He started to ask the Senator how Anna was doing, but the door behind him opened before he could. The discordant cries of the busy phones disturbed the quiet as the thin receptionist entered and delivered two bottles of water. Donald thanked her, twisted the cap off, and saw that it had been pre-opened. Just like at that fancy steakhouse the lobbyist from the PAGW had taken him to.
“I hope you’re not too busy to work on something for me.” Senator Thurman raised an eyebrow. Donald took a sip of water and wondered if that was a skill one could master, that eyebrow lift. It was effective as hell. It made him want to jump to attention and salute.
“Oh, I can make the time,” he said. “After all the stumping you did for me? I doubt I would’ve made it past the primaries.” He held the water bottle in his lap. When he crossed his legs, he became self-conscious of his brown socks and black pants. He lowered his foot back to the ground and wished Helen had stayed in D.C. longer.
“You and Mick Webb go back, right? Both Bulldogs.”
It took Donald a moment to realize the Senator was referring to their college mascot. He hadn’t spent a lot of time at Georgia following sports. “Yessir. Go Dawgs.”
He hoped that was right.
The Senator smiled. He leaned forward so that his face caught the soft light raining down on his desk. Donald watched as shadows caught in wrinkles otherwise easy to miss. Thurman’s lean face and square chin made him look younger straight-on than he probably did from the side. Here was a man who got places by approaching others directly rather than in ambush.
“You studied architecture at Georgia.”
Donald nodded. It was easy to forget that he knew Thurman better than the Senator knew him. One of them grabbed far more newspaper headlines than the other.
“That’s right. For my undergrad. I went into planning for my master’s. I figured I could do more good governing people than I could drawing boxes to put them in.”
He winced to hear himself deliver the line. It was a pat phrase from grad school, something he should’ve left behind with crushing beer cans on his forehead and ogling asses in skirts. He wondered for the dozenth time why he and the other congressional newcomers had been summoned. When he first got the invite, he figured it was a social visit. Then Mick bragged about his own appointment, and Donald figured it was some kind of formality or tradition. But now he wondered if this was a power play, a chance to butter up the Reps from Georgia for those times when Thurman would need a particular vote in the lower and lesser house.
“Tell me, Donny—” The Senator reached for his bottle of water, glanced up. “How good are you at keeping secrets?”
Donald’s blood ran cold. He forced himself to laugh off the sudden flush of nerves.
“I got elected, didn’t I?”
Senator Thurman smiled. “And so you probably learned the best lesson there is about secrets.” He raised his plastic bottle in salute. “Denial.”
Donald nodded and took a sip of his own water. He wasn’t sure where this was going, but he already felt uneasy. He sensed some of the backroom dealings coming on that he’d promised his constituents he’d root out if elected.
The Senator leaned back in his chair.
“Denial is the secret sauce in this town,” he said. “It’s the flavor that holds all the other ingredients together. Here’s what I tell the newly elected: the truth is gonna get out—it always does—but it’s gonna blend in with all the lies.” The Senator twirled a hand in the air. “You have to deny each lie and every truth with the same vinegar. Let those websites and blowhards who bitch about cover-ups confuse the public for you.”
“Uh, yessir.” Donald didn’t know what else to say. This seemed like a strange conversation to be having. He took another gulp of water.
The Senator lifted an eyebrow again. He remained frozen for a pause, and then asked, out of nowhere: "Do you believe in aliens, Donny?”
Donald nearly lost the water out of his nose. He covered his mouth with his hand, coughed, had to wipe his chin. The Senator didn’t budge.
“Aliens?” Donald shook his head and wiped his wet palm on his thigh. “Nossir. I mean, not the abducting kind. Why?”
He wondered if this was some kind of debriefing. Why had the Senator asked him if he could keep a secret? Was this a security initiation? The Senator remained silent.
“They’re not real,” Donald finally said. He watched for any twitch or hint. “Are they?”
