Prattlegate

by Ken O’Steen

 

She wheeled her luggage up to the entrance, the finest hotel in Tallinn, perhaps in all Estonia. There was a security guard at the door and a greeter, and the latter opened the door.

“Thank you,” she told him.

“You are most welcome. An American?”

“Yes. I live in Washington.”

“Very good, very good.”

Richard and Raymond left the bar howling. They stood, utterly pissed, overcoats pulled tight in a chilling wind funneling down Fifth Avenue.

“Well, if we were in the newspaper business we’d be selling umbrellas on the street by now,” Raymond said.

“We’d have been Tribuned or Mclathied out of town on a rail a long time ago,” Richard said, making himself howl some more.

“Those poor print bastards,” Raymond said.

“According to Jimson, the downsizing announcement comes Wednesday. The unlucky will be getting a buy-out offer they can’t refuse.”

The man in jeans and a My Bloody Valentine tee shirt got himself a cup of coffee. He returned to his desk, the only person in his department at Foggy Bottom still doing the work of the State Department at three in the morning.

There were clocks along the wall for every time zone. It was 3:50 in the morning in New York. Though not at full capacity, the AP bureau newsroom was adequately staffed, and as always, working. Richard, at his desk in the glass- enclosed office worked the keyboard like a virtuoso. As he did, Raymond looked over his shoulder and read. Then the two began to hoot and guffaw as if there were no tomorrow. Richard stopped in order to take a bottle of scotch out of the desk drawer.

“All that’s left is to share it with the world,” he said.

“The booze is telling me that actually doing this will still have me smiling when I remember it in the grave. But tomorrow’s sobriety is telling me I will miss working here.”

“No, no. Forty-five seconds tops. Then it comes down.”

“Yeah, but we’re squandering a great prank on a few news junkies in a former satellite of the former Soviet Union.”

“It’s the domestic night owls who will rub their eyes and say, ‘Did I actually see that?’”

“Let me read it again.”

Richard leaned aside so that Raymond could better read the screen.

Washington (AP) – Sources have told the Associated Press that President Fallon has lapsed back into the drug and alcohol abuse that plagued him decades before assuming the presidency. In addition, according to sources, including Chief of Staff Bridges, NSA head Bryce, and advisor Sherman Riggins, the president has asked the Pentagon to prepare incursion plans for military intervention in the Baltic states Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. The president was quoted as saying, “No one can tell the countries apart anyhow, so to hell with all three.”

Also, high-level sources within the intelligence community have confirmed to AP that the President will announce tomorrow the discovery of a plot by ISIL sympathizers in San Francisco to build a nuclear device disguised as a piece of welded sculpture in a basement room of the San Francisco Museum of Art.

Though actions in the Baltics appear imminent, no specific time has been mentioned by any of the sources that have spoken to AP. Press briefings are scheduled for tomorrow morning.

“Roll the presses,” Raymond said.

Richard made the final click, and the story was disseminated.

“Thirty seconds already?” Raymond asked.

“About.”

“Shit. We’re already past a minute. You’ve got to take it down. Yikes,” Raymond said, clutching at his hair with both of his hands.

“5, 4, 3…” Richard had begun to count.

It was then that the lights went out. There was a groan of machinery and electronics throughout the bureau dying.

“Oh hell.”

The three of them were passing through the lobby on the way to the door. The American woman, with two official-looking Estonian men.

“If anything, my description doesn’t do the restaurant justice,” one of the men told her.

“I fully expect to be dazzled,” she said.

The security guard, standing at his post near the hotel entrance answered his telephone.

“What?”

He listened, and said, “But why? We have done nothing.”

Then he listened some more.

“It is the height of disrespect. All of it was foretold in the dream. The dream foretold the retribution.”

The security guard dropped the telephone, and it fell to the floor. He unbuttoned his holster, removed the weapon, and looked around the hotel lobby. When he saw the woman who had come from America he began to fire. Bloodied, the woman dropped to the floor.

“The phrase painful silence surely was invented for this,” Richard said, looking at his watch.

He was driving home on a nearly deserted Beltway when his phone rang.

“Morrissey.”

“Stan here. Where are you?” Morrissey was asked.

“Headed home on the Beltway right at the moment.”

“Long day wasn’t it?”

“Like most.”

“Sharon is out of town isn’t she?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact. Doing research in Estonia.”

“I thought so. Listen, I have some news. Obviously you haven’t heard yet. It still needs additional confirmation, but it isn’t good.”

“Good morning,” the White House press secretary said to reporters gathered in the pressroom.

“All of you are aware that a false news report was sent as a hoax to media outlets earlier today by the Associated Press. In a nutshell, it alleged plans being prepared by the United States to invade the Baltic region, along with personal smears of the President, as well as a claim of a terror plot in a San Francisco art museum. Obviously none of this is true, as the retraction of the story by the Associated Press, along with its apology for the prank makes clear. The United States has an excellent relationship with all of the nations referred to in the report, and of course, the president is in excellent health.”

