New – 20 August 2005
A Glancing Blow
The Deputy PIC looked over his subject. The man was making considerable effort to appear extremely put-out, but at the same time possessed of enough importance not to try shouting and arm waving. Bill Roberts analyzed his subject as idealistic, foolish, and one easily impressed with authority.
"You must understand, Dr. Masters, General Laise is an extremely busy man. He'll be here just as soon as possible. Meanwhile, your data is being gone over with extreme care."
"Is that why I'm being confined?" It was an appropriately angry retort, Kirk thought.
"I don't think we will gain anything by that sort of attitude. It's just that it's necessary to ensure your availability when General Laise is free and can be briefed on your results. And surely you, more than anyone else, must recognize the exceptional significance of what you've told us. Obviously, we could not take the chance of your being injured or hurt in any way. We would simply have no other means of getting to the bottom of this.”
"What you're really saying is that you don't want me to go to the newspapers.”
“Well naturally we would not want to allow the news media to get hold of this type of news prematurely. I'm sure you will agree that it would be only too easy to over-sensationalize this much to the detriment of all concerned. And I certainly do not have the authority for such an approval. That could only come from the President and General Laise is the essential first step to the Commander-in-Chief. I'm sure you can understand that.”
With considerable exasperation Kirk grumbled, “I have already told you several times that I have no intention of taking this story to the newspapers. I fully agree that this must be handled properly. But I do not agree that I must be confined like a common criminal. Or as a mental case!”
“I am very sorry that you feel that way. But I assure you that it is for your own protection.”
“And what about my wife? She'll be worried to death.”
“But as I told you, she's been notified that you are in conference for several days and not to worry. In addition to which, as you mentioned earlier, she is not aware of any of the problems we've discussed. Consequently, I don't see how she would become too overly concerned.”
"Oh, go to hell!”
The civil servant ignored the remark. (Ignoring such remarks is a basic requirement of being a bureaucrat.) “What really amazes me, Dr. Masters, is that you would not have thoroughly investigated the opinions of your colleagues on this particularly grave issue. I would have thought that to be your natural first step. But you say that you discussed this with no one?”
Kirk turned to stare, then looked away. His stock answers of 'Scientific facts do not require verification of opinions' had been badly worn in the last few days. And Kirk was not ready to risk another statement which might give him away. He was not sure if his obstinacy was due to preserve his fellows or to maintain himself in the single spotlight. He preferred the former reason and, more and more, he was beginning to believe in the necessity of secrecy for the others.
Roberts watched the young scientist. The deputy displayed a face of genuine hurt, caused clearly by the unreasonableness of his guest. But Roberts knew that there were numerous ways of obtaining information. And he would try them all, if necessary.
Senator Tolman's residence was a quietly elegant one. A Senator for over seventeen years, Murray Tolman's Washington home had the look of established aristocracy. The oak trees that had been young when the freshman Senator had first taken office had matured, giving plentiful shade and adding respectability to the large ranch style house.
As Fred Smith got out of the black limo, he wondered briefly what he was doing here. A glance across the automobile top let him see his companion and guide, Ed Larson, a senior staff member of the Science and Astronautics Subcommittee. Because Tolman was the Chairman of the Subcommittee, it was understandable that he should be a key element in the discussion and eventual announcement by the government. Still, Fred had a sense of doom draped over his shoulders; something seemed strange or amiss. The operation seemed clandestine, when it should have been open and above board.
Then, as if to justify his fleeting paranoia, Ed suggested, "Let's go in the side door, we're expected."
Fred followed his casual friend, ducking his head to miss the low hanging branches of one of the many trees in the yard. As they approached the porch connecting the four car garage and house, the porch light switched on. Fred was momentarily startled and then found himself wondering if the bulb was 200 watts or more. He shielded his eyes to see better as the screen door was thrust open. Ed motioned Fred toward the open door and made the first introduction, "Fred, this is Mel Barley, Senator Tolman's aide."
Fred shook hands with the man, who was completely unseen in the darkened interior. But his voice seemed anything but sinister, "Call me Mel, Fred. All my friends do.”
Fred made his greeting and, once inside the room with the door closed, he tried to see his way. Mel led the way, being very much the considerate host. "Right this way, gentlemen. The Senator will join us shortly.” Then, motioning to a large couch, Mel said, "Make yourselves comfortable. I'll be right back."
