With a great shuddering sigh, Bronwen snapped shut her laptop and leaned back in her seat. She was overcome with horror. ’A million dead,’ she muttered, massaging her temples. ‘One fucking million. And it’s all my fault.’
The virus had spread faster than anyone could have predicted. Except for the experts, of course — but who cared about them? The world had grown tired of experts; they kept harshing the vibe for normal, decent people like Bro. All they had to offer was doom and gloom; it had been like that for decades. It was just three weeks ago that she had finally snapped — but already, it felt like years. So much had changed.
She sighed again, then reopened the laptop to watch her infamous video yet again.
It opened with the winged-sword logo from Bro’s hit show, ‘Hard Men: Fuck Yeah!’, accompanied by overdramatic widdly guitar music. After a few seconds, the logo faded out to be replaced by a closeup of Bro’s face, staring heroically into the camera. Then Bro said: ’Hi there. I’m Brock Antleton, Hardest Man In The Whole Fucking World.’ A manly finger stabbed towards the camera. ’Nobody fucks with me. Not even Death.’
Bro gave a fearless grin before continuing: ‘Now then. You might have heard about this fucking virus. They’re calling it Corona, after the beer, which is a bit of a headfuck cos beer’s got fuck all to do with it. You can’t catch it from beer, and anyone who says different’s a fuckwit, alright? It’s safe to drink beer; in fact, it’s fucking recommended. How the fuck can you be a hard man if you don’t drink beer?’
Brock frowned. ‘What was I saying? Oh yeah. A lot of people are worried about the virus. But I’m not fucking worried, cos I’m well hard. And probably if you’re watching this you’re hard too, so you have nothing to worry about. If you’re weak you might be in a spot of bother — mainly old people, sick people, poofters, and the fucking Chinese. But if you’re not in that category, calm the fuck down, okay? Just eat plenty of meat and avoid lentils and weird foreign stuff like bats or curry. Don’t listen to the fucking experts — they’re out to cause trouble. They want to turn us all into queers or something. I dunno what their game is but my mate Dave’s been looking into it. He’s well hard too, plus he’s clever, so I’d rather listen to him than these weak fucking experts who can’t even manage ten press-ups without shitting their pants. What we need is some common sense. So take my fucking advice: beer and meat. No lentils or other foreign muck. Plenty of exercise. And that’s all I have to say on the subject. Brock Antleton, signing off — stay hard out there. Fuck yeah!’
And with that, the screen faded to black. The winged sword reappeared for a few more seconds, and the video ended.
Bronwen closed her laptop again, and then her eyes. ‘Jesus Christ,’ she said to herself. ‘What a fucking twat.’
Of course, there was no way she could have known how popular that video would become; still less that it would be viewed and shared by President Tantrumb himself, and used as a basis for US policy. There was no way Bro could possibly have known that. And yet it had happened, with catastrophic results. A million dead in the USA alone — and all that blood was on Bronwen’s hands; on her hands only.
Something had to be done.
Four hours later, Bronwen was ready. Of course, she had been born ready, born Brock. But now, as Bronwen, she was readier than ever. She was her true self at last — but inside, she hadn’t changed a bit. She remained Bro, to the fucking max. She was well hard. And only she could save the world.
The jet pack was fuelled up and ready to go. Her makeup was done, her nails immaculate. She was dressed to kill, a ninja in six-inch stiletto heels, black as night and twice as deadly. She admired her toes in the mirror, and grunted in satisfaction. I’m beautiful, she told herself. I’m brave. And above all, I’m stunning.
Strapping on the jet pack, Bronwen made her way to the back door. She paused only to collect Nibbles — her emotional support hamster — from his cage, and tuck him into her front pocket along with a generous handful of sunflower seeds. Then she stepped into the garden, locked the door behind her, and blasted off into the night.
Bro was most of the way across the Atlantic when the fuel gauge bleeped an alarm. This was not unexpected, and she knew just what to do. Ascending a little further, she scanned the waves below, made sight of a fishing trawler a short distance to the north, and changed direction to intercept. As she neared the vessel she switched the jet pack to whisper mode and began a slow descent towards the deck. She landed in near-perfect silence and moved quickly to take cover behind a large stack of plastic crates filled with flash-frozen fish — haddock, perhaps, or cod.