When the floor was open for questions, he was asked by the first reporter, “The information from Estonia so far only attributes the shooting there to a security guard working for the hotel in Tallinn. Do you have any further information, and is it known yet if the incident is related in some way to the news report, the false report?”

“It appears likely the shooting in Tallinn was directly related to the report according to what the government there has provided to us.”

“Do you believe there was any political agenda behind the AP story?” a reporter named Sarah asked. “And what is your response to speculation that the report was the work of plants or operatives working for other governments?”

The press secretary looked surprised at first, then exasperated.

In an apartment at 90 East Seventy-fifth Street in New York, Richard was asleep on the sofa with his mouth gaping wide open. In front of him, the television was tuned to CNN.

“But your source has assured you the American Ambassador has been called in?” Wolf Blitzer asked the reporter on the telephone.

According to the source, the government of Estonia is taking this very seriously indeed.”

At 50 W. Eighty-fourth Street, Raymond lay sprawled across the floor of his living room, snoring loudly in front of the television.

“We really don’t know what the originator had in mind,” the Fox News commentator said to the anchor.

“Or to put it another way, what grain of truth might have been contained in the so-called false report. For instance, we know al-Qaeda types do use the media in various ways at various times to communicate with one another.

The security guard had been at work less than twenty minutes when he happened to look through the front door of the art museum, and see a boisterous collection of people marching directly toward it. It was still thirty minutes prior to opening. But he unlocked the door and stepped outside. The throng was near enough by then to confront the guard with a garble of yelling.

“What are you here for?” he asked the group.

“Get out of the way and let us in,” a man in the crowd demanded.

“Why are you protecting terrorists?” a woman cried out.

“I have no idea what you’re doing here, and no idea why you’re so upset. But the museum doesn’t open for another thirty minutes.”

“We’re here to take care of your terrorist problem,” someone in the crowd yelled.

“Terrorists? What did you say?”

“Get out of the way,” someone else yelled.

“You’ll have to wait until…”

The guard knew that the first thing he had to do was to get back inside and lock the door. After that, he could find out what the hell was going on and summon whatever help he needed. But he was grabbed by what seemed to him like a million hands, which pulled him back out through the opened door. After that all he saw was the blur of fists beating him in the face, and feeling the blows to his body from the legs kicking at him from every angle at the same time. The crowd stampeded over him as it moved inside, and he remained there, bloody and still.

The three were spellbound in front of the television. Watching from their office in the West Wing, the woman’s legs dangled from the desk she was sitting on, one of the men stood only inches away from the screen itself, while the other stayed in the chair behind his desk. The anchor talked, the images flowed:

We continue to watch these pictures from our KNTV affiliate in San Francisco in the aftermath of the rampage earlier this morning at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where an angry, violent mob of around fifty people attacked a security guard, entered the museum, and rampaged through the building, destroying artworks and museum property until swat teams arrived to quell the disturbance. The security guard lost his life in the attack, while there were numerous injuries both to police officers and some of those arrested. Museum employees, just arrived at work, who made the call to police, told them the mob was shouting about terrorist plots inside the museum, and exploding bombs. This apparently was in response to the false Associated Press report picked up by other media outlets, which reported incorrectly that the president was making plans for an invasion of the Baltic states, also mentioning a terrorist plot connected to the art museum. We’re awaiting a news conference by the mayor scheduled for…

“We’re going to have to get in front of this,” the woman said. “Somehow.”

“A lot of good it did having a press conference in order to get the facts out,” the man behind the desk said.

“It was the AP for Christ sakes,” the woman emphasized.

“We’ve tried the truth,” the man standing next to the television turned around to say, “What’s next?”

On Shantipath, a truck covered with a canvas canopy, stopped in its tracks not very far from the American Embassy in New Delhi. Several men leapt from the back of it, some signaling traffic to stop, others standing in front of the car stopped behind the truck. A sizable object covered with a tarp was brought out and lowered from the truck bed. The object then was carried to the center of Shantipath and the tarp removed. A replicated Statue of Liberty twice the height of a man was left to stand there. The men jumped back inside the truck except for two. They squatted near the base of the statue and proceeded to set it afire. Treated with propellant apparently it was quickly covered with flames. The two returned to the truck, shortly after which the street shuddered from a massive blast. When the smoke had cleared the cars nearest sat completely demolished, and the edifices of the closest buildings appeared to be in tatters.

A ramp attached to the jet fitted with a conveyor belt brought the casket down. A group of men and women stood there, waiting on the tarmac. Morrissey was among them.

“You know how much we adored her,” the man next to him, one of her colleagues offered as condolence.

“Yes,” he said, “I do. You know…she had such a fascination with places. Not just the celebrated cities or the exotic locales, but the nooks and crannies too. She loved the Baltics.”

“Tallinn is such a vibrant city now. But my god…what a bizarre thing it was.”

“I’m not finished with that. Not even for a minute.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Raymond was deep in the sofa cushion, holding a glass of wine in his hand, well beyond relaxed, as CNN, reported the turmoil in New Delhi.

