Pillar to the Sky (Excerpt)

Check out Pillar to the Sky by William R. Forstchen, available February 11th from Tor Books!

Pandemic, drought, skyrocketing oil prices, dwindling energy supplies and wars of water scarcity threaten the planet.

Gary Morgan—a brilliant, renegade scientist—is pilloried by the scientific community for his belief in a space elevator: a pillar to the sky, which he believes will make space flight fast, simple and affordable. His wife Eva, also a scientist, wishes to use the tower to mine the power of the sun and supply humanity with cheap, limitless energy forever.

The Goddard Space Flight Center’s enormous army of scientists, engineers and astronauts will design, machine, and build the space elevator. They will fight endless battles and overcome countless obstacles every step of the way.

This journey to the stars will not be easy—a tumultuous struggle filled with violence and heroism, love and death, spellbinding beauty and heartbreaking betrayal. The stakes could not be higher. Humanity’s salvation will hang in the balance.

 

 

 

Prologue

 

“Dr. Morgan, and Dr. Petrenko, with all due respect to your academic credentials, your proposal for this space tower—or Pillar, as some call it—is absurd.”

Senator Proxley, head of the Senate committee that had oversight of NASA’s budget, looked to his left and right for support from the other senators present. Nearly half the chairs were empty, and of those present most just looked off as if bored and waiting for the meeting to come to its inevitable end so that they could rush off to what they felt were far more important affairs, either of state or personal.

“In these times of economic stress, of towering deficits and public demand for budget cutbacks”—he paused for effect—“pipe-dream schemes that are a waste of taxpayers’ money are utterly absurd and, frankly, a waste of my time as a senator who believes in fiscal responsibility.”

He cast a sidelong glance at one of his staffers who was recording his comments for later distribution, since even C-SPAN had decided not to cover this hearing. He cleared his throat and continued.

“I find it disturbing that such a proposal even reached this level and was not terminated by the proper administrators in your program, and believe me, I shall question them about that after this hearing. We are facing the worse deficit crisis in our nation’s history. If I approved continued research funding for this sci-fi fantasy, let alone the insanity to actually go ahead and build it, I can only imagine the howls of protest from my constituents and every other taxpayer. I agree NASA should continue as a government entity, but let it set realistic goals and not allow this type of idea to worm its way up through the budget proposal. I know it has been popular with some to praise the recent mission to Mars, but even with that I ask: Why do we spend more than a billion to go explore a lifeless rock when that same billion could be better spent here on earth, solving a multitude of problems rather than being wasted out there?”

Dr. Gary Morgan threw a quick look at his wife, Evgeniya Petrenko Morgan. It was an attempt to warn her not to lose her temper now. She could be tough as nails when angered and at such moments would often slip into her native Ukrainian, which—given the current cold feelings between America and Russia—would only make matters worse, since few knew the difference between the two languages.

They both knew beforehand what they would be facing here at this hearing, which was not even a remote chance of success. They were the “sacrificial goat of the day” receiving a dressing-down at the hands of one of the country’s fiercest opponents of any expansion of space exploration beyond the bare minimum to keep the program alive. There had been some hope of increased research budgets after the stunning success of the Mars Curiosity touchdown and its continuing mission, which he had just pointedly denigrated. But that enthusiasm, which so many supporters had hoped would renew support for the space program, had proven to be short-lived with yet another oil crisis pushing the price of the precious black gold up over $150 a barrel, the threat of yet another war in the Middle East, and all the other issues that had plagued and continued to plague humanity.

It was an inside joke that if only NASA could figure out how to use corn and milk to fuel its spacecraft, they’d have Proxley’s vote, as he was from a midwestern state that did not have a single NASA facility and thus could target it with impunity.

Gary’s wife caught his gaze, took a deep breath, and nodded for him to go ahead.

“Senator Proxley…” Gary looked down at his notepad and fumbled for a moment. He had never been much of a public speaker, except when debating with the “inner circle” of teammates at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. In that environment he could hold forth for hours on this “special project” that he and his wife had worked on for over two decades, scraping by each year on a minimal budget buried inside another budget for “advanced research and development.” Their dream was a space tower, or “elevator,” that would reach from the equator to geosynchronous orbit, 23,000 miles above the earth. At first glance it did indeed seem like a mad scheme, but the science was there to prove it had long ago migrated from the realm of science fiction to that of scientific possibility in the same way that other dreams—to reach the moon, to cross the Atlantic by plane, even to just fly or move a ship without oars or sails—had long ago started out as dreams.

However, this year Proxley had singled out their particular dream for this one-hour grilling, bestowing on it his infamous “Golden Fleece Award,” which he announced each month as some example of absurd government extravagance (usually money spent on building projects like “bridges to nowhere” or museums for teapots, or why some people are left-handed), and at least a couple times a year he aimed his sarcasm at NASA.

Thus the absolute shock of several weeks earlier when one of the top administrators at Goddard called them into her office and, with genuine sympathy, informed them that their budget would be “zeroed” at the end of the fiscal year—which is to say, at the end of the month—and then handed them notice that they were to appear before a Senate hearing on the subject of NASA’s budget. The subtext: for the “good of the service” they could defend their program, but there was no chance it would be defended by anyone higher up the “food chain.”

It was heartbreaking, but both Gary and Evgeniya understood. They were loyal to NASA, which had quietly nursed along their dream—had even helped to arrange some grants nearly a decade ago to test possible propulsion systems for “tower climbers”—but in the larger struggle to stay alive, they would have to be “let go.” There were even some tears as Evgeniya and the administrator—old friends with daughters the same age and attending the same high school—chatted over tea after the hard news had been delivered.

Gary paused, looking at Proxley. He was the classic example of the bureaucrat, forever the opponent of the inventor. One was an idealist, a believer, a “doer” of dreams, transforming them into realities that could change a world… the other was a naysayer, holder of the public purse strings, forever drawing them tighter unless the loosening of them would directly benefit him. NASA, of course, had no professional lobbyist whispering into Proxley’s ear, with fat campaign contributions promised for the right kind of vote. The great industrial powerhouses that first made America the aviation innovator of the world, then the preeminent explorer of space—those once enterprising firms were barely hanging on in these economic times and in turn had to devote their efforts to more immediately profitable and less ambitious projects; for them, the prospect of a space tower was not on the table.

Gary knew they should just fold their cards, yield the rest of the time allotted to their reply, and leave. But he could not let it go. After twenty years of effort, he felt they had the right to make a final statement.

