"I think I make a fine war criminal."
Everyone was on the wrong side. Therefore Lavender hooked herself over the back of the sofa, a champagne flute suspended in the sling of her hand. It dipped lower with each beat, her eyes half-closing. As her companions spoke, they secretly lay bets as to whether she'd drop it or not; the odds for 'not' weren't good. Lavender heard the whispering but made no sense of it. In her present state, it had the implausibility of dream logic... she couldn't be sure if this was the dream or the waking.
The flute sank lower, lower, almost certain to tumble from her fingers and cast gold in a fan across the carpet, but in the end it settled easily onto the floor, upright and unspilt. Her arm swung away without hurry, this task achieved, and her eyes sank shut.
She was played in with the rousing experimental noise version of the presidential theme song. Flags and pennants lining the stage set, stars and stripes unending, fluttered in the cough of hidden fans. Stage spots with red and blue gels threw the ornate carvings of the Congressional chamber into crazed abstract, mad eagles and bloody shields, deep wooden scars.
Lavender pointed to particular friends among the congresspeople, waving, grinning, projecting homily. She shook hands with the foremost officials as she strolled by and they pushed their hands through slits in the discreetly unreflective bulletproof glass chambers sealing them from the audience and the world. No such refuge for her, though; Lavender was in the spotlight. It was a night to get in touch with the people.
The audience pit yawned before her, a self-contained amphitheatre within the chambers of Congress, fed by separate corridors to quarantine it from the movers and shakers; yet as such, it was open-ended and appeared to give more freedom to its occupants. And it had the best view of the stage. This platform was thrust into and upon the populace like a dock in an ocean of bodies. Snack and souvenir vendors scurried to the periphery, as Lavender strode to center stage, took a microphone like she was vehemently plucking a rose off its stem, and launched into the opening number.
hail to the chief
frail straws in a sheaf
become as like steel
when together we anneal
round the strongest shaft of all
hail to the boss
we'll all stay the course
our freedom rains red
we'll honor our dead
in a leader who stands when we fall
Every president had their own official theme song, normally provided by a personal PR bureau as part of the campaign package. Lavender had spent ten minutes or so scribbling hers out on a scrap of silver cigarette paper, a wry smirk on her lips as she composed it, late on Election Day. Not that the result of the election had been in doubt; she was just something of a procrastinator.
The music pumped through the Congressional sound system, computer-conducted with the aid of cameras monitoring Lavender's every facial expression, every gesture, and orchestrated on the fly for emphasis and mood. She pumped her fist in the air, rousing the audience; she waved her ass at it, piquing its outrage, these themes mirrored in the background track. The sound itself was contrived to elicit irrational emotion, more pharmaceutical than entertainment.
The accent lights dimmed and a pencil spot picked her out as she wrapped up her song and strode to center stage, where she went to her lapel mic.
"Well," she said, a breathless grin on her face. She slapped her fist into her hand like someone contemplating a stretch of serious work. "It's been quite a year, hasn't it?" The audience might have been uncertain if it was proper to acknowledge this profound understatement, but she made it all right. It chuckled.
Lavender shook her head, silencing it. "I'm not going to stand here and tell you that America is the greatest country in the world. I'm not going to tell you that every day, each of you has more and more freedom, and that we're spreading freedom around the world. I'm not going to tell you the economy is the strongest it's ever been. I'm not going to tell you that this nation is a force for democracy and peace."
Her eyes gleamed; wet gloss shone on her canines as she smiled a curious smile. Did irony cross her features for a split second? "...because you already know this. I don't have to tell you."
Lavender's cast, already serious, became grave. "I know all of you want issues addressed. You demand it of me," she said, "as your American right." Simply acknowledging this merited polite hand-clapping, and the manner which she bent at the waist to peer at the audience, winsome yet somehow contrite, brought smiles. "Am I right?" More and louder clapping.
"So we've got the war--" She produced a hand grenade, and showed it to the camera. "--the economy--" A small piggy bank appeared from inside her coat. "--and security." At this she held a miniature video pod. "And running the government is sort of a juggling act..." Lavender gave the audience an apologetic look, as though confiding that she, too, found this absurd, before commencing amateurish but passable juggling, swaying a bit from side to side as she attempted to stay beneath the tumbling objects. Her evident effort was met with applause.
