For All Nails #263: Lost In Space
by David Mix Barrington (with help from Johnny Pez)
Science Minister Will Knight was a worried man. The summons to the G-G's office at three had been abrupt, suggesting bad news about the ongoing budget deliberations. Friday at three -- the traditional time to release bad news to blunt the reaction in the next week.
He took stock as the aide ushered him into Skinner's inner sanctum, with the Mexican flag flapping absurdly in the window behind the massive oak desk FN1. The G-G himself, Marshall of course, Thurston because it's the budget, and Freeman FN2. That didn't look good at all, since it was Defence that had the biggest turf overlaps with Science. And the winner of the turf battle was usually in the office when they brought the loser in...
"Will, my boy, come on in, have a seat, a drink?" Skinner was trying to light up the room as usual, Will realized, but it was a bit forced.
"No, thank you, Governor-General. I take it you've made some further decisions on the budget?"
"Well, Will, Ah purely got to tell you that that's what we've done. And you ain't gonna like it, Ah know."
"The space program."
"Yep. We done looked at what we can give you for '76, and it comes down to two flights. FN3"
"Well, to be honest, sir, I expected something like that. Two crewed flights instead of five will slow us down considerably, of course, but given the times--"
"Ah'm afraid you don't understand, Will. We're giving you two uncrewed flights. The atmosphere thing and the telescope, Ah reckon, but you and your people'll have to decide that. We're closing down the piloted program, son. Completely."
Will was speechless. Completely? "But sir, the investment we've made--"
"May I, Governor-General?" Freeman. Who had to be behind this. Skinner nodded and the Defence Minister began. "The investment has been a good one, Will. We've shown the world we're the leaders in science, we've greatly improved our rockets, and we've learned things that will help us build better military airmobiles. But we've really reached the maximum return on that investment."
"The permanent human presence--"
"Would be nice, but the surveillance planetoids are really doing the intelligence job by themselves now, especially with the direct image transmission your own people built for us."
"We can repair the planetoids in orbit--"
"Will, for the price of launching a piloted flight to repair one planetoid, we can launch four brand-new planetoids. Can you honestly tell me those price numbers are going to change any time soon?"
"They never will, if we just give up on human flight!"
"Now just calm down, son." Skinner broke in again. "Human space flight would be nice. A lot of things would be nice. But Ah just ain't got the God-damned money. Milburn, tell the man again how much God-damned money I ain't got."
The Finance Minister was clearly prepared for the question. "I've advised the Governor-General that the maximum acceptable fiscal shortfall is twelve percent of overall national expenditure. With an eighty percent cut in vulcazine taxes, no change in the income tax, and a twenty percent increase in military spending, the resulting average rescission in all other departments is twenty-one percent. Excepting pensions and other reserved programs, of course. The planned overall reduction for Science is thirty-nine percent."
Skinner again. "Which means, Will, that you can keep on doing most of the rest of what you're doing. Which has got to be done. And which you can do better'n anyone else Ah might have to find if you go and resign on me. Which you could do. But Ah hope you won't."
Skinner walked out from between the other two ministers and put an arm around Will's shoulder. "Son, you're still a young man, and you're just starting out in this business. You got a long future ahead of you if you want it. Why, Ah wouldn't be surprised if some day you'll be sitting behind that desk there yourself. And if you do, you'll know how Ah feel about havin' to tell you this right now. But Ah gotta tell you, and we both gotta go back there and keep on doin' the job the people put us here to do."
Two pilotless flights. Thirty-nine percent overall. Hundreds of lost jobs. And Skinner said someday he, Will would know how it would feel to make the tough decisions. He had plenty of tough decisions coming up right now.
Colonel Henry Anson was a man who knew how to deliver bad news. The military life, even in peacetime, was full of bad news. Accidents happened with airmobiles, pilots were killed, and their survivors had to be informed. That had been his job at Pax River at one point, and he had done his duty, as he had always done his duty.
