Deputy White House Chief of Staff Alexander Lipsyte walked through the doorway and into the Oval Office and was surprised that the President was not at his desk. “Where’s the boss?” he asked.
“He’s out,” said David Boehm, the Chief of Staff, holding a folder. “Close the door and sit down, Alex.”
Alex closed the door behind him and took a seat on the east-facing sofa, next to Secretary of State Mona Fitzgerald. Across from him on the west-facing sofa were National Security Advisor Brad Stein and Vice-President Tony Hsu. Hsu’s presence was unusual; the President had reverted to the formerly-common practice of giving the Vice President absolutely nothing of any importance to do. Hsu spent most of his time visiting elementary schools and working on his putting.
Hsu caught Alex’s glance. “If you think you’re surprised, think how I feel,” Vice-President Hsu said. Alex grinned in spite of himself.
“Now that we’re all here, we can get started,” Boehm said. “We have a situation. The president’s brain is missing.”
No one in the room had anything to say to that. Finally Alex spoke up. “I thought we all agreed to let Jon Stewart write his own jokes,” he said.
“God damn it, Alex, it’s not a joke,” Boehm said, and slapped down the folder he was carrying onto the table. Papers spilled out of them, including images of an X-Ray and MRI which featured a head with a blank brain cavity. Alex stared at them.
Fitzgerald reached over and picked up the X-Ray. “When were these taken?” she asked, holding up the photograph.
“Three hours ago,” Boehm said. “The X-Ray and MRI both.”
“The President went to Walter Reed for these?” Fitzgerald asked.
“No, Anil did them here, down in the bunker,” Boehm said, referring to Anil Singh, the President’s personal physician. “Once he figured out what was going on, he knew enough to keep it quiet.”
“So the President is dead,” Vice President Hsu said.
“The President is fine,” Boehm said. “He’s in the residence, resting, per Anil’s orders.”
“But you said he’s missing his brain,” Hsu said.
“He is,” Boehm said.
Hsu looked around at the others, to see if he was the only one who was confused. He wasn’t. “Dave, I don’t claim to be an expert on medical issues, but I’m pretty sure that not having a brain is a fatal condition,” he said.
“It is,” Boehm said.
“So you understand my confusion, here,” Hsu said.
“I do,” Boehm said. “Mr. Vice-President, I have no answers for you at this time. All I know—all any of us know at the moment—are two things. One, the President is by all outward and most inward appearances entirely healthy for a 63-year-old man. Two, his brain is absolutely gone.”
“Dave,” Alex said. “You might want to run us through the chronology of this.”
“The President woke up at 5:30 am as he typically does and went for his usual morning swim, at which point he noticed the first sign that something unusual was going on,” Boehm said
“Which was?” Fitzgerald asked.
“He couldn’t submerge his head,” Boehm said. “Any time he tried to put his head under it would pop back up like a cork.”
In spite of himself, Alex grinned at the mental image of the Most Powerful Man in the World trying to push his head under the water of the White House swimming pool and failing.
“Later in the shower he felt light-headed,” Boehm continued, “so he called Anil for a consult. Anil arrived at 7:30, met with the President in the residence and then took him into the bunker for the X-Ray and the MRI, whereupon he discovered that the President’s cranial cavity was entirely vacant.”
“How is the president taking the news?” Alex asked.
“He’s not,” Boehm said. “Anil didn’t tell him.”
“Why not?” Fitzgerald asked.
“You have to ask that, Mona?” Boehm asked. “The President gets freaked out when he has a cold. He has nightmares he’s going to drown in his own phlegm. The last time he got a paper cut it was like ninjas had slashed his carotid artery. The President is a good man, but he’s a hypochondriac. If he knew he was missing his brain, he’d probably have a stroke. Anil decided, rightly, that it was not his job to burden the President with this information at this time. Instead he told the President that he has a sinus infection and that he should rest for the remainder of the day. Then he came and found me.”
“You can’t keep this from him forever,” Hsu said. “He’s the President, for God’s sake. And he has that town hall tax speech tomorrow.”
“I agree,” Boehm said. “But when I do tell him, I’d like not to have to say ‘You’re missing your brain and we don’t have a single clue why.’”
