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Chapter 46

Outside the habisphere, the katabatic wind roaring down off the glacier was nothing like the ocean winds Tolland was accustomed to. On the ocean, wind was a function of tides and pressure fronts and came in gusting ebbs and flows. The katabatic, however, was a slave to simple physics-heavy cold air rushing down a glacial incline like a tidal wave. It was the most resolute gale force Tolland had ever experienced. Had it been coming at twenty knots, the katabatic would have been a sailor’s dream, but at its current eighty knots it could quickly become a nightmare even for those on solid ground. Tolland found that if he paused and leaned backward, the stalwart squall could easily prop him up.

Making the raging river of air even more unnerving to Tolland was the slight downwind grade of the ice shelf. The ice was sloped ever so slightly toward the ocean, two miles away. Despite the sharp spikes on the Pitbull Rapido crampons attached to his boots, Tolland had the uneasy feeling that any misstep might leave him caught up in a gale and sliding down the endless icy slope. Norah Mangor’s two-minute course in glacier safety now seemed dangerously inadequate.

Piranha Ice ax, Norah had said, fastening a lightweight T-shaped tool to each of their belts as they suited up in the habisphere. Standard blade, banana blade, semitubular blade, hammer, and adze. All you need to remember is, if anyone slips or gets caught up in a gust, grab your ax with one hand on the head and one on the shaft, ram the banana blade into the ice, and fall on it, planting your crampons.

With those words of assurance, Norah Mangor had affixed YAK belay harnesses to each of them. They all donned goggles, and headed out into the afternoon darkness.

Now, the four figures made their way down the glacier in a straight line with ten yards of belay rope separating each of them. Norah was in the lead position, followed by Corky, then Rachel, and Tolland as anchor.

As they moved farther away from the habisphere, Tolland felt a growing uneasiness. In his inflated suit, although warm, he felt like some kind of uncoordinated space traveler trekking across a distant planet. The moon had disappeared behind thick, billowing storm clouds, plunging the ice sheet into an impenetrable blackness. The katabatic wind seemed to be getting stronger by the minute, applying a constant pressure to Tolland’s back. As his eyes strained through his goggles to make out the expansive emptiness around them, he began to perceive a true danger in this place. Redundant NASA safety precautions or not, Tolland was surprised the administrator had been willing to risk four lives out here instead of two. Especially when the additional two lives were that of a senator’s daughter and a famous astrophysicist. Tolland was not surprised to feel a protective concern for Rachel and Corky. As someone who had captained a ship, he was used to feeling responsible for those around him.

“Stay behind me,” Norah shouted, her voice swallowed by the wind. “Let the sled lead the way.”

The aluminum sled on which Norah was transporting her testing gear resembled an oversized Flexible Flyer. The craft was prepacked with diagnostic gear and safety accessories she’d been using on the glacier over the past few days. All of her gear-including a battery pack, safety flares, and a powerful front-mounted spotlight-was bound under a secured, plastic tarp. Despite the heavy load, the sled glided effortlessly on long, straight runners. Even on the almost imperceptible incline, the sled moved downhill on its own accord, and Norah applied a gentle restraint, almost as if allowing the sled to lead the way.

Sensing the distance growing between the group and the habisphere, Tolland looked over his shoulder. Only fifty yards away, the pale curvature of the dome had all but disappeared in the blustery blackness.

“You at all worried about finding our way back?” Tolland yelled. “The habisphere is almost invisi-” His words were cut short by the loud hiss of a flare igniting in Norah’s hand. The sudden red-white glow illuminated the ice shelf in a ten-yard radius all around them. Norah used her heel to dig a small impression in the surface snow, piling up a protective ridge on the upwind side of the hole. Then she rammed the flare into the indentation.

“High-tech bread crumbs,” Norah shouted.

“Bread crumbs?” Rachel asked, shielding her eyes from the sudden light.

