19 December 2019

Stable Genius


By Philip Purser-Hallard

Wiseman stares at the scrap of paper. It’s been pulled out of what looks like a reference book, flimsy paper close-printed in a font he doesn’t recognise. It’s barely half a page, and the bottom half at that. Its lower and right edges are still crisp and well-defined, the left and upper ones ragged.

He takes a deep breath, and reads.

‘…data losses resulting from natural disasters and tit-for-tat cyberattacks during this part of the 21st century. However, legends of her early life abound. It is said that her parents were smuggled across the border in a horse-box bringing donkeys to an El Paso riding center; that she was born in an animal stall there, a few hours later, a US citizen by birthright; that the family only avoided a border patrol raid before fleeing north to Cairo, Illinois because her father was forewarned in a dream by the Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. Her junior high school civics teacher, Lucas Heilig, claimed late in life that in 2030 he missed her from the return coach after a trip to Washington, only to find her in the Capitol building, debating constitutional law with various Congresspeople and their staff. Another story tells of a cousin’s wedding where the beer…’

Wiseman shakes his head slowly and turns the paper over. He notes that while the bottom of the page is white and clean, its ragged top is brown and brittle. Though one might guess that the page had been near a fire, to him the effect is more reminiscent of ageing, as if the page gets younger the further down one reads.

‘…beyond any dispute, even by her opponents, is the scale of her achievements in office. Her domestic record, in comprehensively reforming the school and prison systems, enshrining universal healthcare across all 52 states, and clarifying the Second Amendment to define the NRA as a terrorist organisation, would make an exceptional legacy in itself. But it is in her international achievements, especially the virtuoso diplomatic work involved in establishing the Pan-American Free Movement Zone and brokering the Jerusalem Accords, that the political genius of the 50th President becomes truly apparent. It is unsurprising that her career gave rise to the cult of personality that spawned her remarkable origin narratives, nor that her reputation would grow in memory following her assassination shortly after her re-election in 2058…’

Wiseman lays the paper carefully on his desk. He realises that he has been tugging at his grey hair, an incongruously girlish habit he acquired when he grew it long in college, and has failed to break in the many decades since.

He sighs. ‘And this is all there is?’

‘It’s all that came through before the systems failure,’ Maggie Starr says curtly. The head researcher on the protoscope project knows as well as he does how little of their hopes this shred of truth represents. ‘Aside from some dust. We’re analysing that now.’

‘The ’scope is supposed to lock onto nodes of information density,’ Wiseman reminds her. ‘Are you telling me the best it could find was a book? No phones or tablets?’

Starr looks offended. ‘The geographical scale of the sample was pretty small. If this book’s on a shelf with a bunch of novels, say, it could easily be the peak of the local information gradient. Like the way lightning can strike a tree next to you even when there are mountains in the distance.’

Wiseman is no outdoorsman, and he doesn’t figure Starr for an outdoorswoman either. ‘What’s its value to our principal?’

‘Limited,’ Starr admits, ‘but not zero. There’s some geographic detail, though the source admits it’s unreliable. One personal name, and not a common one either. Of course it would be better if we had her name, but… There are the dates. If she’s in junior high in 2030, and elected for the first time in 2054, she’ll be the youngest President in US history, unless there’s a younger one over the next 36 years. She’ll be a little kid right now. A baby, even.’

Wiseman nods slowly, acknowledging all of this. Starr’s right that it’s not nothing. Still, their boss is not going to be pleased. He wanted info on his immediate successor, not the next but four.

Starr’s mind has obviously been working along the same lines. ‘I guess we can look on the bright side,’ she says. ‘It’s not like he wanted to find the next one so he could train them up for the job. He’s not the mentoring type.’

Wiseman sighs again. ‘That’s not our problem. We serve at his pleasure. It’s not our job to ask questions. At least,’ he adds, to forestall his subordinate’s objections, ‘not those kinds of questions.’

‘So,’ Starr challenges him, her glasses glinting icily. ‘You’re going to go to the President – this President – and tell him that the young Hispanic daughter of illegal immigrants will be sitting in his chair in the Oval Office during his children’s lifetime? That it could be pretty much any immigrant kid alive today?’

‘She’s not an immigrant,’ Wiseman objects. ‘It says right here she’s a US citizen.’

‘Oh, like he’s capable of grasping that distinction,’ Starr says. ‘We can’t even be sure it’s a girl. Who knows what “she” means fifty years from now?’

Wiseman raises an eyebrow. That point hadn’t occurred to him.

‘You’re willing to tell him that?’ Starr insists on knowing. ‘You know what he’s likely to do.’

‘Our job’s to gather the information,’ Wiseman repeats. ‘Information’s an end in itself, remember? The more we know, the better. What the President does with it is on him, Maggie. Our hands are clean.’

‘No, Trey,’ she says, flatly. ‘It’s on your head if you do.’

‘Well, maybe.’ He smiles grimly. ‘Maybe that’s why I’m the Director, and make twice what you do.’

Starr shakes her head in disbelief, then whistles. ‘Still, I don’t envy you telling him that’s all we’ve got. He’s going to be furious.’

‘Could be,’ Wiseman agrees. ‘That part’s my job, too. Who knows…’ He allows himself a rare, wry chuckle. ‘If he takes it really badly, maybe I’ll be dreaming of a Founding Father tonight. I always wanted to meet Ben Franklin.’

And picking up the piece of paper Starr has given him, Trey Wiseman sets out to seek the ruler of that land.