Even after a year and a half, it was unbelievable to sit in the Oval Office. To sit in the chair of the President of the United States.
This was his desk now…
Eugene Farrell looked up from the notes he was preparing. In a half an hour, he’d go down to the press room and make a brief statement on events of the day. He’d learned to use his time well.
“Your three-thirty appointment, the Admiral, is here now.”
“Ah. Send them right in.” There was never just one of course, but always two or three.
Zeke, his personal assistant, ushered them in and made brief introductions, the most important of which was the admiral himself.
Scott Hopkins was young for the job at forty four, and this was their first meeting.
They shook hands with professional bonhomie.
Farrell already liked the other, the trouble was the president couldn’t really trust his guts. Not anymore. They all took their seats.
He knew nothing about the man. They’d had a few of these visits, requested as official courtesy calls, or otherwise rather mysterious in the details. Then, usually, all they wanted was more money. Most of the projects seemed fairly legit as far as his advisers could ascertain. Conning the president wasn’t exactly unheard-of. If nothing else, it took nerve, something he’d always admired.
“So. Gentlemen.” The President put his hands up behind his head, leaning back in the deeply-padded leather swivel chair and giving them his full attention.
He put a foot up on a knee, looking comfortable.
“Thank you, Mister President. Our purpose today is to give this office an initial briefing on Project Laundry.”
The President straightened up with an odd look in his eye. He exchanged a glance with Zeke, who shrugged.
“This is the first time you’ve heard about this, Mister President. It’s not a high-priority weapons-system or rather, a strategic-balance-altering bomb, missile or laser. No, Project Laundry is pure science, and long-term science at that. We may not see the benefits in our lifetimes…”
“It’s not even particularly expensive, as such projects go.” Doctor Anton Schneurle was an elderly man with thick, dark, rounded glasses and an accent that sounded Dutch, possibly German.
“Oh, really.” The President pursed his lips, tipping back again as he listened. “Go on.”
They probably wanted him to intercede with the armed services committee. Budget allocations were a heated and very partisan subject under any administration. Allocations, or at least proposals, were ongoing.
The admiral hesitated, unable to meet the President’s eyes.. He looked up and cleared his throat.
“This may sound rather odd.” He pulled notes and diagrams, a sheaf of glossy colour photos of a laboratory complex, out of his leather valise.
“You see, Mister President. It’s all about the missing sock.”
“Hence the name—Project Laundry.” Captain Edward Beachey, the admiral’s youthful adjutant, stuck in an oar to clarity.
It was his project and he wasn’t so shy about it.
“Sock? What sock?” Eugene stared at Zeke in awe.
He was sure someone was playing a quick joke on him. They’d done it before, even hammed it up for the media a time or two. Eugene had been tempted to blacken a tooth and wear a straw hat, after what Senator Don Beeemer of Oklahoma said about him.
It was important not to take it too personally.
The admiral beckoned to the captain.
“You can explain it better.”
Eugene nodded at the young officer.
Even Captain Beachey had to take a breath and clear his throat.
“Okay. So when the lady of the house does the family laundry, approximately forty-four one hundredths of the time, a sock goes missing. This is a scientifically-established fact. Problem: where does it go? And how would we ever be able to verify that?”
“In other words, what happened to the sock?” The admiral stepped in, trying to be helpful.
“You can’t be serious.” Zeke almost slapped himself in the side of the head.
His boss Eugene hated time-wasters. His time in office was precious and he had a lot of things he wanted to see over and done with. Not everyone got a second term, as Eugene said himself.
Their current president hated pork and slush projects, projects that were off the books and run with little oversight, the whole hideous, seamy underbelly of federal funding for military development and research. The intelligence community was really bad for that. They already had several feuds going with them.
The president gasped. He stared at Zeke.
“These people are serious.”
“Yes, we are, Mister President.” The captain was deadly earnest in his need to convince, to explain, to convert if necessary.
