Never has there been more to write about. Never have I felt less like writing. The months since I last posted here have spent in a kind of COVID paralysis, watching the world turn upside down; watching the dumpster fire to the south of us, down America way, with bemusement and horror; distracting myself with gardening and useless craft projects and cleaning up old manuscripts as opposed to writing new ones. Which brings me to this: a short story drafted a couple of years ago, but one with a limited shelf life — if a certain person leaves the White House in the near future, half the joke will be lost. So here, to mark my return to blogging, is:
Operation HAND OF GOD
“The generals are here, Mr. President.”
“Show them in, sugar-tits, show them in.”
They troop in a little resentfully, followed by a selection of aides, specialists, other ranks, and one technician, who assumes his place at the single wired-for-absolutely-everything computer console. The generals would prefer this historic event to take place in their natural habitat, the Pentagon, all polished tables and power chairs and video screens fit for a sports bar, the specialists and technicians at stations lining the perimeter, the air thrumming with military potence. But what this Commander in Chief wants, this Commander in Chief gets, and what he wants is to watch the culmination of Operation HAND OF GOD on his own White House turf. For one thing, he and the technician are the only ones who get to sit down.
HAND OF GOD is his own inspiration—the name, not the operation. The operation is one he has inherited from three and a half previous administrations, though it has taken that long for the technology to catch up with the brilliance of the concept. Phase One is complete: the arming and deployment of the drones over the strongholds of the terror organizations, the hideouts of the highly placed imams, torturers, executioners, and commanders of the armies of Allah. An array of twelve large screens, four across and three down, shows drone images floating above Kabul and Raqqa and a palace in Umm Farha, plus three supposedly secret training camps deep in the Iraqi desert, two sand-coloured fastnesses in Afghanistan, a Roman-era border fortress far east of Aleppo, a mudwalled compound in a Libyan oasis, an unassuming village in the Pakistani highlands, the mouth of a sandstone cave where one armed and bearded figure keeps watch.
“Go,” says the President. General Brewster nods to the technician.
The technician hits a few keys and pushes a button.
Tense moments later, all the images descend to ground level. The screens afford excellent close-ups of sand, camel dung, litter, the edge of a water tank, a surface of cracked mud, a shining tiled courtyard, a rough adobe wall. Then all images simultaneously blur, as if the same tide of quicksilver has flowed across each lens; and then they refocus and drift upwards, coming to a hover at about twice the height of a tall man.
“It’s done,” says General Brewster. “Phase Two is underway.”
“That’s it?” says the President.
“Watch,” says General Brewster.
The technician hits a few keys and pushes a button.
The drones dip as one, to focus on the ground below. In the centre of each image, a silver puddle grows and divides and grows and divides again in rapid shimmering mitosis. One appears to throw out a series of luminous tentacles; another expands in a lopsided star shape; a third fans off towards the edge of the screen. The drones begin to rise slowly, showing silver tides dispersing across the sand or the mud or the tiles, slipping into the water tanks, oozing up adobe walls to open windows…
“Screen Four,” says the general. The technician fiddles with a joystick. One image expands—the Libyan compound. A black-swathed woman ambles across the courtyard, water jug on head, bare feet slogging through sand where the silver streams have so recently flowed. The generals watch her anxiously until she passes out of the drone camera’s range. Several of them visibly suppress sighs of relief.
“Nothing happened,” says the President.
General Brewster patiently clears his throat. “That’s right, Mr. President. In this case, that’s what was supposed to happen. And thank God for it.”
“Okay,” says the President, “but—“
“Screen Eight,” the general interrupts. “Watch this, Mr. President.”
Screen Eight is the sandstone cave mouth, known by many of those present to conceal a bunker complex dating from the rule of Saddam Hussein. The guard is almost invisible in the shadows just inside the cave, a charcoal silhouette of man and gun—until he staggers into the open, tearing at his chest. Two steps, three steps, the start of a fourth—he collapses onto his belly, twitches a bit, flips half over, lies still with his wide-open eyes staring almost directly at the drone.
“Fuck me,” says the President. “It works. That’s a beautiful thing.”
“Equalize the screens,” says the general.
The technician pushes a button.
Action has begun on eight of the twelve screens. A bearded man lurches into the Libyan courtyard. Other bearded men boil out of tents in the desert camps, ripping at their t-shirts. Afghan guards tumble out of cunningly hidden guardposts, Syrian guards plummet from Roman ramparts. Several women flee across the shining tiles of Umm Farha, not looking back.
