The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)(9)

Nathaniel rested his palm against my back. “Her family was in D.C.”

“Oh, geez, ma’am. I’m so sorry.”

“But my brother—he’s in California.”

“You come with me, ma’am.” He glanced at Nathaniel. “Is there anyone you need to call, sir?”

Nathaniel shook his head. “Not urgently.”

I followed Major Lindholm, with Nathaniel at my back, through corridors that barely registered. What an inconsiderate brat I’d been. I’d taken comfort that Hershel and his family lived in California, but hadn’t once thought about the fact that to him, I was as good as dead. He had no reason to think that I wasn’t in D.C. when the meteorite struck.

The office Major Lindholm showed me to was small and military tidy. The only thing that marred the right angles was a framed photo of twin boys and a crayon-drawn map of the U.S. pinned to the wall. Nathaniel shut the door and stood outside with Lindholm.

A utilitarian black phone sat on the desk, but at least it had a rotary dial, so I wouldn’t have to speak with an operator. The receiver was warm and heavy. I dialed Hershel’s home, listening to the rattle of the rotary as it swept through the numbers. Each signal sent a pulse through the lines and gave me time to retreat into a mechanical calm.

All I got was the high, frantic hum of a busy circuit. It was hardly surprising that all the circuits would be busy, but I hung up and tried again immediately. My urgency beat in time with the busy signal.

I had barely hung up again when Nathaniel opened the door. “Company. You okay?”

“Circuit’s busy.” I wiped at my face, probably just smearing the dirt more. I would ask to send a telegram, but the military signalers would be tied up. “I’ll try later.”

There was a lot to be said for being alive and upright. I was a greasy, smoky, bleeding mess, but I was alive. My husband was alive. My brother and his family were alive. And if I needed a reminder that this was a blessing, all I had to do was remember how many people had died today.

Still, when an Air Force colonel strode into the room, I caught myself trying to brush my hair into place as I stood, as if it would make a difference. Then, I saw past the insignia to the man. Stetson Parker. Thank heavens I had enough dirt on my face that I didn’t have to worry about guarding my expression.

The jerk had been promoted. This was not remotely surprising, since he was a charmer to anyone who outranked him, or who he needed … as he proceeded to demonstrate now, with an outstretched hand toward Nathaniel. “Dr. York. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to know you’re safe.”

Even with Lindholm’s earlier enthusiasm about rockets, it was easy to forget that Nathaniel had become a celebrity because of the satellite launch. We’d managed to beat the Russians to getting a satellite into orbit not once, but with three different launches. My husband, being unreasonably attractive and charming—a fact about which I am not biased—had become the face of the NACA space program.

“Well, Major Lindholm has been taking good care of us. We appreciate the welcome, Colonel…?” The man had a name tag on, but still … an introduction was appropriate.

“Where are my manners? I’m just so awestruck to have you here.” Parker gave a shit-eating grin. “Colonel Stetson Parker, Base Commander. Although … with affairs being what they are, I appear to be in charge of more than just this base.”

Of course he would get that in, to make it clear how important he was. I stepped forward and stuck out my hand. “Good to see you again, Colonel Parker.”

He raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I’m sorry, ma’am, you have the better of me.”

“Oh, when you knew me, I was still Elma Wexler. One of the WASP pilots.”

His face stiffened a little. “Ah. The general’s daughter. Yes, I remember you.”

“Congratulations on your promotion.” I smiled the best “bless your heart” smile I could. “You must have worked very hard for it.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” He grinned again, clapping Nathaniel on the shoulder. “And I guess the little lady got a promotion, eh, becoming Mrs. York?”

My teeth hurt from grinding, but I kept smiling. “You mentioned not knowing who your superior is. What can you tell us about the current situation?”

“Ah…” He sobered, and the mood change might even have been real. He gestured to the seats on the other side of the desk. “Sit down, please.”

Parker took the chair behind the desk, and only now did I notice his nameplate set front and center. I was surprised he had twins. I wonder who’d married him. He steepled his fingers together and sighed again. “An explosion—”

“A meteorite.”

“That’s what the news reported. But given that Washington was wiped out? I place my money on the Russians.”

Nathaniel cocked his head. “Is there radioactivity?”

“We haven’t gotten anyone close enough to the blast area to check.”

Idiot. I spelled things out for him. “There’s ejecta falling all around, which, first of all, you could just test for radioactivity. Second, that’s not something that happens with an A-bomb. It occurs when a meteorite punches a hole in the atmosphere and the blast material is sucked into space, then falls back to Earth.”

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