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Chapter 121

Kill or be killed. Rachel had discovered a part of herself she never knew existed. Survival mode-a savage fortitude fueled by fear.

“What was in that outbound fax?” the voice on the CrypTalk demanded.

Rachel was relieved to hear confirmation that the fax had gone out as planned. “Leave the area,” she demanded, speaking into the CrypTalk and glaring up at the hovering chopper. “It’s over. Your secret is out.” Rachel informed their attackers of all the information she had just sent. A half dozen pages of images and text. Incontrovertible evidence that the meteorite was a fake. “Harming us will only make your situation worse.”

There was a heavy pause. “Who did you send the fax to?”

Rachel had no intention of answering that question. She and Tolland needed to buy as much time as possible. They had positioned themselves near the opening in the deck, on a direct line with the Triton, making it impossible for the chopper to shoot without hitting the soldier dangling in the sub’s claws.

“William Pickering,” the voice guessed, sounding oddly hopeful. “You faxed Pickering.”

Wrong, Rachel thought. Pickering would have been her first choice, but she had been forced to choose someone else for fear her attackers had already eliminated Pickering-a move whose boldness would be a chilling testimony to her enemy’s resolve. In a moment of desperate decision, Rachel had faxed the data to the only other fax number she knew by heart.

Her father’s office.

Senator Sexton’s office fax number had been painfully engraved into Rachel’s memory after her mother’s death when her father chose to work out many of the particulars of the estate without having to deal with Rachel in person. Rachel never imagined she would turn to her father in a time of need, but tonight the man possessed two critical qualities-all the correct political motivations to release the meteorite data without hesitation, and enough clout to call the White House and blackmail them into calling off this kill squad.

Although her father was most certainly not in the office at this hour, Rachel knew he kept his office locked like a vault. Rachel had, in effect, faxed the data into a time-lock safe. Even if the attackers knew where she had sent it, chances were slim they could get through the tight federal security at the Philip A. Hart Senate Office Building and break into a senator’s office without anyone noticing.

“Wherever you sent the fax,” the voice from above said. “You’ve put that person in danger.”

Rachel knew she had to speak from a position of power regardless of the fear she was feeling. She motioned to the soldier trapped in the Triton’s claws. His legs dangled over the abyss, dripping blood thirty feet to the ocean. “The only person in danger here is your agent,” she said into the CrypTalk. “It’s over. Back off. The data is gone. You’ve lost. Leave the area, or this man dies.”

The voice on the CrypTalk fired back, “Ms. Sexton, you do not understand the importance-”

“Understand?” Rachel exploded. “I understand that you killed innocent people! I understand that you lied about the meteorite! And I understand that you won’t get away with this! Even if you kill us all, it’s over!”

There was a long pause. Finally the voice said, “I’m coming down.”

Rachel felt her muscles tighten. Coming down?

“I am unarmed,” the voice said. “Do not do anything rash. You and I need to talk face-to-face.”

Before Rachel could react, the chopper dropped onto the Goya’s deck. The passenger door on the fuselage opened and a figure stepped out. He was a plain-looking man in a black coat and tie. For an instant, Rachel’s thoughts went totally blank.

She was staring at William Pickering.

William Pickering stood on the deck of the Goya and gazed with regret at Rachel Sexton. He had never imagined today would come to this. As he moved toward her, he could see the dangerous combination of emotions in his employee’s eyes.

Shock, betrayal, confusion, rage.

All understandable, he thought. There is so much she does not understand.

For a moment, Pickering flashed on his daughter, Diana, wondering what emotions she had felt before she died. Both Diana and Rachel were casualties of the same war, a war Pickering had vowed to fight forever. Sometimes the casualties could be so cruel.

“Rachel,” Pickering said. “We can still work this out. There’s a lot I need to explain.”

Rachel Sexton looked aghast, nauseated almost. Tolland had the machine gun now and was aiming at Pickering’s chest. He too looked bewildered.

“Stay back!” Tolland yelled.

Pickering stopped five yards away, focusing on Rachel. “Your father is taking bribes, Rachel. Payoffs from private space companies. He plans to dismantle NASA and open space to the private sector. He had to be stopped, as a matter of national security.”

Rachel’s expression was blank.

Pickering sighed. “NASA, for all its flaws, must remain a government entity.” Certainly she can understand the dangers. Privatization would send NASA’s best minds and ideas flooding into the private sector. The brain trust would dissolve. The military would lose access. Private space companies looking to raise capital would start selling NASA patents and ideas to the highest bidders worldwide!

Rachel’s voice was tremulous. “You faked the meteorite and killed innocent people… in the name of national security?”

“It was never supposed to happen like this,” Pickering said. “The plan was to save an important government agency. Killing was not part of it.”

The meteorite deception, Pickering knew, like most intelligence proposals, had been the product of fear. Three years ago, in an effort to extend the NRO hydrophones into deeper water where they could not be touched by enemy saboteurs, Pickering spearheaded a program that utilized a newly developed NASA building material to secretly design an astonishingly durable submarine capable of carrying humans to the deepest regions of the ocean-including the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Forged from a revolutionary ceramic, this two-man submarine was designed from blueprints hacked from the computer of a California engineer named Graham Hawkes, a genius sub designer whose life dream was to build an ultra-deepwater submersible he called Deep Flight II. Hawkes was having trouble finding funding to build a prototype. Pickering, on the other hand, had an unlimited budget.

