Everyone in the room froze as a horrified scream cut through the children’s laughter. Secret Service agents, White House staffers and reporters alike could only look on in horror as the President touched his fingers to his chest and stared at them with disbelief; they were red, bright red, just like the stain which was spreading quickly through and across the front of his shirt.
“He got me Leo,” Bartlet grunted to his stunned Chief of Staff who had been standing mere feet away, so close his own white shirt had been splashed with crimson. “He got me…”
Everyone held their breath. The only sound was the clicking of camera shutters and the pop-popping of flash guns as the press photographers fought back their own disbelief to record the scene, record history-in-the-making, as they were paid to. Watching the proud, dedicated Bartlet on his knees, fingers slick with red, face pale with surprise, they knew their pictures would flash around the world within the hour.
Fighting back tears, the First Lady pushed her way through the crowd to her fallen husband’s side. He looked up at her imploringly, began to reach towards her with a scarlet-stained hand -
“Don’t you DARE get that paint on me Jed Bartlet!” Abby Bartlet laughed, taking a step back, almost knocking the stunned McGarry off his feet.
In front of the stricken President seven year old Lewis Murry was not moving, hardly breathing. With the can of red poster paint still clutched incriminatingly in his hand, he was convinced he was about to be shot by the Secret Service agents who were surrounding him. After all, that’s what happened when people tried to kill the President of the United States, as he’d just done.
Dabbing at her eyes as the tension around her began to ease and people dared to release coughs or sniggers, Abbey Bartlet added: “And stop being such a drama queen, can’t you see you’re scaring the poor child?”
“Mr President? Should I inform the Vice President?” a voice asked gravely from the side, and Bartlet looked around to see his usually stoney-faced Communications Director struggling to contain his own laughter.
“That won’t be necessary,” Bartlet replied, staring Toby Ziegler straight in the eye, “but you can tell Sam Seaborn he’s just been promoted because his boss cruelly and unnecessarily mocked the President of the United States.”
“Yes sir, I will sir, just as soon as he’s stopped laughing at you himself,” Ziegler said, glancing over at his Deputy, who was, wisely, covering his mouth with his hand.
That did it. Within a few moments everyone was laughing- everyone except Lewis Murry, who was still frozen to the spot, wide, terrified eyes fixed on the starburst of bright red paint he had splashed across the President’s chest, tripping whilst carrying the pot back from the supply cupboard. Bartlet smiled at the young boy in what he hoped was a reassuring way, but the gesture only pushed the child over the edge: he started to cry. More cameras clicked, more flash-guns flashed.
“Get him up off the floor,” Ziegler commanded his Deputy, quietly but forcefully, sensing a PR disaster, imagining the “President Makes Child Cry” headlines on the Washington Post’s next cover, “and get that poor kid out of here too. He looks like he’s about to – “
But it was too late. Scared beyond words, Lewis Murry threw up.
And as the room echoed to the sound of a dozen camera shutters recording in full colour the vomitous mass spattered on the front of the President’s shirt, Toby Ziegler knew that the headlines were the least of his problems. He could almost sense the cartoonists and satirists and talk show hosts wringing their hands at the prospect of renaming the President “Barf-let”…
An hour later, after donning a fresh shirt and washing himself clean in a secured locker room, Bartlet was back wandering around the second grade Art Class, commenting on the pictures and models its students had proudly prepared for him as part of their topic on “Space”. Of course, almost every one of his aides had advised him to return to the Whitehouse and cut short his visit, fearing more damage would be done to his image, but Bartlet knew the damage had been done. He also knew – even without his wife reminding him of it – that the kids would have been crushed, so he remained, agreeing with her that he might as well stay and enjoy himself. And besides, the kids had worked so hard. Who was he to ruin the biggest day of their young lives?
And so he wandered, and mingled, and looked. Many of the pictures were very similar, featuring one or two dull brown or grey circles on an inky black background dotted randomly with white splodge stars. But reaching one table Bartlet stopped, his attention grabbed by a painting that stood out.