Fred sat down on the sofa, only now noticing the high quality of the fabric. His eyes quickly lit on the polished walnut coffee table with the elegant statue serving as a knick knack. Then he glanced around the room. The only word was elegant. It seemed sophisticated and totally proper. Nothing seemed out of place or inappropriate. There were no obviously personal artifacts to detract from the artistic value of the room. It looked like a Hollywood set, done by a world famous interior decorator, but at the same time retained a warmth of lived-in comfort. Then Fred thought of the second word to describe the room: Expensive.
“Nice room, eh, what?”
Fred glanced over at Ed and shook his head in clear agreement.
“Just one of the rewards of being a servant of the people.”
Fred smiled and started to answer. But then he heard noises from the other side of the door. Immediately it opened and a tall, handsome man, dressed in white slacks and an expensive but obviously extremely comfortable tennis shirt entered. He smiled broadly and extended his hand toward Fred. “Hi! I'm Murray Tolman.”
“Fred Smith,” Fred stuttered as he stood up and took the Senator's hand. Then he stepped back a step and took a good look at him. He definitely had charisma. He was in fairly good shape with only a hint of more belly than he absolutely needed.
“You gentlemen care for a drink?”
Fred shook his head no and smiled. Ed quickly added, “Scotch on the rocks, if you have it.”
The Senator smiled, "Have to have it. It's required in the trade.” Then, without turning, his eyes sparkling but intent on Fred, he ordered, “Mel, fix Ed a Scotch on the rocks. And something for yourself if you care to.”
“Yes sir.” Mel clearly knew the routine.
The Senator then sat down casually in the chair adjacent to Fred's end of the sofa. He said nothing until Fred had taken his own seat. Then, “Ed has suggested to Mel, here, that you are in possession of some rather extraordinary information.”
“Yes, sir. I believe it is important that some key members of the government, those with some notable influence, be informed.”
“Of course,” Tolman interrupted. "And I am always happy to assist Ed and his friends in bringing up important discoveries to those people who are best able to deal with them." The Senator smiled, “Naturally, this is off the record. I certainly have no official status, I am only here to perhaps cut through some of the bureaucratic red tape."
“I appreciate that very much, Senator. It is precisely the red tape that I need to avoid."
The Senator's smile faded slightly as he became more serious, "Ed did not give any detail to Mel. He only indicated that it was of extraordinary importance. Knowing Ed as we do, we of course gave him the benefit of the doubt and offered to meet you here tonight.” Fred started to acknowledge, but the Senator continued. "So, without further ado, perhaps you'd like to present your information."
Tolman kept his eyes intently on Fred, trying to gauge his motives, his honesty, the reasons behind this meeting. As Fred described some of the introductory details on Ketuohok, Tolman felt his body tense as if relays had begun to slam shut in his mind. Instinctively, he realized that the incredible story that General Laise had passed on in such an off-hand way was, in all likelihood, much more than some strange joke. The Senator took a drink to give his body an excuse to shift itself and continued to listen to the details of the Professor's discussion.
Maintaining an iron grip on his outward emotions, Tolman listened as Smith hit point after point of the story already passed to the Senator. His cynicism asserted itself long enough to ask if this double source factor was nothing more than a set up, purely to make the story more credible. He doubted that Ed Larson would be part of a conspiracy in perpetrating a hoax, but the Senator had long ago learned not to trust anyone completely.
Then Fred added something about trying to find a colleague of his. Tolman did not recognize the name at first but then it, too, slid into place. It occurred to him that, if this 'confirming story set up' was a fake, it would be unlikely for them to link themselves with the other source. Unless, of course, they were exceedingly clever.
Abruptly Fred was finished, awaiting a response. Instinctively, Tolman bought some time in which to think. Turning to Ed he asked, “Do you buy this story, Ed?"
Ed looked directly at the Senator, "Yes sir."
"Based on what?"
Ed took a deep breath. Based on the reputation and my own personal knowledge of Dr. Smith. Based on the people associated with him at the university. And based on a quick, but I believe reasonably thorough, appraisal of the information that Dr. Smith has laid out on the table here."
Tolman studied Ed for just a moment. Then he looked down at the written material. He resisted the idea of looking at the material. He was not about to challenge the scientists on their own ground. He based his decisions on people and their motives, not on a pile of scientific conclusions. Scientists had not always been correct in their claims, and the Senator's reading of individuals had been right far more often than wrong.
He glanced toward Mel Barley, his aide, thinking to bring him into the conversation. But he saw Mel's calm expression and realized that Mel had been privy to General Laise' tale. In fact, Tolman had relayed it himself -- at the time not giving it any credence! It had been a stupid mistake, he cursed to himself. In a town where information was power, Senator Tolman may have just given away a set of keys to the castle.
Tolman mentally regrouped and turned back to Fred, who had continued to watch him.
