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FLUENCY(6)

By´╝ÜJennifer Foehner Wells



He folded his arms and leaned back against the door jam, shrugging. “Yep.”

“Your I.D., sir?”

He hesitated.

She was expectant, cooler, more business-like. “You must have some kind of government I.D.”

He pulled out his wallet and forked over the I.D.

“JPL? NASA?” She looked intrigued.

“Jet Propulsion Labs.” He added, nodding enthusiastically, “It gets weirder.”

That seemed to settle it for her. She tapped his I.D. on the edge of her desk a couple of times, eyeing him thoughtfully. Then she grabbed a purse, deftly pulled out a set of keys, and brushed past him, keeping his card just out of reach.

She crossed the hall and stuck her head into another office. “Sam? I’m off to have coffee with an enigmatic engineer. If I’m not back by four to reclaim his credentials, please use this to track down my killer.”

She disappeared inside. Muffled laughter and whispers emanated from the room. He held back, completely off-balance.

She reappeared, without his card, and broadcast a warm smile. “I’ll drive.”

* * *

She had good taste in coffee. The shop was busy, so they got the coffee to go, got back in her car, and drove off. She drove away from campus and pulled over at the entrance to the Stanford Arboretum. Her instincts were good. There were no other cars.

“So how many languages do you speak?” he asked, an attempt at small talk as they strolled down a neglected, overgrown path.

“A lot more than most people. How many do you speak?” Her eyebrows were raised and her tone was teasing.

“Some people might argue that engineering terminology is a language all on its own,” he countered, aiming for a joke. It fell short.

Her lips curved in amusement. “I wouldn’t be one of those people.”

“Just the one, then.”

She nodded and sat down on the steps in front of an ancient mausoleum, taking a sip of her coffee. “I feel like I should apologize for not noticing your arrival sooner. I’d just been blindsided. My most promising student just announced her intention to take off across country to get married and have babies before finishing her degree.”

“Oh,” he said, frowning.

Concern deepened the creases around her eyes. “That might have been a make or break moment in her career.”

“Maybe she doesn’t have the drive.”

She shook her head. “What she doesn’t have is confidence in her own abilities—a problem afflicting a great deal of American women, unfortunately. It makes it too easy for them to make choices they’ll regret later. How many women work with you at JPL? Is it split 50/50?”

He furrowed his brow under her questioning gaze. He’d heard colleagues talk about the difficulties in recruitment, but he’d never given the topic much thought.

“And the women you do work with—are they any less capable?”

He glanced at her and realized she didn’t expect an answer.

“Ok, Dr. Bergen. There’s no one for miles, as far as I can tell. I think we can drop the cloak and dagger act. Tell me why you’re here to talk to me today.”

He stood there, awkwardly, unsure of where to begin. “Well, you know a lot of this stuff is classified, so I’m going to have to ask you to sign a nondisclosure agreement before I leave.”

She nodded. “All right.”

He never got to talk about work outside of the JPL compound except in the broadest of terms, so this was going to be a rare treat. He decided to just launch straight into it. “In 1964, the first Mars probe, Mariner 4, captured something unexpected in a handful of its photographs. There was an unknown object in the Greater Asteroid Belt. That object turned out to be an alien spaceship.”

He paused to see how she would react to that statement. She appeared to be taken aback for just a moment, then quickly brought herself under control.

His hand went reflexively to the back of his neck. The jacket pulled tight across his shoulders and through the arm. He was getting too warm, so he slipped it off and took a swig of coffee. “They weren’t that surprised to find it, really. They’d seen one alien craft before. That’s my job, actually. I head a team that analyzes the remains of a ship that crashed in the desert in 1947—at Roswell.”

He probably shouldn’t have told her that. “Since then, every Mars mission’s real purpose is to get more images of that ship. Hell, that’s why they built Hubble, just to keep an eye on it. We call it the Target. Oh, they analyzed soil samples on Mars, ran atmospheric studies, et cetera, but every probe, rover, and satellite packed the highest quality photographic equipment of its era, for surveillance purposes.”

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