National Security Advisor Stein, who had been silent all this time, shifted on the sofa and leaned forward. “Why are you telling us, Dave?”
“Because you are the people who need to know,” Boehm said. “Tony, we have to assume that even if the President is healthy now, that could change at any second. Mona, you’ll have to deal with the rest of the world if and when we have to announce this. Brad, it should be clear just what sort of security implications this has for us.”
“What about me, Dave?” Alex asked.
“Alex, you’re here because you’re the one person out of all of us who can do anything about this,” Boehm said. “The rest of us are too closely watched by the media and by the President’s political enemies. If we deviate from our schedules they’ll want to know why. So Mona has to meet with the Burundi ambassador, like she’s supposed to. Brad has to go to the Pentagon for a briefing. Tony has to read a book to third-graders in Fairfax. And I have to take or reschedule the President’s meetings today.
“But your schedule is whatever I tell you it is,” Boehm reached down to the folder on the table, picked it up and held it out to Alex. “No one’s watching your schedule like they’re watching ours. So your job is to find out just what the hell is going on here, Alex. And do it fast.”
Alex took the folder. “How fast?” he asked.
“The Vice-President pointed out that we have that Town Hall speech tomorrow,” Boehm said. “It’s thirty-four hours from now, in point of fact. You’ve got twenty-four of those to get me something. That is, assuming the President doesn’t drop dead between now and then.”
* * *
Alex looked up from his folder to see Brad Stein standing over his desk.
“I wish you would knock,” Alex said.
“I’m the Head Spook,” Stein said. “I’m supposed to sneak in. Anyway, it’s been an hour. Thought before I went to the Pentagon I’d check in and see what you’ve got so far.”
“I got nothing,” Alex said. “Or maybe I’ve got a miracle. I mean, look.” Alex plucked the X-Ray out of the folder and handed it to Stein. “How do you get along without your brain?”
“The press corps has been asking that about the President since the campaign,” Stein said, holding up the x-ray to the light.
“They don’t mean it literally,” Alex said. “The President’s not the brightest bulb in the drawer but that’s what he’s got the rest of us for. But this,” Alex tossed the folder down onto the desk and threw up his hands. “I don’t even know where to begin on this one.”
“You’re looking at a puzzle, that’s for sure,” Stein said, still peering at the x-ray.
“It’s not a puzzle, it’s a miracle,” Alex said. “It’s magic, is what it is. It’s messing with my head.”
“’Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,’” Stein said, setting down the x-ray.
“What?” Alex said.
“It’s a quote,” Stein said. “From Arthur C. Clarke.”
“The 2001 guy,” Alex said.
“Yes, the 2001 guy,” Stein said, slightly mockingly. “I take it you’re not a big science fiction reader.”
“Well, what does that mean, for those of us who aren’t proud to be nerds?” Alex said.
“That would be ‘geeks,’ and I would take it to mean that before you throw your hands up and declare a miracle, you might consider the slightly more rational approach of assuming it’s some sort of technology,” Stein said.
“Brain-stealing technology?” Alex said. “Seems an awfully specific sort of technology.”
“I’d guess it’s not specifically brain-stealing technology, it’s just what this technology is being used for in this case,” Stein said.
“Then, what?” Alex said. “Some sort of transporter technology, like in Star Trek? Maybe that would get the brain out of someone’s skull, but it doesn’t explain how the brain is still functioning. That is, if I believed this was transporter technology, which I don’t.”
Stein smiled and tapped the x-ray. “Let me remind you that what you have here—or more accurately, what you don’t have here—is a missing yet fully functional brain,” he said. “Alex, this is one case where the most ridiculous explanation you could come up with for how this is happening probably isn’t going to be ridiculous enough.”
“This is what I get for not being a geek in high school, is what you’re saying,” Alex said.
“I suspect you were a geek, all right,” Stein said. “You’ve got all the hallmarks of a Model UN dweeb about you.”
“Thanks,” Alex said, wryly.
“But if you want my suggestion, you need to start thinking like a science-fiction geek. Because this,” Stein pointed at the folder, “is some first class X-Files material right here. Good luck with it.” He smiled and exited the Alex’s office.
Alex stared at the space where Brad Stein used to be for several minutes and then picked up the phone.
