IN A SMALL, cold, dark control room, deep in the belly of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, far from the tourist exhibits and administrative offices, a cluster of US Air Force personnel anxiously focused on the communications and radar equipment.
They were the team assigned to monitor and advise the crew of NASA's VN-13 rocket, whose wildly ambitious, six-month mission was to reach and orbit the planet Venus, collect atmospheric samples and then safely return to Earth.
After seventy-eight days of around-the-clock, nail-biting monitoring, it might have been expected that a celebration would have spontaneously erupted when, in that crypt of a room, garbled word was received that the four-man crew had successfully reached the cloud-cloaked second planet from the Sun.
Such was not the case. Commanding three-star general Frederic Goode would have none of that—ever. His frightful countenance was multifaceted: murderous eyes and a furrowed brow were complemented by a mouth that precipitously drooped on its left side, the result of Bell's Palsy. Though Goode could have had that malady easily remedied, he chose not to, as he actually loved the look of dread that instantly appeared on the face of any subordinate he encountered. And, pragmatically, he liked that the little pouch the droop created provided a handy place to dangle the ever-present cheroots he unmercifully chomped.
General Goode puffed on his cigar as he bumped the back of a nervous, chalk-skinned radar man’s chair with his protruding gut.
“Are you getting anything further from the VN-13, airman?” demanded Goode.
“The radar man's throat tightened. “N-not a word, general. Not since they first communicated nearly half an hour ago... sir!”
Young Colonel Bradley Mansfield, second in command and newly assigned to the VN-13 unit, approached General Goode, a smoldering pipe inserted in the small pouch on the right side of his drooping mouth. He, too, suffered the results of having contracted Bell's Palsy. The colonel got within a foot of the general, and kept quiet.
The radar man continued: “I don't believe the silence has anything to do with the VN-13's signals being blocked by the planet, sir. Based on their velocity they would have cleared the planet by now.”
“Then what's causing it, airman?” blared the general.
General Goode, on this first encounter with Mansfield, shot the colonel a poisonous glance, then instantly focused on the man's pipe and drooping mouth.
“Jesus jumping Christ, colonel, are you mocking me with that facial expression?”
“Certainly not, general. Like yourself, I suffered through a bout of—”
“Shut the hell up, colonel! My only concern is the VN-13 mission and the safety of its crew. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” Unperturbed, Colonel Mansfield turned his attention to a bubble gum-chewing, Asian technician, whom he patted on the shoulder.
“Anything coming through via the Artemis satellite relay, sergeant?”
“Nothing, colonel. If the VN-13 was broadcasting, the Artemis would have detected it.” He turned to the colonel. “However, it is picking up a highly unusual form of interference.”
“How unusual—be specific,” ordered General Goode. The general moved closer to the second technician, produced a fresh cheroot from his breast pocket and lit it with the embers of his previous one.
Similarly, Mansfield produced a fresh pipe from the side pocket of his military tunic and emptied the bowl of his existing pipe into it.
“It's like something out of a science fiction movie, sir. The wild swings in amplitude, the gamma count—it's all very strange,” continued the gum-chewing sergeant.
General Goode scowled, plucked the gum from the sergeant's mouth, then grabbed Mansfield by the sleeve and pulled him to a quiet corner of the room.
“The VN-13 needs to be warned, colonel.”
“Yes, I fully agree, general—ASAP. And there is one more detail to attend to.”
“Mrs. Frendlee, the wife of the VN-13's navigator, Dick Frendlee...”
“Well, what about her?”
“She and her four children have been in the waiting area for hours, sir, along with the press hounds. What are you going to say to her?”
Goode reflected, took a step back, ran his fingers along the brim of his cap, and accidentally left the chewing gum on its brim. While looking for the right words, he produced a pack of cigarettes, lit one, jammed it into his drooping mouth, and puffed at it along with the cheroot. Then he strode forward, belly to belly with the colonel. Goode poked Mansfield's lapel with his chisel of an index finger. “I'm not saying a word to her, colonel—but you are.”
“Why? You're the senior officer.”
“Because of the three stars on my shoulder, colonel!”
“What do you expect me to say to her, sir?”
The general attempted to suppress a twisted, perverse grin, but failed.
“Tell her what the military always says in a situation like this: everything is spit-and-polish perfect!”