I’ve written a short story called “Good News” that’s been published over on the Substack of the Soaring Twenties Social Club, the cult, I mean club, that I belong to. You can read it here: https://soaringtwenties.substack.com/p/good-news.
Do also check out the main page of the Soaring Twenties Substack (https://soaringtwenties.substack.com/) which has lots of great essays, short stories, and poems by other members. Thomas J. Bevan, our dear leader, takes submissions from other club members and posts a few each week. I especially enjoyed “Crossed Wires” by Terry Freedman (https://soaringtwenties.substack.com/p/crossed-wires).
Jack was bored.
The year was 2135 and a few years of rapid innovation and diplomacy had solved every major problem of the 21st century.
Climate change had been stopped in its tracks and reversed thanks to a simple carbon-capture device that could be attached to any air conditioner or air filtration system. The sea levels had continued to rise but rich nations built their own sea walls. Elsewhere people had moved inland and where it wasn’t possible to move the richer nations of the world had contributed to build barrier walls or accept refugees where barrier walls were insufficient, as in the South Pacific. Due to building delays caused by failed contract negotiations between the builders, shippers, and labor unions the sea wall for Lower and Midtown Manhattan was not built in time and the southern half of the island, including the financial district, Soho, and Times Square, was inundated and became uninhabitable but everyone agreed this was for the best and was no great loss.
The nuclear powers (United States, Russia, France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea) and every other country with or without nuclear ambitions all agreed that nukes had been a bad idea and voluntarily agreed to disarm and dismantle every last nuclear weapon. The United States government apologized to the residents of New Mexico and Nevada for the nuclear tests that had been conducted in those states in the 20th century. They also apologized to the Japanese for the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki stating, “We’re sorry but you guys were asking for it.”
The former nuclear powers then coordinated on multiple nuclear fusion power plant projects which succeeded in providing free, unlimited power to the entire world, even to the former residents of Lower and Midtown Manhattan who were forced to slum it with the rest of humanity, a burden which the rest of humanity resented.
In a surprise turn of events every nation in the world disarmed its military, police force, and citizenry confiscating and disabling or destroying handguns, rifles, armored vehicles, tanks, helicopters, fighter jets, bombers, destroyers, submarines, and aircraft carriers. Russia officially retired its force of attack dolphins, a relic of the Cold War, and the United States finally dismantled the last pigeon-guided missiles. The pigeons were released and, having been trained to attack targets in Russia, migrated to St. Petersburg and displaced the local pigeon population in the Great Pigeon War of ‘64. No one but a few ornithologists cared about the Great Pigeon War of ‘64.
As a result, national militaries looked more akin to their 14th century ancestors than the walking guns of the early 21st century, armed as they were with swords, pikes, spears, bows, and crossbows according to the terms of the 2087 Burgundy Accords where the delegates all got drunk on wine and decided late-Medieval warfare, that is warfare before gunpowder, was “bitchin” and should be the limit for any future wars.
Of course, the next year the Universal Non-Aggression Treaty was signed by every nation on Earth and their respective militaries became entirely ceremonial.
In an even greater surprise, Israel and Palestine patched things up and formed a united country, Israelestine, after deciding that Jerusalem “was just a boring old city that wasn’t really a big deal” and that Jews and Muslims weren’t so different after all. They agreed that their real enemy was anyone that didn’t like humus and that such people should be shunned by the community, but in a nice way.
Innovations in agriculture and the impact of cultural change over time meant more people flocked from the cities back to the fields to enjoy simple lives on farms producing their own food for themselves as well as massive surpluses with the result that world hunger was eliminated.
Everyone was pretty happy.
Everyone except for Jack.
Jack Stern was a news executive at the somewhat neutered Globe Media, formed by the merger of Viacom and News Corp in 2058. The Big Six media companies, Viacom, AT&T, CBS, Comcast, Disney, and News Corp had once had a combined net worth of $430 billion in the 2020s, wealth and power which had increased for a time before everyone starting ditching television and other mass media in favor of books, local sports, community functions, and subsistence agriculture, and social drinking. They had to pivot to stay alive by covering all the positive news, which was plentiful and boring, and also sports, although the occasional natural disaster provided blood with which to spatter the headlines. Soccer, or football as the rest of the world called it, had become the new world religion which provided a lot of ad revenue but still, not all of the media companies made it.
