Monday, March 2, 2009

He died in 30 days

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our peoples, drown’d the Mall!
'Tis Harrison defies the elements
And mocks God's fires, oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Sheet-white missives of Jove's forbidding wroth.
Who bares bald pate, with sodden hair comb'd o'er
And dares Jupiter to take most careful aim.
Brave Bill, old Henry, stout Tippecanoe,
Who stands contempt'ous of the icy chill
Sans coat, sans hat, in cotton breeches and
Spotless white shirt of thin New Jersy wool.
He bares his teeth before the storm and bites,
Chews, and shreds the breezes to make Address
Inaugural. 'Gainst advice most timely
He bidst the clocks to run, to chase the tail
Of his receeding speech and so pursue
Word after word, noun after verb, up hill, down dale,
'Till clause clamber over clause, all in a heap
And fall exhausted, a pile of words so
High it makes a dam, the better yet to
Hold back the tide of jeering elements.
Brave Tippecanoe, who dreads not wind, nor rain,
Nor storm, nor sleet, nor discharge ionic,
- No tools at elemental disposal -
Who in his youth danced the battlefield waltz
Side-stepped lead ball, dodged musket fire en-pointe,
Made Paso Doble to the cannons' roar,
And lived, to ripe old age, youth's bloom maintained
Within the dimple of his rosy cheek
And feared no man, no beast, no act of God.
He blissfull lives, all happy ignorance,
While in his breast, unseen, assassins dwell
And sharp'ning knives they bide, against the day
Of opportunity: William Henry
Lived all his life in ignorance complete
Suspecting not the name that spelled his doom.
Brave man, defying storm and hail and sleet
Who knew not the meaning of the word fear,
As well, sadly, knew not the word: microbe.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Table of Contents

I'm trying to make these darn things easier to read. As such, here are all the stories arranged in the order in which they were written.

Barack Obama vs. the Pirates of Wichita

Barack Obama and the Thunder Zeppelin

Obama at the Gates of Detroit, Chapter 1

Chapter 2


Chapter 3

The Obamadämmerung:

1st Canticle


2nd Canticle


3rd Canticle

4th Canticle

5th Canticle

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Victory!

All of this started as a tongue-in-cheek response to a group of overzealous Obama supporters. One compared Obama to Jack Kennedy, another to Martin Luther King Jr., and another to Superman. As they spun out more and more outlandish fantasies for an Obama presidency, I couldn't help but try and top them with a suggestion of my own:



"Also, according to rumor, a single tear from Obama's cheek can slay demons and cure vilitigo and impetigo. His stride is as of a titan's, seven leagues at a time, and while he holds a microphone in his hand he canst take no mortal wound wound nor shed a single drop of his own blood. He speaks the native tongue of birds, and converses happily with all beasts of hoof and paw, even to the lowliest vole and marmot. Gracious as the kings of old, Obama carries no money nor answers unkind word with like. Peonies spring up where his feet trod, and were he to lay his weary head upon the ground a mighty cedar, like unto the old father trees of Bsharri and Barouk, would spring forth to shade his noble brow. In the elven tongue he is Lothlornienel, with means "Laughter in the High Places", and the dwarves call him earthfriend, as well as "Khazad ak Manu", which means "He who does not wear patriotic lapel pins." His is the drill that shall pierce the heavens: believe in him believing in you! The Neocons speak of him in hushed tones in their shadowed, dusty halls, and refer to the ancient scrolls of the fallen empire of Mnem, which foretells of the coming of the Dusky Childe, who shall scourge their number from the halls and rotundas and tear down the altars in the high places and bring the three terrible plagues of Health Care and White Guilt and Political Transparency. They say that he will travel to Shibboleth – where the heart of Karl Rove is kept, inanimate, inside a Canopic jar – and break the seals and feast upon the contents therein: and with the power thus consumed he will erect a throne of jade and jasper and lapus lazuli, and rule upon it, and the thunderous gnashing of teeth from the Red States will play Hail to the Chief as he ascends the dais."


It was pure silliness, but it got a few laughs. And the next day, at work, I couldn't help but mentally prod at the idea of Obama as a kind of mythical political superhero: a modern Paul Bunyan or John Henry or Davy Crockett. It was a ludicrous yet compelling thought. Eventually, drawing inspiration from the excellent music of Stan Rogers, I jotted off a short story. It was a caricature of a caricature; the media's overblown take on a political figure blown into something bigger and weirder. It was an odd little story, but it had a certain charm. I liked it well enough to do another, and another, and another. None of them were what you'd call great, and none of them were anywhere near as good as the first one, but they were fun to write. And as long as I kept having fun, I kept writing them. When I felt as if I was getting burnt out on politics, I put my pen down. When I felt a surge of new interest, I picked it up again.

