Alone in her office, Gabrielle Ashe stood at the window, wondering what to do next. Less than an hour ago, she had left NASA feeling full of excitement to share Chris Harper’s PODS fraud with the senator.
Now, she wasn’t so sure.
According to Yolanda, two independent ABC reporters suspected Sexton of taking SFF bribes. Furthermore, Gabrielle had just learned that Sexton actually knew she had snuck into his apartment during the SFF meeting, and yet he had said nothing to her about it?
Gabrielle sighed. Her taxi had long since departed, and although she would call another in a few minutes, she knew there was something she had to do first.
Am I really going to try this?
Gabrielle frowned, knowing she didn’t have a choice. She no longer knew whom to trust.
Stepping out of her office, she made her way back into the secretarial lobby and into a wide hallway on the opposite side. At the far end she could see the massive oak doors of Sexton’s office flanked by two flags-Old Glory on the right and the Delaware flag on the left. His doors, like those of most senate offices in the building, were steel reinforced and secured by conventional keys, an electronic key pad entry, and an alarm system.
She knew if she could get inside, even if for only a few minutes, all the answers would be revealed. Moving now toward the heavily secured doors, Gabrielle had no illusions of getting through them. She had other plans.
Ten feet from Sexton’s office, Gabrielle turned sharply to the right and entered the ladies’ room. The fluorescents came on automatically, reflecting harshly off the white tile. As her eyes adjusted, Gabrielle paused, seeing herself in the mirror. As usual, her features looked softer than she’d hoped. Delicate almost. She always felt stronger than she looked.
Are you sure you are ready to do this?
Gabrielle knew Sexton was eagerly awaiting her arrival for a complete rundown on the PODS situation. Unfortunately, she also now realized that Sexton had deftly manipulated her tonight. Gabrielle Ashe did not like being managed. The senator had kept things from her tonight. The question was how much. The answers, she knew, lay inside his office-just on the other side of this restroom wall.
“Five minutes,” Gabrielle said aloud, mustering her resolve.
Moving toward the bathroom’s supply closet, she reached up and ran a hand over the door frame. A key clattered to the floor. The cleaning crews at Philip A. Hart were federal employees and seemed to evaporate every time there was a strike of any sort, leaving this bathroom without toilet paper and tampons for weeks at a time. The women of Sexton’s office, tired of being caught with their pants down, had taken matters into their own hands and secured a supply room key for “emergencies.”
Tonight qualifies, she thought.
She opened the closet.
The interior was cramped, packed with cleansers, mops, and shelves of paper supplies. A month ago, Gabrielle had been searching for paper towels when she’d made an unusual discovery. Unable to reach the paper off the top shelf, she’d used the end of a broom to coax a roll to fall. In the process, she’d knocked out a ceiling tile. When she climbed up to replace the tile, she was surprised to hear Senator Sexton’s voice.
From the echo, she realized the senator was talking to himself while in his office’s private bathroom, which apparently was separated from this supply closet by nothing more than removable, fiberboard ceiling tiles.
Now, back in the closet tonight for far more than toilet paper, Gabrielle kicked off her shoes, climbed up the shelves, popped out the fiberboard ceiling tile, and pulled herself up. So much for national security, she thought, wondering how many state and federal laws she was about to break.
Lowering herself through the ceiling of Sexton’s private restroom, Gabrielle placed her stockinged feet on his cold, porcelain sink and then dropped to the floor. Holding her breath, she exited into Sexton’s private office.
His oriental carpets felt soft and warm.
Thirty miles away, a black Kiowa gunship chopper tore over the scrub pine treetops of northern Delaware. Delta-One checked the coordinates locked in the auto navigation system.
Although Rachel’s shipboard transmission device and Pickering’s cellphone were encrypted to protect the contents of their communication, intercepting content had not been the goal when the Delta Force pulse-snitched Rachel’s call from sea. Intercepting the caller’s position had been the goal. Global Positioning Systems and computerized triangulation made pinpointing transmission coordinates a significantly easier task than decrypting the actual content of the call.