* * *
“You’re fatter than you were at the reunion,” said Ezra Jefferson to Alex, shaking his hand on the steps of the Air and Space Museum.
“You’re not, Captain,” Alex said.
“That’s because the Air Force doesn’t believe in fat officers,” Jefferson said, and then pointed to his shoulderboard. “Also, that’s Major now.”
“When did that happen?” Alex asked.
“When I transferred to the Pentagon,” Jefferson said. “Which you would know if you’d ever bothered to call before now. I’ve been in DC for four months, Alex. And I haven’t seen you since our 10 year reunion. That’s just wrong.”
“Well, I’m making it up to you now,” Alex said, and motioned toward the museum. “Come on, let’s go in. I’m paying.”
“It’s free admission,” Jefferson said.
“It’s just like you to point that out,” Alex said.
“You still owe me for drinks at the reunion,” Jefferson pointed out, as they went in.
“Speaking of the reunion,” Alex said, after the two of them had wandered around the museum for a half hour, catching up, “I remember you telling me that you’d been stationed at Nellis Air Force Base right out of Yale.”
“Yeah,” Jefferson said. “Nellis for a year and then Edwards for a couple of years after that.”
“I remember you telling me that you were attached to the Air Force Flight Test Center when you were there,” Alex said.
“Sure,” Jefferson said.
“Which keeps a presence at Groom Lake,” Alex said.
“Right,” Jefferson said.
“Otherwise known as Area 51,” Alex said.
“There are no aliens, Alex,” Jefferson said. “I swear.”
“I didn’t say anything about aliens,” Alex said.
“Never have been any aliens,” Jefferson said. “The alien stories are just what the Airmen tell the alien groupies to get some.”
“There are alien groupies?” Alex asked, knocked off his conversational path.
“Oh, yes,” Jefferson said.
“And have you…” Alex asked.
“Once,” Jefferson said.
“And how was it?” Alex asked.
“Unspeakable,” Jefferson said.
“And how does Caitlyn feel about this?” Alex asked.
“We were taking some time off from each other when it happened,” Jefferson said. “But if I were you I wouldn’t be going out of my way to tell her about it. There’s some debate what ‘time off’ meant in that context.”
“Got it,” Alex said.
“Anyway, it’s all crap,” Jefferson said. “The alien stuff. The whole Roswell thing. Complete crap. The Roswell thing was a test model of a high-altitude surveillance balloon. They put a chimp in the cabin to test its build integrity. That was the alien. How people confuse a chimp with an alien tells you how much people want to believe. That’s where they got the alien autopsy thing from, too, since they had to examine the chimp after the crash.”
“That poor chimp,” Alex said.
“There was a memorial to it at Groom Lake,” Jefferson said. “A banana tree.”
“That’s sweet,” Alex said.
Jefferson shrugged. “It’s dead. Can’t grow bananas in the desert, man.”
“This conversation is getting progressively more depressing,” Alex said.
“You brought it up,” Jefferson said.
“I brought up Area 51,” Alex said. “I didn’t bring up aliens or dead chimps.”
“No one brings up Area 51 without talking about aliens, Alex,” Jefferson said.
“I did,” Alex said. “I wanted to talk about the technology the Air Force was testing out there.”
“What are you talking about?” Jefferson said.
“Area 51 and Groom Lake are the Air Force’s testing grounds for its new technology, right?” Alex asked.
“Sure,” Jefferson said.
“And aside from the technology we know about, there’s probably some technology being tested there that we don’t know about. Like skunk-works stuff,” Alex said.
“Is this going somewhere, Alex?” Jefferson asked.
“What I was wondering is if in the time you were there, you ever saw evidence of the Air Force working on some real bleeding-edge technology,” Alex said.
“Like what?” Jefferson said.
“I don’t know, maybe something like teleportation,” Alex said.
“Are you serious?” Jefferson said, after a second of blankly staring at Alex. “Like in Star Trek?”
“Maybe not exactly like Star Trek,” Alex said.
“You know that shit’s made up, right?” Jefferson said. “Teleportation and phasers and Vulcans and green-skinned hotties.”
“I’m just asking,” Alex said.
“Is there a reason why you’re asking?” Jefferson asked. “Aside from possibly becoming an alien groupie yourself?”
“That’s not it,” Alex said.
