Parks Coover leaned close, his nose almost touching the jagged edge of the metal carcass. He could still smell the toasted almond of the blown circuit boards. “You know what you did wrong, yes?” he said, his voice betraying only the slightest hint of accent.
“Yes,” came the response. Coover stood, dusted his knees, and ruffled the boy’s hair.
“Anybody else know what Andy got wrong?” he asked to the twelve other children huddled around the model rocket remains on the hangar floor. Every hand went up.
He singled out an eleven-year-old with a point. “Jennifer.”
“He got the mix wrong,” she said.
Coover tossed up both arms and grinned. “Touchdown! He got the mix wrong.”
Everyone laughed, including Andy.
“What do you think you need to do next time?”
“Measure better,” Andy said.
“Yep. And what do we say when we blow things up?” he asked to no one in particular.
“Sometimes things blow up before they go up!”
“Okay. So let’s see if we can’t put this bad boy into–”
“Parks?” his secretary interrupted.
He sighed and turned.
“Sir, there are two men here from Edwards. They say it’s urgent,” she said. His head slumped melodramatically and the kids giggled.
“It’s always urgent, isn’t it?” he said to them. They nodded agreement. This, he thought, was why he had started a STEM school at a rocket factory.
“We’re almost done here, Meg. Please–”
“They need you immediately, sir. I can take over here,” she said.
He winked at Andy. “Always do what the ladies in your life tell you, son, and you’ll get along just fine.”
Two at a time, Coover mounted the stairs to the loft of offices over the hangar. He took a minute to rinse his hands and check for grease on his face or rocket bits in his hair. At forty-two, his most frequently mentioned trait was youthful vigor. He hoped it would hold out for a few more years, and so far it had. But he had long thought any perceived eternal youth owed more to the first billion dollars he put in the bank while still a student at MIT than it did to superior genetics. But he knew better than to suggest such. He was drying his hands when he entered his office, expecting to find a couple of airmen with a colonel. These visits were coming with increasing regularity as his neighbor stepped up drone test flights. At least once a month, the Air Force showed up to ask permission to retrieve a lost parcel from his property. What met him inside almost caused him to stumble, and he hoped the two generals didn’t notice.
“Gentlemen, how may I help you?”
“Dr. Coover?” the general closest to him said.
“Mr. Coover,” he said, almost automatically.
“Excuse me?” the second general said.
“Mister. I don’t have a doctorate.”
“Mr. Coover, we need you to come with us,” the first said.
This was a surprise and a not all together unpleasant turn, Coover thought, his mind bouncing through a host of scenarios about this lost gadget or that broken toy over on the base. Normally, they just handed him a form, asked for his signature, and then went about their day. This was something different, and he was intrigued. He had heard the rumors about the new spy plane they were testing, and catching a glimpse of that could be fun.
“Give me about a half hour to–”
The second general interrupted. “Sir, now.”
The general’s words carried just a slight hint of an order, and Coover’s excitement cooled. He didn’t take orders from the military, didn’t play well with taking orders, and he wasn’t about to be ordered out of his own office. So, instead, he sat down.
“General, you’re forgetting something,” he said. “I don’t work for you.”
The first general stepped closer to his desk and between Coover and his colleague. “Mr. Coover, I need you to come with me. You’re getting on a plane right now.”
“And going where?” he asked. “Again, general, I’m not–”
“Son, the president has sent for you, and if I have to drag you across the desert by your collar, you’re coming with us. Understood?” The look in the general’s eye told Coover that this man was neither joking nor hesitant. He pressed a button to call Meg, who showed up within seconds.
“Yes, Parks?” she said.
“Could you call over and have the boys get my plane ready? I’m going to Washington,” he said. He could tell the generals didn’t like this decision, and the first bristled.
“Sir, we have a plane waiting–”
“–and the president waiting on the other side. Unless you’re putting me on an SR-71, I’ll get there faster on my plane. So how about you boys just accept the ride?”
Meg cleared her throat. “Parks, the plane is ready.”
“Are we good?” he said to the generals. They exchanged glances without replying. “Good. Let’s not keep the president waiting. Meg, could you grab my bag, please? And make sure the uplink to Ollie is online.”
Less than five minutes later, Parks Coover’s private jet winged its way over the hangar and made a sharp turn east, with clear air space and permission to land at Andrews where, the generals assured him, a chopper awaited to ferry him to the White House.