I support Barack Obama because many of his political views coincide with mine, and because he is charismatic and intelligent and even-tempered. I don't think that he's any kind of miraculous superman who has come to save the country; I never bought into my own parody. I think that he is a politician. I think -- I hope -- that he will be a good politician, the kind of leader that we desperately need right now.

I hope that he will be great.

I had originally intended to end the Obamadämmerung with an epilogue, called War Councils, showing how the different factions of beltway lords coalesced around the two candidates, resulting in impending war. I even wrote most of it, and then shelved it. It wasn't very good. There was no action, no drama: it just petered out into nothingness, with no clear winner or loser. It was a lousy ending, because it wasn't an ending. How could it be? The election wasn't over.

Now it is.

Barack Obama is the President-Elect of the United States of America. Whether you voted for him or not, agreed with him or not, you have to admit that this is a once in a lifetime event. Some day, years from now, I'll take out my wallet and pull out a yellowing paper ballot-voucher and show it to my children and tell them how we elected the first African American president. And if I'm lucky, if I'm very lucky, they won't see what the big deal is; they won't understand why his skin color should make any kind of difference.

All in all, today has been a very good day.

Expect new stories sometime soon.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Obamadämmerung: 1st Canticle

It began in fire.

We gasped when we saw it. First a spark, then a flame, then a roaring blaze. Faster than the eye could follow it roared and leaped and danced. The zeppelin’s outer coating had been fireproof, as only hammered gold could be fireproof, but beneath that there were layers of nylon and oakum, and once this caught fire there was no hope for it. Ten heartbeats after the tail-fin caught fire, the shell of the airship began slowly and inevitably to crash.

We never stopped shooting. Not even as its doom became obvious. Not even when the screaming started. The canons kept up their firing – boom! boom! boom! – as quickly as we could load ball and touch powder, as smooth and regular as an automaton. War will do that to you. We knew it wasn’t over yet: even though the golden blimp was down, there were still dozens of other zeppelins in the fight. Their shadows brought night to the battlefield, and stole the sparkle from the windows of all the buildings in the city nearby. Not that there had ever been a lot of sparkle in Minneapolis.

So we kept shooting. It was bloody work. Our polished, hovering land-ships formed up into ordered lines of battle, relentlessly harrying a chaotic spread of smoking airships. It was probably the only real stand-up fight the Ronpaul’s forces had ever seen, and they weren’t taking it at all well. You could almost feel bad for them.

And then it was. Over, I mean. As the bulk of the blimp was still falling – airships take a damn long time to die – there was an explosion from the aft end. A terrible, terrible screeching shook the air. I saw him drop: at this distance he was a shiny dot the size of a dust mote. A flaming, golden fleck. He struck the ground, and the earth trembled. It kicked up so much dust we feared it would clog the turbines. It left a smoking crater a dozen yards wide in some poor farmer’s field.

The man Obama reached him first. He leapt the gunwale of the Audacity of Hope and sprinted across the frosted Minnesotan soil. The rest of us followed, with a bit more caution. Politicians rush in where regular folk fear to tread. He reached the Ronpaul’s side and hauled the wounded Lord out of the ruins of his golden throne and then they commenced to fighting. We couldn’t believe that that old git was still alive, but there he was, six feet tall, three feet wide, and covered in golden plates. Not armor, you ken, but solid plates of metal seared to his flesh. A few had fallen off in the crash, and you could see the scar tissue beneath. Nasty.

They fought for what seemed like hours, but was probably minutes. War is like that. They fought unarmed, like crazed Greek wrestlers. Their blows rocked the air, and when their arms locked, I heard the sound of shearing metal. They fought with the shadow of Minneapolis at their backs, that godawful, lake-ridden city. They fought like heroes. They fought like Titans. They fought like true Lords of the Beltway. Even the Ronpaul: I give him that. Shriveled and cruel as he was, fallen and burnt as he was, he gave as good as he got. Where mortal flesh would have failed, his golden skin held strong, and every glittering blow seared my eyes with reflected sunlight.

Most of us could only stand and watch, but others went and tried to pry some gold of the twisted wreck of the Ronpaul’s throne. No one begrudged them: gold is gold, and we understood intuitively that our part in the battle was now over.