From her refuge behind the crates, Bro scanned the deck in search of a fuel canister, but saw none. She cursed under her breath — she had hoped to avoid all contact with the crew, and thus the possibility of contagion. But the situation could not be helped. She drew her weapon, flicked off the safety, and stepped into the open. Stealthily, she made her way toward the lighted cabin. Perhaps, if she asked nicely — if she explained the situation — they would provide a few litres of kerosene and send her on her way. But if not, she was well-prepared for violence. Nobody ever said saving the world would be easy. As the adrenaline began to flow, Bronwen patted gently at her front pocket, and felt Nibbles stir in response. As always, she was glad of his presence; without him, it would be all too easy to lose control of her emotions. It had happened before, during filming, and—
She pushed the thought away, and brought herself back to the present. Stay sharp, she told herself; focus on the mission.
She had reached the door to the cabin. From inside, she heard muffled voices, but it was impossible to make out the words. She paused to take some deep, slow breaths, and patted once more at her pocket. Then she raised her hand, knocked three times on the steel door, and stepped back. The voices stopped immediately, then resumed in a different tone: hushed, confused, perhaps a little worried. Bro cocked the gun, and dropped it casually to her side. She would use it only if she had to.
The door creaked open, and a head poked out to look around. A Chinese! Bronwen didn’t hesitate; she shot twice, then shoved the man’s falling body aside and burst in.
‘Don’t move or you’re fucking dead!’ she screamed.
Three men sat at the table, dumfounded. To Bro they looked foreign, but they did not appear Chinese. A lucky break; they probably weren’t contagious. They’d been in the middle of a card game — bridge or rummy or whatever, not that Bro gave a fuck about that shit.
‘Fuel,’ she said. ‘I need fuel. Kerosene.’
The men stared at her blankly, now terrified, for several seconds before one plucked up the courage to speak.
‘No money,’ he said. ‘Only fish.’
‘Did I ask for fucking money?’ said Bro. ‘Or fish? Stick it up your arse for all I care. I need fuel for my fucking jet pack. About ten litres should do it. Give me that, and I’ll fuck right off.’
‘Why you kill Wong? He only fisherman, like us. No trouble.’ The man frowned. ‘Why you wear wig?’
‘I’ll ask the fucking questions, alright? Where you from?’
‘Where do you come from?’
‘United States. Baltimore. We have license. My name Raj. All good!’
‘Baltimore.’ Bro nodded. ‘And originally?’
‘They speak English in What?’
‘Fuck’s sake,’ muttered Bronwen. ‘Never mind. Where can I get some fucking fuel? Chop chop.’
The men looked at one another, confused. They spoke briefly in some kind of foreign gobbledegook. Bro couldn’t understand a word. She was beginning to feel faint. She touched her front pocket again for emotional support. Nibbles is fine, she told herself; I’m fine. Whatever may come, we’ll get through it together.
‘Fuel!’ she bellowed. ‘Fucking kerosene. You must have some. For the fucking engine?’
‘Ahh, kerosene!’ said Raj. ‘Yes, we have. You want?’
‘Yes, you fucking moron. I want!’
‘Okay, okay. No problem! Please, put gun down. It no need.’
‘I’m in charge here, you cunt.’
‘Yes, yes! You big man here! No argue.’
’What did you say?’ said Bronwen, turning crimson. ’What the fuck did you just say?’ She rotated her wrist to point the gun directly at Raj’s head.
‘You big man!’ spluttered Raj desperately. ‘You boss! We give kerosene, yessir, no problem!’
‘It’s ma’am,’ replied Bro, cold as ice. ‘Ma’am. Capiche?’
‘Err,’ said Raj. ‘Okay. I get kerosene, yes?’ He pointed across the room, towards a rusting steel locker. ‘In cupboard. Plenty.’
‘Not you. Him.’ Bro pointed at the man closest to the locker.
‘Okay, okay,’ said Raj. Then he gabbled something at the other man, who nodded and stood up.
‘Slowly. Tell him, Raj.’
Raj translated this; the other man nodded again, then made his way gingerly over to the locker. He opened it, and after a brief rummage, pulled out a large jerry-can. Trembling, he stepped forward and held it out to Bro.
