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Short Story: "Focus Group"

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"Focus Group"
by P. Orin Zack

Lonnie strode through the encampment of pro-union protesters outside the capitol building in Olympia with a timid smile on his face. A dozen organizations had come together to fight the new governor's plan to strip the state's public service unions of their collective bargaining rights, each one proudly identifying itself both in dress and on signs. Gail Kerr, the leader of the teachers' union, had just concluded a rousing speech, and Lonnie joined in the cheer that followed.

"No class warfare!" he yelled, nodding conspiratorially to the people around him. "No class warfare!" With this good-natured camaraderie returned in kind, he joined in the public grousing against the governor, his party, and the business interests supporting them, yet held his tongue when the mass of protesters took up a chant to oust the man from office.

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After the weeks-long occupation of the capitol building in Wisconsin at the beginning of 2011, the Republican Governors Association had shifted the focus of its strategy of destroying the American middle class by driving a stake through the labor movement at its heart to the next state, and then the next. Now it was Washington's turn, and the former attorney general who'd just won the governorship wasted no time acting on his signature campaign promise. As had happened in other states, non-conforming legislators balked, vowing to deprive those supporting the governor of a quorum, and a swarm of organizations swept in to lay siege to the capital building.

As much as he disliked what the governor was doing, this mission was Lonnie's big chance to make a name for himself and open the door to the influence and standing that were rightfully his. He may have been a geek, but he was a very special kind of geek, the kind that has been known to wield the power publicly held by the ruling elite. His interest in psychology, neurochemistry and electronics had blended into a frothy concoction that held a special appeal for men with a thirst for power. The governor's strategist rewarded him with the chance to put his theory into action. The money, he promised, would come later, after he'd proven himself right.

Both sides in the standoff had refined their methods in response to the citizens' uprisings in Sudan, Egypt and Libya, and the labor protests that had spread like a range fire across the US. The public relations armory traditionally wielded by those in power had been augmented with tactics right out of the CIA's psy-ops playbook. Meanwhile, the armies of protesters had learned that the Internet they so depended on would either be tainted or unavailable, and fashioned their own edge networks to route around this intentional damage so they could coordinate their actions and reach the rest of the world.

Still, there were limitations to what Lonnie could know about the situation. He mused, while doing his best to blend into the crowd, about what it would be like to directly sense the energy fields that he'd spoken to the governor's strategist about. In his mind's eye, Lonnie imagined that he could feel the subtle energy generated by the minds of those around him. The recent discovery that the electrical signals transmitted along neurons also generated an enveloping magnetic field confirmed something he'd suspected for years, a hunch that explained recent political events, but also suggested a plan of action.

What it didn't do was alert him to a movement in the crowd, just out of his field of vision. Just as he'd finished satisfying himself that everything was going according to plan, he found himself ringed by a contingent of the ad hoc security force that roamed the protest to keep things peaceful. Fearful for his safety, he tried to duck between them and melt into the crowd, but the crowd resolutely refused to cooperate. He felt like a virus beset by white blood cells.

"Is there a problem?" he asked warily.

"That depends," one of the citizen security squad replied. "We understand that you've been seen speaking with the governor's men. Do you have some sort of "in' with him that we should know about? If you do, the combined leadership would like a word with you."

Lonnie thought fast. That morning, the governor had ordered mass layoffs, and charged scores of so-called "instigators' with a laundry list of crimes in an effort to blackmail the missing legislators into returning to the state. That could offer him a way out of this. "Yeah," he said, "you've got me there. I did speak with him, but it wasn't my idea."


"Yeah. The governor's man was looking for dirt to use in their blackmail scheme, and threatened my family if I didn't talk."

"What did you tell him?"

He looked away briefly to buy time, and then returned the man's level gaze. "Well, I didn't throw anyone under the bus, if that's what you're thinking. About the only thing I knew for sure was that each of the groups out here has their own agenda, so I told him it would be prudent to try to deflect them from their goals."

"That's not exactly an original thought, you know. Besides, it's been tried, and it doesn't work."

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Ever since I learned to speak binary on a DIGIAC 3080 training computer, I've been involved with tech in one way or another, but there was always another part of me off exploring ideas and writing about them. Halfway to a BS in Space Technology at (more...)
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