“That’s pretty,” Bartlet said, peering over the shoulder of a young girl identified by her chest badge as “Lisa”. In contrast to those he had seen before, the sheet of paper spread out on the desk in front of Lisa was painted with brightly coloured circles of various sizes. Some had exotic hoops and rings around them, others appeared to be mottled, like bruises. Others bore craters, with sharp, raised rims. The background was decorated with five pointed stars, but they weren’t just scattered over it randomly; Bartlet recognised the familiar outlines of the Plough, Orion and Cassiopeia, several of his favourite constellations. He smiled when he also noticed, tucked away in the bottom left corner of the page, a silvery flying saucer, carrying its ET-like occupant towards a flaming Sun with a smiley face.
“It’s not finished yet,” Lisa said seriously, staring at her picture with a frown, “I think it needs more stars.” She looked up at Bartlet with huge, brown eyes. “Do you think it needs more stars?”
Bartlet shook his head. “I think it’s fine just as it is Lisa, unless you want to put Cygnus on there – “
“This is the winter sky,” Lisa huffed, looking up at him, and added, actually shaking her head as if she was scolding him, “you can’t see Cygnus in winter; it’s a summer constellation.” And with that she turned away from him, grabbed a yellow crayon and continued to add detail to one of her planets, blanking him completely.Taking a deep breath, Bartlet moved on. He knew when he was out of his depth, or beaten. And talking to Lisa he was definitely both.
That was when he noticed another young girl, even younger than Lisa, sitting on her own at the far end of the room. Unlike her classmates who were happily chatting and swapping crayons and pencils between themselves she had her head down, deep in concentration, and was working slowly on a picture hidden from everyone else’s view by her curved arms. Bartlet wasn’t sure if she was protecting her work, or embarrassed by it. There was only one way to find out.
“Can I see?” he asked, crouching down beside the young girl. She was almost impossibly pretty – an angel with a mop of blonde hair and pale skin.
But the girl’s attention was so focussed on her drawing that she didn’t even register his presence. She said nothing, didn’t even glance up. Both amused and bemused by his apparent invisibility, Bartlet studied the art material covering the tabletop. Nothing unusual, pens, crayons, paints… the same as the other students… but then he noticed everything on the table was a shade of red, or brown. He was even more intrigued.
“Can I see your picture?” Bartlet asked again, and this time the girl started, realising for the first time someone was watching her. He expected her to jump again when she recognised who her visitor was, but she seemed unfazed. Indifferent almost.
“I’m sorry Mr President, Sir,” she said politely after a moment or two, “I didn’t see you there.” Bartlet suppressed a smile. Was that a hint of disapproval he’d just heard in her young voice?
“It’s okay honey, many of the voters think I’ve disappeared too,” Bartlet said gently, still surprised by the formality of her tone and language. But maybe it was a blessing. After all, it had to be better than the alternative; the last thing he needed was a second over-excited youngster re-enacting the most famous scene from The Exorcist. “I just wondered what you’re drawing, that’s all, I can come back if it’s not ready – “
With a definite sigh the young girl moved her arms away, revealing a name badge that read “Amy”. Bartlet had to hold in an appreciative whistle when he saw what the young artist had been hiding from view.
In the centre of Amy’s sheet of paper was a part-disc, gibbous like a three-quarter Moon, rendered in subtle, delicate shades of red, tan, ochre and brown. At its top and bottom the disk was marked with small patches of blue-white, curled like cream poured in stirred coffee, and etched across its centre was what looked like a narrow but deep gash, branching out into a chandelier-like maze of smaller cuts and gashes on its left. Above the maze, pointing towards the top of the disk like an arrow, was a line of three, equally-spaced cones, and slightly over to their left was a fourth but much larger cone. The planet was suspended against an inky black backdrop, not strewn but delicately studded with a few stars, very effectively making the globe take on an almost three-dimensional appearance. Bartlet recognised the planet at once; he’d seen enough pictures of it over the years.
“Mars,” he said quietly, approvingly, and the young girl nodded silently, letting her picture speak for itself. If she was pleased the President had recognised her picture’s subject she didn’t show it.
Bartlet studied the picture carefully, growing more and more impressed by its accuracy. The planet’s surface showed more detail than the illustrations he’d seen in some astronomy text books and NASA reports; around a dozen small valleys, channels, volcanoes and craters were all in exactly the right place, and had been drawn to the correct scale too. And the shading…
“That’s very good, very good indeed…” Bartlet said admiringly. “I’d like a copy of that, if your teacher could get one to me – “
“You don’t have to say that you know,” Amy replied sharply, “I know it’s not that good really, and you’re the President, you can have any NASA map or picture you want. You don’t need some kid’s painting, I’m sure.”
