Tony had told him that the best leadership happened in silence. At some point early on, you won’t know what to say, Tony had told him. Just sit there and someone will fill the silence. For his own sake, Stephen Kirksey hoped to hell his mentor and predecessor had not just been blowing smoke up his ass.
He had been sitting in silence for more than a minute.
Just a half hour ago, he was walking up Pennsylvania Avenue, waving and chatting with Clara. He expected to arrive to an empty Oval Office, but NASA Administrator Ryan Aaronson had been waiting in ambush with an emergency briefing, a briefing that Kirksey wished had gone to the other fella. A lifetime of celebrity golf challenge would have afforded ignorance of the misery that was headed this way.
“Sir?” one of the young scientists said. When he didn’t reply, the next voice he heard was Robert Flemming, his chief of staff, who had been standing over his shoulder for the whole briefing.
Kirksey looked up. “I’ve been president for–” he checked his watch, then continued. “–two hours and twenty one minutes and this is what you tell me? The world is ending and…what?”
Now it was their turn to sit in silence until someone came up with an answer. He waited thirty seconds, each one marked off by the grandfather clock near the door to his private study. In the silence that was the Oval Office, the ticking became an almost tactile thud. Aaronson cleared his throat, and Kirksey trained his eyes on the NASA administrator.
“Mr. President, sir. We just…There is nothing we can add,” he said. “I just found out about this two days ago.”
“What were President Dalton’s thoughts on this?”
“Uh–we did not brief the former president,” Aaronson said. The president knew his raised eyebrows would convey well enough his next question, so more silence. “Sir, with the transition coming and the new administration, we thought…”
Kirksey still hadn’t formulated the appropriate response, but he could at least keep the focus off of himself and his sudden lack of words. It wasn’t that he was inept or even unprepared for potential disasters. One doesn’t decide to run for president unless he’s ready to lead the world, after all. Instead, Kirksey’s inability to come up with words stemmed from the magnitude of what he had just been told. The NASA chief was still droning on, justifying why he had kept the most important discovery in the history of the world from his previous boss, but it occurred to Kirksey what his first move needed to be.
“…if we had informed him, there was no guarantee we could maintain secrecy and–”
“Secrecy?” the president interrupted. “Secrecy? First of all, you’re NASA. You don’t get to classify things. These pictures were taken when? Four days ago? Which means you’re two days past the legally required point of releasing them.”
“No buts. Let’s move past the fact that you didn’t tell President Dalton onto the point that you didn’t tell me, Sammy. I was the vice president, the president-elect, and still the sitting chairman of the National Science and Technology Council. Could you remind me where NASA is on the organizational chart, Robert?”
“The National Science and Technology Council, Mr. President.”
“That’s right. The National Science and Technology Council,” the president said. He let the words hang in the air for a moment. Over the years, as he had spent time in Asia and Europe in the service and then in Washington, a hard Tennessee drawl had softened into a barely detectable hint of the South. Only in moments of anger did his roots show, and he had learned to wield the accent as a weapon. For going on five days, the director of NASA had withheld knowledge that three asteroids would wipe the planet out, could even name the day, and he had the balls to do it with a straight face.
“Save it, Ryan. You’re done.”
“Gentlemen, thank you for the briefing,” Robert said. He pointed in turn at each of the three scientists. “You three wait outside, please. Leave the displays. Ryan, hang back a second.”
When the scientists had made their exits, the president stood, staring down Aaronson as he made his way around the Resolute desk. He leaned against the desk, still leering at the man.
“Robert,” the president asked. “Is President Dalton wheels up yet?”
“Yes sir, Mr. President.”
“Get on the horn and turn that plane around. The last thing I want the poor bastard walking into when he gets back from Europe next week is a bunch of questions about what he knew when.” As Robert frantically sent a flurry of text messages, the president’s gaze did not leave Aaronson, and in that time, Kirksey was sure the man shrank a suit size. When he heard Robert’s phone slip almost silently back into a suit pocket, the president smiled. “And what about you, Ryan?”
“I don’t–” he stammered.
“No, I don’t suppose you do,” the president said. Kirksey arrived at what should have been from the beginning an inevitable decision, glanced at Robert with a nod, and sighed. “Look, Ryan. I know you think you did the best thing, and I’m going to make this easy for you. You’ve decided you want to spend time with your family, that this isn’t the right mission for you, that there are better men for the job at hand. You’ll get with my people. They’ll come up with something appropriate to say.”
“I don’t understand, Mr. President.”
Robert answered for him. “The president thanks you for your service, Dr. Aaronson. And he accepts your resignation. If you would, please wait in my office and we’ll walk through the next steps together.”
With the NASA administrator dispatched, the president returned to his chair. Robert took a seat opposite him. For a few minutes, they let the room sink into them, envelop their thoughts. Finally, the president slapped his hand lightly onto the desk. “Well then.”
“What do we do, sir?” Robert asked. Kirksey almost shrugged but stopped. Instead, he took a moment to calm himself and breathe.
“I would like, in this order, the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a meeting with the Senate Select Committee on intelligence. Preferably today. Then, I want to speak to the heads of state.”
“Which ones?” The president’s blank stare answered Robert’s question and garnered a terse nod. Robert turned to leave, but the president stopped him.
“Robert, how quickly can we get Parks Coover to Washington?”