Chapter 7: It's Not Easy Being a Passenger

Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg

“Leslie and Fredrick Thomas’ residence,” the familiar voice said.

“Leslie, it’s Eric.”

“I’m so glad you called. We were so worried. What’s happening? What have you discovered? What are yo—”

“Hold on. That’s why I’m calling. Give me a chance and I’ll give you the details.”

She held the phone away from her mouth. “Becky, it’s Uncle Eric!” She continued speaking. “Fred is already at work. I mentioned you were back, but told him we couldn’t say anything until you and NASA approved it.”

He heard the spare receiver pick up. “Hallo?”

“I wanted to tell you I’m flying to Washington, D.C., tomorrow morning. The Congressional inquiry begins at eight o’clock the following day. It will broadcast live, with a fifteen minute delay in case they don’t want me to reveal anything embarrassing. It’s expected to last throughout the day. I’ll be there for most of the week, doing interviews, giving testimony, meeting with experts and making public appearances. Hopefully the fruit stands won’t sell many spare rotten vegetables while I’m on stage.”

“It’s handy having your schedule, it helps arrange things. We’ll be sure to record your performance so you can review it later.”

“What station will it be on, Uncle Eric?”

“Becky, I suspect it’ll be on all the news shows, but the full coverage is on C-Span.”

“Channel twenty-eight, sweetie,” Leslie translated, more familiar with how kids think. “How did NASA take your explanation?”

He sighed. “Not well, but the agency’s psychiatrist, Dr. Cho, helped me figure out more than I remembered. However ... I didn’t tell her the full story, so we’ll see what happens when we get into it on live TV. I’m not looking forward to it, but it’s best to get it over with as soon as possible.”

Leslie’s voice dropped to a low whisper. “People are pissed. I keep running into people in the neighborhood, the grocery store and school. They’re all buzzing about you. They don’t suspect you’re still alive, but they’re livid at NASA. I can’t imagine facing them once the news breaks tomorrow. I’ll have a lot of explaining to do.”

“You, me, and the entire agency. We don’t have any definitive answers, but we’ve got our talking points and a basic approach. It’ll be tough, but we’re hopeful the end result will save the agency. Anyway, I don’t have much time, and it’s best to keep these messages short.”

“Thanks for telling us, Eric. We appreciate it. Our hearts are with you.”

“We love you!” Becky added.

“I know you do,” he replied before hanging up. “At least someone still does.”

Two airport golf carts carried the NASA crew to the waiting airliner.

“Explain to me again why we’re taking a passenger 767 when we possess private planes we can use?”

“Yeah, I’m interested in that too,” Dr. Cho said, leaning between the seats to hear over the background noise.

Robert glanced over his shoulder before turning back to the plane. “No matter how we fly, people will realize you’re alive. Rather than skulking in the shadows, we’re taking the high road, using a commercial flight and interacting with the public. Remember, there’s no reason to hide. We’re as much in the dark as the rest of the world.”

“I’ll bear it in mind when everyone is screaming for my head,” Eric said, frowning.

Sarah laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “You need to remain calm. Getting upset won’t make things any easier.”

“Thanks. You’re good for my blood pressure. You’re a handy distraction. I doubt we can sit together during the testimony, but you’ll make the ride to D.C. more enjoyable.”

“Don’t count on it,” Robert said, glancing at him. “You’re sitting with Stanley, so he can monitor you. I’ve noticed the two of you. If we leave you alone, you’ll flirt and toss around sexual innuendo. Word about you laughing at the world’s reaction to you will be on every network within the hour.”

“My pressure just jumped another twenty points. Director Stanley’s not quite a comforting guy.”

“No, this ... situation could either make or break the agency. He’s likely to be worse than you.”

“While he may require a new job if NASA folds, I won’t be able to show my face. What’s more, no one can afford to associate with me, because the media’s spotlights will be focused on them as well. If things go badly, I might look into booking a return ticket. At least in outer space, the movies are better.”

Sarah rubbed his shoulders. “You’re tensing. I recommend you wear earphones on the plane, tune Stanley out, and zone out. You need to be on the top of your game when we arrive.”