Delta-One was always amused to think that most cellphone users had no idea that every time they made a call, a government listening post, if so inclined, could detect their position to within ten feet anywhere on earth-a small hitch the cellphone companies failed to advertise. Tonight, once the Delta Force had gained access to the reception frequencies of William Pickering’s cellular phone, they could easily trace the coordinates of his incoming calls.
Flying now on a direct course toward their target, Delta-One closed to within twenty miles. “Umbrella primed?” he asked, turning to Delta-Two, who was manning the radar and weapons system.
“Affirmative. Awaiting five-mile range.”
Five miles, Delta-One thought. He had to fly this bird well within his target’s radar scopes to get within range to use the Kiowa’s weapons systems. He had little doubt that someone onboard the Goya was nervously watching the skies, and because the Delta Force’s current task was to eliminate the target without giving them a chance to radio for help, Delta-One now had to advance on his prey without alarming them.
At fifteen miles out, still safely out of radar range, Delta-One abruptly turned the Kiowa thirty-five degrees off course to the west. He climbed to three thousand feet-small airplane range-and adjusted his speed to 110 knots.
On the deck of the Goya, the Coast Guard helicopter’s radar scope beeped once as a new contact entered the ten-mile perimeter. The pilot sat up, studying the screen. The contact appeared to be a small cargo plane headed west up the coast.
Probably for Newark.
Although this plane’s current trajectory would bring it within four miles of the Goya, the flight path obviously was a matter of chance. Nonetheless, being vigilant, the Coast Guard pilot watched the blinking dot trace a slow-moving 110-knot line across the right side of his scope. At its closest point, the plane was about four miles west. As expected, the plane kept moving-heading away from them now.
4.1 miles. 4.2 miles.
The pilot exhaled, relaxing.
And then the strangest thing happened.
“Umbrella now engaged,” Delta-Two called out, giving the thumbs-up from his weapons control seat on the port side of the Kiowa gunship. “Barrage, modulated noise, and cover pulse are all activated and locked.”
Delta-One took his cue and banked hard to the right, putting the craft on a direct course with the Goya. This maneuver would be invisible to the ship’s radar.
“Sure beats bales of tinfoil!” Delta-Two called out.
Delta-One agreed. Radar jamming had been invented in WWII when a savvy British airman began throwing bales of hay wrapped in tinfoil out of his plane while on bombing runs. The Germans’ radar spotted so many reflective contacts they had no idea what to shoot. The techniques had been improved on substantially since then.
The Kiowa’s onboard “umbrella” radar-jamming system was one of the military’s most deadly electronic combat weapons. By broadcasting an umbrella of background noise into the atmosphere above a given set of surface coordinates, the Kiowa could erase the eyes, ears, and voice of their target. Moments ago, all radar screens aboard the Goya had most certainly gone blank. By the time the crew realized they needed to call for help, they would be unable to transmit. On a ship, all communications were radio-or microwave-based-no solid phone lines. If the Kiowa got close enough, all of the Goya’s communications systems would stop functioning, their carrier signals blotted out by the invisible cloud of thermal noise broadcast in front of the Kiowa like a blinding headlight.
Perfect isolation, Delta-One thought. They have no defenses.
Their targets had made a fortunate and cunning escape from the Milne Ice Shelf, but it would not be repeated. In choosing to leave shore, Rachel Sexton and Michael Tolland had chosen poorly. It would be the last bad decision they ever made.
Inside the White House, Zach Herney felt dazed as he sat up in bed holding the telephone receiver. “Now? Ekstrom wants to speak to me now?” Herney squinted again at the bedside clock. 3:17 A.M.
“Yes, Mr. President,” the communications officer said. “He says it’s an emergency.”
While Corky and Xavia huddled over the electron microprobe measuring the zirconium content in the chondrules, Rachel followed Tolland across the lab into an adjoining room. Here Tolland turned on another computer. Apparently the oceanographer had one more thing he wanted to check.
As the computer powered up, Tolland turned to Rachel, his mouth poised as if he wanted to say something. He paused.
“What is it?” Rachel asked, surprised how physically drawn to him she felt, even in the midst of all this chaos. She wished she could block it all out and be with him-just for a minute.
“I owe you an apology,” Tolland said, looking remorseful.
