The stun bolt struck near me, and I was flying through the air. My hair crackled with static electricity. My vision went red. Quite possibly I soiled my expensive trousers. Did any of that worry me? No, I had much bigger problems. My brothers were coming back to town for the wedding.
I’d been dreading both events. Their inevitable return, and the marriage of Josh and Mary. Just as inevitable: the lovebirds’ request to have me, the Right Honourable Member of Parliament for Middlesex County, Ab Durer, as master of ceremonies.
I loathe the role of emcee. And my friends always ask me to do it.
Earlier that week, I’d foolishly complained to my brother Warren about emceeing again; he’d looked particularly scary in a suit of plate mail he always “wore” in the datasphere. An affectation, but it had plenty of impact.
“Well, why don’t me and the other brothers come?” he’d said.
“Uh. I’m not sure how good an idea that is,” I had said.
“Sure! It’s been ages since we saw you. Fabian and Petrovich have been pretty busy in Central America, but me and Deeter can convince them to come up.”
“No, I really don’t think you should. You’re not invited.”
“Hey!” shouted Warren, “we’re never invited. Just suck it up. We’re going to be there. Besides, Albrecht,” he said — emphasizing the “brecht”, just the way I’ve always hated it —”we have something to tell you.”
It had taken me a while to work up the courage to let Josh and Mary know that all four were planning to attend. Mary had burst into tears, and Josh confided, “You know, I thought this relationship was just going to be the end of my bachelorhood, not the end of everything.”
I’d laughed and mumbled something about the boys being much more mellow since they’d left high school. You had to admire the couple’s pluck. They made contingency plans, booking a full riot squad for the reception, buying doses of the best nanobiotics money could buy, and hiring Freeze-A-Head, “in case” of fatalities.
I felt so bad that I actually gave them my speech to vet, though I figured we would never get through the wedding, let alone the speeches. I was kind of torn on that. I hate emceeing — blathering into a holo-mic so that the relatives and friends attending remotely can enjoy the syrupy sentiments. And while everyone else whiffs up jazzy nanocaines and quaffs copious amounts of Old Nurberg’s Pink Ale (those who like it like it enough to go blind), I have to abstain.
On the other hand, did I really want to see my brothers back in town, just to avoid sobriety?
But I should get back to the stun bolts, and my electric fandango as I flew through the air, shouldn’t I?
News of my brothers’ impending arrival had preceded them, and there was somewhat of a panic in the sedate town of London, Ontario, County Seat of Middlesex, in His Majesty’s Parliamentary Democracy of America. I was out on the front steps of the Old Court House, hoping that the solid granite building would lend dignity and seriousness to my message. I was trying to allay the fears of the sensible populace of London, Ont., when a riot broke out.
It might have been something I said.
I was outlining how London, Ontario, was an important city in the PDA, and that the king was fully aware of our situation, and that all of our emergency services were at the highest alert. “There is virtually no problem that we are not prepared for,” I’d told them. “We can handle almost any emergency, short of a full-scale nuclear attack.”
Then one of those darned reporters shouted out, “Did you know that Warren’s girlfriend broke up with him?”
“Oh shit!” I’d blurted out, just like my handlers were always telling me not to do.
It was a candid response. Warren can be especially murderous after a fight with his girlfriend, a data-composer known as Strife Missouri. In the datasphere his plate mail is all show, but it speaks to Warren’s underlying character. Or lack thereof.
Anyway, my uncensored fear ruptured the calm of the crowd, and the next thing I knew, the police were unleashing stun cannons on the guests, the reporters, municipal officials, and worst of all, me. I remember thinking — as I flew through the air and started to lose consciousness — well, at least I won’t be awake when my brothers ride into town.
But I was wrong on that as well. They’d been held up in Kansas, on their way northward from the Skinny States of Central America; a series of tornadoes had destroyed the state’s water purification plants and led to an outbreak of mega-cholera. Petrovich was in his effluvial element there, and they decided to “hang out,” as they called it, and watch him do his thing for a while.
They stayed out of trouble as they rode through the rest of the Kingdom of the United States, and they didn’t do anything until they crossed the St. Clair River and the border, in Windsor. Deeter and Fabian were pretty well behaved, but Petrovich and Warren went on a serious tear. It will take years for the strip clubs in Windsor to recover. Warren went postmodern postal on the Badlaw gang that ran “The Peekaboo”, one of the city’s seedier joints. While he took the place apart, he claimed that he was part of the rival gang, the Heaven’s Devils, who ran the “Bustier Barn” across town. By the end of the evening, a full-scale gang war was on; car bombs were going off, there were machine-gun firefights, and Warren was happy as a Texas governor not commuting a death sentence. Petrovich had ensconced himself in the cathouse and proceeded to infect everyone there with a nasty strain of genitebola. Between the two of them, they devastated the red light district and all of its customers.