It was Obama that finished it. He finally took the Ronpaul’s stubborn neck in both his powerful hands and twisted. I’ll never forget that gawdawful crack, but I think I might try. I think both the Twin Cities head it. Then it was over. Obama just stood there, with blood on his hands and that handsome caramel face looking so appalled and bereaved. He shed a tear for the man, a drop of molten gold, and then we knew it really was over.

Our side drew in the cannons. Their lightning guns stopped frying the earth black. With their leader dead, most of the Ronpaul’s forces surrendered; except for the Sturmfrunten, who all took strychnine and died convulsing. Crazy fucks. The rest of the Ronpaul’s people were just confused and bitter and desperate. There were thousands of them, in dozens of airships: the Ronpaul had built a formidable armada in his time as the unquestioned lord of the Midwest’s airspace. They poured out of their airships, a desperate multitude; most of them still had our gunpowder in their hair. We made them park their ships and form up ranks, and then Obama gave them a speech.

He gave it straddling the wreck of the golden throne. He spoke to them with the blood of their general still on his hands. He spoke to them in the shadow of their defeat, and took the bitter sting away. His voice was clarion, but his words were balm. He talked of promises made, and broken, and re-forged in earnest. He talked of America; of what it was, and is, and will be. He talked of freedom, and determination, and hope. Always of hope.

I’ve seen it happen almost a dozen times. At Joliet and Toledo, they wept openly. After the battle of Des Moines, they picked him up on their shoulders and carried him to the bow of his ship. At Terra Haute, even the children tried to join him, and only Obama’s gentlest admonitions managed to prevent the cause from gaining a hundred half-pint privates. And every time – every damn time – I shed tears.

Nine out of ten joined our cause right there and then. They just threw down their banners, cast off their silly hats, and signed up. The other tenth slunk away like whipped dogs.

We embraced them, our newfound brethren: what else could you do? We’d all been in their shoes, once. You heard the man talk, and you had to make a choice. So we hugged them and cheered, because we knew what it meant. The Battle of Minneapolis was over. We’d won. We, the Free-riders of the Outlaw Prince. Men and women, Iowans and Minnesotans, Nebraskans and Wisconsinites, and volunteers from every state in the union: the last free people in America.

We cheered, not because it was over, but because it had finally begun.

The Obamadämmerung: 2nd Canticle

It began in ice.

Lieberman’s footfalls were whispery quiet as he descended the rickety wooden staircase. It was unnerving how the planks, embedded deep in the icy walls, didn’t make a single creak or a groan. He shivered, and drew the feeble torch loser to his body to absorb the fire’s warmth. The walls wept icy tears as he passed.

Downward. Ever downward. Through solid ice. The steps described a descending spiral, a widening gyre a hundred yards across at its broadest and three miles deep. And still sinking.

This deep down, the ice formed strata, telling the history of the world to anyone with a mind to see it. Here, the ice was black and rippling, like frozen obsidian; this bespoke an eon of ash and shadows. A full turn of the staircase below that, the ice was milky and white, as if it had been half-thawed even as it froze. And below that: translucent and clear as glass, so that one could glimpse, in the far off distances, things frozen within the ice. There, at the very edge of vision… had that immense and vaguely formed shape once been a living creature? Was that a single, lidless eye he saw? Lieberman shuddered.

Truly, Alaska was a G-d-forsaken land.

As he descended, the familiar sounds of busy machinery rose to greet them. The drills had been brought in along another, wider tunnel, but the heat they gave off made the ice too slick and treacherous to walk down, and so the staircase had been constructed, by hand, at an enormous expenditure of human effort.

The staircase ended, and he emerged into hell. Red light spilled over his face. The vast, icy cavern was a hundred yards across and half again as tall. The broad, neat hole in the center was unimaginably deep. Terrified men in leather aprons toiled over enormous, belching machinery. Thawed slush ran down the walls and melted, pouring endless rivulets into deep channels incised in the floor. Immediately, all the gooseflesh on Lieberman’s body turned to sweat, and he threw off his thick, woolen cloak.

Only one man in the cavern wasn’t perspiring.

