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The Nixon Wrangler's Tale

By Tom Marcinko
Jan 10, 2021 · 3,089 words · 12 minutes


From the author: A warning: This story contains many things that might offend some readers, including semi-explicit sex, "sci-fi violence," four-letter words that somehow retain a certain power, and a general spirit of meanness. Ellen Datlow said she liked it in spite of herself, and published it in 1998 on EventHorizon.com, a site you need the Wayback Machine to find today. The theme park name in this story was stolen from Judith Berman, who I hope forgives me.


I impeached my hundredth nixon in a tiny room above the Twisted Lemon, a night spot nicked into Central America’s serrated Pacific edge. Costa Rica still touts itself as the safest nation south of Canada. That depends.

An old lady of mixed Tica-Jamaican blood noticed the circle-and-slash of my badge and pointed the way. “¡Alli esta el! ¡Esta arriba, esta el nixon! ¡El replicado!”

“¡Gracias!”

“¡Con mucho gusto!” The people in Costa Rica are really nice.

I hefted my taser and ran up the stairs. The milhous cowered in the dark. Bright eyes shuttled in deep-bagged sockets. Permanent sweat glazed that five o’clock shadow the genewriters could not eradicate. Jowls puffed and bubbled like Dizzy Gillespie’s, or maybe the mumps. And the nose, the nose, that grotesque, trademark nose ... a bowling pin, a sock darner, a skislope that lying little puppet, Pinocchio, might have modeled for; an obscene bulge, erection-stiff.

“Y’know,” that oily baritone, “y’know, I knew they’d find me sooner or later. They’ve always been out to get me. But did that stop me? No. I could have given up. But that would be taking the easy way out, and that goes against every fiber of my being. I’m a fighter. A scrapper. Because, y’know, as long as you’re in there plugging, they can’t beat you. Only you can defeat yourself, it doesn’t matter, it can be the last down of the final quarter, right on the fifty-yard line, but—”

I shot it. I’d been viscerally afraid of them since, at the impressionable age of nine, I saw one claw its way out of John Hurt’s chest in a digital retrofit of Ridley Scott’s original Alien. Megajoules triggered the twin V-for-victory gesture, arms jack-jumping high above head.

Sometimes they took forever to die. Sometimes I wanted to drive stakes through their hearts.

And sometimes they were rigged to explode. I stood back and waited for the blast. Instead I got the usual death-blather. Often they spouted reflexive phrases like “Not a crook” or “We’re gonna keep it.” A few made “Pat” their last word. Once I heard a “Bebe.”

This time it was different. This one spoke to me.

“You need us,” it hissed. “You need us.” It died. One fewer to kick around. I paused to admire what it had done with the room. The flower arrangement near the window was very nice: palm fronds, bird of paradise. Sort of a tropical motif.

#

Why do we hate the nixons, I ask the Chief on graduation day. We protect the elvises, the marilyns, the grouchos—all those fleshkons in the entertainment industry we guard from humans who’d harm or exploit them. But we fear and hate the nixons, and we act as if it’s us who need to be protected from them. Yet we crank them out by the planeload and try to restrict them to stage and screen. Why?

And the Chief answers me: Because they’re everything we now know to be evil. Because we need them to be scapegoats. The Big Reform of ’37 won’t hold without a constant reminder of how bad things can get. We need to put our dark side out where we can see it. The hitlers are too obvious, the saddams laughable, the reagans likable. The other fascist bastards of the past are lucky if their names are taught in school any more. So we go with something more familiar. Closer to home. Scary but not too scary. Evil though they may be, we even empathize with them.

Not me.

Yes, you.

#

Summoned to Global, I rushed through the Hall of Artificial Life, past Biologic Ikon Programming, past Security Enhancements, past Copyright Clearance. I watched marilyns in growth-expression stages, james deans in proving simulations, elvises half-baked. In Test Marketing, madonnas and stallones and cobains scrolled out as genomic manifestations, into the the lives of test markets and finally to global audiences.

“Sorry you had to run all the way to Costa Rica,” the Chief told me. “That lead from the designer in the Disney Republic was a ruse. GlobeIntel fucked up bad.”