“Hansel and Gretel,” Norah shouted. “These flares will last an hour-plenty of time to find our way back.”

With that, Norah headed out again, leading them down the glacier-into the darkness once again.

Chapter 47

Gabrielle Ashe stormed out of Marjorie Tench’s office and practically knocked over a secretary in doing so. Mortified, all Gabrielle could see were the photographs-images-arms and legs intertwined. Faces filled with ecstasy.

Gabrielle had no idea how the photos had been taken, but she knew damn well they were real. They had been taken in Senator Sexton’s office and seemed to have been shot from above as if by hidden camera. God help me. One of the photos showed Gabrielle and Sexton having sex directly on top of the senator’s desk, their bodies sprawled across a scatter of official-looking documents.

Marjorie Tench caught up with Gabrielle outside the Map Room. Tench was carrying the red envelope of photos. “I assume from your reaction that you believe these photos are authentic?” The President’s senior adviser actually looked like she was having a good time. “I’m hoping they persuade you that our other data is accurate as well. They came from the same source.”

Gabrielle felt her entire body flushing as she marched down the hall. Where the hell is the exit?

Tench’s gangly legs had no trouble keeping up. “Senator Sexton swore to the world that you two are platonic associates. His televised statement was actually quite convincing.” Tench motioned smugly over her shoulder. “In fact, I have a tape in my office if you’d like to refresh your memory?”

Gabrielle needed no refresher. She remembered the press conference all too well. Sexton’s denial was as adamant as it was heartfelt.

“It’s unfortunate,” Tench said, sounding not at all disappointed, “but Senator Sexton looked the American people in the eye and told a bald-faced lie. The public has a right to know. And they will know. I’ll see to it personally. The only question now is how the public finds out. We believe it’s best coming from you.”

Gabrielle was stunned. “You really think I’m going to help lynch my own candidate?”

Tench’s face hardened. “I am trying to take the high ground here, Gabrielle. I’m giving you a chance to save everyone a lot of embarrassment by holding your head high and telling the truth. All I need is a signed statement admitting your affair.”

Gabrielle stopped short. “What!”

“Of course. A signed statement gives us the leverage we need to deal with the senator quietly, sparing the country this ugly mess. My offer is simple: Sign a statement for me, and these photos never need to see the light of day.”

“You want a statement?”

“Technically, I would need an affidavit, but we have a notary here in the building who could-”

“You’re crazy.” Gabrielle was walking again.

Tench stayed at her side, sounding more angry now. “Senator Sexton is going down one way or another, Gabrielle, and I’m offering you a chance to get out of this without seeing your own naked ass in the morning paper! The President is a decent man and doesn’t want these photos publicized. If you just give me an affidavit and confess to the affair on your own terms, then all of us can retain a little dignity.”

“I’m not for sale.”

“Well, your candidate certainly is. He’s a dangerous man, and he’s breaking the law.”

“He’s breaking the law? You’re the ones breaking into offices and taking illegal surveillance pictures! Ever heard of Watergate?”

“We had nothing to do with gathering this dirt. These photos came from the same source as the SFF campaign-funding information. Someone’s been watching you two very closely.”

Gabrielle tore past the security desk where she had gotten her security badge. She ripped off the badge and tossed it to the wide-eyed guard. Tench was still on her tail.

“You’ll need to decide fast, Ms. Ashe,” Tench said as they neared the exit. “Either bring me an affidavit admitting you slept with the senator, or at eight o’clock tonight, the president will be forced to go public with everything-Sexton’s financial dealings, the photos of you, the works. And believe me, when the public sees that you stood idly by and let Sexton lie about your relationship, you’ll go down in flames right beside him.”

Gabrielle saw the door and headed for it.

“On my desk by eight o’clock tonight, Gabrielle. Be smart.” Tench tossed her the folder of photographs on her way out. “Keep them, sweetie. We’ve got plenty more.”

