Who was the astral terrorist who, earlier today, had attacked Tespetty, and who had murdered police officer Tide before being gunned down by another law enforcement officer? That was a secret, one of the unknowns in the deteriorating security situation, something that only the mastermind behind the astral conspiracy would have been able to tell you.
The identity of the dead terrorist was not the only secret in Oolong Morblock, a city where transparency was anathema, where life was lived in a clandestine fashion, to the extent that gossip, graffiti, snooping kits and intrusive television reporters permitted the survival of privacy. Does Olive Valise wax her legs or does she shave them? In other nation states, such a basic datum would have been common knowledge, but in Omblock it was a secret known only to Oliver herself and to her life coach, Helen Gobster.
Of all the closely guarded secrets in the city state of Oolong Morblock, the most secret of all was what was written on the whiteboard in the Decision Chamber in Hexagon, the presidential palace which was part of the federal complex at Tespetty. Nobody present in that room was ever going to gossip about the secrets of the whiteboard. The words on the whiteboard were key words which had emerged during a preliminary brainstorming session.
One of the basics of brainstorming is that you don't self-censor. What's on the top of your mind? Say it and get it written down. And you can only do this effectively if you're in an environment where you're not going to be held to account, afterwards, for what came off the top of your head. Nobody had explicitly said that what went on the whiteboard was not for circulation, neither privately nor publicly, but that was implicitly understood by everyone in the Decision Chamber.
Since Don Trash had wiped off a whole bunch of words to make room for a simple sketch plan showing how you could easily plug a "legion maw" industrial strength corpse burner into the incineration complex at Xgadriver -- one of Beria's ideas, which Don had appropriated since Beria, being absent, could not defend his intellectual property rights -- many of the terms which had surfaced early in the brainstorming session had been erased, including "kill", "extirpate", "maximum oppression" and "coin laundry treatment". Terms which remained, written in red by General Pigski, who had earlier been playing the role of write-up boy, including "astrals rising", "cockroaches in revolt" and "exterminator".
In the Decision Chamber, there was no doubt about how the astrals were being construed. They were the enemy. Even here, in one of the few places in Omblock where you could speak your mind frankly, talk tended to be couched in coded terms, like "dissident elements" and "extremists on the fringes" -- both bloodless formulations which meant "those few of the bastards who are honest enough to tell us that they hate us".
However, despite the softening effects of codespeak, the general drift of thought was unmistakable. The astrals were not a constituency to be catered for but a source of contamination which had to be controlled, kept in the ghetto or mopped up by the expedient use of magic blotting paper which would make the problem disappear forever. Don Trash had put forward very specific ideas about how the problem could be made to vanish.
As taxpayers, the astrals were down at the bottom of the heap, didn't contribute very much. As voters, well, they were only two percent of the electorate, so who could they vote in or out of office? The animal rights lobby, supported by 37.6 percent of Omblock's population, according to the latest poll, was immensely more important.
Two percent? You couldn't run the nation state if you had to bend over backwards to pander to the special interest demands of every niggling two percent. In the practical world we have to live in, the state must necessarily be monolithic, a bloc, and if you have these two percent carpet nails start sticking their heads up, then the logical reaction is to reach for a hammer and hammer them down flat.
"Power is simplicity."
That was what Olive Valise had written on the yellow legal pad which was on the table in front of her. You have to simplify, otherwise you cannot rule. We're in the age of the sound bite. Norms good, astrals bad. Conform, astrals! You couldn't come right out and say that, but that was the direction you had to be working in. Keep things simple, and hammer disgruntled minorities back into line.
In the Decision Chamber, a texting board was set up. Very shortly after texting was invented, the texting board was also invented, and governments around the planet went out and bought themselves these things, though their citizens were not informed of the fact.
The texting board in the Decision Chamber was a Glam Class model, the X789, an LCD screen so big that it took up one wall, pushing the limits of what was technically possible with the technology of the moment. It displayed an ever-changing array of the messages which were being texted round Omblock, and could be set to various modes, including "random", "commercial" and "zeitgeist".
Right now, the texting board was operating in zeitgeist mode, so what it displayed was, in effect, a synthesis representing what the city was thinking.
When people texted, they tended to say what was on their minds. Texting, then, was the city's mind in action. And, with the right software and sufficient supercomputer power, you could average out those thoughts to get a grip on the general tendency, clues to which would appear on the texting board.
The texting board was, in effect, the first functionally effective mind reading machine in the history of the human race, only the mind that it read was not the mind of any individual, but, rather, the mind of the city state as a whole, betraying the mood of the day, the mental dynamic of civilization, the spirit of the cutting edge of now -- the zeitgeist.
