President Laithewaite’s right ocular augment was on the fritz and streaming. He tried to swear but his nose was so blocked his words came out fudgy. He straightened his tie with clammy hands and tried to ignore the pounding in his head.
An oily knock insinuated itself against his bathroom door “Mr President?” a respectful tone (how do they manage to capitalise the ‘P’ when they speak, he wondered).
“Just a minute, please.” A quick smoothing of his hair – he had a good head of hair, one of his proudest features. And that chin, statistically proven to appeal to the widest voter demographic. There were rumours of surgery, but he had never confirmed or denied.
But his jaw felt slack like his dignity, and his shirt clung to his back like misery.
Good health, he had reasoned, was only missed when it was gone. That’s why he’d paid for the full upgrade for him and his family. But that was when he was just another civilian.
It was moot now of course – he had all the brains of all the government agencies’ R and D departments, as well as the tech they’d begged, borrowed or stolen from abroad, at his disposal. And they’d created a bespoke package – personally tailored gut bacteria to maximise his digestive efficiency, modified t lymphocytes (and the rest) to combat any known microbe. His vascular system, musculature, everything was monitored for the slightest weakness.
His body was a medical Fort Knox.
Except today it wasn’t.
He left the sanctity of the bathroom and strode to his office trailing symptoms and security as though he could outrun the sickness. A man was there waiting for him.
“Mr President, forgive me but your olfactory unit is malfunctioning. May I offer you a tissue?”
The man from the National Security Agency. What was his name? Laithewaite had never been good with names: that was what the recognition software was for. He snatched at the tissue, designed to register traces of poisons and toxins – very useful for deskbound senior security types (he thought bitterly). NSA man continued, with respect and reproach in his voice.
“Mr President, you should have informed us as soon as you felt unwell.”
“What and spend half the night with needles in my skull while your technicians reconfigured all the encryptions, changed the nuclear codes you swore would be safer locked up in my brain than some hard-drive and everything else at God knows what cost? Like last time? Remind me, what was it again?”
“Uh, hay fever, sir.”
“With respect, the codes, affairs of state, private memories – all at risk sir. We need to make sure you at least stay under the radar until we can fortify your firewalls, especially in this city – I doubt there’s a square inch that’s not covered by wi-fi. And our initial reports suggest that this isn’t biological.”
“What are you saying, that this is a hack job of some kind?”
“We’re not sure. Your immune system is kicking in, but it’s attacking everything – we’ve found no trace of microbial infection and we keep your malware defences fully up to date, so it must be something new. We think there may have been some involvement by the Chinese, maybe the Indians. Brazil’s a possibility, among others. Maybe even one of our European allies. Or the Russians. Then there are some rogue political groups we’re monitoring. Or the private sector. Some of your opponents in the House of Representatives would certainly be interested in your private files.”
“At this point we need information.” He plugged an ugly looking needle into a hard line dock hidden in the crook of Laithewaite’s right elbow (the president was left-handed).
Laithewaite felt the remaining strength leave his legs and collapsed heavily onto his chair. It had been designed by an award-winning architect and carefully selected to give the strongest possible indication of his quiet good taste.
It was depressing to feel so frail. A strange thought occurred to him. Was it…doubt? In a small voice he said “it’s…it’s not going to be fatal is it?” He scolded himself: stupid, stupid.
“No, Mr President. We’re confident that we’ll be able to reboot your systems individually and isolate the cause.”
“Pretty confident, sir. You’re one of a handful of the most highly modified human beings on the planet. If it was just you I’d be more concerned but the technology is fairly well understood. And of course we have the finest people working to fix your issues.”
Laithewaite touched his internally mounted intercom with his mind like he’d been taught. Nothing. Sighing he tapped his outdated desk intercom for his secretary. A tinny voice, vibrating with steely enthusiasm, answered as she’d been taught.
“What can I do for you, right now, Mr President?”
“Get me a.. a cola, would you? A Mr Krunk.”
“We’ve got Coca Cola or Diet Coke, Mr President. You remember the campaign contributions.”
He found himself suddenly shouting – a tantrum like his daughter hadn’t had since she was 4 years old “I don’t want a goddam Coca Cola; I hate it! Always have, since, since… always. Just, just do what you normally do – get me a Mr Krunk and put it in the Coke bottle in case anyone sees me. And first thing we’re reviewing that deal because I’m not drinking that, that, SHIT, any more.” His anger surprised him; his rudeness didn’t surprise her.