This is what remains of the car in which leaders of the Bharatiya Party were said to have been passengers when the explosion occurred. Once the men in the car were identified as members of the Bharatiya Party, the party issued a statement accusing allies of the Indian National Congress, more specifically the Shiv Sena Party, a Hindu nationalist party, of complicity in the deaths of its leaders. Shiv Sena released a statement on its party’s website, taking responsibility for the burning of the Statue of Liberty replica, claiming however that the replica was never armed with explosives of any kind. The statement goes on to say that the burning of the replica in front of the American Embassy had nothing to do with internal politics, but was instead a protest against the destruction of ‘precious’ Indian art on loan to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which it says the museum failed to protect properly, citing pro-Pakistani, anti-India sentiment as the reason.

Ken Raines, as an Associated Press Bureau Chief, well understood the need to address this disaster publically, going on the record with a fellow news outlet. He had agreed to speak with the Huffington Post, and their reporter had joined him in his office.

“A night that will live in infamy,” he said wearily.

“Could you explain the basics first? Who was the individual, or who were the individuals responsible for putting the story out?”

“Two longtime editors.”

“Their names?”

“Richard O’Flaherty and Raymond Culhane.”

“Are they still employed here?”

“No they are not.”

“Do you know anything about their motivation?”

The bureau chief squinted, as if to ascertain if anyone was actually sitting in front of him, before he began to laugh.

“Yes. Alcohol. Being Irish. Or to put it another way, bad judgment.”

“No underlying motivation? No personal, domestic or geopolitical agenda?”

“Seriously?” the bureau chief answered, holding back a seismic guffaw with all of his might.

“It’s been known to happen.”

“Look, they were trusted editors and journalists who did superior work, despite being a little colorful. It was certainly in line with their cockamamie sense of humor, but other than that. There were rumors going around, entirely false as it turns out, that changes were coming in the organization that might have affected them. Hypothetically. But there was nothing to them. Throw in the booze, general unruliness and loony gossip, and anything in the world is possible.

The bartender set the drinks in front of them, then went back to his stool to ponder his crossword.

“Did you see Politico?” Raymond asked.

“Can’t say that I did,” Richard told him, “not today.”

“They have a story referring to our famous scoop as believed to have been bogus, and claiming it’s at least partially factual.”

“Stellar sources they have there at Politico,” Richard said snorting.

“They’re making the shit up, or somebody’s feeding it to them.”

“Either way, I’m feeling jealous.”

“It says the National Review online claims to have sources in the federal government independent of Politico’s also saying the story was partially accurate.”

“So we made it up, and still nailed the story. Fuck me.”

“Is the White House concerned,” asked the reporter whose turn it was next, “about the way in which this bogus report, if in fact it was bogus, has set off such a dramatic chain of events?”

The press secretary momentarily fantasized that a semi-automatic handgun was holstered underneath his jacket, which he methodically removed, then pointed at the nibbling and gnawing vermin.

If it was bogus? My goodness. The report was bogus. And stories that have appeared subsequently vaguely suggesting otherwise are entirely false. And unbelievably irresponsible. If information to the effect that any of that crazy story was true has come from anyone employed here at the White House, that person will be found out eventually and dealt with in an appropriate manner. But I’d be truly shocked if that turned out to be the case.

“So you’re implying that Politico and the National Review totally invented their stories then?

For a brief moment, the press secretary did indeed remain speechless.

“Those two outlets referred to their sources as highly placed in the federal government.. If I recall my civics accurately, congress is a part of the federal government. Have you asked over there if someone is telling tales to Politico.”

It wasn’t a busy night. In the ANSA office in the heart of Rome, even Italy’s largest news agency seemed to have been put to sleep by the dismal quietude. Niccolo took a bottle of Mezzaluna out of his desk drawer and poured some into his coffee mug. He tipped a little into Aldo’s too, then his fingers set to work at the keyboard, putting on the finishing touches. When he was done, he sat back in the chair and took a long, deep draw from the coffee mug.

“Let’s see it,” Aldo told him, leaning forward next to him.

A source with AISE (Agenzia Informazioni e Sicurezza Estern) the Italian intelligence service, has told ANSA that it earlier made available to news organization La Republicca, also in Italy, information pertaining to the U.S. president’s resumed abuse of alcohol, along with intelligence reports involving planned U.S. military operations in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. According to AISE, the information then was offered by La Republicca to affiliates at the Associated Press in New York, which subsequently decided to make them public.

“Splendid,” Aldo said. “It’s fucking diabolical. But my god. Fame and fortune better get here soon, because we’re going to be bronzing on a spit in hell in the meantime.”

“Courage Camille. We’re only a few clicks away from the whole world.”

“So what’s it going to be this morning?” the man behind the counter asked Raymond.

“Let’s go with the stand-by.”

“Greek omelet. Be right up.”