Chapter 48

Rachel Sexton felt a growing chill inside as she moved down the ice sheet into a deepening night. Disquieting images swirled in her mind-the meteorite, the phosphorescent plankton, the implications if Norah Mangor had made a mistake with the ice cores.

A solid matrix of freshwater ice, Norah had argued, reminding them all that she had drilled cores all around the area as well as directly over the meteorite. If the glacier contained saltwater interstices filled with plankton, she would have seen them. Wouldn’t she? Nonetheless, Rachel’s intuition kept returning to the simplest solution.

There are plankton frozen in this glacier.

Ten minutes and four flares later, Rachel and the others were approximately 250 yards from the habisphere. Without warning, Norah stopped short. “This is the spot,” she said, sounding like a water-witch diviner who had mystically sensed the perfect spot to drill a well.

Rachel turned and glanced up the slope behind them. The habisphere had long since disappeared into the dim, moonlit night, but the line of flares was clearly visible, the farthest one twinkling reassuringly like a faint star. The flares were in a perfectly straight line, like a carefully calculated runway. Rachel was impressed with Norah’s skills.

“Another reason we let the sled go first,” Norah called out when she saw Rachel admiring the line of flares. “The runners are straight. If we let gravity lead the sled and we don’t interfere, we’re guaranteed to travel in a straight line.”

“Neat trick,” Tolland yelled. “Wish there were something like that for the open sea.”

This IS the open sea, Rachel thought, picturing the ocean beneath them. For a split second, the most distant flame caught her attention. It had disappeared, as if the light had been blotted out by a passing form. A moment later, though, the light reappeared. Rachel felt a sudden uneasiness. “Norah,” she yelled over the wind, “did you say there were polar bears up here?”

The glaciologist was preparing a final flare and either did not hear or was ignoring her.

“Polar bears,” Tolland yelled, “eat seals. They only attack humans when we invade their space.”

“But this is polar bear country, right?” Rachel could never remember which pole had bears and which had penguins.

“Yeah,” Tolland shouted back. “Polar bears actually give the Arctic its name. Arktos is Greek for bear.”

Terrific. Rachel gazed nervously into the dark.

“Antarctica has no polar bears,” Tolland said. “So they call it Anti-arktos.”

“Thanks, Mike,” Rachel yelled. “Enough talk of polar bears.”

He laughed. “Right. Sorry.”

Norah pressed a final flare into the snow. As before, the four of them were engulfed in a reddish glow, looking bloated in their black weather suits. Beyond the circle of light emanating from the flare, the rest of the world became totally invisible, a circular shroud of blackness engulfing them.

As Rachel and the others looked on, Norah planted her feet and used careful overhand motions to reel the sled several yards back up the slope to where they were standing. Then, keeping the rope taut, she crouched and manually activated the sled’s talon brakes-four angled spikes that dug into the ice to keep the sled stationary. That done, she stood up and brushed herself off, the rope around her waist falling slack.

“All right,” Norah shouted. “Time to go to work.”

The glaciologist circled to the downwind end of the sled and began unfastening the butterfly eyelets holding the protective canvas over the gear. Rachel, feeling like she had been a little hard on Norah, moved to help by unfastening the rear of the flap.

“Jesus, NO!” Norah yelled, her head snapping up. “Don’t ever do that!”

Rachel recoiled, confused.

“Never unfasten the upwind side!” Norah said. “You’ll create a wind sock! This sled would have taken off like an umbrella in a wind tunnel!”

Rachel backed off. “I’m sorry. I… ”

She glared. “You and space boy shouldn’t be out here.”

None of us should, Rachel thought.

Amateurs, Norah seethed, cursing the administrator’s insistence on sending Corky and Sexton along. These clowns are going to get someone killed out here. The last thing Norah wanted right now was to play baby-sitter.

“Mike,” she said, “I need help lifting the GPR off the sled.”

