In At The Start – Part One
Copyright 2017 by William Alan Webb.
This story may not be used or forwarded in any form without the express written consent of the author.
June 23rd, 1995
The blue intercom light blinked and General Isaac Ismay shook his head in frustration.
“We’re never going to get through this,” he said, giving Colonel Tom Steeple his most exasperated look. Steeple nodded, and was very glad he wasn’t the cause of the general’s displeasure.
Ismay pushed the blue button.
“General, a mister Roger Deeson from NASA is here to see you.”
“NASA? What’s he want with personnel?”
“I don’t know, general, but he says it’s urgent.”
“It always is.” Steeple knew what was coming next. Clicking off the intercom, Ismay gave a dismissive wave. “Get rid of him, Tom, but hurry. If we don’t have these new OER standards in place by Friday, Shalishkavili will have my ass. And they’ve got to conform to Zero Defect.”
“Yes sir,” Steeple said. Outwardly he appeared calm, but inside he seethed. He’d been trying to get his boss to work on the OER updates for four months. Now, when he couldn’t put it off any longer, it suddenly became urgent, so whatever this Deeson guy wanted it’d better be quick.
Roger Deeson rose as Steeple came through the side door to the front waiting room. Steeple saw the faces of the other hopefuls waiting to see the general, who obviously wondered why a man who had just walked in rated an immediate audience with his adjutant. After shaking hands, Steeple led him through a warren of cubicles to his own small office. A corporal asked if they needed anything and Steeple shook his head; this wouldn’t last that long.
“Do I understand correctly that you’re from NASA, Mr. Deeson?”
“Yes Colonel, yes, that’s right. I’m here on a matter of…of…” He fumbled for the words and pulled at his lower lip.
“It’s alright, Mr. Deeson, please don’t be nervous. Just tell me how I can help you.”
“I need to see the general right away…it’s a matter of national security.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible. The general is tied up on a personnel matter of the highest importance, and I doubt he’ll be available for an extended period. Weeks, at the least. Perhaps I can help you, if you explain to me why you wish to see the general.”
“I’ve heard that a lot in the past few days.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Deeson sucked a noisy breath through his nose. “You’re not my first choice for divulging this information to, Colonel. No offense, but I’ve tried every office of every branch before I came to you. You are, literally, my last hope.”
“I see. So you weren’t seeking the help of the Personnel Department specifically?”
“No.” He lowered his head in shame at being forced to admit this. “But then, perhaps this is for the best. Now that I think about it, Personnel might be the perfect partner to get this off the ground.”
“Get what off the ground, Mister Deeson. Please, just tell my why you’re here.”
Deeson blurted his message. “If you knew the country was doomed, what would you be willing to do to stop it?”
“Doomed?” Steeple nodded, as though he understood, whereas he really wondered how such a nutcase was allowed into the Pentagon. Still, it was always a good idea to remain polite when dealing with representatives of other government agencies. “By doomed, do you mean that we are all going to die eventually?”
“No, no that’s not what I mean at all.” Deeson paused and swallowed. “May I have some water?”
Steeple smiled, although he really wanted this strange man to leave so he could get back to work. He buzzed his administrative assistant and after the corporal brought them both a glass of water, Deeson downed it and appeared more composed.
“Thank you. And thank you for not throwing me out yet, for at least hearing what I have to say. I realize how I must sound to you. You’re the first to let me get this far and I appreciate your open mindedness. I can assure you, Colonel, I’m not a crank. I hold a Phd. in computer science and programming from Penn, the University of Pennsylvania, and am considered the world’s leading expert on predictive and actuarial programming. You can look that up if you like. I have a copy of my biography in my briefcase.”
“Thank you, uh, Doctor Deeson, but that won’t be necessary. You sound very qualified in your field of…what is it exactly that you do?”
“I program computers to make predictions, mostly for NASA, occasionally for other government agencies.”
In Steeple’s mind he snapped his fingers. Aha, he thought. Other agencies, that’s how he got into the Pentagon.
“What I’m going to tell you now,” Deeson said. “Is strictly confidential. You may, of course, share it with whomever you think it wise, and of course with General Ismay, but if got out to the general public there could be a panic.”
“I think I know how to keep a secret, doctor. You said we’re doomed, what did you mean?”
A change came over Deeson’s lean face. Instead of the socially awkward introvert who first sat down, his expression became that of a confident teacher in a room full of students.
“Most celestial bodies in our solar system are pockmarked with craters. These are from past impacts by objects such as asteroids. Earth is no different, except water hides many of the impact craters. These events have ranged from minor strikes by golf ball sized meteorites, which lost most of their mass burning through our atmosphere, to the comet that ended the Cretaceous Period and wiped out the dinosaurs. The Permian Extinction two hundred fifty million years ago wiped out ninety-six percent of marine life on Earth. Think about that, Colonel, our seas were virtually sterile. Seventy percent of terrestrial vertebrates died out. Earth was largely devoid of higher species and it took tens of millions of years for the planet to recover…and once the dinosaurs had covered the globe, another comet destroyed them.”