‘Kerosene,’ said Raj. ‘For you, please.’
‘Cheers,’ said Bro, taking it. ‘Now that wasn’t so fucking hard, was it?’
Twenty minutes later, Bronwen reached the US coast at New Jersey. Another half-hour, and she was high above Delaware. Thirty minutes after that, she had crossed Maryland and was nearing DC. She switched back to whisper mode and activated the jet pack’s anti-radar systems to begin her final approach to the White House.
When she reached the West Wing, she spotted a security team in the Rose Garden below, and deployed a cloud of non-lethal micro-munitions. A few seconds later, the men collapsed to the ground silently as their brains were deactivated. It had something to do with low frequency EMPs, apparently — Bro was hazy on the details, but the results were certainly impressive. The team would remain unconscious for three hours, perhaps more. They would awake unharmed, but with a headache severe enough to make them vomit. Still, Bro would have to move fast.
She made a perfect touchdown just outside the Oval Office, and peered through the window. The president was sitting at his desk eating a cheap burger and fries, masturbating furiously and peering down at his phone. There was no time to waste. Bronwen grabbed a security key from a member of the downed team, scanned it through the electronic lock, then quietly opened the door and walked in. President Tantrumb didn’t so much as look up; he just shovelled more fries into his mouth. Within a couple of seconds Bro had crossed the short distance between them, and had her gun pressed up against Tantrumb’s temple.
‘One move and I’ll blow your fucking brains out,’ she hissed. ‘Mr President.’
Incredibly, Tantrumb continued to masturbate. ‘That’s hot,’ he said. ‘Unbelievable. Hot, like you wouldn’t believe. How old are you? You remind me of my daughter. So hot, I’d like to… ohhh Malinka, I’m gonna—’
’That’s enough,’ interrupted Bronwen, now desperate. ‘Take your hands off your cock right now.’
‘Oooohhhh,’ moaned Tantrumb. ‘Yeah, baby. That’s it!’
Bro felt something land on her toes. She didn’t dare look down; she could imagine it all too well; it would be green, she thought; green and slimy.
‘That was tremendous,’ said the President. ‘You’re a real piece of ass, you know that? Those shoes, baby. So sexy. So, so sexy. Really. You wouldn’t believe the shoes.’
‘Shut the fuck up, pervert. You’re coming with me.’
‘Okay, yeah. I’d like that a lot. Can I finish my burger?’
‘You can take it with you. But put your cock away first.’
Tantrumb grinned at her. ’Why don’t you put it away for me?’
Bro pressed the gun harder against Tantrumb’s head. ‘Do it.’
‘Sure,’ Tantrumb nodded, then reached down to tuck himself in.
Bronwen reached into her backpack and pulled out a gag and a length of rope, which she placed on the desk before rummaging around again to retrieve a small folder. ‘I’m going to tie you up. But first, I want you to sign these papers.’ She opened the folder and pushed a small stack of paperwork across the desk, then handed Tantrumb a pen.
‘Oh, fuck yeah,’ said the President. ‘Where’ve you been all my—‘
Bro slapped his face. ‘This is not a sex thing,’ she said. ‘I’m here to save the world. Sign here, please.’
‘Fantastic,’ said Tantrumb, adding his scrawl to the first page. ‘Can I help?’
‘No,’ said Bronwen. ‘I don’t think you can.’
‘That’s too bad,’ replied Tantrumb, working his way through the documents. ‘Cos there’s no-one better. I’ve saved the world many times. Every day, if you really want to know. Every day. Not all the time. But constantly. I’m a very heroic person. It’s incredi—‘
At last, Bronwen forced the gag into Tantrumb’s mouth, and began to tie him up.
‘Mmmff,’ managed the president. ‘Mmoogh.’
‘Alright,’ said Bronwen. ‘Time to go.’
She collected the remains of Tantrumb’s meal and stuffed them into her rucksack. Then she slung the president over her shoulders and carried him out through the doors to the Rose Garden. There Bro reactivated her jet pack and flew up to dump Tantrumb on the roof inside a small tent, which she affixed firmly to a chimney stack. After a moment’s thought, she used another length of rope to attach the President to the chimney as well. Now at least he couldn’t wriggle his way to the edge and fall off.
