Chapter 4: First Step to Liftoff
"I'm nervous!" Kim mentally blurted to Ryan.
"What's to be nervous about?" Ryan asked calmly, as he leaned back on the comfortable leather couch, nonchalantly surveying the room.
"She's nervous because this guy has always been one of her heroes," Alice, Kim's Companion informed him.
"Don't let him fool you, Kim," Ed, Ryan's Companion comforted. "He is one of Ryan's heroes, too. The only reason Ryan named me after Ed White, the first American space walker, is that Ed is easier to say than Élan."
"I thought you two are supposed to be on your host's side," Ryan mentally protested.
"We are," Alice assured him. "We know how much you two like make-up sex, so we are supplying a spat for you to make-up over," she explained happily.
"Now is not the time!" Kim mentally growled at the Companions. "We are about to meet Élan Dahl! This man, single-handedly, is pioneering civilian space travel."
"I think he had a little help along the way," Ryan pointed out a little drily. "He's just the money man."
"Yes, he is the money man behind HighG Enterprises," Kim silently agreed, then rebutted his argument. "He made a lot of money, and put his money where his mouth was to make a dream come true. If I didn't know better, I would swear you didn't have an ounce of romance in your soul."
"I have plenty of romance in my soul," Ryan shot back, the leer clear in his thoughts.
Kim had to struggle to hold in a giggle, when she received a number of images from Ryan. The images demonstrated several unlikely ways to demonstrate how romantic he was, some of them physically impossible.
"Mr. and Mrs. Flannigan," the secretary called. "Mr. Dahl will see you now. Please follow me."
Moments later, Kim and Ryan were seated in comfortable chairs, facing a large, well organized desk. The office was smaller than either expected. It wasn't small, but it wasn't expansive either, the way they expected a multi-billionaire's office would be. It was comfortable, and very efficient. It was the office of a working man that didn't have a lot of time for fluff.
Élan Dahl was a tall man, six-foot four, but couldn't weigh more than a hundred-eighty pounds. Despite being so thin, Élan appeared to be the picture of a fifty-one year old male in robust health. His thinning blonde hair was the only indication of his advancing years. There was an aura of quiet intensity about the man that wouldn't suffer fools lightly.
"I must say, this administration has sent emissaries to my door much quicker than the last administration," Élan began quietly, after the introductions and hand shaking were completed. "I wasn't visited until three years after his first election, during the last administration. This President only waited three months."
He cocked his head to one side, studying the man and wife for a moment, before saying, "I don't have time for the games I had to play with the last administration, so let me give my answers first, and we can go from there. Is that acceptable?"
"I don't believe that you know what our questions are," Ryan replied cautiously, "But we would be interested in knowing what you think the answers are."
Élan snorted, quietly, like his speech, before he said, "Okay. First, I will not endorse any politician in any election cycle. If the president wants a donation for the next election, I will donate up to twenty million. However, I will donate an equal amount to his opponent. The president can determine if receiving money, or his opponent not receiving money, is more beneficial to his campaign. In return for any donations, I want a level playing field for competing for future government contracts. If I find favoritism for, or against, anyone competing for contracts, including myself, I will expose it. If I am pressed by the government to allow government influence in my operations, I will move my operations to another country, and explain to the American people why the US is losing thousands of jobs. How am I doing so far?"
Ryan was smiling, but Kim was frowning, and she asked, "Why would you object to favoritism in your favor?"
"My goal is to see man in space on a broader scale than can be provided by governments," Élan replied levelly. "There is no room in that goal for favoritism. If another solution is better for reaching that goal, so be it. I will learn from it and be better the next time. Getting mankind into space, in a meaningful way, is the goal, period."
Kim nodded with a smile and said, "Thank you, sir."
"Are your questions answered, now?" Élan asked, seeming to be ready to end the meeting.
"Not even close," Ryan said with a grin.
"We aren't here for an endorsement, or donations, Mr. Dahl," Kim explained.
"And if you get a hint of anything unethical in the next government contract negotiations, please let me know," Ryan added. "The DOJ will investigate. If there is favoritism, or any other unethical conduct, there will be firings and people will go to jail."
