Aphelion Issue 246, Volume 23
December 2019 / January 2020
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Showdown at the Cape

by Mike Wilson

It was the kind of hot, steamy day that only Central Florida could produce. An afternoon thundershower had just passed by, more bluff than substance. The tiny amount of rain had mostly stayed in the air. McDelvern felt like he was walking through flavorless soup that day.

Senator McDelvern despised NASA. To his seasoned mind they were nothing more than a PR flack agency for the defense industry, and since national defense was already a high priority, were unnecessary. He was there with one aide, checking up on operations at the launch complex and the nearby Vehicle Assembly Building.

"Sir, you don't intend to walk all the way to the VAB from here," said the aide, named Joe Jenkins.

"If it would save the taxpayers of this country, I might. But never fear, Jenkins. I'm going to try and shag us a ride. We won't get past those guards with this rental anyway."

The 72-year old senator, still in good shape from regular workouts, carried a proportional frame six feet tall. He still stood erect, and walked swiftly. His aide Jenkins, was shorter and more husky. Jenkins did not smoke, but still winded easily. The two walked over to the edge of launch complex 43, and got back into their rental to head to a nearby administration building. Cameras and eyes followed their approach.

Inside the administration building, there was consternation.

"I thought they were intruders, until I recognized who that was," said a security guard, pointing at an image on a computer screen. The head NASA administrator, Daniel Gerard, gawked at the photo.

"That is Senator McDelvern! What is he doing here? It figures, the old SOB is hunting for flaws anywhere he can," spat out Daniel in a rush. Concerned aides looked at each other, not knowing which to answer first.

Daniel did not wait for a response, but rather got out his cell and initiated damage control.

"Hi, Dowd? Time to earn your pay today. We have a Senator snooping around out there. Yeah, he is heading in our direction. Admin building. Grab one or two PR types and get over here, ASAP."

His next call was to security.

"Did you see them arrive? You did call? Who?" Then a harried man rushed into the room with an urgent message, now delivered too late. Daniel ended the call, and turned to the flustered young man.

"They wouldn't let me in, sir. Forgot my badge. But Security figured it was legit, since it is an expensive rental vehicle. It is some kind of congressional rep."

"Come here, Maier. Look at this monitor. Who do you think that is?"

The young man looked at the monitor, and the frozen image of the two gentlemen getting into the sedan. "Um, is he a congressman, sir?"

"Look and learn, Maier. That is Senator McDelvern, only NASA's biggest opponent in Congress. He is here snooping around. I have to go meet him. They are almost to the door now. Are those PR guys here yet?" yelled Daniel.

Two PR people rushed in to the main admin office area. Daniel recognized them.

"Good deal. Someone get us some bottles of water to take down. It is hot out there."

The PR reps, a younger gal and guy, looked about uncomfortably. The guy then said unexpectedly, "Yes it is, sir. Like High Noon."

Administrator Daniel looked at him; "High Noon?"

"Yeah, you know, that western, with Gary Cooper, etc.?"

"Oh yeah, yeah, right. Appropriate, too. "

An aide rushed up with several bottles of water.

"Good job. Let's go face our accuser, I mean, Senator, shall we? Try and treat him with respect, people."

Daniel turned on his heels, and led them to the stairwell, down a floor to the lobby entrance. Senator McDelvern and Jenkins were waiting.

"Good afternoon, Administrator Gerard. Good to see you again!" The Senator approached, extending a hand.

"Hello, Senator. To what do we owe the honor of your visit today?"

McDelvern squinted at Gerald in the afternoon sunlight streaming through the lobby windows.

"You know already, I think. Just doing some fact-finding before the Aerospace hearings next week."

"Well, we have nothing to hide, Senator. Never have, as a matter of fact. Gerard silently added, And you know it, you SOB.

"I am sure you don't, Sir. However, if you would be so kind, me and my aide here would like to see the inside of the VAB building, for fact-finding purposes."

"Are you aware, Sir, that we are in the middle stages of processing an Orion test article? We are mating a full stack, and then we will be fueling. It is a rather tense time over there right now."

No one has the time to coddle a senator, not on our cost-restricted schedules.

"I will be out of the way as much as possible. I merely wish to observe how the additional appropriations you received are being utilized," intoned McDelvern gently.