“I’m glad,” Jefferson said. “Not that you aren’t a good looking man, or were before you got fat. But Caitlyn and I are definitely ‘on’ now.”
“Stop that,” Alex said, and then grinned sheepishly at his college buddy. “Sorry, Ezra. I just have a problem and I thought… it was a shot in the dark. Forget it.”
“Having troubles with your transporter?” Jefferson asked.
“You could say that,” Alex said, and then checked his watch. “Come on, let’s catch the IMAX show. It’s in 3D. And it does cost money, so there.” And that was that for the topic, until Major Jefferson called Alex at his desk at 7pm to tell him to meet him on the corner of 8th and F at 8:30, sharp.
* * *
“You have got to be kidding me,” Alex said, as the white panel van rolled up and Jefferson opened the sliding door, two armed airmen beside him.
“Get in, Alex,” Jefferson said.
“I thought abductions in white panel vans only happened in movies,” Alex said.
“No, the North Koreans use them too,” Jefferson said. “And it’s not an abduction, yet. But if you don’t shut up and get in the van, it might be.”
Alex got into the van.
As the vehicle drove away from the intersection of 8th and F, Jefferson motioned toward an older man in the back of the van. “Alex Lipsyte, Major General Marcus White.”
“General,” Alex said, settling into a bench seat on the side of the van.
“Major Jefferson tells me you’re having transporter problems,” White said.
“I might be,” Alex said, after a second.
“Describe them to me,” White said.
“It’s less a problem with the transporter than a problem with something that got transported,” Alex said.
“Like what?” White said.
“Like a brain,” Alex said.
“Whose brain?” White said.
“Er,” Alex said.
“It wouldn’t happen to be the brain of someone who’s not generally described as having one, is it?” White asked. “Someone you work for? Someone who spends his time doodling on a scratch pad in a big oval room a couple of miles west of here?”
“He doesn’t doodle,” Alex said, defensively.
“Shit, Mr. Lipsyte, I’m surprised the man can hold a pen at all,” General White said. “I’ve known lower primates with higher cognitive functions than your guy. You’re just lucky the other team decided to run someone who couldn’t keep it in his pants on the campaign trail. That dumb bastard should have saved his little romp with those twins for after the election. But he didn’t and now we’ve got your weak-lipped son of a bitch drooling all over the chairs in the West Wing. It’s a miracle someone found a brain in there to steal at all.”
“General,” Jefferson said.
White raised his hand to both acknowledge and placate the Major. “Be that as it may, that dim prick just so happens to be the Commander in Chief, so I suppose we should do something about this,” he said. He pulled out a cell phone and punched in a number. “Dave,” White said, after a minute. “It’s Marc White. Yeah. Good. Listen, I have one of your boys here with me and I think I might have a clue to a little problem you’re having, the one about someone you know missing something that to most people would be important. Yes, that. No, I’m not trying to be rude. I’m trying to help you. Why don’t you and some of your people get organized and we’ll meet over at the Executive Building in half an hour. Yeah. Fine. Forty five minutes, then. See you there.” He hung up.
“You know Dave Boehm?” Alex said.
“He dated my niece about fifteen years back, back when the President was still a penny-ante Congressman,” White said, folding up his phone. “He was his Chief of Staff then, too. Got him elected then, got him elected now, which is probably unforgivable in the larger scheme of things. But he treated Patty well. Better than she treated him, anyway. I figure for that alone I owe him a favor. Now, we’ve got forty-five minutes. Let’s hit the Five Guys on H. I’m starving.”
* * *
“First off, that whole Roswell thing is bullshit,” General White said in the secure Executive Office Building meeting room, pointing with a Five Guys fry for emphasis.
“Told you,” Jefferson said to Alex, under his breath.
“What isn’t bullshit is the 1908 Tunguska Event,” White said.
“That thing in Russia,” Boehm said. The cheeseburger White had brought him from Five Guys lay in front of him on the table, untouched. Brad Stein, sitting next to him, was busy consuming his.
“Right,” White said.
“I thought that was an asteroid impact,” Boehm said.
“It was,” White said. “Or a comet impact, one of the two, take your pick. But that chunk of ice and rock didn’t just happen to fall out of the sky. We think it was aimed there to wipe something out.”
“What, aliens?” Boehm said.