Using the classified ceramic submersible, Pickering sent a covert team underwater to affix new hydrophones to the walls of the Mariana Trench, deeper than any enemy could possibly look. In the process of drilling, however, they uncovered geologic structures unlike any that scientists had ever seen. The discoveries included chondrules and fossils of several unknown species. Of course, because the NRO’s ability to dive this deep was classified, none of the information could ever be shared.

It was not until recently, driven yet again by fear, that Pickering and his quiet team of NRO science advisers had decided to put their knowledge of the Mariana’s unique geology to work to help save NASA. Turning a Mariana rock into a meteorite had proven to be a deceptively simple task. Using an ECE slush-hydrogen engine, the NRO team charred the rock with a convincing fusion crust. Then, using a small payload sub, they had descended beneath the Milne Ice Shelf and inserted the charred rock up into the ice from beneath. Once the insertion shaft refroze, the rock looked like it had been there for over three hundred years.

Unfortunately, as was often the case in the world of covert operations, the grandest of plans could be undone by the smallest of snags. Yesterday, the entire illusion had been shattered by a few bioluminescent plankton…

From the cockpit of the idling Kiowa, Delta-One watched the drama unfold before him. Rachel and Tolland appeared to be in clear control, although Delta-One almost had to laugh at the hollowness of the illusion. The machine gun in Tolland’s hands was worthless; even from here Delta-One could see the cocking bar assembly had kicked back, indicating the clip was empty.

As Delta-One gazed out at his partner struggling in the Triton’s claws, he knew he had to hurry. The focus on deck had turned completely to Pickering, and now Delta-One could make his move. Leaving the rotors idling, he slipped out of the rear of the fuselage and, using the chopper for cover, made his way unseen onto the starboard gangway. With his own machine gun in hand, he headed for the bow. Pickering had given him specific orders before they landed on deck, and Delta-One had no intention of failing at this simple task.

In a matter of minutes, he knew, this will all be over.

Chapter 122

Still wearing his bathrobe, Zach Herney sat at his desk in the Oval Office, his head throbbing. The newest piece of the puzzle had just been revealed.

Marjorie Tench is dead.

Herney’s aides said they had information suggesting Tench had driven to the FDR Memorial for a private meeting with William Pickering. Now that Pickering was missing, the staff feared Pickering too might be dead.

The President and Pickering had endured their battles lately. Months ago Herney learned that Pickering had engaged in illegal activity on Herney’s behalf in an attempt to save Herney’s floundering campaign.

Employing NRO assets, Pickering had discreetly obtained enough dirt on Senator Sexton to sink his campaign-scandalous sexual photos of the senator with his aide Gabrielle Ashe, incriminating financial records proving Sexton was taking bribes from private space companies. Pickering anonymously sent all the evidence to Marjorie Tench, assuming the White House would use it wisely. But Herney, upon seeing the data, had forbidden Tench to use it. Sex scandals and bribery were cancers in Washington, and waving another one in front of the public only added to their distrust of government.

Cynicism is killing this country.

Although Herney knew he could destroy Sexton with scandal, the cost would be besmirching the dignity of the U.S. Senate, something Herney refused to do.

No more negatives. Herney would beat Senator Sexton on the issues.

Pickering, angered by the White House’s refusal to use the evidence he had provided, tried to jump-start the scandal by leaking a rumor that Sexton had slept with Gabrielle Ashe. Unfortunately, Sexton declared his innocence with such convincing indignation that the President ended up having to apologize for the leak personally. In the end William Pickering had done more damage than good. Herney told Pickering that if he ever interfered in the campaign again, he would be indicted. The grand irony, of course, was that Pickering did not even like President Herney. The NRO director’s attempts to help Herney’s campaign were simply fears over the fate of NASA. Zach Herney was the lesser of two evils.

Now has someone killed Pickering?

Herney could not imagine.

“Mr. President?” an aide said. “As you requested, I called Lawrence Ekstrom and told him about Marjorie Tench.”

“Thank you.”

“He would like to speak to you, sir.”

Herney was still furious with Ekstrom for lying about PODS. “Tell him I’ll talk to him in the morning.”

“Mr. Ekstrom wants to talk to you right away, sir.” The aide looked uneasy. “He’s very upset.”

HE’S upset? Herney could feel his temper fraying around the edges. As he stalked off to take Ekstrom’s call, the President wondered what the hell else could possibly go wrong tonight.

Chapter 123

Onboard the Goya, Rachel felt lightheaded. The mystification that had settled around her like a heavy fog was lifting now. The stark reality that came into focus left her feeling naked and disgusted. She looked at the stranger before her and could barely hear his voice.

“We needed to rebuild NASA’s image,” Pickering was saying. “Their declining popularity and funding had become dangerous on so many levels.” Pickering paused, his gray eyes locking on hers. “Rachel, NASA was desperate for a triumph. Someone had to make it happen.”

Something had to be done, Pickering thought.

