“You’re a president?” Justin asked. He still couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“Ex-president. Number 44, to be exact. My full name is Barrack Hussein Obama.”
No way! Justin shook his head, astonished. “Obama’s dead. Everyone knows that.”
“Well, I’m not.” Hussein’s eyes softened. “The Redcaps didn’t quite finish the job.”
“I… I can’t believe it…”
“You probably would recognize me if I wasn’t wearing this mask. And if the bottom of my jaw wasn’t blown off.”
“What? Are you serious?” That was hard-core.
“Perfectly. The explosion killed my wife and daughters. A lot of the time I wish they had killed me too.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“When the Group realized they couldn’t throw me in jail, they decided to take it one step further.” He looked down at the ground. “It doesn’t matter, though. I don’t want to talk about myself. I’m not that important in the grand scheme of things.”
Could it really be him? Could President Obama really be alive?
Justin had been a little kid when Obama finished his term as president and he tried to recall pictures of Obama.
Turning, Justin examined the older man carefully. African-American. White close-cropped hair. Coffee-brown skin, puckered with scar tissue. Dark eyes. A little sad-looking. It could be him…
“I know I dropped a bombshell on you Justin. You want to talk another time?” Hussein asked in a quiet voice.
“No. I’m okay. There’s so much I want to ask about.”
“First of all, how are you alive? Everyone in the world thinks you were assassinated. There were news stories. Investigations. It went on for almost a year.”
“I know. Believe me, I know. The Group wanted me dead, but even in the end, I had a few friends in the military. They got me out of the country. Someplace safe where I eventually recovered.”
Justin’s head was spinning. He couldn’t even focus on where he was walking. “So why fake your death? Why not try to bring the assassins to justice?”
“You have to understand something, Justin. I didn’t have a lot of options. I couldn’t go up against the Group. At least not openly—”
“What’s this Group you keep talking about?”
“I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t 100% know. No one does. But it’s not for lack of trying. They are extremely secretive—and paranoid. Best I can tell is that they had their origins as a bunch of rich guys in England back in the late 1800s. You ever hear of a man named Cecil Rhodes?”
Justin shook his head. Cecil was a funny-sounding name, though.
“What about Rhodesia?”
“The Rhodes Scholarship?”
“Okay, well. Cecil Rhodes ran something called the British South Africa Company which plundered gold from Africa at the beginning of the 20th Century. Rhodesia was some land he took and made into a British territory. A lot of people describe him as the British Hitler.”
“So a bad dude?”
“Not as bad as Hitler, but I can see why people compare the two. Just like Hitler had his Aryan race thing, Rhodes was into Anglo-Saxon superiority. His vision was that the British Empire would reconquer the world, take back the United States into the fold, and basically run the planet—all to benefit Anglo-Saxons.”
“Unfortunately, I am.”
“So this Rhodes guy is the one behind the Group?”
“It’s not completely clear. He started a secret society called ‘The Elect’ and a bunch of folks think that his Rhodes Scholarship was a way to recruit potential figureheads that the Elect could control. And a bunch of world leaders actually were Rhodes Scholars. But the whole thing was much bigger than one man. The Elect grew and morphed—especially after World War II. Some people say they had a hand in the internationalist movement. NATO. The United Nations. The World Bank.”
Justin felt dumb. “I have to admit I don’t follow those things. I’m not really up on history.”
Hussein shook his head. “It’s not your fault, Justin. Twenty or thirty years ago they started de-emphasizing history in the schools. Made the shift to cultural studies. That’s important too, but it’s not a substitute for learning about our history. American history. World history. Contemporary stuff.”
“Yeah, I don’t remember many history classes in school.”
Hussein sighed. “That’s intentional, I’m afraid. And it’s not just here in the U.S. All over the world—or at least where the Group holds sway. You don’t need to know the nitty-gritty, though. Suffice it to say, that the Group has persisted for the past century and a half, and has become more powerful over the years. They basically shape the world, handpick leaders, steer policy, start wars and cover everything up by a false sense of democracy—especially in the U.S.”
“What do you mean? We’re the most democratic place on Earth.”
“Sadly, we’re not. And we never have been. The president of the United States isn’t truly elected by the people, but by a very small subset of the people: the Electoral College. But even beyond that, our two-party system is a sham. With just a few exceptions, ever since World War II, the two parties have generally traded off the presidency. Democrat then Republican. Then Democrat again. Then Republican. Like a pendulum swinging back and forth.”
“But how does that work with the presidency? People vote. I voted last election. That’s all bogus?”
“It’s not the voting that’s bogus. It’s the fact that you really only have two options. And those options aren’t truly a choice at all.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Group picks the candidates on both sides,” Hussein said. “The people don’t have a true choice. The nomination process is a sham.”
“Even with you?”
“Yeah, even with me.” Hussein glanced off towards the mountains and took a deep breath. Then he looked back at Justin. “It’s tough to explain. You get caught up in the whole thing. One day you’re kind of a nobody, then all of a sudden things start falling into place. Then the next thing you know, you’re believing your own hype. You’re the anointed one. They say that anyone who seeks public office is automatically unfit for public office. I didn’t believe it at first, but now I do. I really do.”