Gary shuffled his papers, nervously brushed back the strands of slightly graying hair from his forehead, then looked straight at Senator Proxley. As he gazed at this man, he felt his frustration and anger rising.

“Senator,” he began. “Ten years after its completion, this project has the potential of transforming the global economy and in so doing give our country a preeminent economic position for the rest of this century in much the same way as Apollo, by putting Americans on the moon, also triggered a technological revolution right here on earth, fueled our economic growth for the next thirty years. That cell phone in your pocket has more computing power in it than the computer that guided Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon. Sir, where do you think much of the initial research and development came from for that in the first place? It started in the 1960s when NASA said it needed compact computers to get us to the moon. No one then was thinking of cell phones, the GPS in your car, the myriad of medical tools that we take for granted today, but they had a start, and that start was with NASA. Just the research for a space tower can open fields of endeavor that will revolutionize our technology base yet again with innovations not yet dreamed of.

“This project…” He paused, faltering, but his wife gently nudged him under the table to press on. “This project is not some ill-conceived flight of fantasy like those we see in far too many government proposals, which either deservedly get filed away and forgotten or become public embarrassments after they are attempted, when they fall flat, with cost overruns in the tens of billions of dollars.”

He was tempted to cite a few examples of programs that Proxley had supported in the past but knew better than to do so. To try to embarrass his opponent would serve no purpose now.

“The project to build what some call a space elevator and our team calls a ‘Pillar to the Sky’ has undergone rigorous review, not just within NASA, but outside our community as well. Try to imagine an America in 1880 without a transcontinental railroad, an America of the 1920s without Henry Ford or Charles Lindbergh, an America of today without the Internet linking the world via communications satellites put up there by who else but NASA in the first place. This will have the same impact.”

He felt he had gained his stride after being knocked off-balance by Proxley’s scathing comments, and there was a touch of anger in his voice now. He held up the economic impact report supporting the building of a space tower, then looked around the room and saw that of all those facing him, only one had a copy on her desk: Mary Dennison of Maine, who subtly pointed to her copy of the report and, with a sad smile, just nodded an acknowledgment. Taking the gesture to be encouragement, he pressed on.

He took a deep breath, his nervousness gone.

“This project, within ten years after completion, will make the deficit our country now struggles with a thing of the past. It offers a future of limitless growth, Senator, by truly opening up space and all that it can offer us— not the dead end we are approaching now. If we can thus boost our economic growth by but a few additional percentage points a year, within that decade the deficit that terrifies us now will become manageable again and in two decades seem almost trivial. We faced an equally staggering debt at the end of World War II when compared to our total national production, but the economic boom that came in the decade after—because of all the new technologies we had developed to save the world from tyranny—wiped that debt clean. This could do the same, sir.

“Instead, at this moment we are still drilling for oil, the cost of which is becoming more prohibitive each day; we are scrambling for ever dwindling resources, ignoring the fact that as the rest of the world—especially China and India—strive to achieve our economic level, they are also triggering a global economic and environmental crisis. We must face that reality, sir. We are plunging headlong toward a dead end—a dead end economically, certainly, but an environmental dead end on a global scale as well. This project offers an answer far better than what we now do: plunder food crops covering entire states just to produce a trickle of fuel in an effort to stave off the inevitable. We are trading food production for fuel in order to keep the wheels turning just a little bit longer. How long can we do continue to do that in practice? And with an ever expanding global population, how long can we continue to do that morally?”

Gary’s ally Dennison shook her head at that comment, but since he already knew they were defeated, he didn’t really care. Proxley, from a farm state, of course heavily supported subsidies for such food to fuel projects running into the billions. He wanted to add that if Proxley would at least allow them to limp along with just a few million more for research and development, afterward he’d work on a way to try to turn corn into rocket fuel. For that matter, even milk could be turned into alcohol if you allowed it to sour, then drew off the whey and fermented it, then distilled it into burnable fuel. The only drawback to that scheme was that the hundreds of millions of gallons of curdled milk would not be pleasant to work with.

He knew that would bring the house down—become the quote line of the day if anyone in the media ever bothered to even cover this other than Proxley’s assistant, who had pointedly turned his camera off while Gary replied; but he had too many friends still with NASA who might suffer an even greater backlash, so he fell silent but remained defiant as he stared at Proxley.

“Your pie-in-the-sky figures, like everything else in this report…” Proxley said, grimacing with disdain as he held up the five-hundred-page general report on the construction of a “space tower.” His assistant had switched his camera back on in time to record the senator dismissively tossing the document aside so that it slid off the table and crashed to the floor. This symbolic act made Evgeniya and Gary wince with surprise at such rudeness.

“To be frank, sir”—Proxley’s tone became harsh—“I have far more pressing matters than to remain here listening to yet another unrealistic proposal. This is a waste of my time and taxpayers’ money, sir. I see no reason whatsoever to amend the budget for NASA as currently presented.”

He offered an ironic smile.

“I was willing to convene this committee to at least hear by what logic your program was allowed to survive as long as it did. Now I am absolutely convinced we are doing the right thing by sending the budget proposal back on to the floor, with programs such as yours deleted. Therefore, with the approval of my esteemed colleagues, I excuse myself from these proceedings to attend to more important matters.”

Without further comment, Proxley stood and headed for the door, his aides scrambling to pick up the piles of paperwork, stuffing them into briefcases, and falling in behind him.

As Proxley made his way down the aisle toward the exit, Gary Morgan, Ph.D. in astrophysics and engineering, and Evgeniya Petrenko Morgan, Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, remained seated, their eyes fixed on the retreating form.

The dream was over and they had lost.

“What would you have said to Columbus?” someone shouted.

Gary and his wife, called “Eva” by her friends and colleagues, recognized the voice and looked to the back of the room, Eva broke into a smile but Gary just froze; he did not even know that their sixteen-year-old daughter, Victoria, who was on her feet, had somehow managed to slip into the hearing room. Savvy with regard to all things computerized, she had most likely forged some sort of pass and ID to get in—typical of her, Gary thought, with a touch of pride, but he feared what his fiery young daughter might now say in righteous wrath at her parents being treated in such a manner. Victoria was gangly and tall at almost six foot, like both her parents, and pushed a lock of blond hair back from over her eyeglasses as she stepped out into the aisle to block the senator.

Gary actually started to stand up and call to her to stop, but Eva reached out, grabbing his arm and smiling.