And the texting board was a truthteller. It was like a consultant who has the license to come into an organization and to say all the unsayable things, to out the secrets which everyone knows but which nobody will admit to. The texting board was not constrained by etiquette, decorum or the fear of a kick on the butt. It would give you the bad news. It would think the thoughts you were too scared to think for yourself.
The uncomfortable truth emerging from the texting board was that the people were pissed off. Not just with the astrals, that was only to be expected, but with the government. Or, more specifically, with the President. The terms "President Bitch", "do-nothing government" and "Tespetty toilet paper" scrolled repeatedly across the texting board.
Finally, the software glitched, and the texting board froze up. From its speakers, the tinny sound of a chiming triangle began to beat, calling for assistance. On the screen, all the little messages were gone and only two big messages remained, huge in red, one saying "Where the hell is the government?" and the other asking "Did you vote for that bitch?"
Olive Marquetta Pompadour Valise, President of the Federal Republic of Oolong Morblock, who knew very well that she was the bitch in question, and who knew, moreover, that every other person in the Decision Chamber knew that she knew, made a command decision, and switched off the texting board.
Outsiders sometimes got the impression that the President was the prisoner of her handlers, but that was not really true. Sometimes her attention was diverted because her mind was busy thinking about her diet or because she was waiting for her fingernail polish to dry, but when she focused in on her job, then you knew who was boss, oh yes.
"Right," said Olive, having sent the accusations of the texting board zinging into oblivion, silencing its beating triangle. "I have a visibility problem. Time to stand up and be counted. Anyone have any ideas?"
Various people did. Don Trash, who didn't like human beings very much, proposed the the remotest possible of reactions, a press release coupled with a suitable message on Olive's presidential web site.
Palomsky Wedge, Professor of Crowd Dynamics at Headscamper University, the "conceptual edge" academy which had its "creative campus" out at Niche Safa, a place intellectually not far removed from Big Fun, had the idea of declaring victory in the war against terror, of getting the elephants out of the zoo, putting Olive Valise astride one of them, then holding a victory parade up Mainspring Avenue, ending at the ancient imperial dais, where Olive would give a speech, standing beneath a banner reading "Major combat operations have ended". It was an off-the-wall idea, but, then, the motto of Headscamper U was "We do not duplicate convention".
The conclave was liberal with ideas, but it was General Pigski, of all people, who came up with the idea that everyone liked. Everyone but Olive. However, she got bullied into accepting it. They ganged up on her, and she hated it when people ganged up on her, it reminded her of that dreadful time in junior high school, back when she was thirteen, when Madelaine Yum, leader of the table tennis cheering squad, had her ostracized by all the other girls, just for fun, and that hideous period lasted for a whole two years of her life.
So Olive knuckled under and acceded, and then it was over, the meeting was done, they had the plan, and Olive wanted to be alone with her thoughts for a while. Alone in the Decision Chamber. But one of the weird things about being President, one of the quirky things about the job that you don't anticipate before you get it, is that it becomes extraordinarily difficult to become the last person to leave a room. There's nothing written about it in the etiquette manuals, but people don't want you to be the last one out.
However, Olive brusquely shooed her advisers out, making no secret of the fact that she wasn't pleased with the way they had bullied her. And, when they were gone, and Olive was alone, she went and sat in General Pigski's seat, which was still warm from that big fat bum of his.
Pigski did not attract her, no, not even for one little nose-picking moment. But, even so, there was a lubricious pleasure in getting in touch with his body heat, with the body memory he had left behind him in his chair. She was sharing with him, the most intimate heat of his body communicating with the most private warmth of hers.
"The President is a slut," said Olive to herself, quoting something seen earlier on the texting board.
And was she? Was this body heat gorging a kind of slutty thing to do? Was it really as kinky as she thought it was? Was she a really dirty little girl for doing it? Was she, yes, a slut, a shameless slut?
"Remember what Helen says," said Olive.
As Helen had explained to her many times, once you are no longer Mrs. Valise but President Valise, you ascend to a higher plane, where everything you do is sacramental. Elevated. Angelic, even. Even your unconfessable things, your truly perverted desires, like sharing body heat with General Pigski.
When you are President, you can do what you like.
But you still have to drag yourself out of bed at 4:30 a.m. on occasion to do those wretched early morning radio interviews, and, on top of that, you still have to do a certain amount of this shitty "face the people" stuff, like the performance that General Pigski and the others had coerced her into agreeing to.
"Well, if I must, I must," said Olive, at last, speaking to herself and to the silent texting board. "But if this goes wrong then heads will roll."
General Pigski's body heat had more or less faded away, and she started to wonder what it would be like to sit on his face, but she couldn't make the image cohere. What was starting to dominate her imagination, irresistible yet absolutely verboten, was those tarts, the yummy ones with the strawberries and all that custardy stuff, she wanted one, but she couldn't have it. Even if you were President, you still had to stick to your diet.