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Political Puppet

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“He’s on in five minutes Jason. It’s only around the corner. He’s holding it in the little square outside Wrap-It-Up. You know? The burrito place? We could be there and back in ten –“

“It’s not that I don’t know where it is Josie. I’ve eaten there every day since they opened.”

“Well then what’s the problem?”

Jason sighed, finally looking away from his screen. It was only him and Josie left in the office, the rest of their co-workers had gone to see Lombard’s speech. Like the fools they were. He glanced around the empty office, at the little screens humming away to themselves and the air conditioning whirring overhead.

“I just don’t like the guy ok?” he said, finally meeting Josie’s wide and, ordinarily, friendly eyes. What he saw there was not at all friendly. It was that fervent, slightly mad look he’d come to associate with Adrian Lombard’s admirers. Josie stared at him, as though not really seeing him. As though struck dumb by his expression of dissent. She looked at him like she couldn’t decide if he was dangerous or just stupid.

“He’s not a politician, Josie. He just wants power.”

She stared at him a moment, and then her expression softened.

“That’s why people like him, Jason,’ she said, her tone like that of a parent explaining to a beloved but impossibly stupid child. “He’s not like usual politicians. He was a children’s entertainer, and a brilliant scientist. He’s a breath of fresh air.”

Jason leaned forward in his wheeled office chair, propping his elbows on the arms.

“But he’s not! He made a lot of money selling bogus predictions to people on national TV and calling himself a brilliant scientist. He claims to be able to predict impossible things, and people go along with it because it’s him! His brand of prediction and questionable proof is not science.”

“The things he predicts come true,” Josie said serenely, with the calm confidence of the converted, “you can’t deny that.”

“Only because people want to believe it so much they make it happen! That house price rise he predicted? People were so desperate to buy after that the prices went up because of the demand!”

“What about the explosion at the factory? Are you saying he made that happen? Or the high school massacre?”

Jason’s conviction died a little at the sight of her blazing eyes. The answer was an emphatic yes. He fervently believed that this smoke-and-mirrors charlatan’s maniac followers had set the fire that destroyed the factory in Northampton, and he had no doubt that the troubled teenager who’d murdered his classmates wouldn’t have done so without Lombard’s ridiculous predictions. But he wasn’t about to say so. Adrian Lombard had captured the heart of the country with his sweeping, frighteningly accurate predictions he attributed to a simple application of logic, human psychology and a scientific method he had yet to disclose. The current election was a joke. He and his collection of fanatics had no policies, no principles, not a single useful thing to offer the electorate. And yet they were standing in every constituency, propagating the idea that Lombard’s supposedly infallible prediction science could replace politics.

Josie turned and stomped away, slamming the door behind her. Reluctantly, Jason followed, planning to stop by the Wrap-It-Up shop on the way.

Five minutes later he stood in the crowd, feeling a chill that neither his chicken wrap nor the brilliant sunshine could thaw. Adrian Lombard stood on a box, an actual soap box, smiling and talking as he always did: like a man with the answers to questions other people don’t think to ask, but just as humble as aw-shucks and fiddle-de-dee. His white hair was slicked back, his pinstriped suit like something out of the 1800s. Jason couldn’t decide if the old man made his blood boil or freeze in his veins. By his side was a large box with a clear plastic screen with hunched little figures hanging by strings inside. Jason felt an involuntary shudder as he recognised Lombard’s puppets, the little marionettes he used as a children’s TV presenter fifty years ago, brought along to enhance the impression of a trustworthy old man.

“When you’ve got science,’ Lombard was saying, his grin wide and pleasing, ‘what else do you need? We can predict the problems we face. We can predict the issues we’ll be facing in two years, ten years, a hundred years! What do we need politicians for? What’s the point of them when we know what’s coming and how to deal with it? And when we reach a problem,’ he paused dramatically, his grin widening even more, ‘we’ll science it until it’s a solution!”

The crowd laughed and clapped like this was the most divine revelation.

We’ll science it. We. All of us. Will “science” it. Roughly translated as “this is far beyond your understanding, but join me in adopting the wry in-jokes of the scientific community as though it isn’t.” Flattering the vanity of the masses by equating admiration of a thing with mastery of it.

Call me master, the undertone said, and I will let you feel masterful.

“No!” Jason shouted, a split second before realising he had opened his mouth. The crowd fell silent, eyes turned to him. Angry eyes. Bewildered eyes. Some merely suspicious. Josie, a few paces away, glared in fury.

“Aha! A dissenting voice!” cried Lombard in a tone that suggested this was the most delightful thing to have ever happened to him. He hoped from foot to foot on his box as though he couldn’t contain his pleasure. “Tell me young man, what is it you don’t agree with?”

Jason felt the hostility under the words, saw the baleful stare in the eyes above the rictus grin. He felt his heart pumping, adrenaline lending him strength.

“You can’t just say science will fix everything. The only science we’ve heard from you is armchair psychology and amateur economics!”

“Well, my predictions have all come true,” Lombard said with a wince and a shrug, as though not wanting to make such a devastating point in the spirit of good sportsmanship. Adrian’s heart beat faster. The people on either side of him were deathly quiet.

