The queue is organized but loud. The reporters talk to each other like old friends, talking over each other. The cacophony turns to white noise in Kasym’s mind.
Taalay adjusts the video camera on his shoulder as they move forward one more step.
Ahead, each reporter is scanned with a wand and crosschecked on a tablet, a more thorough screening than the one at the main gate. He counts two officers at the line, another at the back, and still more on the roof, inside, and probably all around them. His eyes closed, Kasym carefully scans the area, to take a mental inventory, just in case.
He can’t control every mind around them. There are too many. Besides, he must conserve his energy.
He glances at his badge, clearing his mind of the months and years of his brother’s work required to get them so close. He works to diminish the import of the moment.
Taalay is the first of them to reach the checkpoint. The agents scan his body with their wands as he stands still with arms raised. A machine scans his face, and another, handheld by an officer, scans his badge. The guard with the tablet looks down at it, comparing what he sees on the tablet with Taalay’s face and ID badge.
If they’re found out, he and his brother will be seized by the most skilled security agents in the world. They will be thrust to the ground, their faces pressed into the concrete. They will be just outside the range of the target, but effectively a world away. They will separate them, tearing his family apart again. They will take him to their prison in Cuba, or perhaps back to one in Kyrgyzstan, where he will live out the rest of his days.
The agent is looking at a warning screen, flashing a large message in red letters: APPREHEND.
Kasym cups him cozily in his mental grasp. At most, only two other guards can potentially see the screen, but their attention is turned to frisking and scanning. Should they notice it, Kasym is prepared to hijack each one in turn, with luck preserving enough energy to proceed with the mission.
“Hello, Mr. …” the agent says, reading, “Taalay. How are you?”
“I am very well, thank you.”
The agents finish scanning Taalay. “Row six, seat E. Have a good day.”
He walks in, disappearing through the double doors.
Kasym steps up to the checkpoint next. The agents scan him.
“It this your first assignment at 1600?”
Disoriented by the question, Kasym answers only after an uncomfortable pause. “Yes.” He then locks into the agent’s mind.
The agent’s Interpol facial-recognition device runs Kasym’s scan through Terrorist Screening Database. It flashes the same warning: APPREHEND.
“Row six, seat D. That’s to your left and back.” The agent hands back Kasym’s ID badge and waves him through. Kasym walks inside.
The press room buzzes with activity. Old friends laugh and talk. Behind the seats, camera operators set up their cameras on tripods. At the head of the room, technicians check connections to the podium microphone. More Secret Service agents survey the scene. Kasym looks away from the noise to keep his head clear.
Unable to control every mind in the room, he must blend in where he can. He sits and takes out a smart phone and begins scrolling through nonexistent messages. All the while, his mind catalogs the room, setting aside the petty concerns, anxieties and lies splashing through the minds around him. He moves his focus backstage, where he finds more agents, staff, and other reporters working to get scoops from the press secretary.
He moves further back, searching for the target. It’s not close enough yet. But then, just on the edge of his awareness, he senses him coming forward.
He opens his eyes.
More time has passed than he was consciously aware. Most of the others are settled, and the press secretary is at the podium making preliminary remarks.
Kasym is startled by so many minds sitting so close to him. He tries to remain calm, to conceal any visible sign of stress. He imagines using his power on his own mind, what he could achieve. But it doesn’t matter now. This is the moment he has prepared for. Every aspect of the mission has proceeded to this moment. It all rests on what he achieves in the next few minutes. His vision will soon be a reality. He looks back to Taalay in the rear with the other camera operators. He meets his eye. Taalay gives him a single nod.
The press secretary concludes his remarks, and then introduces the president of the United States, who steps out as the cameras pop like fireworks. Kasym flinches as the sound, lights, and loud voices shouting for the president’s attention. They stand all around him. He retreats further into his seat.
The president begins reading from his prepared statement. The camera pops taper to a few flickers. Reporters sit and busily jot in their notebooks.
Kasym writes in a notebook as well, scribbling nonsense. While his hand moves across the page, he concentrates on the president. He reaches in and easily settles into his mind. He weaves through his conscious thoughts, his habits, his routine emotional responses. He swirls through, looking for something deeper. He delves into the cavern.
He winces. As the pain rises, he begins to doubt his ability. He achieved great success in training. The succession of makeshift test subjects the prison guards unwittingly brought to him for their own amusement not only set the foundation of his escape, it expanded his range and power. With each new victim, he grew capable of more finesse, each one commanded to carry out ever more complex, numerical steps. But he’s never had to implant such an exacting thought as this. It has to be precise, or it won’t take hold. He operates at the apex of his ability, and can only hope it is enough.
Like a raven flying through a storm, he soars through thoughts buried deep in the recesses. Once encamped in a fertile synaptic hollow, he unleashes his instructions, sequence by sequence, step by step, incorporating elements of the president’s own knowledge where needed. He infects it like a virus, one embraced by its host. It seeps in, finding purchase in the most intimate penetralia of the president’s cares, wishes, and hopes.
The president continues to speak and answer questions, appearing unaffected just as Kasym intends. But his mind now belongs to Kasym.
“Are you okay?” A voice echoes from another realm. It rattles him. He severs his connection with the president’s mind suddenly, jarringly. The pain shoots to his brain like a burning current. He lifts his head, unaware how he must look, hunched over his notebook, dripping with sweat, his face contorted.
A reporter next to him looks at him with concern. “You feeling all right, bud?”
The president thanks everyone for coming, waves, and then walks off, stage right.
With difficulty, Kasym manages a response. “I am ill.”
“But you couldn’t pass up a White House assignment, right?” The man slaps him on the back and laughs. “First time?”
Kasym needs to neutralize this reporter so he can be alone with his thoughts and pain. It would be easy if he weren’t depleted.
“I’m Bob Samuelson, Cleveland Plain Dealer.” He holds out his hand.
Kasym’s head shoots chainsaws outward. He buckles, gripping the man’s outstretched hand for support. The reporter’s banal small talk is salt on his wounds, an attack on his wherewithal to cope with the aftereffect. With a final thrust of his last ounce of mental strength, he sends a simple thought to the man’s brain: Leave me.
Kasym keels over, supporting himself on the chair back in front of him. The reporter turns to someone else, shaking a hand and starting a new conversation.
The pain is familiar. It came on this strongly when he was young, when he first began to discover his ability and develop it. The throbbing headaches. The nausea. He wonders if the complexity of this mission will be too much for him.
He pushes his way out of the press room into the bright sun. He walks past the guard and leans against the side of the White House to regain his composure.
He feels Taalay embrace him. “You have done it.”
Kasym can scarcely summon the energy to speak. “No. There is one more thing to do.”