Gerard sighed. He turned to the PR pair, and said, "Very well. Would you please accompany the Senator in a staff car over to the VAB? Show him anything he wishes."

Sen. McDelvern cleared his throat. "I had hoped that you would be accompanying me, Daniel. I would like to speak with you, and the privacy of a NASA staff car is as good a place as any. Better, in fact." He looked at Daniel with a pleased expression.

What does he have up his sleeve? wondered Daniel.

"All right then. We'll take one of the SUV's, that way we can all fit." Daniel walked over to the receptionist's desk, and had her obtain some keys. Then they all trooped out over shimmering concrete, to a white Ford Escape. Once inside, Daniel cranked up the AC, to everyone's relief.

Once the vehicle was under way, the Senator spoke up.

"Very nice of you to take the time, Daniel. I really appreciate this."

"So what are you really up to here, Senator? I haven't seen you set foot here since our little tete-a-tete a few years back," replied Daniel.

"Oh yes, that. I had forgotten. Well, no hard feelings. But no, I, or rather we, are considering some radical steps to get the budget in line,' said McDelvern.

Daniel felt himself grow cold inside. Not more cuts, surely? "What exactly do you mean, sir?"

"Well, we may have to make some more reductions, and pretty severe ones. But let's wait until we get to the VAB."

Daniel had it with this overstuffed, pompous throwback. He pulled the Ford over to the side of the road, and turned off the engine. Then he got out of the vehicle, strode down the road a ways, and stopped. The two PR flacks got out and half-trotted over to him. "Sir? What gives here?"

Daniel did not say anything, just paced back and forth. The assistants looked at each other, raising their hands.

Senator McDelvern and his aide finally got out of the vehicle. They walked slowly up the road. Everyone was perspiring in the heat.

"What's the idea, Gerard? Going to show us something here?" said McDelvern.

"Look around you, Senator," said Daniel, sweeping his arm in an arc, taking in launch towers, buildings, antennae, and in the distance, the massive VAB. A huge tractor-crawler sat outside.

"Yes, and your point is?"

"This was built over the course of many years, with regular commitments of federal money. This took thousands of man-hours of work, by three generations of engineers and technicians."

"I've heard these arguments, Daniel," said the Senator, using his first name to calm him.

"Have you? Have you thought about the astronauts who gave their lives, to advance the sum total of human knowledge and endeavor? Have you thought about how many people your shortsightedness has put out of work? All you greedy bastards think about is the bottom line, the next quarter..."

"Be careful there, Daniel. I have been trying to be civil. Now you know as well as I do that NASA is nothing more than a big PR stunt by the combined military services of this country to justify out-of-control military spending."

The Senator and the Administrator stared at each other on that hot, shimmering road. The two PR aides stood, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, looking at the Senator's aide. The two groups faced each other. McDelvern's aide Jenkins finally spoke.

"Look, Mr. Gerard, might we just go to the VAB and have a look? Then we can get out of your hair."

The Senator turned and gave him a dark look, and then turned back to face Daniel. "Well, he does have a point. Shall we get on with it?"

"Not until you tell me what you are up to. I want to know how bad you want to cut us," said Daniel.

Silence. The Senator and Daniel glared at each other. The air shimmered, waterlogged heat weighing down on all of them, but the sun lowered a little and a breeze kicked up.

Maybe I won't pass out quite yet, until I can tell this asshole what I think of him. Daniel thought to himself.

"All right then. I am going to propose that we close down NASA entirely. The whole lock, stock, and barrel. The military services can do their own launches, and the rest can be done by NOAA and so forth. The PR space junkets can be ended, and this Orion money-burner can be shut down--permanently."

Daniel was working his mouth, and finally found some words. "No way in hell. You can't do that."

"Oh, can't I? Just watch me, buster," replied McDelvern.

The shimmers looked like heat coming off of the pavement, but several of them surrounded the Senator. Suddenly, his eyes shut, and he stood, rigid.

Administrator Daniel and the others soon recovered their wits enough to wonder what was going on with him.

"Senator? You OK?" said Daniel, trying to muster sympathy for this person who wanted to shut them all down.

"Sir? Sir?" said the PR people, hovering around him. Jenkins wiped his brow, and then started to reach for the Senator. He felt a shock, and drew his arm back rapidly.