Raymond took a drink of water, then he took a drink of coffee, and then, as he always did, he watched the television propped behind the counter tuned to CNN. This is what he heard:

…the initial testing has confirmed that the white powder sent to both addresses is in fact the deadly Vollum Anthrax strain. Both the New York Bureau Chief for the Associated Press, and the father of a security guard killed by a mob in a San Francisco art museum were connected indirectly to the alleged Associated Press hoax. Recent reporting by several news organizations has suggested that at least some of what was included in the original Associated Press report may in fact have been accurate. Suspicions of a murky terrorist apparatus have been rife on social media, as well as radio and television talk programs. The current assumption by law enforcement is that the two who have been targeted are believed by their assailants to have been connected in one way or another with extremist plots. Kirby Bainbridge, the elderly father of the security guard who perished at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art at which he was employed when the museum was overrun by an angry mob, now has himself perished. Ken Raines, the AP Bureau Chief, remains hospitalized.

Raymond’s chin sank to his chest and he covered his head with his arms.

“Franklin, it’s just creepy,” Morrissey’s friend Stan told him rather bluntly. “You’re not a spy. You work at the State Department for god’s sake. It’s stalking. Are you going to become an assassin too?’

“I haven’t decided what I am. Maybe there needs to be a confrontation. I’m not going to try calling him on the fucking telephone. I’m entitled to my curiosity. I’m entitled to something the way I see. Even if the motivation was political or ideological, or just depraved, that’s preferable to random silliness I think.”

“No it isn’t. But it doesn’t matter. Bad facts are only that: bad facts. People disseminate them for all kinds of reasons, intentional and unintentional. Lunatics, and simply dumbbells ingesting them as factuality is the plague turning people into zombies. In this case the zombie is in a fucking prison cell in Estonia. Forget these other idiots. You can’t bring all the idiots to justice. You can’t kill people for a bad joke.”

“Says who? In any case, I have to get to Dulles. I’ve got a flight to New York.”

Richard was lying atop the bed in his bathrobe, face buried in the New York Times. He came to the editorial pages, and was scanning across the columns, when he came to a name he recognized: Raymond Culhane, partner in journalistic fiction. Time to Explain the op-ed was titled appropriately enough. Raymond was ditching his anonymity and outing himself.

What he had written in part was a plea to the public not to be convinced, all the gibberish in the media to the contrary, that the story was anything other than fanciful rubbish, along with a timeline offered as evidence of the story’s prankish origins. It was all confessed: ‘entirely fabricated,’ ‘power failure,’ ‘not one iota, not once scintilla, not one molecule of truth,’ ‘increasingly disastrous consequences that rest in part on my own shoulders.’

“Hooah,” Richard belted when he finished reading it.

He picked up the phone and dialed Raymond.

“If it isn’t the toast of the New York Times,” he said when Raymond answered.

“It was bad enough there were people believing it before it had been retracted, but good god.”

“That’s how it is these days. We knew that before, dinosaurs that we are.”

“I can appreciate how goddamn funny this has turned out to be. And yeah, it affirms our perceptions. But all of that is somewhat neutralized by what I can’t help believe is blood on my hands.”

Au contraire. Our hijinks were confessed as false immediately. To the extent we’ve belonged to a profession that allowed unchecked confabulation to deflate the currency of factuality to this point, there we may have some bloody palms.”

“I hear Kenneth is ill already,” Raymond told him, abruptly changing the subject. “They’re feeding him Cipro. But he’s getting sicker anyway. He was very gentle when he let me go you know. We even got a drink afterwards.”

“I’m heading over to the hospital several hours from now. Perhaps I’ll see you there.”

While he talked, directly across the street, Morrissey was perched on the stoop of a brownstone. Drinking his coffee and perusing a magazine, he maintained his surveillance of Richard’s door.

A day later, Raymond sat in front of his computer, wildly disheveled, a bottle of scotch and a half-empty glass easily within his reach. A hand was plunged into the mane of hair on his head, clutching tightly at the longer strands as he went from one site to the next reading.

Culhane’s explanation isn’t at all convincing, Richard Cohen wrote in his Washington Post column today.

Culhanes’s op-ed claims are unaccompanied by any sort of proof other than his own word that it was simply a prank, Maureen Dowd wrote.

These links between Italian intelligence, the Associated Press and the administration are becoming clearer, radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt said yesterday afternoon on his program.

The Blaze had this to say today: The White House is claiming hackers put the admission up. Really? Turmoil there has reached a tipping point. Some attempt to divulge the truth. Others overrule them. It’s getting ugly folks.

In San Francisco the terrorists were only weeks or days from carrying out their plot, tweeted the former national security advisor in the previous administration.

Records show that Kirby Bainbridge, father of Brian Bainbridge, the security call killed when a mob stormed the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, had made significant donations to the art museum, according to the Sacramento Bee.

Records prove now that Brian Bainbridge’s father was funding the terrorist cell in San Francisco, FreedomFighter poster on his blog today.

How much do we really know about this shooting over in Estonia? the congressman said on C-Span

The plans to invade Estonia have to do with gas and oil pipelines, according to what I’m hearing from friends at the Pentagon, the former Senator said yesterday afternoon on CNN.

Culhane wasn’t in the Associated Press bureau by accident, Mr. Jones said on his radio program yesterday.