The Science Minister, Anson could see, was not a man who knew how to deliver bad news. Neither was the Deputy Minister. They'd been around every topic of conversation but the obvious one for two, maybe three minutes now. The point with delivering bad news was to come out with it, so the recipient could start absorbing it. This shilly-shallying wasn't helping him, its intended beneficiary, at all. Time to put a stop to it.
"Minister, I take it you've had the decision from Burgoyne about the budget?"
"Yes, Colonel, I have. And it's bad. I don't know how to tell you this, but it's bad. Two flights."
"Two Geminae flights? We asked for five, I know, but we can still accomplish a lot with--"
Abramowitz interrupted. "Two unpiloted flights, Colonel. No piloted flights at all, they've cancelled the program entirely."
"I see." Entirely. That was worse than he expected. But now he could begin to deal with it. "When does this news become public?"
Knight seemed happy to have a question he could answer. "The G-G would like to keep it quiet until it's formally presented on Tuesday. It will probably leak out before the Monday papers, but there's no way to tell."
"And you're convinced the decision is irrevocable."
"Yes, Colonel, I'm afraid it is. The financial constraints--"
"I understand, Minister. May I tell the pilots immediately? I think that would be best."
"By all means, Colonel, inform the pilots. Josh can give you more of the particulars on your way out. I'm sorry, Colonel, I think this is a tragic--"
"I understand, Minister." Tragic, yes. The short-sightedness of it all. The waste of how many years of his own life, of the lives of some of the finest women in the world. Tragedy. Bad news. And his duty, to deliver it.
- Flagler Grand Hotel
- South Beach, Georgia, S.C., CNA
- 29 June 1975
Captain (inactive) Evangeline Adrienne Gilmore was an inebriated woman. No, a drunken woman -- euphemisms did not become an officer and a lady. She rarely drank immoderately, but this evening she had reason. Oh, indeed she did. The b-stards! To wipe out human space flight with a stroke of the pen, to deny her the chance to fly in space a third time FN4, to deny most of the so-called Dishy Dozen the chance to fly at all.
The Colonel had called them all in to the briefing room -- the Six, the Dozen, the medical staff, everyone -- and told them all at once. "Monday morning we'll begin picking up the pieces," he'd said. "Right now, I'm going to get very drunk, and I invite you all to join me at the Flagler Grand." The resulting "wake" was only now breaking up as closing time approached. There were Trish and Dr. April Levine sharing their sorrows with some shady-looking fellow she vaguely recognized as one of the hotel staff. The Program's physician was taking a definite interest in the male anatomy at the moment, if she was any judge. Other couples and small groups had repaired to tables in the darker corners of the barroom.
As indeed, it seemed, she had done herself. Not normally one to discuss her personal trials with others, she'd nevertheless fallen into conversation with the Colonel -- who was indeed getting very drunk if the empty glasses of Transylvanian in front of him were any indication. Drunk, but well in control of himself, as a man should be, she thought, as she hoped she was herself.
"Mexican, or German?" inquired the Colonel. This didn't seem to be related to the previous thread of their conversation. Not that she was entirely sure what that had been. She had no choice but to indicate her confusion. "I'm sorry?"
A worthy question. "So far the Germans are better at getting up, and the Mexicans better at coming down," she said. "It's only a small step from the stratomobiles I saw at Theodore to a true re-entry vehicle, a reusable one. But from what I've heard, the Germans can throw more dead weight up there more quickly."
"Quite right. At least at the moment. But my money says that the Mexicans can learn to build big rockets before the Germans can learn to build stratomobiles. A Mexican orbital platform, a Mexican moon. I think they have the gumption for it, and I'm not sure the Germans do. God knows we don't, not now, not with this government."
Ev felt another surge of bitterness rising up within her. G-ddamned politicians! There wasn't one -- not one, not in the whole country -- who was fit to polish the boots of a man like her father, or like the Colonel! No better than a pack of wild dogs feeding off of a day-old corpse. And that was what they were doing, Skinner and the rest of them, feeding off the corpse of the Space Agency! Damn them! Damn them all to H-ll!