The meteorite had been a final act of desperation. Pickering and others had tried to save NASA by lobbying to incorporate the space agency into the intelligence community where it would enjoy increased funding and better security, but the White House continuously rebuffed the idea as an assault on pure science. Shortsighted idealism. With the rising popularity of Sexton’s anti-NASA rhetoric, Pickering and his band of military powerbrokers knew time was running short. They decided that capturing the imagination of taxpayers and Congress was the only remaining way to salvage NASA’s image and save it from the auction block. If the space agency was to survive, it would need an infusion of grandeur-something to remind the taxpayers of NASA’s Apollo glory days. And if Zach Herney was going to defeat Senator Sexton, he was going to need help.

I tried to help him, Pickering told himself, recalling all the damaging evidence he had sent Marjorie Tench. Unfortunately, Herney had forbidden its use, leaving Pickering no choice but to take drastic measures.

“Rachel,” Pickering said, “the information you just faxed off this ship is dangerous. You must understand that. If it gets out, the White House and NASA will look complicit. The backlash against the President and NASA will be enormous. The President and NASA know nothing, Rachel. They are innocent. They believe the meteorite is authentic.”

Pickering had not even tried to bring Herney or Ekstrom into the fold because both were far too idealistic to have agreed to any deceit, regardless of its potential to save the presidency or space agency. Administrator Ekstrom’s only crime had been persuading the PODS mission supervisor to lie about the anomaly software, a move Ekstrom no doubt regretted the moment he realized how scrutinized this particular meteorite would become.

Marjorie Tench, frustrated by Herney’s insistence on fighting a clean campaign, conspired with Ekstrom on the PODS lie, hoping a small PODS success might help the President fend off the rising Sexton tide.

If Tench had used the photos and bribery data I gave her, none of this would have happened!

Tench’s murder, though deeply regrettable, had been destined as soon as Rachel called Tench and made accusations of fraud. Pickering knew Tench would investigate ruthlessly until she got to the bottom of Rachel’s motives for the outrageous claims, and this was one investigation Pickering obviously could never let happen. Ironically, Tench would serve her president best in death, her violent end helping cement a sympathy vote for the White House as well as cast vague suspicions of foul play on a desperate Sexton campaign which had been so publicly humiliated by Marjorie Tench on CNN.

Rachel stood her ground, glaring at her boss.

“Understand,” Pickering said, “if news of this meteorite fraud gets out, you will destroy an innocent president and an innocent space agency. You will also put a very dangerous man in the Oval Office. I need to know where you faxed the data.”

As he spoke those words, a strange look came across Rachel’s face. It was the pained expression of horror of someone who had just realized they may have made a grave mistake.

Having circled the bow and come back down the port side, Delta-One now stood in the hydrolab from which he had seen Rachel emerge as the chopper had flown in. A computer in the lab displayed an unsettling image-a polychromatic rendering of the pulsating, deepwater vortex that was apparently hovering over the ocean floor somewhere beneath the Goya.

Another reason to get the hell out of here, he thought, moving now toward his target.

The fax machine was on a counter on the far side of the wall. The tray was filled with a stack of papers, exactly as Pickering had guessed it would be. Delta-One picked up the stack. A note from Rachel was on top. Only two lines. He read it.

To the point, he thought.

As he flipped through the pages, he was both amazed and dismayed by the extent to which Tolland and Rachel had uncovered the meteorite deception. Whoever saw these printouts would have no doubt what they meant. Fortunately, Delta-One would not even need to hit “redial” to find out where the printouts had gone. The last fax number was still displayed in the LCD window.

A Washington, D.C., prefix.

He carefully copied the fax number down, grabbed all the papers, and exited the lab.

Tolland’s hands felt sweaty on the machine gun as he gripped it, aiming the muzzle at William Pickering’s chest. The NRO director was still pressuring Rachel to tell him where the data had been sent, and Tolland was starting to get the uneasy feeling that Pickering was simply trying to buy time. For what?

“The White House and NASA are innocent,” Pickering repeated. “Work with me. Don’t let my mistakes destroy what little credibility NASA has left. NASA will look guilty if this gets out. You and I can come to an arrangement. The country needs this meteorite. Tell me where you faxed the data before it’s too late.”

“So you can kill someone else?” Rachel said. “You make me sick.”

Tolland was amazed with Rachel’s fortitude. She despised her father, but she clearly had no intention of putting the senator in any danger whatsoever. Unfortunately, Rachel’s plan to fax her father for help had backfired. Even if the senator came into his office, saw the fax, and called the President with news of the meteorite fraud and told him to call off the attack, nobody at the White House would have any idea what Sexton was talking about, or even where they were.

“I will only say this one more time,” Pickering said, fixing Rachel with a menacing glare. “This situation is too complex for you to fully understand. You’ve made an enormous mistake by sending that data off this ship. You’ve put your country at risk.”

William Pickering was indeed buying time, Tolland now realized. And the reason was striding calmly toward them up the starboard side of the boat. Tolland felt a flash of fear when he saw the soldier sauntering toward them carrying a stack of papers and a machine gun.

Tolland reacted with a decisiveness that shocked even himself. Gripping the machine gun, he wheeled, aimed at the soldier, and pulled the trigger.

The gun made an innocuous click.