Élan's eyes opened wide in surprise, before he asked, "Why should I believe that? I won the last contract, but it took threat of exposure to make it happen."
"Because President McGowan believes very much the way you do," Kim explained. "Getting into space is too important to not use the best solutions."
Élan's eyes narrowed before he asked, "Then, why are you here?"
"Because the President and his team believe you have the most viable platform to get man into space at the present time," Ryan replied.
"Your platform isn't good enough, but it is the best available," Kim clarified. "It is advanced enough to make a good beginning. Coupled with your focus on getting man into space, you and your platform are plan A."
Élan's eyes widened at her statement, and wondered what plan B would be.
"What are the biggest issues that you are currently facing to achieve fast turnaround manned flight?" Ryan asked. "By fast turnaround, I mean less than forty-eight hours."
Élan studied them for a moment before ignoring the question, and saying, "Ryan Flannigan. Undergraduate at A&M in Aerospace Engineering with a minor in business management. Master's in Aerospace Engineering from Embry-Riddle. You want to design and build airframes that will go into space. We had our eye on you for recruitment, before the government grabbed you first. Why the minor in business management?"
"Because significant advancements in space exploration must have a firm business purpose. Governments and pure scientific reasons won't be enough to make it happen on a meaningful scale," Ryan replied with a shrug. "I minored in Business Management before I became aware of higher priorities for getting into space," he added cryptically.
Élan hesitated before nodding, and spearing Kim with his laser gaze, and saying, "Kim Flannigan, formally Kim Janus. Undergraduate at A&M in Computer Science with minors in Statistics, Mathematics, and Neuroscience. Master's from Rice in Computer Science and additional courses in your undergraduate minors. Currently continuing your studies at Georgetown University in Bioinformatics. That is quite a mish-mash of degrees. Was that on purpose, or because you can't decide what you want to do?"
"You forgot the work that I did on the side in Nanotechnologies," Kim corrected him with a blush. "While I was pregnant, I worked with my great-uncle, Professor Brandon Hawthorn, at Rice. I believe I have the equivalent of another degree in Nanotechnology, but I haven't had time to go through the formality of testing out."
Élan merely raised his eyebrows, seeming to emphasize the question that he had already asked.
"I won't tell you all my reasons at this time, but let me assure you that I have a purpose for my 'mish-mash' of courses," Kim explained carefully. "Computers are ubiquitous, and are controlling more of what we think and do every day. In my mind, all the other courses are related to what I learned about Computers, and fit perfectly with my goals."
Élan nodded in acceptance before asking, "And how is the famous, or should I say infamous, Processor Hawthorn?"
Kim couldn't suppress the giggle that burst out, before saying, "He's fine, and still claiming to chase everything in skirts. I don't know what he'd do if he caught one of them, or one of them caught him. In terms of scientific advancements, he's far ahead of everyone else in the field."
Élan nodded again, and studied his two visitors with a puzzled frown.
Finally, he sighed and conceded, "Well, you two are better representatives than the pompous grey-beards the last administration sent. You asked what my biggest issues were in fast turnaround manned space flight. The biggest issue is materials. I need lighter, stronger materials for airframes. I need lighter, tougher skins to protect the occupants of the craft. Resistance to radiation would be a major plus, too. I need better materials for the rocket nozzles, or a better chemical fuel that doesn't burn out the nozzles as quickly. The nozzle issue is why our current turnaround time is closer to a week, than forty-eight hours. Each flight requires extensive testing, to ensure the nozzles are still functional. After materials, I think better computer control would be next," he said, nodding towards Kim.
"Computer controls can be pretty sophisticated," Kim pointed out.
Élan shook his head, saying, "Computers can be programmed to handle known occurrences. If I've learned one thing about space, it is to expect the unexpected. Human control helps, but is often too slow to respond. Humans just can't respond to issues in the microseconds required for spacecraft. The issue is a conundrum."
"It sounds like you need a rudimentary AI," Kim said, nodding thoughtfully.