“Little trickster must have ripped out its tracking implant.”

“It never had a ‘plant. We’ve got a bootlegger.”

“Trick-eee.” Bootlegging explained why so many runaway milhouses lately. These days I saw them everywhere. Even the faces of the capuchin monkeys in Costa seemed to have noses too long, cheeks too puffy, hairlines too receding, manners too furtive. Call me paranoid.

The Chief dropped his bombshell. His face split into a sadistic little smile.

“I’m assigning you a partner,” he said.

By reflex I ran through the Litany Against Bureaucracy. “I’m a good cop,” I said; “a damned good cop; I work alone, I make my own rules...”

He hit back with the Litany Against Insubordination. “You’re overworked,” he recited. “You’re too close to the case, man! Back off!”

My street dealer claimed the Litany would counter the police-training buttoning mandated by the Big Reform of 2037, particularly my tendencies toward obedience. My street dealer was a liar. They really knew how to push your buttons, because they installed them.

I kept trying. “Work. Lone.” My heart wasn’t in it. “Good cop. Work lone. Own. Rules.”

The Chief yawned. “As of now you are suspended. Give me your badge and your gun.”

“All right! All right, you win. Show him in. Her. Whatever.”

#

Her name was Marjorie Gatling. She was twenty-five, coltish, with wide blue eyes and a poodle’s tangle of light brown hair. She had a firm and certain chin, and lips like bloody rose petals from the most expensive government-licensed florist. She had an impeachment record I envied.


We kept busy. The Chief’s worries were justified. Somebody was flooding the market with cheap illegal milhouses: The only type of fleshkon who fought back, who lied and connived and cheated to stay alive.

We brought down a flock that escaped from Bolshevik Park. The mediaglomerates needed a predator to keep down the stalin and brezhnev population, but they cut corners and ordered a herd of knockoffs with a lousy sense of territory and direction. They tried to debate us about which superpower made better color TVs. Marjorie’s rebuttals reduced them to tears before we hit them with the tasers.

Our last night together was great. It wasn’t supposed to be anything heavy; just sexual tension and its convenient release buttoned into us, to help with the stress of the job, to end before it got serious, to keep us predictable to the Chief, the public, all the consumers of our services. Average duration of coitus: Eighteen and a half minutes. Her limbs, strong branches, entwined me. I burrowed into the deep loam of her flesh. I was happy, till afterwards, when she wanted to confide.

“Sometimes ... I think it’s terrible, the way we treat them.” She looked at me with a shade of longing. “Don’t you?”

“No. Certainly not. No.”

Marjorie said: “Don’t you think they suffer?”

“Who cares?”

Later that night I watched her suck off another man. I looked closer and saw that in fact it was a milhous she was fellating. And it was not his penis that filled her mouth but his nose, that long bulbous ski-slope of a horrible nose. In the dream I became the fleshkon, the nose my nose…

I jumped awake. The mattress rustled; under it I’d hidden several month’s worth of Designer’s Guild-only gardening magazines. I wasn’t supposed to have them, so that was where I hid them.


Marjorie held me. I would not tell her the nightmare. She made conversation to calm me down.

“You always want to be a Wrangler?” she asked, her cigarette (smoking habit; button; probably sewn in circa the 2037 Reforms to keep down pension costs) a bright orange dot in the gloom of my bachelor boudoir.

I didn’t want to answer, so I didn’t; I hate it when they want to confide.

She blinked blue innocence at me. “Your father,” Marjorie stated clearly, “paid his debt to society.”

I jumped out of bed and gathered up my uniform, making as much noise and fuss as possible.

“You read my file!” I shoved my foot into my boot, tried to pull on my pants.

“You didn’t read mine?”

“What am I, a milhous?” I took off the boot so I could push my feet into the slacks. Then I put the boot back on.

“It’s all about your father, isn’t it?” Marjorie asked. “Good lord, it was only flowers.”

“He broke the law.”