“I found the fax number,” the soldier said, handing Pickering a slip of paper. “And Mr. Tolland is out of ammunition.”

Chapter 124

Sedgewick Sexton stormed up the hallway of the Philip A. Hart Senate Office Building. He had no idea how Gabrielle had done it, but she had obviously gotten into his office. While they were speaking on the phone, Sexton had clearly heard the distinctive triple-click of his Jourdain clock in the background. All he could imagine was that Gabrielle’s eavesdropping on the SFF meeting had undermined her trust in him and she had gone digging for evidence.

How the hell did she get into my office!

Sexton was glad he’d changed his computer password.

When he arrived at his private office, Sexton typed in his code to deactivate the alarm. Then he fumbled for his keys, unlocked the heavy doors, threw them open, and burst in, intent on catching Gabrielle in the act.

But the office was empty and dark, lit only by the glow of his computer screensaver. He turned on the lights, his eyes scanning. Everything looked in place. Dead silence except for the triple-tick of his clock.

Where the hell is she?

He heard something rustle in his private bathroom and raced over, turning on the light. The bathroom was empty. He looked behind the door. Nothing.

Puzzled, Sexton eyed himself in the mirror, wondering if he’d had too much to drink tonight. I heard something. Feeling disoriented and confused, he walked back into his office.

“Gabrielle?” he called out. He went down the hall to her office. She wasn’t there. Her office was dark.

A toilet flushed in the ladies’ room, and Sexton spun, striding now back in the direction of the restrooms. He arrived just as Gabrielle was exiting, drying her hands. She jumped when she saw him.

“My God! You scared me!” she said, looking genuinely frightened. “What are you doing here?”

“You said you were getting NASA documents from your office,” he declared, eyeing her empty hands. “Where are they?”

“I couldn’t find them. I looked everywhere. That’s what took so long.”

He stared directly into her eyes. “Were you in my office?”

I owe my life to his fax machine, Gabrielle thought.

Only minutes ago she’d been sitting at Sexton’s computer, trying to make printouts of the images of illegal checks on his computer. The files were protected somehow, and she was going to need more time to figure out how to print them. She would probably still be trying right now if Sexton’s fax machine had not rung, startling her and snapping her back to reality. Gabrielle took it as her cue to get out. Without taking time to see what the incoming fax was, she logged off Sexton’s computer, tidied up, and headed out the way she had come. She was just climbing out of Sexton’s bathroom when she heard him coming in.

Now, with Sexton standing before her, staring down, she sensed him searching her eyes for a lie. Sedgewick Sexton could smell untruths like nobody Gabrielle had ever met. If she lied to him, Sexton would know.

“You’ve been drinking,” Gabrielle said, turning away. How does he know I was in his office?

Sexton put his hands on her shoulders and spun her back around. “Were you in my office?”

Gabrielle felt a rising fear. Sexton had indeed been drinking. His touch was rough. “In your office?” she demanded, forcing a confused laugh. “How? Why?”

“I heard my Jourdain in the background when I called you.”

Gabrielle cringed inwardly. His clock? It had not even occurred to her. “Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?”

“I spend all day in that office. I know what my clock sounds like.”

Gabrielle sensed she had to end this immediately. The best defense is a good offense. At least that’s what Yolanda Cole always said. Placing her hands on her hips, Gabrielle went for him with all she had. She stepped toward him, getting in his face, glaring. “Let me get this straight, senator. It’s four o’clock in the morning, you’ve been drinking, you heard a ticking on your phone, and that’s why you’re here?” She pointed her finger indignantly down the hall at his door. “Just for the record, are you accusing me of disarming a federal alarm system, picking two sets of locks, breaking into your office, being stupid enough to answer my cellphone while in the process of committing a felony, rearming the alarm system on my way out, and then calmly using the ladies’ room before I run off with nothing to show for it? Is that the story here?”

Sexton blinked, wide-eyed.

“There’s a reason people shouldn’t drink alone,” Gabrielle said. “Now do you want to talk about NASA, or not?”

Sexton felt befuddled as he walked back into his office. He went straight to his wet bar and poured himself a Pepsi. He sure as hell didn’t feel drunk. Could he really have been wrong about this? Across the room, his Jourdain ticked mockingly. Sexton drained his Pepsi and poured himself another, and one for Gabrielle.

“Drink, Gabrielle?” he asked, turning back into the room. Gabrielle had not followed him in. She was still standing in the doorway, rubbing his nose in it. “Oh, for God’s sake! Come in. Tell me what you found out at NASA.”

“I think I’ve had enough for tonight,” she said, sounding distant. “Let’s talk tomorrow.”

Sexton was in no mood for games. He needed this information now, and he had no intention of begging for it. He heaved a tired sigh. Extend the bond of trust. It’s all about trust. “I screwed up,” he said. “I’m sorry. It’s been a hell of a day. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Gabrielle remained in the doorway.

Sexton walked to his desk and set Gabrielle’s Pepsi down on his blotter. He motioned to his leather chair-the position of power. “Have a seat. Enjoy a soda. I’m going to go stick my head in the sink.” He headed for the bathroom.

Gabrielle still wasn’t moving.

