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Chapter 11

Rachel followed President Herney out onto the glistening gangway of Air Force One. As they descended the stairs, Rachel felt the bleak March air clearing her mind. Unfortunately, clarity only made the President’s claims seem more outlandish than before.

NASA made a discovery of such scientific importance that it validates every dollar Americans have ever spent in space?

Rachel could only imagine that a discovery of that magnitude would only center on one thing – the holy grail of NASA – contact with extraterrestrial life. Unfortunately, Rachel knew enough about that particular holy grail to know it was utterly implausible.

As an intelligence analyst, Rachel constantly fielded questions from friends who wanted to know about the alleged government cover-ups of alien contact. She was consistently appalled by the theories her “educated” friends bought into – crashed alien saucers hidden in secret government bunkers, extraterrestrial corpses kept on ice, even unsuspecting civilians being abducted and surgically probed.

It was all absurd, of course. There were no aliens. No cover-ups.

Everyone in the intelligence community understood that the vast majority of sightings and alien abductions were simply the product of active imaginations or moneymaking hoaxes. When authentic photographic UFO evidence did exist, it had a strange habit of occurring near U.S. military airbases that were testing advanced classified aircraft. When Lockheed began air-testing aradical new jet called the Stealth Bomber, UFO sightings around Edwards Air Force Base increased fifteen-fold.

“You have a skeptical look on your face,” the President said, eyeing her askance.

The sound of his voice startled Rachel. She glanced over, unsure how to respond. “Well… ” She hesitated. “May I assume, sir, that we are not talking about alien spacecrafts or little green men?”

The President looked quietly amused. “Rachel, I think you’ll find this discovery far more intriguing than science fiction.”

Rachel was relieved to hear NASA had not been so desperate as to try selling the President on an alien story. Nonetheless, his comment served only to deepen the mystery. “Well,” she said, “whatever NASA found, I must say the timing is exceptionally convenient.”

Herney paused on the gangway. “Convenient? How so?”

How so? Rachel stopped and stared. “Mr. President, NASA is currently in a life or death battle to justify its very existence, and you are under attack for continuing to fund it. A major NASA breakthrough right now would be a panacea for both NASA and your campaign. Your critics will obviously find the timing highly suspect.”

“So… are you calling me a liar or a fool?”

Rachel felt a knot rise in her throat. “I meant no disrespect, sir. I simply-”

“Relax.” A faint grin grew on Herney’s lips, and he started to descend again. “When the NASA administrator first told me about this discovery, I flat out rejected it as absurd. I accused him of masterminding the most transparent political sham in history.”

Rachel felt the knot in her throat dissolve somewhat.

At the bottom of the ramp, Herney stopped and looked at her. “One reason I’ve asked NASA to keep their discovery under wraps is to protect them. The magnitude of this find is well beyond anything NASA has ever announced. It will make landing men on the moon seem insignificant. Because everyone, myself included, has so much to gain – and lose – I thought it prudent for someone to double-check the NASA data before we step into the world spotlight with a formal announcement.”

Rachel was startled. “Certainly you can’t mean me, sir?”

The President laughed. “No, this is not your area of expertise. Besides, I’ve already achieved verification through extragovernmental channels.”

Rachel’s relief gave way to a new mystification. “Extragovernmental, sir? You mean you used the private sector? On something this classified?”

The President nodded with conviction. “I put together an external confirmation team – four civilian scientists-non-NASA personnel with big names and serious reputations to protect. They used their own equipment to make observations and come to their own conclusions. Over the past forty-eight hours, these civilian scientists have confirmed the NASA discovery beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

Now Rachel was impressed. The President had protected himself with typical Herney aplomb. By hiring the ultimate team of skeptics – outsiders who had nothing to gain by confirming the NASA discovery – Herney had immunized himself against suspicions that this might be a desperate NASA ploy to justify its budget, reelect their NASA-friendly President, and ward off Senator Sexton’s attacks.

“Tonight at eight P.M.,” Herney said, “I will be calling a press conference at the White House to announce this discovery to the world.”

