The Club (4361 words)

The fifty-second President of the United States, James Raulfsen, sat slumped in a wheelchair in a vacant waiting room, his body aching, his head pounding as always. An agent opened the door and held it while the president’s newly assigned doctor entered. A second white-coated figure followed, a man; he took a position on the other side of the room and stood while the first pulled up a chair and sat down. “Mr. President, I’m Dr. Column,” she said.

“I know who you are, goddamnit.”

She held her look of concern. “Sir, we’ve got some results to tell you about. It’s bad, I’m afraid. Your tumor has grown appreciably over the last few days, and we’re going to have to take it out.”

Raulfsen shifted in the chair uncomfortably; his sciatica was throbbing. He wasn’t surprised by this news. “When?”

“We’d like to schedule you for Thursday.”

With some effort, Raulfsen looked up. “This Thursday?” he said, his eyebrows arched.

“Yes.” The doctor held Raulfsen’s gaze. “Every day that we leave it in there, it will grow, and you’ll lose function, sir.”

“Goddamnit.” He had the look of a man who was out of options. There was an awkward silence. “All right then,” Raulfsen said finally. “Thursday.”

Column nodded to her assistant, who left the room, and then she turned back to Raulfsen. “We’d like to go ahead and admit you now, sir. We’ve got a few procedures to do–”

“No,” the president interrupted.

“No?”

“I’ve got to go see Barack before I let you cut my brains out,” he said. “I’ve been promising him for months.”

A beat. “Of course, Mr. President.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “We’re going to get you through this.”

“Yeah, sure you are.” He didn’t sound convinced. “How old are you, Doctor?”

“I’m thirty-eight.”

“Jesus Christ.” The old man sighed and turned away. “You were born during my goddamn presidency.”

“Sir, I want to put a couple of implants while I’m in there, we can improve your brain function and we can–”

“No!” he said, surprisingly strongly. “I don’t want any of that Phoenix crap in my body,” he said. His sentence dissolved into coughs. She waited for him to recover.

“Mr. President, millions of people benefit from these devices,” she said. “Once I get that tumor out, you’re going to need some help with memory and it’s a simple–”

“No,” he said, his head slumped back on his chest. He glanced up at the agent. “Billy, let’s go home.” The Secret Service agent stepped forward and took his place behind the president’s wheelchair. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, Doctor,” the president said as the agent started pushing him toward the door. “But that son-of-a-bitch isn’t going to get any of his crap in me.”

“Sir, President Strunk doesn’t have much to do with Phoenix anymore. You know that as well as I do. It’s his foundation–”

“Foundation, yeah, yeah,” Raulfsen said as the agent pushed him through the door and into the hallway. Column stood in the doorway and watched the agent wheel the president down the corridor.

For the visit to President Obama’s North Carolina compound, Raulfsen used a motorized wheelchair–a Mizitaki, not a Phoenix. He didn’t want the other formers to see him being pushed like an invalid. An agent held the door as he navigated the chair over the threshold and lifted his head painfully to survey the room. Four former presidents were assembled in the large parlor decorated with African art and the Great Seal, Democrats all. Robert Lynn Granger, the fiftieth, and Guadalupe González-Ruiz, the fifty-fifth, sat next to each other on one of the white leather sofas, chatting; Paul Broun, the forty-eighth, stood at the end of the room, freshening his Scotch.

Barack Obama, the forty-fourth, rushed from the patio to greet him, his metallic legs clacking. “Jim, thanks so much for coming,” he said, striding powerfully, his silver hand extended. Obama was careful to shake gently, modulating his grip. The boyish, toothy grin was instantly familiar if increasingly incongruous on the face of a 132-year-old man. “You look good today.”

“I look terrible, goddamnit,” Raulfsen replied sourly. “I look terrible and I feel worse.”

“Jim, you want a drink?” Broun called over from the wetbar.

“I’d love one,” Raulfsen replied. “But the docs got me on these drugs, I can’t.”

Obama kneeled next to his chair so as to level their eyes. “Jim, it doesn’t have to be this way. They can fix you up. It’s crazy not to–”

“I don’t want any of that son-of-a-bitch’s technology in me,” Raulfsen said, surprisingly strongly. He gripped Obama’s arm, feeling the titanium under the plasticoat sleeve. “No.”

“Jim, that was decades ago,” Obama said.

“You’re still mad about Pemberton?” González-Ruiz called over, her voice lilting with the merest hint of an accent. “That was a long time ago, Jimmy. Nobody remembers it anymore but you. Give it up already.”