Eugene’s head swiveled inexorably around to the captain.
There was a long moment of silence as the president digested the fellow’s mien, the unusual gravitas of the old scientist. Hopkins was nodding complacently.
Those eyes were brimming with some thrilling secret.
“What are you trying to tell me, young man?”
With a quick glance at the admiral, the captain took a breath and began at the beginning.
“What if they’re going into Null-space?’ The captain’s eyes bored into his.
“Hah?” The president swallowed. “Null-space? You’re out of your mind.”
Captain Beachey shook his head decisively.
He explained about the static electricity buildup, its interaction with the regular kind of electricity, the rotational motion of both the motor and the drum, the lines of electromagnetic force crossing other lines of electromagnetic force, the heat, and the humidity…finally, the blank look on the president’s face brought him crashing to a halt.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that science isn’t my thing.”
“The President is really known more for his economic theories.” Zeke was apologetic, which was actually a bad thing as a defensive posture was usually unproductive in these little sessions.
This would be going on the taxpayer’s tab.
The captain took another deep breath and tried again.
“So you have a thousand dryers in a room? A sealed environment?” Eugene shook his head, glancing in disbelief at his assistant. “Unbelievable.”
“Yes, sir. And we have a couple of hundred washers, forty-eight employees, all top security status, and a hundred thousand pairs of socks, all numbered and tagged, with a seamless web of checks and tracking points.”
They had fifty thousand internal camera pickups. It was wired tighter than Fort Knox, as the captain assured.
Apparently they were trying to catch a sock in the ‘act’ of vanishing, or so he explained.
They were doing loads of laundry, around the clock, in three shifts.
The admiral leaned forward.
“And get this, Mister President.”
The president sat calmly composed, still sure it was some kind of odd-ball prank. His birthday was coming up, maybe that had something to do with it.
“We still don’t know where they go, Mister President.”
“What? What the hell are you talking about? Where what goes?” The President, not sleeping well lately and tied up with preparations for the economic summit, was quickly becoming exasperated.
“The socks, Mister President.” The captain gave Zeke a significant look. “Even under hermetically-sealed conditions, even with professional lab personnel, forty-four one hundredths of all socks still somehow manage to disappear, Mister President.”
“They cannot just vanish into thin air. I am convinced.” Doctor Schneurle’s face was set in concrete.
According to the captain, the laundry machines were regularly dismantled, again under lab conditions, and only seldom was a stray sock ever found. Ductwork, piping, drains, it had all been checked over and over by highly-trained people.
“In a half a million cycles, we have recovered exactly two socks. This is lost in the statistical noise. I mean, it doesn’t prove anything, either way.” The accented voice of Doctor Schneurle was calm and assured. “They were in the dryer vent and the machines in question were rebuilt, as some of their parts had become worn and sloppy.”
“Really?” The President quickly recovered his composure. “And what, pray tell, is the significance of that?”
It only sounded half snarky.
The admiral took over again, as the captain, especially, wilted under that gaze.
“Those socks must be going somewhere, Mister President. Whoever commands that secret, for surely that is what it is, commands the next battlefield. We will command the next battlefield, and by that I mean the one for time and space, matter, and energy itself. We will win the battle for Null-space. Trust me. You can count on that one, Mister President.”
There was no trace of a smile.
Eugene’s gambler’s heart spurted into a trip-hammer beat. This was real…?
“So you’re saying this is not a joke then?” The president looked at his hands. “Hmn.”
“No, Mister President. No joke.” Doctor Schneurle smiled thinly, sounding an awful lot like Henry Kissinger for a moment, a man whom Eugene had always admired.
Eugene Farrell looked helplessly at Zeke, who shrugged and looked thoughtful.
“It’s your call, Mister President. They’re here now. We might as well hear them out.”
“Holy shit.” Mother always said there would be days like this.
And she was right, too.
Author’s Note: All of my books and stories are presently available for free from iTunes.