Supposed intelligence - Editor
When Life Hands You Lemons
by Cheryl Gilbert
The President thought about Athens. He thought about a walk he took as a student through a district with red roofs—what was it called? Placard? Packing? Plaka.
There had been an old man playing guitar. Balding, age spots on the top of his head.
The President had been what? Depressed? Just lonely. On the road. Solitary warrior. It had been very warm. With cicadas. That’s what he remembered about Athens: Acropolis, heat, old man, cicadas. Nothing more.
Athens was mostly gone now — first victim of the Good Neighbors and their currency wars. The Italians still occupied its ruins. Occupied in the name of World Heritage Site preservation, naturally. No more old men playing guitar in front of tourist traps. No more students listening to cicadas.
He straightened his tie and checked his cufflinks. Still gleaming. Still designer. Still President. Still alive.
Which was more than he could say for Junior. But never mind.
He pushed the button. “Send him in.”
George, the chief of his supposed intelligence agency, was accompanied by a nervous and unfamiliar woman. George was wearing an oddly expensive suit. He generally looked like a walking leaf pile. The President looked down at George’s shoes; they’d actually been polished. Not a good sign.
George introduced the woman as Sharon Pylyshenko. She was quite thin, which was good. Her stockings were laddered. Not so good. They sat. Ms. Pylyshenko pressed her ankles together.
George and the President looked at each other. The President never draws the short straw. George spoke.
“Mr. President, I’m sorry it took so long for me to get back to you. There were a few things I needed to check internally. We needed to check internally.” He nodded at Sharon Pylyshenko.
The President spread his hands on the desk. His smile was controlled. “You can understand my concern...”
His Vice President was dead. William Donegan Jr. (Junior to his friends) was dead. He had been a political liability and a personal embarrassment. The President had been well tired of Junior’s Texas manners, unpleasant wife, and taste in cheap eBooks. Still, an assassination was not to the President’s taste either. Particularly not a mysterious assassination.
George was uneasy. “I’m not quite sure how to begin with this, sir…”
The President interrupted him. Interruptions were a sure sign of stress. But, fair enough, he was stressed. “Why don’t you start with how someone shot him with a stone bullet? Shall we start there?” He encouraged menace to creep into his voice.
George nodded, sweating. “That’s why I’ve brought Ms. Pylyshenko here to meet you, sir.”
“Mr. President?” Her voice was neutral, mid-range. The President nodded in her general direction. “I lead a project team called Elfshot. Do you remember when you saw a line item for us in the budget?”
He did remember. It had irritated him. Spies and their clever names. He nodded again. “Some kind of sniper unit, wasn’t it?” She wasn’t what he imagined as a top sniper. Did top snipers have bony knees?
She agreed. “Snipers, yes. Of a kind.”
George squirmed in his expensive suit. The President kept his tone light. “It was a funny name for a unit,” he remarked. “Are you going to tell me it got its name because your snipers are elves?”
They laughed nervously. George answered. “Elfshot got its name, Mr. President, from the old legend that elves with slingshots give people strokes. And no - our snipers don’t use slingshots.” He reached down into a briefcase, took out a paper file, and handed it to the President.
Who frowned. “Junior didn’t die of a stroke, George. A piece of rock blew a hole in his heart.”
Ms. Pylyshenko piped up. “Crystal, sir. A piece of crystal.”
George held out a warning hand.
“Just read the file, Mr. President.”
The President read the executive summary. Angrily, he flipped to the executive PowerPoint. Then he turned and snarled at George. “And the reason I don’t know about this already is?”
George shrugged. “Need to know basis, Mr. President. Even for you. Plausible deniability.”
The President didn’t believe him for a second. Plausible deniability. Stupid spooks. “So. Let me get this straight. The X-Files got it right? The truth is out there?” He shot a nasty glance at the woman. “You can shoot people with your mind, Ms. Pylyshenko?”
“Well,” she bit her lip. “I’m more of an administrator than a sniper. I can’t lift very much myself— less than the weight of a dried pea. I also can’t throw very consistently.”
George interrupted her. “And we don’t have an X-Files unit either. Don’t worry about that. No mind reading, no ability to see the future, no talking to ghosts, no aliens. All bunkum.”
The President played with his wedding ring.
George continued. “All it is, really, is some people can pick a few things up using their mind. Kind of a knack. Then some of those with the knack can control opposing force at the same time - lets ‘em throw. Those people are our snipers.”
The President rubbed his eyes. “Not everyone can do it?”
The woman shook her head. “No,” she said. “You have to have the knack. And usually you have to be taught even if you have the knack. It’s extremely rare anyone for anyone to figure it out on their own. We only discovered it ourselves through advanced brain imaging experiments at Columbia.”
“So how do we find these people with the ‘knack’, exactly?”
“We use ASVAB to screen for it, sir.” George replied. “The Armed Forces aptitude test? There’s a cluster of questions which are Elfshot markers. If answered correctly, we’ve got a 40% chance the respondent will have the knack. People who answer differently almost certainly don’t have it. We pretty actively recruit people with those markers, as you can imagine.”
Ms. Pylyshenko jumped in. “But we lose the ones who don’t join,” she pointed out. “And the ones who never take the test. Our budget was cut two years ago, and...”
The President glanced at her, witheringly. He was not fond of women who interrupted. Nor women who whined about budgets. “How many respondents to ASVAB have the Elfshot markers?”
“Around two percent.”
“How many of our potentials sign up in the end?”
“Around forty percent, sir. Give or take.”
