A Complete Short Story
While I crumpled the paper note that someone had slipped into my jacket pocket, Jack Armstrong drummed his fingers on the immaculately gleaming expanse of the pseudomahogany conference table.
"Well," he said testily, "ladies and gentlemen, don't one of you have a possibility? An inkling? An idea?"
No one spoke. I left the wadded note in my pocket and placed both my hands conspicuously on the table top. Armstrong drummed away in abysmal silence. I guess once he had actually looked like The All-American Boy. Now, many facelifts and body remodelings later, he looked more like a moderately well-preserved dummy.
"Nothing at all, gentleman and ladies?" He always made certain to give each sex the first position 50 percent of the time. Affirmative action was a way of life with our Boss.
"Very well then. We will Delphi the problem."
"There's nothing else to be done," the Boss insisted. "We must have a crisis by Monday morning. It is now..." he glanced at the digital readout built into the table top, - three-eighteen p.m. Friday. We will not leave this office until we have a crisis to offer."
We knew it wouldn't do a bit of good, but we groaned all over again.
The Crisis Command Center was the best-kept secret in the world. No government knew of our existence. Nor did the people, of course. In fact, in all the world's far-flung news media, only a select handful of the topmost executives knew of the CCC. Those few, those precious few, that band of brothers and sisters — they were our customers. The reason for our being. They paid handsomely. And they protected the secret of our work even from their own news staffs.
Our job, our sacred duty, was to select the crisis that would be the focus of worldwide media attention for the coming month. Nothing more. Nothing less.
In the old days, when every network, newspaper, magazine, news service, or independent station picked out its own crises, things were always in a jumble. Sure, they would try to focus on one or two sure-fire headline-makers: a nuclear powerplant disaster or the fear of one, a new disease like AIDS or Chinese Rot, a war, terrorism, things like that.
The problem was, there were so many crises springing up all the time, so many threats and threats of threats, so much blood and fire and terror, that people stopped paying attention. The news scared the livers out of them. Sales of newspapers and magazines plunged toward zero. Audiences for news shows, even the revered network evening shows, likewise plummeted.
It was Jack Armstrong — a much younger, more handsome and vigorous All-American Boy—who came up with the idea of the Crisis Command Center. Like all great ideas, it was basically simple.
Pick one crisis each month and play it for all it's worth. Everywhere. In all the media. Keep it scary enough to keep people listening, but not so terrifying that they'll run away and hide.
And it worked! Worked to the point where the CCC (or CeeCubed, as some of our analysts styled it) was truly the command center for all the media of North America. And thereby, of course, the whole world.
But on this particular Friday afternoon, we were stumped. And I had that terrifying note crumpled in my pocket. A handwritten note, on paper, no less. Not an electronic communication, but a secret, private, dangerous seditious note, meant for me and me alone, surreptitiously slipped into my jacket pocket.
"Make big $$$," it scrawled. "Tell all to Feds."
I clasped my hands to keep them from trembling and wondered who, out of the fourteen men and women sitting around the table, had slipped that bomb to me.
Boss Jack had started the Delphi procedure by going down the table, asking each of us board members in turn for the latest news in her or his area of expertise.
He started with the man sitting at his immediate right, Mat Dillon. That wasn't the name he had been born with, naturally his original name had been Oliver Wolchinsky. But in our select little group, once you earn your spurs (no pun intended) you are entitled to a "power name," a name that shows you are a person of rank and consequence. Most power names were chosen, o course, from famous media characters.
Matt Dillon didn't look like the marshal of Dodge City. Or even the one-time teen screen idol. He was short, pudgy, bald with bad skin and an irritable temper. He looked, actually, exactly as you would expect an Oliver Wolchinsky to look.
But when Jack Armstrong said, "We shall begin with you,' he added, "Matthew."
Matt Dillon was the CCC expert on energy problems. H( always got to his feet when he had something to say. This time he remained with his round rump resting resignedly on the caramel cushion of his chair.
"The outlook is bleak," said Matt Dillon. "Sales of the new space-manufactured solar cells are still climbing. Individual homes, apartment buildings, condos, factories—everybody's plastering their roofs with them and generating their own electricity. No pollution, no radiation, nothing for us to latch onto. They don't even make noise!"
"Ah," intoned our All-American Boy, "but they must be ruining business for electric utility companies. Why not a crisis there?" He gestured hypnotically, and put on an expression of Ratheresque somberness, intoning, "Tonight we will look at the plight of the electrical utilities, men and women who have been discarded in the stampede for cheap energy."
"Trampled," a voice from down the table suggested.