Rachel felt frustrated. Herney had essentially told her nothing. “And this discovery is what, precisely?”

The President smiled. “You will find patience a virtue today. This discovery is something you need to see for yourself. I need you to understand this situation fully before we proceed. The administrator of NASA is waiting to brief you. He will tell you everything you need to know. Afterward, you and I will further discuss your role.”

Rachel sensed an impending drama in the President’s eyes and recalled Pickering’s hunch that the White House had something up its sleeve. Pickering, it appeared, was right, as usual.

Herney motioned to a nearby airplane hangar. “Follow me,” he said, walking toward it.

Rachel followed, confused. The building before them had no windows, and its towering bay doors were sealed. The only access seemed to be a small entryway on the side. The door was ajar. The President guided Rachel to within a few feet of the door and stopped.

“End of the line for me,” he said, motioning to the door. “You go through there.”

Rachel hesitated. “You’re not coming?”

“I need to return to the White House. I’ll speak to you shortly. Do you have a cellphone?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Give it to me.”

Rachel produced her phone and handed it to him, assuming he intended to program a private contact number into it. Instead, he slipped her phone into his pocket.

“You’re now off-the-grid,” the President said. “All your responsibilities at work have been covered. You will not speak to anyone else today without express permission from myself or the NASA administrator. Do you understand?”

Rachel stared. Did the President just steal my cell-phone?

“After the administrator briefs you on the discovery, he will put you in contact with me via secure channels. I’ll talk to you soon. Good luck.”

Rachel looked at the hangar door and felt a growing uneasiness.

President Herney put a reassuring hand on her shoulder and nodded toward the door. “I assure you, Rachel, you will not regret assisting me in this matter.”

Without another word, the President strode toward the PaveHawk that had brought Rachel in. He climbed aboard, and took off. He never once looked back.

Chapter 12

Rachel Sexton stood alone on the threshold of the isolated Wallops hangar and peered into the blackness beyond. She felt like she was on the cusp of another world. A cool and musty breeze flowed outward from the cavernous interior, as if the building were breathing.

“Hello?” she called out, her voice wavering slightly.

Silence.

With rising trepidation, she stepped over the threshold. Her vision went blank for an instant as her eyes became accustomed to the dimness.

“Ms. Sexton, I presume?” a man’s voice said, only yards away.

Rachel jumped, wheeling toward the sound. “Yes, sir.”

The hazy shape of a man approached.

As Rachel’s vision cleared, she found herself standing face to face with a young, stone-jawed buck in a NASA flight suit. His body was fit and muscle-bound, his chest bedecked with patches.

“Commander Wayne Loosigian,” the man said. “Sorry if I startled you, ma’am. It’s pretty dark in here. I haven’t had a chance to open the bay doors yet.” Before Rachel could respond, the man added, “It will be my honor to be your pilot this morning.”

“Pilot?” Rachel stared at the man. I just had a pilot. “I’m here to see the administrator.”

“Yes, ma’am. My orders are to transport you to him immediately.”

It took a moment for the statement to sink in. When it hit her, she felt a stab of deceit. Apparently, her travels were not over. “Where is the administrator?” Rachel demanded, wary now.

“I do not have that information,” the pilot replied. “I will receive his coordinates after we are airborne.”

Rachel sensed that the man was telling the truth. Apparently she and Director Pickering were not the only two people being kept in the dark this morning. The President was taking the issue of security very seriously, and Rachel felt embarrassed by how quickly and effortlessly the President had taken her “off-the-grid.” Half an hour in the field, and I’m already stripped of all communication, and my director has no idea where I am.

Standing now before her stiff-backed NASA pilot, Rachel had little doubt her morning plans were cast in stone. This carnival ride was leaving with Rachel onboard whether she liked it or not. The only question was where it was headed.

The pilot strode over to the wall and pressed a button. The far side of the hangar began sliding loudly to one side. Light poured in from the outside, silhouetting a large object in the center of the hangar.

Rachel’s mouth fell open. God help me.

There in the middle of the hangar stood a ferocious-looking black fighter jet. It was the most streamlined aircraft Rachel had ever seen.