“I see. So.” He drummed the desk with his fingers. “So our doer is one of your sixty percent of the forty percent of the two percent. Someone who slipped through the net. Or maybe even someone who never took ASVAB. Most of our students don’t take it anymore, do they? The military isn’t exactly a preferred career path these days, is it?” He looked at both of them in turn. “I gather you think our doer did this rare thing, and figured out how to do it himself. Assuming you’re right, and it isn’t one of yours in the first place.”
Ms. Pylyshenko spoke. “We’re fairly certain, sir. The projectile they pulled out of the Vice President’s heart was quartz. We’re most able to manipulate crystal.”
“The scientists are working on the math. All we know now is some materials lift more easily than others. Some don’t lift at all— metal, for instance. No one in Elfshot can lift even a trace of metal.”
The President shook his head in disbelief. “So this guy...”
“Gal, Mr. President.” Ms. Pylyshenko cut in. Again.
“Why does she say ‘gal’?” he pointedly asked George.
He sighed. “It’s almost certainly a woman, sir. Women are much better at it than men.”
“Gal, then. Why are you so sure you don’t have a rogue agent?”
“The shooter used a piece of crystal nearly the size of a ping-pong ball. That’s double what anyone in our team can handle.”
The President laughed. “Wonderful - she’s better than your team so that’s how you know she isn’t in it. Do we have any kind of profile on this woman at all?” He generously included Ms. Pylyshenko in the question.
She recrossed her legs. “A bit. If we assume there isn’t an unknown teacher, then we know something about how she developed. Great emotional stress can expose the gift. Something very stressful. It might be her first killing, since she didn’t try to hide her method. Probably hasn’t occurred to her she can hide a murder.”
Spooks. He shook his head. “We also know,” the President added, “she doesn’t think much of my administration.” He shrugged “What’s the chance this was a foreign assassin? Any other country have this... technology?”
“Not that we’re aware of, sir.”
Which meant nothing at all. He sighed. “Well, what do I do now? Get rid of our crystal wine glasses?”
“No,” George replied. “She can’t throw through walls. She needs a clean line of sight. Just bulletproof glass between you and her will make it impossible for her to shoot.”
The President stretched his arms in front of him. “So much for the openness presidency.”
“It’s still possible our doer had a personal beef with the Vice President, sir. We won’t stop investigating. We’ve got BAU on it.”
“Do they think it likely?”
Ms. Pylyshenko shook her head.
George described what actions they were taking inside his supposed intelligence agency. They were reviewing crazy threat letters. They were keeping an eye on current hashtags. They were rounding up the usual suspects. In other words, not much at all.
The President considered. Combat widow? Family lost in Europe during the Currency Wars? Husband arrested for Interwebs offenses? Too many choices.
The President decided he wasn’t fond of knacks.
George was still talking: “Safety and containment are our first priorities, sir. We have to protect the First Family and be alert for further attacks that could alarm the public. We would have general panic if this got out.”
George wanted his precious program intact. Probably more than he wanted to save the President’s skin. Wanted to keep his edge.
Don’t we have enough ways to murder people, in our position? This was not a humanitarian concern. It was a practical question. Did they really need Elfshot? Technology always leaked. Always. the President imagined an Elfshot escalation-- closed his eyes.
What was it she said about legends? He made an intuitive leap. He was proud of his intuitive leaps. Oh, yes...
He steepled his fingers and looked over at Sharon Pylyshenko. She could look raw in a newspaper photograph. Possibly even dangerous, in the right clothes. She stirred under his gaze.
He smiled. A warm smile, just for her. “Okay - George, there are a few things I’d like to discuss with you in private. Ms. Pylyshenko, thank you for your time. We’ll arrange a car to take you back to the Pentagon.” He pushed the button.
“Mr. President?” she began tentatively.
“Thank you so much.”
The aide bundled her out of the room.
George looked at him. The fancy suit was in collapse. Its mission was done; message delivered. “I was thinking we could use the compound in Massachusetts for the First Family. We’ve also got the Invisible Edge glass for public appearances. If we’re out in sunlight, nobody can see the barrier.”
“Until they check for it on the Invisible Edge blogs. Pretty stupid to have this come out through Gawker Examiner. No, I think we’ll have to go public with this one.” He waited for the reaction. Smiled.
George choked. “Public, Mr. President?”
There was a long pause. They looked at each other.
“Public,” the President repeated.
“But the nation?”
“Will be understandably alarmed, but will also understand the necessity of the counter-measures.”
“The Openness Presidency?”
“I’m still being open. When I tell them...”
George couldn’t help himself. He interrupted. “Tell them what?”
The President’s voice was merry. He forgave the interruption. “About the witches.”
“Or the ‘Mind Assassins’. We’ll have to think about the best terminology.”
There were limits to George’s ability to avoid understanding. He was the Director of the supposed intelligence agency, after all. “Are you sure?” he asked plaintively. “We’ll lose our advantage.”
Shrug. “Most of your team can stay undiscovered, if they’re loyal. Move them sideways into other units.” He leaned over and punched George’s arm. “Look at it as an incentive to use their knack for the greater good. Maybe we could eventually register practitioners.”
A mysterious threat would take the nation’s mind off the Bank Insurrection - take economic violence right off the front pages. It would hand him powers he needed to prepare to move against Europe. The administration couldn’t have asked for a better trending topic.
The President hummed to himself. “Can you link Pylyshenko to the EU? The Tea Party would enjoy a link to the Good Neighbors.”
George considered the question. “Pylyshenko’s family is from the Ukraine.”
“Perfect!” The President adjusted his cufflinks. Junior had finally managed to be useful. This was almost going to be fun. Maybe the President could arrange for someone to shoot the First Lady while they were at it. Maybe he could turn this into an excuse to take some of the big European centers back from the Good Neighbors. Start with Athens, even? “Shall we call a press conference?”