Paul returned to work and met with Ben Rich, Steve Rossi, and several engineers.
Ben said: "We know there is a crisis on about radar. The Government is all over aerospace, trying to get fixes. We're so secret that we didn't even get the RFP (Request For Proposal), and the RFP is so secret only a few people at a few companies knew about it.
"We haven't built a fighter since Korea, and our main customer has been the CIA. I've had to jump through hoops to get them to let us talk to the Air Force about the work we've done on spy planes like the U-2 and the SR-71 Blackbirdall highly classified and for years we denied they existed.
"We want a piece of that anti-radar money, Paul, and we were thinking about floating a manned version of our D-21."
Paul knew what that was: a series of pilotless ramjet drones, 44 feet wide and manta ray shaped, that the Air Force launched from B-52 bombers at high altitudes to photograph nuclear missile test facilities and ranges. It had a very low radar cross section.
Ben continued: "We've put together a small team to noodle through the possibility of reconfiguring the design, maybe to include a pilot. The problem is, the seed money is already used upa million bucks to come up with a proof of conceptand Lockheed will have to eat the bill if we go ahead. So I'm deeply interested in your idea. The little model was a real heads-up, and we're going to build our own models in house. If that works, we'll consider putting our money on your project. You'll be right in the thick of it, Paul."
"Thanks!" Paul's heart went wild with elation.
"Your early computer results look intriguing, and we want you to go ahead full time, whatever it takes, to nail down the optimum configuration so we can build a model. Got a surprise for youwe've called back Bill Schroeder as a consultant."
"Wow!" GreatBill had been Paul's mentor over the past few years. A brilliant mathematician, Bill was in his eighties and retired now, but his mind was as sharp as ever.
"We have a program name for youEcho I. How long do you think you might need?"
"Four months," Paul replied unhesitatingly.
Ben shook his head. "Can't do it. Three months."
"All right. Three months. After what I've just been through, that sounds like kid stuff."
The men all laughed.
One engineer said: "Paul, I don't know the math on this, but I can tell you that there has never been a plane like the one you're building. I'm really puzzled about how we're going to telescope 5 or 10 years of development to put together this entirely new class of aircraft." He sounded straight, but there was an undertone of disbelief or even ridicule in his tone.
Ben said: "If we go ahead, we'll have to use off the shelf components. You bring up a good point. Why don't you start putting together some theoretical configurations using stuff that's already in usedifferent engines, instrument panels, wheel assemblies, what have you."
"For a plane whose shape we don't even know?"
"You saw the model. It'll kinda look like that. Come on, you guys, this is the Skunk Works, not some tight-ass conventional shop. Even a brick will fly if you put the right engines and wings on it. Make me a flying brick."
The man grinned. "You got it, boss."
After the meeting, Steve Rossi walked with Paul to Paul's new officehis old laboratory! All of his boxes were lined up along the wall, just as the usurper Alex Fitch's boxes had been only a few months ago. And Paul had his old parking spot back.
Now if only Marsha were working here still. But some things were not to be.
Steve said: "You gotta understand, Paul, this is big-time, and Kelly Johnson doesn't seem to like it. The Government doesn't believe in stealth a whole lot. As a nice bit of frosting for the cake, maybe, but they are pushing ahead like gangbusters, billions of dollars of funding, for a bomber called the B-1. The B-1 will fly in a treetop level, lost in ground clutter, and sneak through the radars. That's what the Pentagon is betting on. Turning them around will be an uphill battle every inch of the way."
"At least I have a job and I have my clearance back."
"You're a humble man who asks little." Steve laughed and clapped Paul on the back.
"I've been to hell and back. You should try it some time. It's an eye opener."
And to heaven and back, Paul added inwardly.
"Oh Paul!" Ben Rich's voice echoed in the hallway.
Ben walked toward him carrying the undercarriage of the model, with the skin gone. "Figured you might want this back. Looks like a helluva nice design. Three engines, huh?"
"Thanks." Paul accepted the little bird. "I figured three engines would be optimum for stability."
That afternoon, Marsha came over with Pete. She was radiant, though a little sad underneath. Paul wished she'd let him erase all that tragedy from her lovely eyes.
"Look here, Pete. I made a new model."
"Where's the wings?"
"Well, the wings areat work. It's a big secret and we can't talk about it. So what I figured is, why don't you and I build a nice airplane."
"A flying saucer!"
"Huh? Well, okay, sure... this thing hovers pretty nicely."
"Wow! Three engines! Will it do gyros?"
"You mean gyrations? If we design it right, sure."
"Can we design it right?"
