Chapter thirteen of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
Despite outward appearances, General Rauchbach was quite disturbed by Dr. Fobell’s resignation. Not because he worried the government would be outed—the nice thing about the “crackpot” projects Dr. Fobell had worked on was that no one who blabbed ever fared well under public scrutiny—but because he realized that Howard Fobell had no intention of going to the media with what he knew. Instead, the scientist who believed in intelligent light had gone to the competition, and in this case, that was even worse than going to another country’s government.
Fobell had entered the private sector and was continuing his studies unabated.
General Rauchbach’s very real fear was that now, unhampered, Fobell was getting somewhere, and the fruits of his labors would be enjoyed not by Uncle Sam but by Bransen Labs and their “Pathetic Ignorant Space Administration” (as those on the crackpot projects called it). With Fobell and Resua, General Rauchbach knew it was quite close to being neither pathetic nor ignorant. In fact, it was quite close to turning the tables and making Uncle Sam look bad. Worse still, if PISA came back from Mars with signs of non-human intelligence, suddenly the crackpots would be the prophets of a new era, and the prophets of the old era would quickly be swept away.
The words “threat to national security” had been tumbling through the general’s head since Howard Fobell had resigned. It had put him on edge. Jumping at shadows, you might say, if you could ever get away with saying such a thing to the general.
“Why haven’t they replied yet?” he growled at Dr. Moore, who swallowed timidly and adjusted his glasses. Dr. Moore glanced at Admiral Thomas, but found no solace.
“I… I… I don’t know…”
“We know Mars sent another message, but it didn’t come to us, did it?”
Admiral Thomas leaned in very close to Dr. Moore’s face and whispered harshly, “Why not?”
Dr. Moore wished very much that he’d stuck to the national talk-show circuit.
General Rauchbach started pacing, an unconscious cue to his men that someone was about to be grilled and, more often than not, cut loose in disgrace. The admiral watched the general, and Dr. Moore was certain he saw a flicker of panic on the admiral’s face—it was the only thing that stopped him from blabbering apologies, as he tried to think of a way that this was Admiral Thomas’s fault instead of his, so he could guide the conversation in that direction.
General Rauchbach was indeed thinking of the admiral. He found himself in a sticky national-security situation, the more obvious threats notwithstanding. He was beginning to think that Admiral Thomas had lost his way and that Dr. Moore would say “yes” to anyone he thought would promote his career, whether or not he agreed with them.
For example, the present meeting had opened with an exceedingly heated argument between the admiral and the doctor over the reality of speed-of-light propulsion. General Rauchbach had not taken sides in the discussion but had instead marveled over the fact that Dr. Moore had finally found a voice with which to say “no,” only because he had no idea how to deliver—or fudge—what the admiral had asked of him. As overjoyed as the general was to discover that Dr. Moore did have a spine, he was dismayed that the revelation had come because Admiral Thomas had been discussing deep-space ops with a person with a very low-level top-secret clearance (“deep-space ops” being so named because they were blacker than black ops, and coincidentally tied to space exploration).
“Dr. Moore?” the admiral wondered almost casually now, having decided the general’s ire was aimed at the doctor. “You do realize this isn’t about the UFOs we trot out nightly to fuck with the citizens of this God damn country?”
“Admiral?” General Rauchbach cut in.
Admiral Thomas used his finger to wipe the spit from his lips as he straightened up and turned to the general. Dr. Moore’s face was flushed, and he still couldn’t believe the admiral wanted him to first develop a way to communicate with light beings, and then develop it by the next morning because a military rocket would be on the surface of Mars by then.
“Maybe we should iron out the details later, eh?” the general said, glaring at Dr. Moore. The doctor’s face went from flushed to pale within seconds. “I think it’s obvious that the problem here is not how fast we can get to Mars, but that our dear doctor has no concept of communication with light beings because he doesn’t believe they exist. Isn’t that right, doctor?”
“I wouldn’t say that’s true,” Dr. Moore squeaked, standing up more quickly than he should have. He bowed his head to clear the dizziness, supporting himself on the table. His chair teetered, then overbalanced and skattled to the floor behind him.
“Oh?” the general asked quietly. “I think you’re stalling. You thought you’d come here, give us a few answers that we wanted to hear, and have another notch for your resume, didn’t you?”
Dr. Moore didn’t answer and found it difficult to hold the general’s gaze. Admiral Thomas was glaring at him, too, his eyes narrowed and malicious, as if watching someone else get torn apart would save him from the same fate—like leaving an injured friend to the sharks.
“Dr. Moore, your services are no longer needed,” the general snapped definitively.
“What?” the doctor and the admiral snapped back in unison.
“Your clearance will be revoked within the hour, so I suggest you gather your things and leave immediately, or else be arrested for trespassing at a secret military installation.”
Dr. Moore opened his mouth to protest, saw that the general was quite serious, and instead took his advice and scuttled from the room. Then General Rauchbach wheeled on the admiral.
“And you need to do two things, Admiral. You need to review your obligation to this project until you can prove to me that you understand the consequences of discussing deep-space ops with the likes of him. And then you need to get me Howard Fobell back. Fail on either account and I will report your discussion with Dr. Moore. Understood?”
The admiral was still in the room, his mouth agape but his eyes glowering, long after General Rauchbach had left.