The Mac Cain slumped in a rosewood throne, one sandaled foot resting on the edge of an ice dais. His hauberk of dented bronzed discs gleamed dully in the scarlet light. His ancient helm, with a crest in the shape of a kneeling dragon, was so crusted with verdigris that it was impossible to tell what metal it was. His spear was nine feet of fire-hardened ash. His hoplon lay at the thrones base, four feet wide and several inches thick; far too large to be lifted by a normal man. Beneath a brow like a thunderhead, his eyes glittered like chips of mica. Which they were. The Mac Cain’s thick limbs and veined skin gave the truth to his heritage; he was descended from the last of the Kobolt-kin, the strange, stony folk that burrowed beneath the Rocky Mountains and ate raw gemstones.

When he saw his old friend, saw the determination on his craggy face, Lieberman knew he had only one last chance to end this madness before it got out of hand. He drew close to the throne. “Is this truly wise?” With a gesture, he took in the whole of the cavern; the melting walls, the boiling machinery, and the spinning shaft of the still-descending drill.

The Mac Cain sighed. “No, old friend. But it may yet be necessary.”

“Surely not.” He licked his lips. “The prophecies warn—“

“The Prophecies be damned!” Mac Cain said, but it was a weary exclamation. Everything he did, every motion, every breath, spoke of bone-deep exhaustion. “I am done with your endless quoting from the prophecies. The prophecies say that I will take the Oval Throne, don’t they? Or so you told me, all those years ago, when we were both young and the task before us seemed oh-so-easy. Well, decades have passed, and I’ve grown tired of waiting.”


Lieberman spoke hesitantly. “The prophecies say that in the Time of Portents, in last years of the Ican calendar, the House of Red must hold sway over all fifty states, or doom will fall upon us all. You know this. It is why I came to you, leaving my rightful place in the House of Blue. But they never mention you by name, only by allegory. Perhaps another…”

“What other?” Mac Cain asked, with black joviality. “Who else has the sense and the strength to unite the feudal states? Who else can raise an army fit to match steel with your old friends and this new upstart? Huckabee? A senseless god-botherer who cares more for his pet Wulfgerat than for his people. Giulliani? Perhaps, if he would ever leave off this constant brooding over his fallen towers. Romney? Dangerously insane. Thompson? Is that old Dragon even still alive? No,” he said, with finality. “If it must be done, then I must do it. There is no other.”

“And yet…” Lieberman whispered. “This drilling… Man was not meant to dig so deep—“

There was a shriek as every machine in the cavern began to vent steam. The temperature of the room exploded; workers feinted, or were scaled by steam blasts, or had to be dragged clear of the machines before they were cooked alive. A deep crack ran along the dome of the ceiling. Only then did Lieberman realize that the relentless grinding sound – which he had come to take for granted – had been replaced by the mournful hum of steel under great stress.

“We’ve struck!” Mac Cain shouted. “Stop the drill!”

But some quick-thinking engineer had already done it. The great drill gave one final groan, sighed, and then began to rotate in the other direction. It rose, the joints of its smooth, shining length telescoping into one another. Each section was numbered according to depth, and, as Lieberman watched with bated breath, the numbers began to count backwards.

One hundred feet. Seventy five feet. Fifty feet. Forty. Thirty. Twenty.

There was light coming from the hole; a low, dark, pulsing radiance that mingled with the red emergency lights of stressed machinery to form a searing indigo.

Ten feet.

“It comes,” the Mac Cain said flatly. He could have been talking about the weather.

Five feet.

The head of the drill emerged: it was absurdly small, given its mighty task. Diamonds glittered along its serrated edges, which had been formed from black, fathomless alloys of tungsten and Urü and depleted uranium. And a hand was gripping the end of it. A slender, feminine hand.

She rose, smiling. Her teeth were polished calcite. Her lips and fingernails were the color of rose petals and fresh blood. Her eyes were smoldering gypsum, and smoking anathema. She released the drill and dropped to the ground, and the ice steamed, melted, and fled before her burning touch. Every eye in the room was upon her, from the lowest axel-greaser to the glittering orbs of the Mac Cain himself. Some of the more superstitious machine-smiths fell to their knees and began chanting, praying to a multitude of gods.

“Adonai Eloheinu.” Liberman murmured. Much as he wanted to, he could not draw away. He felt her fully occupying his mind's eye, and the presence tore at his sanity. She was there, fully there, in a way that nothing else in the room could match. She was shining and bronzed and magnificent and terrible.

Mac Cain rose, and the effort of lifting his granite bulk seemed to tire him immensely. “My dear.” He crossed the floor to meet her. She smiled enigmatically, but said nothing. “Palin.” He took her hand, and the light in the cavern flickered and died.

Three miles above them, the arctic wolves began to howl.

The Obamadämmerung: 3rd Canticle

It began in ashes.