Tolland helped her unpack the Ground Penetrating Radar and position it on the ice. The instrument looked like three miniature snowplow blades that had been affixed in parallel to an aluminum frame. The entire device was no more than a yard long and was connected by cables to a current attenuator and a marine battery on the sled.

“That’s radar?” Corky asked, yelling over the wind.

Norah nodded in silence. Ground Penetrating Radar was far more equipped to see brine ice than PODS was. The GPR transmitter sent pulses of electromagnetic energy through the ice, and the pulses bounced differently off substances of differing crystal structure. Pure freshwater froze in a flat, shingled lattice. However, seawater froze in more of a meshed or forked lattice on account of its sodium content, causing the GPR pulses to bounce back erratically, greatly diminishing the number of reflections.

Norah powered up the machine. “I’ll be taking a kind of echo-location cross-sectional image of the ice sheet around the extraction pit,” she yelled. “The machine’s internal software will render a cross section of the glacier and then print it out. Any sea ice will register as a shadow.”

“Printout?” Tolland looked surprised. “You can print out here?”

Norah pointed to a cable from the GPR leading to a device still protected under the canopy. “No choice but to print. Computer screens use too much valuable battery power, so field glaciologists print data to heat-transfer printers. Colors aren’t brilliant, but laser toner clumps below neg twenty. Learned that the hard way in Alaska.”

Norah asked everyone to stand on the downhill side of the GPR as she prepared to align the transmitter such that it would scan the area of the meteorite hole, almost three football fields away. But as Norah looked back through the night in the general direction from which they had come, she couldn’t see a damn thing. “Mike, I need to align the GPR transmitter with the meteorite site, but this flare has me blinded. I’m going back up the slope just enough to get out of the light. I’ll hold my arms in line with the flares, and you adjust the alignment on the GPR.”

Tolland nodded, kneeling down beside the radar device.

Norah stamped her crampons into the ice and leaned forward against the wind as she moved up the incline toward the habisphere. The katabatic today was much stronger than she’d imagined, and she sensed a storm coming in. It didn’t matter. They would be done here in a matter of minutes. They’ll see I’m right. Norah clomped twenty yards back toward the habisphere. She reached the edge of the darkness just as the belay rope went taut.

Norah looked back up the glacier. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, the line of flares slowly came into view several degrees to her left. She shifted her position until she was perfectly lined up with them. Then she held her arms out like a compass, turning her body, indicating the exact vector. “I’m in line with them now!” she yelled.

Tolland adjusted the GPR device and waved. “All set!”

Norah took a final look up the incline, grateful for the illuminated pathway home. As she looked out, though, something odd occurred. For an instant, one of the nearest flares entirely disappeared from view. Before Norah could worry that it was dying out, the flare reappeared. If Norah didn’t know better, she would assume something had passed between the flare and her location. Certainly nobody else was out here… unless of course the administrator had started to feel guilty and sent a NASA team out after them. Somehow Norah doubted it. Probably nothing, she decided. A gust of wind had momentarily killed the flame.

Norah returned to the GPR. “All lined up?”

Tolland shrugged. “I think so.”

Norah went over to the control device on the sled and pressed a button. A sharp buzz emanated from the GPR and then stopped. “Okay,” she said. “Done.”

“That’s it?” Corky said.

“All the work is in setup. The actual shot takes only a second.”

Onboard the sled, the heat-transfer printer had already begun to hum and click. The printer was enclosed in a clear plastic covering and was slowly ejecting a heavy, curled paper. Norah waited until the device had completed printing, and then she reached up under the plastic and removed the printout. They’ll see, she thought, carrying the printout over to the flare so that everyone could see it. There won’t be any saltwater.

Everyone gathered around as Norah stood over the flare, clutching the printout tightly in her gloves. She took a deep breath and uncurled the paper to examine the data. The image on the paper made her recoil in horror.

