Strong arms lifted her.
Rachel felt the powerful strangers drying her body and wrapping her in blankets. She was being placed on a medical bed of some sort and vigorously massaged on her arms, legs, and feet. Another injection in her arm.
“Adrenaline,” someone said.
Rachel felt the drug coursing through her veins like a life force, invigorating her muscles. Although she still felt an icy hollowness tight like a drum in her gut, Rachel sensed the blood slowly returning to her limbs.
Back from the dead.
She tried to focus her vision. Tolland and Corky were lying nearby, shivering in blankets as the men massaged their bodies and gave them injections as well. Rachel had no doubt that this mysterious assemblage of men had just saved their lives. Many of them were soaking wet, apparently having jumped into the showers fully clothed to help. Who they were or how they had gotten to Rachel and the others in time was beyond her. It made no difference at the moment. We’re alive.
“Where… are we?” Rachel managed, the simple act of trying to speak bringing on a crashing headache.
The man massaging her replied, “You’re on the medical deck of a Los Angeles class-”
“On deck!” someone called out.
Rachel sensed a sudden commotion all around her, and she tried to sit up. One of the men in blue helped, propping her up, and pulling the blankets up around her. Rachel rubbed her eyes and saw someone striding into the room.
The newcomer was a powerful African-American man. Handsome and authoritative. His uniform was khaki. “At ease,” he declared, moving toward Rachel, stopping over her and gazing down at her with strong black eyes. “Harold Brown,” he said, his voice deep and commanding. “Captain of the U.S.S. Charlotte. And you are?”
U.S.S. Charlotte, Rachel thought. The name seemed vaguely familiar. “Sexton…,” she replied. “I’m Rachel Sexton.”
The man looked puzzled. He stepped closer, studying her more carefully. “I’ll be damned. So you are.”
Rachel felt lost. He knows me? Rachel was certain she did not recognize the man, although as her eyes dropped from his face to the patch on his chest, she saw the familiar emblem of an eagle clutching an anchor surrounded by the words U.S. NAVY.
It now registered why she knew the name Charlotte.
“Welcome aboard, Ms. Sexton,” the captain said. “You’ve gisted a number of this ship’s recon reports. I know who you are.”
“But what are you doing in these waters?” she stammered.
His face hardened somewhat. “Frankly, Ms. Sexton, I was about to ask you the same question.”
Tolland sat up slowly now, opening his mouth to speak. Rachel silenced him with a firm shake of her head. Not here. Not now. She had no doubt the first thing Tolland and Corky would want to talk about was the meteorite and the attack, but this was certainly not a topic to discuss in front of a Navy submarine crew. In the world of intelligence, regardless of crisis, CLEARANCE remained king; the meteorite situation remained highly classified.
“I need to speak to NRO director William Pickering,” she told the captain. “In private, and immediately.”
The captain arched his eyebrows, apparently unaccustomed to taking orders on his own ship.
“I have classified information I need to share.”
The captain studied her a long moment. “Let’s get your body temperature back, and then I’ll put you in contact with the NRO director.”
“It’s urgent, sir. I-” Rachel stopped short. Her eyes had just seen a clock on the wall over the pharmaceutical closet.
Rachel blinked, staring. “Is… is that clock right?”
“You’re on a navy vessel, ma’am. Our clocks are accurate.”
“And is that… Eastern time?”
“7:51 P.M. Eastern Standard. We’re out of Norfolk.”
My God! she thought, stunned. It’s only 7:51 P.M.? Rachel had the impression hours had passed since she passed out. It was not even past eight o’clock? The President has not yet gone public about the meteorite! I still have time to stop him! She immediately slid down off the bed, wrapping the blanket around her. Her legs felt shaky. “I need to speak to the President right away.”
The captain looked confused. “The president of what?”
“Of the United States!”
“I thought you wanted William Pickering.”
“I don’t have time. I need the President.”
The captain did not move, his huge frame blocking her way. “My understanding is that the President is about to give a very important live press conference. I doubt he’s taking personal phone calls.”
Rachel stood as straight as she could on her wobbly legs and fixed her eyes on the captain. “Sir, you do not have the clearance for me to explain the situation, but the President is about to make a terrible mistake. I have information he desperately needs to hear. Now. You need to trust me.”
The captain stared at her a long moment. Frowning, he checked the clock again. “Nine minutes? I can’t get you a secure connection to the White House in that short a time. All I could offer is a radiophone. Unsecured. And we’d have to go to antenna depth, which will take a few-”
“Do it! Now!”
The White House telephone switchboard was located on the lower level of the East Wing. Three switchboard operators were always on duty. At the moment, only two were seated at the controls. The third operator was at a full sprint toward the Briefing Room. In her hand, she carried a cordless phone. She’d tried to patch the call through to the Oval Office, but the President was already en route to the press conference. She’d tried to call his aides on their cellulars, but before televised briefings, all cellular phones in and around the Briefing Room were turned off so as not to interrupt the proceedings.
Running a cordless phone directly to the President at a time like this seemed questionable at best, and yet when the White House’s NRO liaison called claiming she had emergency information that the President must get before going live, the operator had little doubt she needed to jump. The question now was whether she would get there in time.