The old man cracked a smile. “That’s the thing,” he said. “If they are or they aren’t, the chatter out there would be the exact same. Would you be surprised if I told you they’re very much real?”
“Hell, yeah, I’d be surprised.”
“Good.” The Senator slid a folder across the desk. Donald eyed it and held up a hand.
“Wait. Are they real or aren’t they? What’re you trying to tell me?”
Senator Thurman laughed. “Of course they’re not real. Are you kidding?” He took his hand off the folder and propped his elbows on the desk. “Have you seen how much NASA wants from us so they can fly to Mars and back? No way we’re getting to another star. Ever. And no one’s coming here. Hell, why would they?”
Donald didn’t know what to think, which was a far cry from how he’d felt less than a minute ago. He saw what the Senator meant, how truth and lies seemed black and white, but mixed together, they made everything gray and confusing. He glanced down at the folder. It looked similar to the one Mick had been carrying and reminded him of the government’s fondness for all things outdated.
“This is denial, right?” He studied the Senator. “That’s what you’re doing right now. You’re trying to throw me off.”
“No. This is me telling you to stop watching so many science fiction flicks. In fact, why do you think those eggheads are always dreaming of colonizing some other planet? You have any idea what would be involved? It’s ludicrous. Not cost-effective.”
Donald shrugged. He didn’t think it was ludicrous. He twisted the cap back onto his water. “It’s in our nature to dream of open space,” he said. “To find room to spread out in. Isn’t that how we ended up here?”
“Here? In America?” The Senator laughed. “We didn’t come here and find open space. We got a bunch of people sick, killed them, and made space.” Thurman pointed at the folder. “Which brings me to this. I’ve got something I’d like you to work on.”
Donald leaned forward and placed his bottle on the leather inlay of the formidable desk. He took the folder.
“Is this something coming through committee?”
He tried to temper his hopes. It was alluring to think of co-authoring a bill his first year in office. He opened the folder and tilted it toward the window, where storms were gathering.
“No, nothing like that. This is about CAD-FAC.”
Donald nodded. Of course. The preamble about secrets and conspiracies suddenly made perfect sense, as did the gathering of Georgia congressmen outside. This was about the Containment and Disposal Facility at the heart of the Senator’s new energy bill, the complex that would one day house most of the world’s spent nuclear fuel. Or, according to the websites Thurman had alluded to, it was going to be the next Area 51, or the site where a new-and-improved superbomb was being built, or a place where mad scientists would tunnel to the center of the earth to prevent the core from melting down, or a secure holding facility for Libertarians who had purchased one too many guns at Walmart. Take your pick. There was enough noise out there to hide any truth.
“Yeah,” Donald said, deflated. “I’ve been getting some entertaining calls from my district.” He didn’t dare mention the one about the Lizard People, or the one that had to do with magnetic poles flipping. “I want you to know, sir, that privately I’m behind the facility one hundred percent.” He looked up at the Senator. “I’m glad I didn’t have to vote on it publicly, of course, but it was about time someone offered up their backyard, right?”
“Precisely. For the common good.” Senator Thurman took a long pull from his water, and Donald noticed for the first time that his office didn’t reek of old cigar smoke, wasn’t infused with the stench of pipe tobacco, aged leather, expensive whiskey, and the other deal-making scents he constantly nosed back at Rayburn. Hell, despite Helen’s aromatic electric candles, his own office still stank like the eight-term Representative he’d ousted in the primaries—the one who had voted on the energy bill.
Thurman leaned back in his chair and cleared his throat. “You’re a sharp young man, Donny. Not everyone sees what a boon to our state this’ll be. A real life-saver.” He smiled. “I’m sorry, you are still going by Donny, right? Or is it Donald, now?”
“Either’s fine,” Donald lied. He no longer enjoyed being called Donny, but changing names in the middle of one’s life was practically impossible. He returned to the folder and flipped the cover letter over. There was a drawing underneath, a drawing that struck him as being out of place. It was...too familiar. Familiar, and yet it didn’t belong there—it was from another life. It was as if he’d woken up and found in his bed some object he’d clutched in a dream.