Bartlet didn’t know whether to feel amused or offended by the girl’s response, so he let it go. But something was riling her, that much he could tell. But what? Resting his chin on his arm he continued to look at the picture as he spoke.
“You know,” he began, keeping his voice low so Amy would – hopefully – know he was talking just to her, “I was visiting the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1976 when the first pictures from Viking came in,” he began, deciding against explaining anything, figuring she would know what he was talking about. “Amazing day, just amazing, standing there watching the first images of the surface of Mars appearing on tiny TV screens, one line at a time, so, so slowly… nothing like today… they have much bigger screens now, and the pictures flash up in moments…”
Beside him Amy was trying not to look impressed, but failing. “It must have been exciting, to be there on that day,” she said, her voice dropping to an almost reverent whisper, and Bartlet smiled, sensing he was in the presence of a real space enthusiast. “And you’re right,” Amy added, “Global Surveyor’s download speed is much faster than Viking’s…” Bartlet silently congratulated himself. He’d made a good call: the girl clearly knew her stuff. Talking down to her would have been fatal.
Time to go for the kill, he decided.
“I spilled coffee on Carl Sagan,” he added matter-of-factly, gambling she knew who he meant. Amy’s eyes went wide with shock, confirming she did. “I know,” he grinned, looking up at her, “not exactly the best way for a young politician to make an impression in a room full of Government officials…” Amy smiled back at him, warmth finally coming through. Around them the class continued: boys and girls chattered away in their workgroups, passing or stealing paintbrushes and pencils, complimenting or insulting the works of their neighbours. Secret Service agents kept a discrete watch on the proceedings, and his Staffers stood together in an uncomfortable group, mentally counting down the minutes remaining until they could escape from the school and whisk Bartlet away in the Presidential motorcade. But he himself was in no hurry. Amy was interesting, and there was clearly a story behind her quiet, thoughtful smile.
“I wanted to be an astronaut, once,” Bartlet continued, “but as my wife would tell you, if you were foolish or cruel enough to ask her, I’m scared of heights and a little claustrophobic, so that particular career path was closed to me. Washington’s gain was NASA’s loss,” he added, “I’d have been a great astronaut – “
“You’d have been a lousy astronaut, Sir,” he heard a gruff voice say, and turned to see a wry smile on the craggy face of Leo McGarry, who was making one of his regular ‘Just checking you’re not putting your foot in it’ fly-bys. As McGarry walked away Bartlet stuck his tongue out at his Chief of Staff’s retreating back. “Very mature, Mr President,” McGarry laughed, “setting a fine example for the youth of America…” Beside him, Amy laughed, which made Bartlet laugh too. Finally. The day had been stressful so far, but that stress was evaporating away with every moment in Amy’s company. It finally felt like something was going well.
So naturally he had to open his mouth and stick his foot right into it.
“So, Amy,” he said, risking using the girl’s name for the first time, “do you want to be an astronaut when you’re older?” He tapped a corner of the picture. “Maybe even go to Mars one day?”
Amy stiffened visibly, and Bartlet literally felt the air around and between them chill, as if someone had opened a freezer door nearby. The young girl turned towards him, slowly, and when she spoke again she sounded twenty years older.
“Of course I want to be an astronaut,” she said darkly, “and the only place I want to go is Mars. But I won’t get the chance… probably no-one will…” She paused then, just long enough to tempt Bartlet into trying to interrupt before she cut him off with the killer punch-line: “… thanks to you…”
Bartlet was stunned. Thanks to him? What had he done?
“Not you specifically,” Amy continued, adding cuttingly, “that would be hard when you don’t even have a space policy… I meant politicians like you.”
“That’s a pretty big brush you’re tarring us all with there,” Bartlet replied defensively, “care to tell me just how I’m stopping you from walking on Mars?”
Amy drew in a deep breath and Bartlet let out one of his own in a heavy sigh. Oh dear God, she had a speech prepared. He’d been ambushed, and just as skilfully as any Congressman, Senator or Special Prosecutor could have done. He scanned the classroom quickly, searching for a rescuer, but of course now, when he needed them, everyone was busy. Even Leo, who rarely took his beady eyes off him, was preoccupied, deep in conversation with C.J over by the door.
He was on his own.