"What you are proposing is absolutely incredible.”
“Yes! sir! I agree. But it is, nevertheless, true.”
“Perhaps. In any event, I find it very hard to accept. True or false, it is not a trivial fact."
“I understand, Senator, but it is still essential that action begin to be taken."
"ls there any supporting evidence? Can others make enough observations to prove you right or wrong?"
Fred looked suddenly downcast. "Not easily. And not soon. For the next couple of months, the comet will be essentially on the other side of the sun. There will be an opportunity of several weeks duration in which to gather supporting data approximately two and a half months before the collision. And, of course, there will be time for observations just prior to the collision, a period of time of less than three weeks.”
"But two or three months before support for your theory can be found.”
“Yes sir." Then, as an afterthought, "There is, of course, the possibility that other observatories already have supporting data. Some of these groups may even be aware of the consequences.”
Tolman tensed slightly at the idea. "Have you attempted to contact other observatories in this regard?"
"No sir, not yet. We are still moving very cautiously. And other observatories may be doing the same, contacting their respective governments, and so forth."
Tolman felt a slight relief. “That's commendable on your part. What are the possibilities of others at least having the data -- whether or not they've made your discovery of the collision?"
"I can think of at least half a dozen labs that would have attempted to obtain the data, but I can't be sure that the weather conditions in each case would have allowed it."
"And the chance that they've come to the same conclusion?"
"Less likely. Chances are that the data were taken by a graduate student or junior researcher. And therefore it is less likely that they'd have taken the tine to thoroughly analyze it as of yet. Considering how far away Ketuohok was at the time of gathering the data, it's unlikely an analysis would have had a high priority."
Tolman frowned. Then he began to make decisions. “I would think that the best move to make at this point is for me to present a copy of the information to several key people in the govemnent.” Then quickly, "You understand, of course, that I'm not taking any official stand on this. Frankly, I find it very hard to believe. But I will show it to several others and, I believe, convince them to take the time to seriously consider it.”
Fred seemed adamant. “Sir, I must point out the essential need to start making some sort of preparations.”
“I appreciate your motives, Professor Smith. But clearly your request that a significant number of influential people put their reputations on the line at this point is not entirely reasonable." He held his hands up to stifle Fred's interruption. “On the other hand, there are some preparations that can be done without risking any loss of face. There are also existing facilities and planning by various agencies which can be accessed if necessary within fairly short spans of time. If your data can make believers out of some important people, then some discreet and definitely non-public preparations and planning can be initiated. But I foresee no way that the public can be apprised of these facts until incontrovertible support is generated. If such support is not available for several months, then the public cannot be told of any preparations, however extensive.”
Fred looked disappointed, but could not easily see a sound rebuttal. “I understand your point of view. But the need for immediate action is so critical.”
“I understand, Professor Smith. Nevertheless, you do have a formidable task of selling your theory to some very skeptical people.”
“Selling?” Fred snorted, almost disgusted.
Tolman smiled. He sensed he knew a great deal more about life than the illustrious professor ever would. “To have anyone buy anything, whether they are your ideas, your dreams or a vacuum cleaner, someone has to sell it. In your case, your sales pitch may consist in part of your resume, your degrees and your position at the university. But they are still sales tools.” When Fred neither agreed nor disagreed, Tolman continued, “I trust you will be available for discussion if the need arises.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Good. Then we'lI get hold of Ed when we need you.” Standing up, Tolman extended his hand. “Thank you for your time, Professor Smith. We appreciate your willingness to bring this to the attention of the world. We can't make any definitive promises, but we will try to contact several key people.”
Fred resisted the dismissal. “What about my associate, Kirk Masters?”
Of course,” Tolman insisted, “We'll make some discrete inquiries.”
Fred accepted the inevitable and stood up to shake hands with the Senator. Then Mel showed them to the door. As the screen door slammed, Tolman sat back down heavily. His sixth sense told him that the story was very much legitimate and that same sense had seldom betrayed him. But, God, what stakes!
Mel returned to the room and quickly took a seat, waiting for the Senator to speak first. Tolman looked over at him, "Any opinions?"
Mel fingered the table in front of him, measuring his words. "Sounds like the same story that you got from Max Laise."
"Admittedly. But what's your take on this whole scenario? Is it bullshit, farce, or what?"
"I would have to put it in the Bullshit File. It's just too damn incredible to be ...," he hesitated for just a moment. Then, smiling slightly, "...to be credible."
Tolman watched his aide. He smiled inwardly, deciding against giving his young assistant any more power, however meager. "I find it equally incredible," he lied. Then, "However, it occurs to me that things have been a bit dull in the past few weeks, ever since we blew that damn treaty out of the President's pocket. This is just the sort of thing to sharpen our wits on."