As they continued to walk around the perimeter of the village, Hussein didn’t say anything. But Justin’s mind continued to race. He couldn’t stop thinking about what Hussein was telling him. Was everything a big lie?
“I don’t want to focus on what happened with me,” Hussein finally said. “There’s a lot I have to put right. And I’m trying. Lord knows I’m trying.”
“So you were working for the Group?”
“That’s the crazy thing, Justin. At first I thought I wasn’t working for anyone but me. After a few big wins the delusions kick in. You think, damn, I’m the second coming of Lincoln—or Reagan, or whoever you admire. The party decides to get behind you, and at some point you have ‘the meeting.’”
Hussein nodded. “Every candidate knows about power brokers, and initially that’s who you think you’re meeting with. Party elders. Movers and shakers. Titans of industry. Kingmakers, they call them. But then you meet with some folks you’ve never even heard of. And that’s intentional…” He trailed off.
Justin was trying to wrap his head around what Hussein was telling him. “So all these people—party elders or whatnot—are part of some secret society controlling everything?” It sounded pretty crazy when he said it out loud.
Hussein must have read his mind. “You think I’m some sort of conspiracy nut? I may have a metal mask on my face, but I’m not wearing a tin foil hat, I can tell you that, Justin. This is all real. As real as can be. I wish it wasn’t, but it is.”
“Why don’t people push back?”
“Mostly because it’s too late. The show is going to go on with or without you. A few guys tried to stand up over the years. Patton. Kennedy. Carter. They were all taken out, in one way or another. Made an example of.”
Those names didn’t mean much to Justin. He knew who Kennedy was, but not the other two guys. Still, this whole thing sounded messed up.
Hussein went on to tell him a bunch of other stuff about power brokers and party leaders and how they were all basically working for these people in the shadows: the Group. Who, as far as Justin could tell, were a bunch of other rich and powerful guys—only they hung back and stayed under the radar so no one knew they were actually pulling the strings. So there were a whole lot of minions and then a few big baddies. But Hussein didn’t know who exactly they were and what exactly their goal was.
The whole thing sounded kind of sketchy. Maybe Hussein was on to something. But then again, maybe he was nuts. Or paranoid. Probably getting your face blown off and seeing your family killed could do that.
“Okay,” Justin said. “I get the whole idea of the Group, but I’m still struggling with why these puppet master dudes would want to get involved in OmniWorld. It’s just a game.”
“I told you, Justin. Control.”
“There have always been folks on the top who want to control everyone else—all throughout history,” Hussein said. “Even before the Group. First, they did it through brute force, then more subtle means, like mythology and religion. Carrot and stick stuff. You ever hear that phrase ‘opium of the people?’”
Justin shook his head.
“It doesn’t matter. Just know that in different time periods, there have been different ways to control the people. For the past 50 years or so, it’s been less about obvious oppression—at least in our country—and more about manipulating people to voluntarily give up their freedoms.”
“That’s not true. We live in the most free society ever. That’s what we learned in—”
Hussein held up a hand. “I have to stop you right there, Justin. We are not living in a free society. Not by a long shot. The Group uses two primal emotions to control people. And they alternate, like a one-two punch.”
Hussein caught a glimpse of a woman walking towards them and cut himself off. At first Justin thought the woman was Pari, but it turned out to be someone who worked in the medical building. She nodded politely and kept going.
Once they were alone again, Hussein continued. “The emotions are fear and curiosity. The thing is, they know those are the two most powerful emotions and our human brains are wired to respond to them. But they also know that people can build up a tolerance to being stimulated in the same way. That’s why they alternate.”
“I’m trying to keep an open mind, here,” Justin said. “But I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Most people don’t, but I will try to break it down for you. You said you’re not a history buff, but you know about War World II, right?”
“Sure. Hitler. The Nazis. Indiana Jones. Captain America.”
Hussein opened his mouth as if to say something, but then he closed it and thought for a moment. Then he said, “Let’s stick with Hitler and the Nazis. It became pretty clear that Hitler, and the Nazis were very effective boogeymen. They scared us. But that fear got turned into action. They got Americans to rally and do some damn impressive things—like invent the atomic bomb and decisively defeat the Axis powers. That kind of fear, the reaction to that kind of bogeyman, wasn’t lost on the Group. You tracking with me?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“At the end of World War II, now that Hitler was dead, and the Nazis defeated, the Group needed another boogeyman. So they stoked fear of Russia and the communists.”
“But they really were the bad guys.”
“Of course they were. They still are. But the Group amped up the fear. Commies were supposedly everywhere, infiltrating our government. And, as the press reported, Khrushchev had thousands of nukes aimed at us and kept his finger on the trigger around the clock. Suburban families built fallout shelters in their basements and school kids learned to tuck and roll once they saw mushroom clouds on the horizon. You had the McCarthy witch hunts, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, blacklisting, and a lot of other bad things all done in the name of fear.”