“You’re all cowards,” Amy began, folding her arms across her chest, covering-up her badge again. It didn’t matter; Bartlet knew he would never forget her name after this day. “… short-sighted, timid cowards. You don’t have any vision, any ambition. You don’t think any further ahead than the next election or opinion poll – “
“Just how old are you?” Bartlet asked, stunned by the girl’s verbal onslaught. “I didn’t think the Republicans allowed people younger than 50 to join – “
” – so you won’t commit yourself to any long-term projects,” Amy continued, ignoring his weak joke and attempt to deflect her criticism. “I guess you can’t be blamed for that, in a way. After all, any President who initiates such a venture will get all the criticism for the cost, and none of the glory when it worked a generation later, their successor would… and if it didn’t work, then they’d be remembered as the bad guy, the one who wasted all that money – “
“Amy, Amy,” Bartlet cut in, “give me a break, okay? You’re preaching to the choir here. If you know your facts, like I’m sure you do from the way you’re gnawing on my ear, you’ll know that I’m a space nut like you. I’ve got a signed photo of Neil Armstrong and a model of the shuttle on my desk, and a framed photo of the Columbia Hills on the Oval Office wall. I’m the guy who supported funding the Comet Impact Probe, the Asteroid Lander and the Europa Mapper missions too. I’m on your side – “
“Robots, billion-dollar webcams sent off to places so far away people will never go there anyway,” Amy sneered dismissively – and more contemptuously, Bartlet thought, than anyone her age had a right to feel about anything – and prodded a small, paint-stained finger onto her painting. “This is where we want to be, here, on a real planet. On Mars.”
Bartlet studied the young girl’s face. So young, yet so passionate, so determined.
And so angry.
At him. At those like him. At the people shaping – and in charge – of her future.
He had two choices. Only two. Find an excuse to get up from the table and leave her fuming – or stay and let her give voice to her anger. Common sense and years of political experience told him what he absolutely shouldn’t do – but he did it anyway.
“Why?” he asked her simply. “Why should we go to Mars?”
Amy shook her head. “Don’t patronise me… Mr President… you don’t need a kid to tell you that,” she laughed humourlessly. “You have science advisors, NASA Directors, telling you why – “
“They’re not here,” Bartlet interrupted, quietly but forcefully, “you are. So I’m asking you. Why should we go to Mars?”
Amy had her answer ready. She was sure she’d impress him. “Because it has a volcano as big as Hawaii – “
” – Olympus Mons, which we can see with space probes, and sometimes even through the Hubble Space Telescope orbiting Earth too,” Bartlet said dismissively. “That’s not a reason for going. Give me more.”
Amy paused, a frown etched on her face. This wasn’t what she’d been expecting. “It has a canyon which would stretch – ” she continued.
” – from New York to Los Angeles,” Bartlet finished for her. “Valles Marineris, the Grand Canyon of the Solar System… I know, I know. Global Surveyor has taken three thousand photos of it already, will take another four thousand before it’s done.” He stopped then, feigning disappointment with a melodramatic sigh: “You’ve let me down, Amy, I thought you had a case. Is that the best you’ve got? Is that your best shot?”
Amy shuffled uncomfortably in her seat now, feeling under pressure. Maybe this stuffed shirt was different. Just a little.
“There may be life there,” she continued, eyes bright again, convinced this was her trump card, “under the rocks – “
” – so we’ll send a robot to look under those rocks,” Bartlet interrupted, throwing up his hands, “much cheaper than sending people, heck of a lot safer too. You’re too young to remember Challenger turning into a white rose in the blue sky above Florida, but I’m sure you remember Columbia…” Amy nodded. “Why risk that happening again? Why risk the lives of astronauts when I can send a dozen more SPIRITs or OPPORTUNITYs to film IMAX movies of Mars’ hills and craters, dig under stones with their arms and take photos through their microscopes..? They can test for traces of carbon, measure gas emissions, more besides, all in a tenth of the time it would take for you or me to just pull on our helmet..?”
Amy was breathing heavily now, her face growing redder by the second. He didn’t get it, he just didn’t get it!
“But astronauts could – ” she began, but before she could say anything more Bartlet raised a finger to his lips, stopping her.
