Graham pulled around to the back of Publix.
As this hour the plaza was closed and deserted. He parked facing the dumpster, leaving his headlights on and engine idling. There was a tingle of alarm in his gut now, but it might have been caused by exhaustion as much as anything. He drummed his fingers on the wheel.
Then headlights blinked in his rearview mirror and Graham saw a car parked twenty feet behind him. He reached into the console and pulled out the knife he kept there; Graham detested guns but he’d grown up in Brooklyn. He knew how to use a knife. He slipped it into his back pockets as he exited the car; it was more for his own psychological comfort than anything. He knew if the person or persons in the other car intended him harm there really wasn’t much he could do about it. That kind of thing so rarely happened to investigative journalists, though, despite the movies.
The high beams blinded him.
“You mind?” Graham said, shielding his eyes.
The lights went off and Graham squinted, adjusting his eyes. The car was a late model Honda Civic, tan or gray, hard to tell in the uneven lighting. The driver exited the vehicle. He was wearing a trench coat, baseball hat and sunglasses despite the darkness.
“Really?” Graham said. “A little dramatic, don’t you think?”
The man came forward, stopping ten feet from Graham. Even his hands were gloved, Graham noted. Based on the man’s girth and what he could see of the face he estimated that Tycho was in his fifties. “You’re older than your photo,” the man said. He had a gravely, nervous voice.
“Sentinel likes to keep us young,” Graham quipped.
The man reached into his coat pocket and for a moment Graham thought he was going to remove a gun, but instead he produced an electronic paper tube. He threw it to Graham, who fumbled to catch it.
“Do I get a hint?”
“You’ll figure it out. I’ve taken too much of a risk already.”
Graham tossed the tube back to him. “Forget it.”
The man caught the tube as unsteadily as Graham just had a moment ago. “Do you know what I risked to get this?”
“Nope. That’s the point. I don’t know anything. For all I know that tube is full of anthrax.”
“There’s no anthrax, god damn it.”
“All I know is I flew across the country and went through your hoops, and I still don’t know why. And I’m going to have to explain the sudden itinerary change to my editor, not to mention the costs, and he won’t be too happy. So before I go investing more of my time, you’re going to give some details. Or I’m walking.” “Then I’ll just go to the New York Times.”
“Be my guest,” Graham said, pivoting and striding for his car – a calculated bluff on his part.
“Wait,” the man finally said.
Graham turned back. Hook, line, and sinker.
Tycho took a few tentative steps to close the gap to Graham. “I can’t tell you. If I do, they’ll know it was me. What I know...” He shook his head.
“Or what I think I know, it’s unbelievable.”
Graham saw it then.
The man was afraid.
And he wasn’t lying or toying with Graham. He was unsure, possibly paranoid, but he was sincere. Graham was going to have to coax it out of him. “Look, I’m running on adrenaline and caffeine pills here. Just help me out.”
Tycho stared down at the tube in his hands. “Mr. Graham, I don’t even believe it myself, but that’s why you have to.” He held out the tube. “If you’re smart, you’ll figure it out. Either way, this whole thing is probably going public in a matter of weeks, but you have a chance to get in front of it. To get the exclusive. That’s what you guys like, isn’t it?”
Graham took a forward. “Give me something I can bite into.”
Tycho was silent for a moment, then said, “Just check out OASIS.”
Graham frowned, scrambling to assign meaning to the word. The only immediate recall was an old NASA space architecture study, but the extract of it eluded him. Tycho tossed the tube to him, then walked back to his car.
“One question,” Graham said. “Why?”
Tycho, half in his car, considered the question. It seemed to shrink him.
“Because I was promised the future. Because after three decades of working at NASA, doing ground-breaking work, the last five years of it in the grueling hell of a top- secret project nobody’s ever going to know about, they suddenly scrapped it all. Closed my division. Took my team away. I was designing aerospace systems while my friends were getting blow jobs in the back the bus, and they want me to push papers now? I wasn’t supposed to know, but know the whole world will.”
“Downsizing happens. Programs come and go. What makes you so special?” This was a deliberate jab to draw out an explicit answer, a direct clue.
“I’m not special,” Tycho said. “That’s the point. But I believed them. From the time I was a little boy, when I watched the first moon landing. Armstrong’s words. Every Presidential speech that promised us the moon and the stars. All of it. NASA was supposed to be our future. But somebody beat us to it.”
“What do you mean?”
But Tycho was already in his car, high beams on again, backing away.
A squeal of tires, and he was gone.
Graham reached into his breast pocket and removed the phone, turning off the voice recorder. He’d gotten the whole conversation, but with the engines of both cars running he wasn’t sure how audible it would be. He stopped the recording and went back to his car.