And so Jack was bored.
He was bored with the cheery news cycle of this 22nd-century utopia. Bored with the lack of real news like they had back when things actually happened. Bored with the lack of conflict. Bored with the comfortable lethargy of humanity.
Jack lounged in his comfortable Manhattan office smoking a Cohiba. The office was an anachronism. Dark wood paneling, mid-20th century furniture, a large desk in which Jack liked to keep his only friend, a bottle of Old Forester, and on which he did all his important work: signing papers, making phone calls, playing Solitaire, and banging secretaries.
Despite his comfortable surroundings and lifestyle Jack was long and lean with the face of a jackal, a wolf’s smile, the long-fingered hands of a man with hands with long fingers, and the toes of a tree frog. People didn’t often see his toes.
Jack lounged and tried to enjoy the cigar but there was an itch at the back of his mind. A bored itch. He tried to ignore it but it burned and festered. He sat up, smashed the cigar into the ashtray, and thumbed the intercom.
Veronica was Jack’s newest secretary, a pretty brunette with curves in all the right places that he kept around for one reason and one reason only: she was an extremely efficient secretary.
The office door opened and Veronica entered.
“Yes, Mr. Stern?”
“Veronica, I’m unnerved. I’m suffering from some kind of ague. It’s burning at me.”
“But, sir, you didn’t have the Wagyu last night. I remember clearly, I had the Wagyu and you had the lobster tail. Maybe it was the lobster?”
“Ague, ague, you twit. Not Wagyu.”
“No need to get snippy.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just this feeling.” Jack sank back into his chair. “I’m so damn bored. There’s nothing going on anywhere.”
“What about soccer?”
“I hate soccer.” Jack sighed and let out a frustrated growl. “No action. No real news. Nothing I can sink my teeth into.”
“You can sink your teeth into me,” said Veronica with a suggestive look.
Jack smiled halfheartedly. “I may take you up on that sometime but right now, I’m just completely out of sorts. There’s not even a natural disaster to spice things up. Just peace and prosperity and goodwill towards men. How the hell am I supposed to sell ads or influence what people think if there’s nothing happening and no one watches TV or reads the paper anyways?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“That was a rhetorical question.”
“You’re right, it is a historical question. What with all the progress over the last hundred years—”
“No, rhetorical, rhetorical. Nevermind.” Jack sat up. “You know what’s needed? Action. If the news won’t come to me, I’m going to go make it,” said Jack.
“Like old school investigative journalism?”
“Something like that. What time is it?”
“Perfect. I’m out of here. Rain check on the sex?”
After Jack left, Veronica went over to the sidebar, poured a slug of whisky and knocked back half of it. She stood there sipping the rest looking out the 35th floor window at Central Park spread out beneath her like a big green carpet or a big green park. What a whiny misanthrope, she thought, but he’s got good taste in Scotch.
Jack hailed a cab and directed the driver. The cab’s electric engine was silent. The traffic in New Lower Manhattan, a blur of color and sound that Jack did his best to ignore, was not. The southern half of Manhattan had moved to the northern half of the island and took over, a development which had driven many residents of the world to pray for another great flood to wipe out the rest of the city, but their prayers went unanswered.
Jack dialed the phone. “Travis?”
“Hey, Jack. It’s been a while,” came the voice on the other end.
“Yeah, the usual?”
“Yep. See you at ten.”
The Manhattan traffic passed noiselessly by outside, cut off by the massive floor-to-ceiling windows. Quiet music trickled in from hidden speakers. The air smelled like money and the clientele and sharply dressed staff screamed that the place existed for spending it.
Travis McDonaugh was a creature of habit. He insisted on eating his meal in peace before talking business. He pushed back the plate, drained his drink, then looked at Jack. “So, what’s up?”
“Why does something have to be up?” Jack eyed Travis’s broad, honest face atop a dockworker’s heavy body, one that was developing a paunch, his appearance belying what he did for a living.
