The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)(10)

His eyes narrowed. “Then know this. The United States Congress was in session, both the House and the Senate. Our federal government was nearly entirely wiped out. The Pentagon, Langley … So even if this was an act of God, do you honestly think the Russians won’t try to take advantage of it?”

That … that was a terrifyingly good point. I leaned back in my chair and crossed my arms over my chest to ward off the sudden chill in the air.

Nathaniel filled in the gap. “So, the military is planning a defense?”

He didn’t quite emphasize “military,” but did make it clear enough that whatever happened, a colonel was not going to be running the show.

“It’s the prudent thing to do. Dr. York…” He paused, but the hesitation was so blatantly calculated that you could almost see him counting the seconds. “You worked on the Manhattan Project, am I correct?”

Nathaniel stiffened next to me. The Manhattan Project had been exciting from a scientific standpoint, but horrific in every other respect. “I did, but I’m focused on space exploration these days.”

Parker waved that away. “I hate to do this to you after your arduous morning, but may I pull you into a meeting?”

“I’m not sure that I really have anything to offer.”

“You’re the top scientist in rocketry right now.”

Neither of us needed a reminder of how many people at the NACA were likely dead. I rested my hand on Nathaniel’s knee, to steady him as he had steadied me. The NACA, however, was not the only rocketry program. “Not to undervalue my husband’s work, but Wernher von Braun is at the Sunflower Project in Kansas.”

Parker snorted and gave me a pained smile. He’d hated being polite to me during the war, when he had to because of my father; and now he hated being polite to Dr. York’s wife. “Ma’am, it’s nice that you want to help, but I hope you understand that I can’t involve a former Nazi like von Braun in questions of national security.” And then he was looking at Nathaniel again, ignoring me completely. “What do you say, Dr. York? We just want to understand what our options are for keeping America safe.”

Nathaniel sighed and picked at a loose thread on his trousers. “All right. But I’m not promising to be bright today.”

As he stood, I straightened my legs to join him. Parker held his hand up and shook his head. “No need, ma’am. You can just rest here in my office, while Major Lindholm arranges quarters for you.”

The major said, “We have some empty rooms at our place—if you want to avoid the TLFs?”

I was flattered—not that he’d offered a place to stay, but that he used the acronym for temporary living facilities instead of translating for a civilian. “That’s very kind. If your wife doesn’t mind, Major.”

“I’m sure she won’t, ma’am.”

Parker’s smile was unexpectedly warm. “You’re in good hands. His wife makes darn fine pie.”

I’ll admit that I was surprised to see what appeared to be genuine camaraderie between the two men. My own experiences with Parker had been less than ideal. I hoped that didn’t mean that Major Lindholm would turn out to be charming but unpleasant too. “Thank you. Now that that’s sorted, we can go on to the meeting.” Not that I had any desire to go to a meeting, but I would give a lot to feel like I could be of some use.

“Ah … I’m sorry, ma’am.” Parker tugged at his tie. “What I should have said was that Dr. York already has the necessary clearance levels from the Manhattan Project. You understand.”

Clearance, my ass. From what he was saying, there was no hierarchy at all, much less clearance. But if I voiced any of that, nothing useful would follow, so I settled back in my chair. “Well, bless your heart. Of course I understand. I’ll just sit here and wait.”

Nathaniel raised his brows at that. He knew me well enough to know I was good and angry, if not exactly why. I shook my head at him, reassuring him that I was fine. I smiled, folded my hands demurely in my lap, and settled back. Like a good little girl, I would sit and wait, let my husband do the work, and pray to God that this mishegas wasn’t going to start a nuclear war.



TEHERAN, Iran, March 3, 1952—(Reuters)—Ninety persons were killed and 180 injured in earthquakes in LaRistan and Bastak in southern Iran. Teheran Radio announced today that the earthquakes are believed to have been triggered by the Meteor impact in North America.

The sun had set in a vivid vermilion, with copper and streaks of dark gold. We might well have been transported to Mars based on the red sky arching over us. The ruddy light stained everything, so that even the white picket fence of Major Lindholm’s house looked as if it had been dipped in blood.

Normally, I’d hate to impose on anyone, but Parker had irked me. And, truly, I was too tired to think, and grateful to have someone tell me where to go. Besides, they’d be needing the TLFs for refugee housing.

Nathaniel was still tied up with his meeting. He’d come out long enough to encourage me to go, and I really didn’t have any excuse for staying on base—aside from the absolute certainty that if I left, I would never see him again. These are not things that one voices aloud. Not on a day like today.

As I got out of the jeep, the stains on my clothes seemed to deepen. I could almost hear my mother saying, “Elma! What will people think?”

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