“On the deck? The hammerheads? I was excited. Sometimes I forget how frightening the ocean can be to a lot of people.”
Face-to-face with him, Rachel felt like a teenager standing on the doorstep with a new boyfriend. “Thanks. No problem at all. Really.” Something inside her sensed Tolland wanted to kiss her.
After a beat, he turned shyly away. “I know. You want to get to shore. We should get to work.”
“For now.” Rachel smiled softly.
“For now,” Tolland repeated, taking a seat at the computer.
Rachel exhaled, standing close behind now, savoring the privacy of the small lab. She watched Tolland navigate a series of files. “What are we doing?”
“Checking the database for big ocean lice. I want to see if we can find any prehistoric marine fossils that resemble what we saw in the NASA meteorite.” He pulled up a search page with bold letters across the top: PROJECT DIVERSITAS.
Scrolling through the menus, Tolland explained, “Diversitas is essentially a continuously updated index of oceanic biodata. When a marine biologist discovers a new ocean species or fossil, he can toot his horn and share his find by uploading data and photos to a central databank. Because there’s so much new data discovered on a weekly basis, this is really the only way to keep research up-to-date.”
Rachel watched Tolland navigating the menus. “So you’re accessing the Web now?”
“No. Internet access is tricky at sea. We store all this data onboard on an enormous array of optical drives in the other room. Every time we’re in port, we tie into Project Diversitas and update our databank with the newest finds. This way, we can access data at sea without a Web connection, and the data is never more than a month or two out of date.” Tolland chuckled as he began typing search keywords into the computer. “You’ve probably heard of the controversial music file-sharing program called Napster?”
“Diversitas is considered the marine biologist’s version of Napster. We call it LOBSTER – Lonely Oceanic Biologists Sharing Totally Eccentric Research.”
Rachel laughed. Even in this tense situation, Michael Tolland exuded a wry humor that eased her fears. She was beginning to realize she’d had entirely too little laughter in her life lately.
“Our database is enormous,” Tolland said, completing the entry of his descriptive keywords. “Over ten tera-bytes of descriptions and photos. There’s information in here nobody has ever seen-and nobody ever will. Ocean species are simply too numerous.” He clicked the “search” button. “Okay, let’s see if anyone has ever seen an oceanic fossil similar to our little space bug.”
After a few seconds, the screen refreshed, revealing four listings of fossilized animals. Tolland clicked on each listing one by one and examined the photos. None looked remotely like the fossils in the Milne meteorite.
Tolland frowned. “Let’s try something else.” He removed the word “fossil” from his search string and hit “search.” “We’ll search all living species. Maybe we can find a living descendant that has some of the physiological characteristics of the Milne fossil.”
The screen refreshed.
Again Tolland frowned. The computer had returned hundreds of entries. He sat a moment, stroking his now stubble-darkened chin. “Okay, this is too much. Let’s refine the search.”
Rachel watched as he accessed a drop-down menu marked “habitat.” The list of options looked endless: tide pool, marsh, lagoon, reef, mid-oceanic ridge, sulfur vents. Tolland scrolled down the list and chose an option that read: Destructive Margins/Oceanic Trenches.
Smart, Rachel realized. Tolland was limiting his search only to species that lived near the environment where these chondrulelike features were hypothesized to form.
The page refreshed. This time Tolland smiled. “Great. Only three entries.”
Rachel squinted at the first name on the list. Limulus poly… something.
Tolland clicked the entry. A photo appeared; the creature looked like an oversized horseshoe crab without a tail.
“Nope,” Tolland said, returning to the previous page.
Rachel eyed the second item on the list. Shrimpus Uglius From Hellus. She was confused. “Is that name for real?”
Tolland chuckled. “No. It’s a new species not yet classified. The guy who discovered it has a sense of humor. He’s suggesting Shrimpus Uglius as the official taxonomical classification.” Tolland clicked open the photo, revealing an exceptionally ugly shrimplike creature with whiskers and fluorescent pink antennae.
“Aptly named,” Tolland said. “But not our space bug.” He returned to the index. “The final offering is… ” He clicked on the third entry, and the page came up.
