Their first candidate was a youngish fellow with a list of minor achievements and small qualifications, plus a handsome wife willing to attend some portion of the rallies and fundraising events. He was the brave soldier who stepped forward when the state’s less-popular political party couldn’t find anybody who might win. The conservative opponent was unbeatable. Even agnostic voters considered the current governor as being Chosen. Once the invisible lieutenant governor, he stepped into the office when his predecessor’s Blackhawk went down in a freak hailstorm. Proper words and a few strategic tears at the funeral cemented the man’s rule over the sprawling state, and the new chief executive had served twenty-two months without scandal, scrupulously accomplishing nothing that tested his base supporters while avoiding becoming the enemy of those inclined to stand against him.
Wise tongues decided that seventy percent of the vote would be a disappointment, and more importantly, that the governor’s mansion was only a way station before becoming the state’s next Senator.
Into the slaughter, the liberal soldier pressed on. Little problems came, and in the way of all campaigns, never quite left. But everything could be endured, right up until the wife decided that nothing was as boring as rallies and her smile muscles were awfully, awfully tired. Even worse were matters of finance: a candidate was supposed to generate interest and dollars, and the interest was lacking early and the dollars dried up. His skeletal staff was competent enough to run a compelling student election but nothing more. Then the wife who was no longer on the campaign trail filed for divorce. That’s when the campaign died. One hundred days before the election—after half a year of mastering nothing in politics—the candidate released a poorly composed, grammatically questionable press release blaming the lack of party support and certain unspecified threats against his loved ones, leaving him no choice but to pack up and head home early.
His party was appalled. That is, except for quirky souls who saw opportunity in one man’s incompetence. Thankfully, an organizational meeting was scheduled for a few days later—the kind of non-event usually controlled by retirees and the most desperate political hacks. A replacement candidate would have to be appointed there. Various names were mentioned and discarded. Wealthy men and one famous widow with liberal tendencies were approached, but none said “yes.” That led to a second tier of names and biographies that were scrubbed and analyzed until a suitable candidate was found. But then several discrepancies were found in what seemed like an otherwise fine life story. No, the gentleman had never quite served in Iraq, and he did have more than two DUIs in his past, and the college that he always claimed as his own couldn’t find evidence that he was ever on campus, much less kicked the winning field goal in the ’98 game against the hated Bulldogs.
The media had gathered, expecting a new face and name, and the state deserved some kind of choice, no matter how uninspired. On that pragmatic note, the powers of the party gathered next to the overchlorinated pool at the Day’s Inn, and after a few drinks and some deep gazes into this endless mess, one voice in the back called out, “Okay. Me.”
“Me” was Morris Hersh. Quiet and polite and generally presentable, Morris was one of those individuals who leaves a good impression with strangers yet makes very few friends, and who despite a withering intelligence in several fields, can hide his gifts while sitting among half-drunk liberals, knowing the best moment to speak and what voice to use and anticipating which questions would be asked before being led out before a pack of reporters working on deadline.
Morris’s candidacy was launched quietly—a few words about persevering through difficult times but winning in the end—and the candidate’s first week was little different from the incompetence of his predecessor. Long profiles appeared in the state’s surviving newspapers. The retired professor of chemistry was a widower with three grown children and a long history of public action. Past flirtations with splinter parties and odd causes were mentioned and quickly discounted. He was a true believer now, and the liberals were happy to have him, and that’s the attitude that reigned until the State Fair and a choreographed not-really-a-debate debate against the reigning governor.
First to speak, the conservative held forth about the state’s wonderful residents and their justified suspicions about change and those high-minded, over-educated ideas from Washington and other sorry, ill-informed places. He promised jobs and minimal taxes and a thriving environment for good businesses. Of course he would do everything in his power to maintain agricultural supports from the bureaucrats in Washington. Of course he talked about the sanctity of education and the need to defeat waste. Then, in summation, he stated how much he loved this state and its good-hearted and exceptional, strong-willed and unquestionably honest people.
Standard applause led to polite silence. Morris took a few moments to flip through a towering stack of index cards that he left where he was sitting. Dressed in a suit that had been worn in the high halls of education, the new candidate stepped to the podium, looking out at an audience that nobody else could see. That was the first impression of careful observers. He stared at a place above every head, and he tried to smile at whatever he was seeing. Then the expression flickered and died, and he sighed as if suffering some small pain. Not a bit of nervousness showed. Indeed, he probably had the slowest heartbeat on the stage. One long finger needed to scratch at the white hair above an ear, and again he sighed, and then the other hand took hold of the microphone and he said, “We are in such deep, deep trouble, my friends.”
It was a strong, distinctly angry voice.