“Aliens,” White agreed. “In 1927 a scientist named Leonid Kulik led an expedition to the area. Officially he didn’t find anything other than toppled over trees. Unofficially—secretly—what he found was evidence that someone or something was in the area, using technology well in advance of ours. After he returned to Leningrad he filed a report and then Stalin had his people crawling all over the place, digging everything out. When Kulik went back in ’39, it was all packed up and gone.”
“Why didn’t Stalin use it, then?” Stein asked. “Alien technology would have saved him a lot of trouble during the Great Patriotic War.”
“The comet turned everything that was mechanical into slag,” White said. “You could tell the stuff did something, but you couldn’t tell what that thing was. The real prize were the data storage units—hard drives, if you will. Stalin’s problem was that he and his scientists had no idea what they were.”
“How could they not know?” Boehm asked.
“How would they know?” White said. “Dave, if you gave a caveman a data disc, he wouldn’t know it had data on it. All he’d know was it was round and shiny. Stalin’s boys had the same problem; the data storage units looked like metal cubes to them. They destroyed a couple breaking them open, found nothing useful and then stored the rest.”
“So the Soviets had them, but now we do,” Boehm said.
“Yup. We bought them from Russia in the early ’90s,” White said. “Back when we were paying them to dismantle their nukes. They were hard up for cash and offered us a bunch of their crackpot science projects for dirt cheap. Most of it was the sort of pseudo-scientific crap that makes Lysenko look like a Nobel Prize winner, but this one panned out. We were finally able to get our way into the data drives about fifteen years ago and started working on some of the stuff we found there.”
“Like teleportation,” Stein said. He took Boehm’s abandoned burger and unwrapped it.
“It’s not exactly teleportation,” White said. “It’s more like creating static holes in timespace that you can pull or push things through.”
“Whatever,” Stein said. “The point is it’s something you could use to pluck someone’s brain out of their head, and still keep it connected somehow.”
“Theoretically,” White said.
Stein motioned to toward the x-ray and MRI of the president’s head. “More than theoretically, I’d say,” he said, around his burger.
“I say theoretically because there are problems with the technology as we understand it,” White said.
“Like what?” Boehm asked.
“Like matter spontaneously reorganizing when it goes through the holes,” White said. “It’s bad enough with things like metal and plastics, but when we push something live through one of these holes they come out as disorganized chunks of meat.”
“Like in The Fly,” Alex said. “The scientist teleported a baboon and it wound up inside-out.”
Stein smiled at this. “Someone’s been in touch with his geek side today,” he said.
“It’s why we haven’t made this technology known,” White said. “It’s not ready or safe.”
“But that’s not happening with the President,” Boehm said. “He’s still walking and talking, so his brain hasn’t been turned to mush.”
There was a small pause which Alex recognized as General White making sure what came out of his mouth next was diplomatic. “It is still functioning as well as it ever did, as you say,” he said. “And this is where I’m no longer any help to you. One, because I know the whereabouts of every scientist the Air Force has working on teleportation and none of them have gone rogue. Two, because whoever is doing this knows more about it than we do.”
“Maybe one of the Russians,” Alex said.
White shook his head. “It’s like I told you,” he said. “The Russians hadn’t the slightest idea what they had. It took us years to figure it out ourselves. The only people who’ve worked on this stuff are Americans, and we know about every one of them.”
“Then one of your scientists has sprung a leak, General,” Boehm said.
“Dave, with all due respect, you have no idea what you’re talking about,” White said. “Even if one of them wanted to leak, we’ve got them under such tight surveillance that they don’t take a dump without us knowing what they had to eat twelve hours before.”
“You can’t keep track of them every minute of the day,” Boehm said.
“Sure I can,” White said. “Implanted GPS tags never sleep. Trust me, Dave. If I’m not watching one of my people, it’s because I know he’s already dead.”
“Would you give us a list of your scientists?” Boehm said.
“I’d rather not,” White said.
“I’m Chief of Staff for the President of the United States, General,” Boehm said. “I’ve got the security clearance.”
“If you get the President to ask for a list, I’ll give it to him,” White said. “You’ve told him about his situation yet?”
“We’re hoping not to trouble him with it,” Boehm said.
“I’ll bet,” White said, smirking.