She shook her head. It was no use getting upset. Besides, she had the Colonel to think of. He deserved better than to be deluged with her own dark thoughts. Calming herself with an effort, she said, "Have you thought about what you'll do next, sir?"
"I've been trying not to, not yet. Oh, my first duty is to get all of you settled someplace as best I can. I got you into this charade of a program, so it's on me to get you out. Do you want to reactivate your commission?"
Did she? "That's a good question." Back to the Light Horse, to fly chargers again? She'd worn the Light Horse colors for only a few months, but she supposed they'd welcome her back. Quite possibly to fly patrols out of Jamaica or Barbados, the way the war was going. "It does seem that the Confederation needs pilots."
"That it does," the Colonel replied. "Someone has to show the flag to the British. But we also need test pilots, particularly pilots with high-altitude experience. Defence are still going to want stratomobiles, you know."
"That project's in Manitoba, isn't it?"
"Well, one doesn't say, but yes. I could put you there, as an Air Force major or as a civilian consultant. It would be exciting work, and important work -- I expect I'll wind up there myself once I've finished here. Of course regular service is important as well. You have several options, of course. You've earned them." He paused. "You are indeed a remarkable woman, Captain Gilmore."
"Why, thank you, Colonel." She looked down for a moment, then raised her eyes to his. "It- it would be pleasant to work with you again, in any capacity. I'll give Manitoba some serious thought."
Colonel Anson's eyes had not left hers. "Yes, indeed, a remarkable woman," he repeated. "I would very much like to deepen our acquaintance."
Did he mean--Yes, he most definitely did. Well, that was a surprise, something that had never occurred to her, or to her conscious mind at least. But the more she thought about it, the more sense it made. He was a good man, an admirable man. She liked him. She respected him. More, she reflected, than just about any other man she'd ever met. She was a grown woman, a free woman, capable of her own decisions. She'd preserved her virginity to this point not out of any firm conviction, but because she'd yet to find a man worth offering it to. Was this the man?
She carefully glanced around the room and confirmed that they were unobserved. She leaned across the table, took his head in her hands, and kissed him on the mouth. She sat back, reached out, and took his left hand in her right. On the finger of that hand was a ring. She might be a free woman, but he was not a free man.
He had evidently seen the change in her face. "My dear, what is the matter?"
"Colonel -- Henry, I can't, your wife..." Her voice trailed away.
Anson actually smiled. "Strange as it may sound, Ev, that's not a problem. I tell Virginia everything. And I'm quite prepared to make an honest woman of you. In a sense."
Her mind raced. An honest woman? He couldn't mean that he'd divorce his wife. Then it hit her. Manitoba. He lived in Manitoba. And there was that attractive young "niece" he'd brought for a tour of the compound back in the spring. The Colonel was a Turnerite pervert! A picture formed in her mind of a very large bed. With her. And the Colonel. And Virginia. And the niece. And another man--
She released his hand and recoiled from it. With some difficulty, she brought herself to her feet and composed herself as best she could. "Colonel Anson!" He rose as well and waited, eyes still on her. "You have made a suggestion that is repugnant to the dignity of an officer and a lady. My only recourse is to demand satisfaction on the field of honor!"
His choice of weapons, she thought. He could choose sabre, if he wanted to kill her, or pistols, if he wanted to die. So be it. He kept his gaze on her, then nodded slowly.
"My dear Captain Gilmore," he said. "I assure you that it was the farthest thing from my intention to give you offense, but I see that I have done so FN5. I humbly apologize for my offense. I withdraw my suggestion, and beg your leave to consider that it never occurred." His eyes waited for an answer. She nodded. He nodded. He turned on his heel and walked away.
Ev carefully glanced around the room and confirmed that she was unobserved. She sat down and allowed herself to cry.
(Proceed to #264 (2 July 1975): Rising Moon and Falling Star.)
(Proceed to Space flight: Graduation Day.)
(Proceed to Ev and Alex: Buque Nights.)
(Proceed to CNA politics: O Joy O Rapture Unforeseen.)
(Return to For All Nails.)