“Your predictions are just manipulations. The house price rise –“

“Ah but what about my real predictions, Jason?” said the grinning man on the box. Jason’s eyes flashed angrily to Josie. Had she told the man his name? Her smile suggested she had.

Or perhaps that she hadn’t.

“What about the fortunes I have told on my shows,” Lombard continued, his tone becoming soft, silky. Threatening. His smile seemed to grow even wider, revealing a mouth that suddenly seemed crowded with far too many teeth, misshapen somehow. Wrong. “What fortune should I tell you?”

“Nothing,” Jason said, not liking the tone of fear creeping into his voice, “your predictions are either lies or tricks. You’re just a carnival magician like any other.”

Lombard barked a short laugh, stepping off his box and running a hand over his puppet case.

“Not like any other. Which you may discover soon enough.”

“I’ve had enough of this.” Jason turned to leave, more frightened than he cared to admit.

“What if you could know anything, Jason?” Lombard called after him. “Shall I tell you next week’s lottery numbers? Which horse will come in first?” He laughed; a harsh, unpleasant sound. His voice became a snarl. “Shall I tell you the name of your firstborn child, or of the drunk driver that kills him?”

Jason turned back, his limbs feeling light with the adrenaline pumping through him. The crowd seemed bigger than before, their expressions watchful. Predatory. Lombard stepped forward

“Should I tell you which of these people will be the one to tear your head from your shoulders?”

“You can’t scare me into voting for you, you maniac!” Jason half-shouted, hardly believing the madness he was hearing. He turned in a circle, trying to see a single pair of sane eyes in the crowd. “What’s wrong with you people? Why are you listening to this lunacy?”

No one replied. Lombard watched.

“You’re no better than his damned puppets!”

“Oh no, Jason,” Lombard chuckled, gesturing to his silent, glaring fans, “they’re far more than them. No less damned though, perhaps.”

Jason turned and ran, almost tripping over himself to get back to his office.

“You’re the puppet Jason!” Lombard’s voice shrieked after him, “do you hear me? You’re the puppet!”

A few streets away Jason’s ankle landed badly as he leapt off the pavement to cross the road. He let out a yelp and half-hopped to a bench on the other side. His thoughts were a panicked jumble, and recollections of the bizarre exchange kept flashing across his mind.

Tear your head from your shoulders…firstborn child killed by a drunk driver…

This was far beyond a fringe political movement gaining traction in the mainstream. This was a full-on cult of personality, complete with a leader whose followers didn’t question even the most outrageous things he said. Jason looked around, taking in the calm normality around him. The street was almost empty except for a few people. Two children running around their parents’ feet. A woman swinging her red bag as she swaggered along. He began to feel foolish for running from Lombard’s crowd and the man’s ridiculous but horribly effective attempt at scaring him. They were probably having a good laugh at him by now. He was probably trending on Twitter. A Youtube sensation. He winced as he remembered the frightening exchange. He’d be portrayed as a frightened idiot, mistrustful of science. They might even call him a religious zealot. He sighed, looking down at his feet. At least his ankle had stopped hurting by now. It just felt numb. He knocked it against the bench and was surprised by the sound. Like wood on wood.

A woman swaggered by in front of him, swinging a red bag. Jason looked up, frowning. Hadn’t she just walked by? And beyond, weren’t those the same kids running around their parents’ feet? He peered more closely at them, at their strangely choppy, jerky movements. Their hands held up above their heads with fingers drooping downward. Their feet leaving the floor entirely without bending their segmented knees…

Jason lurched to his feet, terror crashing over him like an icy black wave. He staggered and swayed, his nerveless ankle seeming to be rooted to the spot, his knees bending and wobbling alarmingly. His arms hung limply by his sides.

You’re the puppet Jason! You’re the puppet!

No. No this wasn’t happening. Couldn’t be happening. Jason swayed and bobbed, his head swivelling clumsily around to catch the glassy-eyed stare of the woman with the red bag as she gambolled past him again in a rough approximation of a walking motion. Her skin had a gleam, a sheen he hadn’t noticed before. Like polished wood. Her smile was fixed and red, her hair stringy and yellow. The red bag swung gaily from a hand with painted-on fingers.

But the eyes. They stared at him with a terrified pleading. An unspoken desperation. Then she was past, loping along with her disturbing gait, and Jason’s head wouldn’t turn to follow her. His neck was stiff, his limbs were heavy, moving with jerks and twitches he could not control. He tried to scream, but he had no breath.

Jason felt himself pulled up and down by his head, his knees rising and falling as he was turned in a circle. A glassy screen came into view, roughly twice his height. Through it he could see giants. Laughing giants clapping and jeering, the sounds heavily muffled as though he were under water. He tried to sob, to cry, to shout for help, but no sound escaped him. His hand raised to wave drunkenly at the crowd as he bobbed up and down on his disjointed knees.

Josie, in the crowd, clapped hardest of all.

 

End

 

Bio: Steven D Jackson is a British writer currently concentrating on short creepy stories. If you like what you read, check out his other short stories and novels at http://sdjackson.blogspot.co.uk/.

 

 

 

 

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