Short Story: “Intermediary”

How important is that one small thing that you might be able to do?

By P. Orin Zack

Anne Cisner tried her best to be invisible when she entered the briefing room, staying so close to her escort that she had to consciously block out the whirring animosity that frothed his aura.

“Where is he?” she whispered behind his ear, unsure of whether the growing hubbub would drown her words.

Alex paused briefly, his dreadlocks echoing the ratchet of his gaze as he scanned the room. Then he turned right and skirted the crowd, leading her to a vacant seat at the end of the third row.

While settling into the well-worn folding chair, she scanned the people in her row, identifying mainstream media shills by the confident bluster in their energy fields. For her, it wasn’t so much a visual experience as a tactile one, making this fleeting psychic intimacy both blessing and curse. Fortunately, it was interrupted when Alex touched her shoulder. He looked her in the eye, then glanced at someone a few rows behind them. She nodded a thank-you, and he left.

Anne swallowed. She dared not look back, lest someone catch on to what they were about to do. It wasn’t exactly illegal, but only because psychic abilities such as hers had not yet been proven in a court of law. Rather, it was the court of public opinion they were concerned about. If word of this got out, the reporter who had sought her assistance would be open to spurious ridicule. He would lose the credibility that had made it possible for him to ask an unscripted question. He was trusted. At least for today. Afterwards? He’d risked his reputation, his career, on a single moment at this press conference. His life might just as well be in her hands. She was terrified.

Time was, Anne had been a constitutional activist. A damn good one, too. But there’s just so long you can push an immoveable object. At some point, you just burn out. For her, that moment came on Election night, and here it was, March again already.

When Republican control of Congress was broken in 2006, the masses who had struggled to make it happen knew that there was more to repairing the damage than simply ousting the junta. The judiciary had been poisoned. Political operatives had been insinuated into agencies throughout the government. Congress had caved to pressure and propaganda, passing laws that would have made the founders burn the city. What useful laws they did manage to pass were either ignored or subverted by presidential decree. Until finally, Congress was forced to admit that without the ability to enforce its will, it was powerless against the combined strength of the executive and the financial interests that made everything work.

All that was left to hope for was a change of leadership come the next election.

The one-term Democratic administration that followed made a big show of cleaning house, but the root causes were never addressed. The worst parts of what came to be known as the New Intolerable Acts – such travesties as the so-called PATRIOT Act – were toned down, but their substance was retained. Rights taken from the citizens were never returned. What had once been a self-proclaimed bastion of freedom and liberty had been fine-tuned to keep people just happy enough to not want to make trouble.

And then the tide turned once again. After a single term out of office, the Republican corporatocracy regained power. Nobody believed the election results, but it was now illegal to question them. It was too late to reverse the damage, and more was being layered over it day by day.

Since November, Anne had buried her frustration and rage under a mountain of work, focusing instead on her practice. She spent her days massaging the shell-shocked psyches of people too overwhelmed with manipulative media and force-prescribed with anti-anxiety drugs to do much more than the mind-numbing jobs left them to pay for the effects of the mistreatment they were subjected to. And she couldn’t even be open about how she did it, lest she lose her hard-fought counseling license.

An amplified rustling of paper broke her reverie. The crowd had settled down, and all of the empty seats were now filled.

“May I have your attention, please?” A young woman stood at the podium. Her voice was weak, uncertain. “Please hold your credentials out. Homeland Security will verify everyone’s ID before we begin.”

Alex had handed her a badge before they entered. She fished it out and looked over at the beefy uniformed Aryan headed her way. The man’s bearing was stiff, over-controlled. He was uncomfortable being here, judging from the roiling texture of his energy field. She looked up at him.

“I haven’t seen you here, before, Ma’am.”

She smiled. “First time.”

He took the badge from her slender brown hand. The contrast was striking, both in color and size. “This says you work for the Holistic Reporter. What’s your beat?”

Anne considered him for a moment. He could have simply scooped the badge’s RFID and let the system validate it. So why the personal touch? “Social Anxiety. The Reporter asked me to do a piece about how the press behaves in settings like this. I’m more interested in the questions than the answers.”

“I see.” He waved the badge across the reader strapped to his forearm, then handed it back to her.

While he busied himself with the rest of the reporters in her row, she ran her imagined fingers across his energy field again, to see if it had changed. But just as she made contact, he stopped and glanced back at her. She quickly looked away. Had she been found out?

She was still mulling the implications of being outed at a presidential press conference when the alert tone sounded. President Barner would be entering shortly. The scripted pander session was about to roll.

Anne reached back in her memory to when Alex had indicated where Ian Larabee sat. By reading his field from that moment, she could identify Larabee’s own, and then establish a link to him. She’d never met him in person, only seen him on vid, but was nonetheless impressed by the feeling of honesty he exuded. Now she’d know if it was real.

What she found surprised her. For when she touched in, a lick of energy from deeper in his field reach out and held her insubstantial arm fast. Not only could he sense her presence, he reinforce the link from his end. This man was far more than he seemed. The question was, had she just fallen into a trap, or was he doing his best to help her?