“I think I saw a fax in the machine,” Sexton called over his shoulder as he entered the bathroom. Show her you trust her. “Have a look at it for me, will you?”

Sexton closed the door and filled the sink with cold water. He splashed it on his face and felt no clearer. This had never happened to him before-being so sure, and being so wrong. Sexton was a man who trusted his instincts, and his instincts told him Gabrielle Ashe had been in his office.

But how? It was impossible.

Sexton told himself to forget about it and focus on the matter at hand. NASA. He needed Gabrielle right now. This was no time to alienate her. He needed to know what she knew. Forget your instincts. You were wrong.

As Sexton dried his face, he threw his head back and took a deep breath. Relax, he told himself. Don’t get punchy. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply again, feeling better.

When Sexton exited the bathroom, he was relieved to see Gabrielle had acquiesced and come back into his office. Good, he thought. Now we can get to business. Gabrielle was standing at his fax machine flipping through whatever pages had come in. Sexton was confused, however, when he saw her face. It was a mask of disorientation and fear.

“What is it?” Sexton said, moving toward her.

Gabrielle teetered, as if she were about to pass out.

“What?”

“The meteorite… ” she choked, her voice frail as her trembling hand held the stack of fax papers out to him. “And your daughter… she’s in danger.”

Bewildered, Sexton walked over, and took the fax pages from Gabrielle. The top sheet was a handwritten note. Sexton immediately recognized the writing. The communique was awkward and shocking in its simplicity.

Meteorite is fake. Here’s proof. NASA/White House trying to kill me. Help! RS

The senator seldom felt totally at a loss of understanding, but as he reread Rachel’s words, he had no idea what to make of them.

The meteorite is a fake? NASA and the White House are trying to kill her?

In a deepening haze, Sexton began sifting through the half dozen sheets. The first page was a computerized image whose heading read “Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR).” The picture appeared to be an ice-sounding of some sort. Sexton saw the extraction pit they had talked about on television. His eye was drawn to what looked like the faint outline of a body floating in the shaft. Then he saw something even more shocking-the clear outline of a second shaft directly beneath where the meteorite had been-as if the stone had been inserted from underneath the ice.

What in the world?

Flipping to the next page, Sexton came face-to-face with a photograph of some sort of living ocean species called a Bathynomous giganteus. He stared in utter amazement. That’s the animal from the meteorite fossils!

Flipping faster now, he saw a graphic display depicting the ionized hydrogen content in the meteorite’s crust. This page had a handwritten scrawl on it: Slush-hydrogen burn? NASA Expander Cycle Engine?

Sexton could not believe his eyes. With the room starting to spin around him, he flipped to the final page-a photo of a rock containing metallic bubbles that looked exactly like those in the meteorite. Shockingly, the accompanying description said the rock was the product of oceanic volcanism. A rock from the ocean? Sexton wondered. But NASA said chondrules form only in space!

Sexton set the sheets down on his desk and collapsed in his chair. It had taken him only fifteen seconds to piece together everything he was looking at. The implications of the images on the papers were crystal clear. Anyone with half a brain could see what these photos proved.

The NASA meteorite is a fake!

No day in Sexton’s career had been filled with such extreme highs and lows. Today had been a roller-coaster ride of hope and despair. Sexton’s bafflement over how this enormous scam could possibly have been pulled off evaporated into irrelevance when he realized what the scam meant for him politically.

When I go public with this information, the presidency is mine!

In his upwelling of celebration, Senator Sedgewick Sexton had momentarily forgotten his daughter’s claim that she was in trouble.

“Rachel is in danger,” Gabrielle said. “Her note says NASA and the White House are trying to-”

Sexton’s fax machine suddenly began ringing again. Gabrielle wheeled and stared at the machine. Sexton found himself staring too. He could not imagine what else Rachel could be sending him. More proof? How much more could there be? This is plenty!

When the fax machine answered the call, however, no pages came through. The machine, detecting no data signal, had switched to its answering machine feature.

“Hello,” Sexton’s outbound message crackled. “This is the office of Senator Sedgewick Sexton. If you are trying to send a fax, you may transmit at any time. If not, you may leave a message at the tone.”

Before Sexton could pick up, the machine beeped.

“Senator Sexton?” The man’s voice had a lucid rawness to it. “This is William Pickering, director of the National Reconnaissance Office. You’re probably not in the office at this hour, but I need to speak immediately.” He paused as if waiting for someone to pick up.

Gabrielle reached to pick up the receiver.

Sexton grabbed her hand and violently yanked it away.

Gabrielle looked stunned. “But that’s the director of-”

“Senator,” Pickering continued, sounding almost relieved that no one had picked up. “I’m afraid I am calling with some very troubling news. I’ve just received word that your daughter Rachel is in extreme danger. I have a team trying to help her as we speak. I cannot talk in detail about the situation on the phone, but I was just informed she may have faxed you some data relating to the NASA meteorite. I have not seen the data, nor do I know what it is, but the people threatening your daughter have just warned me that if you or anyone goes public with the information, your daughter will die. I’m sorry to be so blunt, sir; I do it for clarity’s sake. Your daughter’s life is being threatened. If she has indeed faxed you something, do not share it with anyone. Not yet. Your daughter’s life depends on it. Stay where you are. I will be there shortly.” He paused. “With luck, senator, all of this will be resolved by the time you wake up. If, by chance, you get this message before I arrive at your office, stay where you are and call no one. I am doing everything in my power to get your daughter back safely.”