Click. Click. Click.

The Scarlet Lady’s heels beat a tattoo that echoed through the stone corridors like a heartbeat. She was furious, and making no effort to conceal it; her rage, far too violent to be contained in a mere skull, discharged itself through her personal aura and into the nearest available object in arcs of fat, purple lightning. She stormed through the hallway with a glittering corona of violet energy trailing close behind her. You could have mapped her progress by following the scorch marks.

There was a cheery little tapestry at the entrance to the lobby: “Welcome to Crawford, the heart and soul of Texas!” it said, and, “Vivat Imperium Deviae Stellae!” Some cunning wag with a paint-pot had added the graffito “You don’t have to be a sadistic plutocrat to work here, but it helps!” The scarlet lady stared at this little addition unto the paint began to bubble and the threads smoldered. She stalked off.

She found the General in the rearmost withdrawing room. She didn’t give him the opportunity to trade pleasantries. “What’s the meaning of this, Petraeus? Why was there no welcoming party to greet me upon my return? Where are my aides? My servants? I snapped two carriage axels and rode three horses to death escaping from darkest Florida, and now that I’m here, I’ll be damned if I’m going to pour my own damn bathwater in my own damn home!”

“Hi, Condoleezza. Pull up a chair.” The General waved a hand airily. “Share a carafe with me, won’t you? Sweet Napa Red, fifteen years old, white-casked oak. Last of the vintage.”

The Scarlet Lady’s eyes narrowed. “Are you drunk?”

“I ain’t sober!” He announced cheerfully.

Dangerous sparkles filled the air around her. The light in the room, cast from a single blazing fireplace, flickered and dimmed. She became, if anything, more beautiful; for anyone that knew her, this was warning enough. The Scarlet Lady was at her most alluring just before she killed. And then, because she was by no means stupid, everything ceased. She pursed her ruby lips and, with an effort, reigned in her crackling aura. The fire in the hearth blazed back to life.

She folded herself into a plush chair, facing the General. “Something has gone badly wrong,” she said. It wasn’t quite a question.

The General licked the last purplish-black drop from the rim of his glass – a brandy snifter, now that she bothered to notice – and grabbed the bottle. “You sure you don’t want a glass? Never see its like again.” She waved it away. “Pity.” He topped up his glass, gazed speculatively at the now empty bottle… and hurled it into the fireplace. It exploded into blue flames and glass shards. “Bottoms up!” he shouted gleefully, and drank away the entire snifter in one long pull.

She stared at him. When this turned up no new information, she used an old trick: she closed her eyes and extended the reach of her aura until it encompassed the entire castle. With vague, indeterminate senses she probed the corridors of Crawford Castle. “So the rumors are true,” she said eventually. “The Emperor is dying.”

The General paused. “You can sense that?”

Her eyes snapped open: for a moment, they were a dull, dead black, and then her pupils shrank back to their accustomed size. “I sense… nothing. There is no one here. The servants and guards have fled. Beyond this room, I can taste only the barest glimmerings of life.”

The General nodded solemnly. He seemed to pull himself together and, with cracked solemnity, he pulled a leather bottle from beneath his chair cushion and uncorked it. This was no fine vintage, and the blue-black liquid that oozed into his glass blurped and burbled like crude oil. He raised his glass high and said, with a kind of frighteningly genuine sincerity, “To his imperial majesty, King George the second, Golden Emperor of Texas, Duke of the greater Crawford area, and ruler of the Allied Southern Territories, the second and last of his line. May he be remembered fondly.” He drank.

The Scarlet Lady was unmoved. “They are all gone then? Even…” She hesitated. Some names were never said. “Even Him? Even his Shadow?”

“Mr. Che—“ The General paused: he wasn’t quite that drunk. “The Grand Vizier is at his imperial majesty’s side, night and day. Only his careful and loving ministrations keep the Emporer alive.” He sipped his awful, awful wine and shuddered.

“What of Rove?”

“The Roving Man has played his last tune in these halls, I fear.” The General sneered into his glass. “That ought to have been our first clue that things were about to turn sour: Rove just disappeared one night. Vanished into thin air. He left with nothing but the clothes on his back, his golden flute, three nubile serving women, and half the treasury.”

“A tidy severance package indeed.” The Scarlet Lady steepled her fingers. “I’m sure that old Rover is already singing sweet lies into the ear of some other Lordling by now. Or perhaps leading children off to drown. It matters not. And all the rest are fled?”

