Ruth Rose clamped her tongue in her teeth, biting until she felt pain and until the pain squelched the hysteria giggling up from her gut at the spectacle of President Geoffrey Abercrombie Morowitz seated across from her on Marine One, the H-42 Chinook helicopter bound for Camp David.
Legs more dominant than they had any business being, knees bulging through faded jeans so near she heard the denim stretching, shins and thighs so long they formed something geometric-looking that made her think of an overturned oil derrick, at the peak of which perched this narrow, forlorn face, distant and tiny in perspective and framed between an unkempt thatch of mouse-gray hair and a crumpled, foreshortened robin's-egg-blue polo shirt. Only when they moved, when the president spoke, did Ruth notice the thin, bone-white arms waving like the antennae of an albino grasshopper. No wonder the cartoonists had such fun with this physically unfortunate politician, portraying him the more grotesque in caricature as his popularity plummeted with the populace. It was almost a blessing, she mused, that in his case the shrinking in size of his editorial depictions diminished somewhat the graphic affront of their visual pilloryings.
“We're off!” Morowitz announced over the revving whine of Marine One's twin General Electric engines and its rotors' accelerating whupwhupwhup as they lifted the twelve-ton machine from the American Enterprises helipad. The president, his face wearing an expression that mitigated its perpetual near-grimace with a half-smile, rotated his head slightly to acknowledge the three other passengers, across the aisle. Rose watched the others as they met his gaze. It occurred to her that despite his uncomfortably odd physical appearance Morowitz enjoyed a certain magnetism, which the camera lens never seemed to catch but which came through in person. A natural grace to his movements, she guessed, all the more noticeable for its incongruence with his body's architecture. The voice helped too, she knew. Resonating urbane masculine confidence, it served him well in every forum.
He said something now that completely undid that vocal persona, although coming after what had transpired the past two days the reversal was no surprise to his guests.
“I feel strange now, you know?” He was looking at Ruth when he said this, but he let his eyes drift past her toward the narrow cockpit door when he continued, in a tone less distinct, as if thinking aloud. “I mean, I can't go back now, can I. Not really.”
Ruth waited for anything else he might say. Instead, he sighed deeply and turned to the window next to his seat, brushing back the blue curtain and peering into the cotton clouds. Al Geddes did a half-shrug when Ruth caught his eye. He'd played devil's advocate all along, from the moment she told him what Morowitz wanted.
“Did you just say what I think you said?” Geddes said, gaping expectantly. They were strolling alongside the Reflecting Pool, not far from where Morowitz had met Ruth less than half an hour before. She'd found him where he said he'd be, seated on a bench reading a newspaper. She saw no evidence of a Secret Service escort, nor did any of the passersby seem to recognize him.
“With a 3 percent approval rating I doubt if anybody would give a hoot if they did recognize me,” he said, muting his dead giveaway voice. “You, on the other hand, are still popular, Ruth. Aren't you afraid to be seen with me?” He chuckled.
“I suspect everybody's gotten too blasé in this town, Geoff. People don't recognize me at Whole Foods anymore, or if they do, like you said, they don't give a hoot. But I'm surprised you don't have an escort, or are they just too good to be seen?”
“Nah, they weren't around. I rode out with Carlos. Wore this cap.” He held up a faded maroon Redskins cap. “Guys at the gate never looked twice.”
“Ah, Carlos. He still growing marijuana in the Rose Garden?” She said this with a straight face, but Morowitz grinned. He turned his head and, being that she was slightly taller seated, looked up at her.
“That's what I'm told, Ruth, but you know I never fooled with that stuff. Never even experimented at the Academy...heh heh. Don't like drugs much at all, not even aspirin. But, ah...that does bring me to the subject of what I wanted to talk to you about...” He waited until he had her undivided-attention face, then said, “I want to take Vulcana.”
Ruth felt a prickling on the back of her neck as her hair roots quivered a warning. The accompanying instinct was to withhold any outward sign of surprise, which she obeyed despite knowing it was likely a more obvious tell than the wrong overt response. In the second or two this suspense held sway her mind raced over options, landing finally on the most critical concern. Deliberately, then, she looked up and out, rotating her head incrementally for any sign of someone nearby who, while feigning disinterest was in a position to eavesdrop. The only person she saw who fit this description was Joan Stonebraker, seated on a bench across the walkway and pretending to be interacting with the kind of ubiquitous digital device that occupied the bulk of attention of more and more adults every day. The only difference in Joan's case was that her device was in fact monitoring the conversation between Ruth and Morowitz.
The president's voice startled his predecessor out of her frantic musing. “Don't worry, Ruth, I'm alone. I'm not wired. And so far as I know nobody's listening to this conversation through one of those long distance electronic devices the spies supposedly use. I also know you could never afford to take me at my word on something like that, so I completely understand your caution.”
“It's alright. Look, Ruth, I know the official line is there's no such thing as Vulcana and that Geddes's book is pure fiction, and I understand, I'm OK with that. I'm...”
“No, really! I'm a politician, too, believe it or not. It's what we do. But what I'm saying now is I don't believe it. Not for a minute. Your fiction story is a pretty thin cover, a fig leaf at best. I believe every word of that book. And I agree completely with what was said in it about me, that I'm the incredible shrinking president, completely under the thumb of the corporate oligarchy. Frankly, I'm scared to death of those people, whoever they are. Why would I say this if it wasn't true? And this, Ruth, Mrs. President, is why I want to take Vulcana.”