“Oh, God!” Norah stared, unable to believe what she was looking at. As expected, the printout revealed a clear cross section of the water-filled meteorite shaft. But what Norah had never expected to see was the hazy grayish outline of a humanoid form floating halfway down the shaft. Her blood turned to ice. “Oh God… there’s a body in the extraction pit.”

Everyone stared in stunned silence.

The ghostlike body was floating head down in the narrow shaft. Billowing around the corpse like some sort of cape was an eerie shroudlike aura. Norah now realized what the aura was. The GPR had captured a faint trace of the victim’s heavy coat, what could only be a familiar, long, dense camel hair.

“It’s… Ming,” she said in a whisper. “He must have slipped….”

Norah Mangor never imagined that seeing Ming’s body in the extraction pit would be the lesser of the two shocks the printout would reveal, but as her eyes traced downward in the shaft, she saw something else.

The ice beneath the extraction shaft…

Norah stared. Her first thought was that something had gone wrong with the scan. Then, as she studied the image more closely, an unsettling realization began to grow, like the storm gathering around them. The paper’s edges flapped wildly in the wind as she turned and looked more intently at the printout.

But… that’s impossible!

Suddenly, the truth came crashing down. The realization felt like it was going to bury her. She forgot all about Ming.

Norah now understood. The saltwater in the shaft! She fell to her knees in the snow beside the flare. She could barely breathe. Still clutching the paper in her hands, she began trembling.

My God… it didn’t even occur to me.

Then, with a sudden eruption of rage, she spun her head in the direction of the NASA habisphere. “You bastards!” she screamed, her voice trailing off in the wind. “You goddamned bastards!”

In the darkness, only fifty yards away, Delta-One held his CrypTalk device to his mouth and spoke only two words to his controller. “They know.”

Chapter 49

Norah Mangor was still kneeling on the ice when the bewildered Michael Tolland pulled the Ground Penetrating Radar’s printout from her trembling hands. Shaken from seeing the floating body of Ming, Tolland tried to gather his thoughts and decipher the image before him.

He saw the cross section of the meteorite shaft descending from the surface down to two hundred feet into the ice. He saw Ming’s body floating in the shaft. Tolland’s eyes drifted lower now, and he sensed something was amiss. Directly beneath the extraction shaft, a dark column of sea ice extended downward to the open ocean below. The vertical pillar of saltwater ice was massive-the same diameter as the shaft.

“My God!” Rachel yelled, looking over Tolland’s shoulder. “It looks like the meteorite shaft continues all the way through the ice shelf into the ocean!”

Tolland stood transfixed, his brain unable to accept what he knew to be the only logical explanation. Corky looked equally alarmed.

Norah shouted, “Someone drilled up under the shelf!” Her eyes were wild with rage. “Someone intentionally inserted that rock from underneath the ice!”

Although the idealist in Tolland wanted to reject Norah’s words, the scientist in him knew she could easily be right. The Milne Ice Shelf was floating over the ocean with plenty of clearance for a submersible. Because everything weighed significantly less underwater, even a small submersible not much bigger than Tolland’s one-man research Triton easily could have transported the meteorite in its payload arms. The sub could have approached from the ocean, submerged beneath the ice shelf, and drilled upward into the ice. Then, it could have used an extending payload arm or inflatable balloons to push the meteorite up into the shaft. Once the meteorite was in place, the ocean water that had risen into the shaft behind the meteorite would begin to freeze. As soon as the shaft closed enough to hold the meteorite in place, the sub could retract its arm and disappear, leaving Mother Nature to seal the remainder of the tunnel and erase all traces of the deception.

“But why?” Rachel demanded, taking the printout from Tolland and studying it. “Why would someone do that? Are you sure your GPR is working?”

“Of course, I’m sure! And the printout perfectly explains the presence of phosphorescent bacteria in the water!”