"But sooner or later," she said, "something has to drop!"
She tossed the grenade aside. There was a flash and a loud-but-harmless bang of pyrotechnics when it struck. Several members of the audience shrieked, before giggling with relief. Lavender waggled her eyebrows, smirked, and hid the money and the video camera out of sight during this distraction.
There was an arrangement of chairs around a low table. She sauntered into the set, pushed by the applause meeting this simple trick, where she slid out of her ranch duster, spun on the heel of her boot and fell back into one of the plush seats with an 'oof' and a jiggle. Lavender kicked up her feet and leafed through a small sheaf of papers.
"Let's see who we've got in the Honor Seat this year 'round," she said with faint boredom. She'd committed the contents of these sheets to memory, but wished to maintain the appearance of spontaneity, of humanity. Her foot tapped.
"Hey there," she said. Fake surprise. "Have I got a treat for you. I'm sure you all remember her as the brave woman from Sioux Falls who saved those three kittens. Please welcome Barbara Walsh." Lavender snatched a handheld video unit from the coffee table and stood to greet the pantsuited female who emerged from within billowing stars and stripes, clouds of foil confetti. Barbara carried a sparkler in each hand and minced a little dance onto center stage. Lavender planted an American flag cigarette between her own lips and bent to light it from one of the fireworks in some Freudian-patriotic courtship ritual. She blew bluewhite smoke through her nostrils. All of this to waves of focusless applause. She thrust the camera forward, using it as directional microphone. "Barbara, welcome."
On the rear-projection screens the woman's face was monolithic with wide-angle distortion, shiny with emotion, monstrous. Game-show glaze on the eyes. "Oh, Mr. President, I'm so happy to be here!" Trailing into half-demented laughter and pogo-ing nervous energy.
"I know you are," Lavender purred. She put a friendly arm around the woman, guiding, corralling her without ever making human contact, not letting up with the handheld at its crazy uptilted vantage point. "Barbara. We all know your story-- the mittens, the pie --but tell us, what do you think set you on that fateful course?"
"It was Jesus," pronounced the juggernaut on the screen without hesitation. The producer computer cut in a little reverb, giving Barbara a bizarre Rastafarian echo. Pixel snow lurked in the yawn of nostrils. "Jesus guided me. Praise be. Jesus, be my guide--" She began to sway in place, and her figure on the screen began to halo.
Lavender cut her off. "Of course it was. Your story truly defines the American dream." Her ersatz earnestness fooling no one but the woman, perhaps not even the woman; perhaps it was a story she told herself. "Cigarette?"
After consummating this offer, Lavender invited the woman to sit. They chatted of religious irrelevancies, Barbara's fervor emphasized by scrolling spectral artifacting. The President of the United States kept the camera disinterestedly trained, puffing on her cigarette and nodding in the right spots, until something caught Lavender's attention and she cut the woman's mic in mid-proselytization. "Just shut up," she said softly, her own microphone safely blotted in hand.
Lavender rose, her eyes widened in comedic surprise. Strategically-placed monitors relayed the whining grind of electric motors.
A wheeled platform. Hard-bitten buzzcut. Dress uniform slacks folded and tucked beneath a body that had no need of legs. Right sleeve pinned to the shoulder in a permanent Roman salute. The left arm remained, and it was with it that he operated the controls of his wheelchair.
"I'd like you to meet Specialist Antonio Alvarez, 3rd Division, United States Marine Corps." Her head tilted to the voice in her earphone. "I'm sorry? United States Army. Whatever."
Ignorance taken as good-natured hazing. She offered him her right hand, forcing him to turn his about to shake it, which he did heartily, nearly jostling himself off his perch.
"You may not have heard of him, but I have the pleasure of honoring Spc. Alvarez as one of the few brave survivors of the terrorist mop-up operation on [Terrorist Village #43]. He displayed great bravery by rescuing a half-dozen of his fellow soldiers, pinned down by enemy fire. Pretty cool." Her hand beckoned audience reaction. She didn't spare him the camerawork, jabbing the unit right up into his face. He did not flinch. At this tight an angle, his impassive face seemed made of granite, an Aztec god. At this intimate distance there were no shorn limbs, only the mirror of the soul.
