“...she's who,” Erwin asked over the headset, two other scientists between them at one of the consoles of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. There was a bit of irritation in his voice.
“Dawna Pearle,” Cheryl repeated as she leaned forward to peer at the principle project supervisor on the current space mission. Cheryl had turned her microphone off so others linked into the comm system could not hear their private conversation, which was a bit difficult, given the normal bee-hive the JPL was on any given mission!
“Ohh, that kid from the Sacramento Bee,” he said after a thought.
“You're expecting her,” Cheryl, the project coordinator for the mission, said with incredulity.
Erwin gave an annoyed shrug, as he also craned to see Cheryl. “Administrator's idea. Ever since that Curiosity mission on Mars went so well, he figured we could use the publicity...you know, ride the coat tails of Curiosity's popularity and it'll make NASA's funding a hell of a lot easier!”
The two other scientists between them overheard the two. One smiled, the other chuckled, but neither added to the discourse.
For nearly a minute, Erwin and Cheryl both distractedly looked at their respective monitors—keeping track of the mission at hand. Then she added, “That's not a good idea for this mission,” her eyes yet on the terminal as she shook her head.
Erwin then proceeded to take off his headphones, logged out from his terminal, then hurriedly walked out of the command room to meet the young reporter in the lobby of the Laboratory. To some people's mind, she looked the part of a 21st century Hippy, with her long hair and lose-fitting, muted-color schemed clothing. Her thick, black-framed glasses were pretty much the only thing that really gave her away as a Generation-Y Hipster. He knew of Dawna's well-known environmental politics. He reached out and shook her hand in greeting with a warm smile.
“So, the Dawna Pearle, huh,” he said with feigned sarcasm.
“Well, Dr. Tate, Pasadena's a big, small town,” her young voice came out; a hint of Country flavoring it, “so I guess that's not saying much!”
A professional, friendly guffaw between them.
“So, I understand that you've been doing a featured story for the Bee about global warming?”
“That's right,” she confirmed as she whipped out a tiny, spiral notebook and began taking notes. “Congress is still blocking the president's proposals to combat all the carbon dioxide the energy industry keeps pumping into our air. But, actually, that's not why I'm at JPL.”
Now, Erwin seemed genuinely surprised. Seeing this, she obliged.
“Well, global climate change is why I'm here, but not the fight on Capitol Hill over legislation...the Antarctic.”
Dawna's answer was a bit flat for Erwin, so he stood in the lobby for a few seconds as other scientists passed them in the small hallway.
“Ok,” he finally said; a smidgen of laughter in his response. “What about it? I've read your two other reports, Ms. Pearle. You've already covered the Arctic's projected ice-disappearance by 2030. I honestly don't see how my Lab can give you any more information than you already divulged in your reports. Besides, we're the Jet Propulsion Lab; we don't—“
“Project Thaw, Dr. Tate...”
Erwin hesitated, but for a slight nod. He was about to respond to her when the undergrad reporter persisted.
“Let's just spare ourselves the typical denial that I'm sure you'll do, and get right to it, Doctor...I know about Project Thaw, Dr. Tate, and I also know that you are in on it! I know from sources I will not name, and I have visual and empirical data that backs Thaw's existence and your connection to the Group's bribes to public officials to block any environmental bills that would stop global warming!”
Eyes were darting in their direction as the young woman talked. Partially to play it off, and partially because he felt the need to, he caught a passing male scientist by his arm. “Call security—no, better yet, call the police. This student is trespassing on the Lab's grounds!”
The younger scientist looked at Dawna skeptically. “You mean Dawna Pearle?”
Dawna smiled at the young scientist's acknowledgment, but Dr. Tate was not amused.
The other scientist produced his smartphone, but Dawna waved them both off as she turned and casually showed herself out the nearest door. “Don't bother, Darrel...Dr. Tate let me on the premises. That's not trespassing. Trust me,” she said as she now opened the door to leave, “I've done it a couple of times for other stories.” She then sarcastically saluted the two scientists, and the door shut behind her.
“Can I see you for a bit,” Erwin said to Cheryl while he quickly walked passed her, as if she were not talking with a small group of other scientists.
Everyone in the small knot glanced at one another and either shrugged or cursed under their breath. For Dr. Tate was known for his abruptness. Nevertheless, she followed him to his office. He closed the door with a bit more force than he intended to.
Dr. Cheryl Weiss gave him a big, What's your problem, look.
Cheryl's face was still frozen from her inquisitive look, until she understood what Erwin was talking about. “Oh, no!”
“Oh, yes!” He began to pace in his small office while Cheryl walked over to that same door and latched it, then took a seat in one of his chairs.