“Are you telling me a comet is headed for Earth?” Steeple said, at once alarmed and confused. If that were true, why tell him? Why wasn’t NASA scrambling for an answer?
“Oh, no Colonel..at least, not that I’m aware of. But you see, NASA knows we might not have much warning even if such an event were imminent. Asteroids tend to be invisible with our current technology until very close to Earth. But it is possible such a danger is out there, and given the data on past events I’m able to write a program to predict the probabilities for such a future event.”
“So the probability is high?” Despite himself, Steeple was becoming interested.
“No Colonel, just the opposite. It’s remote.”
“I-” Steeple paused. Burgeoning interested had become impatience. “Doctor, forgive me being so blunt, but could you please come to the point? I doubt you’re here to warn the Personnel Department of the United States Army that a remote chance exists of an asteroid striking Earth and wiping out all life on the planet.”
“In a roundabout way, yes I am. But bear with me just a moment longer. Please. Do you believe there could ever be a nuclear war, Colonel?”
“Yes, of course I do.”
“What about a pandemic? A deadly new flu variant, or maybe an AIDS-like virus that spreads through the air? Ebola, perhaps. The Black Death wiped out a third of Europe’s population, do you think such a thing could happen again?”
“I don’t know, maybe. Medicine has come a long way since the fourteenth century.”
“And yet we cannot cure the common cold.”
“Doctor, please get to the point!”
“In the course of my work I wrote a program for NASA to predict the chances of a catastrophic event overtaking the United States. When the results came back, the NASA leadership ordered them sealed. I was forbidden to disclose what they concluded. By speaking to you today I’m technically committing a felony, although I’m not worried about prison. To prosecute me they would have to bring other agencies into the loop on what I found, agencies over which they have no control…”
“The point, Doctor Deeson?”
“The point, Colonel, is that we face many, many dire threats, any one of which could destroy our country. No one threat scores very high on the probability curve, but taken all together they predict a ninety-seven point seven three percent chance of the United States facing catastrophic collapse within the next fifty years. Something is going to kill us Colonel we just don’t know what it will be.”
Steeple leaned back and pulled at his ear. It was the tell that kept him from winning at poker and showed he was thinking about the man’s words. He said nothing for nearly thirty seconds, merely staring at the man seated in front of his desk. Finally, he sat up straight.
“As I see it, you’re either a raving lunatic, or a man bearing the most important message this building may have heard. Quite obviously my fellow officers concluded the former, but I pride myself on reading people, on knowing who’s competent and who’s not. So before I make up my mind, answer me this…so what?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“So what? Let’s say you’re right, what can we do about it? How can we prepare for a disaster when we don’t what it will be, or when it will happen? But let’s say I believe you, Mr. Deeson, that I’m sold lock, stock and barrel. I’m a Colonel in a building full of generals, what do you think I can do?”
“Convince General Ismay to hear me out.”
“Doctor, believe me when I tell you that won’t happen unless the president orders him to listen. General Ismay has other concerns.” Like the brunette in the condo he pays for, he thought.
“But…but the fate of the country is at stake! Maybe the world!”
“The less you say that, the better. I’m afraid you come off as histrionic, if not unbalanced.”
“I know I sound like a nut.” Deeson dropped his head. “I’ve been told it often enough. It’s just that…oh hell, what’s the use?”
“Surely NASA knows to take this seriously?”
“NASA has their head in the sand…no, not in the sand, up their own ass. Colonel, if you don’t help me, I don’t know where to turn next. I have the most important warning our country has ever received and no one will heed it. It’s like those cryptographers trying to warn their superiors about Pearl Harbor, but nobody would listen.”
“I would like to help you, Doctor Deeson, but I don’t see how I can.”
“Would you at least meet one of my colleagues? Perhaps she can convince you that we deserve your support?”
“And who might that be?”
“What are your dinner plans, Colonel?”
Steeple loved fine dining. The rituals of proper service, combined with fine table cloths and exquisite accoutrements appealed to his penchant for orderliness and structure.
Grimaldi’s Italian Kitchen was none of that. To his way of thinking it was scarcely above a dive, with poor lighting and red and white plastic table covers. The silverware might or might not have been clean, he couldn’t tell because the finish was too worn away. It was the type of place he would never frequent by choice.
Grimaldi’s was small, just four booths along one wall and five tables nearby. He’d sat at the last booth as instructed, and realized with surprise why Deeson had chosen this place; anybody trying to listen in would be obvious, since he was the sole customer. Less than five minutes after sitting down Deeson came in, preceded by a small, frail looking woman of indeterminate age.
“Colonel Thomas Steeple,” Deeson said. “Allow me to introduce Dr. Siree Shankur.”
Aside from her Indian ancestry, and the bindi on her forehead, Shankur’s most striking feature was the fire in her brown eyes. Steeple had rarely felt an aura of power such as she projected. From such a diminutive woman it was startling. After an exchange of pleasantries, Shankur got right to the point.
“How open-minded are you, Colonel Steeple?” Only a trace remained of an accent, otherwise she sounded like anyone else from the American Midwest.
“That depends on the subject, doctor. In some ways I’m very open minded, in others, not so much. Could you be a little more specific?”