Mel watched the Senator, wondering once again about the strange combinations that motivated Murray Tolman. But the aide remained silent as his boss continued, "Let's play this one as a possibility. Start some wheels moving. Keep our options open so that, if it turns out to be the real thing, we won't be unprepared.”
Tolman watched his aid out of the corner of his eye as Mel left the room. He realized that he would have to keep careful tabs on Mel's progress on this project but, at the same time, he did not want to appear to show too much interest. The damn story might be a hoax, after all, and it wouldn't do to look the fool, chasing rainbows.
On the other hand, it might be even more serious if one did not have any preparations made, when and if things came to a head.
Tolman sat the drink down, his mind flipping through a mental checklist of items to follow up on this subject. He thought momentarily of the student, Masters, or whatever his name was. He'd have to check that one out rather carefully.
Kirk sat on the bunk, disgruntled and worried. He had not heard from anyone for two days -- two complete days and nothing but orderlies to bring him his meals. There was no way that one could ignore the facts behind that delay. In Kirk's mind it was clear that any scientist looking over his data would immediately see the obvious. There was just no justification for procrastination, or for letting Kirk sit in confinement alone.
Kirk wrung his hands as a light moisture of perspiration began to bead in his palms. He kept thinking that they weren't buying his story, that they were just too stupid to see the magnitude of his revelations. Then a shock resonated throughout his body as he recalled Professor Voulers' fears. Maybe Voulers was right! Oh, God, maybe he was right!
The door at the end of the room suddenly opened and Kirk's whole body reacted with adrenalin. He was suddenly tensed, only his unkempt appearance denied his dangerous attitude. The man walking into the room was too bored, however, to notice and barely paid the slightest attention to Kirk as he sat the tray down. Kirk, seeing the man bent over, did not think -- he only reacted.
As he bolted off the bunk the steel frame screeched across the concrete floor in the opposite direction. Kirk hit the man's lowered head with his arms and upper body, delivering no directed blow but instead a complete body block. The man was immediately thrown backward in jack knife fashion, never having a chance to straighten. As they both fell into the adjacent bund the back of the man's head struck the support bar of the upper bunk. Crashing into the lower bunk, Kirk was not even aware of the man's suddenly limp body.
Kirk thrashed about, trying to regain his feet. His fists and arms flailed on the man's body, randomly and with minimal effect. Losing his balance, Kirk fell to his knees beside the bunk. Only then did he realize that the man was still.
He stood stock still for several seconds before his heard his own mind screming 'Escape!' Kirk bolted toward the open door and into the hallway. At one end it intersected another hall; at the other end Kirk could see an exit sign. Kirk ran for the exit.
The door was a standard fire escape door, complete with warning signs and a push bar. Kirk did not even recognize the bar but hit the door with both hands extended and was immediately stopped. Panicked, he then threw his whole body against the door, simultaneously slamming the push bar fully down. The door gave and suddenly Kirk was outside. The darkness hit him first, it was black. Then he realized that he was in a heavily wooded area.
The sounds of his guards brought him back to his purpose. He plunged into the darkness of the trees, hardly noticing the dampness in the air and the scattered puddles at his feet.
He ran. With all his heart, he forced his legs to take him away. His inactivity of the last few days drug at him. But he was running for his life. He was sure of that now.
Shouting noises arose behind him. Then lights. More shouting. There were no words, only shouts: noises to urge him on. Then a sound whose meaning he knew, a gun shot. He lowered his head, running to escape, running to miss the bullets, running for everything.
On the third shot an unbelievable pain struck at his lower body and raced up his spine. His legs no longer moving, his body threw itself to the wet ground. His head and back arched up in recoil to the bullet. His knees touched, then his chest smashed to the watery ground. His arms swung from his side to spread eagles, his head still arched back, trying to face the trees before him.
'The damnable fools', he though, 'I gave them life and they didn't even know it.' The sound of approaching feet reached his ears but his mind could only think, 'Oh, my God. How stupid can I be? Anyone can see that a man's chances are improved if no one else knows. Either that, or they just don't believe you. And they put you away. Or you die for it.'
The massive pain in his body told Kirk that he was dying for it. His only remaining thought began repeating itself. ‘What a stupid way to die. What a stupid way to die…'
When the approaching feet reached Kirk's side, his head slowly fell to the ground, face first. His nose crushing to one side, his head jerking to the other.
It was a stupid way to die.
Chapter Four -- Luck of the Draw
Chapter Six -- Civil Servants
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