She thought for a second as she froze. “Why did you let her in here in the first place? You know what her politics are all about?”
He merely shrugged; yet pacing. “I guess I thought I could steer her away from here.”
“How do you know she's not bluffing; just to tease info from you,” Cheryl put to Erwin, her face now showing the middle-ager that she was. They were pretty much whispering by this time.
“A, the mere fact that she knows the Project's name! B, she brought up the Group,” he said with quotation mark fingers. “And, C...” He shook his head. “This kid would be good at poker! It's one of those things that people don't confront other people about unless they had absolute certainty about their sources and knowledge!”
“This is a problem,” Cheryl put curtly.
“Yeah, for her and us!”
Erwin stopped his pacing upon noticing how Cheryl was looking at him.
“Erwin,” she said with a determined look, “I'm not going to prison for this Hippy!”
He simply nodded and resumed pacing as they both, now, silently thought harder.
“What do you think they'll do to her,” Erwin asked, taking a peep at the Lab between his office's closed blinds.
“Who cares about her? And besides, which, They? The ones on Capitol Hill, or the ones on Wall Str—“
“Sshh!” Dr. Tate had a hand out and one of his fingers to his pursed lips. He was wild-eyed with a sudden thought. Dr. Weiss just watched on as he picked up his company smartphone and dialed. “Leela, how long was that reporter out in the lobby?”
Now Cheryl squirmed in her seat with understanding! She was rubbing her head so hard that her shoulder-length hair was frazzled!
“No, I mean, did she ever leave your sight? Even for—“ His eyes now maliciously slid over to Cheryl, confirming what they both had feared. “The bathroom, huh? No, no...she's fine. You know these kids with their smartphones,” he ad libbed. “She probably took a selfie somewhere in the Lab...thanks, Lee.”
After he cut the line on the company phone, he and Dr. Weiss took a long look at each other, and, as if by telepathy, both silently left his office as they carefully closed the door behind them. They said nothing until they went outside a back door that led to a docking area where no one else was around.
“I'll sweep your office myself,” she volunteered as she lit up a cigarette, then blew out the blue-gray smoke; the breeze dissipating it quickly.
“Might want to check yours, too. Just to be safe. She didn't bring your name up, but you never know.”
Silence. Dr. Tate looked out at the tall, curving hill cresting the JPL campus, with its tight cluster of modern, white buildings; a range of mountains towering over the smaller hill. Dr. Weiss enjoyed her cigarette, not seeming to notice the landscape.
“You know, we could take care of this ourselves,” she finally said, her eyes now on the mountains. “No sense involving Them, if we don't have to.”
“We're scientists, Cheryl. They would know what to do with her. It's what They do, while we continue our work.”
“And who'd be next after They handled her? We'll take the blame for her knowing!”
He glanced at her, tacitly nodding to her point.
“Don't worry so much, Erwin,” she tried to encourage him, as she put out her cigarette butt on the pavement and blew out the last of its smoke. “It's a brave new world! With the Arctic opening up even more, you and I will be one of the first investors for drilling-rights out there! I'll be damned if some college kid gets in my way of the next big oil rush.”
He straightened up and looked at her. “You realize what you're saying, Dr. Weiss?”
She blew out a sarcastic tsk. “I'm sure some people besides the 49ers died during the Gold Rush in the 1800s, Erwin. Do you think it was worth it, to make California the global economic powerhouse it is today? Look, all I'm saying is, for all we know, that pretty little thing could get into an accident between her classes and her job...you follow?”
Dr. Tate was sadly nodding his head. “Yeah, Cheryl, I follow all right.”
Suddenly, a swarm of police officers and special agents popped out of hiding places from all around the docking area. Their guns were all targeted at Dr. Weiss, while Dr. Tate swiftly got out of their way and joined a young woman standing off to the side with the police captain and a smartly-dressed government official.
“Great job, Dr. Tate,” Dawna Pearle commended him as they shook hands. “Maybe you should've gone into acting for a career instead of science!”
The captain, the federal agent, and Dr. Tate all chuckled at the reporter's comment as they all watched a couple of the officers handcuff Cheryl's hands from behind and safely took her away to an awaiting, unmarked van; parked nearby a crush of police vehicles.
“Sad to think there are so many educated, pillars of society like her that we are nabbing in this sting every week,” the middle-aged federal agent said as he keyed in some numbers on his smartphone and nodded to the small group and walked off to follow the officers and agents to the crowd of cars and vans.
“Oh,” the federal agent called back to the three, “Ms. Pearle, I'll see you on the next bust...I think you and I make a great team!”