‘You’ll be safe here,’ she said. ‘For a while, at least. I’ll be back to check on you in an hour or two.’ She placed his half-eaten burger and fries by his side, then checked her watch.
‘Mmph-mm,’ said Tantrumb. ‘Mmmfff!’
‘I’ll be back later,’ said Bro, removing the gag. ‘I have a couple of things to do first.’
She jetted back down to the Rose Garden and re-entered the Oval Office, this time locking the door shut behind her. After stashing her jet pack in a closet, she found a box of tissues sitting on the big desk (the ‘Resolute Desk’, if she was not mistaken). Bronwen quickly wiped away the Presidential semen, which had spilled across the carpet as well as her feet. She flushed the tissues down the toilet, then washed and dried her hands thoroughly. She checked her nails and makeup, straightened her wig, and smoothed down her eyebrows before leaving. She made her way back to the Resolute Desk, then reached into her front pocket to retrieve Nibbles, who under the circumstances appeared in excellent spirits. She held him for a few moments, stroking his belly, before placing him on the desk, just in front of the big leather chair. She shook a few more sunflower seeds from the packet and placed them nearby. Nibbles immediately set to work stuffing them into his cheek-pouches.
A moment later, there came a knock on the door. Bronwen had been expecting this. ‘Stay calm, my friend,’ she murmured. ‘It’s gonna be fine.’ But Nibbles was far too busy to respond.
‘Come in,’ said Bronwen, raising her voice.
The door swung open to admit the White House Press Secretary, Steffi Grimes, armed to the teeth with a clipboard — bubblegum pink and covered in sparkles. She caught sight of Bronwen and screamed. ‘Security! Security!’
‘I am the fucking security,’ growled Bro. ‘Did you miss the memo?’
‘What?’ Steffi frowned. ‘A memo?’
‘Yes, a fucking memo.’ Bro turned to glare at Nibbles. ‘Mr President?’
Nibbles said nothing, but continued stuffing his cheeks.
Bro sighed in exasperation. ‘Some things never change.’
Steffi stared at Nibbles open-mouthed for several seconds. ‘That’s a hamster,’ she managed.
‘That is correct,’ said Bro.
Just then, a contingent of security guards arrived, guns drawn. ‘Hands behind your head,’ yelled one — presumably the commanding officer. ‘Don’t move or we’ll shoot!’
‘What the fuck?’ exclaimed Bronwen, complying. ‘Are you really this fucking incompetent?’ She shook her head. ‘I’d heard the stories, but this… I mean, fucking hell! It’s beyond parody.’
‘Who the hell are you?’ demanded Steffi.
‘Fuck’s sake.’ Bro sighed in exasperation. ’My name’s Bronwen Antleton. I’m the President’s personal security consultant.’ She inclined her head towards the hamster.
’Since when?’ demanded the security chief.
‘Today. Did you not get the memo either?’
‘No, we did not.’
‘Ah. Well, as you know President Tantrumb can be fucking absent-minded at times. I’m sure he can clear this shit up, though.’ She turned once more to speak to Nibbles. ‘Right, President Tantrumb?’
‘That’s a hamster.’
‘Yeah. No flies on you, eh? You’ll find the paperwork right there. It’s all in order, I assure you. Now would you lower your fucking guns please?’
‘Where the fuck is President Tantrumb?’
‘Are you blind? He’s right there, eating his dinner.’
‘What is going on here?’ cried Steffi.
‘The President has transitioned. He identifies as a hamster now. I told him it would cause trouble, but he was adamant. I suggested he put the thing in writing but as fucking usual he forgot to distribute the memo.’
‘You’re telling me the President is now a hamster?’ cried Steffi. ‘Do you really expect me to believe that?’
‘Sure.’ Bro shrugged. ’Am I not a woman?’
‘But, but…’ spluttered Steffi. ‘That’s not the same thing!’
‘Of course it is.’
‘Wait a minute,’ said the security chief. ‘You’re Brock Antleton, the Hardest Man In the Whole Fucking World! Aren’t you?’
‘Bronwen. Brock is my deadname. But fuck yeah.’
‘Oh, wow! I’ve always wanted to meet you! You’re my hero!’
