SHORT STORY
A Roomful of Geniuses
Heidi Espenscheid Nibbelink

"Advanced Theoretical Physics" by Flickr user Marvin (PA) 

"Advanced Theoretical Physics" by Flickr user Marvin (PA) 

The crisis began June 21, five months and a day after the third Trump inauguration, his unprecedented extra presidential term the result of a constitutional revamp passed after the Congressional Blockade of 2024, when President Trump ordered the National Guard to chain the doors of the Capitol Building and refused to have any food or water shipped in until the amendment passed. Red Cross volunteers escorted the Congresswomen and men out of the building when it was over. They were wrapped in blankets and sipping mugs of cocoa like the survivors of some terrible ordeal.

“How bad is it?” President Trump asked his Secretary of Defense while sweeping a hand over his trademark hair.

“Bad,” General Abercrombie replied. “The Mars colonists have enough oxygen for 72 hours, maybe 75 tops if they keep real still, and then it’s the end of the road.”

“Can’t we get a rescue vehicle there?”

“Not in time. The nearest transport is still two weeks out. Plus, the ship is full of folks expecting to debark for their stint.”

“The Chinese?”

“New Canton doesn’t have the resources to take in 2,500 colonists, sir. At tops, they said they could take forty, so you could save your leadership team, maybe a couple of kids so we don’t look so bad in the papers.”

“What about NASA?”

“You defunded NASA six years ago, sir. All of the scientists left. NASA headquarters is a gift shop.”

“Dammit!” President Trump said, and thumped his fist on the conference table. “What we need is a roomful of geniuses!”

“Geniuses, sir?”

“Geniuses! Like in that one movie. You know, the one?”

“The Imitation Game?”

“No! Not the one with the Sherlock Holmes guy! The one with Forrest Gump in space!”

“Apollo 13?” a high-pitched voice from behind them said. The president and General Abercrombie turned around.

“Who the hell are you?” said President Trump, turning his raptor-like eye on a young man in a tight-cut yet somehow still ill-fitting suit.

“Daniel Wolowski, sir? Your intern? From Stanford?”

“Stop making everything into a question, Daniel. You sound like a damn woman.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“And don’t apologize. Apollo 13! Didn’t they put a bunch of geniuses in a room with some scotch tape and paperclips and they saved the goddamned space shuttle? That’s what we need, Abercrombie. A room full of geniuses and some paperclips.”

“Where will we find the geniuses, sir?” General Abercrombie asked, keeping his tone sarcasm-free. He’d learned over years of serving President Trump that responding in a neutral manner was best, along with avoiding any sudden movements.

“The MacArthur Foundation?” piped up Daniel.

“What’s that?”

“The foundation that gives out the genius awards? Like, every year they choose geniuses in different fields and give them this big money award so they don’t have to work and they can just put all their effort into being a genius.”

The president turned to his Chief of Staff, who had been so far up her neural headset this entire meeting, flipping through paint chip samples for the new media room she and Dean were adding on to their brownstone (all the Historical preservation ordinances in their Georgetown neighborhood had been lifted by order of President Trump as part of his Re-Capital the Capitol Free-Market Initiative) that she’d failed to grasp all but the largest gist that the 2,500 colonists were doomed.

“Marianne? Is this true?”

“Absolutely,” said Marianne, hoping she was saying “absolutely” to something non-scandalous. The president sensed weakness and she had to appear strong. She needed to keep this job if she was going to pay for that media room.

“All right, Daniel the Intern, you win. Contact the MacArthur people and assemble the geniuses. I want them in a Whitehouse conference room with all the paper clips they need by nightfall. Those poor Americans who volunteered to stake out a patch of freedom, capitalism, and democracy on Mars and give us a fighting chance at getting a bigger market share than those Chinese bastards deserve our very best effort at bringing them home alive.”

“But still transfer the leadership team plus a couple kids to the New Canton station?” General Abercrombie asked.

“Obviously. Duh.” The president replied, and swept out of the room. Daniel followed looking terrified-excited. The Chief of Staff pushed her chair back from the conference table and spread her legs so General Abercrombie had a nice view. “Want to have a go, Craig?”

“God, Marianne, now is not the time!”

“Your loss, big boy. Catch you at 16:00 hours if no further shitstorms break loose before then.”

Marianne straightened her skirt and left. General Abercrombie stuck his head into the hallway and saw Daniel hovering, unsure whether he should run after the president’s entourage or if he’d been given orders to execute however he saw fit.

 “Get in here, kid!” he said. “We’ve got a team of geniuses to assemble.”

* * * 

At 21:00 hours the president entered the conference room serving as the operation center of what was now called, “Operation Braintrust.”

“People, I can’t thank you enough for answering the call in your nation’s hour of need,” he began.

A gaunt man with an untidy beard raised his hand. The president raised an eyebrow. “Yes?” he inquired.

