In the end, he had decided to build the machine and to defend against almost everything they could think of or divine from the images: any attack against the still thriving New York financial district or the monument to the Queen Mother in the New York harbor; the random god-missiles of the Christian jihadists of the Heartland, who still hadn’t managed to unlock the nuclear codes in the occupied states; and even the lingering cesspool that was Los Angeles after the viruses and riots.
But they still did not really know.
He’s good at talking to people when it’s not a prepared speech, good at letting his mind be elsewhere while he talks to a series of masks from behind his own mask. The prepared speeches are different because he’s expected to
them, and he’s never fully inhabited anything, any role, in his life.
They round the corner and enter the classroom and are greeted by thirty children in plastic one-piece desk chairs, looking solemn, and the teacher standing in front of a beat-up battlewagon of a desk, overflowing with papers.
Behind her, posters they’d made for him, or someone had made to look as though the children made them, most showing him with the crown on his head. But also a blackboard, which amazes him. So anachronistic, and he’s always hated the sound of chalk on a blackboard. Hated the smell of glue and the sour food-sweat of unwashed kids. It’s all so squalid and tired and oddly close to the atmosphere in the underground cavern, the smell the adepts give off as they thrash in slow motion in their vats, silently screaming out images of September oblivion.
The children look up at him when he enters the room as if they’re watching something far away and half wondrous, half monstrous.
He stands there and talks to them for a while first, trying to ignore the window in the back of the classroom that wants to show him a scene that shouldn’t have been there. He says the kinds of things he’s said to kids for years while on the campaign trail, running for ever-greater office; he has said these things for so many years that it’s become a sawdust litany meant to convince
of his charm, his wit, his competence. Later, he won’t remember what he said or what they said back. It’s not important.
But he’s thought about the implications in bed at night, lying there while his wife reads, her pale, freckled shoulder like a wall above him. He could stand in a classroom and say nothing, and still they would be fascinated with him, like a talisman, like a golden statue. No one had ever told him that sometimes you don’t have to inhabit the presidency—sometimes, it inhabits you.
He’d wondered at the time of his coronation if he’d feel different. He’d wondered how the parliament members would receive him, given the split between the popular vote and the legislative vote. But nothing had happened. The parliament members had clapped, some longer than others, and he’d been sworn in, duly noting the absence of the rogue Scottish delegation. The Crown of the Americas had briefly touched his head, like an “iron kiss from the mouth of God,” as his predecessor had put it, and then it was gone again, under glass, and he was back to being the secular president, not some sort of divine king.
Then they’d taken him to the Pentagon, hurtled him half a mile underground, and he’d felt like a man who wins a prize only to find out it’s worthless.
He’d expected clandestine spy programs, secret weapons, special powers. But he hadn’t expected the faces in the vats or the machine.
Before they built the time machine, he had insisted on meeting Peter in an interrogation room near the vats. He felt strongly about this, about looking into the eyes of the man he had almost decided to trust.
“Are you sure this will work?” he asked Peter, even as he found the question irrelevant, ridiculous. No matter what Peter said, no matter how impossible his scientists said it was, how it subverted known science, he was going to do it. The curiosity was too strong. The effort to get to this point had been too great, even if it had been his predecessor’s effort.
Peter’s eyes were bright with a kind of fever. His face was the palest white possible, and he stank of the chemicals. They’d put him in a white jumpsuit to cover his nakedness.
“It’ll work. I pulled it out of another place. It was a true-sight. A true-seeing. I don’t know how it works, but it works. It’ll work, it’ll work, and then,” he turned toward the black one-way glass at the far end of the room, hands in restraints behind his back, “I’ll be free?”
There was a blankness to Peter’s face that he refused to acknowledge. A sense of something being held back, of something not quite right. Later, he would wonder why he hadn’t trusted that instinct.
“What exactly is the machine for? Exactly. Not just . . . time travel. Tell me something more specific.”
The scientist accompanying them smiled. He had a withered, narrow face and a firm chin, and he wore a jumpsuit that matched Peter’s, with a black belt at the waist that held the holster for an even blacker semiautomatic pistol. He smelled strongly of a sickly sweet cologne, as if he were hiding some essential putrefaction.
“Mr. President,” he said, “Peter is not a scientist. And we cannot peer into his mind. We can only see the images his mind projects. Until we build it, we will not know exactly how it works.”
And then, when it was built, and they took him to it, he didn’t know what to make of it. He didn’t think they did, either—they were gathered around it in their protective suits like apes trying to figure out an internal combustion engine.
“Don’t look directly into it,” the scientist beside him advised. “Those who have experience a kind of . . . disorientation.”
Unlike the apes examining it, the two of them stood behind three feet of protective, blast-proof glass, and yet both of them had moved to the back of the viewing room—as far away from the artifact as possible.
The machine consisted of a square housing made of irregular-looking gray metal, caulked on the interior with what looked like rotted beef; and in the center of this assemblage there was an eye of green light. In the middle of the eye was a piercing red dot. The machine was about the size of a microwave oven.
When he saw it, he shuddered; he could not tell at first if the eye was organic or a metallic lens. The effect of the machine on his mind was of a thousand maggots inching their way across the top of a television set turned on but not receiving a station.
He couldn’t stop looking, as if the scientist’s warning had made it impossible not to look. A crawling sensation spread across his scalp, his arms, his hands, his legs.