“How about a list of your dead scientists?” Alex said.
White turned his attention to Alex, brows arched. “What good is that going to do you?”
“You just said they’re the only ones you’re not watching,” Alex said.
“We’ve been talking aliens, not zombies, son,” White said.
“It can’t hurt,” Alex said. “Even if one of them ever brought some work home on a flash drive, it might have been enough to slip out. We should check it out just to make sure we’re completely zipped up.”
“Fine. The dead scientists I’m willing to part with,” White said, and motioned to Jefferson. “I’ll have the Major here bring it over in the next couple of hours. As for the live scientists, I’ll have my own people retrace their steps. If any of them have leaked, you’ll know, about a minute before I have them shoved through one of our transporter holes and turned into a puddle of meat.”
* * *
There was a knock on Alex’s door. It was Stein.
“I can’t believe it,” Alex said, and rubbed his eyes. “You knocked.”
“Sun’s up,” Stein said. “You were here all night?”
Alex motioned to the thick stacks of paper on his desk. “You see what I had to go through last night. And this is just the dead guys. I hate to think what would have happened if Dave got General White to give him the files on the live guys, too. How about you? Up all night?”
“Of course not,” Stein said. “I’m keeping my regular schedule, remember.”
“That’s right,” Alex said. “Another reason to put you on the list of people I hate.”
“It might interest you to know that the President is back in action today,” Stein said. “By the end of the night last night he said he was feeling good as he ever has, and this morning he was back in the pool by six am. So it’s his full schedule and then off to Ohio for that stupid town hall speech of his.”
“Come on, Brad,” Alex said. “Town hall meetings are participatory democracy at its finest.”
“When it’s thirty people talking sewage issues in New Hampshire, maybe,” Stein said. “When the President is trying to explain why the country needs to temporarily raise the marginal tax rate on millionaires in front of screaming yahoos who think all taxes are treason, well. Let’s just say I get nervous.”
“That’s what the Secret Service is for,” Alex said. “Yahoo management is their specialty.”
“Let’s hope you’re right,” Stein said, and nodded at the piles. “You find anything interesting?”
“Yeah,” Alex said, rubbing his eyes again. “Yeah, I did. Not in the files, really, but around three A.M. I got a little loopy and decided to fire up the IRS database and look up some of these guys’ family members.”
“Why would you do that?” Stein said.
“Oh, you know,” Alex said. “See if any family members suddenly started paying taxes on millions of dollars of income, signifying ill-gotten gains.”
“Ill-gotten gains are not the sort of thing people usually pay taxes on,” Stein said. “Pretty much by definition.”
“Point,” Alex said. “Which is probably why I didn’t find anything. But then I found the opposite: The wife and adult child of one dead scientist stopped paying taxes entirely the year after he died. Here, look.” Alex plopped over a folder to give to Stein. “Louis Reynolds dies of a heart attack two years ago, right?” Alex then added some additional printouts to the pile. “The next year, his wife Lisa and kid Martha don’t pay any taxes at all. No reported income when both of them had jobs the year before. Lisa was an administrative assistant and Martha was a nurse practitioner. And no taxes filed this year, either.”
“And they’re not dead,” Stein said.
“Not that I can tell,” Alex said. “I didn’t call or anything, seeing as it was three in the morning.”
“If this Reynolds had life insurance and they were both beneficiaries, they could have lived off that money for a year or two and not had to pay taxes on any of that,” Stein said. “If you make no income in a year, you don’t have to file.”
“Maybe,” Alex said. “But I don’t know. It still feels weird to me. People don’t usually just fall completely out of the IRS database, even if they do get a life insurance payout. They still have mortgages and bank accounts and 401(k)s and charitable contributions. If you fall out that completely, there’s got to be a reason.”
“You think they’re on the run,” Stein said.
“Maybe,” Alex said. “Like I said, I don’t know. I’m not a forensic accountant, or an FBI agent, or spy. That’s your gig. You probably have people who could do this better than I could.”
“Is that a hint?” Stein said.
“It could be if you want it to be,” Alex said.
Stein smiled and held up the folder Alex gave him. “I’ll give this to some of my people and see what they come up with.”