"Ah, yes. Instead of discarded. Thank you." Boss Jack was never one to discourage creative criticism.
But Marshal Matt mewed, "The electric utility companies are doing just fine; they invested in the solar cell development back in '95. They saw the handwriting in the sky."
A collective sigh of disappointment went around the table.
Not one to give up easily, our Mr. Armstrong suggested, "What about oil producers, then? The coal miners?"
"The last coal miner retired on full pension in '98," replied Matt dolefully. "The mines were fully automated by then. Nobody cares if robots are out of work; they just get reprogrammed and moved into another industry. Most of the coal robots are picking fruit in Florida now.
Matt headed him off at the pass. "Petroleum prices are steady. They sell the stuff to plastics manufacturers, mostly. Natural gas is the world's major heating fuel. It's clean, abundant and cheap."
Gloom descended on our conference table.
It deepened as Boss Jack went from one of our experts to the next.
Terrorism had virtually vanished in the booming world economy.
Political scandals were depressingly rare: With computers replacing most bureaucrats there was less cheating going on in government, and far fewer leaks to the media.
The space program was so successful that no less than seven governments of space-faring nations — including our own dear Uncle Sam—had declared dividends for their citizens and a tax amnesty for the year.
Population growth was nicely leveling off. Inflation was minimal. Unemployment was a thing of the past, with an increasingly roboticized workforce encouraging humans to invest in robots, accept early retirement, and live off the productivity of their machines.
The closest thing to a crisis in that area was a street brawl in St. Petersburg between two retired Russian factory workers —aged thirty and thirty-two—who both wanted the very same robot. Potatoes that were much too small for our purposes.
There hadn't been a war since the International Peacekeeping Force had prevented Fiji from attacking Tonga, nearly twelve years ago.
Toxic wastes, in the few remote regions of the world where they still could be found, were being gobbled up by genetically altered bugs (dubbed Rifkins, for some obscure reason) that happily died once they had finished their chore and dissolved into harmless water, carbon dioxide and ammonia compounds. In some parts of the world the natives had started laundry and cleaning establishments on the sites of former toxic waste dumps. I watched and listened in tightening terror as the fickle finger of fate made its way down the table toward me. I was low man on the board, the newest person there, sitting at the end of the table between pert Ms. Mary Richards (sex and family relations were her specialty) and dumpy old Alexis Carrington-Colby (nutrition and diets — it was she who had, three months earlier, come up with the blockbuster of the "mother's milk" crisis).
I hoped desperately that either Ms. Richards or Ms. Carrington-Colby would offer some shred of hope for the rest of the board to nibble on, because I knew I had nothing. Nothing except that damning, damaging note in my pocket. What if the Boss found out about it? Would he think I was a potential informer, a philandering fink to the Feds?
With deepening despair I listened to flinty-eyed Alexis offer apologies instead of ideas. It was Mary Richards' turn next, and my heart began fluttering unselfishly. I liked her, I was becoming quite enthusiastic about her, almost to the point of asking her romantic questions. I had never dated a sex specialist, or much of anyone, for that matter. Mary was special to me, and I wanted her to succeed.
She didn't. There was no crisis in sex or family relations.
"Mr. James," said the Boss, like a bell tolling for a funeral.
I wasn't entitled to a power name, since I had only recently been appointed to the board. My predecessor, Marcus Welby, had keeled over right at this conference table the previous month when he realized that there was no medical crisis in sight. His heart broke, literally. It had been his fourth one, but this time the rescue team was just a shade too late to pull him through again.
Thomas K. James is hardly a power name. But it was the one my parents had bestowed on me, and I was determined not to disgrace it. And in particular, not to let anyone know that someone in this conference room thought I was corruptible.
"Mr. James," asked a nearly weeping All-American Boy, "is there anything on the medical horizon — anything at all — that may be useful to us?"
It was clear that Boss Armstrong did not suspect me of incipient treason. Nor did he expect me to solve his problem. I did not fail him in that expectation.
"Nothing worth raising an eyebrow over, sir, I regret to say." Remarkably, my voice stayed firm and steady, despite the dervishes dancing in my stomach.
"There are no new diseases," I went on, "and the old ones are still in rapid retreat. Genetic technicians can correct every identifiable malady in the zygotes, and children are born healthy for life." I cast a disparaging glance at Mr. Cosby, our black environmentalist, and added, "Pollution-related diseases are so close to zero that most disease centers around the world no longer take statistics on them."
"Addiction!" he blurted, the idea apparently springing into his mind unexpectedly. "There must be a new drug on the horizon!"
