"You know more about the Superconducting Super Collider than anyone here."
"The Super Collider? So what? It was killed back in '93. It's dead and forgotten."
"How's that? For crying out loud, Ottoline, what's up?"
"Not over the phone. I'll page Peter and see you in a bit."
Penny said, "Aleve, my foot," and gave him two of her migraine capsules. "These will do the trick."
"Codeine? I'll be a zombie," he protested, downing them.
"All the better. Don't commit yourself to anything involving colliders."
"Not with a knife at my throat."
Soft soothing warmth gradually suffused his back as he waited for Peter Braunstein. Memories flooded him, memories long suppressed, released and made dreamily vivid by the opiate. Those years in alien Texas, years of working his heart out on that stupendous machine; years of the greatest fun and challenge in his life, and the worst frustration! He knew too much, that was the trouble. The monster might well have worked, but then again, every one of those ten thousand supermagnets had to function flawlessly, and they were his responsibility. He had fought in vain for more time, more careful designing, more testing. Hurry, hurry, national prestige at stake, get the thing going, then see! That was the word from on high, with unsubtle slurs about his foot-dragging
"Guy?" Peter Braunstein on the cell phone. "I'm calling from my car. You okay?"
"I'll live. What the devil's going on, Peter?"
"I just asked Ottoline when she called me about you. She said, Budget,' and hung up. Be right there."
Budget . . . The haunt of modern science . . . The delayed-action bomb that had sunk the SSC! The NASA budget review in Congress happened every year around this time. NASA supported the Jet Propulsion Lab, JPL supported the Terrestrial Planet Finder, and that project was Ottoline's baby, so no doubt that was why she was on edge. Still, why the urgency? Their project had never yet run into a money problem. The Terrestrial Planet Finder was part of NASA's Origins Program, which was exploring two grand questions about human existence:
(1) Are we alone? (2) Where did we come from?
A tall order, a noble endeavor, and their part of it was to search for signs of life on planets circling remote stars. The new space telescopes, if they could get the budget for them, would go a long way toward solving these riddles . . .
Honk, honk outside the garage. Stooping to pass under the half-raised door was pleasantly painless. Guy's burly bearded tennis partner, a Cornell classmate and now an eminent astrophysicist, helped him into the high front seat of a battered camper. It was Peter Braunstein who, after the Texas debacle, had recruited Guy for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He said as he drove, "Well, let's hope it's NASA that's getting the heat, not our project."
"Peter, we're small potatoes."
"We're NASA small potatoes, Guy. NASA's been in trouble ever since the last Americans flew off the moon, you know that. No one big mission, a grab bag of dicey missions like ours, the media just yawn at the marvelous leaps ahead in space science, and every now and then a disaster throws the whole nervous bureaucracy into shock "
"Go ahead, cheer me up," said Carpenter. He was happy at JPL, proud of his work on the Planet Finder, and he tried not to think beyond his day-to-day work. For a high-energy physicist, relocating yet again at his age would be murder.
"Oh, Ottoline's the worrier. I think we'll be okay. It's just that Congress is muttering more and more every year about money for NASA. Martian landscapes and floating astronauts are getting to be old stuff, Guy. Where's the payoff?"
From Chapter 1 of A Hole in Texas by Herman Wouk (page 5-9 of the hardcover edition). Copyright © 2004 by Herman Wouk. All rights reserved.
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