“You’re damn right I’m still mad about it,” he responded. Pemberton was the name the media had given for a series of embarrassing funding scandals that occurred in 2036, the last year of President Strunk’s second administration. Raulfsen had tried to distance himself from it, but as Strunk’s vice president, he was intimately involved. The scandal had been an ever-present albatross around his neck during the difficult campaign; Raulfsen won–barely–but the issue dogged his presidency. Strunk’s memoirs, published in 2039, hinted that as vice president, Raulfsen could have handled the matter better, and that proved to be the nail in the coffin for his re-election. It was the final straw in his tense relationship with his former mentor. They hadn’t spoken in decades; Raulfsen nursed the resentment, refusing to take Strunk’s reconciliatory overtures. He even refused to attend President Rubio’s funeral in 2061 because Strunk was slated to speak.

Strunk’s post-presidential career had been in the field of prosthetic medicine through his Phoenix Foundation, which lent its name to the most popular and successful commercial line of wearable and implantable biosupport devices. The commercials–they featured a rabbit on mechanical pogo legs who was forever escaping the clutches of a predator wolf styled as Father Time–were everywhere. Ramp up your power with the new 50 EB Phoenix memory implant! one exhorted. Replace your tired legs with the Phoenix Fusion bottom-half exoskeleton! another exclaimed. There were implantable mechanical devices to replace the pancreas, the kidney, and the liver; there were tiny robots that could clean the insides of arteries and scrape plaque from nerves; there were on-demand ATP generators for that Extra boost of energy! for the brain, Phoenix produced cognitive network wetware and wireless retinal scaffolds for enhanced vision. But human jealousy and resentment of perceived wrongs were a powerful force: Raulfsen refused to use any of the Phoenix devices.

“Jim, you’re being ridiculous,” Granger said from the sofa. “You need these devices. They’re used on millions of people. You’re a former President of the United States, for God’s sake. Nobody wants to see you in a wheelchair.” The other formers looked at Jim warily to see how he would respond.

“Fuck off, Bob,” he said angrily. “Fuck all of you.”

The group frowned at each other as Obama sat down near the wheelchair. “Jim, we only want what’s best. We’ve got something to discuss with you,” he said, waving Broun to the other sofa. When Broun was settled, Obama continued. “Now, we’re all friends here, just a bunch of former government employees,” he said, the boyish grin turned to maximum. “So I’ll just say it. We all know you’ve got a brain tumor.”
Raulfsen looked from face to concerned face. “How the hell do you know that?”

“I’m the senior living former president, Jim,” Obama said. “I know things. I can find out things.”

“Jim, since Gail died, we’ve all been worried about you,” González-Ruiz said, leaning forward. Obama leaned back, thinking that a feminine voice might do better. “There have been a lot of advances lately, a couple of breakthroughs that aren’t public yet, and there’s one in particular that could be of some use to you now.”

“Phoenix?”

González-Ruiz looked away. “Yes, but before you say no, Jim, let’s just think about this a minute.”

“You’ve got a problem. Phoenix’s got a device that can help.” Obama said, his hands spread wide, the flesh one spotted and gnarled, the artificial one shiny and strong. “It’s just as simple as that.”

“No,” Raulfsen said.

Granger cleared his throat. “Jim, the procedure you’re going to undergo on Thursday has only about a one-in-twenty chance of succeeding. You know that, don’t you?”

Broun swirled his glass and inspected the results. “He knows it, Bob. He’s just a stubborn ass.”

“And even if you don’t die on the table, what if you’re left, you know–disabled?” Granger got up and strode over to the window. “What then, Jim?”

“I’m disabled now, goddamnit.”

“No, I mean really disabled,” Granger said as he gazed out over the fifth green. “As in can’t speak. As in hooked up to machines. As in can’t wipe your own ass.”

“We’ve got something that can help,” Obama said. “What if you could get a little insurance before you go under the knife on Thursday? A little hedge in case the worst happens?”

“Insurance?”

“That’s right, Jim. Insurance. In case you don’t wake up.”

“It’s a Phoenix product,” González-Ruiz said, concern worrying the edges of her fine skin. “But that doesn’t have anything to do with anything. It works. What else matters?”

Raulfsen did not respond.

Granger, the old wheeler-dealer, turned from the window and shifted into salesman mode. “What we’re suggesting, Jim, is a quick, easy, and painless procedure. I had it done a few years back myself.” The other presidents looked at him uneasily, but he continued. “It’s no big deal, really. They put you to sleep, you wake up, and it’s done.”

“What the hell are you talking about, exactly,” Raulfsen said.

“Jim,” Gonzalez-Ruiz started, “what they do is make a copy of your brain. They make a copy and store it. Then, if the surgery doesn’t work or, God forbid, you die on the table, then–”

There was a moment of awkward silence. “Then what?” Raulfsen said.