“If you can have them do it quickly I would love you,” Alex said. “I have to give Dave my report in”—he glanced at his watch—“three and a half hours.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t told him this already,” Stein said.
“He’s apparently one of those people who thinks night is for sleeping,” Alex said, and yawned. “Speaking of which, I’m going to go grab a cab and crawl into my apartment and see if I can’t get a couple of hours before I have to get back here.”
“I’ll try to have something for you then,” Stein said.
“Thank you,” Alex said, and made his way out of the West Wing to the guard station, where the cab he’d ordered was there to take him to his apartment. He was enjoying that pleasantly light-headed feeling he got when he’d been up all night, right up until his cab drove away and a white panel van drove up in its place, the side door slid open, and someone from inside reached out and grabbed him.
Oh, shit, North Koreans, Alex thought, before something was shoved over his mouth and nostrils and he blacked out.
* * *
Alex woke up on a cot in a concrete room bare except for a man with a gun, the donut he was eating, the chair he was sitting in and a television set he was watching, apparently with the sound turned down.
“Who are you?” Alex asked the man.
“Your babysitter,” the man said, and then reached into his pocket and pulled out a cell phone without looking up from the television. “He’s awake,” the man said, after he had dialed a number.
“Can I get up?” Alex said, after the man had completed his call.
The man shrugged. “Do what you want. Commode is through that other door.”
“What if I want to leave?” Alex asked.
The man motioned to the door. “It’s locked from the outside. You can try it if you like.”
“Why am I here?” Alex asked.
The man finally looked over at Alex. “Relax, Mr. Lipsyte,” he said. “No one’s going to kill you.”
“You have a gun,” Alex said.
“I always have a gun,” the man said, turning back to the television. “I’m Secret Service.”
Ten minutes later the door opened and Brad Stein entered the room, holding a bag. “Hello, Alex,” he said, and walked over to the cot to hand Alex the bag. “I brought you dinner. Hope you like cheeseburgers.”
Alex took the bag. “Dinner,” he said.
“You’ve been asleep for a while,” Stein said. “Don’t worry. I saw Dave and told him how I sent you home after I came in at six and saw you throwing up into your wastebasket, the victim of some genuinely awful 24-hour flu bug. I also passed on your information to him, minus a few details.”
“Like about Lisa and Martha Reynolds,” Alex said.
“Yes, that,” Stein said, and leaned up against the wall of the room. “I have to say I was really rather annoyed when you asked to see the list of dead scientists,” he said. “I didn’t think that anyone would ask for something like that. You caught me with my pants down.”
“Louis Reynolds is alive,” Alex said.
“He is,” Stein said. “Faked his death and has been working in a NSA black ops lab ever since, with his wife and daughter attached to the lab staff. All under new names. Standard issue federal relocation.”
“And he’s solved that transporter thing,” Alex said. “The thing where living things get turned into meat.”
“No, actually, he hasn’t,” Stein said. “But we did the next best thing. Rather than trying to push the president’s brain through a timespace hole, we wrapped a spacetime hole around the president’s brain. The President’s brain is still in his head. Always has been. There’s just no way to access it, except through the spinal cord and the arteries and veins in his neck. From any other angle, anything trying to get into the President’s brain crosses the hole’s frontier and comes out in a shut-down FBI indoor shooting range at Quantico.”
Alex stared at Brad Stein for several minutes, uncomprehending.
“I think the question you want to ask now is ‘why,’” Stein said.
“Yes, that’s it exactly,” Alex said.
Stein looked over to the Secret Service agent. “Turn that television set around, Jenkins,” he said. Jenkins obliged, and Alex saw that he was watching the news.
“Did you record it?” Stein asked.
“Yes,” Jenkins said.
“Then back it up to the event, please. And turn the volume up,” Stein said. Jenkins did, keeping the television on pause. The image on the screen was of the President, standing in front of a podium.
“As you know, the President was slated to give that damn tax speech of his tonight at a Town Hall meeting in Ohio,” Stein said, walking over and taking the TV remote from Jenkins. “Because he’s a bit of a moron, that President of ours, he thought that it would be a fine idea to give that particular contentious speech in the open on a high school athletic field that the Secret Service could spend a year trying to cover and still miss an angle or two. So it was not exactly a surprise when the inevitable happened.” Stein pressed “Play” on the remote.