“How does it work?” he asked the scientist.
“We still don’t know.”
“Does the adept know?”
“Not really. He just told us not to look into it directly.”
“Is it from the future?”
“That is the most logical guess.”
To him, it didn’t look real. It looked either like something from another planet or something a psychotic child would put together before turning to more violent pursuits.
“Where else could it be from?”
The scientist didn’t reply, and anger began to override his fear. He continued to look directly into the eye, even as it made him feel sick.
“Well, what do you know?”
“That it shouldn’t work. As we put the pieces together . . . we all thought . . . we all thought it was more like witchcraft than science. Forgive me, Mr. President.”
He gave the scientist a look that the scientist couldn’t meet. Had he meant the gravity of the insult? Had he meant to imply their efforts were as blasphemous as the adept’s second sight?
“And now? What do you think now?”
“It’s awake, alive. But we don’t see how it’s . . .”
“Breathing, Mr. President. A machine shouldn’t breathe.”
“How does it take anyone into the future, do you think?”
The temperature in the room seemed to have gone up. He was sweating. The eye of the thing, impossibly alien, bored into him. Was it changing color?
“We think it doesn’t physically send anyone into the future. That’s the problem. We think it might somehow . . . create a localized phenomenon.”
He sighed. “Just say what you mean.”
The pulsing red dot. The shifting green. Looking at him. Looking into him.
“We think it might not allow physical travel, just mental travel.”
In that instant, he saw adept Peter’s pale face again, and he felt a weakness in his stomach; and even though there was so much protection between him and the machine, he turned to the scientist and said, “Get me out of here.”
Only it was too late.
The sickness, the shifting had started the next day, and he couldn’t tell anyone about it, not even his wife, or they would have removed him from office. The Constitution was quite clear about what to do with “witches and warlocks.”
At this point, his aide would hand him the book. They’d have gone through a dozen books before choosing that one. It is the only one with nothing in it anyone could object to; nothing in it of substance, nothing, his people thought, that the still-free press could use to damage him. There was just a goat in the book, a goat having adventures. It was written by a constitutionalist, an outspoken supporter of coronation and expansion.
As he takes the book, he realizes, mildly surprised, that he has already become used to the smell of sweating children (he has none of his own) and the classroom grunge. The students who attend the school all experience it differently from him, their minds editing out all of the sensory perceptions he’s still receiving. The mess. The depressed quality of the infrastructure. But what if you couldn’t edit it out? And what if the stakes were much, much higher? (
It sounded like a combination of “osprey” and “sanctuary.”)
So then they would sit him down at a ridiculously small chair, almost as small as the ones used by the students, but somehow he would feel smaller in it despite that, as if he were back in college, surrounded by people both smarter and more dedicated than him, as if he were posing and being told he’s not as good: an imposter.
But it’s still just a children’s book, after all, and at least there’s air conditioning kicking in, and the kids really seem to want him to read the book, as if they haven’t heard it a thousand times before, and he feeds off the look in their eyes—
the President of North America and the Britains is telling us a story
—and so he begins to read.
He enjoys the storytelling. Nothing he does with the book can hurt him. Nothing about it has weight. Still, he has to keep the pale face of the adept out of his voice, and the Russian problem, and the Chinese problem, and the full extent of military operations in the Heartland. (There are cameras, after all.)
It’s September 11, 2001, and something terrible is going to happen, and he doesn’t know what it is.
That’s when his aide interrupts his reading, comes up to him with a fake smile and serious eyes, and whispers in his ear.
Whispers in his ear, and the sound is like a buzzing, and the buzzing is numinous, all encompassing. The breath on his ear is a tiny curse, an infernal itch. There’s a sudden rush of blood to his brain as he hears the words, and his aide withdraws. He can hardly move, is seeing light where there shouldn’t be light. The words drop heavy into his ear, as if they have weight.
And he receives them and keeps receiving them, and he knows what they mean, eventually; he knows what they mean throughout his body.
The aide says, his voice flecked with relief, “Mr. President, our scientists have solved it. It’s not time travel or far-sight. It’s alternate universes. The adepts have been staring into alternate universes. What happens there in September may not happen here. That’s why they’ve had such trouble with the intel. The machine isn’t a time machine.”
Except, as soon as the aide opens his mouth, the words become a trigger, a catalyst, and it’s too late for him. A door is opening wider than ever before. The machine has already infected him.
There are variations. A long row of them, detonating in his mind, trying to destroy him. A strange, sad song is creeping up inside him, and he can’t stop that, either.
>>>He’s sitting in the chair, wearing a black military uniform with medals on it. He’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 doesn’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, which is 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.
“There are no people left in New York City,” his aide says. “What are your orders?”
He hadn’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, “Call in a nuclear strike.”
>>> . . . and his aide comes up to him and whispers in his ear, “It’s time to go now. They’ve moved up another meeting. Wrap it up.” Health insurance is on the agenda today, along with Social Security. Something will get done about that and the environment this year or he’ll die trying . . .
>>>He’s sitting in the chair reading the book, and he’s gaunt, eyes feverish, military personnel surrounding him. There’s one camera with them, army TV, and the students are all in camouflage. The electricity flickers on and off. The schoolroom has reinforced metal and concrete all around it. The event is propaganda being packaged and pumped out to those still watching in places where the enemy hasn’t jammed the satellites. He’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.