Pickering hung up.

Gabrielle was trembling. “Rachel is a hostage?”

Sexton sensed that even in her disillusionment with him, Gabrielle felt a pained empathy to think of a bright young woman in danger. Oddly, Sexton was having trouble mustering the same emotions. Most of him felt like a child who had just been given his most wanted Christmas present, and he refused to let anyone yank it out of his hands.

Pickering wants me to be quiet about this?

He stood a moment, trying to decide what all of this meant. In a cold, calculating side of his mind, Sexton felt the machinery beginning to turn-a political computer, playing out every scenario and evaluating each outcome. He glanced at the stack of faxes in his hands and began to sense the raw power of the images. This NASA meteorite had shattered his dream of the presidency. But it was all a lie. A construct. Now, those who did this would pay. The meteorite that his enemies had created to destroy him would now make him powerful beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. His daughter had seen to that.

There is only one acceptable outcome, he knew. Only one course of action for a true leader to take.

Feeling hypnotized by the shining images of his own resurrection, Sexton was drifting through a fog as he crossed the room. He went to his copy machine and turned it on, preparing to copy the papers Rachel had faxed him.

“What are you doing?” Gabrielle demanded, sounding bewildered.

“They won’t kill Rachel,” Sexton declared. Even if something went wrong, Sexton knew losing his daughter to the enemy would only make him more powerful still. Either way he would win. Acceptable risk.

“Who are those copies for?” Gabrielle demanded. “William Pickering said not to tell anyone!”

Sexton turned from the machine and looked at Gabrielle, amazed by how unattractive he suddenly found her. In that instant, Senator Sexton was an island. Untouchable. Everything he needed to accomplish his dreams was now in his hands. Nothing could stop him now. Not claims of bribery. Not rumors of sex. Nothing.

“Go home, Gabrielle. I have no more use for you.”

Chapter 125

It’s over, Rachel thought.

She and Tolland sat side by side on the deck staring up into the barrel of the Delta soldier’s machine gun. Unfortunately, Pickering now knew where Rachel had sent the fax. The office of Senator Sedgewick Sexton.

Rachel doubted her father would ever receive the phone message Pickering had just left him. Pickering could probably get to Sexton’s office well before anyone else this morning. If Pickering could get in, quietly remove the fax, and delete the phone message before Sexton arrived, there would be no need to harm the senator. William Pickering was probably one of the few people in Washington who could finagle entry to a U.S. senator’s office with no fanfare. Rachel was always amazed at what could be accomplished “in the name of national security.”

Of course if that fails, Rachel thought, Pickering could just fly by and send a Hellfire missile through the window and blow up the fax machine. Something told her this would not be necessary.

Sitting close to Tolland now, Rachel was surprised to feel his hand gently slip into hers. His touch had a tender strength, and their fingers intertwined so naturally that Rachel felt like they’d done this for a lifetime. All she wanted right now was to lie in his arms, sheltered from the oppressive roar of the night sea spiraling around them.

Never, she realized. It was not to be.

Michael Tolland felt like a man who had found hope on the way to the gallows.

Life is mocking me.

For years since Celia’s death, Tolland had endured nights when he’d wanted to die, hours of pain and loneliness that seemed only escapable by ending it all. And yet he had chosen life, telling himself he could make it alone. Today, for the first time, Tolland had begun to understand what his friends had been telling him all along.

Mike, you don’t have to make it alone. You’ll find another love.

Rachel’s hand in his made this irony that much harder to swallow. Fate had cruel timing. He felt as if layers of armor were crumbling away from his heart. For an instant, on the tired decks of the Goya, Tolland sensed Celia’s ghost looking over him as she often did. Her voice was in the rushing water… speaking the last words she’d spoken to him in life.

“You’re a survivor,” her voice whispered. “Promise me you’ll find another love.”

“I’ll never want another,” Tolland had told her.

Celia’s smile was filled with wisdom. “You’ll have to learn.”

Now, on the deck of the Goya, Tolland realized, he was learning. A deep emotion welled suddenly in his soul. He realized it was happiness.

And with it came an overpowering will to live.

Pickering felt oddly detached as he moved toward the two prisoners. He stopped in front of Rachel, vaguely surprised that this was not harder for him.

“Sometimes,” he said, “circumstances raise impossible decisions.”

Rachel’s eyes were unyielding. “You created these circumstances.”

“War involves casualties,” Pickering said, his voice firmer now. Ask Diana Pickering, or any of those who die every year defending this nation. “You of all people should understand that, Rachel.” His eyes focused in on her. “Iactura paucourm serva multos.”

He could see she recognized the words-almost a cliche in national security circles. Sacrifice the few to save the many.

Rachel eyed him with obvious disgust. “And now Michael and I have become part of your few?”

Pickering considered it. There was no other way. He turned to Delta-One. “Release your partner and end this.”

Delta-One nodded.

Pickering took a long last look at Rachel and then strode to the ship’s nearby portside railing, staring out at the sea racing by. This was something he preferred not to watch.