Raymond swiveled in his chair, and stared into the screen of his television. His stupefaction existed somewhere between the boxer whose head was caught in a flurry of punches, and the doper feeling the first chloroforming sensations from a hit of Ketamine. There was Wolf Blitzer:

Here are more of the results from that latest CNN opinion research survey conducted over the last several days: 53% of Americans say they believe there was a terrorist plot being planned in San Francisco; 61% say they now believe the president has lapsed back into abuse of alcohol; 49% say the United States has justification for military engagement in the former Soviet Republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, and only 25% believe the controversial Associated Press story was merely a prank.

Peter and Samantha, the longest serving aides to the Director of Communications were there, along with Director and the Chief of Staff. They were there to work, but the territory was largely uncharted still.

“Is this one domestic item and an international item? Or is it both rolled into one somehow?” Samantha wondered aloud.

“One. It has to be one,” the Communications Director emphasized. “That’s the point. We’re desperate. It’s futile continuing to attempt to respond to each of these new fabulations individually. It’s an amorphous crisis, if a critical one. Only a one-size-fits-all solution has a chance in hell of halting the tide. One thing with no basis in fact or any demonstrable evidence is likelier to sell than two or more. ”

“It’ll be backed by the credibility of the White House,” the Chief of Staff said. “That’s what’ll make it work. If it does.”

“White House credibility, but no demonstrable evidence, or basis in fact. How does that work?” Peter asked.

“It shouldn’t be able to be disproved, or demonstrated to be definitively without a basis in fact,” the Communications Director told him.

“There’s something to be said for the all-purpose, all-effective big lie. We’re uncomfortable calling it that because the fucking Nazis ruined the reputation of it for everybody,” the Chief of Staff said.

Peter returned from lunch with what he believed to be something of a brainstorm. The Chief of Staff told him they wanted to hear about it, but he had something to tell them first.

“I’ve had an idea of my own. In a few minutes that idea of mine will be here in person. Our goal has been to conjure the perfect flamboyant lie that people all around the world will accept with something approaching total credulity. And whom I wondered, would be capable of devising such a thing? Well the answer was obvious. The person who set all of this in motion to begin with.”

“You mean…?” Samantha began.

“Yes.”

“When you’re undertaking something slightly disreputable,” the Communications Director said, “even for the greater good, it’s the better part of wisdom to seek out those with such achievements already on their resume.”

There was a tapping at the door, and when it was opened by the Chief of Staff, a White House assistant and Richard were standing there.”

“Mr. O’Flaherty is here,” the assistant said.

“Thank you Laura.”

Morrissey had only just returned, when Stan saw him standing in the line at Ben’s Chili Bowl. Stan was on his way out, and he didn’t have time to stop and talk, late getting back to work already. So he dialed up the number as he walked.

“You’re back,” he said when Morrissey finally answered. “I saw you at Ben’s just now. You aren’t off in New York tracking the prey? That’s a healthy development.”

“No. He’s here.”

“In Washington?”

“Yep. Got here yesterday. He’s at the Mayfair. I tracked him this morning after he left in a limousine. Guess where he ended up?”

“You’ll have to tell me.”

“WH. The White House.”

Seriously?”

“It gets curiouser and curiousier does it not?”

“I suppose it does. What are you planning?”

“I’m going to play it by ear,” Morrissey told him.

“Peter told me he may have an idea already flapping around inside his noggin,” the Communications Director said to the others.

“My thought is this: we conjure up a fictional organization,” Peter began. “A new one, whose ultimate objectives still remain unclear, but who have communicated their responsibility for the terrible chain of events that have fallen into place exactly as planned, and whose claims of responsibility we’ve exhaustively verified.”

“There’s promise there,” the Chief of Staff said.

“The mystery surrounding their motivations,” Peter continued, “will add to the allure of the story, meaning the power it has to divert and distract.”

Turning to Richard, the Communications Director asked, “What do you think of that Mr. O’Flaherty?”

“I think it would be a fib with the capacity to pause the misery, short of completely derailing it. My inclination would be to go a step further…ten perhaps.”

“Meaning?” the Chief of Staff asked.

“You know your Hofstadter I imagine?” he asked the group, looking from one to the other.

“Richard Hofstadter,” Peter answered, “The Paranoid Style in Politics. About the right wing. What does he have to do with the price of tea in Amsterdam?”

“The connection is the power of fear. The capacity for uniting people on the basis of what they are uniformly fearful of. If you want a fib that provides an explanation, that momentarily slows the train down with a brief distraction Peter’s idea is adequate. But if the goal is to galvanize all concerned to the point that the endless cascade of cause and effect, of action and reaction is stilled for good, something considerably more stunning is going to be required. That is my opinion.”

“And you have an idea I take it,” the Chief of Staff said.

“Generally speaking. Take the idea of this mysterious organization that contacts the American government, then considerably up it. Forget trying to explain what has happened already, expecting it to change things. For the mysterious organization, substitute the extraterrestrial. That should have everyone dropping what they’re doing for good. Who’ll give a rat’s ass about Estonian sovereignty or Indian artifacts or Italian intelligence agencies or even jihadi phantoms scampering around the United States?”

“Fuck.” Samantha was the first to respond.

“Fuck is right,” the Chief of Staff said.