“Bathynomous giganteus… ” Tolland read aloud as the text appeared. The photograph loaded. A full-color close-up.
Rachel jumped. “My God!” The creature staring back at her gave her chills.
Tolland drew a low breath. “Oh boy. This guy looks kind of familiar.”
Rachel nodded, speechless. Bathynomous giganteus. The creature resembled a giant swimming louse. It looked very similar to the fossil species in the NASA rock.
“There are some subtle differences,” Tolland said, scrolling down to some anatomical diagrams and sketches. “But it’s damn close. Especially considering it has had 190 million years to evolve.”
Close is right, Rachel thought. Too close.
Tolland read the description on the screen: “‘Thought to be one of the oldest species in the ocean, the rare and recently classified species Bathynomous giganteus is a deepwater scavenging isopod resembling a large pill bug. Up to two feet in length, this species exhibits a chitinous exoskeleton segmented into head, thorax, abdomen. It possesses paired appendages, antennae, and compound eyes like those of land-dwelling insects. This bottom-dwelling forager has no known predators and lives in barren pelagic environments previously thought to be uninhabitable.” Tolland glanced up. “Which could explain the lack of other fossils in the sample!”
Rachel stared at the creature on-screen, excited and yet uncertain she completely understood what all of this meant.
“Imagine,” Tolland said excitedly, “that 190 million years ago, a brood of these Bathynomous creatures got buried in a deep ocean mud slide. As the mud turns into rock, the bugs get fossilized in stone. Simultaneously, the ocean floor, which is continuously moving like a slow conveyer belt toward the oceanic trenches, carries the fossils into a high-pressure zone where the rock forms chondrules!” Tolland was talking faster now. “And if part of the fossilized, chondrulized crust broke off and ended up on the trench’s accretionary wedge, which is not at all uncommon, it would be in a perfect position to be discovered!”
“But if NASA…,” Rachel stammered. “I mean, if this is all a lie, NASA must have known that sooner or later someone would find out this fossil resembles a sea creature, right? I mean we just found out!”
Tolland began printing the Bathynomous photos on a laser printer. “I don’t know. Even if someone stepped forward and pointed out the similarities between the fossils and a living sea louse, their physiologies are not identical. It almost proves NASA’s case more strongly.”
Rachel suddenly understood. “Panspermia.” Life on earth was seeded from space.
“Exactly. Similarities between space organisms and earth organisms make excellent scientific sense. This sea louse actually strengthens NASA’s case.”
“Except if the meteorite’s authenticity is in question.”
Tolland nodded. “Once the meteorite comes into question, then everything collapses. Our sea louse turns from NASA friend to NASA linchpin.”
Rachel stood in silence as the Bathynomous pages rolled out of the printer. She tried to tell herself this was all an honest NASA mistake, but she knew it was not. People who made honest mistakes didn’t try to kill people.
The nasal voice of Corky echoed suddenly across the lab. “Impossible!”
Both Tolland and Rachel turned.
“Measure the damn ratio again! It makes no sense!”
Xavia came hurrying in with a computer printout clutched in her hand. Her face was ashen. “Mike, I don’t know how to say this… ” Her voice cracked. “The titanium/zirconium ratios we’re seeing in this sample?” She cleared her throat. “It’s pretty obvious that NASA made a huge mistake. Their meteorite is an ocean rock.”
Tolland and Rachel looked at each other but neither spoke a word. They knew. Just like that, all the suspicions and doubts had swelled up like the crest of a wave, reaching the breaking point.
Tolland nodded, a sadness in his eyes. “Yeah. Thanks, Xavia.”
“But I don’t understand,” Xavia said. “The fusion crust… the location in the ice-”
“We’ll explain on the way to shore,” Tolland said. “We’re leaving.”
Quickly, Rachel collected all the papers and evidence they now had. The evidence was shockingly conclusive: the GPR printout showing the insertion shaft in the Milne Ice Shelf; photos of a living sea louse resembling NASA’s fossil; Dr. Pollock’s article on ocean chondrules; and microprobe data showing ultradepleted zirconium in the meteorite.
The conclusion was undeniable. Fraud.
