoods swept the steps of the Capitol Building clean of shell casings and fragments of bone and rotting flesh. More teams commandeered fire trucks and pressure-washed away the tenacious residue of Agent Red.

The lucky guests were crowded inside an air-conditioned tent made from two conjoined decontamination shelters. Wooden folding chairs were arranged before a small stage. Generals, war heroes, scientists, and political remoras mingled to the sounds of patriotic music pumped through the address system. When a storm swept in and radioactive rain began to pound the tent someone turned the music up.

Guests spooned tank-raised shrimp ceviche into their mouths and drooled over miniature hamburgers. One of the scientists bragged he had grown the beef himself in one of the Chesapeake biolabs using a nutrient matrix and bovine stem cells. They drank chilled carafes of salvaged California wines, glasses of Johnny Walker Blue, and bottles of Coke nine years past the sell-by date.

The President's wife wore 2008 Dior with a plunging neckline, pulled from a tailor's shop in Manhattan by an ISU team comparing dresses to a photo clipped from People Magazine. Lucy Liu wore it to the Oscars.

The greatest excess was the gallery of artifacts heaped around the edges of the tent for the attendees to browse and marvel over. Relics of American history like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence shared spaced with pop-culture Americana like a copy of Amazing Spiderman #1 and a Norman Rockwell painting. There was even a mannequin dressed like Elvis in black and rhinestones. It was what Herman Goering's basement would have looked like if the Nazis had conquered America.

Rather than grand and triumphant, the grotesque displays of wealth and power were dismal reminders of how far America had fallen, and not just from the spores. The "Capitol Steps Speech" being given from inside another sealed environment because of the irradiated atmosphere was a bitter reality not lost on the masses watching the event on television in the MOCAS shelters.

A Major General straight from the battle for Montreal gave the warm-up speech. His eyes were still bloodshot from the amphetamine pills. The Agent Red blisters on his neck stretched above his white bowtie. He had a French last name and spoke with a thick New Orleans accent. His speech was rambling and disjointed, sweat beaded his forehead and ran into his eyes. When he launched into a diatribe about snarled supply lines and inadequate air support he was ushered offstage by a pair of ISU men in tuxedos.

Supreme Commander Burnham chomped a Cohiba and puffed smoke that caught blue in the klieg lights. He applauded as Ridge's ISU thugs dragged the warm-up act away to one of the adjacent security tents.

The President took the stage and the audience gave him a standing ovation. He calmed them all down and launched into his speech about the battles we had won, the battles to come, and rebuilding America. The words might have been very inspirational spoken in a vacuum, but they tasted bitter sharing a tent with piles of extravagant junk.

What was clear from the President's speech was that the war had just begun. Pockets of infection dotted the map of the United States even as our forces were pushing into Canada and Mexico. It would take years before we had burned and gassed and scrubbed away the last traces of the spores in America, yet the President was already looking ahead. Driven by Burnham's and Ridge's primordial thirst for conquest we would soon be boarding refurbished tankers and freighters to sail for faraway lands. Our cure would fly in the bellies of planes and fall from the sky 50 kilotons at a time.

The evening's festivities drew to a close, the camera lights died. Some of the ISU men were handed scraps of food like obedient dogs to keep it from going to waste.

Secretly, the generals and politicians drooled over the maps and made their plans. A whole world was awaiting rescue from the spores and it was up to them to decide just how brutally the infection would be dispatched. England, our truest friend, might be allowed to keep London and Birmingham. Glasgow might be spared and Dublin. The rest would be reduced to radioactive craters and smothered with Agent Red.

In Europe capitals would be spared, cities of history would be allowed to survive. Berlin for the Germans, Brussels, Amsterdam, the overgrown streets of Paris, Warsaw and Budapest, Rome and Athens. So very generous. The chiefs argued late into the night over whether or not to even give the Russians Moscow or the Chinese Beijing. They fantasized about a new American Empire, utterly forgetting their own gasping, hollow citizens looking out with dismay from the shelters at the dark skies and charnel cities of the United States.

Burnham was the first. The Butcher of California. The monster who salted the earth from Vancouver to Baja with nuclear strikes. Stabbed to death in his sleep, probably by one of the women he'd picked from a photo ID out of FAIRLAWN. Most of the wounds were to his face and neck. They say that means the assailant really hated the victim.

The President might have saved himself then. He might have replaced Burnham with one of the many competent commanders. Ridge pushed hard for one of his people to take over as Supreme Commander, but Burnham's death had opened a rift between the President and the ISU. The President suspected the ISU was behind the murder. He replaced his security with USCF PATHFINDER vets and installed one of Burnham's feckless lackeys as Supreme Commander.

Intrigues mounted. The new Supreme Commander's plane crashed mysteriously. One of Ridge's top aides was shot while on a tour of Toronto. Rumors circulated that a civil war was coming between RAVEN ROCK and ROCKY II, but it never materialized.

It was revolution. A coup. The President's limousine was destroyed by a bomb. Ridge's personal security contingent turned on him, tying his wrists and dragging Ridge and his wife to one of the broadcast centers at RAVEN ROCK. The way he pleaded for his life turned stomachs sour. His wife sobbed. A single studio light starkly illuminated them, blindfolded, on their knees. The brief roar of the machine guns raised dust from the concrete behind them. They sagged and slumped, blood spread around their bodies. A man in a hydroponics coverall walked into frame and shot them each in the head with a pistol.

Sic semper tyrannis.

We had new masters. Things had to get better.


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