“That’s our girl; let her have her say,” she said. “She definitely has your temper,” he whispered. “Damn right she does,” Eva replied in Ukrainian. Proxley slowed.

“Are you talking to me, young lady?” He said it with a bit of a threatening edge, reminding Gary of a famous line from an old movie.

Gary could not help but smile. The senator might be used to the game of intimidation, but he had never tangled with this young lady when her blood was up.

“Yes, I am talking to you!” She hesitated just long enough to sound ironic when she added one more word: “Sir.”

She pressed forward, not budging an inch to get out of Proxley’s way.

“Senator Proxley, what would you have said to Columbus and Magellan?”

There was no mainstream media covering this hearing; for all practical purposes, like a tree falling unheard in a forest, it didn’t exist, except for a few pro-space Internet bloggers who were holding up iPads to catch the exchange. Proxley looked at them from the corners of his eyes. Such things could go viral and without doubt he was thinking that beating up on a skinny teenage girl who had just witnessed the taking down of her parents might not be good press.

He forced an indulgent smile.

“If history serves me right,” Proxley replied, “Columbus was convinced he had reached China, his so-called discovery an accident which then resulted in the deaths of millions of Native Americans. And as for Magellan, nine out of ten who sailed with him died.”

“But still they opened up an entire world and changed the stagnant economy of Europe to centuries of growth,” Victoria fired back. “The tragedy of the native population of this land I concur with, sir, but the factor of disease was unknown in the sixteenth century. As for space sir, we do not face that moral problem.”

“And at what price this progress?” Proxley said coldly. “The mess the entire world is in today, perhaps?”

Gary realized Proxley was maneuvering the argument into one of colonialism, of guilt over the past hobbling the limitless potential of the future that he was utterly incapable of seeing along with the technophobia that was so ironic from those who denounced technology even as their lives depended on it. It was like trying to argue with a man stranded in the desert who was futilely digging in the sand for water, refusing to see or believe that just beyond the next ridge was a flowing river of plenty, which was indeed awaiting humanity just above the atmosphere.

“We are not debating the tragedies of colonialism, sir,” Victoria replied sharply. “This meeting was about space exploration, which you are killing— a tragedy not just for our country but the entire world. You are ignoring the potential of opening up the universe for all humanity and the finding of resources to transform our world while bringing no harm to others.”

Victoria’s voice rose and squeaked a bit as she spoke, for after all, at sixteen she was tackling a United States senator of more than twenty years’ experience, and he knew his game well.

“I admire your zeal for defending your parents, young lady,” he said condescendingly. “I admire idealism in youth, even if misdirected and impolite at times. As for history, I think I do know a bit more than you; after all, I did major in it as an undergraduate. Might I urge you study that a bit more when you go to college”—he paused—“and perhaps a course on showing manners to your elders and elected representatives as well.” There was a cutting edge of dismissal to his voice as he moved to step around her.

Victoria would not be diverted even as Proxley tried to move around her, a staffer having opened the door out of the hearing room while one oversize aide, more bodyguard than assistant, tried to move between the senator and Victoria, but she refused to budge. Gary was now on his feet, and there would have been an explosion on his part if the aide had touched his proud, defiant daughter.

“Now if you will excuse—”

She cut him off.

“No, I will not excuse you yet, sir,” Victoria retorted. “As an American citizen I have a right to this conversation. I recall that the First Amendment states that I have a right to petition my government for redress and, sir, you have an obligation to listen. In fact, according to your own schedule and that of this committee, you should still be here for another hour.”

Before he could reply, she fired the next question off.

“If you want to talk about history, Senator, what about the Roeblings, father and son, or Stevens and Goethals?”

Proxley hesitated. Gary grinned. She had caught him on that! He had no idea who she was referring to.

“Engineers, Senator. The Roeblings built the Brooklyn Bridge while Stevens and Goethals engineered the Panama Canal. They were told it was impossible but built them anyhow in spite of people like you. If men and women like them had listened to people like you, where would we be today? History is plagued by those like you, sir. Plagued by you.”

Gary did wince a bit at that. Calling a senator a plague might not be the best of politics. As a NASA employee, he, of course, could never say it; but if called on the carpet about it in his exit interview, he could only shrug his shoulders and say, “Hey, I have a strong-willed daughter,” and chances were there would be subtle smiles of agreement.

Proxley glared at her coldly.

He looked at Victoria’s mother.

“May I suggest, madam, that in the future this young lady’s education include some basic manners and proper etiquette.”

And now Gary’s wife, Eva, spoke. It was doubtful Proxley understood Ukrainian. Since everything was recorded, Proxley would without doubt get the translation later.

“Oh, yes,” Proxley sniffed, “your Russian mother.”

Gary looked at both his wife and daughter with an expression that urged them not to respond to that insult. No one ever called a Ukrainian a Russian, and he knew it was deliberate. “Given the current state of foreign affairs, I do find it curious you even have access to our facilities.”

A brawl in front of a Senate committee hearing was definitely a bad career ender, so he put a restraining hand on Eva’s arm and shot another restraining glance at his daughter, for she knew Ukrainian as well.

One of Proxley’s aides, the one who opened the door, had a hand on the senator’s shoulder to guide him—or perhaps drag him—out of the room, then looked back at Gary. Was there a glimpse of a smile, a subtle nod of agreement? The door closed with Proxley on the far side, leaving Victoria sputtering with ill-concealed rage.

Senator Dennison sighed and looked to her left and right at the empty chairs as the other senators—some nodding politely to Gary, others ignoring him—began to file out as well.

“Since we no longer have a quorum with the absence of Senator Proxley,” she announced, “I must adjourn this meeting without a vote. I therefore declare this hearing to be closed.”

Gary had failed. But that had been a foregone conclusion before they even walked into the room; his effort was no different from arranging deck chairs on the Titanic as it sank, and he knew that. At least his daughter had added a certain zest to it all at the very end.

Senator Dennison stood up, came around from behind her desk, and put a gentle, calming hand on Gary’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry, I tried every way possible to get a quorum here to support you. I am so sorry for the three of you.” As she spoke she flashed a warm smile at Victoria as if to say, Masterful, young lady. Bravo!

She looked around the room as the last of the few spectators left. A blogger took a moment to get a few comments from Victoria, before shutting down his iPad and leaving the room. They were alone.

“May I suggest you head back to Goddard? You have an old friend waiting for you there, and who knows”—she actually did seem to take on a mysterious air—“perhaps some new ones as well.”

