Parallelogram : Day Two : Chapter 90
Five Days, Four Hours, Ten Minutes
The airlock door hissed, spitting a thin layer of condensed air into the room, and the metal hinge activated, opening the hatch between the conference room and the safety chamber. Stoddard stepped through the opening, and he shook hands with Campbell.
"We have the C-130 on radar now, Mr. President," he announced.
"You've been inoculated against temporal contamination?"
"A few months ago, sir."
Hurriedly, the two of them strode up to the table. Stoddard offered a polite nod to Parker and Talmadge, and then he leaned down to the communications panel. Tapping a button, he activated the viewscreen, and a schematic blinked to life. Pointing toward the small glowing orb slowly moving across the surface, he explained, "We were able to lock onto the craft via its transponder. Apparently, the crew never bothered to disable it."
"Why not?" Campbell asked. "Certainly, Pendley isn't so immersed in everything happening that he would've forgotten to have this one simple piece of radio technology removed or deactivated." He frowned. "It doesn't make any sense."
"Sure, it does," Parker offered, rising from the chair and walking easily to their side. "He knows that the plane will be broadcasting its location to anyone who's watching. He wants you to see it. He wants you to know that he's upping his ante. He pulled the Sarcophagus right out from under your nose, and now he's waving it in front of your face for you to see."
"To what end?"
"Think of it as rubbing salt in the wound, Mr. President," Talmadge explained, now moving to join the group before the viewscreen. "As Frank says, the senator no longer has anything to hide."
"But doesn't he realize that if we can see the C-130 then we can as easily shoot it down?"
"He's counting on you reaching that conclusion," the chrononaut continued. "As a matter of fact, I'd say he's prepared for that contingency."
The President stared up at the slow-moving blip, and he wondered what he was supposed to do about it. There, it was … more secret technology falling into the wrong hands. All he had to do was give the word, and a squadron of armed fighter jets would scramble from the nearest airfield. They'd do a precision job blowing their counterpart out of the sky.
"So … I should do nothing?" Campbell asked, confused. "Doesn't it stand to reason that Pendley may've also assumed I'd reach that conclusion?"
"Right now," Stoddard said, "we would be fooling ourselves to believe we can put ourselves one step ahead of Arthur Pendley with respect to taking any action with that aircraft, sir. Frank and Bradley are right. He knows that you're going to see it. All we're really waiting for is the telephone call where he calls to gloat."
Frustrated, the commander in chief clapped his hands together, and the burst echoed loudly throughout the conference room. "Dammit!" he swore. "He's already taken our temporal weapon and turned it on the world. Now, he's taking even greater technology, leaving us with no idea of why he wants it. And the three of you are saying that I'm supposed to sit here and do nothing about it?"
"Now, wait a minute, Mr. President," the chief tried, stepping up to the man. "I'm not advising you to do nothing. I'm saying that it would be more prudent to wait until we hear from Pendley."
"Let him call," Parker added. "You should just be prepared to shove his arrogance back down his throat."
"How am I supposed to do that?"
"Sir," Stoddard offered, glancing over at the chrononaut, "I agree with Frank. I think it's time that we go on the defensive."
"Then why wouldn't I start by shooting down that plane?"
"Look at it this way. If Pendley does get his hands on the Sarcophagus, we still have the Backstep Sphere. We can go back in time seven days. This weapon only gives him three days. We'll still have a tactical advantage." He cleared his throat, and he sounded uneasy. "But, sir, I've had a conversation with Mr. Ramsey, Dr. Mentnor, and Dr. Vukavitch, and I believe they've suggested a better strategy. We need … I should say … you need to make the senator angry. If you can make him angry … if you can unsettle him just enough to force him to do something rash … then we might be in a far better position to determine where he's operating."
Looking around at their faces, Campbell said incredulously, "You've got to be kidding! The man has a weapon that can eradicate an entire city, Ethan. What are you suggesting I do? Kick him?"
"He's right, Mr. President," Parker interjected. "You rattle Pendley's cage, and he might let down his guard long enough to make a mistake. Now, if he does that, we have to be prepared to move. We have to be prepared to analyze every step he takes." Shrugging, he added, "I'll agree that it's dangerous … but it might just be stupid enough to make Pendley alter his game plan."
Pointing up at the screen, Campbell asked, "Then why don't I start by shooting down that plane?"
"The plane appears to be heading on a course that's going to take it over several major cities," Talmadge explained. "I would guess that the senator's counting on you either shooting down the plane to risk harm to ordinary citizens or shooting down that plane in order to capitalize on portraying you as a war dog to the mainstream press. In either case, you lose, and he wins."
The comm relay chirped, and Stoddard answered it first. "Yes?"
"Chief Stoddard, we have Senator Pendley on the line for the President," the operator said.