The rest of the team nodded and murmured their agreement.
‘Heroine,’ said Bro.
‘I’m a woman. So it’s not “hero”. It’s “heroine”.’
‘Oh. Yes, of course. Sure. So you’re the hardest… woman?… in the whole fucking world?’
Bronwen shrugged. ‘I would fucking think so, yeah.’ She sighed. ‘Look, I know it’s confusing. If it helps, you can just call me Bro.’
‘Bro,’ grinned the chief. ‘Fuck yeah! Alright guys — lower your weapons.’
‘Wait,’ said Steffi. ‘Let’s take a look at those papers.’ She walked over to the desk, picked them up, and read quickly through the contents. ‘Oh Lordy,’ she muttered. ‘It’s this for real?’ She read them again, then sighed in resignation. ‘This —’ she held up the top sheet ‘— is an executive order to the effect that President Tantrumb henceforth identifies as a hamster… named Nibbles.’
‘President Nibbles,’ said Bro, holding up a finger.
‘Yes. It also says that in the interests of the continued smooth running of this administration, and to avoid undue confusion and distress to the People, we may continue to call him Tantrumb until such time, etc etc.’
‘That was my idea,’ said Bronwen. ‘And it wasn’t fucking easy to persuade him, believe me.’
‘Yes, we all know how difficult the President can be.’ Steffi sighed. ‘Alright boys, lower your weapons, please. I guess this’ll have to go through legal, but that can wait. Right now we’ve got much bigger problems.’
‘Ah, yes. The pandemic.’
‘That’s right.’ Steffi checked her watch. ‘The President’s due to address the nation in less than half an hour. I came here to brief him, but… well, now he’s a hamster.’
’I get you.’ Bronwen thought for a moment. ‘How about some subtitles?’
’Hm,’ replied Steffi, considering. ‘You know, this could be a lucky break.’
‘Really?’ said Bro. ’You think?’
The broadcast began with an image of the US flag. Old Glory rippled gently across the screen, accompanied by a recording of the national anthem — first verse only. Then it cut to a feed of the Oval Office. President Nibbles sat in the centre of the Resolute Desk, his beady eyes focused on the camera in an expression of utter gormlessness. He clutched a bit of carrot in his paws as the subtitles rolled across the screen below:
My fellow Americans. Today marks a turning point in our history in more ways than one. For over seventy years, I have been living a lie, but at last I must speak the truth — I am, and have always been, a hamster. But I am also an American. And today, we Americans find ourselves in an unprecedented situation. As I speak to you this evening, the deadly coronavirus continues to ravage this great nation. Over a million of our fellow citizens have died, with twenty million infected by this foreign scourge upon our land.
Suddenly Nibbles dropped the carrot. His left rear paw twitched twice, then disappeared in a blur as he scratched furiously at his haunch.
The greatest land, really. You wouldn’t believe how great. Tremendously great. And pure. This is the greatest, purest country in history, the greatest ever. Let’s give ourselves a hand! Yes. We’re great. I promised to make America great again. Remember that? Of course you do. Did I keep my promise? I always, all my promises, I keep them. Well, not all, but I keep them.
Nibbles tipped forward clumsily to land on his feet. His whiskers twitched as he sniffed the air. He began to waddle slowly offscreen.
But this virus, it’s serious. You wouldn’t believe how serious it is. So, so serious. Until now, I didn’t realise how serious it was. It’s bad, I admit it. I do. And I won’t say I’m not perfect, but I’m pretty great. And I’ve been talking to a lot of people. Good people. The best. And I have to tell you now, and I mean it — you need to stay indoors.
Before Nibbles could disappear from the shot, a hand entered it; well-manicured with bright purple nails, but large and rather hairy. It picked the hamster up and returned him to the centre of the screen, just behind the abandoned chunk of carrot. He sniffed at it disinterestedly, then sat back and began to wash his ears.
Just sit your ass on the sofa, and watch Netflix. Order pizza. Eat pretzels — don’t choke on them though, cos our hospitals are full. We won’t be able to help you. But don’t go out. Don’t go to work, unless you’re a doctor or a nurse or an expert on pizza or something like that. There’ll be a list. But don’t go out. And don’t hang around in groups. No barbecues, no frat parties. Nothing. You’ll kill people.