“Then maybe something can be done,” Broun answered.

“It’s just a precaution,” Obama said. “There’s no reason not to take advantage of the technology,” he said. “Pat Strunk doesn’t have anything to do with it.” Raulfsen tensed at the mention of the name, and Obama pivoted to his theme. “They can do the procedure in a couple of hours once you’re asleep, just before your surgery on Thursday, all right? What do you say, Jim?”

After a few moments of scowling in silence, the fifty-second President of the United States nodded, and Broun rose. “Excellent. I knew you’d come around Jim.” He stepped off toward the adjacent office to make the arrangements.

“You’re doing the right thing, Jimmy,” Gonzalez-Ruiz said brightly. She rose spryly for a woman nearly 100 years old, crossed the distance and kissed Raulfsen on his stubbly cheek before he could pull away.

“She’s right, Jim,” Obama said. “You’re making your old friends very happy.”

Two days later, Raulfsen was on a gurney being wheeled into surgery. “All right, Mr. President,” the anesthesiologist said, patting him on the shoulder. “I’m Dr. Patterson, I’ll be taking care of your pain medication today.” He gave no response. Patterson consulted her clipboard. “Are you comfortable?”

“No,” Raulfsen grunted, but she held her smile as she adjusted the bag from which a tube emerged and inserted into his arm at the elbow. “I’m going to put a little something in here to make you drowsy, all right? And then we’ll get you to sleep in a few minutes, and you’ll wake up in recovery.”

“Yeah.”

The doctor opened a port and squirted clear fluid into the tube that led to his arm. She sat down on a stool beside the bed and put her hand on his shoulder. “Don’t be afraid, sir. I’m going to stay with you until this is over.” Her tenderness brought the water to his eyes; he wouldn’t have thought it possible, but Gail had been gone a long time, and he missed the tenderness of women–especially now. He stared at the doctor’s young face until his eyes got heavy; in another minute, he was asleep. The Phoenix people were outside, and Patterson waved them in, sliding her stool back against the wall as they opened boxes of equipment and began their work.

As Patterson watched, the Phoenix men placed a helmet brimming with wires and leads on Raulfsen’s head, then inserted the wires one by one into a complicated-looking, refrigerator-sized box on wheels. The two technicians at the president’s head turned dials and levers, making adjustment to the helmet while one technician at the box moved his hands over its complex controls. After about 45 minutes, one of them turned to Patterson. “Okay, we’re done here.”

“That was quick,” she said. “I thought it would take a couple of hours.”

“We’ve improved our process,” the technician said as he collected cables and leads. The three of them removed the helmet and wheeled the box, along with its associated equipment, out of the room. “All yours, Doc,” the technician said on the way out.

By the time Raulfsen had been wheeled into the operating theater, Dr. Column and the surgical team had briefed the Secret Service, reviewed the procedure, run three trials on the simulator, and were scrubbing in the anteroom adjacent to the operating room. They filed in and took their positions.

“Everyone ready?” Column asked, looking around the room and making eye contact with each of her staff. Each murmured in turn. “All right then, let’s mark the start at 4:27 pm,” she said, looking up at the sweep-hand clock that was mounted behind glass, high up. Across from the clock was the viewing gallery, which Column and the other doctors and staff ignored but which enclosed a Secret Service agent and a representative of the Phoenix Foundation.

Over the course of the next hour and a half, Column and her team worked on Raulfsen, murmuring between themselves, observations and coordinating comments interspersed with light conversation. From the gallery, it was impossible to tell for sure how things were going, and the observers there knew better than to ask, but the Secret Service agent was sensitive to body language as a sign of tension, and he knew before any of the others.

At 8 pm, Column pulled away from the patient, stood up, and cast her gaze up at the gallery window, where the agent was watching her intently. She made eye contact with one of them and shook her head back and forth; the man seemed to understand this and disappeared. “Chip, you close.” she said. “I’ll go talk to our friends upstairs. Mark the time of death as eight o’clock exactly.” Chip nodded and Column stepped through the theater’s swinging doors and into the scrub room, where she peeled off her gloves and started washing her hands. She heard steps on the stairs outside the other door, and in a moment, the agent and the Phoenix Foundation’s representative were standing beside her. “The nerve entwinement was too severe to support a dissection,” Column said. “When I interrupted the tumor’s blood supply, the reaction included a fatal disruption of nerve function, resulting in myopathial collapse and the death of the president’s brain. Systemic disruption of organ functions followed.”

The representative was jotting on a pad from his pocket. “We’ll need to inspect the body,” he said.