“Geoff, listen to me! Assuming, just for the sake of argument, OK?” He nodded solemnly. “Let's assume Al's book is factual and there is such a drug as Vulcana. Now, from what Al wrote about it, what makes you think it can give you the balls, excuse me, to stand up to these bastards? I mean, the stuff is supposed to heighten empathy. That much I remember. I don't recall any mention of courage in there.”
“Ruth,” he said softly. He reached toward her with long skeletal fingers, hesitated, curled the fingers slightly and then withdrew his hand and returned it to his lap. “Ruth, I distinctly remember Geddes talking about moral courage, and in my case I can only assume it might give me the strength to overcome the paralysis these...these monsters have infected me with.”
“Paralysis? Geoff, what in God's name are you talking about?”
The president took a deep breath and held it, as if he'd taken a long toke. When he let it out through pursed lips, puffing his cheeks and making a whooshing sigh, he seemed to deflate as a balloon going flat. Not able to slump any lower on the bench, he merely rolled his head from side to side, eyes closed and making a whispery moan. In a weak voice he finally said, “They've got something on me, Ruth. I don't know what it is, so I don't know how to fight it.”
Ruth looked hard at him. “I'm completely confused now, Geoff,” she said.
“Not as confused as me,” Ruth.
“Sounds like WACKO. You're not letting those clowns jerk you around?”
“Well, I think you're right about WACKO. Pretty sure it's them behind this, but whoever it is has found a button to push and they're not afraid to push it.”
“Can you tell me anything about it?”
“You might remember back when I won my first election to the Senate. I had to leave my victory party early. They said I had a migraine. Remember?”
“I read something about it, yeah. I know migraines are nasty things.”
“I didn't have a migraine. I fainted.”
“Fainted, dead away.”
“Well, I know migraines can do that...”
“It wasn't a migraine, Ruth. I've never had a migraine in my life. I actually don't remember specifically what happened, but Elaine said some guy at the party she didn't recognize approached me, smiling, and that I smiled at him and we talked briefly. She said he walked away then, still smiling, and when she looked back at me I looked stricken. She hustled me out of there before I collapsed.”
“You don't remember what he said?”
“Ruth, you know what it's like. People coming up to you and you exchange a few meaningless words. Everybody's feeling high on the victory and some are getting drunk. At best it's hard to keep everything straight. I vaguely remember someone I didn't know, a pleasant-looking fellow about my age, bringing up something that had happened when I was a child. I don't remember what, just the context. He was talking about it as if we had known each other as children. I didn't know him, though, had never seen him before that I know of, and had no idea who he was. All that sticks with me now is that while we were talking I started feeling dizzy and sick to my stomach. I thought I might fall down or vomit, just suddenly feeling deathly ill and then Elaine taking me by the arm and leading me out of the room to an adjoining room that seemed empty. That's when I fainted, Elaine said. Just conked out.
“Next thing I remember I woke up in bed in our suite. Morgan, my campaign manager, got a doctor to check me out. He said most likely I was just exhausted. I don't know who came up with the migraine story, but I didn't have any problem with it. Better that than what really happened.”
“So what do you think really happened, Geoff?”
“About a year later it happened again. Same man. I wouldn't have recognized him except for... He'd walked into my office right past my aide. Started telling me how I was supposed to vote on something he said his people cared about. Some corporate tax-break rider on an omnibus bill, typical Trojan horse we were planning to kill in committee. He was polite, almost obsequious, very low key, but when I tried to brush him off he gave me a funny look. Eyes like black holes, stared at me in a way that gave me a chill. Then he started talking about whatever it was in my childhood that he'd mentioned at the party. I started feeling dizzy and nauseous again. Broke out in a sweat. Needed to lie down. I walked over to the couch and turned around to sit down, and he was gone. I passed out on the couch.
“Next thing I remember is Margaret, my aide, waking me up. She had brought me a glass of water, and she handed me a card she said the guy had left with her. All it had on it was the initials W.A.C.K.O. That was the first I'd heard of them, Ruth. Now, of course, they own me. Lock stock and barrel as we used to say in Wisconsin.”
“My god, Geoff, have you no idea what happened back then?”
“Not specifically. Whatever it was must have had such a traumatic effect I buried it in my subconscious. Somehow these monsters at WACKO found out about it and...” He flapped his hands in a helpless gesture.
“Have you seen anybody...I mean, like a therapist or...”
“I didn't dare. That leaked out and my political career would have ended. I should have gone to a shrink. I see that now. But...Ruth, I'm so afraid of these people, these monsters, I figure if they went to all the trouble to find whatever it is that paralyzes me, they'd find out I went to a shrink and would just come up with something else. Maybe threaten Elaine or the kids.”
“So what makes you think taking Vulcana would help? You don't think WACKO would find out about that?”
“Oh, they'll find out. That's the point, Ruth. WACKO and everybody else will find out.”
“You see, we're going to put the whole thing on a live feed. The whole country – the whole world – will watch, see what happens to me, the whole thing, uninterrupted. It'll either get WACKO off our backs or all of us killed, but by god it'll be like opening a poisonous boil.” He turned to Ruth, his face animated with passion, eyes gleaming behind their raccoon shadows. “We'll end this goddamned rotten thing one way or the other!”