Though Dennison’s home state of Maine did not benefit much from what little funding NASA still received, she was a woman with vision and held the belief that no matter how insurmountable the cascading series of crises facing America—diminishing energy supplies; valid environmental concerns about climate change due to worldwide pollution; the ever rising cries that America was tottering toward collapse—she believed that American know-how would, in the end, come through, and had placed her political chips on NASA. For years she had worked behind the scenes to ensure that at least some marginal funding for the agency was designated for what seemed like the dreams of today but could be the breakthroughs of tomorrow. In fact, only a tiny part of the agency’s budget—less than a hundreth of a percentage point—went to Gary and Eva Morgan and the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts division (NIAC).

Gary and Eva first met Senator Dennison a decade and a half earlier when they had been sent to Dennison’s office, at the senator’s request, to discuss their ideas and request funding for further research. That meeting had stretched longer than an hour and turned into an invitation to dinner at Dennison’s modest apartment just a few blocks from Capitol Hill. The Morgans came prepared for some tough questioning, and “dinner” went on until one in the morning, and a bond had been formed.

Dennison had been an easy audience to reach. She had started out as a high school teacher of math, but—frustrated with the restraints of the education bureaucracy—she went on to do graduate work in engineering. Rather than return to the classroom, she came to the fundamental conclusion that if there was one thing Congress lacked, it was some members with a knowledge of the hard sciences. So she set out on a political career path with single-minded determination, first by getting elected to Congress and then moving on to a seat in the Senate. She played a critical role in preparing and protecting the nation’s electronic infrastructure against the destructive potential of solar storms; pushed through support for the first maglev trains (the bill disappeared in another committee); and was at times all but a lone voice in the Senate to keep an ever-dwindling NASA alive as the nation struggled to somehow rein in its crippling debt load.

After hours of reviewing the Morgans’ plans that night, she sat back and exclaimed, “Good heavens, I think your mad scheme will actually work. I’ll see that you at least get some money for continued research; not much, but enough to keep you two—soon to be three—alive.”

Naively he had assumed that all was a done deal, and within the year work—real work—on building a tower would actually begin.

That was sixteen and a half years ago. Over those years the clock had ticked on and the climate continued to shift; whether due to man-made causes, a natural cycle, or a combination of both, the impacts were becoming more catastrophic. The debt had taken the nation to near bankruptcy. Conflict had escalated in the Middle East as energy production peaked, then began to dwindle as the world went to ever greater lengths to squeeze out an extra barrel amid escalating costs. A malaise seemed to be setting in as Americans began to feel that the days of their greatness had passed and would not come again.

And today Gary and Eva’s plan for addressing these problems had come to an end.

“How is he doing by the way?”

Gary looked at Eva and they both smiled.

“Professor Rothenberg?” Gary paused. “Still going strong at ninety-two, but… he is ninety-two.”

“That old character will outlast us all,” Mary said with an understanding smile.

“And who knows?” she added, lowering her voice as if imparting a secret, “There might still be a surprise in the wings. He’s famous for that, you know. My first visit to Goddard as a member of Congress…”

She sighed.

“We were still flying the Shuttle back then.” She shook her head. “He was the one who showed me around. The old guy had me absolutely charmed even then. He’s not one to give up, even now.”

“What do you mean ‘a surprise in the wings’?” Eva asked.

Mary shrugged, looking around as if to be certain no one was hiding in a corner of the room. Years of experience had taught her well that one never knew where an eavesdropper might lurk, recorder or just an iPhone in hand to catch every whispered word.

“Well, one never knows, and besides, even if I did not—and I am not saying I do—it is way outside my control now.”

“Outside of your control… ?” Eva asked.

“Oh, call it classified for the moment,” Mary replied. “And just know that, even though it looks like you lost the war today, there is no denying what happened here.”

She looked back disdainfully at the empty chairs of the committee.

“NASA is still in for some hard times, and you two dear friends are out of work with that beloved agency in a few more weeks, your project tossed aside like so many other opportunities we’ve tossed aside in recent decades. But I predict it ain’t over yet by a long shot. Just know that I’ll be behind the scenes, even though your program has been cut.”

“Thank you, Senator,” Gary said.

“Come on, we’re out of formal session: it’s Mary.”

She squeezed his shoulder and then looked at him with concern. “How is your health?”

“Just fine, no problems.”

She said nothing in reply, then looked around and smiled.

“That daughter of yours, she’s a fighter. I like that.”

He looked back to where his daughter waited patiently by the doorway.

“It’s her world I want to help shape,” he said. “We’ve pretty well had our game and not done so well by it.”

“We can still try, so go out and do it.”

“With what?”

“We’ll see, and God be with you.” She kissed Eva on the cheek and at the door stopped to pause for a momentary chat with Victoria, shaking her hand and then hugging her with a compliment about her fighting spirit and congratulations on her early acceptance to college. Then she left the room.

“Proud of you, Victoria,” Gary said with a grin. It was obvious that after her confrontation with Senator Proxley, Victoria was a bit shaken, afraid that she had gone too far. Mary’s warm compliment had reassured her and she had looked at her parents for approval.

“At least you didn’t kick him in the shins,” Gary said, sweeping his girl into an embrace.

“I wanted to.”

“So did I, and a lot more,” Eva said in Ukrainian with a smile.

“Come on you two fighters. Let’s go to Goddard and break the news.”

 

For Gary, clearing the security gate at the Goddard Space Flight Center lifted a weight from his weary shoulders. It was like coming home: he always had a flashback of the happiest summer of his life, an internship that set out the paths not just of his career but his personal happiness as well. It was here that he and Eva both came under the spell of Erich Rothenberg.

He and Eva had, of course, missed the high glory days of the 1960s—that was half a century ago now—but at least they had been in the space program when there was still talk of returning to the moon—plans for Mars, even—and, of course, all the other less glorious but just as important research paths. Many of the old veterans of those times still walked the corridors, and Erich was one of them. But cutback after cutback had left Goddard something of a ghost town, remembering past glories, still hoping that the day would come when society again believed in positive dreams for the future and was willing to throw its backing behind it. It was like a monastery preserving dreams and knowledge in the hope of a renewed renaissance.

There was no problem finding a parking space, and their old mentor, Erich Rothenberg, was at the door of the small office complex that housed his once burgeoning domain, as if waiting for them. He came out and, in classic European fashion, took Eva’s hand and kissed it lightly, then grasped Gary’s hand, looking straight into his eyes.