“No,” Bartlet said sternly, “don’t talk to me about astronauts. Talk to me about you.” She looked puzzled. Looking up at the young girl, he tapped the finger onto her painting. “I don’t want to know why I should send astronauts to Mars Amy. I want to know why I should send you to Mars…”
Amy stared at the President, stared at him hard, trying to read his face. He had kind eyes, smiling eyes, he didn’t mean her any harm, she could tell that. He wasn’t bullying her or teasing her like the teachers or other kids in class did. He wanted to know. He really wanted to know.
So she told him the real reason.
“Because I want to see Earth,” she said quietly, her voice little more than a whisper now. “I want to stand on Mars, on the black dust dunes of El Dorado, watch the Sun set, and see Earth shining in the sky as an Evening Star.” With that she looked away from him, as if embarrassed to be opening up to him so much. She stared down at her picture instead. “But you can’t understand that,” she said, “I bet you can’t even imagine what that would be like…”
Bartlet looked into the young girl’s green eyes. “Actually, yes, I can,” he told her, “in fact I’ve imagined just that myself, many times.” And it was true. The loss of the Galileo Mars probe two years earlier, half-way through his troubled first term, had both saddened and frustrated him; the pictures from Pathfinder, back in 1997, had moved him in a way the Viking pictures never had, and leafing through his 3D National Geographic special he’d wondered what it would be like to stand next to the little Sojourner rover, or Spirit or Opportunity, to watch the Sun set behind the Columbia Hills then see the Earth flashing and sparkling in the twilight glow like a sapphire.
Amy looked up at him again – but instead of the happy smile he had expected to see on her pretty face he saw sadness, disappointment. Resentment even.
“Then… if you’ve imagined it, and wish you could see it for yourself, why won’t you let me when I grow up?” she asked. “Or at least, let someone my age have a chance?”
They locked gazes then, for a moment that seemed to stretch into an eternity. She wanted him to tell her, needed him to tell her why. But Bartlet didn’t know what to say. What could he tell her? That it was a matter of priorities? Budget constraints? Political will? International collaboration and financial trade-offs? Grown-up reasons?
Excuses, all excuses. She was right, and they both knew it.
“I’m sorry,” he said eventually, because it was all he could think of. He had no other answer for her.
Amy deflated before his eyes. “Whatever.” She said, looking away.
“Okay…” he said, getting to his feet with a barely-suppressed groan as his knees popped in protest. Now he was standing next to her instead of crouching beside her, Amy looked so small, so fragile. How could he have disappointed her so much already? he wondered.
“I’m trying to get Congress to agree to fund a plane to fly down Valles Marineris,” he said with as much brightness as he could muster, but it convinced neither of them.
Amy looked up at him one last time, and this time her dancing eyes were empty. “If you’ll excuse me, Mr President, Sir, I have to finish my picture,” she replied distantly, saying his title slowly, almost mockingly, then looked away, for the last time.
And that was it. Bartlet knew he’d been dismissed.
He thought his heart would break.
He wanted to say more, explain more, but didn’t get the chance. Feeling a hand firmly grasping his elbow, Bartlet looked around to see Leo McGarry standing beside him. “Excuse us Amy,” Leo said, “but there’s something over here I want to show the President.” Moments later the Chief of Staff was steering Bartlet away from Amy’s table and towards another at the far end of the classroom. “I would have got you out of there sooner,” Leo said apologetically, “but amazingly the press guys hadn’t noticed how badly you were getting your butt kicked, so I didn’t want to draw attention to it – “
“I was doing okay – ” Bartlet began, instinctively defending himself, but didn’t have the heart for it. “Aw hell, Leo,” he growled under his breath, “that’s one very disappointed girl back there. She blames me – “
“Everyone blames you, for something,” Leo pointed out in a low voice, leading him towards an all-boys table covered with kitchen roll tubes and pots of glue, “you’re the President. It’s in the contract.” Then, in a louder voice: “Look here, Mr President,” he said, changing the subject with a smile, “dinosaurs!” The boys seated around the table looked up from their work, with stunned expressions on their faces and fingers sticky with glue. Bartlet forced himself to look interested and enthusiastic, perching himself on the edge of the desk, carefully avoiding sitting on any of the glue-drenched T-Rex models arranged upon it. But he couldn’t stop himself glancing over at Amy every few moments. Alone, in her corner, hunched over her painting, she looked so forlorn, so lost -
He had to do something. But what? A tour of Kennedy Space Centre? Yes, he could arrange that, fix it with just a phone-call. It would have to be for the whole class though; she’d probably hate to be singled-out.