“It’s also the past. The Design Guild is so reactionary and old-fashioned, and the exaggerated need for society to appoint scapegoats since ’37—”

“I said I don’t want to talk about it.” My family’s disgrace should be private. My thwarted wishes were my own business. All I’d wanted was to grow things. Now I could never get into the Designer’s Guild, not with this blot on my family’s record. My father saw to that. Now I did what I could. I did not communicate with my mother or my brothers or my sisters or my stepmother. I did not visit my father’s grave. I’m a fighter, a scrapper. I tough it out alone.

#

The bootleggers seemed to be lying low, so Marjorie and I got loaned out to other divisions. We worked together better than ever, now that our affair was over. We rescued some bootlegged marilyns and madonnas from a bunch of creeps who used them for fucking but more often just beat them up. We tracked an abused amnesiac elvis who’d escaped a nightclub where they overfed him and tried to hide him, not too successfully, in a milhous band called Foreign Policy Triumph. The elvis looked pretty strange with the ski-slope nose grafted onto his pie-pan face. So did their sinatra frontman.

We corralled a bootleg kennedy. The Grace through Golf charismatics weren’t hurting it. They just wanted to play. But we couldn’t return it to the entertainment sector. There’s not much demand for kennedys. The real ones keep tumbling out of wombs, regular as clockwork.

Maybe because we let up the pressure, the milhous bootlegs came back. We followed a tip to Kansas, where an unscrupulous promoter ran off enough nixons to man opposing football teams. They bit, gouged, whined, and blamed far more than they tackled or scored. It was like watching a Busby Berkeley nightmare starring a bunch of old ladies at a bitch-slapping party. We found the milhous coach hidden in the locker room, gobbling down cottage cheese and ketchup. “To celebrate,” it explained. I opened fire. Just then I was a gardener like my father before me. The nixons were weeds. So many, many weeds.

#

We had to stop impeaching them if we wanted answers, so I brought one in. Under the hot lights it sweated good and thick, right above the upper lip. We played good cop/bad cop. Guess which cop I played. “Leave the room, Marjorie,” I said. “Give us some time alone.” I roughed it up, just a little, and of course it told us everything, just before I sent it to San Clemente.

#

Marjorie and I took a four-seater to Australia, where the world turns upside-down. Melbourne was wet, rainy, and decorated with cast Victorian iron. I tried to concoct excuses to visit the Botanic Gardens later. Just thinking about it made my fingers itch, all those broad shiny smooth leaves, the pleasant pain of thorns, complex vines and branches tangled like DNA ...


We arrived at the museum. The milhous was holding hostage priceless aboriginal art. It wanted safe passage offworld.

“Let me make one thing perfectly clear,” the nixon was pontificating when we arrived. “My free will may well have been a manufacturing accident. Or it may have been the hand of destiny. I cannot say. Nor can you. Therefore, I want my freedom. I want to live.”

“Let’s talk,” I said.

“Why, yes. Yes, indeed we must always be open to negotiation, but let it be from a position of strength, never of weakness. Let it be peace with honor.”

We had Global’s authority to go in, and the civilian cops were happy for our help. The nixon and I talked sports while Marjorie slipped behind it and put the lying little puppet in cuffs. She crawled into the flyer; the nixon after her; me last. I sealed the hatch. I noticed that Marjorie still held the taser. But now she pointed it at me.

#

Weeks later, I managed to hack into Marjorie’s files, to figure it all out.

I hoped a clear explanation would surface, something that would let me forgive her. I couldn’t find anything on her: no dirt, no history of illegal enhancements.

Except this:

She showed all the signs of Pandora Syndrome. It was the desire to watch all hell break loose, just to see what happens. Mostly it struck genetic designers.

It had hit my father hard.

#

“Let’s go,” she said, motioning with the taser. I took the vehicle up. Marjorie relaxed into what I would recognize in retrospect as her natural expression: tight mouth, sorrowful eyes, masochist’s set of jaw. They’ve suffered enough. I’ll stand by them. No matter how much it hurts, I’ll be loyal. I’ll protect them.

This nixon was designed to blend in. Big jowls, receding hairline, yes, but not so you’d notice. It looked almost human. Its eyes shifted, of course. You had to expect that.

Marjorie crawled onto the nixon’s lap. Then I knew. “And they saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose...” Genesis 6:2, more or less.