“I think there may have been a mistake,” the man said.

“There are no mistakes, friend,” the president said, “there are only opportunities. And right now you have the opportunity to be heroes. Your collective brainpower is the best, no, the only shot we have at keeping 2,500 brave Americans alive. Godspeed. Help yourselves to the paperclips and donuts. Thank you for your service.” Cameras flashed, recording the moment for posterity, and the president and his entourage bustled from the room. General Abercrombie left last, giving them all one perfectly neutral glance. He shut the door behind him. They heard the lock turn.

The geniuses looked at each other. The bearded man who had dared to ask the president a question was seated on one side of the table next to a younger man with curly hair. Two dark haired women sat across from them, next to a portly bald man with an impressive moustache. A large Hawaiian woman was seated at the head of the table, on the end closest to the donuts. Each person had a blue binder in front of them with the presidential seal on the front.

“Why so many paperclips?” the curly-haired young man spoke up. They all gazed at the mountain of paperclips of every size trailing down the conference table’s center.

“Well,” the Hawaiian woman said, “how does this sound for an agenda? 1) introductions 2) three minutes or less of wild speculation, 3) ten minutes to look through these binders 4) ten minutes to respond to contents of binders, 5) two minutes of further speculation and/or complaint, as determined by said binder contents, 6) make a plan of action.”

“Sounds good,” the bearded man said. “I’m Steve Gropft, Economist. Let’s go around the table.” He elbowed the curly-haired man next to him who startled and said, “Chip Tingle, Banjo Player.”

“Sophie Martin, Documentary Filmmaker,” said the dark-haired woman with glasses.

“Marina Ramirez-Hernandez, Herpetologist,” said the dark-haired woman without glasses.

“Bob Edwards, Novelist,” said the bald man.

“And I’m Wailana Kanehoalani, Artisanal Food Photographer, but you can call me Tillie. Anyone care for a donut?”

They all shook their heads.

“Also, we need a note taker. Any volunteers?” There was silence around the table, which Tillie let linger until Bob said, “I guess I’ll do it, since I’m the writer in the bunch.”

“Excellent,” Tillie said, “That brings us to item number two on the agenda, no more than three minutes of wild speculation. Go.”

“Clearly there’s been some terrible mistake.”

“They can’t be that stupid, right? This has to be a joke?”

Everyone let that sink in for a moment, remembering CrepeGate 2018, and the LensCrafters Fiasco of 2020.

“Perhaps it’s time for the binders,” Tillie said. They opened the blue covers and commenced reading.

“Time’s up!” Tillie announced at precisely 21:30.

The herpetologist spoke first. “Well, we’re screwed.”

“Agreed,” the novelist said.

“They can’t really be serious, right?” Gropft said. “I mean, these guys are running out of oxygen. What does an economist, a herpetologist, and, no offense, a friggin’ banjo player know about oxygen?”

“No offense taken, amigo!” Chip said. He laced his fingers together behind his head and reclined in his chair, examining the ceiling tiles.

“Could anyone make sense of the schematics?” Tillie asked.

“Sort of,” filmmaker Sophie said. “Is anyone else hot in here, or is it just me?”

“It’s hot,” Bob said. “Tell us how to read the schematics.”

Twenty minutes later, they were all soaked in sweat. The men had taken off their ties and rolled up their shirtsleeves, and the women had knotted their hair up off their necks in messy buns, using straightened paper clips as hairpins. The herpetologist had been dispatched to request aid with the air conditioner. After two minutes of her tapping insistently on the door it had finally unlocked and she’d been led down the hall for a consultation. After a couple minutes, Marina slid back in the room and announced. “They won’t let us move to another location. They’re sending an HVAC guy. He should be here in about twenty minutes.” Gropft groaned and rested his shiny head in his hands.

“Let’s play ‘Where were you?’” Chip suggested.

“What?” Marina said.

“Where were you? When you got the call from the MacArthur Foundation?”

Marina was too hot to think. If the AC didn’t get fixed in the next five minutes she was stripping down to her sports bra, she decided. She turned Chip’s question back on him, “Where were you?”

“Playing a gig at Red Rocks. Ever been there? Amazing place. The sun was just going down, the opening band started, we were hanging around backstage and my phone rang. They had to explain it to me. I thought it was a prank.”

“What did you do with your award?” Marina asked.

“I went to West Africa and recorded a bluegrass album. Lots of kora, lots of djembe. You know, like Paul Simon did in the 80’s in South Africa with Graceland. They used my stuff on the soundtrack of that documentary about the LensCrafters Fiasco.”

“Hey, I worked on that documentary!” Sophie said.

“Really? I loved that thing. Wild!” Chip said.

“Guys, I hate to bring this up but while you’re sitting there chitchatting 2,500 people are slowly suffocating, so maybe we could focus on the task at hand?” Bob said.