“You’ve got that look. And you asked me to lunch. It’s been, what, three months?”
“I’ve been busy.”
Travis snorted. “You? Busy? I’d like to see that.”
Jack laughed. “Just like you’re busy at the embassy, I’ve been busy being bored and trying to find material to fill the air.”
“The age of the 24-hour cycle is over. Why don’t you guys just run less programming?”
Jack looked at Travis as if he had asked him why he didn’t just eat live pigeons for breakfast. “Not possible. There are twenty-four hours in a day and I’m going to fill them.”
“And if people don’t watch?”
“I’ll give them something to watch. That’s why I wanted to talk.”
Travis shifted. “What do you want?”
“How does one get invited to those embassy dinners you hear so much about?”
“You want to go to an embassy dinner? Nothing happens and they’re all diplomats, the most boring people on the planet. You really want to go to an embassy dinner?” said Travis incredulously.
“Yes. Is that a problem?”
It was Travis’s turn to laugh. “No one wants to go to those. Yeah, sure you can go.”
Jack tilted his head. “That was easier than I expected.”
Travis leaned across the table. “Why do you want to go to an embassy dinner?”
“I just want to talk to them.”
“Diplomats? Again, why?”
Jack gave a wolfish grin. “To stir the pot a bit. Maybe start an argument or two.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Travis, everything is so boring and predictable.”
“People like boring and predictable.”
Jack sat up, suddenly intense. “No they don’t.” He prodded the table with a long finger for emphasis. “They don’t know what they want. People want excitement and conflict and stories with good guys and bad guys. They want to get off their cozy farms and see something and do something. And I’m going to deliver it to them on a TV screen and they’ll lap it up like they used to. Haven’t you ever read a history book? Things were great a hundred, two hundred years ago. War, famine, global pandemics, people at each other’s throats all the time. What a time to be a newsman, to craft stories, to feed the people’s hatred back to them magnified a thousand times.”
“That’s sick, even for you. I don’t think you should come.”
Jack’s eyes narrowed. “You owe me.” He spoke in a low growl.
Travis stiffened, but not like that. “You’re still going to hold that over my head? Dammit. Fine, but you better not cause a scene.”
Jack brightened. “Of course not. I’m not a savage. What’s the dress code?”
Travis glowered. “Formal.”
The embassy ballroom glittered, informal and expensive. Chandeliers covered the ceiling, the walls were a pale gold, the floor, a deep blue carpet, was largely obscured by round tables with expensive-looking place settings and centerpieces. Glitz and glamor for the most useless group of people on Earth. Or the most useful. Time would tell.
Jack surveyed the room sipping a whisky sour. Black suits and glittery dresses mingled in groups. Conversation was polite, hushed. The alcohol had yet to kick in. He wondered if these things ever got a little raucous. Probably. These people had to be bored to tears.
An older man with white hair, large ears, and a regal face punctuated by two bright, intelligent blue eyes floated up to the bar next to Jack. He stood ramrod straight and gave his order like the bartender didn’t exist. He was an anachronism. So was his order: a whisky and soda.
“What part of England are you from?” said Jack.
He sniffed. “One usually introduces oneself first to people one doesn’t know.”
“Does one? My mistake. Must be my bad American manners.” Jack smirked. “We Americans declared independence and never looked back. Jack Stern, Globe Media.”
He held out his hand. The man didn’t take it.
“Are you trying to make me dislike you, Mr. Stern?”
“No, sir. Just a little self-deprecating humor.”
“Globe Media. What are you doing in our little corner of the world?”
“I’ve always been fascinated with diplomacy and wanted to see what it was all about. There are fewer dark, smoke-filled rooms than I imagined.”
The man took a drink. “We prefer clean air and the bright light of day in the 22nd century.”
“You seem to be mistaken a lot, Mr. Stern.”
“It would seem so, Mr…?”
“Viscount Thistledon. Twenty-Seventh Viscount Thistledon, English Ambassador.”
“A viscount? I might have known from the RP. I didn’t know there was any gentry left.”