The board members stirred in their chairs and looked hopeful. For a moment.
I burst their bubble. "Modern chemotherapy detoxifies the addict in about eleven minutes, as some of us know from firsthand experience." I made sure not to stare at Matt Dillon or Alexis Carrington-Colby, who had fought bouts with alcohol and chocolate, respectively. "And, I must unhappily report, cybernetic neural programming is mandatory in every civilized nation in the world; once an addictive personality manifests itself, it can be reprogrammed quickly and painlessly."
The gloom around the table deepened into true depression, tinged with fear.
Jack Armstrong glanced at the miniature display screen discreetly set into the tabletop before him, swiftly checking on his affirmative actions, then said, "Ladies and gentleman, the situation grows more desperate with each blink of the clock. I suggest we take a five-minute break for R and R (he meant relief and refreshment) and then come back with some new ideas!"
He fairly roared out the last two words, shocking us all.
I repaired to my office — little more than a cubicle, actually, but it had a door that could be shut. I closed it carefully and hauled the unnerving note out of my pocket. Smoothing it on my desk top, I read it again. It still said:
I wadded it again and with trembling hands tossed it into the disposal can. It flashed silently into healthful ions.
"Are you going to do it?"
I wheeled around to see Mary Richards leaning against my door. She had entered my cubicle silently and closed the door without a sound. At least, no sound I had heard, so intent was I on that menacing message.
"Do what?" Lord, my voice cracked like Henry Aldrich.
Mary Richards (nee Stephanie Quaid) was a better physical proximation to her power name than any one of the board members, with the obvious exception of our revered Boss. She was the kind of female for whom the words cute, pert and vivacious were created. But beneath those skin-deep qualities she had the ruthless drive and calculated intelligence of a sainted Mike Wallace. Had to. Nobody without the same could make it to the CCC board. If that sounds self-congratulatory, so be it. A real Mary Richards, even a Lou Grant, would never get as far as the front door of the CCC.
"Tell all to the Feds," she replied sweetly.
The best thing I could think of was, "I don't know what you're talking about."
"The note you just ionized."
"The note I put in your pocket before the meeting started."
"You?" Until that moment I hadn't known I could hit high C.
Mary positively slinked across my cubicle and draped herself on my desk, showing plenty of leg through her slitted skirt. I gulped and slid my swivel chair into the corner.
"It's okay, there're no bugs operating in here. I cleared your office this morning."
I could feel my eyes popping. "Who are you?"
Her smile was all teeth. "I'm a spy, Tommy. A plant. A deep agent. I've been working for the Feds since I was a little girl, rescued from the slums of Chicago by the Rehabilitation Corps from what would have undoubtedly been a life of gang violence and prostitution."
"And they planted you here?"
"They planted me in Cable News when I was a fresh young thing just off the Rehab Farm. It's taken me eleven years to work my way up to the CCC. We always suspected some organization like this was manipulating the news, but we never had the proof...
"Manipulating!" I was shocked at the word. "We don't manipulate."
"Oh?" She seemed amused at my rightful ire. "Then what do you do?"
"We select. We focus. We manage the news for the benefit of the public."
"In my book, Tommy old pal, that is manipulation. And it's illegal."
"It's... out of the ordinary channels," I granted.
Mary shook her pretty chestnut-brown tresses. "It's a violation of FCC regulations, it makes a mockery of the antitrust laws, to say nothing of the SEC, OSHA, ICC, WARK, and a half a dozen other regulatory agencies."
''So you're going to blow the whistle on us."
She straightened up and sat on the edge of my desk. "I can't do that, Tommy. I'm a government agent. An agent provocateur, I'm sure Mr. Armstrong's lawyers will call me."
"You can blow the whistle," she said smilingly. "You're a faithful employee. Your testimony would stand up in court."
"Destroy," I spread my arms in righteous indignation, "all this?"
"It's illegal as hell, Tom," said Mary. "Besides, the rewards for being a good citizen can be very great. Lifetime pension. Twice what you're making here. Uncle Sam is very generous, you know. We'll fix you up with a new identity. We'll move you to wherever you want to live: Samoa, Santa Barbara, St. Thomas even Schenectady. You could live like a retired financier."
"And," she added, shyly lowering her eyes, "of course I'll have to retire, too, once the publicity of the trial blows my cover. I won't have the same kind of super pension that you'll get, but maybe...
My throat went dry.
Before I could respond, though, the air-raid siren went off, signaling that the meeting was reconvening.
I got up from my chair, but Mary stepped between me and the door.