“You are joking,” she said.

“Common first reaction, ma’am, but the F-14 Tomcat Split-tail is a highly proven craft.”

It’s a missile with wings.

The pilot led Rachel toward his craft. He motioned to the dual cockpit. “You’ll be riding in back.”

“Really?” She gave him a tight smile. “And here I thought you wanted me to drive.”

After donning a thermal flight suit over her clothes, Rachel found herself climbing into the cockpit. Awkwardly, she wedged her hips into the narrow seat.

“NASA obviously has no fat-assed pilots,” she said.

The pilot gave a grin as he helped Rachel buckle herself in. Then he slid a helmet over her head.

“We’ll be flying pretty high,” he said. “You’ll want oxygen.” He pulled an oxygen mask from the side dash and began snapping it onto her helmet.

“I can manage,” Rachel said, reaching up and taking over.

“Of course, ma’am.”

Rachel fumbled with the molded mouthpiece and then finally snapped it onto her helmet. The mask’s fit was surprisingly awkward and uncomfortable.

The commander stared at her for a long moment, looking vaguely amused.

“Is something wrong?” she demanded.

“Not at all, ma’am.” He seemed to be hiding a smirk. “Hack sacks are under your seat. Most people get sick their first time in a split-tail.”

“I should be fine,” Rachel assured him, her voice muffled by the smothering fit of the mask. “I’m not prone to motion sickness.”

The pilot shrugged. “A lot of Navy Seals say the same thing, and I’ve cleaned plenty of Seal puke out of my cockpit.”

She nodded weakly. Lovely.

“Any questions before we go?”

Rachel hesitated a moment and then tapped on the mouthpiece cutting into her chin. “It’s cutting off my circulation. How do you wear these things on long flights?”

The pilot smiled patiently. “Well, ma’am, we don’t usually wear them upside down.”

Poised at the end of the runway, engines throbbing beneath her, Rachel felt like a bullet in a gun waiting for someone to pull the trigger. When the pilot pushed the throttle forward, the Tomcat’s twin Lockheed 345 engines roared to life, and the entire world shook. The brakes released, and Rachel slammed backward in her seat. The jet tore down the runway and lifted off within a matter of seconds. Outside, the earth dropped away at a dizzying rate.

Rachel closed her eyes as the plane rocketed skyward. She wondered where she had gone wrong this morning. She was supposed to be at a desk writing gists. Now she was straddling a testosterone-fueled torpedo and breathing through an oxygen mask.

By the time the Tomcat leveled out at forty-five thousand feet, Rachel was feeling queasy. She willed herself to focus her thoughts elsewhere. Gazing down at the ocean nine miles below, Rachel felt suddenly far from home.

Up front, the pilot was talking to someone on the radio. When the conversation ended, the pilot hung up the radio, and immediately banked the Tomcat sharply left. The plane tipped almost to the vertical, and Rachel felt her stomach do a somersault. Finally, the plane leveled out again.

Rachel groaned. “Thanks for the warning, hotshot.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I’ve just been given the classified coordinates of your meeting with the administrator.”

“Let me guess,” Rachel said. “Due north?”

The pilot seemed confused. “How did you know that!”

Rachel sighed. You gotta love these computer-trained pilots. “It’s nine A.M., sport, and the sun is on our right. We’re flying north.”

There was a moment of silence from the cockpit. “Yes, ma’am, we’ll be traveling north this morning.”

“And how far north are we going?”

The pilot checked the coordinates. “Approximately three thousand miles.”

Rachel sat bolt upright. “What!” She tried to picture a map, unable even to imagine what was that far north. “That’s a four-hour flight!”

“At our current speed, yes,” the pilot said. “Hold on, please.”

Before Rachel could respond, the man retracted the F-14’s wings into low-drag position. An instant later, Rachel felt herself slammed into her seat yet again as the plane shot forward as though it had been standing still. Within a minute they were cruising at almost 1,500 miles per hour.

Rachel was feeling dizzy now. As the sky tore by with blinding speed, she felt an uncontrollable wave of nausea hit her. The President’s voice echoed faintly. I assure you, Rachel, you will not regret assisting me in this matter.