“Have you seen the economic reports?” Thurman asked. “Do you know how many jobs this bill created overnight?” He snapped his fingers. “Forty thousand, just like that. And that’s only from Georgia. A lot will be from your district, a lot of shipping, a lot of stevedores. Of course, now that it’s passed, our less nimble colleagues are grumbling that they should’ve had a chance to bid—”
“I drew this,” Donald interrupted, pulling out the sheet of paper. He showed it to Thurman as if the Senator would be surprised to see it had snuck into the folder. Donald wondered if this was the Senator’s daughter’s doing, some kind of a joke or hello-and-wink from Anna.
Thurman nodded. “Yes, well, it needs more detail, wouldn’t you say?”
Donald studied the architectural illustration and wondered what sort of test this was. He remembered the drawing. It was a last-minute project for his biotecture class his senior year. There was nothing unusual or amazing about it. His professor had given him a B, the red ink still tinged purple from where it had bled into the overlapping streaks of blue sky.
With an impartial eye, Donald would give the project a C+. It was spare where his classmates’ had been bold, utilitarian where he could’ve taken risks. Green tufts jutted up from the flat roof, a horrible cliché. Half the building was cut away to reveal the interspersed levels for housing, working, and shopping.
In sum, it was drab and boring. Donald couldn’t imagine a design so bare rising from the deserts of Dubai alongside the great new breed of self-sustaining skyscrapers. He certainly couldn’t see what the Senator wanted him to do with it, other than maybe burn it to the ground.
“More detail,” he murmured, repeating the Senator’s words. He flipped through the rest of the folder, looking for hints, for context.
“Hm.” Thurman sipped from his water bottle.
“Wait.” Donald studied a list of requirements written up as if by a prospective client. “This looks like a design proposal.” Words he had forgotten he’d ever learned caught his eye: interior traffic flow, block plan, HVAC, hydroponics—
“You’ll have to lose the sunlight.” Senator Thurman’s chair squeaked as he leaned over his desk. He moved Donald’s sweating bottle to a coaster and wiped the leather dry with his palm.
“It’s nothing. Forget about it.” Thurman waved his hand, obviously meaning the circle of moisture left by Donald’s bottle.
“No, you said sunlight.” Donald held the folder up. “What exactly are you wanting me to do?”
“I would suggest those lights like my wife uses.” He cupped his hand into a tiny circle and pointed at the center. “She gets these tiny seeds to sprout in the winter, uses bulbs that cost me a goddamned fortune.”
“You mean grow lights.”
Thurman snapped his fingers. “And don’t worry about the cost. Whatever you need. I’m also going to get you some help with the mechanical stuff. An engineer. An entire team.”
Donald flipped through more of the folder. “What is this for? And why me?”
“This is what we call a just-in-case building. Probably’ll never get used, but they won’t let us store the fuel rods out there unless we put this bugger nearby. It’s like this window in my basement I had to lower before our house could pass inspection. It was for...what do you call it—?”
“Egress,” Donald said, the word flowing back unaided.
Thurman snapped his fingers. “Right. Egress.” He pointed to the folder. “This building is like that window, something we’ve gotta build so the rest’ll pass inspection. This’ll be where—in the unlikely event of an attack or a leak—where facility employees can go. You know, like a shelter. And it needs to be perfect or this project’ll be shut down faster than a tick’s wink. Just because our bill passed and got signed doesn’t mean we’re home-free, Donny. There was that project out west that got okayed decades ago, scored funding. Eventually, it fell through.”
Donald knew the one he was talking about. A containment facility buried under a mountain. The buzz on the Hill was that the Georgia project had the same chances of success. The folder suddenly tripled in weight as he considered this. He was being asked to be a part of this future failure. He would be staking his newly won office on it.