Art by J.T. Lindroos.
Don Abbot had never been one to hide his emotions well; that he had been able to rise this far within the Administration was widely seen as a testament to his technical abilities and organizational acumen. That it had just as much to do with his knowledge of whose skeletons were hidden in which closets was not as widely known.
As the President and her cabinet filed out of the situation room, Abbot conspicuously remained seated. Tapping his pen against the table, his tense posture and pursed lips broadcast to anyone who bothered to notice exactly how much he was stewing over this latest development.
“Don, you really have to learn to keep that stuff under wraps.”
Abbot looked up to find Defense Secretary Horner lingering by the doorway. He tossed his pen onto the table and pushed himself away. “What’s your point, Hal?” he sighed, knowing full well what the old man meant. “I hardly got a word in edgewise – not that anyone seemed interested in anything I had to say.”
“That, my friend, is the point,” the Secretary said as he pulled up a chair and grabbed the pen Abbot had been tapping away with. “You don’t play poker, do you?”
“Never had the patience for it,” Abbot admitted. “I didn’t care to digest the rules: which hand beats which, et cetera.” Though the few hands he’d played had taught him it was remarkably easy to bluff when you really didn’t know what you were doing.
“Yet you literally wrote the book on spacecraft design,” Horner pointed out. “You’re damn near a genius, Don.”
Near? Abbot thought to himself, realizing too late that he’d just been baited to prove a point.
“See?” Horner smiled. “I just insulted you. The look on your face gave it away. Don’t be so prickly. This is one time the President needs everyone to set aside their personal agendas and do what’s necessary for the mission.”
“What ‘personal agenda’ would you be referring to?” Abbot asked defensively. Was Hal really that gung-ho idealistic? If so, it was an easy way for a man to get rolled in this town.
“Art Hammond,” Horner said flatly. “Maybe I’m more attuned to past history than the others because I bought his planes, but everyone’s clued in to the fact that he’s been peeling away people from your agency for years. It happens, Don. That’s business. Don’t let yourself get so pissed off over it. At least don’t wear it on your sleeve.”
Abbot smiled thinly. The old guy almost understood, if not quite fully. This wasn’t “just business.” Abbot didn’t care so much about the people: they could be replaced, in fact he’d found organizational control to be much easier when there was a steady churn among the middle managers. The really motivated ones tended to have agendas that didn’t mesh with his own; it was best to keep them off-balance.
What had really frosted Don Abbot was the collapse of their human spaceflight program. Having risen through the ranks back when a government ride was the only possible way into orbit, he’d never been able to adjust to the new reality: a gaggle of corporate yahoos hawking rides into space like so many hayseed barnstormers. Where were their standards, and to what purpose? Shouldn’t space exploration be something nobler…more nationalistic? Shouldn’t somebody be in charge of it all?
Of course, as Hammond and his ilk saw it, each was in charge of their own little domain. Which meant that nobody was in charge. It was a recipe for disaster, at the very least a wholesale cheapening of the exploration ideal.
Cheap. That was it. They had cheapened the whole experience as they drove towards the lowest common denominator. Hammond’s spaceplanes could barely get a dozen people into orbit at once; that they claimed to make up for it in daily volume was irrelevant to him. Yet because of that, the ruthless budget-slashers who had overrun Washington with the arrival of this simpleton President had found an easy target in the space agency. And those other companies with their absurd “reusable” boosters…it was a neat trick, being able to fly a rocket back to land right next to its launch pad. Real 1950’s sci-fi stuff, that. But so what? If they could only get ten flights out of the same machine, how much money were they really saving? It wasn’t like you could pull off such a stunt with a serious heavy lifter anyway. The thought of one of his Ares V’s falling back to the Cape and hovering on its thrust over a concrete platform gave him nightmares.
“Hammond’s bunch can fart around in low orbit all they want,” Abbot finally said dismissively. “That ship has sailed. If you want to get anywhere beyond Earth, it’s go big or go home.”
“Sure about that?” Horner said. “They managed to get a couple of moon-orbiting ships up there. Kind of the point of this whole meeting, Don.”
Abbot’s face flashed red with anger. “And they couldn’t even do that on their own! They had to hire their own competitors just to get the major structures into orbit.”
“So what?” Horner asked plainly. “They’re serving completely different markets. When I was at Lockheed, we contracted with Airbus all the time because they had the only freighters big enough to move an entire rocket.”
“Yet none of these yokels could’ve launched Gateway in one shot,” Abbot countered, stabbing a finger into the air for emphasis. “Or for that matter, had the spare ISS modules on hand to build it. We did that.”
“For which you’ll have the eternal thanks of a grateful nation…someday,” Horner said. “I do have to admit it’s a good thing your agency had a couple of those big bastards sitting idle in the VAB.”
What Horner had just offered as conciliation instead had the opposite effect. “And if they’d given us the budget I’d asked for, we could’ve had a whole fleet of them at the ready,” Abbot fumed, “instead of cobbling together some damned fool escapade on a slapdash ‘spaceliner.’ We wouldn’t be having this conversation if Hammond hadn’t been selling rides around the moon in the first place.”
Horner’s face darkened. “You’re not the first to voice that opinion,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be in Art’s shoes once this is over with. Dollar to a doughnut says Homeland Security will be three feet up his ass just as soon as our guys make re-entry. They’ve already got an agent on site, and from what my contacts tell me the guy’s already had to be reeled in a couple times just to keep this operation on schedule.”
Contacts, Abbot realized. That’s how an idealistic ninny like Horner survived in this town. Information was power, an asset he still needed to develop. “Mark my words,” he grumbled. “Hammond is going to get people killed, on a scale even I couldn’t have imagined.”
SecDef considered his prediction and stretched with an exhausted groan. He’d probably gotten less sleep than anyone else this week. “I hope to God you’re wrong, for all of our sakes.”