Tolland had to admit, Norah’s logic was chillingly sound. Phosphorescent dinoflagellates would have followed instinct and swum upward into the meteorite shaft, becoming trapped just beneath the meteorite and freezing into the ice. Later, when Norah heated the meteorite, the ice directly beneath would have melted, releasing the plankton. Again, they would swim upward, this time reaching the surface inside the habisphere, where they would eventually die for lack of saltwater.

“This is crazy!” Corky yelled. “NASA has a meteorite with extraterrestrial fossils in it. Why would they care where it’s found? Why would they go to the trouble to bury it under an ice shelf?”

“Who the hell knows,” Norah fired back, “but GPR printouts don’t lie. We were tricked. That meteorite isn’t part of the Jungersol Fall. It was inserted in the ice recently. Within the last year, or the plankton would be dead!” She was already packing up her GPR gear on the sled and fastening it down. “We’ve to get back and tell someone! The President is about to go public with all the wrong data! NASA tricked him!”

“Wait a minute!” Rachel yelled. “We should at least run another scan to make sure. None of this makes sense. Who will believe it?”

“Everyone,” Norah said, preparing her sled. “When I march into the habisphere and drill another core sample out of the bottom of the meteorite shaft and it comes up as saltwater ice, I guarantee you everyone will believe this!”

Norah disengaged the brakes on the equipment sled, redirected it toward the habisphere, and started back up the slope, digging her crampons into the ice and pulling the sled behind her with surprising ease. She was a woman on a mission.

“Let’s go!” Norah shouted, pulling the tethered group along as she headed toward the perimeter of the illuminated circle. “I don’t know what NASA’s up to here, but I sure as hell don’t appreciate being used as a pawn for their-”

Norah Mangor’s neck snapped back as if she’d been rammed in the forehead by some invisible force. She let out a guttural gasp of pain, wavered, and collapsed backward onto the ice. Almost instantly, Corky let out a cry and spun around as if his shoulder had been propelled backward. He fell to the ice, writhing in pain.

Rachel immediately forgot all about the printout in her hand, Ming, the meteorite, and the bizarre tunnel beneath the ice. She had just felt a small projectile graze her ear, barely missing her temple. Instinctively, she dropped to her knees, yanking Tolland down with her.

“What’s going on!” Tolland screamed.

A hailstorm was all Rachel could imagine-balls of ice blowing down off the glacier-and yet from the force with which Corky and Norah had just been hit, Rachel knew the hailstones would have to be moving at hundreds of miles an hour. Eerily, the sudden barrage of marble-sized objects seemed now to focus on Rachel and Tolland, pelting all around them, sending up plumes of exploding ice. Rachel rolled onto her stomach, dug her crampon’s toe spikes into the ice, and launched toward the only cover available. The sled. Tolland arrived a moment later, scrambling and hunkering down beside her.

Tolland looked out at Norah and Corky unprotected on the ice. “Pull them in with the tether!” he yelled, grabbing the rope and trying to pull.

But the tether was wrapped around the sled.

Rachel stuffed the printout in the Velcro pocket of her Mark IX suit, and scrambled on all fours toward the sled, trying to untangle the rope from the sled runners. Tolland was right behind her.

The hailstones suddenly rained down in a barrage against the sled, as if Mother Nature had abandoned Corky and Norah and was taking direct aim at Rachel and Tolland. One of the projectiles slammed into the top of the sled tarp, partially embedding itself, and then bounced over, landing on the sleeve of Rachel’s coat.

When Rachel saw it, she froze. In an instant, the bewilderment she had been feeling turned to terror. These “hailstones” were man-made. The ball of ice on her sleeve was a flawlessly shaped spheroid the size of a large cherry. The surface was polished and smooth, marred only by a linear seam around the circumference, like an old-fashioned lead musket ball, machined in a press. The globular pellets were, without a doubt, man-made.