“Our world is moving into a time of catastrophe and extraordinary danger,” he continued. “The life that we believe that we have earned and deserve is about to vanish. Climate change and nuclear proliferation are two of the players in this ongoing tragedy. I’m sure a few of you agree with me on these counts. Blame can be given to overpopulation and wasted resources and carbon dioxide and the simple lack of good manners. But a full accounting of the villains would take too long. Suffice it to say, each of us is guilty. I am guilty and you are all guilty and the governor is culpable as well. We are the agents of change, and we have built this new world, and events will come soon enough that all but the oldest and luckiest of us will discover what misery means and how the universe deals with pests who dare infest one of its pretty blue worlds.”
At that point, Morris paused. Everybody needed a deep breath. But the old man didn’t give people time to rest, and he certainly didn’t wait for applause. Lucid and sober, almost cheerful, he offered up a list of vivid predictions for what would happen in the coming decade or two. Nobody listened to every word. Even the Greenest voter—a college girl who rode her bike halfway across the state to support this man—was numbed by the relentless awfulness of what was being predicted. The earth was wounded. Ice was melting and droughts were looming and millions would soon move toward the high ground blessed with reliable aquifers. “Which is here,” he said. “We are living on what will become a promised land.” But he also promised tipping points, maybe several at a time, and governments would fail, and even the United States was subject to collapse. “We don’t have the money we think we do, and we don’t any time left, and decisions will have to be made on the fly, and our state would be smart to make preparations for when it will have to take care of itself.”
Then came another brief pause, another shared breath by the audience.
At that point, Morris paused. But he still had twenty seconds for introductory remarks, which is why he offered a wide smile, thanking the Rotarians for sponsoring this event, and singling out Mrs. Gina Potts for her delicious lemonade.
Throughout the non-debate—with the opening statement and everything that followed—the governor stayed on track. He clung to his marks when he spoke and sat motionless while waiting his turn to speak again, smiling in that vacuous fashion common to people who can compartmentalize every portion of their lives. He wasn’t an exceptionally smart fellow. He had a pleasant, not-quite-handsome face made older by the baldness that had begun in his twenties. But he had always been blessed with competence and luck, and his wife was lovely and at least as ambitious as he was. The governor also had a gorgeous golf swing that had served him well in fifteen years of public life. Sitting on a folding chair, listening to the ex-professor’s diatribe, he not only understood that he would win the election by a four-to-one edge, but his opponent was doing his cause grave, irreparable harm. And being a considerate church-going person, the governor felt empathy. Taking an old man out of his element and putting him on public display like this…it was the kind of mistake he would never make. Governance was the magic done through a multitude of tiny, imperfect steps. If key details could be identified and the worst errors avoided or later denied, then it was possible to do just enough, leaving the world better than it otherwise would have been.
The event was scheduled to last sixty minutes. With ten minutes remaining, Morris threw a hand at the sky, saying, “If lightning strikes and I happen to be win this election, there will be no greater champion making this state ready for what is to come. I’ll use these final weeks to make clear what is necessary and essential. Changes will be necessary if we are to hold onto a portion of our rights as citizens, retain some sliver of our present wealth, and not lose ourselves to the panic and reflexive violence sure to claim billions of unready, untested souls.
“I don’t believe in God,” he proclaimed, “but I believe in Laws. The Laws of Nature, the Laws of Cause and Effect.
“And there are no other Gods but Them.”
On that peculiar note, Morris Hersh returned to his folding chair and sat on his forgotten note cards.
The moderator took the microphone, but he had no voice. He looked at his watch, discovering the extra time. Not wanting to leave things in this uncomfortable place, he rolled his free hand in the air, inviting the governor to respond—a breach of the rules, but nobody complained.
The governor stood without hurrying.
With a big wink, he convinced half of the audience that he was looking at them, and then he stepped to the podium and smiled, waiting for the perfect response to come to mind.
He settled on a story from his teenage years—detassling corn from four in the morning until dusk every day, for minimum wage. Avoiding mention of his opponent or mental illness or the wild claims that would be splashed across newspapers and web sites for the rest of the week, he spoke only about himself and his ethic of hard work, and by the end of those ten minutes a large portion of the audience nearly forgot about madness and doom. People were smiling for no reason other than to hear how this round-faced golfer once wore his hands raw under a hot July sun. And then the governor sat, smiling at his lovely wife and their three darling children and a certain young aide lurking near the stage. A leader could do only so much. At the end of the day, almost nothing was possible, and very little was planned, and no person could claim total responsibility for the silly and the great decisions that he managed to make, every minute of his life.
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.