Windsor was never going to be the same, and London was trembling at their approach. Warren had stolen a number of X-Harleys from the Badlaws, and convinced our brethren to eschew their more traditional mode of transport for the sporty fuel-cell “extreme” cycles. They roared along the ancient, cracked pavement on old Highway 401.
When I came to, an apoplectic Mayor told me the news.
“Isn’t there anything you can do?” she asked, her normally coiffed hair disheveled and — to be frank — kind of sexy. Catastrophe suited the Mayor.
“Your Honor,” I croaked (stun cannons are notorious for drying out the soft tissues), “I have no more control over them than the wind, or the stars.”
“Oh God,” the Mayor moaned most attractively. “And we just opened the new convention center. Do you think they’ll go there?”
“Probably not. We’ve moved the wedding to a horse farm north of town.”
“Oh, that’s a relief,” the Mayor said.
“Unless you’ve been advertising the new convention center on the datasphere. Deeter is quite the tourist, and he’ll want to see it if you have.”
“But we had to tell people about it,” the Mayor wailed. Not as attractive.
“Don’t worry, Your Honour, I will try to appeal to their hometown pride. Now, where are my clothes?”
“Hmm. I’m afraid the trousers had to be incinerated,” the Mayor said. “One of your parliamentary assistants was good enough to bring some sweats in, though.”
That didn’t bode well. When it came to my brothers, I needed to feel as confident as possible, and sweatpants were not going to do it.
So I took the time to go home and change into my riding leathers, and I got Betsy out of the barn. As I’d promised the lovely Mayor, I rode out on horseback to meet the boys on the outskirts of town. I hoped to change their minds.
They soon appeared in a cloud of dust. Warren led as he always did. He put up his hand, and the others brought their X-Harleys to a muttering stop. Weeds grew in the ancient asphalt, sticking up between the spokes of their wheels. It was a hot early July day, just before “Canada Day” as we still subversively dubbed the July 4th weekend in the Parliamentary Democracy of America.
“Ab!” Fabian said. “You’re a sight for hungry eyes. I never thought I’d see you on the back of a horse again, let alone on old Betsy.”
“Yeah, well, it seemed like the right occasion.”
“So is this going to be a great party, or what? Aaaaaal-brecht?” Warren asked. He wore a menacing look, shadowed underneath the old German helmet he’d taken off of some Windsor Badlaw he’d trounced the night before.
“I know why you’re here, Ab,” Deeter jumped in before anyone else spoke. As much as Warren liked to think of himself as their leader, Deeter was the oldest and their final arbiter. “You’re here to ask us not to come into town. This town. Where we were born.”
“Well,” I said, hoping to sound reasonable, “yes. Didn’t you like London?”
“Of course,” said Deeter, smiling, remembering the carnage of his high school prom. “Good times. But that has nothing to do with it.”
“No. You see, Ab, the wedding was just an excuse for our visit. We just don’t have the leeway to overlook someone who’s not committed to the family business.”
I was suddenly alarmed. Until that moment, I’d never seen them as a threat to me, so much as a threat to the rest of the world. Still, something prompted me to ask: “Why not?”
“Well, our work is unambiguous. You’re a little too … diplomatic. This whole emcee business, for instance. You don’t like to do it, but you keep saying yes. Why?”
“Well, it’s an honor to be asked, but more than that … I know I can do a good job.”
“But it doesn’t really fit with the family, does it? We need some help. Otherwise, you know we might have to cut you off.”
I really didn’t like the sound of that. It sounded like something Warren might take literally. “Cut me off?”
“Yeah. We need some help. Direction. Structure. Some stories or jokes to explain what we’re doing. At first, I was really excited that you chose politics. What a great, modern way to bring about the end.”
“It’s always been important in my line,” Warren growled approvingly.
“But now,” Deeter said, “I’m not sure that politics is exactly right. Maybe media would be better. Anyway, we’re sure you’ll come up with the right solution. We’ll give you some time to think about it, and don’t worry, we’re not really going to the wedding. We’re off to the Middle East.”
“The Middle East again?”
“Looove the classics,” shouted Warren. Maniac.
“Remember, little brother,” said Deeter as they rode away, “we need your help. We’ll cut you off if we have to, but we’d rather see you….” His last words were drowned out in the roar of the X-Harleys, and I sat there on Betsy, feeling chilled despite the heat.
They wanted me to be their emcee too.
I turned Betsy around, and she trotted home faithfully. Betsy was a lovely, gentle bay, who’d never done anything wrong in her whole life. She just seemed so happy as we walked along the weed-choked remains of the 401. It was weird to think that I might have to ride her for real.
I got back to London; its people heaved a collective sigh of relief when they found out my brothers were headed elsewhere. Before the ceremony I worked a bit more on my speech, tweaking some of the bits I had planned to do between speakers. I really threw myself into doing a good job, and I did. I was the highlight of the wedding.
Everyone said that I killed.