The door at the front of the room opened. Barner glided up to the podium and looked around the room before speaking. “Good Afternoon. Earlier today, the Justice Department submitted their recommendation for personnel adjustments at the state level. We have…”

The second part of Anne’s task was far more dangerous than the first. She let the president’s words fade to noise as she imagined reaching across the room and into the façade of Barner’s public shell. She’d dreamt of doing this throughout that sham of an election campaign, only then she let her rage throttle him, excoriating the lies and groundless attacks his handlers launched, not only against his opponents, but against any member of the press who so much as cast a friendly phrase towards what he publicly termed the traitorous jihad that stood between him and the seat of power he claimed as his birthright. It was all she could do to restrain herself.

“… replacements. I have directed the Justice Department to re-examine all cases that had been settled during the previous administration, in light of the corrections to previously passed laws which we distributed a week ago. When these…”

So far, so good. She had a lock on the slimy core of Barner’s self-righteous self-image, and could feel the changes that wafted through it with every passing thought. Lies and misrepresentations stood out in stark relief, making it that much harder for her to concentrate on the real reason she was here, bridging the gap between Barner and Larabee.

For the moment, she was acting like an insulator, keeping their respective energy fields from mingling with one another. When she dropped that wall, Larabee would be able to feel Barner’s state directly. According to Alex, who had interceded for the reporter in contacting her, Larabee would use that feedback to know how to make the best use of his unscripted moment, to toss that hammer in Big Brother’s face and shatter the nightmare that had persisted for so long.

But there was also the possibility that Barner would notice, just as the uniform had when she unwisely Brailled his aura a few minutes earlier. Then all bets were off.

“… the terrorists …”

Done. The two were linked. She sat back limply as the energy coursed through her, daring not to respond to the venom behind Barner’s spin lest she be noticed and destroy probably the only chance there was to head off further damage to the country.

President Barner had stopped speaking. He was scanning the faces, preparing to start the scripted questioning that would fill the night’s news.

If ever she needed to be invisible, this was it.

“I’ll take questions, now.”

Anne relaxed. Barner would be too caught up in his part of the staged event to notice her now. Good. The rest was up to Larabee.

As was his pattern, the president started by fielding several softball questions from the outlets the GOP depended on for accurate spin. Anne kept her mind clear, her breathing slow and regular. The next two questions were the changeup, carefully crafted to give left wing gatekeepers some play to keep their audience in tow. These were the ones that Larabee would be watching closely, because they exposed the tells in Barner’s energy patterns. When they were finished, it would be Larabee’s turn. His only chance to pull the bottom out of the whole house of cards.

“Okay, Ian,” Barner said after an uncomfortably long pause, nodding towards Larabee. “You’re up.”

But just as the reporter was about to speak, another field was layered over her connection between the two men, and Anne was certain he was being held back for some reason. The moment stretched. She could feel the twist of energy as Larabee rose to his feet, and yet it also felt like the reporter was being played, a marionette dancing to the strings on this intruding hand.

She felt violated.

“Thank you, Mr. President.” Larabee said, uncharacteristically calm.

There was something familiar about the feel of the invasive energy coursing through her. But just as she realized that it belonged to the uniform who had read her badge, it vanished, and along with it the connection she’d forged.

Panicked, she quickly tried to re-establish the link with Barner, but was rebuffed. By the uniform, again. She turned to look at Larabee, standing a few rows behind her. He seemed unperturbed, as if nothing had happened. She blinked a few times, mind racing, and then craned about in search of the uniform.

There he was, beside the exit. She reached out to touch into his field, and found the smooth texture of a well-crafted shield. He’d taken control of Larabee. But what was his game? Was this to head off Larabee’s gambit, or to run one of his own? Either way, there was nothing she could do, nothing she could say.

She felt as if all of the air had been forced from her lungs.

“I’d like to revisit an issue that has officially been laid to rest.”

The room felt agitated, as if a hornet’s nest had broken from its perch, and was moments from exploding into a cloud of angry stingers. Who’s question was this, Larabee’s or the uniform’s?

“But my question, sir, is not so much for you as it is for my colleagues in this room.”

Barner gripped the edges of his podium.

Larabee exchanged worried glances with the crowd. He looked as nervous as they did. “Which of you can honestly state that the news you report is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

An uncomfortable laughter arose, and was quickly stifled.

“I’m serious. If you performed your jobs under oath, how many of you would be charged with perjury?”

The room erupted. Larabee was shouted down from several directions at once.

Barner cleared his throat. “Does that answer your question?”

Anne turned to look again at the uniform by the door, certain that this was not what Larabee had in mind. But he was already gone.

“As a matter of fact, sir, it does.”

Anne turned slowly back towards Larabee, her attention split between his newly energized tone and the wave of psychic energy that had begun bouncing across the crowd like popcorn.

“It does, because you’re powerless without willing accomplices in this room. It does, because the real soul of this nation isn’t a political party or corporate sponsorships. It’s the people’s right to know. And from what I just heard, that right is not yours for the taking. So, go ahead with your script. Just don’t expect us to play along any more.”

Maybe it didn’t matter if this was Larabee’s idea or not. He’d grabbed the reins and showed no sign of letting go. Either way, returning to action was beginning to sound like home again.

Copyright 2007 P. Orin Zack


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