"This is your chance," Parker explained. "You know he's calling about the aircraft, sir. You know he's calling to tell you to leave it alone."
"How can I possibly know that?"
"I spoke too quickly, sir," the chrononaut tried. "Let me say … if he does prove himself to be calling about the plane, then I say we go with Chief Stoddard's suggestion. Give him the plane, but don't make it look like you're giving in to his demands. He's expecting you to do something. He'll be expecting you to argue with him. Don't."
"Don't do what?"
"Don't argue," Parker said. "Hear him out. Voice an objection. Try to get some agreement that, by giving him the plane, he won't use his weapon until we … somehow … force him to use it."
Slowly, the President shook his head. "I don't like it."
"Sir," Stoddard whispered, "I think it's the best we have."
His lips drawn tight, Campbell walked over to the table. He sat down in his chair. Reaching out with his right hand, he tapped the button. "I'm here, Arthur."
"Mr. President," the senator began, "I'll dispense with the pleasantries and say that, by now, you've no doubt been informed about the C-130 that left Zulu Base not long ago."
The man glanced back at Parker. The chrononaut nodded at him.
"I'm looking at it right now, Arthur," he said, turning in his chair to stare up at the viewscreen. The blinking light moved a short distance on the projected map. "What of it?"
"I don't need to tell you, sir, how important it is that the aircraft be allowed to reach me unharmed and uninterrupted."
"No, you don't."
"It would be a shame if I were to learn that you were planning on shooting it down. That is why I took the precaution of plotting its course over several cities filled with a significant portion of registered voters. You wouldn't want any harm to come to them, would you?"
The President bit his lower lip. "Arthur, do I have your word that you'll leave those cities alone?"
"Do you think I'm barbaric?"
"We've already had that conversation, senator."
"Yes," Pendley stated without emotion. "I believe we have."
"Would you mind sharing with me what cargo that plane is carrying?"
"Don't play me for a fool, Mr. President. You know damn well what I've taken. You should be more concerned about what I may do with it."
"You'll do nothing with it, Arthur."
"Is that so?"
"Yes, it is," Campbell replied. "The Sarcophagus doesn't concern you except as an additional bargaining chip. This is your way of warning me that if one way doesn't work, you're willing to accomplish your objective – however nefarious that may be – by following another, more treacherous course of action." He sat back in his high leather chair. "Didn't your years of service on the Intelligence Committee teach you anything, Arthur? Time travel is not any nation's playground."
"To the contrary, Mr. President, I think you've done a fine job of making it your own."
"You know as well as I do that any Backstep we took had the approval of many advisors, Arthur. There is no reason for you to make this personal."
"It has been personal since it began, sir," Pendley argued. "This has always been about a vision for the future. Your desire is to change the past. Mine is to enforce the future."
"Enforce?" Campbell sniffed at the word. "That's a very cold choice of words."
"Be that as it may, I would still ask that you respect my wish to have that aircraft left completely alone."
Parker edged closer to the table. He sat down next to the President and glanced hopefully at the man.
"May I ask for a show of good faith in return for granting your wish, Arthur?"
Campbell nodded. "I have a world waiting to hear from me," he said. "You've probably seen Ethan's statement to the press. I don't care whether or not you agree with it, but there are many people waiting to hear from me." Tilting his head to the side, he asked, "Would you be so kind as to hold off using your temporal weapon on any nation of the world until I have the chance to make my address?"
The room was suddenly silent.
"Arthur," he continued, "it would be a small price to pay in exchange for my efforts to help bring a swift resolution to the matter at hand."
"Mr. President," the senator cried, "I've already told you how to bring an end to this whole affair! All you need to do is relinquish control of the government to me!"
"Yes," the man argued, "along with meeting several other ridiculous demands." He placed his hands on the table and leaned closer toward the speaker. "Arthur, let's not speak out of haste. Let's not behave out of turn. I'm willing to allow you your aircraft. I'm asking a small favor from you. Stand down your weapon. Holster that gun. Give me some time to put things back together … or are you so interested in tearing your precious world apart?"
"Fine," Pendley finally agreed. "I give you my word. I will not strike again – under the condition that the aircraft arrives safely in Washington and its cargo can be safely delivered to me – until you've had the chance to address the nation. Don't overestimate your powers of deduction to notice that I've mentioned where I am. It should come as no surprise that I'm in Washington. You've learned nothing. You've gained nothing. I've only confirmed what you've long suspected. Besides, I'm far more interested in making peace than I am in making war. Giving you the time to prepare a speech? That's a small price to pay when you're dealing with the fate of the world."
Grinding his teeth, the President replied, "Thank you."
"You'll hear from me after your address, Mr. President," the senator finished. "A word of advice? Make it a good one … or it may be your last."
END of Chapter 90