Alex watched as the President of the United States was assassinated. One moment the President was mouthing platitudes, the next there was a loud pop and a hole bloomed out of his left temple.
“Oh, my God,” Alex said, looking at Stein.
“Wait, it gets better,” Stein said, and motioned to the TV.
Alex turned back to the television to see the President, slightly stunned, bleeding from the hole in his head, arguing with Dave Boehm and the head of the Presidential Secret Service detail. Alex frowned. “What is he doing?”
“He’s telling them that he wants to keep doing his speech,” Stein said. “That dumb son of a bitch has just been shot in the head, and is bleeding out of a wound that would have been fatal if we hadn’t hidden his brain, and all he wants to do is keep reading off the Teleprompter. It’s admirable, in its own magnificently screwed up way.”
Alex kept watching as the President was finally dragged away from the podium, looking extraordinarily pissed. “Is he all right now?” he finally asked.
“No,” Stein said. “He’s got a bullet hole in his temple. He’s lost a fair amount of blood, some bone and other tissue, and the bullet caused a small amount of damage on the inside of his skull before it hit the edge of the timespace hole and exited out into that Quantico gun range. He’ll be out of commission for a week or so. The Vice President is currently acting with full presidential authority. No more elementary school visits for him. But on the other hand the President’s brain is completely unscathed. He’ll survive, which he wouldn’t have done otherwise.”
“You saved the President’s life,” Alex said.
“Yes,” Stein said. “For what it’s worth. But it wasn’t just me. The idea came from the Secret Service. The President takes too many public risks. He’s always going out into crowds and mixing with the public in ways that make it hard for his agents to keep him safe. Last year he even wanted to ride through Dallas in a convertible. Dave finally had to show him the Zapruder film to get him to change his mind. From the Secret Service’s point of view it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. They came to me for advice. When the President decided to make this speech in the open, we acted.”
“And you did that without him knowing,” Alex said.
“No other way to do it,” Stein said. “I’ll save the technical discussion for another time. But as you can see, it’s possible.”
“I don’t understand why you didn’t tell any of us,” Alex said.
“Tell you what?” Stein said. “That I secretly wrapped the President’s brain in a hole ripped out of spacetime? Alex, first I want you to imagine how that conversation would have played out with Dave. Then I want you to imagine how it would have played out with the President. He’s deeply suspicious of the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around. You know that.” He pointed to the television. “Now I won’t have to explain it. The benefits are obvious.”
“Except that I’ve been kidnapped off the street and hidden away in a room with a man with a gun,” Alex said.
“Oh, that,” Stein said.
“Yes, that,” Alex said.
“I am sorry about that, Alex,” Stein said. “You found out more than I would have given you credit for, faster than I would have expected. If you had told Dave about Louis Reynolds and his family, my involvement might have come out too soon. So all of this was only a precaution.”
“I’m not sure I believe you,” Alex said.
“Here’s how: Right now you’re underneath the East Wing of the White House,” Stein said.
“Bullshit,” Alex said.
“Welcome to the bunker,” Stein said. “A small corner of it, anyway. Which you are of course free to leave. In fact, you should probably get back to your desk. Dave’s been screaming for you since the assassination attempt.”
“Oh, crap,” Alex said, and started looking for his cell phone.
“Here,” Stein said, producing it from one of his pockets.
“You took my phone?” Alex said, taking it.
“You needed your rest,” Stein said. “Now, Alex, whether you tell anyone about what happened to you today is up to you, although of course I hope that you won’t feel it’s necessary. Also, given what’s happened today, you’ll understand when I say that even if you do discuss it, it’s likely to get lost in the shuffle.”
“Probably,” Alex said.
“And besides, I brought you a cheeseburger,” Stein said.
“Oh, well,” Alex said. “That makes it all better.” He got up from the cot, and wobbled.
“Everything all right?” Stein said. He had walked to the door and turned back to catch the wobble.
“I’m fine,” Alex said. “Just a little light-headed.”
“That’s to be expected,” Stein said. “All things considered. Give it a day or two. Your head will feel totally normal by then.”
Alex looked up. “Wait. What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked.
Stein smiled and walked out the door.
Text copyright © 2010 John Scalzi
Illustration copyright © 2010 Carl Wiens