The pre-war, antique leather chair groaned as President Stephen Cook leaned back. It was certainly a comfortable chair, despite being over one hundred years old. And at nearly twenty thousand credits per chair, it was expected to be. The Imagen Executive Lounge, the most exclusive club in the capital city of Indianapolis, had fifty of them.
Only two of the chairs held occupants, however, and President Cook wished he was anywhere else than sitting across from Alan Davis, Chairman of the Imagen Board of Executives.
Cook examined the crystal tumbler perched in his hand. He gently swirled an exceptionally rare pour of Woodford Reserve Four Grain Bourbon straight from the Imagen Board of Executives’ private stocks. He studied the glass’s reflection of the flames from the stone fireplace behind him. They danced and glinted around the amber of the drink in less of a playful manner and in more of a ceremonious rite. It was as if they were paying tribute to the bourbon’s ability to survive a civil war, decades of looting and rioting, and the re-establishment of a country whose ideals had long given way to the more immediate concerns of safety and comfort.
“It’s astounding, isn’t it,” President Cook said. “That this glass contains such a rich history. Its contents survived so many atrocities and hardships as this country ripped itself apart. And through sheer perseverance, it’s here to be enjoyed by those who are working to keep alive the legacy of what it represents. But to the uneducated and ignorant, it’s simply a glass of old booze.”
“Profound,” Chairman Davis replied, voice dripping with sarcasm. “But yet again, you’re avoiding the question.”
“I was merely admiring the beverage you so graciously provided, Alan,” The President said.
“You’ve had it before when you were on the Board. This flattery is unnecessary, as I fail to see what it has to do with the clandestine stunt you pulled this evening.”
“Clandestine?” Cook replied. “You mean in the way that someone takes an action that affects them personally without explicit permission? Like how you overrode my vehicle’s JAQi access and forced it to bring me here to your little club?”
“We needed to talk,” Davis replied. “You weren’t answering our pings.”
“It’s well past midnight and I’ve had a full day,” Cook replied. “I wanted to go home and get some sleep.”
“I think that sleep can wait a while,” Davis answered. “You have a lot to answer for.”
“Do I, now?” Cook asked. “Because if I’m not mistaken, I am the duly elected President of the United American State, and as such, I answer only to the citizens of our nation.”
“Cut the shit, Stephen,” Davis said with disdain as he leaned forward and placed his glass on the solid oak table that sat between them. “The terrorists, the jail break…none of this was ever part of the plan.”
“It most certainly was,” Cook said, taking a defiant sip from his glass.
“You never bothered to tell us about it!” Davis thundered. The room echoed his outburst.
Cook smiled. “I did, Alan. You just didn’t bother to listen. None of you did.”
“JAQi,” Davis said into the air politely, “Please play back any mention of terrorists breaking Marlowe Kana out of prison or intercepting prison transports, from the minutes of our meetings over the last, oh… year or so.”
A tone sounded. “No records found,” JAQi said aloud.
President Cook rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t being literal, Alan.”
“Well, Stephen, I think it would behoove you to be quite literal and very explicit, starting right now. Exactly how long have you known about these traitors?” Davis asked.
“The real question is, why didn’t you know about them?” Cook fired back.
“…Excuse me?” Chairman Davis asked.
“They’re quite useful, this little sovereign citizenship group,” Cook said. “A little cadre of crazies who stumbled upon some old libertarian writings…my people have been on them for a little over a year.”
“Your people? YOUR people?!?” Davis asked. “Imagen runs MilSec! Your people are our people!”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Cook snapped. “I am the President of the only civilized society left on the planet. It is my duty to represent the populace and to protect all forty-one million, six hundred thirty thousand of them, give or take. And to that end, I have my own resources and have built my own channels. You don’t get to a position like this without your own level of support in place — a fact you know quite well, don’t you, Alan?”
The reference to Davis’s attempted coup to take over the position of Chairman of the Board from Cook’s father a decade before was the last of a thousand cuts to Alan Davis’s patience. “You’re a pompous son of a bitch, aren’t you?” he snarled, all traces of cordiality gone.
“And the real Alan Davis comes out,” Cook said, smirking. “Yes, I am. Is this some secret about me to which you’re only now privy? I feel like I’ve been the same man my whole life.”
“Yes, you have. An under-qualified ass, carried by the legacy of forebears who were ten times the men you will ever be.”
Cook shook his head. “Well this is truly a sad moment. I take it our friendship is over then?”
“It’s a safe assumption,” Davis said. “And I think you’ll find that it’s a friendship you’ll begin to regret not having fairly soon, if not already.”
“Ah yes, because ‘Imagen Drives The Nation,’ right?” Cook replied, referring to the corporation’s much-vaunted slogan, “And they can override your vehicle and take you to clandestine meetings with old men full of pointless threats.”
“I don’t make threats, Stephen,” Alan Davis stated. “I think you know that. You’re completely off the reservation here and you need to wake up to the fact that you’re walking the thinnest of lines.”
“Am I, now?” President Cook said, crossing his legs. “Tell me. What have I done that’s so wrong?”
“You’ve withheld vital intelligence that there is a terrorist organization operating in the United American State. Not only that, you’ve colluded with them to kidnap the nation’s biggest celebrity and one of our most decorated soldiers!”
“I never colluded with them,” the President replied. “They think it’s their idea.”
“We’ve been attacked by terrorists and lost a vital asset!” Davis barked.
“–And Feed engagement was huge.”