They kissed, not chastely. “That should do the trick,” she said, smiling as she broke the embrace.


Then it turned to me. I tried to pull away. But the taser. I couldn’t help it. I want it on the record, that I had no choice. I spluttered and spit after the nixon, not satisfied with the daughters of men, took its tongue out of my mouth. Its warm stiff nose collapsed against my cheek.

It licked its lips. “I designed the organism to transmit itself through multiple vectors. It’s a sort of kissing disease, among other things. Highly contagious. Character in a virus.”

I wiped my mouth again, and the mark left by the nose. “Why tell me?”

“We’re very much alike, you and I.”

“No!”

“No? We’re aberrations: You, an honest cop, even without ethics being 2037’d into you. Me, a fleshkon with free will. Freaks.”

“No.”

“You: sins of the father. Me: I didn’t ask to be richard nixon.”

“Stop.”

“We’re both buttoned,” it went on. “You with police ethics, me with the need to explain my fiendish plan.”

Marjorie said, “It’s time to go, Richard.”

The nixon looked at her with regret. “Y’know, I meant to have lots of sex with you. Good wholesome American sex. The kind of sex that made this country great. We managed to unbutton your police conscience; I wish we’d done the same with your emotions.”

“Neither of us can afford sentiment over you in particular,” she said. “It’s for the cause. If they catch you they might cure you.”

It kissed Marjorie one more time and then it popped the hatch and climbed out onto the flyer’s running board. “To the bottom of the food chain!” It sounded like a battle cry. I twisted the flyer’s wheel to tilt the craft and try to force the milhous to topple back into the cockpit, but it braced itself against the hatch. It raised its hands high over its head and showed the double V-sign to the trackless gray ocean before it jumped. We heard the explosion and Marjorie shut the hatch.

I put the flyer on autopilot. “There’s got to be a vaccine for that microbe,” I ventured at last. “We might stop this, if we warn Global in time.”

“Before you even think about going public about the virus, watch this.” She flipped open her pocket computer. It played a holo of unspeakable things being done by and to marilyns and dianas and even to cobains. A three-ring sick-sex circus, starring me. The show stopped when she closed the lid.

“This never happened,” I said. “Even if it did, it’s not admissible in a court of—”

“Tell it to Internal Affairs.”

“The Chief’ll know. I’m his favorite. He—”

Marjorie smiled. “We have surveillance on him too.”

“Also faked.”

She shook her head. She smiled, and left the rest for me to imagine. I knew the Chief was stressed, and how seriously he took the job. Maybe he’d been Chief too long for his own good.


The wind howled past the flyer.

“You fight dirty,” I said.

Her smile dawned like the sun over Mercury. “I’ve always been a fighter, a scrapper.”

#

I asked them to unbutton me. They said no. It didn’t matter, because I’d been kissed, and his free will was now mine too.

Now I get plenty of sun. I get my hands dirty. I inhale the sweet smell of loam, humus, the perfume of greens and flowers. My father would have been proud. Besides his presumed criminal tendencies, I also inherited his talent.

I plant. I cultivate. My flowers have little faces. My tomatoes look like heads with bulging cheeks and bulbous noses. My small but dedicated following buys them mail-order for the pungent and satisfying splat they make against holoboards and cinema screens and all the elvises and madonnas and cobains on stage. Sometime my fans eat my tomatoes, and the viruses that swarm beneath my firm skins, my sweet pulps.

Nor do I ply my trade alone. I’ve seen some pretty strange cabbages and bananas and mangoes, and roses and carnations and birds-of-paradise. They wear that too-sweet smile nobody wants to trust. I’ve noted dogs and cats and rabbits with oddly shifty eyes, furtively sloping shoulders, smiles with insincerity in every fold of their maws. So the world grows level and fair.

Last time I passed through Costa Rica, I stopped by the Twisted Lemon, for old time’s sake, a pilgrimage of sorts. The capuchin monkeys had taken over the upstairs rooms, and they gestured, and raised their little arms to make twin v-signs, and smiled, as if they wanted to make something so very, so perfectly, so lucidly clear.


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Tom Marcinko

Stories about human and other imaginary beings.