Bradford Morowitz switched the floodlights on in the studio and the room went still, as a theater does in that electric moment before a play begins, those few seconds between the lights going down and the curtains drawing back to reveal the actors frozen onstage. The actor now was Charlotte Remora, standing against the curtain, beside the lectern. She wore a simple yet stylish light green shift, which accented the freshly pretty, light-complected face within her trademark cloud of orange hair. She spoke briefly, the clipped cadences of her voice calmly professional, as she promised “an extraordinary development” and noted the exclusivity of her network's coverage.
“Do you suppose she knows?” Geddes whispered to Joan Stonebraker. Ruth was standing behind the lectern.
“I doubt it. She'd be peeing her pants – if she isn't already.”
Ruth was next. Her face serious, presidential, she simply said, after “good evening”, that President Morowitz had invited her to be with him, and she introduced him and stepped aside.
The president's awkward stride to the dais carried an oddly positive sense of purpose. Ruth suppressed an impulse to laugh aloud at the contrast this made with everything else, the surreal circumstances, fear for the safety of everyone in the bunker, and her knowledge that no matter how this unprecedented episode might pan out, Morowitz was utterly dooming a presidency that already had become laughing stock for most if not all of the world.
She had come to like and respect him in recent days, since their talk beside the Reflecting Pool. Until then her impressions had been largely superficial. Not having noticed him politically until his seemingly meteoric rise in the party as a presidential contender, she'd been struck initially by his Lincolnesque features. The absurd contradiction of his Nixonian voice quickly negated any illusion of gravitas his physical appearance might have suggested. Yet, she wasn't overly surprised when this strange apparition managed to fool enough party people to secure the nomination and from there enough voters to stumble into the White House. She watched in concurring dismay as Morowitz the president, stymied by a public perception of indecisiveness and a hostile Congress, progressively shrunk in the public eye until at this point he was barely visible.
Back in her seat in front of the dais, Ruth watched as a hidden mechanism elevated the lectern to better accommodate Morowitz's height. As this was happening it became apparent to her the lectern also was narrower than standard. She turned to Geddes and whispered, “See how narrow the lectern is? That's so his head and shoulders won't look so small.” She stifled a giggle as Geddes jabbed her with his elbow.
“Good evening,” The assured, assuring, deeply sonorous voice startled Ruth even though there was no electronic amplification in the studio and the sound was turned down on the five overhead monitors. The president's image appeared on only one of them. “My apologies for interrupting the program you were watching...well, that's not true. In fact, it's pure hypocritical baloney.” Everyone in the studio registered shock, even as their eyes remained fixed on the president.
“You're turning into vegetables watching that damned TV. It's one of the reasons I'm doing what I'm doing tonight. I'm giving you a reality show that's unprecedented in the history of the world. It's live. Watch it and you might be eyewitnesses to the emergence of the shadow forces that are poisoning your bodies and your minds. They might well attempt to murder me and the fine people in the bunker here with me, including former president Ruth Rose. Including my son Bradford.
“Which bunker, you're wondering? You know we have a bunch of them, but that'll be our little secret for the time being, ha ha. Maybe buy us some time before these insidious forces roll their brutal machinery into position and finally come out of the shadows and seize outright control of the country...”
At some point quite early in the president's rant other sensations in Ruth's mind crowded out all audio input save for the occasional odd word or expression. She suppressed a tickle of panic with the notion that while by all definitions of mental illness Morowitz should seem feverish or vacant or at least visibly trembling during this apparent disintegration, instead he projected a relaxed confidence, eyes sparkling with mischief.
Ruth turned to Geddes, who caught her movement and met her eyes. He leaned to whisper in her ear, changed his mind and pulled out a notepad. After a moment he held it so she could read, Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Hemingway. She grimaced and nodded. She took Geddes's ballpoint, and drew several lines under the word short.
Charlotte Remora rose from her chair, staring at a smartphone simultaneously with the president's image appearing on a second television monitor. As she started across the studio toward the adjoining room, smartphone pressed against her ear, a third monitor was carrying the live feed. All five were on line when she reached the door.
Morowitz seemed not to notice the TV reporter's leaving. He was well into spilling the beans about WACKO, their strong-arm tactics and whom he thought their operatives represented. As a lead-in, presumably, to announcing his intention to undergo treatment by “an experimental pharmaceutical that's been shown to improve our intelligence, strengthen our character and make us all better citizens”, he outlined efforts by his administration to prevent this drug from ever reaching the market.
“WACKO made me do it. They want to destroy this wonder drug because they're afraid a citizenry with stronger character and greater intelligence will resist the consumption-obsessed trance they have us in and rob them of their obscene profits and, hence, their unbridled power.”
The call came while Harry Trueblood was watching a news program with his wife and son. It was his boss, Bart Gladstone, who was shouting so loud his voice crackled with static.
“Bart? That you?”
“You god damned right it's me! Get your ass down here!”
“What? What's wrong?”
“You're not watching?”
“Watching what, Bart?”
“Watching! Any god damned thing! On the god damned tube!”
Trueblood glanced up just in time to see the image of President Morowitz fill the TV screen. Morowitz appeared to be speaking, but there was no sound.
“What's up, Bart? Morowitz just came on but we're not getting any sound...” then the sound kicked in. Trueblood heard the president clearly say the word WACKO. “Jesus, he just said WACKO! What's happening, Bart?”
“He's off his god damned rocker is what. Get your ass down here now! We've got us one bad fucking crisis. Oh, do you have the number for that hacker guy?”
“Hacker? Oh, you mean Chapman. I don't have it here, but I'll call Joe right now. He...”
“Get him down here, too. ASAP.”
“I'll call Joe right now...” Bart had disconnected.