“But that’s complete hysteria,” Peter told Richard.

“You already have hysteria,” Richard answered him. “The new hysteria will unite billions in shared curiosity and concern.

“Much as I can see us ending up in history’s doghouse of the truly infamous,” the Chief of Staff admitted, “the idea does meet the criteria we’ve set for ourselves.”

“Indeed it does,” Richard said “What we have here is the ultimate other. Over decades they’ve tried to scare us about immigrants, commies, foreigners, urbanites and even out-of-towners. Well these folks are definitely new in town.”

“So,” Samantha began, “what are our chances of actually being believed? Who do we have to get involved in this: NASA? The people at Defense? How do we manage that?”

Managing it is going to be the bulk of the job. Managing is largely what all of us were hired to do to begin with,” the Chief of Staff told them. “Richard will continue to assist us in the finer details of the story itself. Getting the agencies on board is going to be a heavy lift. I’ll start setting up the meetings right away.”

Raymond had come to the hospital to see his former boss Ken Raines, the bureau chief now recovering nicely from his dosing with anthrax, one of the happier outcomes amid the spreading turmoil.

“You look a little ragged,” Raines said to Raymond, rather than the other way around.

“I’m out of sorts,” Raymond told him bluntly, “really out of sorts.”

“You laying into the sauce heavier than usual Raymond?”

“I haven’t had a drop in days.”

“Honestly?” Raines asked him, a look of grave concern on his face now.

“It’s just the whole thing…just entirely fraught with all kinds of weirdness and wretchedness and pure idiocy…just brutal societal perversion.”

“Raymond…are you looking after yourself at all lately?”

“All vomitus of surreal blasphemy.”

“What?”

“I’m terribly sorry Ken. I really ought to be getting on.”

It was a clear, splendid night in the modest little Japanese city of Ibara. At the Bisei Spaceguard Center however, it was anything but calm. Men and women had begun to congregate below the massive screen, gawking at the slice of the cosmos greatly enhanced there. Out across the Pacific, all the way to the high deserts and the mountains of central Arizona, there at the Lowell Observatory, a similar stir was taking place. And likewise at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, people were bunched at computer screens, many of them pointing and gesturing, even shouting, as others talked excitedly into telephones.

Richard and Samantha and Peter sat outside the office waiting.

“I’d be shocked if there was any kind of meeting today,” Peter told the other two, who had only just arrived.

“Why not?” Samantha asked him.

“This place has been in a righteous tizzy. I don’t know what exactly is going on, but it isn’t any ordinary crisis.”

When the Chief of Staff arrived he led them into the office.

“Our project is cancelled as of today,” he said. “The president will be addressing us later.”

The three in front of him were appropriately stunned.

“But I’ll brief you quickly for now. You’re going to find it bloody ironic given what we’ve been toiling on. But here it is: this morning we heard from NASA, gathering information in conjunction with major observatories around the world, that an object, an asteroid, unbelievable as it surely sounds, of fairly enormous dimensions is on a trajectory to enter the atmosphere of Earth, and almost certainly to make a direct collision. The point of impact will be in the United States.”

The three who received the news variously gasped, sputtered and shouted out.

When?” Samantha asked.

“Less than a week.”

“Aren’t there things we can do to alter it?” Peter asked him.

asteroid for story

“Only in science fiction I’m told. There’s no rocket large enough to travel into space and somehow affect an object as large as this. Missiles are unable to travel into space. Firing at something close to the Earth would do more harm than good.”

“What does this mean?” Samantha asked.

“What it doesn’t mean is the end of us all. That said, it’s a catastrophe on a large scale.”

“How big is the thing itself?” Peter wanted to know.

“A kilometer and a half wide. About a mile.”

After a pause he added sardonically, “So forget about the aliens I then.”

“You can’t compete with irony like that,” Richard said laughing. “I mean, you really can’t.”

“Shut-up,” Samantha snapped at him.

Turning her attention to the Chief of Staff again she asked, “Where is it specifically going to happen?”

“The geographic center of the United States. If you pinpoint it, the place is Lebanon, Kansas. But an enormous area will have to be prepared for evacuation. There will be widespread, long-term effects from the ejecta blasted into the air, seismic activity, tsunamis and the like. This will be the equivalent in blast, radiation and thermal consequence of a major nuclear exchange. A crater of thirty or forty miles will be created at the point of impact. As far as a hundred miles away clothing, paper, wood, trees, virtually everything will instantly combust. Earthquakes, even hundreds of miles away will reach as high as nine on the Richter scale. The windblast within a hundred miles will be fourteen hundred miles an hour. Buildings, bridges, highways, and everything else will collapse. Ninety percent of the trees will be blown down.”

A woman briskly entered the room, and addressing herself directly to the Chief of Staff said, “It’s time to go.”

Raymond, his head several inches from the television, his bathrobe slipping open, watched and listened thoroughly spellbound. A NASA scientist was explaining:

Effects at 100 miles away may extend up to 400 or 500 miles away. At 500 miles away heat damage will begin to dissipate, though wind damage will continue to destroy structures. Glass may shatter up to eight or nine hundred miles away. Even those living as far as 2000 miles away may feel some degree of movement following the event.