The General belched, but circumspectly: he was highborn, and mannered, after all. “Fled, or dead: some were executed. Por encourage le rabble. We went through a number of Attorney Generals. I stayed, of course, out of loyalty to the Emperor.” And not the least because of several secret inducements: if he survived, he would be one step below a Beltway Lord himself, with an option for promotion if he could survive and play the Great Game well enough. That was the way of politics: anyone could thrive, as long as they were rich or devious or lucky or, preferably, all three. “I have been planning our defenses.” He waved a hand at three low-slung and ornate tables covered in maps and papers.

“Defenses? Why, are we at war?” She paused for a beat, before answering her own question. “Of course we are at war: we have always been at war. But are we more at war now than we were when I was last here?”

“Go look out the window,” he said. “Tell me what you see.”

After a lengthy pause to smooth her skirts and rearrange the intricate silver bells woven into her hair – that had sounded a little too much like an order, and she did not take orders from anything short of a monarch – she went to the window. “I see the setting sun. I see the shadow of the castle as it lies upon the nearby village. And I see… I see… sparkling lights?”

He said, “Campfires. Thousands of them. By noon tomorrow, we will be under siege.”

“Who dares attack us? How can an army have penetrated so far into Texan territory? How dare they approach us here, at the heart of our strength?”

“What strength?” the General muttered. “As to the attackers: they are vultures. Jackals. Eaters of carrion and devourers of offal. Skulking, slinking, stalking cowards who prowl the dark places and lick their chops and wait for their prey to grow sick and weak before they crawl out of their shadowed lairs. They are like cackling hyenas, craven and cruel, who crack the bone to lick up the marrow. They are low men in stained overcoats and horrid women with slattern’s eyes. They are parasites with no compunction about slaying their hosts, they are filthy vermin who abandon one sinking ship only to gnaw holes in another. They are the lowest of the low, the palest, most cowardly, most loathsome things to ever crawl beneath the skin of the world.”

“Who?” she asked.

“They are the Media,” he said. “They have smelled the Emperor’s weakness, and now they crawl in close to jockey for position at the kill. They were our bosom friends so long as we had the Roving Man with us, but now that he is gone, they spit in our faces and sharpen their knives.” With a long, slow gulp he drained the glass. Almost conversationally, he added, “This morning we received a visit from one of the Choosers of the Slain.”

This fact shocked the Scarlet Lady more than all the rest. “A Valkyrie? Which one? Was it Campbell-Brown, or…“

“It was Maddow.” He said. He peered disconsolately into the empty bottle. “In the flesh. Raven’s wings, gleaming spear, blood-besprinkled corsets: the whole ball of wax. She showed up on the battlements this morning, raised a bronze-banded, brindled horn to her lips, and blew thrice-three-times the Call to Doom. Just like something off of a tapestry.” He sighed. “We tried to point a siege-cannon at her, but she flew away.”

The Scarlet Lady tapped her lips. Though her face was smooth, she was considering furiously. “What if we appealed to the people for help? The citizens militias—“

“Don’t like us very much,” the General finished. “Besides: did I just here you suggest that we appeal to Texans for mercy?”

“So we are doomed?”

Wine had made the General gallant. “Not at all, my dear Condoleezza! We are simply in a very… ah… tight corner right now, but all hope is not lost. He still hold the superior position, after all. And I will… I… I am sure I will be able to think of something.” The color left his face, and he murmured, in a whisper that he didn’t think she could hear, “Because if I don’t, Olberman will feast upon our bones and Koppel will drink the sweet tears of our misery.”

The Scarlet Lady shuddered. “I believe I will have that drink after all. Would you like a refill?” She brought him the glass, and he drank it down greedily.

The Breath of Barbitos was odorless, colorless, tasteless, and dissolved instantly in any liquid. It source was an ancient secret, but all knew that the key ingredient was the pulped rheumy eyes of elderly eagles. It had no known antidote, and the only cure for its effects was immediate and voluminous bloodletting of the infected parts. The Scarlet Lady considered all these facts as she stared at the crystal vial in her hands.

The General made a pleased sound as he reached the bottom of the glass. When it took him, it took him quite gently: he fell over with a sigh.

She patted him on the neck. “Sleep well, Patraeus. Dream of victory.” The dose had been non-lethal, of course. She had no use for a corpse at this time. She did actually hope that he succeeded; if the Empire survived, she was reasonably certain she could return to her old post. And if it didn’t… well, there were always other Lords in need of advice, weren’t there?