“Shit,” says the president, “I wish we could get sound on these things. You can’t tell if they’re screaming or cheering behind those fucking veils.” Then he grins his trademark grin and pumps his fist in the air. “That’s it, motherfuckers! The war on terror is fucking finished! I’ve won like nobody in history has ever won before!”
Cheers and applause, reminiscent of Houston Mission Control after a successful launch; handshakes, backslaps, high-fives, and a grateful drift towards the champagne and seafood buffet newly revealed in one corner. General Brewster, however, pauses to whisper to the technician.
The technician hits a few keys and pushes a button. All twelve images flare and die.
“What did you do that for?” demands the President. “I was watching that!”
“Mr. President, it’s all in the summary I sent you. It’s how Phase Two finishes. As soon as the nanobots are deployed and we have visual confirmation of the effects, the drones self-destruct. We can’t risk even one of them being captured.”
“Come off it, they’re almost invisible.”
“Nevertheless, sir, the point of the operation is to look like the hand of God, as you yourself so aptly put it. It’s got to look like Allah withdrawing his stamp of approval and reaching out to stop the hearts of the most radical leaders and their minions. In Phase Three, all the tame imams in the western democracies will be riding that horse hard in their sermons. It’s in the summary.”
The President waves General Brewster into the empty armchair beside him and signals for two glasses of champagne. “Yeah, the summary. I kinda read it. Enough for me to tell you to stop pissing around and just get the little nano-fuckers on the ground already.”
General Brewster takes a deep breath. “In fact, Mr. President, we would have liked a few days longer to assess the nanobots before—”
“Bullshit,” says President. “So what if BioCross was late delivering? We couldn’t risk that goatfucker slipping away from Umm Farha before we dropped the bugs.”
“Very true, sir, but we were a little worried about the nanobots being as—well, as selective as BioCross promised they would be.”
“You’re a bunch of weak old women, you generals, you know that? All we have to do is point the bugs at the murdering terrorist ragheads and set them loose, am I right?”
“It’s a little more complicated than that, Mr. President.” The general takes a hefty gulp of champagne. “BioCross engineered the ‘bots to look for a combination of visible flags—male, bearded, armed—along with chemical markers indicating weapons use, and certain hormonal markers suggested by the Gitmo project. For some of the priority targets, we fortunately had DNA samples as well. And I know you favoured the exploding heads scenario, sir, but the mass heart attacks were more practical to engineer.”
“I thought they couldn’t figure out how to do the exploding heads.”
“Technically, they could. BioCross could have programmed the ‘bots with any number of recognition and attack algorithms, sir, but they were constrained by the size of the drones. You have to deliver a critical mass of the ‘bots before the reproduction function will kick in. All this was in the report, Mr. President.”
“Fine, we’ll keep the exploding heads thing for the Chinese.” The President heaves himself out of the armchair but stops and frowns when a severe-looking woman in a power suit sidles up and touches him on the arm. “What is it now? This is a party.”
“FBI, sir. He says it’s urgent.”
The president’s face reddens dangerously. “FBI? So what do the Fucking Bullshit Instigators want this time?”
“I really don’t know, Mr. President, but it sounds important. He says it’s relevant to Operation HAND OF GOD.”
“Then it better be goddam important. Stay, Brewster.”
The dark-suited man, sweat shining on his smooth black forehead, threads his way to the president through the crowd of generals and holds out a thick sheaf of printouts stapled together. The president grabs it, drops back into his chair, and scans the first page. Then he passes it to General Brewster and glares up at the agent.
“Big deal. A list of screwball organizations.”
The agent opens his mouth, but General Brewster gets there first. He is as ashen as the President is flushed, and the hands leafing through the papers are having trouble keeping steady. “If this really is relevant to HAND OF GOD,” he says, “it means we’re in trouble.”
“It’s just a goddam list.”
The agent and the general trade looks. The general raises his eyebrows and mouths a single word. The agent nods. The general turns paler still. “Mr. President,” he says, “all along, BioCross has been assuring us that we, the United States military, are their only customer. That they are working only for us. That nobody else will be getting access to the nanobot technology, that it will stay under our control. God knows we paid them well enough. But this…”
“Spit it out!” roars the president.
The general stares at him with doom-laden eyes. “This is a list of their other customers.”
The president grabs the papers back. A small clearing of stillness begins to grow around the two armchairs, as more of the revellers take notice. “Okay,” says the president, “tell me about them. What are the Heirs of Almighty Thor?”
“White supremacists, sir,” says the agent.
“The Nation of Jehovah?”
“Black supremacists. Antisemitic.”
“The Sons of the Fiery Nexus?”
“Basically nihilists, sir. They hate everybody, but especially the rich.”
