No communication yet from the surface of Mars, and CJ knew there wasn't going to be. This mission would have to be up to Galileo VI, but for the moment -- standing by the window, listening to the President address schoolchildren -- she preferred to believe that the call could come at any moment.
"Communication restored. Mission successful." She could hear it in her head. And if it happened, she would hear it in her dreams, and it would never cease to give her chills along the back of her neck. Because that call was going to be followed by the images from Galileo. Just the thought. Just the fact that ...
"You're good in bed?"
CJ blinked and turned a little to face Sam.
"Shut up," she whispered. A moment later, she revised her statement. "Yes. But shut up."
Sam turned from CJ and looked again to the President. Disreguarding the experts who were seated to his left and right, the President was explaining to 6th-grader Darren Hackett why Mars and Earth didn't have the same number of days in their year.
Sam only listened for a moment before he turned to stare past CJ out the window. It was somewhat breezy out, with short bursts of strong wind that left the trees shaking in confusion. Somewhat the way Mallory left him shaking in confusion. He knew the thought was dramatic, but he was a writer, and anyway he was only trying to be honest. Mallory made him feel like the leaves of an oak tree fluttering after being hit by strong winds, and no amount of editing could change that.
Not that he didn't enjoy it. He'd missed the sound of her voice. He was just being honest.
Obviously, he thought a little smugly, she had missed the sound of his voice, too. After all, she had led an argument just to hear him comment on --
"Green beans," Josh whispered.
Sam turned to face him. "Excuse me?"
"I was just thinking about the green beans."
"I don't know."
"You know how sometimes thoughts just get stuck on your brain and you can't move on?"
"Josh, there's no reason to be thinking about the green beans."
"No, I know, I'm just --"
"Just -- thinking about the green beans anyway."
Josh shrugged. "I'm kind of hungry," he admitted. Sam smiled and turned away.
Josh looked past him to watch the President, ignoring his panel of experts, explain to 4th-grader Phoebe Shelley that Mars was named for a mythical god of war, then spend a couple of minutes defining 'mythical'.
It didn't take Josh long to tune out again. It was not that he wasn't interested in the President's answers to schoolchildren. It was just that he had a lot to think about tonight.
And she wasn't standing too terribly far away.
Donna was standing motionless, watching the President with apparent interest. Josh didn't understand how she did it -- how she could concentrate on something so completely, and then be able to repeat the facts she'd learned arranged by topic, chronology, or the letters they started with.
She knew dates. Monetary sums. Mathematical predictions. Polling numbers. She knew every adjective that was ever used to describe every noun that was ever spoken. By the time she was finished standing here she would know everything about Mars, and she could tell him all these things as they came to her, at an instant's notice in the middle of discussion.
And then she could turn around and concentrate on something else, be it a book, a conversation, or the President, without letting anything distract her. When she was concentrating, she couldn't hear him speak to her. He wondered if she would even hear it if he were to lean close to her and say --
"So help me, if you don't start paying attention, I'll stick you with every equivalent of the stamp assignment from now until his second term."
Slowly Josh turned to face Toby. "Toby --"
"Pay attention, Josh."
"To our President."
"What did he just say?"
"Letterman, Josh. Our President!"
"Why do I have to pay attention?" Josh whined.
"Because CJ isn't, and she's going to need someone to fill her in on what happened."
Josh frowned. "Well, why doesn't CJ have to pay attention?"
"She's over there. I'm over here."
"If you'd like, I could throw something at her. Maybe a book of stamps ..." Josh stopped. "Wait. Why can't Sam do it?"
"Why can't Sam hit CJ with a book of stamps?"
"Why can't Sam fill CJ in on what's happening?"
"Sam's not listening. He's thinking about Mallory."
"You don't want to --"
"The more time he spends thinking about it quietly, the less time he'll spend thinking about it aloud in an office adjacent to my own."
"You really think you're going to get that lucky?"
"No, but it ... doesn't hurt to try."
Josh nodded and pretended to understand. "And, just to be clear about this, you can't fill CJ in yourself because --"
Toby smiled one of his brief non-smiles. "I don't really care that much."
Toby stepped away from Josh and tried to listen to the President. The answers he was interrupting the experts to give were good ones. They were clear enough for fourth-graders while carrying a passion anyone couldn't help but see. But it was difficult to concentrate in the face of ... well, everything, tonight.
He focused on the sliver of sky he could see through the window behind CJ. He could almost imagine a star or two were visible in daylight. Stars, and Galileo, and these things Americans could come so close to accomplishing ...
Mars was out there right now, spinning at 37 minutes' difference to its neighbor. How incredible it is we can see those planets, Toby thought, in echo of somebody else he knew. His brother Davie used to say it, back when he was Davie instead of Dr. David Ziegler. How incredible it is that we can stand on Earth and see Mars, and how sad we can't stand on Mars and look back at the Earth. Davie had never wanted to be anything but the thing he had become.