Tolland looked at the stack of papers in Rachel’s hands and heaved a melancholy sigh. “Well, I’d say William Pickering has his proof.”
Rachel nodded, again wondering why Pickering had not answered his phone.
Tolland lifted the receiver of a nearby phone, holding it out for her. “You want to try him again from here?”
“No, let’s get moving. I’ll try to contact him from the chopper.” Rachel had already decided if she could not make contact with Pickering, she’d have the Coast Guard fly them directly to the NRO, only about 180 miles.
Tolland began to hang up the phone, but he paused. Looking confused, he listened to the receiver, frowning. “Bizarre. No dial tone.”
“What do you mean?” Rachel said, wary now.
“Weird,” Tolland said. “Direct COMSAT lines never lose carrier-”
“Mr. Tolland?” The Coast Guard pilot came rushing into the lab, his face white.
“What is it?” Rachel demanded. “Is someone coming?”
“That’s the problem,” the pilot said. “I don’t know. All onboard radar and communications have just gone dead.”
Rachel stuffed the papers deep inside her shirt. “Get in the helicopter. We’re leaving. NOW!”
Gabrielle’s heart was racing as she crossed the darkened office of Senator Sexton. The room was as expansive as it was elegant-ornate wood-paneled walls, oil paintings, Persian carpets, leather rivet chairs, and a gargantuan mahogany desk. The room was lit only by the eerie neon glow of Sexton’s computer screen.
Gabrielle moved toward his desk.
Senator Sexton had embraced the “digital office” to maniacal proportions, eschewing the overflow of file cabinets for the compact, searchable simplicity of his personal computer, into which he fed enormous amounts of information-digitized meeting notes, scanned articles, speeches, brainstorms. Sexton’s computer was his sacred ground, and he kept his office locked at all times to protect it. He even refused to connect to the Internet for fear of hackers infiltrating his sacred digital vault.
A year ago Gabrielle would never have believed any politician would be stupid enough to store copies of self-incriminating documents, but Washington had taught her a lot. Information is power. Gabrielle had been amazed to learn that a common practice among politicians who accepted questionable campaign contributions was to keep actual proof of those donations-letters, bank records, receipts, logs-all hidden away in a safe place. This counterblackmail tactic, euphemistically known in Washington as “Siamese insurance,” protected candidates from donors who felt their generosity somehow authorized them to assert undue political pressure on a candidate. If a contributor got too demanding, the candidate could simply produce evidence of the illegal donation and remind the donor that both parties had broken the law. The evidence ensured that candidates and donors were joined at the hip forever-like Siamese twins.
Gabrielle slipped behind the senator’s desk and sat down. She took a deep breath, looking at his computer. If the senator is accepting SFF bribes, any evidence would be in here.
Sexton’s computer screensaver was an ongoing slideshow of the White House and its grounds created for him by one of his gung-ho staffers who was big into visualization and positive thinking. Around the images crawled a ticker-tape banner that read: President of the United States Sedgewick Sexton… President of the United States Sedgewick Sexton… President of the…
Gabrielle jostled the mouse, and a security dialogue box came up.
She expected this. It would not be a problem. Last week, Gabrielle had entered Sexton’s office just as the senator was sitting down and logging onto his computer. She saw him type three short keystrokes in rapid succession.
“That’s a password?” she challenged from the doorway as she walked in.
Sexton glanced up. “What?”
“And here I thought you were concerned about security,” Gabrielle scolded good-naturedly. “Your password’s only three keys? I thought the tech guys told us all to use at least six.”
“The tech guys are teenagers. They should try remembering six random letters when they’re over forty. Besides, the door has an alarm. Nobody can get in.”
Gabrielle walked toward him, smiling. “What if someone slipped in while you’re in the loo?”
“And tried every combination of passwords?” He gave a skeptical laugh. “I’m slow in the bathroom, but not that slow.”
“Dinner at Davide says I can guess your password in ten seconds.”
Sexton looked intrigued and amused. “You can’t afford Davide, Gabrielle.”
“So you’re saying you’re chicken?”
Sexton appeared almost sorry for her as he accepted the challenge. “Ten seconds?” He logged off and motioned for Gabrielle to sit down and give it a try. “You know I only order the saltimbocca at Davide. And that ain’t cheap.”
