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The Most Elusive Game

Kim Zimring recently moved from Georgia to Seattle, and fortunately enjoys rain and grey skies. She is a graduate of Clarion and her fiction has appeared in Asimov's and Analog.

The target was short, dumpy, and kinda cute, in a squashed-face way. We sat around a conference table deep in the heart of the Pentagon and watched the clip. She was shopping. At a flea market. She appeared to be very interested in textiles.
"Seriously?" I said. "You can't catch her?"
The general narrowed his eyes. "You don't understand. She has abilities beyond the normal ken."
"Ken? Where'd you pick up a word like that?" Wait. They didn't need to answer. "You called in a psychic before you talked to me?"
"It's not that we don't appreciate science." The general's aide made a conciliatory gesture. "We understand you're a leader in your field."
I knew what that anxious eye-blink meant. It said, I downloaded all your papers and understood none of it. "But you thought a psychic would be your best bet."
The general snorted. "We thought the Navy Seals would be our best bet. She slipped right past 'em. Made 'em look like fools."
On the screen, the woman's head picked up. She dropped the quilt she'd been examining and scurried off. A few minutes later a Seal, civilian-dressed but obviously military, appeared in the frame. Too late. They switched camera angles, found her again and again, but each time she wafted by. It was like swatting at a fly: the very act of trying to nab her seemed to sweep her forward, gust her just out of their reach.
They put another clip on. This one showed Seals around her hotel. She didn't come back.
"Grab her at home? At work?"
The aide shook his head. "No job and she doesn't have a house. Drifts comfortably around. Always a step or two ahead of danger."
"And that makes you think she's pre-cognitive?" I couldn't keep the skepticism out of my voice. I'd met a lucky bum or two in my time, too. "If she knows so much, why hasn't she won the lottery?"
"That's not how we think it works." The analyst leaned forward. "We think she only gets danger signals. She might not even know what the threat is. She just knows where she needs to move."
"Like fish." That explains why they'd called me in. I'd done some good stuff on shoaling patterns, danger signals, species-specific perceptive organs. I watched her dodging and weaving on the screen, a little crease in her forehead. "The Seals moving through the crowd--they've got to be unsettling people, making the school all quivery."
"It's more than just a lateral line phenomenon. She's not just sensing some type of vibration or nervous scent." The analyst's lip quirked up. He'd understood my papers. He wanted to make that clear. "She's slipped past us in the woods, in fields, on empty suburban streets. She's woken up and scurried off while we're still assembling the team."
The general grunted. "That clip you saw--we haven't been that close to her in months. Hell, all we have to do now is call the team in and by the time the coffee's brewed, she's out of range. She's gotta be pre-cog."
"If time is a river," the aide said, looking at the general to be sure his super-helpfulness was duly noted, "then just because we can only see behind us, it doesn't mean no one can sense the current. The way it eddies, its temperature and speed--all of that can warn you about what's around the bend."
I had no patience for science-lite metaphors. Anyway, they'd found the Higgs boson. That supported string theory; strings vibrate and vibrations can be sensed. "I'm not going to disbelieve my eyes. I'd love a chance to discover how this works."
"I don't care how it works." The general kicked back from the table. "We need her. Whatever little bat-signal she's getting, we can use it. We've got a hunt on today. Called you in for some help on that. I don't need you poking into matters afterward."
I didn't like the sound of that. I pictured subterranean Army bases. I pictured bright lights and interrogations and dissecting tables. My stomach was getting queasy and I couldn't even see the future.
The aide switched the channel. No more recorded clips. This was the real deal, a real time hunt. On the right-hand side of the screen, the Seals were massing. On the left-hand, the target was already scurrying out of view, tuna-fish sandwich falling from her hand.
"Large scale data mining was the secret here." The analyst's eyes were fixed on the screen, intent, approving. "Forget predicting Black Friday sales by how many cars are at the mall. We looked for people who consistently avoid disaster. The person who wasn't at the school the day of the shooting. The person who missed the ten-car pile-up, even though they always drive that road that time of day."
She was nearly running now, skirt swinging. They might be able to catch her. If they blocked off all her exits. If there was no safe way out at all. A big enough swatter could smash a fly right out of the air.
"You'll never get her." I made it sound certain. "Not unless you do it my way."
I pulled out a pen and scribbled on a piece of paper. I pushed it over to the general. "Sign this. If you want her."
He scanned the page. His lip drew up. She was already slowing on the screen. I hoped it was because I was right and not because she was wearing out.
He signed. On the screen, she turned around. She looked confused. Happier, but baffled.
The aide pulled the paper over. "What's this?"
"Benefits," I said. "And a decent salary. An apartment and a pledge that any and all experiments will be performed under the rules of informed consent. Take away the danger and there's no need for her to run."
The analyst glared at me. I wondered what he'd had planned for her. The general just shrugged and shook my hand.
Build a better mousetrap and all that. All cheese and no snap--it might not be the military way. Still, I felt better already and up there on the screen, the target had sat down on a bench. She started smiling, too.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 10th, 2014

Author Comments

This story was written at Rio Hondo, Water Jon William's yearly writing workshop in Taos, New Mexico. It began with the hope that someone would psychically recognize my need for a cup of tea. Sadly, no tea ever arrived, but I did get a story instead. That's probably what happens when all the adjacent brainwaves belong to SF writers.

- K. J. Zimring
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