“How the hell are you?”

“How am I?” Gary sighed. “I think you know how I am.”

“Yeah, I was listening to it on the Internet. That Proxley really cut our throats.”

When Erich got angry, his German accent really came through. He was perhaps the last of the legendary breed of famed German scientists who had shaped America’s space program back in the fifties and sixties. In his office hung fading photos of him with Wernher von Braun himself, the two posing alongside an early model of a lunar landing module. But there was one big difference: Erich had been on the opposite side from Von Braun during the war that had bred the legendary team of German scientists who had led America to the moon.

Erich was on the other side in that conflict because he was Jewish. His family had managed to get out when the Nazis took power in 1933. Erich’s father saw the future clearly enough, packed what they could take, and fled with his family to friends in Holland. Erich was a university student in physics in Amsterdam when the war came crashing into Holland. His father, a highly decorated officer of the First World War, still had friends and old comrades in the German Army, who pulled up to their home in Amsterdam, shouting that the SS was right behind them with arrest orders, and helped smuggle them down to the Spanish border once France surrendered. Some months later he was in Palestine, eagerly recruited by the British Army as a commando, given that he could speak perfect Berliner German.

It was indeed a strange mix when, in the mid-1950s, Rothenberg came to the States and was tossed in with Von Braun and all the others. The bond of a dream of reaching to space transcended any past differences, which in reality were few, the German scientists were as appalled as the rest of the world when the full truth of the dark psychotic madness behind Hitler and his followers was finally revealed to the world. Together, they believed in the future of space, and that America must lead the way.

Now Erich was the last of them. Amazingly the old man still stood sharply erect, as if a British drill sergeant just might be lurking around a corner, ready to pounce. Holding an emeritus chair in aerospace engineering, he still came in to the office at Goddard every day to check up on his “ladies and lads,” as he called them, with decidedly dated Old World charm. In a field dominated by men, it had been Eva who refused to be addressed as one of “Erich’s lads,” and he had finally broken under her determined will.

The affection between them was genuine, as he offered and she accepted the traditional kiss on both cheeks and Victoria smiled as she received the same courtesy.

Erich patted Victoria affectionately on the shoulder then hugged her.

“You nailed him right between the eyes, young lady!” he cried, grinning like a proud grandfather at his newest prodigy. “I might have added a few more choice words in Yiddish and let him try to figure it out later, but, of course, that would have been improper.”

“Oh, I had a lot more to say,” Victoria responded, her features reddening because this old man, who was indeed like a beloved grandfather, had praised her.

Erich laughed.

“Remind me to teach you a few,” he said with a grin.

“She knows too many such words in Ukrainian as is,” Gary replied, and Erich, laughing, nodded.

“I knew you were coming. I already have tea made, and for you, Gary, I think you need something a bit stronger.”

The corridor was all but empty as Erich led them past office doors that were closed, with no light coming from within: empty. He once held sway over an entire suite with a staff of fifty or more, but now? At least the powers that be still graced the old man with the dignity of an emeritus position and, out of respect for nearly sixty years’ service, kept him on as a reminder of the glory days. His office was small and cramped, the bookshelves sagging in the middle, piled high with bound and unbound papers, yellowed at the edges. His desk was still the same: not government issue, an indulgence to his eccentricities; the heavy oak table was still kept clean except for two pictures, one of his departed wife. The other picture was of him in British commando uniform, Sten submachine gun in hand. His unit had been dropped in to occupy what was left of the German labs at Peenemünde at the end of the war, a secret mission sent in the day before the Russians overran the facility to snatch up anything that could help England’s postwar missile program. The hangar behind him had several V-2 rockets. Everyone knew he deliberately kept that portrait very visible to needle his German friends.

It was at that place where Erich’s future had been decided. Gazing in wonder at just how dangerously ahead the Germans were in 1945, after accompanying crate loads of plans for what was being called the “New York Rocket,” he was discharged from service. He went back to university to study not aeronautical engineering but something new called aerospace engineering, a field that he had helped to define with his dissertation on what would be necessary to actually get to the moon and establish a base there.

Gary smiled at the sight of the photo of Erich in uniform while Eva and Victoria graciously accepted the offer of tea. What happened next was strictly against all regulations as Erich pulled his favorite Scotch, hidden in a filing cabinet, and poured a larger one for himself and for Gary.

“Well, do we drink a toast against all those like Proxley,” he asked, “or our traditional one instead?”

“The traditional one,” Eva replied softly, and there was actually a catch in her voice.

“To our journey to the stars,” Erich whispered, choking up a bit as well.

“To the stars,” Gary whispered, and as he took a sip, tears were in his eyes, too, because being there, at what seemed to be the end of his dream, only served to remind him of the day that dream had first begun to form…

 

1
Eighteen Years Earlier
Goddard Space Flight Center

 

“Dr. Rothenberg?”

Erich Rothenberg, director of the division of advanced propulsion designs, and who oversaw interns assigned to the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, looked up over the top of his wire-framed glasses. There was no welcoming smile, just a cool gaze as Gary Morgan stood nervously in the doorway.

“So you are one of my new interns for the summer?” Erich asked. “I already told them there is no need for interns here—at least, those who want a solid future. May I suggest you just go back to the personnel office and ask for a different assignment.”

Gary didn’t move. He had been warned by “veterans” who had served as interns with Dr. Rothenberg that this was his typical greeting, the first winnowing-out process in which more than one graduate student had taken him at his word and fled.

He stood his ground.

“I volunteered for this division, sir. It is why I came to Goddard for the summer and asked to be assigned to you.”

“Oh? Pray tell why.” Still there was no welcoming gesture to take a seat.

“I’ve read most of your papers, sir, at least the unclassified ones: your prediction that Apollo would turn into a political dead end after the first landing, objections to the space station rather than an effort on advance propulsion systems and setting Mars as the next goal…”

“I sail against the wind,” Erich said gruffly. “Not a good path for career advancement.”

Gary didn’t move.

“Oh, damn it, come on in and sit down,” Erich sighed. Gary was smart enough not to show any emotion; he had at least passed the first test. He was, at least, literally through the door and into the office. Very few ever made it that far.

Leaning back in his chair, Erich pulled out a battered Zippo lighter adorned with the faded insignia of his old commando unit and puffed his pipe back to life. It was now a violation of the new no-smoking rule for the facility, but like all such rules, Erich had a few choice words in reply, either in High German or Yiddish, depending on who he was addressing— though he did compromise by keeping the door closed and a noisy air purifier running.

