For someone who prefers not to fly to these assignments, I find myself on an airplane disturbingly often of late. This wouldn’t be necessary if I weren’t being sent so far away each time. Chicago. Am I to believe that there was no one else available between Illinois and Maryland who could take this on? Or have I been so exemplary in my work that I’m the ideal person for the job? Flattering as that thought is, I’d just as soon have let somebody else take this one. Once again, I’m called upon to protect a child; well, not a child exactly. He’s sixteen. But young enough to make the word accurate. What bothers me is who I’m protecting him from.
If the details of my assignment are to be believed, Gregory Tallungan is on the verge of being targeted by the United States military in a bizarre black-ops maneuver to control—of all things—his high school science project. I don’t know exactly what his science project entails, but I suspect it’s something beyond the usual boozing up of white mice or the effects of diet cola on teeth and chrome bumpers. Knowing our beloved military machine (no offense, guys), I’m going to suspect weapons of some sort. Though I have to wonder, what self-respecting high school science teacher would let a student experiment with weapons sophisticated enough that the military would want them?
Although the details of the project itself aren’t clear, the antagonists’ intentions are. At the Cook County Science Fair on Friday, two high-ranking intelligence officers will be there, checking out the students’ projects. They’ll be all smiles and sunshine, suggesting that a career in the military after high school is an excellent start for today’s new batch of young scientists. But when they see Gregory’s project, things will take a turn. They’ll take interest in it, too much interest. Then they’ll take interest in him, realizing that without him, they have nothing. Everything would be fine, if he were interested in buying what they’re selling. But young Gregory has other ideas, and as a result, I’m sitting in an airplane, with a half a can of ginger ale and a small bag of salted pretzels in front of me.
Safely landed at O’Hare Airport, I rent a modest, nondescript car and make my way to a small hotel near Horizon Science and Technical High School on the city’s northwest side. As I bring my suitcase into my room, I can’t shake the uneasy feeling I’ve had ever since I received this assignment last night. Beyond the physical pain that always accompanies each new mission, this time there’s a feeling of dread. My father always taught me to respect the government, respect the military; they’re keeping us and our country safe. To have to treat them as a threat, as an enemy, feels disturbing.
Then there’s the practical issues of an assignment like this. How do I, a single man in his thirties, insinuate myself into the life of a high school student? Schools tend to frown on strangers walking in and chumming up to their students; not surprisingly, the students aren’t too keen on it either. Hence the need for—and I can’t believe I’m using these words—a disguise. I open my suitcase and pull out the necessary materials: a bogus photo ID, a file folder, and even a white lab coat. Until this is over, I am William Hauptmann from the National Science Foundation, here to help young Gregory finish his science project before the fair on Friday. And yes, for the record, it makes me feel simultaneously very stupid and very transparent.
At 3:15 p.m., I check in at the main office of Horizon High, introducing myself to the secretary as an NSF representative. I am, of course, met with surprise and confusion. They’re not expecting me; how could they be? I barely had time to get my disguise together. In no way did I have time to contact the school and tell them I was coming. So I make a joke about bureaucracy in action and hope that my credentials look authentic enough that they’ll let me in.
“They told me Gregory’s project is quite remarkable,” I offer, “but he’s having a few challenges in getting ready for the science fair. The Foundation believes there’s great promise here, and they want me to help your school continue its tradition of excellence in education.”
The words sound to me like total bullshit, but after years in big business, I’ve accumulated quite a vocabulary when it comes to telling people what they really want to hear. The secretary excuses herself and goes to ask the school principal what to do. The principal looks up at me from her desk and then converses with the secretary some more, before rising and approaching me. “I’m Dr. Carson,” she said.
“William Hauptmann, National Science Foundation,” I reply. “Sounds like the notification of my arrival didn’t reach you. I’m sorry about that.”
“So you’re here to help Gregory Tallungan with his project, is that correct?”
“Yes, ma’am. The NSF is reaching out to the most promising science students in America, supporting their studies. We won’t do anything that compromises the integrity of the project for the fair; we understand it needs to be the student’s original work. We’re acting in an advisory capacity. I was informed that he spends time in a science lab here at the school each afternoon, working on the project. I’m here to offer assistance during that time.”
Dr. Carson looks at me and then at my credentials, deciding that I am who I say I am, though I most certainly am not. “Let me take you to the lab where he’s working.”