"Senator? Senator?" yelled Daniel. He turned to look at the aides. They looked back at him, questioning. Feeling helpless, Daniel pulled out his phone, wanting to call some medics, or dial 911.

Right then the Senator relaxed, opened his eyes, and let out a sigh. Then, he groaned, sat down heavily on the pavement, and crossed his legs. He took some ragged breaths.

Daniel kneeled by him, and so did Jenkins. They each took and arm.

"Senator? Sir?"

"I'm ok, don't worry about it," said the Senator, waving them off. "But I think we should get back."

Jenkins looked puzzled. "Get back, sir? What about the VAB?"

"What about it?" said the Senator, looking sharply at Jenkins. Then he leveled a gaze at Daniel with a strange gleam in his eyes.

"Well, I guess we might as well get back in the Ford then. I can crank up the AC," said Daniel, for want of anything better. He led the way back to the vehicle. They all clambered in, silently.

The shimmers on the road disappeared into the general vapors on the air, and the atmosphere returned to normal on the access road.

As the Ford whined its way back to the Admin building in the heat, Daniel broke the silence.

"Senator? Are you okay? What gives?"

"Yes, I am fine, Daniel. Let me just say that I have been shown the error of my ways, never mind how. I changed my mind. I'm going to table any bills to eliminate NASA. In fact, I may suggest an increase in funding."

"That is welcome news, of course. I hope you won't say you were under duress. I did not intend to threaten you, I was merely upset, as you can understand..." said Daniel.

"You did stop the vehicle and confront us, Gerard," said Jenkins. His eyes were smoldering.

"Easy, Jenkins. Maybe you don't understand what happened to me. I'm not sure I do. But I was... gone for a while."

"We could see that, Sir. I don't profess to understand what happened, but I did not mean to physically threaten you or anything," said Daniel.

"I know, I know. Tell me, Gerard, have you actually read any science fiction?"

"Well, no, not since I was in high school. Why do you ask?"

"I was wondering what you would think If I told you that something that was not from around here had me in a tight grip, and showed me a world destroyed. A world that will be destroyed, unless we continue to develop our space-faring capacity for the foreseeable future."

Daniel turned his head from looking at the road, and stared at the Senator, wondering if heat stroke had affected the man.

"Don't worry about it, Gerard. Just be glad. Your agency will stay in business for a long time, at least if I have anything to say about it.

"So why the change in heart, exactly?" said Administrator Gerard, still in disbelief.

"I didn't realize you would have an Extraterrestrial on your side. Hell, I'm just an old Senator. I can't compete with a master debater from the center of the galaxy." Then he went silent and remained so for the rest of the ride. Jenkins had to guide him to their rental sedan, arm in arm. When they finally left, Administrator Daniel Gerard and his office workers watched them go through the windows of the admin building.

Daniel said to no one in particular, "Well, he did go rigid, and shut his eyes."

"And there was a lot of shimmering around him. Some of it was colorful," said one of the PR people.

"Really? Well, you never know. Perhaps we did get helped by something or other. OK, then. Back to work." Daniel turned and headed up the stairwell, to the second floor, his office and a pile of paperwork. Everyone else dispersed. But Daniel had to struggle to get any real work done that day, since he kept replaying the events on the access road in his mind over and over. He had seen something, but he just could not remember what.

The next morning, the networks were abuzz with the news of this budget-cutting senator who had had such a major change of heart, seemingly overnight. He was proposing a major increase in funding for NASA today. Some were accusing Administrator Gerard of some kind of strong-arm tactics or bribery, but those voices soon died down--or out.


2013 Mike Wilson

Bio: Mike Wilson has been writing poetry and short fiction since 2003. He has been published in various journals online (including multiple appearances in Aphelion, most recently Escape to New Jersey, May 2012 and New Weapons, February 2013) and in print. His latest story was due to appear in the 2013 spring edition of Tales of the Talisman. He also has two self-published anthologies, Mirror Worlds and Future Property. Both are available on Amazon. He lives in Des Moines, Iowa, USA. For more by and about Mike, visit Radical Readings, Mike Wilson's Twitter Page, Describer One helium page, or The Galactic Library discussion group. A collection of Mike's essays, poems, and stories From My Backyard to the Edge of the Galaxy is available from Lulu.com in paperback form (also available as a download).

E-mail: Mike Wilson

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