Groaning, Rachel reached for her hack sack. Never trust a politician.

Chapter 13

Although he disliked the menial filth of public taxis, Senator Sedgewick Sexton had learned to endure the occasional demeaning moment along his road to glory. The grungy Mayflower cab that had just deposited him in the lower parking garage of the Purdue Hotel afforded Sexton something his stretch limousine could not-anonymity.

He was pleased to find this lower level deserted, only a few dusty cars dotting a forest of cement pillars. As he made his way diagonally across the garage on foot, Sexton glanced at his watch.

11:15 A.M. Perfect.

The man with whom Sexton was meeting was always touchy about punctuality. Then again, Sexton reminded himself, considering who the man represented, he could be touchy about any damned thing he wanted.

Sexton saw the white Ford Windstar minivan parked in exactly the same spot as it had been for every one of their meetings – in the eastern corner of the garage, behind a row of trash bins. Sexton would have preferred to meet this man in a suite upstairs, but he certainly understood the precautions. This man’s friends had not gotten to where they were by being careless.

As Sexton moved toward the van, he felt the familiar edginess that he always experienced before these encounters. Forcing himself to relax his shoulders, he climbed into the passenger’s seat with a cheery wave. The dark-haired gentleman in the driver’s seat did not smile. The man was almost seventy years old, but his leathery complexion exuded a toughness appropriate to his post as figurehead of an army of brazen visionaries and ruthless entrepreneurs.

“Close the door,” the man said, his voice callous.

Sexton obeyed, tolerating the man’s gruffness graciously. After all, this man represented men who controlled enormous sums of money, much of which had been pooled recently to poise Sedgewick Sexton on the threshold of the most powerful office in the world. These meetings, Sexton had come to understand, were less strategy sessions than they were monthly reminders of just how beholden the senator had become to his benefactors. These men were expecting a serious return on their investment. The “return,” Sexton had to admit, was a shockingly bold demand; and yet, almost more incredibly, it was something that would be within Sexton’s sphere of influence once he took the Oval Office.

“I assume,” Sexton said, having learned how this man liked to get down to business, “that another installment has been made?”

“It has. And as usual, you are to use these funds solely for your campaign. We have been pleased to see the polls shifting consistently in your favor, and it appears your campaign managers have been spending our money effectively.”

“We’re gaining fast.”

“As I mentioned to you on the phone,” the old man said, “I have persuaded six more to meet with you tonight.”

“Excellent.” Sexton had blocked off the time already.

The old man handed Sexton a folder. “Here is their information. Study it. They want to know you understand their concerns specifically. They want to know you are sympathetic. I suggest you meet them at your residence.”

“My home? But I usually meet-”

“Senator, these six men run companies that possess resources well in excess of the others you have met. These men are the big fish, and they are wary. They have more to gain and therefore more to lose. I’ve worked hard to persuade them to meet with you. They will require special handling. A personal touch.”

Sexton gave a quick nod. “Absolutely. I can arrange a meeting at my home.”

“Of course, they will want total privacy.”

“As will I.”

“Good luck,” the old man said. “If tonight goes well, it could be your last meeting. These men alone can provide what is needed to push the Sexton campaign over the top.”

Sexton liked the sound of that. He gave the old man a confident smile. “With luck, my friend, come election time, we will all claim victory.”

“Victory?” The old man scowled, leaning toward Sexton with ominous eyes. “Putting you in the White House is only the first step toward victory, senator. I assume you have not forgotten that.”

Chapter 14

The White House is one of the smallest presidential mansions in the world, measuring only 170 feet in length, 85 feet in depth, and sitting on a mere 18 acres of landscaped grounds. Architect James Hoban’s plan for a box-like stone structure with a hipped roof, balustrade, and columnar entrance, though clearly unoriginal, was selected from the open design contest by judges who praised it as “attractive, dignified, and flexible.”