“Let us skip the sentimental formalities of greetings,” Erich announced. Gary had yet to learn it, but beneath the tough exterior of a German disciplined in war with nearly six years of service with the British Army, he was a sentimentalist at heart. His forty years of marriage to his recently departed wife had never produced children, and thus the ebb and flow of young interns and wide-eyed graduates had become his extended family. The honor of admission to this special club, “Erich’s Dreamers”—or, as some called them behind his back, the “Warp Factor Club”—meant guidance, late-night sessions at his modest home just outside the gate, and dreams of what was and what should be.

The mainstream of work at Goddard now was on the beginnings of the international space station and post-Challenger recovery, and start-up on work for a second-generation shuttle design. There were even teams waiting for the word to develop a return to the moon and some talk that the president might even ask for funding of preliminary plans for Mars. But as for Erich’s team, they were off in a far corner, their work buried deep in the yearly budget. They had been written off as dreamers…

Some wag, as a prank, had pinned a picture of Yoda on the door with the name “Erich” printed across it. Rather than tear it down, Rothenberg laughed softly and let it stay. It was now faded but still there.

“Erich’s Dreamers.” In their cramped quarters and with their marginal budget, they kept alive visions of ion drive; of solar sails that would actually use the minute pressure of sunlight and that theoretically could accelerate a payload up to a sizable fraction of light speed; of hypersonic and ramjet engines mounted on first-stage airplane-like “carriers” that would lift rockets to the edge of space and launch from there… They even had plans—seriously worked on back in the 1950s and now at times tweaked a bit—to use nuclear power microburst engines that could cut the transit time to Mars from months to just weeks.

This had become Erich’s domain after Apollo slipped away with barely a whimper.

For any ambitious graduate intern, when offered a variety of choices, the advice was to stay away from this collection of fantasists who read too much sci-fi and had seen too much Star Trek and could lip-synch every episode. Better to stick with the programs that had a real future, such as the next generation of the Space Shuttle, if they wanted to advance.

For Gary (who would not admit he could lip-synch every episode of the original Star Trek series), that was a challenge, not a warning, and he had specifically requested the assignment. Of the fifty-five graduate student internship applicants that summer, only two had been advised on how Erich would greet them. Before making the long trek to this office in a small out-of-the-way office complex, he knew that Erich had at least approved the interview, along with the only other intern’s, the first exchange intern from the Ukraine, now a former member of the collapsed Soviet Union. That had caused a bit of a stir, and during his placement interview earlier in the day someone sitting in on his interview (who never identified herself) casually suggested that if he noticed anything unusual with this other intern to let security know.

Erich pointed to a chair, took Gary’s dossier, thumbed through his transcripts for several minutes without comment, then started into his typical Germanic grilling.

“Why in hell do you want to get into aerospace engineering when thousands of my old coworkers have been laid off and are trying to land jobs as high school teachers, and the rest are just praying to make it to retirement?”

Before Gary could even form an answer, Erich fired off the next question.

“Why are you even here in this office? Bright young man like you should try for the Jet Propulsion Lab out in California, or one of the private contractors like Boeing or Lockheed, and angle for a job once you graduate.”

“Your work intrigues me, sir,” Gary finally replied, a bit nervously.

Erich sat back and shook his head, and laughed softly as he continued to thumb through Gary’s file.

“Why?”

“Because I believe a day will come when humanity realizes space is the only answer left to us if we are going to make it to the twenty-second century.”

“Why care about the twenty-second century? You plan to live that long?” Erich laughed softly. “I sure as hell don’t. I’ve seen enough in this century to fill half a dozen lifetimes.”

“No, sir, but maybe my children will. My great grandparents came to America eighty years ago. Before my grandfather died, he said they came here because of me.”

Gary fell silent with that. He knew it sounded sentimental, and he had yet to realize how sentimental Erich truly was. But it was true. Three of Gary’s four ancestors had come through Ellis Island and all spoke of the dream that brought them there: it was always about a better world for their children and grandchildren and how he should dream the same. Though only twenty-two and with all four of his grandparents gone—along with both his parents, lost in a small plane crash two years back—he knew that his reply to Erich’s question would have been theirs as well.

His father had been a navy aviator who even tried for the astronaut corps in the mid-1960s—and almost made it—and this had encouraged Gary’s fascination with flight. He actually should have been with his parents on the day they died, but a chronic sinus infection kept him home. His dad promised they’d go up together the following week, but there was no following week. An idiotic accident—a pilot pulled out onto the active runway just as they were touching down—had taken both his parents. As usual with such things, the fool who caused it walked away with barely a scratch.

Perhaps that was why he had tried to learn to fly—although, on the advice of his instructor, he had given it up. He didn’t have the “instinctive” feel his father had, and frankly he was always on edge when aloft: that could be dangerous. Though grounded in a literal sense, his dreams were still “up there.”

 

Gary’s paternal grandfather—his beloved “Tappy”—had taken over as parent until he slipped away just the year before his internship interview, truly leaving Gary alone, at least in a physical sense. Yet all of his grandparents had instilled in him “the dream.” Tall, gangly, rather uncoordinated— branded a nerd by many when that term was not the compliment it would become in the Internet age—Gary lived in a world of devouring works on aviation and space history, and at least found a few friends in the realm of fantasy gaming. Girls? That was something that left him tongue-tied and self-conscious; his friends even joked that maybe he should join a monastery, since that was the way he seemed destined to live. A favorite novel of his, Walter L. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, did involve a religious order devoted to science, and he actually thought at times that if such an order existed, he would just give up on the rest of the world and join it.

Erich Rothenberg, who was five foot seven, wiry, and at best 145 pounds soaking wet, also had something of the nerd look as he continued to gaze at Gary over the rims of his glasses. But then there was the other, legendary side of the man, a commando who had survived five years of combat, been wounded three times, and had been awarded the Victoria Cross—all before gaining his reputation as a brilliant space science engineer. No one would ever dare to apply the term “nerd” to him and expect to leave the office in one piece.

“So Mr. Morgan, you are here because you want to save the world, is that it?” Erich asked, but there was no mockery in his voice.

Gary did not answer for several seconds, then replied, “Maybe I can help in some way, sir.”

“Then go over to the design team for the shuttle replacement.”

“That’s the past, sir.”

“What do you mean? I helped with some of the design, you know.”