"More than that," Élan replied glumly. "Computers, even AIs, are limited in their response time by how fast they are: their clock speed. Parallel processing helps some, but clock speed is still the limitation. We need the clock speed of computers increased by an order of magnitude."
"I think that's doable," Kim said quietly, deep in thought.
"I think we can help with the materials issue, too," Ryan added with a thoughtful nod. "Sir, would you agree to meet with the President?"
"I already told you that I won't endorse him," Élan protested. "I am not interested in a big ceremony at the White House."
"No big ceremony," Ryan assured him. "In fact, it would probably be better if you met him in the evening in the family quarters. We can't hide the meeting, but we can downplay it as having nothing to do with politics. It would be a personal invitation to dinner."
Élan looked at his two visitors with a hard gaze before he said, "You think increasing computer clock-speed by an order of magnitude is doable, and you might be able to help with the materials," his tone of voice flat. "What is going on?"
"That, Sir, will need to wait until you meet the President," Ryan stated. "You may not learn everything, even then. It is highly classified, and the President has to make the determination on your clearance. He won't do that until after he meets you."
"That meeting should be sooner rather than later," Kim added.
"Like, later this week or early next week," Ryan added.
"What is the rush?" Élan asked.
"You may learn that, too, when you meet the President," Ryan assured him.
"Why do I think this is about more than airframes, materials and computers?" Élan asked with a frown.
"Well, maybe you're prescient," Kim said brightly. "There is strong evidence that prescience is one of mankind's evolutionary talents."
Élan looked at her sharply before saying, "Okay. I'm curious. How about three days from now, Friday evening. Is the President available then?"
"If not, he will adjust his schedule," Ryan assured him. "Say, six PM, eastern daylight time? Would that be acceptable?"
"I'll be there," the eighth richest man in the world assured them.
Moments later, Élan watched them leave, his forehead creased in thought. For some reason, Ryan's assurance that an appointment between him and the President had a higher priority than dozens of other things the President might be doing, worried him. Something was afoot, and he really didn't like surprises.
Reaching forward, Élan pressed a button on his phone. His call was immediately answered.
"Frank," Élan greeted the person at the other end. "I just concluded a meeting with a Mr. and Mrs. Flannigan. They work for the President. We already have a jacket on them, but I think it is a little light on details. I want a full workup on them, the President, and his entire inner circle. I'm not looking for dirt, but let me know if you find any. I'm not sure what I'm looking for, actually, but look for anything unusual. I need it by Friday afternoon, say, around one. I'll be dining with the President at the Whitehouse, Friday at six PM. This will be low key. An old friend invited to have dinner with the family should be the perception outsiders should see. Add it to the schedule, and take care of it the arrangements, please."
"Of course, Mr. Dahl," Frank, his personal assistant, replied.
"He would be a very good candidate," Kim silently gushed to Ryan, as they left the HighG corporate building.
"I think I agree," Ryan replied, with only a little hesitancy in his thoughts. "I think he's the most intense person that I've ever met. I wonder what he would be like, with a Companion."
"What do you two think?" Kim asked Alice and Ed.
"I agree with Ryan," Ed answered.
"He has the correct psychological profile for a Companion," Alice sent thoughtfully. "He would easily accept the existence of Companions, and would jump at the chance to be a host. I don't know what kind of host he would be with his level of intensity. His intensity borders on obsessive, which could be detrimental."
"It is an obsessive intensity," Ed agreed. "He is obsessed with getting into space. The question is, should that be considered a bad thing?"
"I don't think so," Ryan mused. "We're obsessed with getting into space. The only difference is, we consider our reason for being obsessive reasonable. I'm sure that he feels the same way."
"It was a little surprising that he already had a background check done on us," Kim said.
"Not really," Ryan replied. "A man in his position has to know about the people that he's going to meet with. If they were really planning on making me a job offer, they would have had a background check, too. I'll bet he has a more in-depth check done on us, Scotty, and the rest of the team before Friday's dinner."
"No he won't. He doesn't need to. Everything he needs to know about Scotty is public knowledge," protested Kim. "What would you bet?"
"A massage," Ryan said promptly. "If he does a deeper background check, you give me a massage. If he doesn't, I give you one."