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The Orion Protocol
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January 27/Oval Office/The White House
"Two months ago, if anybody had said we were gonna catch this in the first hundred days, I'd have thought they were high."
The fifty-eight-year-old former senator from Colorado and newly elected President of the United States stared out the much-photographed bay window of the Oval Office and into the cut-back winter Rose Garden.
"What was it Truman said?"
On the desktop, the blade end of his letter opener, engraved with the presidential seal, tapped out a rhythmic figure from the William Tell Overture known to Americans who came of age in front of three black-and-white channels of network TV as the theme from The Lone Ranger.
From a clubby wing chair, R. Cabot "Bob" Winston, the President's national security adviser, recognized the galloping little perididdle and made a private note to include it in his memoirs: One of those little human details people liked to read about from a historic moment.
"When they told him about Fat Boy." The President clanked the blade into a decorated soup can/pencil holder his youngest daughter once made him for Father's Day. "Damn it, I know this."
"Ah, January of forty-five. In this room." Winston sat up minutely straighter, unconsciously signaling the sense of occasion he felt when past presidents were invoked within these walls.
The new President rocked in his leather chair.
"With Harriman and his whole sleek Ivy League crowd telling poor Harry-the-Haberdasher he had to nuke the Japanese."
"Or not," Winston said, in a small bow to the Office.
"Oh, I think Einstein's group was the only 'or not.'" The President's dry tone glinted off the darker edge of a sense of humor familiar to his campaign staff. "Jesus, what the hell did he say?"
Winston searched his own mental archives.
A buttoned-down Skull & Bones veteran of executive-branch politics, he had experienced an extraordinary tenure, having served at high levels in the NSA and on the National Security Council in both Bush administrations. His carryover appointment was both an olive branch across the aisle and a gesture of confidence toward Intelligence: A community beleaguered by scandal, Cold War excesses, and spectacular failures, now resurrected and seeking redemption through its mission against global terrorism.
Winston, their point man, produced an answer.
"Yes. Wasn't it, 'How much time do I have?'"
"No, 'How much time do I get?'" the President said, in Harry Truman's flat twang, savoring the Midwest inflection. "How much time do I get?"
Winston nodded, composed and ramrod straight.
Younger White House staffers had observed that he seemed to wear alertness like a mask, as if some hard-bitten mentor from the halls of spookdom had once cautioned him that blinking one's eyes was a sign of weakness. And, though word was passed down that the President regarded R. Cabot Winston as a symbol of national unity, many still referred to him in-house as "Robo-Bob." It was cruel, but fair.
"Well, I guess that's my question, too, Bob."
"We're a few days out from final testing, sir."
"Days." The President's surprise was eloquent enough.
Winston offered a thin-lipped smile. "With a caveat which I will explain."
As if triggering a pair of explosive bolts, the national security adviser loudly snapped open the bombproof briefcase handcuffed to his left wrist. He then produced a file stamped PROJECT ORION/POTUS/EYES ONLY and laid it flat on the Oval Office desk. POTUS used reading glasses to inspect it as Winston explained.
"This is the executive order authorizing continuing funding of space shield research and testing. The record enclosed represents decades of development and half a trillion dollars invested, give or take, each phase of publicly funded R & D supplemented with discretionary monies by presidential EO. The line for your initials has been flagged."
Noting all the previous presidents' initials displayed in succession, the new Commander in Chief handled the documents like rare historical artifacts prepared for display at the Smithsonian. But he'd have bet his campaign debt that this record would never see the light of day.
"I guess Star Wars didn't just fade away when the Wall came down," he said, leafing through the pages.
"Fortunately not, sir."
Classified above top secret, the file in the President's hands charted the progress of Project Orion from its Cold War roots as part of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, a.k.a. Star Wars, to its post-911 incarnation as a space-based laser weapons system adroitly repositioned as a shield against rogue terrorist ICBMs.
"Ups the ante from a few missiles on the ground in Alaska, doesn't it?"
"The photon laser leapfrogs all other missile defense technology, sir."
The President nodded, his apprehensions intact: Space-based weapons more than violated America's post-ABM strategic defense agreements with Russia. And September 11 no longer provided a free pass for whatever the U.S. wanted in the name of national security.
"So, what's the damned caveat, Bob?"
Winston presented the facts unadorned, like a nice neat hanging.
"There's a hard window for deployment, sir. We have twenty-one days."
"That's ridiculous. We're still looking for the johns around here."
Excerpted from The Orion Protocol by Gary Tigerman. Copyright © 2003 by Gary Tigerman. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.