“And I read where you howled all the way, from the day they shifted the original plan from a two-stage liquid fuel launch that would take off like a plane—and continued to voice your concerns right up to the day Challenger lifted off—that putting men and women on top of solid boosters would one day end in a tragedy. And it happened.”

They were both silent for a moment. Challenger, for everyone at NASA, was still an open wound. Gary still could not look at the footage without getting a lump in his throat when Houston radioed, “Challenger, you are go at throttle up…”

“That is the past,” Erich said, breaking eye contact and gazing off as if to some painful memory.

Gary leaned forward. He could sense that Dr. Rothenberg was showing some interest with this brief breaking down into an emotional response.

“Chemical rockets are to space travel what steam trains are to magnetic levitation or even diesel electric locomotives.”

“Go on.” Erich took his Zippo out again, relit his pipe, and leaned back in his chair, unflinching gaze again fixed on Gary.

“Well, sir, we all know Newton’s law about thrust and opposite reaction. Even the most efficient chemical rockets have a maximum velocity, which we are already approaching. And the fuel-weight-to-energy-produced ratio forever limits just how much we can loft up. Apollo burned millions of pounds of fuel to get less than 20,000 pounds of spacecraft into a lunar trajectory. To save weight they even shaved off a few ounces of metal on the steps leading down to the lunar surface and back. The steps were calculated to be able to hold the load at one-sixth gravity but would collapse if used on earth. To go to Mars in any reasonable amount of time—it is a dead end, sir. Every day added because of lower velocity means that much more water, food, and other supplies for the astronauts, which means yet more weight of fuel to put it up there… It is a dead end.”

Erich nodded sagely then smiled.

“I was the one who suggested shaving down the steps on the module to save those few ounces.”

“It’s like building a 747 to fly three people across the Atlantic,” Gary continued, “then junking the plane after landing.”

“You took that line from me, Mr. Morgan,” Erich said, with just the hint of a smile.

Gary nodded, acknowledging his appropriation of what was now a muchquoted line.

“So tell me, Mr. Morgan”—Erich looked at the file—“Mr. Gary Morgan: What wisdom do you bring to me, along with your youthful idealism, to solve this dilemma?”

Gary hesitated.

“I don’t know, sir,” he replied truthfully. “But I do sense we are at the limits of what we can do to get into space. It is so damn frustrating, because out there limitless resources await, but we are stuck in a deep well—the gravity well of the earth—and it costs tens of thousands of dollars per pound just to crawl out of that well. I don’t have the answer that fits within our realm of aerospace engineering, and that is why I volunteered to be on your team—because maybe you do have the answer.”

Erich chuckled.

“Right answer. If you had said one word about folding space or wormholes—a bunch of rubbish—you’d be back at Personnel. And outside this office, if you say ‘warp’ even once, you are fired. I am barely hanging on to a budget as it is without some intern bubbling over in front of a jaundiced member of Congress, like one of our critics who just the other day was asking why couldn’t NASA make fuel out of corn from his state and then he’d support us.”

Erich stared up at the ceiling, still puffing on his pipe, motioning for Gary to close the door so that there would not be any complaints while he reached back over his shoulder to open the window to air the room out.

“You are right. We’re at an ultimate dead end. The ratios of required fuel to cost to get a given number of pounds into space, combined with the risks of chemical rockets, is a paradigm that has been with us ever since my old friend Von Braun was told to start shooting V-2 rockets at London. Even he admitted that he knew the folly of it all: one rocket to deliver one ton of explosives just two hundred miles cost far more than the planes America and England were building and pounding Germany with in a thousand-plane raid every night. It was a dead end, but in Von Braun’s case he was praying that his employer would get what he deserved and end the madness, but the rockets would become the foundation for the American victors to get into space. But the math of launching a rocket in 1944 is still the same nearly fifty years later, whether it is two hundred miles or to a translunar or trans-Mars trajectory.

“So they throw a fraction of the budget, less than a tenth of one percent of the budget that finally comes to NASA, to the NIAC and a few other teams like us at JPL, White Sands, telling us to try something different— and, of course, to come in under budget. As for you as an intern, your college gives you a small stipend so your work to us is for free, other than helping you a bit with nearby housing. But from small acorns there have been times when a mighty chestnut has grown, Mr. Morgan.”

He finally made direct eye contact with Gary and smiled.

“You report at 0730 every morning. I do not like these new coffee shop chains with their French names for what even we Brit soldiers called ‘joe.’ There’s a diner just down the road south of the main gate. Tell them you are my new assistant; they know what I want. Get copies of The New York Times and The Washington Post as well while you’re there. You need coffee, get some for yourself; they’ll put it on my tab.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’ll need it,” Erich said with a sardonic smile, and then pointed to one of the bookshelves sagging in the middle from the heavy weight of volumes and papers.

“Start with that book in the upper left corner; it will take you back to the beginning of all things. A good aerospace engineer is also a good historian. An old friend of mine, L. Sprague de Camp, wrote that first book up there about ancient engineering. You will read how the Romans built roads, how Prince Henry of Portugal designed ships that could sail round the world… Ever hear of him?”

Gary could only shake his head.

“Well, start with the book by de Camp. A book a day, young man.”

Gary all but gulped openly as he looked at the rows of books. He was there for ten weeks, not ten years, and besides, though he could devour math in any form, his parents had been told he had some sort of learning disability called dyslexia and reading of regular texts came very slowly.

“I want you to start with that, the history of it all, even before Von Braun in Germany and Goddard here in the States began their work. I want you to get inside the minds of the inventors, the engineers, the dreamers.”

He chuckled.

“Yes, the dreamers. I want you to learn what they went through and find out if you have the stomach to face what they faced.

“Ever hear of Brunel?”

“No, sir.”

“What in hell are they teaching you at Purdue?”

“Engineering, sir.”

“Well, they should throw in a history class or two. Isambard Brunel. In the 1850s he built an iron ship nearly as big as Titanic, but he was fifty years ahead of his time. There were no docks big enough in the world to handle his dream, no market big enough to fill the hull for a profitable journey, including the amount of fuel it would need to cross the Atlantic—though they finally found a use for it when it was used to lay the transatlantic cable. It is said the mockery about ‘Brunel’s Folly,’ as they called it, is what killed him. Fifty years later he was hailed as a visionary. I want you to learn that now.”

“Is that what keeps you going, sir?” Gary ventured.

Erich looked at him crossly and did not reply.