He realised he couldn’t remember her name either and he’d had her for, well, since the press got wind of what happened with the last one (a precisely co-ordinated campaign – maximum deniability of course – to remind the voters of his virility and irresistibility to young women).
‘The law of unintended consequences,’ he thought, ‘when they suggested that damn software as a way of keeping track of dignitaries at official functions I never thought a cold would make me forget the names of the people I see every day.’
Laithewaite turned back to the man from the NSA. His face was buried in a smartphone, scrolling through Laithewaite’s most intimate details. His face had lost most of its colour except for a yellowish waxy sheen.
‘He’s starting to look a lot like I feel,’ Laithewaite thought.
“Mr President I don’t want to alarm you but it looks like your heart monitor has gone offline. I’ve alerted the response team. Again, just a precaution, but if we can’t read your heart rate we don’t know what’s going on. And in your current condition…”
Laithewaite stared at him dumbfounded, “If I was having a heart attack, or it just stopped, don’t you think you’d be the second person to know about it?” In the circumstances he felt it was kind of droll.
“We just can’t take that risk, Mr President.”
Laithewaite’s secretary almost ran in, grabbing at the TV remote. She did not have a drink for the president. She didn’t even have the customary smile all staff were required to wear for him – a simple, professional smile that was neither too ecstatic nor too subdued. Instead her face had frozen into a bleary rictus.
‘What I’ve got must be catching,’ he thought and found the thought strangely pleasing.
“Where’s my Mr Krunk?” he asked, pathetically.
She fumbled with the remote (why do we still have a remote in this day and age when even the unemployed have moved on?) But eventually she made it work and flicked through the channels, before:
Breaking news now: the Washington Post and the New York Times have both published details of an alleged short-lived affair between President Laithewaite and his campaign manager, Taylor Stone. They say their source is unimpeachable. And later on we’ll be asking: is America ready for a gay president? More after these messages.
The scarlet silence – hot pink with embarrassment – was broken by the sound of the head of state falling off his chair (not even that comfortable) and hitting the ground. Tom from the NSA sprang into action, running into the corridor to find that goddam response team.
Laithewaite’s secretary Angela stood there a moment, paralysed into inaction. He’d always made a point of complimenting her beautiful name – she’d always made a point of spitting in his coffee, which was as ersatz as the rest of him.
Tom returned with some serious men. Security formed a perimeter, speaking confidentially into ear-mounted speaking devices; medics prodded and poked at the incumbent, sopping mess on the floor.
“He’s fine, just in shock, needs some sugar. Someone get him a cola, a, a… Mr Krunk.”
Angela, by now regrouped, said “We’ve got Coca Cola. It’ll have to do.” Which was a lie: she’d picked up a Mr Krunk on her way in this morning. It was hidden in her bag; the security guy owed her a favour. The phone screamed out in anger. Thoughtlessly, she picked it up, “President Laithewaite’s office.” She listened for a moment to the automated switchboard.
“Sir I have three calls for you. Line one is Mr Stone’s attorney who sounds very upset. Line two is your press officer who also sounds very upset and line three is the Secretary of State and guess how she sounds. Who would you like to speak to first?”
A commotion picked up volume in the hall outside, “I’m sorry ma’am, this area is currently restricted.” “Let me in, I’m his fucking wife,” came through clearly enough, as did, “that fucking asshole better have a goddam good explanation for this or I’m taking his goddam fake balls along with everything else when I divorce the fuck out of his fruity ass.”
Angela, still holding the phone, leaned down and sweetly said “Your wife is waiting in the hall outside for you, Mr President. Would you like me to let her in?” She was starting to enjoy this. Maybe the next guy would have some manners.
But all (snotty, sickly) President Laithewaite could do was sit on the floor, sobbing boiling tears. Why’d it have to be coke? All he wanted was a Mr Krunk.
Roughly 2300 miles to the West, the nation’s youngest CEO pops the cork on a bottle of champagne and opens his expensively encrypted virtual conferencing network.
“Gentlemen, this has been an unqualified success – our client’s sales are spiking through the roof; they couldn’t be happier. Literal viral marketing uploaded direct to neural networks and spread through wi-fi. See to it that our young genius gets a bonus, wouldn’t want him jumping ship now.”
“We’ve really put this agency on the map, boys. More than that, we’ve just made advertising history.”