Toby, on the other hand, had wanted to be everything. From astronomy to geology to archaeology to English, in elementary school Toby had wanted to do it all. There had even been a time, for about a week in second grade, when he had wanted to be --
Toby turned slowly to face Charlie. "......What?"
"I'm sorry to bother you in the middle of an event --"
"What about fishing tackle?"
"I'm reading it here." Charlie showed Toby a piece of paper. "This is a memo from the Horton-Brinkley Fishermen's Club in ... I'm assuming somewhere on either the east or the west coast, or perhaps near a lake. They're upset about a thing they think the White House implied about the inferiority of the tackle they prefer to use. Listen to this: 'An unnamed White House source implied that when fishing for Muskie, the President would be unlikely to use the Hornton-Brinkley Basher, a specific combination ... of ...." Charlie noticed, at last, the look of absolute pain on Toby's face. "I'm sorry, am I boring you?"
Toby scratched his chin. "Yes."
"The President doesn't fish, does he?"
"Then this is probably just someone playing a little joke, huh?"
"Should I leave?"
"All right, then." Charlie moved away.
He put the fishing paper back in his folder and tried to listen to the President, who was talking about past voyages into space. But it didn't take long for his mind to drift back to the thing he had noticed yesterday.
CJ had listened to him.
Oh, it was subtle, but the signs were there. The White House, in all its paranoia, had nonetheless decided to stick with the original, potentially damaging implication that the President did not eat all his vegetables.
It was so many levels of strange, working in this place. Once the White House was this thing that he looked at and didn't imagine entering except on the occasional general tour. He took those more often than his peers would have thought was natural. Just the architecture gave him chills. And on one of those tours, he heard about the messenger job, and it occurred to him that people other than the President -- people like him -- worked in this place.
This place where green beans were sometimes on the same platform as education and health care; this place where the most maddeningly trivial details could become top news stories, but where such incredible work was done at such a pace that you didn't have time to go mad. This --
Charlie turned to Donna. "Excuse me?"
"Mars. I didn't realize it was that cold."
"I guess I had no reason to actually know what temperature Mars was."
"I mean, it's not like I'm packing for a vacation there, or anything. Ask me what to wear in Hawaii and I can tell you. But on Mars --" She smiled at Charlie. "I'm sorry, I'm going to stop talking now."
"We should probably listen to the President," Charlie agreed.
Donna nodded and turned back to feigning concentration on the President. He was describing to 6th-grader Charlie McCall how much colder than Earth Mars was. Something about the number of winter coats you would need to be able to play outside when school was cancelled ...
And Donna's mind had drifted off again. She was thinking about the stamp, and the wonder of the fact that Josh had agreed with her on that one. Leo had given the assignment to Toby. Josh, being Josh, wound up stuck with it.
But it was Donna who had truly landed the stamp assignment, and she had thoroughly enjoyed it.
The thing was, she hadn't expected Josh to change his mind when she argued with him about the stamp. She was arguing to argue; she believed what she was saying, but she didn't expect Josh to believe it.
And then suddenly he was telling her she was right, that the stamp issue was settled.
And that it was too bad the her-face-on-a-stamp idea didn't work out, but maybe next year.
"Oh, by next year," she had said, "I'll have my image plastered on the side of every --"
Donna blinked. CJ had materialized beside her. "Uh -- yes, please." Donna took a tic tac and pretended she was interested in the President's explanation of where Galileo V got its name.
"Come off it," CJ whispered. "I'm trying, too. It's just that --"
"Long week," Donna agreed.
"Lots of fun."
"And it's not over yet."
"Hmm?" CJ looked over her shoulder to where Donna pointed. Leo was standing in the doorway with a piece of paper in his hand.
Leo handed the paper to Sam, who grinned as he read it, and passed it to Josh.
Josh did a little bounce on his feet as he handed the paper to Toby.
Toby came as close to grinning as he ever did as he gave the paper to Charlie.
Charlie's grin was wide as he read it, then passed the paper to Donna.
Donna's eyes danced as she read the paper and then handed it to CJ.
CJ skimmed the words three times over as the chills worked their way down the back of her neck.
"Communication restored. Mission successful."
CJ grinned in turn at Donna, Charlie, Toby, Josh, and Sam. Then she turned to face the front of the room in excitement.
A moment later the President stared quietly at the piece of paper he had just been handed. The room was silent, and all the classrooms watching were. Nine-year-olds in desks in elementary schools watched a screen where a man they had never met sat staring at something they couldn't see.
Then he looked up at them, and his eyes had that sparkly look, like the look their mother got when she told them about snow days. He was about to say something important, and they waited, as quiet as during a spelling test, for him to speak.
"Well, now," said President Bartlet. "We've had a good chat, and it is finally time to learn the ultimate thing about the universe: That it is absolutely beautiful."
An image came up on their screens.