Nibbles finished washing his ears, then pressed a paw to his right cheek and drew it forward several times in rapid succession, dislodging a sunflower seed which plopped out onto the desk. He picked it up and chewed rapidly around the seam, then levered the husk open with his teeth, spat it out, and began munching on the kernel.
Now, I know we’re all worried about the economy, but don’t be. It’s bullshit. That’s right, I said it. The economy is total bullshit. Money is bullshit. It’s created out of thin air. Not even that. It’s just numbers in a computer. It’s a figment of our imagination. That’s right. Don’t believe me? You think you know better than the President of the United States — the greatest country that ever lived? Who knows better? No-one, that’s who. You know why? Cos I’m a billionaire! That’s right. It’s a lot of money. I’m worth billions. Only I’m not. The whole thing is bullshit. It always was.
Nibbles stopped munching midway through the kernel. He left it hanging from his mouth and lowered his front paws to the desk. He stood completely still, and his expression, already vapid, grew blanker still. After several seconds, a spreading pool of yellow liquid appeared behind him. He took a few steps forward before continuing his meal.
So there’s no need to worry about money. Because now I’m a hamster. And you can take that to the bank. It’s the truth. And I promise you this: I am going to sort this thing out. Do you trust me? You should. Because I’m the best hamster in the whole wide world.
The hairy, well-manicured hand moved back into shot, lifted the hamster, and tipped him backward. A second hand, similar in appearance, extended a painted finger to point at the President’s genitals.
Don’t believe me? Look at the size of my balls! You can trust me — who else can you trust? I am an American. And over in Europe, with all their la-di-dah wine and stinky cheese; they think they’re better than us, but it’s a big mess over there. Everybody knows it; I’m just saying it. But do they have a hamster in charge? Of course they don’t! It’s gonna take a real hamster to solve these problems. An American hamster. And now we have one — me. And I promise I’ll get us all through this. I will.
So trust me. And stay put, folks! That’s all you need to do.
The hamster was placed back on the desk, and the hands withdrew from shot once again. President Nibbles stared at the camera a few seconds longer. Then the broadcast cut back to Old Glory, and the national anthem played once again. The Presidential address was complete.
Steffi looked up from her phone, overjoyed. ’They’re loving the hamster,’ she said. ‘They think he’s cute.’
‘They’re not wrong,’ said Bro. She picked Nibbles up and gave him a little kiss. ‘Well done, Mr President.’
‘Hashtag #PresidentBigBalls is trending worldwide. There’s a few people confused, of course — but that’s nothing new. Much less outrage than usual — even from the liberals! But it’s early days yet.’
‘You think people will listen? You think they’ll stay the fuck indoors?’
Steffi poked at her phone. ’Too soon to say. But we should set up a live feed.’
‘Right,’ said Bronwen. ‘We need a cage, asap. With a fucking wheel. Also a water bowl, saltlick, all that stuff. And plenty of straw. Or shredded paper.’
A nearby aide nodded. He’d been taking notes. ‘I’ll get onto it right away,’ he said. ‘Hot damn! I think we’re gonna win this thing!’
‘Slow your fucking roll, dude,’ said Bro. ‘You don’t wanna jinx it.’
‘Yes, sir! I mean, ma’am.’
‘That’s right,’ replied Bro. ‘And don’t you fucking forget it.’
Half an hour later, Bronwen was alone once more with the President, who was now lying on his back, fast asleep and snoring adorably. Bro walked over to peek out into the Rose Garden. The downed security team remained out of action — for now. She checked her watch; it had been two hours, maybe a little more. She still had time.
Bro pulled her jet pack out of the closet, put it on, and did a quick systems check; there was still a half-tank of fuel left; more than enough for her immediate purposes. She unlocked the door and stepped out, then blasted her way back up to the roof.
President Tantrumb — former President Tantrumb — was still lying in the tent where Bronwen had left him. Despite his bonds he had managed to consume the rest of his burger and fries, and his face was now smeared in ketchup and what Bro hoped was just mayonnaise. His eyes lit up as she entered the tent.
‘Hey baby!’ he said. ‘Wanna sit on my face?’