“Make your arrangements with the coroner, he’ll be down in just a moment.” Column responded. The representative clicked his pen and returned it to his pocket as the agent held the door and Column departed to complete her own report. There would be forms to fill out, and a press pool to brief, but comments had been prepared. 

Time passed. After a long period of darkness, Raulfsen became aware of a voice, far away, calling his name; Jim-my! Jim-my! He recognized the sing-song rhythm–it was his brother, Kenneth, calling him the way he used to do. He had idolized Kenneth, who had been a full decade older than he was; Jimmy had been ten when Kenneth was killed at Aleppo.

“Jim-my!” The voice was louder now, and Raulfsen opened his eyes.

He was in a hospital bed. The operation was over.

In the next second, it occurred to him that the old pain in his back was gone. The ache of his arthritic feet was gone. The throbbing of the veins in his legs was gone. No pain at all. He lay there for a few moments, afraid to move, sure that the aches and pains would come crashing back to him at any moment. But instead, a face swam into his field of vision.

“Mr. President, can you hear me? Don’t try to talk, sir. The operation is over.”

Raulfsen gingerly turned his head to look into the doctor’s eyes. She turned her head. “Can he hear me?” and then a voice from somewhere in the room responded Probably. She turned back. “Mr. President, you’re going to be all right.” Column smiled. “In fact, you’re going to be better than all right.” Her face disappeared and then he heard voices ask about whether he could move or speak–the answers were yes and yes. Then Column’s face returned. “Sir, we’ve got to tell you about something before we get you up and going.”

“What?” Raulfsen mumbled breathily.

“Well, sir, I’m afraid–” Column looked uncomfortable. “I’m afraid you died on the operating table.”

A moment went by as Raulfsen registered this revelation. “Died?” he mumbled. Already his voice was stronger.

“That’s correct, sir. You see, the tumor was too entwined with your nervous system, and when I cut off its blood supply, it responded with–” Her face turned to profile. “Can he understand me?” Yes, the voice returned. He’ll be up and standing in an hour. Then she was back. “Mr. President, you died on the table.”

“No–” Raulfsen said, stronger. “I– I’m not– dead.” Column frowned and reached down to press a lever that raised the head of the bed up; Raulfsen’s body responded, and as it did, his eyes grew wide with surprise. “Doesn’t– hurt–” he said. He was getting stronger by the moment. His head moved side to side, exploring. “It doesn’t hurt– Doctor. What– What did you do to– me?”

“Mr. President, you died on the operating table. We didn’t have any choice.” She looked over at the Phoenix representative, who nodded. “We put your downloaded brain into a new body. A Phoenix body.” At the word phoenix, Raulfsen frowned, but then he brought his hands up to his face, looking at them, turning them over, inspecting them. They were the hands of a healthy sixty-year-old man, strong and capable. The scar from the war was there on his palm, but there were no painful swellings at the joints. His frown disappeared as he worked his hands open and closed. “Phoenix used your old body as a pattern for the new one, for this one–” she touched his chest. “It’s the same as it was, only the problems are all gone.”

“Doctor,” the president’s eyes were wet, but he was smiling.

“I know, sir. It’s an experimental technology. You’re the seventeenth person in the world to receive one. This one–” she touched his arm “–this one is the most advanced model yet.” The Phoenix man pushed the sheet up, exposing Raulfsen’s feet and legs, pulling cables and leads away. His limbs were no longer twisted and swollen with pain and disease, but perfectly normal, healthy and strong. He continued pulling the cover away until Raulfsen was naked on the bed–his chest, his arms, his abdomen, all of his body was whole, restored, capable.

Raulfsen rose from the waist, and again his eyes widened to see that he could do it without pain, without struggle. “Oh, my God,” he said as he looked down at his body. His smile grew. “Doctor, it’s amazing. I feel so–” a single tear ran down his distinguished, tanned face, and his voice was thick. “–young.”

“And you’ll stay that way, Mr. President,” the Phoenix representative said. “For as long as you want.” Raulfsen swung his legs around and his feet touched the floor. “Can I walk?” he asked.

“Sure,” the Phoenix man said. “Give it a try.”

Raulfsen pushed himself off the bed and stood, wobbly only for a second or two, and then stepped forward, once, twice, thrice. By the fourth step, he was confident, too shocked by what he was able to do to care that he was completely naked. He was smiling broadly. He stuck his hand out, and Column automatically reached for it and shook–it was the confident grip of a man who had been given his life back. “Doctor, I don’t know what to say.”

“You’re welcome, sir.”

Raulfsen looked from face to face–Column, the Phoenix man, the Secret Service agent. “Now what?”