Another idea struck him. On his desk in the Oval Office, he remembered, was a small paperweight, same size as a golf-ball, and sealed in its centre was a tiny piece of meteorite – but not just any meteorite, it was a meteorite which had come from Mars, “one of the rare SNCs” he’d been told by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory expert who had presented it to him on the eve of the ill-fated Galileo landing. He could give her that -
Or, then again, would she think he was just cruelly rubbing in the fact that she couldn’t go to Mars by giving her a piece of it?
Recognising a no-win situation when it slapped him across the face, Bartlet turned his back on the young girl for the last time, and, with a sigh, resumed walking around the classroom, praising the other pictures spread out on its low tables.
An hour later they were done. Bartlet pulled his jacket back on with his famous over-the-shoulders flourish, then, after saying a hearty goodbye to the class (“Goodbye, Mr President”… he still got a kick out of hearing kids shout that), strode out of the room and the school and out into the bright daylight. After shaking the grinning Principal’s hand and posing for the obligatory photos, and with the school band’s less-than-melodic rendition of “Hail to The Chief” playing behind him, he finally headed for the shelter and air-conditioned comfort of the limo. But something wasn’t right.
Surrounded by his ever-loyal staff and ever-vigilant secret service agents, Bartlet knew he should have felt invigorated by the visit, as he usually did after speaking to the youth of his country – but not this time. Not today; with each footstep the sour taste in his mouth thickened and the feeling of disappointment that had gripped him deepened. Finally reaching the car’s open door a familiar – and unwelcome – feeling of being watched came over him, and pausing there he felt a pair of young, resentful eyes burning into his back with the merciless heat of martian death rays.
He turned round, and there she was – Amy, staring down at him from an upper window, her face pressed against the glass. Hoping, desperate to reassure her, and lift her spirits, he offered her a smile – not his campaigning smile, not his Professional Politician’s smile, but his own smile, the one he reserved for friends and family, the people who knew him as Jed and not ‘Mr President’ – but the young girl refused it, simply batted it away with one final, scornful shake of the head –
“Mr President… we’re already ten minutes behind schedule…” a frustrated Leo McGarry prompted him from the side.
“Some things are more important than our schedule,” Bartlet replied, turning toward his Chief Of Staff, “I can’t leave that girl like that, feeling that way – “
“Which girl, Mr. President?” McGarry asked, confused.
Bartlet nodded impatiently towards the window, towards Amy – but in the brief moment he had turned away from her she had turned away from the window and disappeared from his view.
“Home,” McGarry said quietly, placing a reassuring hand on his friend’s shoulder. Bartlett nodded and, with a beaten sigh, got into the car. Inside it was cool and comfortable, a white leather and teak oasis of calm, and he closed his eyes to take a moment. But still he couldn’t settle, and as the car started to glide away from the school he peered out of the one-way glass at the building retreating behind him, searching for The Window –
And saw Amy’s picture there, stuck to it – or rather, the two halves of Amy’s picture. She had ripped it in two and taped it to the glass. As the car sped away from the school, heading back to Air Force One, Bartlet felt a crack the width and depth of the Mariner Valley tear open across his heart.
He’d never felt such a failure, or such a fraud, in his life.
Three hours later, with the lights turned down low in his plush Air Force One study, the President felt no better. Usually – at least, when Bartlet was able to get away from the constant demands of Leo and the rest of his staff – the drone of the 747’s mighty quartet of engines was enough to lull him to sleep on cross-country flights, but not this time. This time he had been unable to settle, and after half an hour’s wandering of the huge plane’s corridors, making staff and reporters alike nervous with his pacing, he had retreated into his room and sought peace and solitude there within its biscuit-coloured, padded and armoured confines. Neither came.
He knew what it was, of course: the girl, Amy, had got to him, got to him in a way none of the thousands of embittered, angry and frustrated Congressmen, Senators, Ambassadors, Chancellors, Presidents or Prime Ministers he’d butted heads with over the years had ever managed to. He’d stood in the grandest palaces and cathedrals of the world, knowing – and sometimes, if he was honest, even feeling – that he was the most powerful man on the planet, but Amy had made him feel small and embarrassed. And useless.