"What's your answer, Thomas?" she asked, resting her lovely hands on my lapels.
"I.. - gulping for air, "...don't know."
She kissed me lightly on the lips. "Think it over, Thomas dear. Think hard."
It wasn't my thoughts that were hardening. She left me standing in the cubicle, alone except for my swirling thoughts spinning through my head like a tornado. I could hear the roaring in my ears. Or was that simply high blood pressure?
The siren howled again, and I bolted to the conference room and took my seat at the end of the table. Mary smiled at me and patted my knee, under the table.
"Very well," said Jack Armstrong, checking his display screen, "gentleman and ladies. I have come to the conclusion that if we cannot find a crisis anywhere in the news," and he glared at us, as if he didn't believe there wasn't a crisis out there somewhere, probably right under our noses, "then we must manufacture a crisis."
I had expected that. So had most of the other board members, I could see. What went around the table was not surprise but resignation.
Cosby shook his head wearily, "We did that last month, and it was a real dud. The Anguish of Kindergarten. Audience response was a negative four-point-four. Negative!"
"Then we've got to be more creative!" snapped The All-American Boy.
I glanced at Mary. She was looking at me, smiling her sunniest smile, the one that could allegedly turn the world on. And the answer to the whole problem came to me with that blinding flash that marks true inspiration and minor epileptic fits.
This wasn't epilepsy. I jumped to my feet. "Mr. Armstrong! Fellow board members!"
"What is it, Mr. James?" Boss Jack replied, a hopeful glimmer in his eyes.
The words almost froze in my throat. I looked down at Mary, still turning out megawatts of smile at me, and nearly choked because my heart had jumped into my mouth.
But only figuratively. "Ladies and gentlemen," (I had kept track, too), "there is a spy among us from the Federal Regulatory Commissions."
A hideous gasp arose, as if they had heard the tinkling bell of a leper.
"This is no time for levity, Mr. James," snapped the Boss.
"On the other hand, if this is an attempt at shock therapy to stir the creative juices
"It's real!" I insisted. Pointing at the smileless Mary Richards, I said, "This woman is a plant from the Feds. She solicited my cooperation. She tried to bribe me to blow the whistle on the CCC!"
They stared. They snarled. They hissed at Mary. She rose coolly from her chair, made a little bow, blew me a kiss, and left the conference room.
Armstrong was already on the intercom phone. "Have security detain her and get our legal staff to interrogate her. Do it now!"
Then the Boss got to his feet, way down there at the other end of the table, and fixed me with his steeliest gaze. He said not a word, but clapped his hands together, once, twice
And the entire board stood up for me and applauded. I felt myself blushing, but it felt good. Warming. My first real moment in the sun.
The moment ended too soon. We all sat down and the gloom began to gray over my sunshine once more.
"It's too bad, Mr. James, that you didn't find a solution to our problem rather than a pretty government mole."
"Ah, but sir," I replied, savoring the opportunity for le mot just, "I have done exactly that."
"Are you saying that you've done it?"
I rose once more, without even glancing at the empty chair at my left.
"I have a crisis, sir." I announced quietly, humbly.
Not a word from any of them. They all leaned forward, expectantly, hopefully, yearningly.
"The very fact that we—the leading experts in the field—can find no crisis is in itself a crisis," I told them.
They sighed, as if a great work of art had suddenly been unveiled.
"Think of the crisis management teams all around the world who are idle! Think of the psychologists and the therapists who stand ready to help their fellow man and woman, yet have nothing to do! Think of the vast teams of news reporters, camera persons, editors, producers, publishers, even golfers, the whole vast panoply of men and women who have dedicated their lives to bringing the latest crisis into the homes of every human being on this planet—with nothing more to do than report on sports and weather!"
They leaped to their feet and converged on me. They raised me to their shoulders and joyously carried me around the table, shouting praises.
Deliriously happy, I thought to myself, I won't be at the foot of the table anymore. I'll move up. One day, I'll be at the head of the table, where The All-American Boy is now. He's getting old, burnt out. I'll get there. I'll get there!
And I knew what my power name would be. I'd known it from the start, when I'd first been made the lowliest member of the board. I'd been saving it, waiting until the proper moment to make the change.
My power name would be different, daring. A name that bespoke true power, the ability to command, the vision to see far into the future. And it wouldn't even require changing my real name that much. I savored the idea and rolled my power name through my mind again as they carried me around the table. Yes, it would work. It was right.
I would no longer be Thomas K. James. With the slightest, tiniest bit of manipulation my true self would stand revealed: James T. Kirk.
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