The president continues down the list—heirs of this, sons of that, sisters of the other thing—committees and collectives and cooperatives and free states and fronts and brigades and peoples’ armies…and every one of them, it seems, has it in for somebody or other. Whites. Blacks. Asians. Gays. Gender-non-binaries. Boomers. Millennials. Journalists. Christians. Non-Christians. Jews. Non-Jews. Hindus. Non-Hindus. Muslims. Non-Muslims. There are the Buddhist Saviours with a unique and terrifying vision of peace on Earth, the Neo-Ghost Dancers, the militant Marxists who wish to rid the world of capitalists, the Randite Objectivist Squadron who wish to rid the world of moochers. Over five thousand organizations are on the list, on every continent, in every nation. Even the president is pale under his makeup by the end of page five.
“But,” he sputters, “how could all these crazies afford to hire BioCross? We could barely afford them.”
“Mr. President, a good many of them are, in fact, quite wealthy. We understand some of the others were offered attractive discounts. As for the rest, there is reason to suspect we were accidentally subsidizing them ourselves, along with the Chinese and Russians. That is, some of the trillions we paid to BioCross was diverted into customizing products for other organizations.”
“Products? What fucking products?”
“Nanobots, I’d guess,” says General Brewster levelly, “engineered to target the chosen enemies of each client. Different recognition criteria, of course. Different delivery systems: airborne, waterborne, food contaminants, maybe insect vectors. Different morbidity modes—you know how many we looked at before we settled on heart attacks. And if all these groups are Biocross customers, and if all of them let their particular strain of nanobots loose…” He stops and gazes with suspicion at his empty champagne glass.
“But why?” the president bellows. “Why would BioCross do that?”
The agent flips to the last page. “They were originally known as the Gaia Firsters, sir. Members of an eco-terrorist organization that we presumed had gone extinct in 1979.”
“Some fucking hippies did this?”
“Hippies of a special sort, Mr. President. Their philosophy was essentially that humans are cancer, and the only way to cure the planet is to wipe out the entire species. Except perhaps themselves.” He clears his throat and finishes with visible embarrassment, “We thought they blew themselves up years ago. It seems they went to grad school instead.”
The president’s colour returns to the choleric. “You better be able to tell me you’ve stopped the bastards.”
“Unfortunately, Mr. President, it appears they got the shipments off to all their other customers at the same time as we took delivery of the HAND OF GOD.” The agent wipes his forehead again with an already sodden sleeve.
“Where did they ship to?” General Brewster shoots to his feet, waves for one of his aides. “If we act fast, we can head off the shipments, or at least isolate the effects.”
“It’s too late, General. The deliveries were well coordinated, and the distribution was global. DHL, mainly.”
The general drops back into his armchair.
Unbidden, the technician hits a few keys and pushes a button.
The screens light up again, this time with a shifting array of news stations—CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera, Fox, Russia Today, China Global, many others, a rainbow of anchorpersons, a gallery of BREAKING NEWS! banners in a babel of scripts. The common factor is the sort of gravity usually reserved for a terrorist attack or the death of a movie star. Less commonly, the pretty Japanese newsreader grabs her throat and slides out of sight under the news desk. The handsome Turk projectile-vomits blood at the camera. Live on CNN, the anchor’s face melts.
“Oh, fuck,” says the president.
“Absolutely correct, sir,” says the agent. Behind them there is a gurgle, a thud, the drumming of heels on the floor. “That’s Colonel Goldstein,” General Brewster says, looking back, “and there goes General Wayne.”
The president takes no notice. “Where are these Biocross bastards now? You better fucking know.”
The agent jerks at his tie and dabs ineffectually at the sweat flooding down his cheeks. He detaches the last page of the sheaf, hands it to the technician, and points to a line near the top. The technician hits a few keys. All the screens amalgamate into one; a satellite image zooms deep into the folds of a mountain range far to the west, a tiny bright circle in the exact centre expanding into a larger circle, into a circle made up of tiny hexagons, into a dome.
“It looks like they mean to inherit the Earth, sir,” says the agent. “They…” He grimaces, clutches at his belly, crashes to the floor. Three generals are down now, plus six more colonels, the president’s aide, and the waitress at the buffet. The president, rubbing his temples with both hands, glares at the graceful dome with its fringe of pines.
“Fucking tree-huggers,” he growls, “don’t deserve to win.”
General Brewster replies with an efflux of black blood.
Groping in his breast pocket, the president staggers out of his chair to the computer station. He stabs a bright red key-card into a port on the console.
“Nuke’em,” he says.
His head explodes.
The technician hits a few keys and pushes a button.