It was ridiculous, the President of the United States, a man with a nuclear arsenal of planet-killing, humanity-exterminating proportions at his disposal, had been made to feel powerless by a young girl with nothing more than a paintbrush and a sheet of paper. But it had happened, and as he sat there in the white, padded-leather chair, looking out of the 747’s window, seeing only darkness beyond his own troubled reflection, Josiah Bartlet felt utterly, utterly useless.
You’re all cowards, she had said, he remembered her words precisely; they were etched across his heart. Short-sighted, timid cowards… you don’t have any vision, any ambition… You don’t think any further ahead than the next election or opinion poll…
The worst thing was, she was right. They were cowards, they had become timid, never daring to make the Big Decisions, or take the Tough Choice. Once, perhaps, it had been different; being President had meant having power, The Power to do things, get things done. How he had wanted to change things when he walked into the Oval Office for the first time! How he had sat down in that big chair, behind the famous desk, and, staring at the faces of his Staff gathered around him there, declared to himself that he would be Different…
Health Care… the Deficit… Poverty… he wanted to grab them all by the throat and throttle them into submission. He’d genuinely thought he could. Yet he couldn’t even convince a schoolgirl he had the same vision of the future – her future – she did, even when a passion for that same future burned inside him like a furnace.
There was a knock at the door.
“Come on in,” Bartlet said gruffly, half-angry and half-relieved that his session of navel-gazing was over.
“I’m sorry to disturb you Sir,” apologised Sam Seaborn, his young deputy Communications Director. As he stood in the doorway, clutching a piece of paper, Seaborn’s wrinkled shirt and mussed-up hair told the President he had been working in his own office down the corridor.
“What is it, Sam?” Bartlet asked, more gruffly than he had intended.
“I have something for you, Sir,” Seaborn continued, offering over the sheet of paper.
“The re-written Address?” Bartlett asked, without reaching for the page.
Seaborn shook his head. “Ah, no, Sir, that’s… well, that’s coming on… slowly… this was just faxed to the Whitehouse,” he explained uneasily, waving the paper, “and your daughter thought you’d like to see it – “
“I told her never to call me at work,” Bartlet sighed theatrically, “oh well, I’m sure it’s something important, like a shopping list for her mom, or a set of instructions for me on how to iron my shirt properly… I’ll make you a copy…”
“No… it’s – it’s a picture sir,” Sam continued, holding the sheet up for the President to see. A lump formed in Bartlet’s throat as he recognised it. “Signed by someone called – “
“Amy,” Bartlet finished for him, “yes, I know… thank you Sam, I’ll take that.” He reached out for the paper, took it, and held it up to look at more closely. It was Amy’s Mars painting alright, scanned after being taped back together again, as the jagged line running diagonally across it showed. “Thank you Sam,” Bartlet said, more kindly this time, “now go finish that speech…” Seaborn nodded and turned for the door. “…and find a fresh shirt,” Bartlet added as the door closed, “you look like Josh’s brother.”
Alone again in the office Bartlet stared at the painting. It was no work of art, but it had come from the young girl’s heart; her love of Mars showed in every brush stroke and line. She wanted to go there and see it for herself, she wanted that so, so badly –
Then he noticed a line of text at the bottom of the page. Small, and badly-written – Amy was obviously a better artist than calligrapher – it looked, at first glance, to be a coded message of some kind, little more than a line of numbers and letters, broken up by dashes and lines and –
“That’s a website…” Bartlet said outloud, smiling to himself. “Clever girl…”
Quickly he turned his chair to the left, towards his computer terminal, and, after calling up the 747’s private web browser, entered the URL. Moments later the familiar White House seal on the screen blanked, replaced by –
Bartlett smiled. He had been expecting to be taken to a space enthusiast’s site, illustrated with the usual, over-optimistic, cloyingly- inspirational “space art” depictions of astronauts stepping off a ladder and onto the surface of Mars, with dust storms billowing over the peaks of volcanoes in the background, or something similar, but he was wrong. The web page was virtually blank, little more than a deep red wallpaper. Deep red, he thought, the colour of Mars… At the centre of the page were three lines of text, written in white, standing out starkly against the ruddy background.
I’m sorry I was rude to you.
I’m only mad at you because I know you can do better.
But I’m just a kid, so if you don’t believe me, turn all the lights off, and click here.