“I am a peer, Mr. Stern, and we are alive and well. We haven’t all given up and sold our country manors to be turned into museums. And it’s not RP. I’m English. Born and bred in Gloucestershire. We must maintain standards, you know.”
“Standards like your soccer team?”
The viscount reddened and he turned to face Jack.
“I’m sorry. That was a low blow,” said Jack.
“I don’t believe the United States has ever won the World Cup.”
“No, but we aren’t expected to. You guys invented soccer—”
“—but it seems the French have perfected it. Three World Cups in a row, ‘26, ‘30, and ‘34. It’s a wonder they let England host the next World Cup given your performance last year.”
“You are entirely without tact, Mr. Stern.”
Jack shrugged. “Better than being phony. I hate phony people and I’d hate myself if I were phony.”
“I’m hardly, as you say, phony, Mr. Stern. I imagine The Catcher in the Rye is your favorite book,” the viscount said with a voice that made it clear this was an insult.
“Nope, Darkness at Noon. That Gletkin cracks me up.”
Viscount Thistledon raised an eyebrow. “I’m genuinely gobsmacked that you’ve read Darkness at Noon. But why am I not surprised that you sympathize with Gletkin?”
“He’s an up-and-comer. The vanguard of the new sweeping away the old.”
“You mean a Communist party apparatchik conducting show-trials and carrying out summary executions.”
Jack smiled. “Exactly.”
Jack inclined his head. “Thank you.”
The viscount sneered at Jack. “Were you one of those moody, misanthropic children that hates the whole world and can’t wait to take revenge for the hand you were dealt?”
Jack shrugged. “No, I don’t think I was a moody, misanthropic child. I suppose you’d have to ask my mother.”
Viscount Thistledon feigned surprise. “You had a mother? I thought people like you were spawned from the gunk that accumulates around a sink drain.”
Jack laughed. “I’m surprised you know about that stuff. I wouldn’t have thought you cleaned a sink in your life.”
“Well there you go.”
Viscount Thistledon stormed away from the bar, his nose seemingly attempting to poke a hole in the ceiling.
The seed was planted, the football-shaped chip on the shoulder enlarged. Not enough to make something happen, but a start.
He turned to the bartender. “Don’t mind him. He’s just cranky cause his wife’s sleeping with the head gardener.” He gave the bartender a knowing wink, finished the whisky sour in a few quick sips, savoring the whisky and lemon, and set off to prowl the room.
He knew their weak points. One was football, or soccer, which had overtaken all other forms of international competition for nearly a hundred years. Competition between nations was fierce as it was the only outlet for nationalism and aggression after the signing of the Universal Non-Aggression Treaty. Even the United States went soccer crazy since it was now the only way for Americans to throw their weight around, either through competition or by climbing the ranks of Global Regulator of All Football Teams (GRAFT), the successor to FIFA.
Another weak point, which went hand in hand with international football, was pride. Despite the human race’s progress, everyone was still very proud of who they were and where they came from. The final weak point: military disarmament. This may seem counterintuitive but they had something right with the MAD policy of the Cold War. Now warfare was so low-risk for humanity in an existential sense, that with the right levers pulled, the right buttons pushed, there would be war again. What are a few swords and arrows compared to an intercontinental ballistic missile?
He picked up snatches of conversation. A new fusion project in Morocco, wheat yields in Ukraine, the olive harvest in Italy, comments on the German car industry. There was the occasional flutter of laughter at a joke, but one at no one’s expense. It was all very neat, orderly, polite.
Through it all the underlying thrum of football. Who beat who, who was going to beat who, what formation they were using, the condition of their striker, the goalie’s incredible save, who was captain, who was going to be captain, did who was captain matter, should diving count as a goal. And on and on.
Jack insinuated himself into conversations here and dropped hints there, much more carefully than he had done with Viscount Thistletwit. I heard the Italian ambassador saying Italy was robbed by the German referee. Yeah, I’m sure someone was bribed. You’ll never believe which country’s coach is having an affair with which football official. Oh yeah, he gets special treatment alright, on and off the field. No, it was the Spanish minister that accused the French of cheating. I believe her exact words were ‘dirty French something something’. How much money did England need to bribe GRAFT in order to host after their abysmal performance in the World Cup last year? There’s bribery all over the place at GRAFT. What about referees? It wasn’t just the German referee. How do you think Singapore beat Brazil last year? I hear refs charge by the card. In international matches, one million for a yellow, five for a red.
