The question is, how can you tell the President's brain is missing? And are we sure we need it back?
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About the Author
John Scalzi won the 2006 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novel for Redshirts, and his debut novel Old Man’s War was a finalist for Hugo Award as well. His other books include The Ghost Brigades, The Android’s Dream, The Last Colony and The Human Division. He has won the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for science-fiction, the Seiun, The Kurd Lasswitz and the Geffen awards. His weblog, The Whatever, is one of the most widely-read web sites in modern SF. Born and raised in California, Scalzi studied at the University of Chicago. He lives in southern Ohio with his wife and daughter.
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The President's Brain is Missing
By John Scalzi, Carl Wiens
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2010 John Scalzi
All rights reserved.
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 at 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 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 8 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 8 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."
Excerpted from The President's Brain is Missing by John Scalzi, Carl Wiens. Copyright © 2010 John Scalzi. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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