Delta-One felt empowered as he gripped his weapon and glanced over at his partner dangling in the clamps. All that remained was to close the trapdoors beneath Delta-Two’s feet, free him from the clamps, and eliminate Rachel Sexton and Michael Tolland.

Unfortunately, Delta-One had seen the complexity of the control panel near the trapdoor-a series of unmarked levers and dials that apparently controlled the trapdoor, the winch motor, and numerous other commands. He had no intention of hitting the wrong lever and risking his partner’s life by mistakenly dropping the sub into the sea.

Eliminate all risk. Never rush.

He would force Tolland to perform the actual release. And to ensure he did not try anything tricky, Delta-One would take out insurance known in his business as “biological collateral.”

Use your adversaries against one another.

Delta-One swung the gun barrel directly into Rachel’s face, stopping only inches from her forehead. Rachel closed her eyes, and Delta-One could see Tolland’s fists clench in a protective anger.

“Ms. Sexton, stand up,” Delta-One said.

She did.

With the gun firmly on her back, Delta-One marched her over to an aluminum set of portable stairs that led up to the top of the Triton sub from behind. “Climb up and stand on top of the sub.”

Rachel looked frightened and confused.

“Just do it,” Delta-One said.

Rachel felt like she was moving through a nightmare as she climbed up the aluminum gangway behind the Triton. She stopped at the top, having no desire to step out over the chasm onto the suspended Triton.

“Get on top of the sub,” the soldier said, returning to Tolland and pushing the gun against his head.

In front of Rachel the soldier who was in the clamps watched her, shifting in pain, obviously eager to get out. Rachel looked at Tolland, who now had a gun barrel to his head. Get on top of the sub. She had no choice.

Feeling like she was edging out onto a precipice overhanging a canyon, Rachel stepped onto the Triton’s engine casing, a small flat section behind the rounded dome window. The entire sub hung like a massive plumb bob over the open trapdoor. Even suspended on its winch cable, the nine-ton sub barely registered her arrival, swinging only a few millimeters as she steadied herself.

“Okay, let’s move,” the soldier said to Tolland. “Go to the controls and close the trapdoor.”

At gunpoint, Tolland began moving toward the control panel with the soldier behind him. As Tolland came toward her, he was moving slowly, and Rachel could feel his eyes fixing hard on her as if trying to send her a message. He looked directly at her and then down at the open hatch on top of the Triton.

Rachel glanced down. The hatch at her feet was open, the heavy circular covering propped open. She could see down into the one-seater cockpit. He wants me to get in? Sensing she must be mistaken, Rachel looked at Tolland again. He was almost to the control panel. Tolland’s eyes locked on her. This time he was less subtle.

His lips mouthed, “Jump in! Now!”

Delta-One saw Rachel’s motion out of the corner of his eye and wheeled on instinct, opening fire as Rachel fell through the sub’s hatch just below the barrage of bullets. The open hatch covering rang out as the bullets ricocheted off the circular portal, sending up a shower of sparks, and slamming the lid closed on top of her.

Tolland, the instant he’d felt the gun leave his back, made his move. He dove to his left, away from the trapdoor, hitting the deck and rolling just as the soldier spun back toward him, gun blazing. Bullets exploded behind Tolland as he scrambled for cover behind the ship’s stern anchor spool-an enormous motorized cylinder around which was wound several thousand feet of steel cable connected to the ship’s anchor.

Tolland had a plan and would have to act fast. As the soldier dashed toward him, Tolland reached up and grabbed the anchor lock with both hands, yanking down. Instantly the anchor spool began feeding out lengths of cable, and the Goya lurched in the strong current. The sudden movement sent everything and everyone on the deck staggering sidelong. As the boat accelerated in reverse on the current, the anchor spool doled out cable faster and faster.

Come on, baby, Tolland urged.

The soldier regained his balance and came for Tolland. Waiting until the last possible moment, Tolland braced himself and rammed the lever back up, locking the anchor spool. The chain snapped taut, stopping the ship short and sending a tremulous shudder throughout the Goya. Everything on deck went flying. The soldier staggered to his knees near Tolland. Pickering fell back from the railing onto the deck. The Triton swung wildly on its cable.

A grating howl of failing metal tore up from beneath the ship like an earthquake as the damaged strut finally gave way. The right stern corner of the Goya began collapsing under its own weight. The ship faltered, tilting on a diagonal like a massive table losing one of its four legs. The noise from beneath was deafening-a wail of twisting, grating metal and pounding surf.

White-knuckled inside the Triton cockpit, Rachel held on as the nine-ton machine swayed over the trapdoor in the now steeply inclined deck. Through the base of the glass dome she could see the ocean raging below. As she looked up, her eyes scanning the deck for Tolland, she watched a bizarre drama on the deck unfold in a matter of seconds.

Only a yard away, trapped in the Triton’s claws, the clamped Delta soldier was howling in pain as he bobbed like a puppet on a stick. William Pickering scrambled across Rachel’s field of vision and grabbed on to a cleat on the deck. Near the anchor lever, Tolland was also hanging on, trying not to slide over the edge into the water. When Rachel saw the soldier with the machine gun stabilizing himself nearby, she called out inside the sub. “Mike, look out!”