Davis ignored him, continuing, “Not to mention that fact that she was framed for an attempted murder and treason–”
“–And again, engagement was huge,” Cook repeated.
“Yes, but to what end?”
“What other end is there?” Cook asked. “Engagement is the only thing that matters.”
Davis ground his teeth. Sharply, he asked, “and how has engagement been since you publicly embarrassed MK’s father, the disabled war hero suffering from Parkinson’s disease? How has the nation reacted to your framing of General Kana?”
The question was meant to induce guilt. It failed. “Huge, of course,” Cook responded immediately. “Always huge. Anything with MK attached is always huge.”
“Exactly!” Davis answered. “She’s a ratings magnet on her own. Why bother with all this insanity? What we had with her was working! Why attack her? And for heaven’s sake, why did you go after the General?”
“Because people were growing exhausted with her always winning. She’s a character in a social narrative with no arc. She always wins. Always. When she committed treason and attempted to murder a fellow soldier, it made people sit up and pay attention.”
“Listen to yourself!” Davis said. “You sound like you believe that she was guilty! You know as well as I do that she was defending herself.”
“There’s no evidence of that.”
“No, there was no admissible evidence,” Davis retorted. “Semantics, Stephen. We both know that’s not true.”
“And what is truth, but the story of those who survived the test?”
“Oh, fuck you, Stephen!” Davis snapped. “Don’t you dare throw your father’s words around as if they’re pertinent to this conversation! You’ve clearly lost control of this situation and are falling back on rhetoric to cover your own ass.” He picked up his glass and swirled the golden liquid inside it. “I speak for the entire board when I tell you that we regret ever allowing you to move forward with this ridiculous farce of a plan.”
“You only regret it because you can’t see the endgame, as usual,” Cook retorted.
“And what, exactly, is that endgame, Stephen?” Davis asked. “Do you even know?”
The President slowly closed his eyes and sighed. He reached for his glass and took a sip from it.
“…You don’t, do you!” Davis said with a chuckle. “This is all out of your control! You’re feinting!”
“I know perfectly well what I’m doing,” Cook answered. He leaned forward and locked eyes with Chairman Davis. “The people are glued to the Feeds in a way they haven’t been in over twenty years. Twenty years, Alan! This isn’t just entertainment, it’s NEWS. Things are happening — real events with real consequences!” He took a deep breath for effect and then continued. “We have them — all of them. For the first time in decades, the entire nation is engaged. They are active participants in the United American State and the events that comprise its existence! For the past thirty years, I’ve run an impeccable campaign of managing the citizens of this nation. You have got to trust me here!”
Chairman Davis studied the man before him. Their histories ran deep. He’d seen risks taken by Cook and rewards reaped from him that the Board never truly anticipated. But he’d also seen an equal number of colossal failures that had barely been covered up.
“Stephen, the people are upset.” He said calmly, attempting to reason with him. “Their entire way of life is at risk. Terrorists have organized under our noses. They sow the seeds of anarchy! And you’re letting them!”
“Oh, come on, Alan,” President Cook said. “You know as well as I do that the people value their way of life — the one that my father, and his father before him gave to them — far more than anything else. And you’re right, it is at risk. But not because of some ragtag militia group, which is easily controlled. It’s because the people themselves have lost their way. It is they who put their own way of life at risk by giving up on their ideals! You know deep in your heart that I am right. My father would agree.”
“With all due respect to your father, whom I will remind you was my best friend of thirty years,” Chairman Davis responded. “I don’t think that he would find any truth in the idea that the United American State gave up on its ideals.”
The first-ever President of the United American State and the first publicly elected official in over fifty years studied his glass again. He raised it to his lips and took a small sip of one of the rarest liquids on the planet. He sighed heavily as he lifted himself from the confines of comfort and placed his elbows on his knees. Leaning in toward the Chairman who sat across from him, he whispered, “best friends don’t betray each other to advance their political or corporate agendas, Alan.”
“Still holding that grudge?” Davis smirked. “Your father forgave me. He saw the greater good. He knew his place.”
“If you really believe that, then you must not have really known the man as well as you thought.”
Chairman Davis scoffed. “If he heard you right now; if he’d seen what you’ve done…he would be so disappointed in you.”
President Cook paused for a moment, took another deep breath, and then finally smiled. “This has been pleasant, as always, Alan,” he said as he rose from his chair.
“Sit down, Stephen,” Chairman Davis instructed. “We haven’t finished yet.”
President Cook held up his glass and toasted to the Chairman. He downed the remainder of his beverage in one gulp. “I am,” he said, placing the glass on the table and turning to leave.
“Stephen!” Chairman Davis protested.
“Oh,” The President said from over his shoulder. “If you ever hijack a vehicle I am in again, I’ll have you arrested for kidnapping, terroristic threats, and treason.” He retrieved his jacket from the maître d’.
“The ratings will be amazing,” he added.
“Have me WHAT?” Davis yelled, slamming his glass on the table in front of him. “You pompous ass! How! Who will arrest me?!?”
In lieu of a reply, the President headed toward the exit.
“MilSec is an Imagen division!” Alan Davis yelled. “That’s what the ‘I’ in ‘IMSD’ stands for! They answer to me! You understand? ME!”
The wooden soles of President Cook’s shoes echoed through the lounge as he made his way to the door of the Executive Club. The door opened for him and he exited unceremoniously.
Chairman Davis sunk back into his chair. He lifted his glass to his mouth and dourly gulped down the rest of his drink.