The Director of Homeland Security was introduced. Raymond’s eyes began to widen as he listened to what was being said.

General Remy will lead the multi-state National Guard deployment from a central headquarters located in Topeka, already becoming operational, directing evacuations and preparations. This will be a disaster preparedness effort on an unprecedented scale, and of an unprecedented scope historically, affecting as it will the entire state of Kansas, large sections of Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado, Missouri, and parts of Texas, Iowa, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Arkansas. It is important to remember that the physical and economic scale of this calamity cannot be avoided or lessened. But with full public cooperation the loss of human life is largely avoidable.

Raymond grabbed his phone, and rapidly pecked out the number of the bureau chief, still resting in his hospital room.

“Are you seeing this? Are you watching this?” he blurted into the phone as soon as Raines had answered.

“I’m afraid so.”

“Is it real? I mean, is it made up? You don’t think Richard has anything to do with it do you?”

“Richard? What in God’s name would Richard have to do with this?”

“I don’t know. Because…well, because.”

Richard was ensconced in what had become his regular seat at the Mayfair Hotel bar. Herbert, his regular bartender, bought him one.

“I appreciate it. As of today, I’ve gone off the U. S. government mammary.”

“Sorry to hear it.”

“I’ve enjoyed the change of scenery though.”

“People need a change of scenery now and then.”

“Those people who return to Kansas after the asteroid pays a visit, they’re going to see some changed scenery.”

“I guess. If it actually lands, that is.”

If?”

“I think the whole thing is going to be a load of crap,” Herbert told him.

“Really? Why is that?”

“I don’t trust the people saying it’s true.”

“The scientists?”

“A lot of people don’t buy it,” he said, nodding at the television behind the bar. Then he helpfully turned the sound up.

The three were on a sofa, redheaded female co-host situated on one side, guest in the center, and co-host with the bad toupee on the other end. The guest, identified as a state senator from Kansas was doing the talking when Herbert turned the volume up.

“I’m speaking only for myself, not for the state of Kansas,” he assured gravely. “They figure they’ve pulled the wool over our eyes so many times of late, why not do it another time?”

“I mean, do they think we believed ‘Armageddon’ and ‘Deep Impact’ were true, so why not give it a try?” the co-host with the bad toupee added.

“The folks at Newsmax,” the redhead contributed, “did make quick work of those photographs NASA had tried passing off. Their inauthenticity was exposed thoroughly.”

Herbert turned the sound down.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” he said to Richard. “They’ve already proved the fraudulence of the photographs.”

“You’re pretty sure about the fakery of the entire story then? Really convinced, there isn’t a grain of truth at all?”

“I don’t even believe this asteroid thing is even possible. The Earth has been here forever, and never really been hit.”

“You know, the Earth has been hit quite a few times by large objects. It hasn’t happened lately, and not with populations at risk. But it has happened.”

“Even if any of that is true, I know this thing is complete bullshit. This crowd has been lying through its teeth constantly, even covering up terrorism.”

Richard chuckled.

“Alright,” he said.

Samantha was at her desk, super-glued to the computer screen. Peter in the armchair with the open laptop was listening through the buds in his ears. He removed them, and then reported to Samantha what he’d heard.

“He’s telling his listeners that anybody who’s living in the target zone would be a fool if they went anywhere on the basis of these reports. He mentioned the so-called scientists, how they’re doing the bidding of the administration in exchange for massive boosts in NASA funding. All that.”

“I have the transcript of Rush this morning in front of me. Care to hear it?” Samantha asked.

“No. But I need to.”

She began to read from the transcript.

…these scientific experts have these giant, powerful telescopes that can see everything. Except, supposedly they didn’t see this giant thing until the last minute. You can mark my word folks, after this thing fails to show up, or flies by thousands of miles in space, they’re going to tell us, ‘Oh well, we made a mistake,’ or ‘Oh see, we got lucky, it passed us by.We may not know exactly what they have in mind, but ask yourself, just who it is who will be affected. It’s Midwesterners, largely in the habit of voting against the administration’s agenda. What they have in mind for these people, what they have in store for that large swath of territory we have to be very nervous about folks. The bottom line here is that if you live in that part of the country and they’re telling you you’ve got to evacuate, well, don’t let them scare you into cooperating in your own disenfranchisement or the transformation of the place you call home.

“We’re going to have to be on television twenty-four hours a day, all but begging people to leave for their own good,” Peter told Samantha. “I don’t now what else we can possibly do.”

Just then the Communications Director walked through the door, and addressed them from the middle of the room.

“I guess you’ve seen them, network after network, man on the street interviews everywhere from St. Louis to Topeka to Kansas City, Missouri, saying they’re not fooled, they’re staying where they are.”

“I’m getting it directly from the state emergency personnel,” Samantha informed him, “National Guard, police departments, city and county officials, all saying the same thing: the great majority there are going to stay. Even some individuals in the local agencies themselves are refusing to cooperate.”

