Love in the Time of Conspiracy Theories

The short story archives on my computer tend to be a wild, lawless kind of place. My approach to writing short fiction usually involves hammering out a whole bunch of words and then leaving things to sit for a while, usually about three-quarters finished. Then, when I’m possessed of a certain kind of mood, I go back and revisit things.

Occasionally I discover stories I’d forgotten about.

Case in point, the piece posted below, which got written with the best intentions of submitting it to (I think) a flash fiction contest based around elections. It never did find its way to the original place I wanted to send it, and it’s not really got the legs to become a full-fledged story that I’ll shop around (especially since I stole many of the conceits I really liked for Love Is the Roar of a Chainsaw, Cutting Flesh in the Nightincluding the basic structure of the title).

But there are still bits of this story I’m happy with, some eight years after it was originally written and left to languish in the digital archives, so I’m posting it here so you can all appreciate why I rarely try to write comedy.

Also, so we can all appreciate how weird actual Australian politics got in the years since this was written..

Love in the Time of Conspiracy Theories 

Nicole thinks the Prime Minster’s a zombie, reanimated after his assassination and prettied up for the cameras. She thinks the mumbles and inarticulate pauses that mark his public speeches are a function of the complex mechanical systems used to mimic his original voice, a conspiracy-forged synthesizer that allows his party to speak through his mouth in an act of sinister ventriloquism. As far as she’s concerned it’s the beginning of the end – there’s no way he’s going through the election without biting some poor reporter and spreading the contagion. She’s spent most of the campaign investing in supplies: baked beans; shotguns; the endless maps of the city she studies every evening to ensure she’s plotted the fastest escape routes.

I have no problem with the incumbent, nor to I believe he’s a zombie in any literal or metaphoric sense. My concerns are for his opponent: fair haired and broad-faced, a cheerful smile for the cameras. Rumour has it he’s a former member of the Hitler youth alongside the current pope; a bigamist with a Chinese wife, acquired during his diplomatic tour; a man who was kidnapped by aliens as a child and bred to politics like an insidious double-agent, ready to break the Australian will before the invasion force relocates from the Antarctic circle.

I believe all these things, simultaneously, and do my best to keep them to myself.

One of us should call the Doc. Neither of us do.

We know the problem and believe we can manage it, even if all signs point to the contrary. I put the latest round of trouble down to the stress of the election, the constant low-grade assault on our defences that occasionally wear through. Nicole’s got it worse, but the planning keeps her calm. I lay wake at night, adrift on a sea of random beliefs.

The rational fades as elections pick up speed, and sensitive’s like me and Nicole get caught up in the backwash. If we were smart we’d turn of the television, ignore the whole thing as best we can. It’s bad when we stay together, her mania and my mania tangling up like a double helix. But it’s bad if we’re apart, as well, no matter what Doctor Kay tries to tell us.

The Incumbent’s on TV again, talking about the economy. “They needed him,” Nicole says. She slides shells into a shotgun, an automatic, one of the spares. “Three elections he’s won them. They wanted the fourth. It should have ended before this. Before the dark arts were involved.”

She doesn’t look me in the eyes anymore. She hasn’t for days. There were times I was afraid to reach for the remote, ever since I mad the mistake of changing the channels during the debate. “It comes down to names,” I tell her. “The Prime Minster name is an anagram for Dh’ow’ra, the Dreaming God, who dwells beneath the red sands.  He calls out to his brethren from beyond the stars, calling them home.”

The cold click as Nicole chambers a shell is louder than the television. There are close-ups, dark suits, a round face with thick eyebrows and a smiling man with glasses. I have a headache. I bet Nicole does too.

“You were in fear of the opposition.” The fine line of her blonde brows drops as she glares at me. “You were worried about the challenger, right?”

We’re crazy. We know that. Doctor Kay’s explained it, detailed the why’s and wherefores. Usually they keep us far apart, all for the good of society. Elections are hard for folk like us, all the lies and mixed messages being thrown around in the name of success. Doctor Kay gathers us up for research, houses us together for our own safety. He says it’s for the best, but no-one really believes him. The rest of our household went down hard in the early days of the campaign: Keith was arrested three days after the announcement; Carla joined a right-wing militant group on the way back from the shops. Doctor Kay tried to explain it to us, after Mitchell went on a rampage through the park: some people are antennas, the Zeitgeist made manifest. He likes to use Kennedy as his favourite example, although he’s sure there’s someone local that his research will find soon.

We don’t pick up the Zeitgeist, Nicole and Me. If there’s folks who pick up on the spirit of the age, then we’re the very opposite. Human antennas tuned in to every crackpot theory in the ether and downloading them straight into our consciousness. The Doc seems to think we’re fascinating, keeps promising he’ll come up with a cure. One day, he swears, we’ll change the world just like the Zeitgeist antennae do.

We don’t believe him. Can’t, anymore. Do our best to get by, in his absence. It’s not a big deal as long as you don’t slip. Channel surfing’s a bad habit if you’re built like me and Nicole.

The Incumbent is on the TV again. Nicole’s still waiting for my answer.

“He isn’t undead.” I tell her, but we both know it’s a weak defence. My eyes drop to the remote control, then flick back at her face. Nicole in her blue jeans, her fingers sticky with gun oil. We’ve been so careful thus far, trying not to step on one-another’s mania. “I know he’s not undead, babe. That’s crazy talk, you know that, right? I just said his name. Slip of the tongue. It’s not a big deal.”

Her jaw is tight. She slides a hand along the shotgun barrel, caressing the black steel. We stare each other down. The television flickers. We both see it, just barely, a change in the corner of our vision. A lurch, a distended jaw.

“My god,” Nicole whispers. “He just…”

The incumbent has made his move, lunging for his opponent. Carnage, a mouth slick with gore as the Prime Minister lifts his head from the feast.

“My god,” Nicole says, just in case I didn’t hear.

“I know. I saw…”

She hands me a shotgun.

“It’s the nature of elections,” she says. “Politics is just another consensual hallucination maintained through the broadcast systems set up by the Illuminati. Both sides are cutting deals, making the Illuminati a better offer. It fucks with your head if you don’t keep track of things.”

It sounds logical. I’ve said the same things myself

“It’s not fair,” I tell her. “We picked sides. We stuck to them. We did everything right”

The shotgun feels straight and clean in my hands, the first thing that seems clear in weeks.  Fuck it, I think, I’m tired of fighting. I look Nicole in the eyes and nod, opening myself up to the detritus of the cultural psyche. She smiles at me, pleased, ready to get on with things. She points at the television. My head pounds, low and hard, as I watch the incumbent’s corpses warp and twist, his forehead swelling and turning a dull shade of grey. I blink, watching the sharp teeth emerge as his forehead distends.

“The prime minster is an alien zombie.” I’m not sure which of us says it, but we both see it and know it’s true. We both feel it in our bones

Outside the people are celebrating, or they’re shambling like zombies under the control of an otherworldly force. It’s hard to be sure, but it’s getting easier by the minute. The consensus is there, lurking on the fringes.

Nicole leans across and kisses me, her lips soft and real beneath mine.

“It’s you and me against the world,” she says. “For as long as the world’s got left.”

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