“But weren’t all those things true? People had the right to be—”
“Yes, there were scary things out there, but the fear was intentionally focused and magnified. Used as a weapon in our country and elsewhere. You understand?”
“I don’t know.”
“It will all make sense once it sinks in. Keep an open mind, Justin. ”
“So the thing is, fear can’t be sustained forever. And the public started to be affected less and less by it—kind of like building up a tolerance. So in the late 1960s and 70s, when I was born, the Group promoted curiosity—things that were new and unusual. Rock music, drugs, free love, counterculture lifestyles. People were curious about all that stuff. Drew them in like flies to honey. And when someone’s tripping on acid, or at a neighborhood orgy, they tend not to pay attention to what’s going on in the world.”
Okay. Maybe that made a bit of sense. But Hussein still seemed a little manic about this whole thing. His eyes were wide, and he was talking very quickly now.
“In the 1980s, the pendulum started to swing back the other way,” Hussein continued. “Those folks into drugs and free love started to have families and jobs and were less curious about new things and more interested in settling down and making money. So the Group needed something else for folks to be afraid of: AIDS. For over a decade, people were terrified by AIDS. Imagine a disease so powerful that it had no cure and no vaccine. And that you got from having sex or doing drugs.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“You’re right. It’s not an issue any more. Kids get inoculated for AIDS just like they do for measles. But believe me, I was a young man in the 80s and it was a very scary time because of AIDS.”
“So I suppose that the pendulum swung back?”
“Indeed it did, Justin. Indeed it did. In the 90s, we were back to curiosity and wonder. It was a very prosperous time, and we had the birth of the Internet, music on MP3s, big event movies, cable TV with hundreds of stations. We had Madonna and Michael Jackson and The Boss.”
“Never mind. The point is that after the 90s, it was time for fear again. And this time, the stakes were higher. The Group knew that certain technological developments, namely the Internet, were going to be a threat to them.”
“It enabled almost-frictionless information sharing and communications and commerce too. Worldwide. That information sharing had some unintended consequences, so the Group had to tighten its grip.”
“Let me guess: 9/11.”
“Yes. That changed everything. Politics, culture, patriotism. But more importantly, it allowed the Group to turn America into much more of a surveillance state. Big time. You have no idea of how much data is collected about you.”
“That’s just the price of freedom, right? You can’t sniff out the bad guys if you don’t gather intelligence.”
“Not true, but we can debate that point some other time, Justin.”
“So the fear of 9/11 lasted a very long time. I know that personally. And it took a long time for the country to recover. Economically. Psychologically. Even spiritually. But eventually we did. And so they had to poke the country again with curiosity and the search for something new. We had reality TV and people who were just famous for being famous. And the technology back then allowed anyone to be famous. You could have your own TV show or radio show or even your own magazine—all online of course. So people had all kinds of new outlets for their self-expression, or to be brutally honest about it, narcissism.”
“That’s kind of harsh. Why shouldn’t people be allowed to have their own video channels?”
“They should. And they do. But it warped the notion of fame and, quite frankly, it warped the idea of who you should pay attention to. It also planted the seeds that anyone could do anything and it didn’t matter if you weren’t qualified or didn’t work hard. The only currency was fame.”
They were almost back to Hussein’s cabin, but he showed no sign of wrapping up his lecture.
“This making sense, yet? We had fear of Nazis, commies, AIDS, terrorists. Almost forgot. Back in the 40s and 50s there was a brief fear of aliens.”
“Are you serious?”
“Oh yeah. Extraterrestrials. Flying saucers. ETs. Grays. But it never really caught on. Communists were a much more tangible threat. But in the first fifteen or so years of the 21st Century, there were folks who fanned the flames of fear again. This time it was against immigrants and brown people.”
“What, like racism?”
“Racism, fascism, white nationalism. Basically anyone who looked different, or was from somewhere else, or had a different religion was a target. They were branded as ‘bad hombres,’ taking our jobs, raping our women, destroying our country. The guy that came after me was the figurehead for that kind of fear. And there was lots of it. Lots of damage to our country. Divided families.”
“Yes, riots. And worse. But we got through it. Because, again, people get immune to fear. So it’s time to cycle back to curiosity and novelty. Diversion. But, again, the stakes were higher. It couldn’t be about drugs or celebrity any more. That’s where OmniWorld comes in. It’s the ultimate diversion. A world of adventure. Check that. Not just one world. But many worlds of adventure. Now, instead of watching a superhero movie, you could be a superhero. And it was as real as real could be. Only this time, it isn’t just your mind that is distracted. It’s your entire being.”
They stood at the door to Hussein’s cabin. One thing was right. This was a hell of a lot to take in.
Hussein clapped Justin on the shoulder. “Just think about what I said. We’ll talk again, okay?”
“Sure.” His head was reeling.
“Have faith, Justin.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. The only benefit of being an old guy like me is that I’m entitled to share my opinion with younger folks and you all have to listen,” he joked. “That’s the deal. They call it wisdom.”
With that, Hussein nodded and entered his cabin, leaving Justin alone on the narrow lane.