Eric shook himself, stretching his neck. “No, Robert is right. This is a public encounter. I’m representing NASA, both on this flight and everywhere I go. Just like when I was a test pilot, I needed to maintain my focus every moment, or I’d die. A slip up might not be fatal in this case, but it will affect a heck of a lot more people. Don’t worry about me.” Eric glanced at the project manager, raising his brow. “I’ll be fine, though I’ll do better with a little more support.”

“We’re here. You can discuss your need for encouragement with the regional director. I’m sure he’ll be glad to consider it.” He laughed as the two carts pulled to a stop. The stairway waited. The plane’s passengers were already boarded, so they headed directly to the plane. Stanley and Dr. Sam climbed out of the other car.

“I hope you’re ready,” Director Wright said. “In case you didn’t hear, we get to shoot the breeze the entire flight.”

“Terrific! I’ve been reading all the latest dirty jokes, and they’re all triple X!”

He rolled his eyes. “You’re hilarious! If I hear a single four-letter word, I’ll be extremely disappointed.”

Eric headed up the gangway. “That’s the whole point.”

As they neared the cabin, a flight attendant began an announcement to the passengers. Stanley held Eric’s arm, holding him back before he could enter the airplane.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a little unusual, but we have a special guest. Eric Morgan is not only alive and healthy, he’s traveling with us to Washington where he’ll testify before Congress.” The entire plane fell silent, even those who traditionally ignore the attendant’s traditional safety announcements. “As I’m sure you’re aware; the world is eager for an explanation about what went wrong with his flight. A NASA crew is now boarding. Rather than explain what happened to each and every person, you can watch their testimony on live television tomorrow on C-Span. They’ll be in first class, and while they don’t mind being friendly, they’re still working on what they’ll say to Congress. So if you can respect their privacy, they’ll appreciate it.

“They’re offering signed photos and will allow you to take shots, but ask that you refrain from announcing his survival before they can alert the world.” When no one responded, she waved them on the plane.

Eric entered and waved, but not a sound came from the cabin. Even the flight attendants—including the one who’d introduced him—glared at him.

Taking a deep breath, with the other NASA personnel standing behind him, he jumped in with both feet. “I understand it’s a shock to see me, and it’ll take time to process. Frankly, even I don’t comprehend how I got back. That’s why we’re eager to get in front of a national audience and present this to people. Hopefully some clever minds—of which we have many at NASA—will be able to figure out what’s occurring. At the moment, everyone’s baffled. How I survived, and returned, is a mystery which flies in the face of everything we understand about the universe. Whatever else, it points to some other ... power in the universe—whatever you choose to call it—which understands the rules of nature more than we do. I stared into the face of the great unknown, and I’m no more informed than you are. Yet, I’m willing to stand before millions of skeptical minds and request help in answering these fundamental questions.”

Not a word was spoken the entire time he spoke, but he noted that no one budged, either. People might still be angry, but they were intrigued. Challenged, he hoped. If they could capture that sense of curiosity, it might carry the day. Otherwise, he and NASA would be raked over the coals.

After a moment’s hesitation, Stanley stepped forward. “Thank you all for putting up with this delay in your flight. We didn’t intend to interrupt your busy schedules, but as you can imagine, Congress is anxious to question us. If you have questions, jot them on a napkin and hand them to your flight attendant. We can’t say how long it’ll take to respond, but we’ll take each inquiry seriously. We’re eager to include everyone in addressing these issues.”

After surveying the crowded cabin, they turned and entered the first class section of the plane and prepared for a long and uncomfortable flight.

Being sequestered in first-class accommodations didn’t buy them much. Along with the glances from the other premiere fliers, there was an almost constant stream of people parading past on their way to the forward restrooms. Each marched into first class, slowing as they passed the NASA team, studying them the entire time. Eric wondered how many did anything besides opening and closing the restroom door, but at least they weren’t going in to find something to fling at him.

Robert stood and leaned over Eric and Stanley’s seats, whispering his question. “Are you sure it’s wise bringing God into the argument this soon in the proceedings? Doesn’t that appear like we’re abandoning our independent stance? I understand we agreed to this approach, but ... it seems you sprung it a little early in the process.”

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