Bronwen ignored this, but reached over to pull him upright.
‘Did we save the world?’ asked Tantrumb.
‘Not yet,’ admitted Bro. She thought for a moment. ‘What the fuck am I gonna do with you?’
‘I got a few ideas.’ Tamtrumb leered. ‘Know what I mean?’
‘Shut the fuck up, will you? I can’t think.’
‘Can I kiss your feet, baby? I’d like to lick ketchup off those feet.’
‘You’re disgusting,’ said Bro. ‘There’s a fucking pandemic. People are dying, and all you can think about is your…’ She trailed off. ‘Hmm. You like ketchup, do you?’
‘Love it. I’m a big fan. The biggest. So, so big. No-one loves ketchup more than me.’
‘Right. Cos I could go for a burger right now.’
‘Oh me too! Yeah, baby! And large fries. With plenty of ketchup.’ The former President licked his lips. ‘Ketchup and pussy. You wouldn’t believe it. Yum yum.’
Bronwen took a moment to get her temper under control. ‘Right then,’ she said. ‘Let’s go get a fucking burger. And for you, a job.’
They jetted down from the roof and made their way to McTwattles, where business was slow. They were served by a spotty, disinterested teenager with a runny nose and thick glasses, whose name-badge identified him as Jimmy Griesz, branch manager. He shot Tantrumb a quizzical look as he handed them their order.
‘You look just like President Tantrumb,’ he said. ‘Before, you know…’
’He’s an impersonator,’ said Bronwen, moving quickly to stamp on the President’s foot.
Tantrumb shrieked. ‘I’ll lock you up, you goddamn pansy! I’m the greatest President there’s ever been! I’m a billionaire! How dare you!’
‘Hey,’ said Jimmy. ‘That’s pretty good.’
‘He does children’s parties. I’m his manager. I tell you, he’s a real professional — never breaks character.’ Bro shrugged. ‘Course, he’s gonna be out of work now the real President’s transitioned.’
’Sure,’ nodded Jimmy. ’That’s gotta be rough.’
‘You got any openings? You know, for a clown?’
Tantrumb was indignant. ’A clown? I’m the goddamn President! Who the hell are you, anyway?’
Jimmy laughed. ‘He’s funny. I’ll give him that.’
‘Right?’ said Bronwen. ‘So, how about it?’
‘Aww, man.’ Jimmy screwed up his face. ‘You know, I’d love to help out a fellow artist, but… business is slow, you know? And anyway, it all goes through corporate.’ He shook his head. ‘Sorry friend, but I can’t help you.’
Bronwen sighed. ‘Okay, dude. I understand. Thanks anyway.’
They left McTwattles and returned to the White House. In the Rose Garden, the security team had returned — more or less — to their senses. Bro cursed under her breath, then landed in front of them, dropping Tantrumb smoothly off her shoulders.
‘Who’s in command here?’ she barked. ’Speak up.’
A man roughly the size and shape of a bear scowled and stepped forward. ‘I am,’ he said. ‘Major Simeon Pratt.’
Bro stabbed a finger at him. ’Wrong,’ she said. ‘What’s the matter, been sleeping on the fucking job, have you?’
‘Err,’ said Major Pratt. He shuffled his feet. ‘We may have been—’
‘I’m not interested in your fucking excuses. Listen up, cunts. I’m in charge now. Bro fucking Antleton. Heard of me?’
‘You’re… Brock Antleton?’ Pratt squinted at her. ‘The Hardest Man In The Whole Fucking World?’
‘Yeah, that’s me. Or at least, it was.’
‘It’s an honour to meet you, sir.’
‘Yeah, well I’m your new commanding officer, so don’t get too fucking friendly. And it’s Bronwen now. Get it?’
‘Yes, sir.’ Pratt nodded. ‘We’ve been briefed.’
‘And did you sleep through that too? Cos it’s not sir — it’s ma’am.’
‘It. Is. Ma’am.’
‘Yessir,’ replied Pratt. ‘Ma’am, sir.’
’That’s fucking better.’ She pointed to Tantrumb, who was eating fries and staring vacantly at a nearby rosebush. ‘Do you recognise this fuckwit?’