A heavy set waitress interrupted to ask if they wanted anything. Steeple ordered Scotch, no ice, but accepted a Peroni beer when informed beer was the only alcohol they served. She asked if he wanted a glass and he said no. God only knows the last time they washed it. Deeson and Shankur asked for water.
“Scientifically speaking,” she said. “What if you were shown a new technology that most would write off as science fiction, but was real? Could you accept such a fact?”
“If we’re speaking theoretically, how could I not?”
“So you’re not the suspicious sort?”
“I didn’t say that. People are always playing fast and loose with the truth to advance their agenda, so I expect it. But if I’m presented with facts, how can I not believe them?”
“How indeed? Yet others have said that and then, when confronted with evidence contradictory to their ingrained beliefs, denied the proof of their own eyes.”
“Doctor, I’m a realist. If something exists, then it exists. But that also makes a skeptic, you first have to prove to me the something in question really does exist.”
“Very well,” she said, with a nod. “At this juncture I can ask for nothing more.” Turning to Roger, she nodded once. He immediately took up the narrative.
“Earlier today I asked you a question you didn’t answer, so I’d like to ask it again. If you knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the United States was doomed, what would you be willing to do to prevent that, or to at least mitigate the damage.”
“I’ve been in the United States Army for nearly twenty years. I have literally given my life for this country, so the answer to your question is I would do anything to save it.”
“That’s easy to say, sitting in a restaurant sipping a drink. If you say yes to what we’re going to propose, I hope in the years to come you remember you said that.”
Deeson turned back to Shankur, her cue to take over.
“Tell me, Colonel,” she said. “What do you know about cryogenics?”
Steeple sat for half an hour after they left. His Peroni sat untouched, his meal of manicotti with meat sauce had gone cold on the plate. When the restaurant door opened he didn’t notice. Soft footfalls on the tile floor also went unheard.
When a stocky man in an overcoat pulled out a chair and sat where Shankur had been seated, Steeple didn’t act surprised.
“FBI?” he said. “Army CID? NSA?”
“Something like that,” the newcomer said.
“Do I get a name, or does this happen like in the movies where the mysterious stranger refuses to identify himself?”
“Wesley Dunn,” he said. Leaning forward, he pushed away the remnants of Shankur’s meal and used a clean knife to cut off a corner of Steeple’s manicotti. Using his fingers he popped it into his mouth and nodded approval. “Not bad, considering it’s cold.”
“You’re welcome to it.”
“Nah, thanks, my girlfriend put my dinner in the oven to keep it warm.”
“So, are we done here?”
Dunn grinned. “I knew I was going to like you. So what did Doctor Doomsday tell you?”
“You’re not FBI,” Steeple said, studying the fleshy face across the table. “Those guys have no sense of humor and are circumspect about everything. Definitely not ACID, either. NSA is out, too.”
“Why is that?” Dunn seemed to be enjoying himself.
“They’re way above my pay grade. That only leaves one possibility…the Company.”
“You really should try the manicotti. I’ve had better, but not a lot better. Looks like she had seafood ravioli, I’ll bet it was tasty.”
After studying his face for a few seconds, Steeple pointed at him. “You don’t know her name. You’re hoping I’ll drop it in idle conversation.”
Dunn shrugged. “You’re a smart man, Colonel, but she’s not that important…so, like I said, my girlfriend’s waiting for me, so we can keep playing footsie or we can cut to the chase. I don’t care either way. My girlfriend’s a lousy cook.”
“Doctor Doomsday, huh? So what’s his story?”
“Roger Deeson is a brilliant computer programmer. I daresay there’s nobody better, particularly when it comes to risk assessment. However, his genius lies in interpreting facts and correlating statistics, not in predicting the future. He deals in probabilities based on…” Dunn paused and raised a finger. “And this is key…probabilities based on factual data. As long as he has reliable data to work with, his conclusions are trustworthy. Unfortunately, he used what is tantamount to guesswork in this doomsday model of his. The conclusion is invalid because the input data was invalid.”
“I see. And you’re telling me this because…?”
“You’re one of the young turks of the army, your career is flagged for special attention. We both know you’re ambitious, Colonel, and that you’re aiming for the top. I’d hate to see your career derailed by a deluded man’s fear-driven fantasy.”
“All I’ve done so far is listen and ask questions.”
“Just be sure that a listening ear doesn’t become a running mouth.”
“I’m disappointed. I thought we were friends. I even shared my manicotti with you.”
Dunn wiped his mouth and stood. “I like you Colonel. Don’t do anything stupid.”
“I never do.”
Holding his broad umbrella tight in the wind, Steeple avoided puddles in the parking lot but the driving rain soaked his shoes anyway. Once in his car he locked the doors and wondered if it was bugged. He often spoke to himself while driving, talking out scenarios of whatever problems he faced at the time, but now he kept quiet, in case someone was listening. Crossing the Potomac into Arlington, he pulled over at the first lighted phone booth he saw.
He didn’t call Deeson, whose phone was probably bugged. Instead he called Siree Shankur.
“I’m taking you up on your offer,” he said. “Show me these frozen people.”
To be continued…