President Zach Herney, even after three and a half years in the White House, seldom felt at home here among the maze of chandeliers, antiques, and armed Marines. At the moment, however, as he strode toward the West Wing, he felt invigorated and oddly at ease, his feet almost weightless on the plush carpeting.

Several members of the White House staff looked up as the President approached. Herney waved and greeted each by name. Their responses, though polite, were subdued and accompanied by forced smiles.

“Good morning, Mr. President.”

“Nice to see you, Mr. President.”

“Good day, sir.”

As the President made his way toward his office, he sensed whisperings in his wake. There was an insurrection afoot inside the White House. For the past couple of weeks, the disillusionment at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had been growing to a point where Herney was starting to feel like Captain Bligh-commanding a struggling ship whose crew was preparing for mutiny.

The President didn’t blame them. His staff had worked grueling hours to support him in the upcoming election, and now, all of a sudden, it seemed the President was fumbling the ball.

Soon they will understand, Herney told himself. Soon I’ll be the hero again.

He regretted having to keep his staff in the dark for so long, but secrecy was absolutely critical. And when it came to keeping secrets, the White House was known as the leakiest ship in Washington.

Herney arrived in the waiting room outside the Oval Office and gave his secretary a cheery wave. “You look nice this morning, Dolores.”

“You too, sir,” she said, eyeing his casual attire with unveiled disapproval.

Herney lowered his voice. “I’d like you to organize a meeting for me.”

“With whom, sir?”

“The entire White House staff.”

His secretary glanced up. “Your entire staff, sir? All 145 of them?”

“Exactly.”

She looked uneasy. “Okay. Shall I set it up in… the Briefing Room?”

Herney shook his head. “No. Let’s set it up in my office.”

Now she stared. “You want to see your entire staff inside the Oval Office?”

“Exactly.”

“All at once, sir?”

“Why not? Set it up for four P.M.”

The secretary nodded as though humoring a mental patient. “Very well, sir. And the meeting is regarding…?”

“I have an important announcement to make to the American people tonight. I want my staff to hear it first.”

A sudden dejected look swept across his secretary’s face, almost as if she had secretly been dreading this moment. She lowered her voice. “Sir, are you pulling out of the race?”

Herney burst out laughing. “Hell no, Dolores! I’m gearing up to fight!”

She looked doubtful. The media reports had all been saying President Herney was throwing the election.

He gave her a reassuring wink. “Dolores, you’ve done a terrific job for me these past few years, and you’ll do a terrific job for me for another four. We’re keeping the White House. I swear it.”

His secretary looked like she wanted to believe it. “Very well, sir. I’ll alert the staff. Four P.M.”

As Zach Herney entered the Oval Office, he couldn’t help but smile at the image of his entire staff crammed into the deceptively small chamber.

Although this great office had enjoyed many nicknames over the years – the Loo, Dick’s Den, the Clinton Bedroom-Herney’s favorite was “the Lobster Trap.” It seemed most fitting. Each time a newcomer entered the Oval Office, disorientation set in immediately. The symmetry of the room, the gently curving walls, the discreetly disguised doorways in and out, all gave visitors the dizzying sense they’d been blindfolded and spun around. Often, after a meeting in the Oval Office, a visiting dignitary would stand up, shake hands with the President, and march straight into a storage closet. Depending on how the meeting had gone, Herney would either stop the guest in time or watch in amusement as the visitor embarrassed himself.

Herney had always believed the most dominating aspect of the Oval Office was the colorful American eagle emblazoned on the room’s oval carpet. The eagle’s left talon clutched an olive branch and his right a bundle of arrows. Few outsiders knew that during times of peace, the eagle faced left-toward the olive branch. But in times of war, the eagle mysteriously faced right-toward the arrows. The mechanism behind this little parlor trick was the source of quiet speculation among White House staff because it was traditionally known only by the President and the head of housekeeping. The truth behind the enigmatic eagle, Herney had found to be disappointingly mundane. A storage room in the basement contained the second oval carpet, and housekeeping simply swapped the carpets in the dead of night.

Now, as Herney gazed down at the peaceful, left-gazing eagle, he smiled to think that perhaps he should swap carpets in honor of the little war he was about to launch against Senator Sedgewick Sexton.