“Now, let’s get you dressed,” Column said. An attendant came in to help Raulfsen, but he didn’t need any help. He put on underclothes, dark blue pants, a light blue shirt, socks and shoes, and a jacket with the Great Seal embroidered on the chest. Once dressed, he assessed the room as he did in the old days when he was a young vice president with his eye on the big prize, smiled broadly, and said “Billy, I want to go see the formers.”

The Secret Service agent was the first to respond. “Yes, sir,” he said, holding the door open. “They thought you might like to stop by.”

The parlor was just the same—the occupants were the same. But this time, Raulfsen didn’t motor in–he strode proudly, dressed sharply, as he once dressed. He stepped to meet Obama’s greeting. “Jim, you look great,” he said, the boyish, toothy grin once again on maximum. “I’m so glad you came around.”

González-Ruiz embraced him, her hand sliding playfully over his rear as she kissed his cheek, a little closer to the corner of his mouth than she had before. “Jimmy, you handsome bastard. You always did make my heart go pitter-patter.” He was conscious of her toned body during the embrace.

Broun and Granger also greeted him warmly. “How do you feel, boy?” Granger said, gripping his hand. “Everything works again, doesn’t it?” he leered and then laughed.

Raulfsen had to smile at that. “It sure does, Bob,” he said, and he was suddenly conscious of the fact that González-Ruiz was staring at him.

“I hope you’ll have time for squash at some point, Jim,” Broun said. “I gave up golf, that’s for old people. I’ve been back in the court the last couple of years now. You used to be a pretty good player.”

The five of them chatted comfortably, and when Obama had freshened everyone’s drink, he wandered casually over to Raulfsen’s shoulder. “Jim, there’s someone else here I’d like you to say hello to.” He nodded, and the fifty-fourth President of the United States, Patrick Devonte Strunk, stepped around the corner. He stopped, eyeing Raulfsen warily as Raulfsen eyed him back. A moment went by, then Raulfsen stepped toward Strunk, his hand out. “Mr. President,” he said.

“Oh, for God’s sake, Jim, don’t be ridiculous,” Strunk said, taking his hand and shaking it. The shake turned into a hug, and there was a murmur of approval from the other presidents. The two men separated, but their arms were still around each other. “Pat, I was a fool,” Raulfsen started. “I–”

“Forget about it, Jimmy,” he said. “This technology is going to change everything.”

“I blamed you for not being re-elected, but–”

“I said forget about it, already,” Strunk said, his smile broad and glowing.

“Thank you, Pat,” Raulfsen said, releasing him.

The group moved over to the leather sofas, sitting down and sipping their drinks. Someone turned the panel on the far wall on, and a captioned news feed was displayed. All of the former presidents were news junkies–most kept one eye on it as they conversed. “We did the first testing series on animals,” Strunk was saying, stirring his rum and coke with a plastic straw. “Then we used humans in Russia, condemned prisoners,” he said. “We never could have done that here. The first two or three didn’t work, but we refined the interlink and continued to make progress. The fourth one was the first success.”

“Phoenix said I was the seventeenth,” Raulfsen said, suddenly recalling Column’s off-handed comment in the hospital. “Who else?” There was an awkward silence as the formers looked at each other. González-Ruiz was the first one to speak. “Jimmy, I was fourteen,” she said.

“You?” he said, disbelieving.

“Of course!” the former president responded. “Come on–you think these are mine?” She gestured at her chest.

“I’m number twelve, Jimmy,” Granger said, his smile widening.

Raulfsen looked over at Broun, who emptied his drink and then nodded. “Ten.”

Obama was looking over González-Ruiz’ head at the news feed. He rose and stepped towards it, seeing that Raulfsen was looking at him.

“Jim, I’m one of the early models,” he laughed. “Number four.” The television feed showed the current President of the United States, Kim Sung-min, who was at a podium in the Rose Garden.

The other formers were turning to the screen now. “What’s that sneaky devil doing now?” Gonzalez-Ruiz asked from her position on the sofa.

Broun was staring at it too. “He’s just drumming up support for the mid-terms,” he said.

“The mid-terms are twenty months away, Paul,” Granger said disinterestedly. “Better to give some attention to that mess in Brazil.”

Raulfsen was standing next to Obama at the screen, closely observing President Kim as he bounded across the green grass. He was not a young man, but his step was strong, confident, powerful. “He’s not–” Raulfsen started.

“Yeah he is, too,” Obama said, boyish grin on maximum. “Kim was number sixteen, Jim. Welcome to the club.”

Author:

Banjo player bringing the banjo to your town, hamlet, burg, village, and whistle-stop!

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