Once more she strode forcefully through the stony halls of Crawford Castle. To her certain knowledge there was a good horse in the stables, a lively little gelding, and a secret niche behind a stone in the castle’s outer wall containing a change of clothes, a warm woolen cloak, and a wig.

Her future looked bright.

The Obamadämmerung: 4th Canticle

It began in shadow.

And it came to pass that, in the city of New York, in the county of New York, in the state of New York, the news of the dawn of the Great War first came to the vagrants. These were not the merely unhomed, or the low and often insane class of vagabond known as bums, but true-born vagrants: descended from that ancient lineage of unfettered hermits known to themselves as the Concealed Order of the Illustrious Chosen Path, and to the rest of the world as Hobos. And though it has been many years since the last Boxcar War and the most recent death of their Eternal King, the vagrants of New York still possessed many of the forgotten secrets of their hobo ancestors. They remembered the knack of whistling the taxi-men to rest, the three words that will tame a five-toed alley cat, the secret language of rats, and the hidden underground paths to use in avoiding confrontation with the shrieking damned that dwell in the tunnels below the city. By secret sign and ancient cant they remained canny to distant happenings, and when the Word reached their ears, they convened a great Vagrancy, and departed the city by unknown means. But they warned no one, and their passing was not understood, and many remarked how much better the city smelled, and wasn’t there ever so much less urine around these days?

The second to hear the Word were the wind-dancers, who dwelt in the city’s unkept lofts and buckled on wings of canvas and wood and twine to their arms and played in the sleek thermal asphalt-updrafts between Gramercy and Tribeca. The news came to them on the first light of dawn, and they folded their winds and skimmed to earth and scurried to share the Word: that Dame Hilary’s army had disappeared. After a year and a half of relentless siege, she had packed up her forces – immense stone-throwers, armored and barded war-cattle, and the woad-encrusted, axe-bearing barbarian warriors from the Highland clans of North Jersey – and departed in the middle of the night. Only the ashes of their cookfires remained in the stark morning light. Ashes, and one other thing: a great shadow like a wall of hanging darkness on the western horizon.

As the days passed, the shadow grew ever closer.

The people were troubled by these signs. They sought to know whether these events boded good or ill, and if this fate could be avoided by supplication or prayer. In their terror they turned to their liege lord, the Thane-Mac-Ferr, the Ironbranded Giuliani, and they begged him for solace. But the lidless, bloodshot, ever-watchful eye of the vigilant Lord was directed elsewhere, and he heeded not their cries but continued to sit and brood on his rusting throne beneath the shadow of his crumbling towers.

And the people of New York grew fearful, and the rich, and the mighty, and the captains of industry, and the brokers of Wall Street, and the artists of SoHo, and every free man, and every bonded man, hid themselves in the dens and in the basements and in the lobbies and beneath the awnings of their mighty steel towers. And they said to the earth and the towers “Fall on us, and hide us from the coming wrath, for the advent of a great darkness is upon us, and the day of our Doom is at hand.”

And the earth cried out, and the buildings cried out, and the awnings cried out: “No hiding place!”

So the people grew even more fearful, and some fled into the tunnels of shrieking wind beneath their city, and some fled into the choking, noxious sewers: some were taken away by the screaming damned, and many were eaten by vicious wereodiles, and none were seen again. But some among the people kept their heads, and they suggested that the citizens turn to those on whom they had always ultimately depended: the Celebrities. These were the golden caste, those clean-limbed, fluorescent-toothed youth of a thousand dreaming nights, who bided their days reclining on velvet cushions, who were redolent of scented oils and flowery unguents, and whose every wish and craving were catered to in the hope that they might bestow a fleeting smile or passing remark. So the people gathered up their gifts of golden statuettes and ostrich feathers and aromatic palm fronds and entreated their celebrities for help.

In those days the foremost among the golden caste was one called Depp, and he calmed their fears with soft words and mournful smiles. He bid them return to their homes, and to rest easy in their beds, because he vowed that he would consult the Oracles and return with tidings.

Depp’s journey was long and difficult, and many times did he brush with death. With great stealth he slunk through the shadow of the Towers, beneath the fiery eye of the Thane-Mac-Ferr. With a silver tongue did he bargain with the ancient warlocks of Chinatown for a six-demon bag, and with the aid of his demon-bag he distracted the shadow hounds of Chelsea, and so passed beneath the arched gates of Hell’s Kitchen. Depp skirted the smoking piles of rubble that adorned the borough until he stood before the yellowing alabaster tower of the Oracles. He defeated the Oracles’ guardian, a berseker black unicorn with steaming flanks and smoking eyes, in this manner: transfixing the unicorn with his stare, he plucked 12 hairs from his ragged goatee and, making a lasso of them, he threw it over the unicorn’s head, rendering it docile. And ever after the unicorn loved him and served him, and was his eternal companion.