“By the end of the week I want you up to speed on through Brunel; Eads; Ericsson; the Roeblings; Herman Haupt, a railroad engineer as important to the Union cause as Grant or Sherman; the private entrepreneur Hill, who built a transcontinental railroad on his own, the Great Northern, without a dime of government money only twenty-five years after the first transcontinental, which proved to be one of the great boondoggles of its time—names few know but you will know. Then we’ll start talking about space.”

Gary was a bit surprised. He had come here to learn what was the cutting edge, not some darn boring history lessons.

Erich smiled.

“In time you will see why I make you learn the past, then learn how to shape the future and have the strength to do it.

“So, I expect to see a book a day off that shelf. Don’t forget the book by de Camp on your way out. Have it read by tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir.”

Erich looked down at the paper he had been reading and for several minutes focused on it, ignoring Gary, so that he wondered if he had been dismissed. Erich had a red pencil out and began scratching some notes along the margins, then folded it over.

“This was given to me by the other new intern.” He looked up at the old-style clock hanging on the wall. “And in another minute that person will be late.”

There was a knock on the door with thirty seconds to spare.

“Enter.”

Gary could not help but gaze in admiration. He had noticed her in the

group orientation for new interns the day before. Blond; tall, at least for Gary, at about five feet ten inches; startling green eyes; and classic Slavic high cheekbones. She was tastefully dressed in a modest skirt and blouse— actually, rather formal for the facility, where “dressing down” to jeans and T-shirts had become the norm with the younger staff over the last few years, though the “old-timers” still wore white shirts and neckties.

“Am I interrupting?” she asked politely. The accent revealed by those three words told Gary she was the Ukrainian exchange intern.

“Not at all, young lady,” and Old World charm took hold of Erich as he stood, nodded slightly, and pointed to a chair next to Gary. Erich made a polite offer of tea, which she gracefully accepted. Gary, a bit flustered, because he hated tea, accepted a cup as well but was a bit chagrined that Erich had not offered him tea or coffee when he came in.

Erich made the introductions, and Gary stood to shake Evgeniya Petrenko’s hand, unable to avoid those green eyes, which seemed to bore into him. He sensed that she was the type who on a daily basis brushed off the attention of fellow male grad students and perhaps many a professor as well. Then he nervously sat down again, self-consciously pushing his own glasses, which had slid down a bit, back up on his nose.

“Your translation of this paper,” Erich said, holding up the printout. “May I ask, is it accurate?”

Evgeniya seemed to bristle slightly at this question about her English ability.

“I assure you, sir, it is accurate.”

“I’ve not seen it before, though I’ve, of course, heard of the theory. Some years back Arthur C. Clarke even wrote a novel about the idea. But even he said when he wrote it he thought it would be two hundred years or more from now before we had the technology to do it.”

“The paper was published in, of all places, a popular journal in Moscow in 1960. I am surprised your CIA did not grab it and rush it here.”

Shadows of the Cold War still lingered in the way she had said “CIA.”

“Perhaps the KGB blocked it,” Gary said softly.

She looked at him crossly.

“It was in a popular magazine like your Scientific American, which I should add we read every month within a day or two of its release.”

“Free flow of information,” Gary could not help but reply.

She seemed ready to snap back, and Erich extended a hand in a calming gesture.

“The Cold War is over, you two,” he said with a smile. “And I am glad to see a Russian intern on my staff.”

Though he had been in this man’s presence for less than an hour, Gary sensed something of a line, but the response by Eva caught him off guard.

“I am not Russian, sir,” she replied, with a hint of irritation. “I am Ukrainian. It just so happens that to pursue my field no such schools exist in my country, so I had to go to Moscow to study.”

Erich was a bit taken aback but then smiled.

“My apologies, Miss Petrenko. I know the history of the persecution your people suffered by both Hitler and Stalin. I am surprised they would let a Ukrainian study aerospace engineering.”

“My grandfather was a hero of the Great Patriotic War, and received our highest decoration Hero of the Soviet Union. I was first in my class, and friends and admirers of my grandfather helped me to gain admission and now this assignment.”

“And your plans after your summer here?”

“To return to Moscow, of course.”

“I see.”

“Dr. Rothenberg. Your government and mine have already signed accords and understandings about building the space station. Would it not be helpful for me to work for that once I return home?”

Erich nodded in agreement even as he poured her another cup of tea.

“Then if that is the case, Miss Petrenko, why did you feel it necessary to give me this paper?” He nodded to the document on his desk.

She smiled.

“Because the space station is just a beginning. Perhaps even a dead end. I came here to learn about what is beyond that. And to bring along this suggestion as well.”

“Bringing this to me might cause problems for you.”

She laughed softly.

“Sir, it was published, as I told Mr. Morgan here”—she shot him a look of disdain—“in a popular magazine. Not classified, if anyone here had bothered to take the time to look. No harm in sharing it.”

“And may I guess that this is what you wish to research further?”

“I plan to write my dissertation on it. But I will need access to computers here that are not yet available in Moscow to run some algorithms to test out some theories. That is what I hope you will give me the freedom to do.”

Erich gave a mischievous smile and tossed the paper over to Gary.

“Regarding access to our Cray, I’ll have to ask security about that, but I think we can arrange it under proper supervision.”

She beamed with delight.

“But”—again that smile—“since this is, as you say, public information in your country, I will ask this young man to take a look at your paper. Perhaps he can help, as his transcript shows some unique skills in programming.”

She looked over at Gary with an icy gaze.

“Sir, I hardly think—”

“Miss Petrenko, we work as a team here. I am intrigued with this idea—very intrigued. Mr. Morgan tells me he has a visionary soul and is looking for some sort of ‘dream’ while here this summer. Maybe what you present openly to us here is it. So, Mr. Morgan, after you read de Camp, I want you to read this paper, because it is so visionary it borders on the absurd, then pick up coffee for three…”

He looked at Evgeniya.

“Do you like your coffee with or without cream?”

“I prefer tea, sir,” she said, with another cold glance at Gary.

“Fine, then. I doubt if my friend George down at the diner even knows what tea is, so I’ll just boil some water here. I’ll brew your cup of tea and see both of you at 0730 tomorrow. Coffee for two, then, Gary. You may go now.”

As Gary walked out the door, clutching the dusty book by Erich’s old friend and the dozen-page printout, he could almost sense daggers from Evgeniya’s eyes going into his back.

He muttered a curse to himself. He already had a crush on her—and had from the moment their eyes met.

 


Pillar to the Sky © William R Fortschen, 2014

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