Nevermind that they were all lies. The Italian ambassador never said anything of the kind, there was no affair, the Spanish minister didn’t accuse anyone of cheating, England might not have paid to host, Jack knew nothing about anyone bribing GRAFT or referees.
Some of it might have been true of someone somewhere. And that’s all that mattered. It was all just the kinds of stories that everyone was prepared to believe. They had their pride and righteous indignation and wanted to point the finger at someone when their team lost.
Conversation took on a sour note. Arguments started. There were threats to cancel deals and cut off trade. Someone mentioned the word “war.”
Jack didn’t want to push the Globe Media machine too hard too fast. He let news travel back from the embassy dinner on its own then ramped things up slowly. People were watching the news again and reading newspapers. There were rumors of broken trade deals and increased arms manufacturing. Military exercises were carried out near borders throughout the world.
Then the clouds burst.
The French crossed the Rhine and in a new tradition kicked a soccer ball onto German soil in a declaration of war. At the same time, Spain invaded France, which now had to deal with a two-front war. England took advantage and also invaded France. The Irish took advantage and invaded England. France somehow beat the Germans, Spanish, and English but, after walking over Poland, made a fatal error and invaded Russia in winter and had a long retreat back to Paris. They manage to raise another army to kick out the English who then kicked the Irish army back to Ireland.
Brazil and Argentina squabbled over dividing up South America. China grabbed Taiwan and the Philippines. Italy lost the plot and invaded Ethiopia again.
Mexico invaded Texas in an attempt to reclaim their territory but soon discovered that the Texans, instead of giving them up had secretly hidden their guns. The war was short. Texas then seceded from the United States.
Canada sent the RCMP, now mounted on horses again, to invade Vermont and burned their stores of maple syrup to help the Canadian maple syrup market. The Canadian army then captured all of New England as far south as Connecticut. The United States agreed to a truce and gave up New England in exchange for access to Canadian maple syrup, which everyone agreed was a good deal.
Staring out of the office window in New Lower Manhattan at the evening shadows grasping at Central Park, Jack could almost feel the warm glow of the fires he had started around the world.
Finally, some good news, he thought.
The door opened behind him.
“Congratulations, Mr. Stern,” said Veronica. “The Pope has just declared a crusade.”
“Oh, against who?”
“England. There were rumors the English wanted to change the rules of football. Nations loyal to the original rules are to assemble in France and take back the site of the first meeting of the Football Association on October 26th, 1863 in London where they established the rules of modern football.”
She ignored him. “It used to be the Freemasons’ Tavern but it was partially demolished in the 20th century and rebuilt as a hotel.”
“More good news. Looks like the French will finally get to invade England. Serves that old bastard right.”
“The Twenty-Seventh Viscount Thistledon.”
“Nevermind. Thank you, Veronica.”
“Also, I quit.”
Jack turned to face her. “Was it something I said? Was the sex not good enough?”
“No, the sex was great,” said Veronica flatly. “If you really have to ask then you’re beyond help.”
“What, all that?” Jack gestured out the window, as if the various wars around the world were happening right out there in Central Park.
“Yes, all that, you twit. You blew up the world.”
Jack shook his head. “Hardly. I gave people what they wanted: excitement, passion, an outlet for aggression and national pride. And most importantly, an end to soccer.”
“An end? It’s the world religion, one so accurately recreating the past that there’s now a crusade.”
“Yes, and like all religions it will burn itself out in petty doctrinal squabbles and infighting.”
“So you got exactly what you wanted.”
She sighed. “Goodbye, Jack.”
“There are a thousand more secretaries like you.”
Veronica paused, hand on the door.“No. Not like me,” she said quietly and walked out.
He turned back to the window and the fleeting sunset on Central Park, ablaze with the light of a new world.
Jack was happy.
2 thoughts on “Good News”
Awesome. Very entertaining.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Glad you enjoyed it!