“This is going from crazy to very sad,” the Communications Director answered in a pained voice.

Morrissey sat in his parked car, gazing out the window, listening to the radio.

…under twelve hours. The most recent observations indicate to scientists more disintegration of the mass as it burns its way through the atmosphere than originally thought. This will cause the size to be reduced at the margins, NASA believes. In terms of impact however, the change will be little more than minimal.

Morrissey turned the radio off, and then the ignition. He got out of the car, walked across the street, and toward the entrance of the Mayfair Hotel.

Everyone at the bar was staring at the television, tuned to Herbert’s newest favorite cable host. Richard was purposefully savoring his vodka, Herbert several inches away across the bar.

They’re so predictable. Yes gang, the asteroid is getting smaller. According to our elite scientists and this administration, it’s now burning up so fast it likely won’t be more than a cinder when it finally hits the ground. Surprise surprise. They’re backpedaling so fast they may have to call the whole thing off even before the little pebble gets here. For a minute there they did turn our attention away from the AP story they’ve been sweeping under the rug as best they can, their lousy record on terrorism and the commander-in-chief boozing. They may have cleared out a small swath in the middle of the country, for whatever purpose they’ve got in mind, but many of you have stood against them, and bless you for that. You can take this to the bank my friends: no asteroid is going to be landing in the middle of Kansas. If you’re there, don’t let them get away with this. You have to make your stand for your country here and now.

“Those people who hold their ground,” Herbert said to Richard, “later they’ll be able to say I told you so.”

“Much more likely they’ll say, and not figuratively, the truth hurts.”

Herbert acceded to a call for a change of channels from several of his customers, and duly turned it elsewhere. There as everywhere, there was only the single story now. The reporter spoke to the camera visibly distraught:

…these local, state and federal officials frustrated to the point of visible sorrow that warnings still are going unheeded by so much of the population

Richard turned away, when a man sidled up the bar next to him, and ordered up a drink from Herbert. The man was Morrissey. When he had his Captain Morgan and Coke in hand he was ready for conversation.

“You’re Richard O’Flaherty aren’t you?”

“As a matter of fact I am. And you?”

“Franklin Morrissey. You’re the fellow who cooked up that AP report that made such a giant stir aren’t you?”

“I must be dragging my reputation around with me like toilet paper stuck to my shoe. Do you have some special interest?”

“I do. My late wife was shot to death in Tallinn thanks to your misbegotten stunt, assuming that is what it was.”

“Of course that is what it was. And I’m terribly sorry you lost your wife.”

“And what would provoke such a stupid, irresponsible prank?”

Richard held up his glass of vodka.

“It has to be more than that.”

“Are you doubting the efficacy of Russian vodka sir?”

“I’m doubting you, which we know now is a more than reasonable thing to do.”

“What is it you want to hear?”

“Something better.”

“Why?”

“You’re responsible for the death of my wife.”

“Seriously? Not the crackpot in Estonia who pulled the trigger? Ever consider he might have a little responsibility?”

“I can’t punish him though.”

“Well, you can’t punish me either, not in good conscience.”

“Maybe my conscience is just as slippery as yours.”

“Mine isn’t slippery. It’s numb.”

“And you’re that unwilling to provide an explanation.”

“Look, we only planned for that nugget to be online for a minute or less. The power went out and we couldn’t get the story down. Con Edison is the one you ought to blame.”

“But yet I’m blaming you.”

“Yes, unwisely, you seem to be.”

“So all just a lark on the spur of the moment. Not even any thought or rationale behind it.”

“I wouldn’t go that far. My colleague and I did have occasion once in a while to bemoan that everything is true and nothing is. In that case, what’s the fucking difference? If you cared once about objective truth, it’s a little bothersome. But there’s succor in the bottle, I can offer you that truth with total conviction.”

“And so you made something crazy up.”

“Exactly. So conspicuously crazy no one with half a brain ever should have believed it.”

“And yet people are taking things they read and hear seriously, all kinds of people everywhere.”

“Maybe people ought to be better informed. Maybe they ought to use a little common sense?”

“What if they’re idiots?”

“What if?”

It was something of a Mexican standoff, though Morrissey still was contemplating whether to slam the glass of rum he was holding into Richard’s head.

Raymond was going in circles in Union Square Park. He did not have an actual cell phone in his hand, though he did seem to have an imaginary one. On it he was imaginary texting it appeared to those around him. He was muttering to himself as he crossed the park, though in fairness, he wasn’t the only one in the park who was walking and muttering.

9123, as the object from space was called, made its impact within a matter of seconds of its expected arrival time. From above the Earth, if you happened to be there, the plume rising up into the sky could have been described as beautiful, caught as it was in the moonlight.

*******

 

Ken O’Steen lives in Los Angeles, where he is highly regarded as an ambivalent, half-hearted bon vivant, and little else.

Dinner at Musso’s, excerpted from an interminable novel-in-progress was included in the anthology, The Muse in the Bottle: Great Writers on the Joys of Drinking edited by Charles Coulombe, published by Citadel. His fiction will be forthcoming in fall issues of Cleaver Magazine and Litbreak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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