The funeral was held on the highest hill outside the capital. It was an overcast November morning, but a Lakota shaman and a Lutheran minister worked together, convincing the rain to stay away. The tomb was the most splendid and ornate structure built in forty years. For his genius, the Mexican architect was awarded citizenship and five acres of bottomland. Oxen trains carried the granite from Colorado, but every block of limestone was native. State engineers had overseen the project. Estimates varied, but as many as two hundred guest workers died in order to make the target date. Yet the Old Man had rallied, recovering from the cancer. The tomb had to be mothballed until he was eighty-two, and that’s when the only autocrat the state had ever known passed away in his sleep.
His body had lain in state for three days. Well-wishers brought dried flowers and religious offerings and prayers, and delicate embroidery intended for the leader’s six daughters and two youngest wives. Disgruntled individuals managed a few incidents, but nothing of note. The Land’s Militia took charge of security, sweeping the tomb grounds for bombs and poisons. This was to be an enormous day, and to help ensure peace, five thousand individuals were rounded up under the Quarantine Laws. Some twenty thousand chairs and benches were placed on the wet grass, and they weren’t enough. Supporters rode bikes from the farthest corners of the state, while neighboring autocrats and strongmen and self-appointed generals traveled to the capital in motor vehicles and several working airplanes. Despite rumors of immortality, the Old Man had died. His rivals were relieved, and they were definitely hungry for opportunity. What mattered was to meet the son who had been given reins to this flush and wet and very green state—a kingdom that by every past measure was poor, and compared with every other corner of the sickly world, was enviably wealthy.
The new governor was thirty-nine and ready. His stride showed the world his measured confidence, and his voice was a booming, masterly instrument. Without break and almost without water, he told the full story of his father, reciting the history of their Free State, including three wars and one famine, and the legendary Eastern Incursion that brought back several nuclear weapons—each traded for gold and seed as well as the race horses that became the basis of the world’s best cavalry. Then the young man pulled back the clock to days that few remembered. Of course he repeated the story of his dear father working the fields as a child, wearing his hands bloody doing exactly the same jobs required of every school age boy and girl today. There were twenty stories of sacrifice and toughness, and he told the fake tales with the same sure voice that he used with those that were a little true. Then he concluded by mentioning the Old Man as a golfer—an average-looking fellow underestimated by every opponent, but blessed with a grace and strength that endured until his last day.
That is when the new governor stopped talking.
Five different religious authorities gave appropriate prayers, and the Shadow Riders brought the body and its long wagon up to the tomb. There were more prayers to come, and ceremonies, and the new governor had settled in to endure all of it. But a face caught his eye—a pretty woman that he didn’t remember yet felt familiar. He asked for the woman’s name. Hersh, was it? Of course he knew who she was. It was the granddaughter—a minor figure in small-town politics out in wheat country.
He made a request and then slipped back into the still-open tomb.
Miss Hersh was brought to him. Flustered but trying to appear brave, she watched him, probably fearing the rumors told about him. But no, he was going to behave, certainly today and in this place. Not that he was superstitious, but the tomb stood around them, and even his voice was more hushed than usual. “I want to show you something,” he said. “It’s something you might have heard about. Something that will definitely interest you.”
“What?” she asked quietly.
Many of the Old Man’s effects were to be buried with him, preserved for future historians and whatnot. Inside one steel box were crystals meant to absorb moisture and a single enormous manuscript, plus two flash-drives and the hard-drive that had written the entire work.
“Is that my grandfather’s?”
The governor nodded. “Yes, it is.”
“It is,” she agreed. “This is the template to everything. It is.”
He let her dream, and then with a firm, stern voice, he said, “No.”
“No?” She looked again. “Why is it still wrapped in plastic? I’ve heard. My father told me. It was wrapped in plastic when Grandpa gave it to your father, and I think that’s his signature there.”
“It’s never been opened.”
“Did the governor use the flash-drives?”
“What did you say?”
“Never.” And the new governor laughed. “I know the myth. But this is the truth: Years ago, my father showed me the sealed manuscript and the drives and everything. ‘That poor professor,’ he told me. ‘Dr. Hersh believed he had something of genuine value.’”
The young woman was trembling, and maybe she was about to cry.
“’Years of work and hard scholarship on his part,’ my father said, ‘and do you know what it taught that old chemist? It taught him exactly what any good politician knows on Day One. Power and authority are built on many, many little steps.’”
“I don’t believe you,” she said.
He watched her.
“You’re lying,” she said. “I know you’re lying. My grandfather’s plan is what saved our state from falling apart.”
The governor said nothing. When neither of them spoke, the tomb was wonderfully silent.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
He had changed his mind.
“Don’t touch me,” she said.
No, he wasn’t superstitious. The next generation was always talking about signs and omens, but to him, this place was nothing but cool and polished limestone that could use a little fun.
Copyright © 2011 by Robert Reed
Edited for Tor.com by Patrick Nielsen Hayden
This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.