“Here” was written in blue – a hyperlink to another website. Bartlet grinned. She was challenging him!
“Okay, missy, let’s see what you’ve got…” he whispered to himself, then flicked off the lights of the cabin. With only the flickering of the screen for illumination now, casting a cold, blue glow over everything in the room, he moved the cursor arrow over the link, and clicked.
But instead of refreshing with new images and text, the screen went blank. It was as if the computer had died, plunging the cabin into absolute and total darkness.
Bartlet cursed under his breath. A childish joke, he’d expected better than that –
Suddenly a voice – a familiar voice – cut through the darkness, filling the cabin with its rich tones, and behind them, other voices, excited voices, were just audible.
Bartlet felt a cold, thrilled shiver run up his spine as he listened to the man speak. He knew the man’s speech by heart, had heard it live in fact, on the radio, more than four decades earlier, and sitting there now, in the darkened cabin, it was as if he had travelled back in time and was listening to his hero live once again…
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space…”
Bartlet’s heart was racing as he listened, caught up in the excitement of the moment, of the history, all over again, as another, later speech filled the dark silence of the cabin…
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.
“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?”
And then Bartlet felt his eyes begin to swim with tears, as he heard the words that had fired a generation, and set Mankind on a new course towards a nobler destiny.
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and ensure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
Then nothing. The show was over. Bartlet could hear only his own heavy breathing and his own pounding heartbeat as he sat in the silence. He couldn’t move; all he could do was sit there, thinking… wondering…
He was no New Kennedy, he wasn’t vain enough to think that. No, he was just an economist who had got lucky. But dare he?
In his mind he saw Amy growing up, the months and years fast-forwarding past her, like the famous sequence from The Time Machine. Amy sitting at school and hearing her teacher announce to her class that The President had ordered NASA to place men and women on Mars before the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing… Amy leaving school with enough qualifications to go to college… Amy graduating and joining the Air Force… Amy learning to fly in sky-scratching jets… applying to and being accepted by NASA for astronaut training… flying her first mission, to the International Space Station… Amy training on the Moon, watching the first people land on Mars on the TV screen in her cabin at Moonbase…
Amy standing on Mars, in the middle of the black dune sea of El Dorado, grinning and watching Earth blazing above Husband Hill like a blue lantern as she had always dreamed of doing –
Suddenly the cabin’s lights came back on, making him jump, and the door was thrown open with a bang by a white-faced Leo McGarry.
“Mr President, are you alright?” he demanded. “The sensors showed the lights were out, we thought there’d been a – “
“Everything’s fine Leo,” Bartlet said quietly, catching his breath as Amy’s beaming face faded away and the room and its contents swam back into focus, “I just… “
McGarry looked bemused. “What? What was it?”
Bartlet shook his head. “Nothing… it was nothing… go back to… to whatever it was you were doing.”
McGarry stared hard at him, searching his friend’s face for some clue as to what had just happened in the darkness. Seeing nothing, he started to back towards the door. “Okay, if you say so… but we’re approaching C.C, wheels down in ten minutes – “
“Thank you, Leo,” Bartlet replied, “I’ll be through to buckle up in a moment – “
“If there’s – “
“I said I’ll be through in a moment,” Bartlet repeated, shooting his Chief of Staff The Look. McGarry nodded, and edged slowly out of the cabin, but not before Bartlet caught him casting a curious glance over his shoulder, obviously vowing to himself he’d get to the bottom of the mystery after the landing.
The cabin door closed and Bartlet was left alone again. Standing up with a groan he walked over to the window. Peering out, shielding his eyes from the cabin’s glare with his hand, he saw the lights of the capital blazing just up ahead, and as he gazed down at the ten thousand points of orange and blue light, spread out over the ground like the stars in the sky, the irony – and dawning truth – was heartbreaking.
“They’d never go for it,” he said to himself sadly, feeling the sense of desperation and impotence returning, “the cost, the risk… the whole Vision Thing, they’d laugh me out of office…”
Moving away from the window he started towards the door, and as the sound of the 747’s engines going into reverse rumbled up from somewhere behind him he caught sight of the picture laid out on his desk.
“I’m sorry Amy, it’s just not time… one day, yes… but not yet. Not yet…”
Frustration and guilt stabbed through him as he looked at the girl’s signature.
“… and not you.”
© Stuart Atkinson 2006