Illustration by Mitch Handsone
Office! Step into my Johnson! Sir? Now, Johnson! Yes, sir! The home office, the 43rd floor. Johnson marches in, masterfully ducking a punch from the spring-loaded boxing glove in the doorjamb. General Charleston Edmund Cheesewood, MBA, stands at the window beyond his desk, gazing into the infinity of a fog bank, which has spoiled his view of the lesser office buildings that recede for miles to the sea. General Cheesewood has a problem, you see. Someone leaked a top-secret memo indicating that the Emperor lied to his planet and duped his nations legislators into funding a private war. And now the citizens who arent demanding jail time are demanding impeachment. The vice emperor e-mailed the secretary of mayhem, and she called on Cheesewood to fix everything and save the world. Cheesewood bought news directors, offered tax deductions to pollute and pillage, flooded the airwaves with news that Tom Cruise would soon marry Katie Holmes to Michael Jackson in a ceremony sponsored by General Motors, Coors Light and Jesus. But the polls show that most citizens havent taken the bait; theyre still awake, and more and more are raising their voices, demanding apology and justice. The good general has stayed cool. Stayed cool and called Johnson and Steinberg. Cheesewood withdraws from the window and gestures for Johnson to sit in one of the two matching snakeskin chairs, the one not already filled with Johnsons partner, Steinberg, who sits cross-legged in his, squeezing his artificial nose. Johnson sits more traditionally. Cheesewood opens the humidor on his desk and offers Johnson and Steinberg monstrous panatelas. They accept, and Cheesewood lights them up and walks back to the window. Ten luxurious, aromatic seconds later, the cigars explode, leaving Johnson and Steinberg robustly charred and frowning at each other through plumes of acrid smoke. They hate this part of Cheesewood assignments. It just gets funnier with time, Cheesewood chuckles, wiping a tear and returning his gaze to the cold gray infinity, dreaming of the winter sea. And taking a deep breath. When he lets the breath back out, it says, Get packing, gentlemen. First flight leaves at dawn. General Cheesewood signs the papers, and Steinberg and Johnson are flown far, far away and dropped through the night sky onto the desert floor, a good three days journey from their destination. West? says Steinberg hopefully to Johnson, whose form is barely discernible in the starless, moonless dark. I have a cold. Johnson sniffs the foul air and points north. South, he says, and begins walking east. Wish I had a cold. Steinberg loosely repacks the parachutes and follows. Even six hours later, neither can see a damn thing. But at last the sun pierces the horizon ahead, revealing a lifeless, three-layered panorama: sand on the bottom, sky in the middle and thick, stale, black clouds on top, courtesy of the burning oil fields in the distance. And traipsing alone through this toxic triple-digit heat are two dead-serious clowns in full circus regalia. Sweat pours freely from beneath Johnsons miniature derby and Steinbergs rainbow Afro, gliding down their red-and-white waterproof face paint, dripping from perma-smile lips onto polka-dot bow ties, baggy multicolored nylon jump suits and knee-high bumblebee socks. Squish squish squish squish squish squish squish go the floppy yellow shoes in the sand. Its well over 100. Johnsons impressed by how well his nose is staying in place, courtesy of a top-secret adhesive. Steinbergs hips sport a pair of surgical-steel BANG!-flag pistols in red plastic holsters; both wear double-extra-jumbo sunglasses and rainbow suspenders. The going is slow, as they each carry 5 gallons of drinking water beneath their uniforms in enormous hip-mounted canteens. The canteens are rigged to sunflower boutonnieres on their lapels; get thirsty, drink in squirts. The air hangs thick and foul with airborne petroleum. Johnson and Steinberg are professional patriots. As the third evening falls, stadium lights appear on the horizon. Johnson and Steinberg pick up the pace, running toward the roar emanating from an enormous amphitheater carved deep into the desert floor. Ladies and gentlemen! The Halliburton Amphitheater in beautiful down-home New Crawford is proud to present the best entertainment ever! Ladies and gentlemen! Put your hands together! For Tinky and Peppy! The Best and Most Funny Clowns Ever. Deafening appreciation roars through the PA speakers, stirring the oil clouds above. The appreciation isnt coming from the amphitheater audience, however, because there is no audience; rather, it was recorded in July 1976, during Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. Stock shots of cheering crowds appear on huge monitors on both sides of the stage, intercut with shots of the Emperor smiling in a sea of logos and slogans of all six of the planets corporations. The clowns take the stage. Deafening gets louder. Hello, New Crawford! shouts Peppy Steinberg, with both BANG!-flag pistols a-blazin. Are you ready for the best thing ever? shouts Tinky Johnson, squirting Peppy with a bottle of seltzer, then whipping out an oversize mallet and knocking him over the head. The pre-recorded crowd goes nutz. Peppy rises to give Tinky a facial from his boutonniere, then both clowns slip and fall to the ground. The crowd goes nutzer. Muddy scenes from Woodstock appear on the monitors. And 10,000 miles away, someone in an office double-clicks on something, and Khachaturians Saber Dance fills the stadium and miles of desert in all directions, as Tinky and Peppy perform for the cameras. The fog has rolled in again, right up to the 43rd floor. Inside, General Cheesewood shares his best conference room with Nikki Cougar Chipwicke, the secretary of mayhem. Theyve been at it for the better part of the week, watching the Emperors approval ratings climb and climb, as breaking news of Tinky & Peppys performance is pounded out through the networks and pounded out again. Live via satellite at first, and then over and over, evolving, spreading out, becoming nature; and the Emperors popularity grows and grows. Tinky & Peppy Poker. Tinky & Peppy action figures. The Tinky & Peppy diet. The Making of Tinky & Peppy. The First Church of Tinky & Peppy, Tinky & Peppy Save the World. Secretary Chipwicke wears a tasteful uniform, with yellow plastic DKNY water-pistol holsters and a pale-cranberry Gucci rubber nose. Which splashes into her champagne during the first toast. The general does a spit-take and laughs. Mission accomplished? he says. Almost, says Chipwicke, placing her glass on the table and dropping to her knees.