But Delta-One ignored Tolland entirely. The soldier was looking back toward the idling helicopter with his mouth open in horror. Rachel turned, following his gaze. The Kiowa gunship, with its huge rotors still turning, had started to slowly slide forward down the tipping deck. Its long metal skids were acting like skis on a slope. It was then that Rachel realized the huge machine was skidding directly toward the Triton.

Scrambling up the inclined deck toward the sliding aircraft, Delta-One clambered into the cockpit. He had no intention of letting their only means of escape slide off the deck. Delta-One seized the Kiowa’s controls and heaved back on the stick. Lift off! With a deafening roar, the blades accelerated overhead, straining to lift the heavily armed gunship off the deck. Up, goddamn it! The chopper was sliding directly toward the Triton and Delta-Two suspended in its grasp.

With its nose tipped forward, the Kiowa’s blades were also tipped, and when the chopper lurched off the deck, it sailed more forward than up, accelerating toward the Triton like a giant buzz saw. Up! Delta-One pulled the stick, wishing he could drop the half ton of Hellfire warheads weighing him down. The blades just missed the top of Delta-Two’s head and the top of the Triton sub, but the chopper was moving too fast. It would never clear the Triton’s winch cable.

As the Kiowa’s 300-rpm steel blades collided with the sub’s fifteen-ton capacity braided steel winch cable, the night erupted with the shriek of metal on metal. The sounds conjured images of epic battle. From the chopper’s armored cockpit, Delta-One watched his rotors tear into the sub’s cable like a giant lawn mower running over a steel chain. A blinding spray of sparks erupted overhead, and the Kiowa’s blades exploded. Delta-One felt the chopper bottom out, its struts hitting the deck hard. He tried to control the aircraft, but he had no lift. The chopper bounded twice down the inclined deck, then slid, crashing into the ship’s guardrail.

For a moment, he thought the rail would hold.

Then Delta-One heard the crack. The heavily laden chopper listed over the brink, plummeting into the sea.

Inside the Triton, Rachel Sexton sat paralyzed, her body pressed back into the sub’s seat. The minisub had been tossed violently as the chopper’s rotor wrapped around the cable, but she had managed to hang on. Somehow the blades had missed the main body of the sub, but she knew there had to be major damage to the cable. All Rachel could think of at that point was escaping from the sub as fast as she could. The soldier trapped in the clamps stared in at her, delirious, bleeding, and burned from the shrapnel. Beyond him, Rachel saw William Pickering still holding on to a cleat on the slanting deck.

Where’s Michael? She didn’t see him. Her panic lasted only an instant as a new fear descended. Overhead, the Triton’s shredded winch cable let out an ominous whipping noise as the braids unraveled. Then, there was a loud snap, and Rachel felt the cable give way.

Momentarily weightless, Rachel hovered above her seat inside the cockpit as the sub hurtled downward. The deck disappeared overhead, and the catwalks under the Goya raced by. The soldier trapped in the claws went white with fear, staring at Rachel as the sub accelerated downward.

The fall seemed endless.

When the sub crashed into the sea beneath the Goya, it plunged hard under the surf, ramming Rachel down hard into her seat. Her spine compressed as the illuminated ocean raced up over the dome. She felt a suffocating drag as the sub slowed to a stop underwater and then raced back toward the surface, bobbing up like a cork.

The sharks hit instantly. From her front-row seat, Rachel sat frozen in place as the spectacle unfolded only a few feet away.

Delta-Two felt the shark’s oblong head crash into him with unimaginable force. A razor sharp clamp tightened on his upper arm, slicing to the bone and locking on. A flash of white-hot pain exploded as the shark torqued its powerful body and shook its head violently, tearing Delta-Two’s arm off his body. Others sharks moved in. Knives stabbing at his legs. Torso. Neck. Delta-Two had no breath to scream in agony as the sharks ripped huge chunks of his body away. The last thing he saw was a crescent-shaped mouth, tilting sideways, a gorge of teeth clamping down across his face.

The world went black.

Inside the Triton, the thudding of heavy cartilaginous heads ramming into the dome finally subsided. Rachel opened her eyes. The man was gone. The water washing against the window was crimson.

Badly battered, Rachel huddled in her chair, knees pulled to her chest. She could feel the sub moving. It was drifting on the current, scraping along the length of the Goya’s lower dive deck. She could feel it moving in another direction as well. Down.

Outside, the distinctive gurgling of water into the ballast tanks grew louder. The ocean inched higher on the glass in front of her.

I’m sinking!

A jolt of terror shot through Rachel, and she was suddenly scrambling to her feet. Reaching overhead, she grabbed the hatch mechanism. If she could climb up on top of the sub, she still had time to jump onto the Goya’s dive deck. It was only a few feet away.

I’ve got to get out!

The hatch mechanism was clearly marked which way to turn it to open. She heaved. The hatch did not budge. She tried again. Nothing. The portal was jammed shut. Bent. As the fear rose in her blood like the sea around her, Rachel heaved one last time.

The hatch did not move.

The Triton sank a few inches deeper, bumping the Goya one last time before drifting out from underneath the mangled hull… and into the open sea.

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