Ice bullets…

As someone with military clearance, Rachel was well acquainted with the new experimental “IM” weaponry-Improvised Munitions-snow rifles that compacted snow into ice pellets, desert rifles that melted sand into glass projectiles, water-based firearms that shot pulses of liquid water with such force that they could break bones. Improvised Munitions weaponry had an enormous advantage over conventional weapons because IM weapons used available resources and literally manufactured munitions on the spot, providing soldiers unlimited rounds without their having to carry heavy conventional bullets. The ice balls being fired at them now, Rachel knew, were being compressed “on demand” from snow fed into the butt of the rifle.

As was often the case in the intelligence world, the more one knew, the more frightening a scenario became. This moment was no exception. Rachel would have preferred blissful ignorance, but her knowledge of IM weaponry instantly led her to a sole chilling conclusion: They were being attacked by some kind of U.S. Special Ops force, the only forces in the country currently cleared to use these experimental IM weapons in the field.

The presence of a military covert operations unit brought with it a second, even more terrifying realization: The probability of surviving this attack was close to zero.

The morbid thought was terminated as one of the ice pellets found an opening and came screaming through the wall of gear on the sled, colliding with her stomach. Even in her padded Mark IX suit, Rachel felt like an invisible prizefighter had just gut-punched her. Stars began to dance around the periphery of her vision, and she teetered backward, grabbing gear on the sled for balance. Michael Tolland dropped Norah’s tether and lunged to support Rachel, but he arrived too late. Rachel fell backward, pulling a pile of equipment with her. She and Tolland tumbled to the ice in a pile of electronic apparatus.

“They’re… bullets…,” she gasped, the air momentarily crushed from her lungs. “Run!”

Chapter 50

The Washington MetroRail subway now leaving Federal Triangle station could not speed away from the White House fast enough for Gabrielle Ashe. She sat rigid in a deserted corner of the train as darkened shapes tore past outside in a blur. Marjorie Tench’s big red envelope lay in Gabrielle’s lap, pressing down like a ten-ton weight.

I’ve got to talk to Sexton! she thought, the train accelerating now in the direction of Sexton’s office building. Immediately!

Now, in the dim, shifting light of the train, Gabrielle felt like she was enduring some kind of hallucinogenic drug trip. Muted lights whipped by overhead like slow-motion discotheque strobes. The ponderous tunnel rose on all sides like a deepening canyon.

Tell me this is not happening.

She gazed down at the envelope on her lap. Unclasping the flap, she reached inside and pulled out one of the photos. The internal lights of the train flickered for a moment, the harsh glare illuminating a shocking image-Sedgewick Sexton lying naked in his office, his gratified face turned perfectly toward the camera while Gabrielle’s dark form lay nude beside him.

She shivered, rammed the photo back inside, and fumbled to reclasp the envelope.

It’s over.

As soon as the train exited the tunnel and climbed onto the aboveground tracks near L’Enfant Plaza, Gabrielle dug out her cellphone and called the senator’s private cellular number. His voice mail answered. Puzzled, she phoned the senator’s office. The secretary answered.

“It’s Gabrielle. Is he in?”

The secretary sounded peeved. “Where have you been? He was looking for you.”

“I had a meeting that ran long. I need to talk to him right away.”

“You’ll have to wait till morning. He’s at Westbrooke.”

Westbrooke Place Luxury Apartments was the building where Sexton kept his D.C. residence. “He’s not picking up his private line,” Gabrielle said.

“He blocked off tonight as a P.E.,” the secretary reminded. “He left early.”

Gabrielle scowled. Personal Event. In all the excitement, she’d forgotten Sexton had scheduled himself a night alone at home. He was very particular about not being disturbed during his P.E. blocks. Bang on my door only if the building is on fire, he would say. Other than that, it can wait until morning. Gabrielle decided Sexton’s building was definitely on fire. “I need you to reach him for me.”

“Impossible.”