"I'll do my best. Why don't you fly Condor a little bit while I talk to your mom? I'll sketch a little designhey, I have an idea, why don't you also do a saucer design. Then we'll put the two together and come up with."
"Condor III," Pete said proudly.
"You got it."
Paul and Marsha went into the kitchen for tea. They stood close together in the gloom, watching the boy run around outside. The tea kettle made popping sounds.
"You're very good with him, Paul." She squeezed his hand.
"I like him. He's a great kid."
"He's a lot like his dad. Big hearted and brave and steady... Jeffrey had so many great qualities."
Paul saw the light. "You're a real great gal, Marsha. You deserve another Jeffrey, not a silly nose cone engineer."
"That isn't it at all. I wouldn't have you in my bed if I didn'twell, think the world of you, maybe even feel some kind of crush on you." She placed the palms of her hands on his chest and rubbed lightly, absently, up and down. "You're a wonderful man. Believe me, Alex Fitch was an eye opener. I've been spoiled. First Jeffrey, and then you."
"He's pretty smooth with women, I guess," Paul said, wishing Fitch had never appeared in their lives.
"I saw through him pretty quickly. He was my boss, and I was new at the company, and I didn't know how to say no. All I knew how to do was put the brakes on, andwe'll, that's old hat."
"So you're suing him?" That would tie her up here for years, Paul thought.
"No. My lawyer said she's dropping the case. It was attempted rape, and he didn't get very far, because I hit him with my shoe. All he did was slap me across the face, and it didn't leave any marks. There's no real proof other than my word, and court would be ugly." She put her palm on his cheek. "We have about ten days, sweetie. I already have the plane tickets, and the house goes up for sale tomorrow. I'm sorry, darling."
"Do they have nose cone designers up in Oregon?"
She smiled wistfully and shook her head. "No. You stay here, build your career, meet a nice girl, forget meI'm used material."
"I feel very strongly for you."
"I know you do."
The kettle whistled and they went into the kitchen with the tea tray. Paul realized he was upset when he tried to sip scalding tea and burned his lower lip. She dabbed concernedly with a dishtowel. "Poor baby."
"I want to ask you just once, Marsha, and then I will never say it again. Please stay here and let's see what becomes of us."
She shook her head darkly, and he could see the strength of her determination. "My mother is very sick, and my dad is going to pieces. I have to help. She's got a clear mind, and she's been in remission, and I expect she'll be better in a few months. By then our lives will have moved on to other things."
"Is there a man?"
"No." She gazed at him with utter sincerity, and some hurt. "Paul, if there were a man, I would not be sleeping with you."
"I just wanted to know."
"And I never slept with Fitch. I'm sorry if you were jealous. I'll make it up to you in the next few weeks."
Paul realized he was beaten. "All right."
She touched his cheek again. "I have to think about Pete. He has family up there who miss him. And Jeffrey's parentsthey desperately want their grandson to live near them. And you're involved in the project of a lifetime, from what I can tell."
"How do you know?"
"Pete told me." She laughed, having put the shoe on the other foot.
"What does Pete know?"
"He's a pretty bright kid. He looks out the window at your comings and goings. He knows you've been through a crisis, and he knows you've been designing secret models. He had it all figured out."
"I can't talk about it."
"Of course not. Don't be silly, Paul. You can't give up what you're doing, and I can't change what I have to do."
"This must be the accountant in youare all accountants that rational?"
"I'm just starting to be."
"Want to come over here tonight? See my models?"
"I'd be afraid to. After what you told me about intruders breaking in your house and making a mess. I couldn't bear to think of being here with you, and Peter alone in the house if somebody broke in."
Paul nodded. "If you'd like, I'll come over there."
She threw her arms around his neck and hungrily put her lips to his, thrusting at him with her tongue. He nearly dropped his tea. "I want you very badly," she said.
Later that night, when all was still, the phone in Paul's house gave one ring. It was her signal. As he crossed the cool, damp lawn, he looked up into the starlit sky and tried to make a mental snapshot of this moment. He would never be happier than when he was crossing the yard to climb into bed with her. He must remember every one of these precious few days, because they would be gone all too soon. The house across the yard would never seem the same to himhe knew all this because he was old enough, he'd lost enough in life, he knew the ropes. Better enjoy this while it lasted. He'd make love with her three, four times a night trying to store it up like charging some celestial battery in his soul before staggering home through the dew late at night. He'd get up early and come back each morning to make love with her before Pete was awake... only that never happened, because he was always so tired from making love the night before that he'd sleep to the last minute. Luckily, Marsha wasn't working now, and she had a nice hot breakfast waiting for him and Pete every morning. It was all that was left now: to enjoy her while they had each other.