Tillie consulted her wristwatch, which she wore strictly out of habit. The secret service agents has confiscated their neural headsets at the door. “I hate to be the voice of doom, but the way I see it, the voice of doom and the voice of reality are one and the same at this point. I think the best we at this table can do is come up with a way to break the news and paint a picture of the way forward.”

Sophie perked up from her wilted state. “Yeah! Like, examining the hubris that led us to this moment—our refusal to work with the Chinese, our insistence on pursuing American sovereignty instead of joining in with the OneMars government scheme—,” she looked around the table hopefully.

“Exactly.” Gropft said, “All the systems and the spare parts would be interchangeable if we’d gotten on board with OneMars.”

“We could underscore the message with music,” Chip Tingle said. He raised his arms to cradle an imaginary banjo and made a strumming motion, “B-minor chord! ‘The colonists are dead!’ A-minor chord, ‘Were their deaths in vain?”, B-minor chord again, followed by soft finger picking as the word ‘OneMars’ emerges on the screen.” Sophie nodded enthusiastically, and Bob Edwards stared upwards at the AC vent as though he could see it all playing out just above their heads.

“Guys,” Marina said, “these are all great ideas, but no way will President Trump let us imply he’s the idiot who passed up the chance to join OneMars. We’ve got to take another look at the technical systems.”

Sophie opened her mouth to reply, but just then the door opened and a guy entered wearing a shirt with the name Harv stitched above his pocket. He carried a small toolbox. “Hey folks, heard you’re having a little problem with the AC. I’ll get you fixed up in a jiffy.”

Having an extra person in the room made them all straighten in their chairs and pull their binders closer. Bob gripped his note-taking Sharpie with sweaty fingers. “All right team,” Tillie said, “let’s list our assets and liabilities.”

“Paperclips,” Chip said. “Also, donuts.”

“Not our assets in this room, assets as in what the Martian colonists already have on hand.”

“A water electrolysis oxygen system,” Marina said.

“That isn’t working.”

“Yeah, but they have it. So it should be listed, right?”

“You all are working on that Martian stuff?” Harv said, looking up from his tinkering with the thermostat.

“Yes,” Tillie answered.

“Yah, I seen that on the news. Man, if I were there I’d love to get my hands on one ‘a them Chinese oxygenator units they have warehoused up there – you know, from when our guys were testing their system and trying to decide which one was better—and try rerouting it.”

“What about the Chinese being on the P-8 system and our stuff on the N-17?” Marina demanded.

“Yeah, see, I thought about that,” Harv said, grunting slightly as he pressed his screwdriver into the crack between the wall and the thermostat. He popped it out of its housing. “I figure if you just patched them together with some flexible piping—heck, even duct tape might do it, then you could reroute the sensors, load the controls over to one system or the other, doesn’t matter which, and you’d be good to go, at least for a bit.”

“Could you say that once more?” Bob asked, gripping his slippery Sharpie even more tightly.

“Rerouting the P-8 over to the N-17. It just makes sense. Eh, but what do I know? You guys are the geniuses! I’m just an HVAC guy from Minnesota, right?” Harv slapped the thermostat cover back in place. “Yer all fixed up. Should cool off in a couple minutes.”

“Do you want a donut?” Tillie asked.

“Don’t mind if I do. Good luck, guys.” Harv selected a chocolate iced, waved it at them in salute, and closed the door shut behind him. The lock clicked again.

“Should we?” Sophie asked the table of geniuses.

“Seriously. It’s all we’ve got,” Marina said.

“Write it up!” Tillie said. “Then let’s get out of here.”

* * * 

The nation agreed the documentary that came out about the saving of the Martian colony was inspired, and totally should have won the Academy Award that went to the Chinese instead. The documentary focused on a charismatic couple, a brilliant economist and a ground-breaking herpetologist, who volunteered for the Mars mission. Set to a haunting soundtrack of banjo music, the dream sequences were a standout, featuring mouthwatering shots of all the Earth foods the couple was missing at home as a metaphor for their isolation. The success of his Operation Braintrust project garnered President Trump a fourth term, but he was tragically killed three months later during a photo shoot in Yellowstone National Park to mark the disbanding of the National Park Service. A bald eagle mistook his hair for prime nesting material and left with half his scalp in her talons. All the medical staff in the park had recently quit for more secure jobs. By the time they got the president down the trail it was too late. His successor, a mild-mannered Millennial, had a crazy artist uncle who had actually won a MacArthur genius award; she wisely let the program die. Harv was just in her Oval Office yesterday, making some adjustments to the AC.


Heidi Espenscheid Nibbelink lives and follows politics in Athens, Georgia, where she works as a counselor at an urban public high school. Her short stories have been published in New Pop Lit, The Nude Bruce Review, The Higgs Weldon, and Flagpole Magazine. She is presently an MFA candidate at the Sewanee School of Letters, University of the South, Sewanee, TN.