Chapter 15

The U.S. Delta Force is the sole fighting squad whose actions are granted complete presidential immunity from the law.

Presidential Decision Directive 25 (PDD 25) grants Delta Force soldiers “freedom from all legal accountability,” including exception from the 1876 Posse Comitatus Act, a statute imposing criminal penalties for anyone using the military for personal gain, domestic law enforcement, or unsanctioned covert operations. Delta Force members are handpicked from the Combat Applications Group (CAG), a classified organization within the Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Delta Force soldiers are trained killers-experts in SWAT operations, rescuing hostages, surprise raids, and elimination of covert enemy forces.

Because Delta Force missions usually involve high levels of secrecy, the traditional multitiered chain of command is often circumvented in favor of “monocaput” management-a single controller who holds authority to control the unit as he or she sees fit. The controller tends to be a military or government powerbroker with sufficient rank or influence to run the mission. Regardless of the identity of their controller, Delta Force missions are classified at the highest level, and once a mission is completed, Delta Force soldiers never speak of it again-not to one another, and not to their commanding officers within Special Ops.

Fly. Fight. Forget.

The Delta team currently stationed above the Eighty-second Parallel was doing no flying or fighting. They were simply watching.

Delta-One had to admit that this had been a most unusual mission so far, but he had learned long ago never to be surprised by what he was asked to do. In the past five years he had been involved in Middle East hostage rescues, tracking and exterminating terrorist cells working inside the United States, and even the discreet elimination of several dangerous men and women around the globe.

Just last month his Delta team had used a flying microbot to induce a lethal heart attack in a particularly malicious South American drug lord. Using a microbot equipped with a hairline titanium needle containing a potent vasoconstrictor, Delta-Two had flown the device into the man’s house through an open second-story window, found the man’s bedroom, and then pricked him on the shoulder while he was sleeping. The microbot was back out the window and “feet dry” before the man woke up with chest pain. The Delta team was already flying home by the time its victim’s wife was calling the paramedics.

No breaking and entering.

Death by natural causes.

It had been a thing of beauty.

More recently, another microbot stationed inside a prominent senator’s office to monitor his personal meetings had captured images of a lurid sexual encounter. The Delta team jokingly referred to that mission as “insertion behind enemy lines.”

Now, after being trapped on surveillance duty inside this tent for the last ten days, Delta-One was ready for this mission to be over.

Remain in hiding.

Monitor the structure-inside and out.

Report to your controller any unexpected developments.

Delta-One had been trained never to feel any emotion regarding his assignments. This mission, however, had certainly raised his heart rate when he and his team were first briefed. The briefing had been “faceless”-every phase explained via secure electronic channels. Delta-One had never met the controller responsible for this mission.

Delta-One was preparing a dehydrated protein meal when his watch beeped in unison with the others. Within seconds the CrypTalk communications device beside him blinked on alert. He stopped what he was doing and picked up the handheld communicator. The other two men watched in silence.

“Delta-One,” he said, speaking into the transmitter.

The two words were instantly identified by the voice recognition software inside the device. Each word was then assigned a reference number, which was encrypted and sent via satellite to the caller. On the caller’s end, at a similar device, the numbers were decrypted, translated back into words using a predetermined, self-randomizing dictionary. Then the words were spoken aloud by a synthetic voice. Total delay, eighty milliseconds.

“Controller, here,” said the person overseeing the operation. The robotic tone of the CrypTalk was eerie-inorganic and androgynous. “What is your op status?”

“Everything proceeding as planned,” Delta-One replied.

“Excellent. I have an update on the time frame. The information goes public tonight at eight P.M. Eastern.”

Delta-One checked his chronograph. Only eight more hours. His job here would be finished soon. That was encouraging.

“There is another development,” the controller said. “A new player has entered the arena.”

“What new player?”

Delta-One listened. An interesting gamble. Someone out there was playing for keeps. “Do you think she can be trusted?”

“She needs to be watched very closely.”

“And if there is trouble?”

There was no hesitation on the line. “Your orders stand.”

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