“This is serious, I really-”

“No, I mean literally impossible. He left his pager on my desk on his way out and told me he was not to be disturbed all night. He was adamant.” She paused. “More so than usual.”

Shit. “Okay, thanks.” Gabrielle hung up.

“L’Enfant Plaza,” a recording announced in the subway car. “Connection all stations.”

Closing her eyes, Gabrielle tried to clear her mind, but devastating images rushed in… the lurid photos of herself and the senator… the pile of documents alleging Sexton was taking bribes. Gabrielle could still hear Tench’s raspy demands. Do the right thing. Sign the affidavit. Admit the affair.

As the train screeched into the station, Gabrielle forced herself to imagine what the senator would do if the photos hit the presses. The first thing to pop in her mind both shocked and shamed her.

Sexton would lie.

Was this truly her first instinct regarding her candidate?

Yes. He would lie… brilliantly.

If these photos hit the media without Gabrielle’s having admitted the affair, the senator would simply claim the photos were a cruel forgery. This was the age of digital photo editing; anyone who had ever been on-line had seen the flawlessly retouched spoof photographs of celebrities’ heads digitally melded onto other people’s bodies, often those of porn stars engaged in lewd acts. Gabrielle had already witnessed the senator’s ability to look into a television camera and lie convincingly about their affair; she had no doubt he could persuade the world these photos were a lame attempt to derail his career. Sexton would lash out with indignant outrage, perhaps even insinuate that the President himself had ordered the forgery.

No wonder the White House hasn’t gone public. The photos, Gabrielle realized, could backfire just like the initial drudge. As vivid as the pictures seemed, they were totally inconclusive.

Gabrielle felt a sudden surge of hope.

The White House can’t prove any of this is real!

Tench’s powerplay on Gabrielle had been ruthless in its simplicity: Admit your affair or watch Sexton go to jail. Suddenly it made perfect sense. The White House needed Gabrielle to admit the affair, or the photos were worthless. A sudden glimmer of confidence brightened her mood.

As the train sat idling and the doors slid open, another distant door seemed to open in Gabrielle’s mind, revealing an abrupt and heartening possibility.

Maybe everything Tench told me about the bribery was a lie.

After all, what had Gabrielle really seen? Yet again, nothing conclusive-some Xeroxed bank documents, a grainy photo of Sexton in a garage. All of it potentially counterfeit. Tench cunningly could have showed Gabrielle bogus financial records in the same sitting as the genuine sex photos, hoping Gabrielle would accept the entire package as true. It was called “authentication by association,” and politicians used it all the time to sell dubious concepts.

Sexton is innocent, Gabrielle told herself. The White House was desperate, and they had decided to take a wild gamble on scaring Gabrielle into going public about the affair. They needed Gabrielle to desert Sexton publicly-scandalously. Get out while you can, Tench had told her. You have until eight o’clock tonight. The ultimate pressure sales job. All of it fits, she thought.

Except one thing…

The only confusing piece of the puzzle was that Tench had been sending Gabrielle anti-NASA e-mails. This certainly suggested NASA really did want Sexton to solidify his anti-NASA stance so they could use it against him. Or did it? Gabrielle realized that even the e-mails had a perfectly logical explanation.

What if the e-mails were not really from Tench?

It was possible Tench caught a traitor on staff sending Gabrielle data, fired that person, and then stepped in and e-mailed the final message herself, calling Gabrielle in for a meeting. Tench could have pretended she leaked all the NASA data on purpose-to set Gabrielle up.

The subway hydraulics hissed now in L’Enfant Plaza, the doors preparing to close.

Gabrielle stared out at the platform, her mind racing. She had no idea if her suspicions were making any sense or if they were just wishful thinking, but whatever the hell was going on, she knew she had to talk to the senator right away-P.E. night or not.

Clutching the envelope of photographs, Gabrielle hurried off the train just as the doors hissed shut. She had a new destination.

Westbrooke Place Apartments.

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