Videos of the debate proved a huge embarrassment to one political party and were wildly popular on YouTube. But that changed when Kashmiri separatists raided a military base outside Islamabad, grabbing hostages and claiming possession of nuclear weapons. After a prolonged standoff, three missiles were launched at India. No warheads were onboard, and nobody important panicked. The hoped-for conflagration between old enemies failed to materialize. But those distant events had transformed the crazy candidate into a quirky prophet, and suddenly Morris appearance was watched closely, and every doomsday utterance caused the Web to spasm and shiver.
World notoriety didn’t bring success at home. Fifteen percent approval was his high mark. Voters saw a possible genius and a definite whack-job with no particular talent for managing the smallest limb of government. Morris’s backers briefly dreamed of forty percent in the general election—but no, he wouldn’t soften his message and refused to be edited, and he warned that if the party tried running television ads that didn’t focus on the world’s growing miseries, he would use his own savings, paying for spots that would make his earlier speeches seem decidedly bland.
The most rational player in this maelstrom was the governor. He smiled when necessary and shook every hand, and every speech was tailored to the audience of the moment. Mentioning Morris only as “my opponent”, he always used a tone of measured, imprecise concern—as if mentioning some neighbor who you worry about but don’t feel comfortable discussing in public. Aides pressed him to include national issues in his speeches. The election was won, they argued; why not begin the future senatorial campaign? But instinct told the governor to resist. He didn’t quite understand why and didn’t bother trying to explain. Sure enough, six weeks away from the election, an alarming rumor surfaced: The state’s most liberal billionaire was so alarmed by the deranged Dr. Hersh that he was mulling over the possibility of stepping into this mess.
The same aides pretended to be unconcerned. No newcomer, even one with bottomless pockets, could steal what rightfully belonged to their candidate. They claimed the billionaire might get thirty-five percent, maybe forty. But at this late date, with so much momentum on their side, there was no way a new player could win the contest.
The governor was less sure. Gambling was dangerous, regardless of whose money or reputation was at stake. The surest course to victory was to keep Morris in the race. As it happened, the governor’s wife was good friends with a retired mayor in the other camp. One discreet call brought news about an emergency meeting of party leaders taking place in a little city west of the capital. The governor was on the road within the hour, and at his urging, the state patrol officer at the wheel covered a hundred miles in a little more than an hour.
Another swimming pool had been commandeered for duty—this pool closed for repairs, the contractor home for the weekend. Twenty tense, irritated political beasts were sitting around one uncharacteristically quiet candidate. Whatever had been said just seconds ago was still hanging in the air. Nobody wanted to look at anybody else. Nobody wanted to be here, and every person was desperate to find some route by which they could escape a situation that was only growing worse.
That was the scene that the governor walked into.
He smiled and said, “Hello,” and then nodded, successfully crafting a face and persona that could not have looked more ignorant or less dangerous.
It was Morris who acted thrilled to see him. “Hello, sir. How are you?”
Alarm spread among the others. The meeting had gone badly, but here was the enemy, grinning like an idiot. It almost made them happy. Almost. A couple of the younger men stood, as did the ex-mayor, and she shook the governor’s hand first and asked about his wife, feigning ignorance to camouflage her involvement in his arrival.
The governor spoke to everyone by name.
Then after ninety seconds of intense, utterly empty small talk, the newcomer asked for a moment or two with their candidate. It was matter of state business, he implied. It was important, he promised. Then he shook half of their hands as they filed away, and he looked hard at Morris; and after a very long pause, he said, “If I didn’t know better, I would believe they were trying to figure out some easy way to have you killed.”
“Everything but that,” the professor allowed.
“Of course they’re all wishing you would die. Natural causes, or whatever.”
Morris looked old and pale.
“Are you going to quit?”
“Then again, they could just dump you as their official man, bringing in the rich capitalist. Your margin would shrink to five percent, if that. And at that point your party might convince itself that this is a campaign.”
It was a warm and stuffy room, and Morris shivered.
“Stay,” said the governor.
“In the race. I don’t want you sitting on the sidelines.”
“Because you want to win.”
“And you want lightning to strike. But you need to ask yourself: ‘What would I accept as lightning? What would constitute enough of a blow against the odds and common sense to make this shitty process worthwhile?’”
Morris hunched lower. “Okay. I’m listening.”
“You have plans. You claim you do, and I for one believe you.” The governor leaned close enough to pat the man on the knee, but he kept his hands to himself. “You have a strategy for when everything goes wrong. When the glaciers turn to steam and zombies hit the streets. There’s enough detail in your speeches and the interviews to make me think you’ve done tons of preparation, that there’s some elaborate set of contingencies ready to be unleashed. Like what? When the Federal government starts falling down, the governor grabs special powers for the office?”
“Before that,” Morris said.
“The state constitution isn’t all that flexible, but there’s some old statutes from the Cold War days. Before the national government is in ruins, the governor has to call in the legislature. It’s going to take time to make ready. The National Guard is a start, but we’ll need a militia and training and officials making informed decisions. There’s going to have to be road blocks on every highway, and refugee camps that can be effectively policed, and that’s just part of what has to be done.”
The governor hid his smile. “All right,” he said encouragingly.
“And human labor,” Morris blurted. “Backbones and muscle will be essential. Because coal plants are going be shut down, if only because we won’t be able to guarantee the deliveries from Wyoming, and gasoline and fuel oil will have to be rationed, and supply lines maintained, and there’s going to have to be a horse-breeding program through the ag school.”
Morris smiled as if embarrassed, but he couldn’t stop talking. “Honestly, this is awful stuff. I try to be kind in my Human Labor chapter…but I’m talking about the kinds of servitude left behind in the Dark Ages. Or in Mississippi.”
“You have chapters?”
“I have a very big book,” Morris said.
“Fifteen hundred pages, plus charts.”
“Several hundred. And a PowerPoint presentation.”
The governor wasn’t startled or upset, or much of anything. But he took a moment, giving the matter considerable thought before saying, “Okay, this is my offer. My deal. Give me your book. And I want every last copy of your research, too. Then you continue with your campaign, and to keep your associates happy enough, I want you to soften your message. Let’s keep the billionaires out of our business. And when this race is over, I promise—I do promise you—I will keep your work as a resource, and I’ll even put you on my staff if the nightmare comes. Is that a worthy enough solution to satisfy you, Dr. Hersh?”
Big eyes filled with tears, and laughing sadly, Morris confessed, “You know, I’m about the last person you’d want to be governor.”
He didn’t need to worry.
And thirteen days after the state’s final election, the same Kashmiri separatists drove a heavy truck into Delhi, unleashing a fifty-kiloton device that may or may not have been supplied by elements inside the Pakistani military. The war lasted two weeks, killing millions while injecting soot into the stratosphere, and just as the world situation couldn’t appear any worse, a substantial portion of the West Antarctic ice field decided to begin its majestic and inevitable slide into a rapidly rising ocean.