When Depp stood before the Oracles, in the center of their shadowed chamber, he bowed low. “Oh very wise and sapient Oracles,” he said. “I bring you the three traditional gifts: bagels, espresso, and this illuminated, leather-bound book which I have written with my own hands. In return, I ask an answer to my question: What is the meaning of the shadow in the west, and does it bring the Doom of New York?”

These were the three Oracles: one was dressed in a tattered grey robe with faded blue trim, and he was cursed to speak no word that was not truth, but never would his words be heeded. He was known as the Mensch. One was dressed in a red and blue robe of finest samite, embroidered at hem and sleeve and cowl with white stars and pentacles, and he was cursed to speak no word that was not Truthy, and ever would his words be heeded. He was known as the Buffoon. One was dressed in a robe of dull black that seemed to drink the light, and he was cursed to speak no word that was not obscenity, and never would his words be understood. He was known as the Crank.

The Mensch made a strange gesture, as if to tug at an invisible collar, and said, “Yeah, about that…”

The Buffoon said, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. Good news first: if you’ve recently invested in bomb shelter construction companies or canned soup, you’re about to make fat bank.”

The Crank said, “You’re fucked.”

The Mensch said, “Look, you’ve got strife and conflict in every state in this land. The Ronpaul’s death killed the whole Midwestern economy. All of Texas is burning. Huckabee is fighting zombies on the barricades in Decatur. Romney’s Raiders have been seen taking salt wives as far west as Sacramento, and Edwards’ little Sparrows rule the streets in Charlotte, Raleigh, and Greensboro. The shadow you see is just another symbol of the underlying chaos.”

The Buffoon said, “Think of it as the first ant to arrive at a really badass Fourth of July picnic. As soon as you see one, you can bet your baby blue britches that a million more are on their way.”

The Crank said, “You’re really fucked.”

The Mensch said, “But all of those are just cutesy analogies. You probably want to know what the shadow represents. Well: the Shadow is war.”

The Buffoon said, “The Shadow is fear, and all things both liberal and ursine.”

The Crank said, “The Shadow is God’s way of telling you how truly fucked you are.”

The Mensch said, “You see, we’ve had wars in this country before – I’m talking real clusterfuck wars – but nothing like this. The thing you’re about to see in the next few months? It’s going to make Bush/Gore look like two baby kittens on ecstasy.”

The Buffoon said, “What my friend Jon is trying to say here is: cats and dogs, living together, TOTAL ANARCHY!”

The Crank nodded. “Totally fucked.”

And Depp became troubled. “How certain is your grasp of that which has not yet come to pass?”

The Crank said “Fucking certain.”

“How do you know these things?”

The Mensch said, “A crystal ball, an intern, and a pad and pencil.”

The Buffoon said, “I consult my gut. You gut is a lot smarter than your wishy-washy, pansy, elitist brain. Why do you think they call it ‘digesting’ information? The only way to learn from books is to eat them. Or use them as toilet paper. Same difference.”

Depp wept then, in a sensitive, masculine way. “Can nothing be done?” he asked. “Is there no way to save this city from the doom hanging over our heads?”

The Mensch said, “Well, I suppose you could always educate yourself about the issues and make an intelligent decision to—“

The Buffoon interrupted. “Pick a side! Pick it now! Red or Blue! You’re either a virile cleft-chinned paragon of conservative thought or a flip-flopping liberal nancy-boy in wet undershorts.”

The Crank reached up and drew back his midnight-black cowl. Beneath was not a skull, as Depp had feared, but only a jowly-looking man with spiky, graying hair and kind eyes peering out from behind a pair of tiny spectacles. He put a hand on Depp’s stooped shoulder. “It’s fucking simple, son. All you have to do is pick a side. In this war you’re either Red, or Blue, or you’re the battleground in the middle. That’s all there is. Pick a side, and try to ride it out.”

“But which side will win?” Depp asked, but the Oracles had withdrawn from the little circle of light, and the room was empty, and he was surrounded on all sides by shadow.

And when Depp brought this news to the people of New York, they were not pleased.

They were not pleased at all.