"Unfortunately they were all blown to bits while on patrol a couple of hours later. But that's nobody's fault. For extraordinary valor in the line of fire, I present to you--" She fished around in her top, withdrew a bit of metal on a ribbon. "--the Bronze Star Medal. It's still warm. There you go, kid."
She bent and pinned it on his breast.
"That was some pretty serious shit out there, wasn't it?" Lavender said.
"Yes, sir." The autoproducer posterized his visage, turning him into a Lichtenstein comic-book archetype.
"How was your body count?"
A flicker of affect. "Top-notch, sir."
Lavender's face became pinched, cruel with enthusiasm. "Your country owes you a great debt. But we think the cost is worth it. Like iron to the forge." She gave a loose, swooping salute.
The young, broken man returned it with the one limb left to him, the sinister hand. "God bless you, Mr. President."
Lavender squeezed a tear out of her eye and immediately brushed it away. "God thanks young men like you." Her insincerity was plain to see; it only emphasized her independence, her machismo. The soldier's grim smile tightened in awe of this display. The crowd roared its approval.
The appearance of the soldier was followed by a short film projected on the screens: good deeds done, terrorists captured, criminals punished, hard stands taken. Lavender loathed this intrusion of pure propaganda into her act, but it was in her presidential contract.
She introduced Thomas Hobbs, a farmer turned entrepreneur, who was developing a renewable energy source made from recycled videotape. Lavender spoke of the promise this offered to the future of the nation's energy needs, and praised the man. "I'm truly blessed to have people such as you toiling on my watch," she said, with a kind of sincerity.
She greeted the opposition ally in the ongoing counterterrorism operations of which Spc. Alvarez was but a small fragment, welcoming this representative of the peace-loving citizens of the People's Death Brigades; under leading questions, he submitted why continued military assistance was vital to the lives of little children and babies, kitties and puppy dogs and adorable cartoon characters. Following this, a parade of elected officials in bulletproof suits expounding upon how her administration's policies had made life ever so much better for their constituents.
Then the music was rising again, playing Lavender out of the address. Spots blanked on the guests like they were never real. Lavender took hold of the microphone stand and addressed the audience.
"I want you to remember that this isn't really about me... it's all about you. You are in control. I speak for you." She took a bow. The music, which had been keeping its distance, kicked up noticeably. "And that's why I'm going to do more for you in the coming year. I'm going to bring you more." Her voice was rising, and along with it, the psychotropic noise. "You're a strong people, a proud people, America's a land of opportunity, and you expect more, and you're gonna get it."
Her arm lashed out and up, pointing, a lightning rod. She regarded them askance.
"More freedom, more honor, more payback, more power, more more always MORE!" she screamed, pointing at all of them, none of them. "You are powerful, you are honorable, you are compassionate, you are gods, let nothing hold you back!" The hand-picked audience gorged itself on the words. The music was turned up to ugly, bone-jarring levels, obliterating thought, encouraging abandon. Lavender held her pose, microphone gripped in one hand, the proclamation of her forefinger agitating as everything climbed, peaked, reached a critical pitch.
The music cut out, the spotlight cut out, the cameras cut out. Lavender removed the souvenir presidential seal from around her neck and cast it before her. The front of the crowd scrambled for it. Lavender made a rapid exit. The house lights came up and the security detail came in with firehoses and sonic move-alongs to quell the inevitable riot and shatter the crowd-beast into manageable constituents.
Several layers offstage, she listened to the muffled tumult. The black-suited backs of her bodyguards formed a discreet barricade in the gloom. Lavender wiped her face with a towel, paused, sniffed at it, wrinkled her nose. Mold. Corruption. She lay the cloth upon her shoulders, and took a wild swig of water, then stood very still, her head lowered. "I hate these things," she muttered, like a curse.
"Here, have this," said a voice. Something long and slender intruded her numb lips, kissed her tongue brashly. Lavender forced her eyelids to budge.