She shrugged as she sat down. “It’s your money.”
“Ten seconds,” Sexton reminded.
Gabrielle had to laugh. She would need only two. Even from the doorway she could see that Sexton had entered his three-key password in very rapid succession using only his index finger. Obviously all the same key. Not wise. She could also see that his hand had been positioned over the far left side of his keyboard-cutting the possible alphabet down to only about nine letters. Choosing the letter was simple; Sexton had always loved the triple alliteration of his title. Senator Sedgewick Sexton.
Never underestimate the ego of a politician.
She typed SSS, and the screensaver evaporated.
Sexton’s jaw hit the floor.
That had been last week. Now, as Gabrielle faced his computer again, she was certain Sexton would not have taken time yet to figure out how to set up a different password. Why would he? He trusts me implicitly.
She typed in SSS.
Invalid Password – Access Denied
Gabrielle stared in shock.
Apparently she had overestimated her senator’s level of trust.
The attack came without warning. Low out of the southwest sky above the Goya, the lethal silhouette of a gunship helicopter bore down like a giant wasp. Rachel had no doubt what it was, or why it was here.
Through the darkness, a staccato burst from the nose of the chopper sent a torrent of bullets chewing across the Goya’s fiberglass deck, slashing a line across the stern. Rachel dove for cover too late and felt the searing slash of a bullet graze her arm. She hit the ground hard, then rolled, scrambling to get behind the bulbous transparent dome of the Triton submersible.
A thundering of rotors exploded overhead as the chopper swooped past the ship. The noise evaporated with an eerie hiss as the chopper rocketed out over the ocean and began a wide bank for a second pass.
Lying trembling on the deck, Rachel held her arm and looked back at Tolland and Corky. Apparently having lunged to cover behind a storage structure, the two men were now staggering to their feet, their eyes scanning the skies in terror. Rachel pulled herself to her knees. The entire world suddenly seemed to be moving in slow motion.
Crouched behind the transparent curvature of the Triton sub, Rachel looked in panic toward their only means of escape-the Coast Guard helicopter. Xavia was already climbing into the chopper’s cabin, frantically waving for everyone to get aboard. Rachel could see the pilot lunging into the cockpit, wildly throwing switches and levers. The blades began to turn… ever so slowly.
Rachel felt herself standing now, preparing to run, wondering if she could make it across the deck before the attackers made another pass. Behind her, she heard Corky and Tolland dashing toward her and the waiting helicopter. Yes! Hurry!
Then she saw it.
A hundred yards out, up in the sky, materializing out of empty darkness, a pencil-thin beam of red light slanted across the night, searching the Goya’s deck. Then, finding its mark, the beam came to a stop on the side of the waiting Coast Guard chopper.
The image took only an instant to register. In that horrific moment, Rachel felt all the action on the deck of the Goya blur into a collage of shapes and sounds. Tolland and Corky dashing toward her-Xavia motioning wildly in the helicopter-the stark red laser slicing across the night sky.
It was too late.
Rachel spun back toward Corky and Tolland, who were running full speed now toward the helicopter. She lunged outward into their path, arms outstretched trying to stop them. The collision felt like a train wreck as the three of them crashed to the deck in a tangle of arms and legs.
In the distance, a flash of white light appeared. Rachel watched in disbelief and horror as a perfectly straight line of exhaust fire followed the path of the laser beam directly toward the helicopter.
When the Hellfire missile slammed into the fuselage, the helicopter exploded apart like a toy. The concussion wave of heat and noise thundered across the deck as flaming shrapnel rained down. The helicopter’s flaming skeleton lurched backward on its shattered tail, teetered a moment, and then fell off the back of the ship, crashing into the ocean in a hissing cloud of steam.
Rachel closed her eyes, unable to breathe. She could hear the flaming wreckage gurgling and sputtering as it sank, being dragged away from the Goya by the heavy currents. In the chaos, Michael Tolland’s voice was yelling. Rachel felt his powerful hands trying to pull her to her feet. But she could not move.
The Coast Guard pilot and Xavia are dead.