‘Yessir, ma’am, sir. That’s President—‘
‘Does that look like a fucking hamster to you?’
‘No, sir. Ma’am.’
‘That is not a hamster. Agreed?’
‘Good. And President Tantrumb is a hamster, is he not? You said you were briefed.’
‘Yes, ma’am. But—‘
‘I will have your guts for fucking garters, do you understand me, Major Pratt?’ Bronwen bellowed.
‘Is President Tantrumb a hamster, or not?’
‘Yes, ma’am! He is a hamster, ma’am.’
‘And is that a fucking hamster?’ Bro pointed.
‘That is not a hamster, ma’am.’
‘So how the fuck can it be the President of the United States?’ screamed Bronwen. ‘You fucking moron — don’t you know anything? This is the pre-transitioned body of President Tantrumb. It’s just a lifeless husk.’
‘He’s eating a hamburger, ma’am.’
‘So what? Does he look conscious to you, Major?’ Bronwen stared at Tantrumb for a moment. ‘Well, maybe just barely. But the point stands.’
’So what are we going to do with him?’
‘We can’t keep this fucking thing in the White House, can we? Imagine how much trouble it would cause. People are so easily confused.’ Bro grimaced. ‘No way. We’re in deep enough shit as it is. We need to get rid of him. So, Major — what would you recommend?’
Pratt gulped. ‘Err… May I confer with my team? Ma’am?’
‘Alright. But make it quick.’
The Major turned to his men, drew them into a huddle, and spoke in hushed tones. There was a brief discussion, then the Major nodded, and turned back to Bronwen. There was a smile on his face.
‘Guantanamo,’ he said. ’That should do it.’
‘He’s not a fucking terrorist!’
‘Maybe not.’ Pratt shrugged. ‘But he’s a serious threat to the President. An enemy of the state.’
‘Hmm,’ said Bro. ‘I see your point, Major.’ She thought for a moment. ‘Okay — so how do we do this? What’s the process?’
‘It’s simple, ma’am. We brown him up with a bit of shoe polish, call him Abdul or something; Abdul Raheem Mohammed. Then we trump up some charges, and suddenly he’s the boogeyman. I make one phone call, and it’s done — he’s headed for Cuba. I can have a chopper here in thirty minutes.’
Bronwen grinned. ’Perfect,’ she said. ‘Get it done.’
The next day, the Presidential cage arrived, and was set up with several webcams to broadcast round-the-clock coverage of the hamster’s activities; news channels were soon dominated by highlight reels featuring moments of particular cuteness.
Over the following weeks, Americans sat at home glued to their screens, enchanted by the President’s antics. Even church services moved online. Pretzel sales increased almost ten-fold, and beer was plentiful.
A team of experts was brought in to manage the nation’s response to the pandemic, and to coordinate with other countries. The President stayed in his cage eating carrots, and did not intervene. Sanctions against official enemies were relaxed, and shipments of vital food, medicine and supplies began criss-crossing the globe to wherever they were needed most.
Trillions of dollars, euros and yen were magicked into existence and distributed to the people of the world. A coordinated international effort was made to seize offshore assets and put them to work funding rapid development of green technologies. Representatives of the banking and oil industries complained bitterly, but were quickly told to shut the fuck up or face a firing squad. Carbon-emissions decreased markedly. Wildlife returned to the cities and began to take over. Footage of goats, deer and other cute animals flooded the airwaves.
After three weeks, it became clear the rate of new infections was in decline. A month after that, it had slowed to a crawl. Bit by bit, restrictions were cautiously lifted, and America got back to work.
The President’s approval rating soared, and the Democrats began to panic. Following his disastrous performance in the first head-to-head debate, it had finally dawned on them that their favoured Presidential candidate, Senator Joey Boring, stood no chance at all of beating a hamster in the race for the White House. He eventually dropped out of the running and was replaced by a last-minute alternative candidate — a long-haired guinea pig named Blossom. But it was too little, too late. In late November, with the virus all but conquered, President Nibbles was returned to office in a landslide, resulting in exuberant celebrations around the world.
Bronwen left Nibbles to it, and returned to the UK to continue her media career. She had no further need for his emotional support; after all, she was The Hardest Woman In The Whole Fucking World! And she could always get another hamster.