In a small medical office onboard the U.S.S. Charlotte, Rachel Sexton clutched a phone receiver to her ear and waited to talk to the President. Tolland and Corky sat nearby, still looking shaken. Corky had five stitches and a deep bruise on his cheekbone. All three of them had been helped into Thinsulate thermal underwear, heavy navy flight suits, oversized wool socks, and deck boots. With a hot cup of stale coffee in her hand, Rachel was starting to feel almost human again.
“What’s the holdup?” Tolland pressed. “It’s seven fifty-six!”
Rachel could not imagine. She had successfully reached one of the White House operators, explained who she was and that this was an emergency. The operator seemed sympathetic, had placed Rachel on hold, and was now, supposedly, making it her top priority to patch Rachel through to the President.
Four minutes, Rachel thought. Hurry up!
Closing her eyes, Rachel tried to gather her thoughts. It had been one hell of a day. I’m on a nuclear submarine, she said to herself, knowing she was damned lucky to be anywhere at all. According to the submarine captain, the Charlotte had been on a routine patrol in the Bering Sea two days ago and had picked up anomalous underwater sounds coming from the Milne Ice Shelf-drilling, jet noise, lots of encrypted radio traffic. They had been redirected and told to lie quietly and listen. An hour or so ago, they’d heard an explosion in the ice shelf and moved in to check it out. That was when they heard Rachel’s SOS call.
“Three minutes left!” Tolland sounded anxious now as he monitored the clock.
Rachel was definitely getting nervous now. What was taking so long? Why hadn’t the President taken her call? If Zach Herney went public with the data as it stood-
Rachel forced the thought from her mind and shook the receiver. Pick up!
As the White House operator dashed toward the stage entrance of the Briefing Room, she was met with a gathering throng of staff members. Everyone here was talking excitedly, making final preparations. She could see the President twenty yards away waiting at the entrance. The makeup people were still primping.
“Coming through!” the operator said, trying to get through the crowd. “Call for the President. Excuse me. Coming through!”
“Live in two minutes!” a media coordinator called out.
Clutching the phone, the operator shoved her way toward the President. “Call for the President!” she panted. “Coming through!”
A towering roadblock stepped into her path. Marjorie Tench. The senior adviser’s long face grimaced down in disapproval. “What’s going on?”
“I have an emergency!” The operator was breathless. “… phone call for the President.”
Tench looked incredulous. “Not now, you don’t!”
“It’s from Rachel Sexton. She says it’s urgent.”
The scowl that darkened Tench’s face appeared to be more one of puzzlement than anger. Tench eyed the cordless phone. “That’s a house line. That’s not secure.”
“No, ma’am. But the incoming call is open anyway. She’s on a radiophone. She needs to speak to the President right away.”
“Live in ninety seconds!”
Tench’s cold eyes stared, and she held out a spider-like hand. “Give me the phone.”
The operator’s heart was pounding now. “Ms. Sexton wants to speak to President Herney directly. She told me to postpone the press conference until she’d talked to him. I assured-”
Tench stepped toward the operator now, her voice a seething whisper. “Let me tell you how this works. You do not take orders from the daughter of the President’s opponent, you take them from me. I can assure you, this is as close as you are getting to the President until I find out what the hell is going on.”
The operator looked toward the President, who was now surrounded by microphone technicians, stylists, and several staff members talking him through final revisions of his speech.
“Sixty seconds!” the television supervisor yelled.
Onboard the Charlotte, Rachel Sexton was pacing wildly in the tight space when she finally heard a click on the telephone line.
A raspy voice came on. “Hello?”
“President Herney?” Rachel blurted.
“Marjorie Tench,” the voice corrected. “I am the President’s senior adviser. Whoever this is, I must warn you that prank calls against the White House are in violation of-”
For Christ’s sake! “This is not a prank! This is Rachel Sexton. I’m your NRO liaison and-”
“I am aware of who Rachel Sexton is, ma’am. And I am doubtful that you are she. You’ve called the White House on an unsecured line telling me to interrupt a major presidential broadcast. That is hardly proper MO for someone with-”
“Listen,” Rachel fumed, “I briefed your whole staff a couple of hours ago on a meteorite. You sat in the front row. You watched my briefing on a television sitting on the President’s desk! Any questions?”
Tench fell silent a moment. “Ms. Sexton, what is the meaning of this?”
“The meaning is that you have to stop the President! His meteorite data is all wrong! We’ve just learned the meteorite was inserted from beneath the ice shelf. I don’t know by whom, and I don’t know why! But things are not what they seem up here! The President is about to endorse some seriously errant data, and I strongly advise-”
“Wait one goddamned minute!” Tench lowered her voice. “Do you realize what you are saying?”
“Yes! I suspect the NASA administrator has orchestrated some kind of large-scale fraud, and President Herney is about to get caught in the middle. You’ve at least got to postpone ten minutes so I can explain to him what’s been going on up here. Someone tried to kill me, for God’s sake!”
Tench’s voice turned to ice. “Ms. Sexton, let me give you a word of warning. If you are having second thoughts about your role in helping the White House in this campaign, you should have thought of that long before you personally endorsed that meteorite data for the President.”
“What!” Is she even listening?
“I’m revolted by your display. Using an unsecured line is a cheap stunt. Implying the meteorite data has been faked? What kind of intelligence official uses a radiophone to call the White House and talk about classified information? Obviously you are hoping someone intercepts this message.”
“Norah Mangor was killed over this! Dr. Ming is also dead. You’ve got to warn-”
“Stop right there! I don’t know what you’re playing at, but I will remind you-and anyone else who happens to be intercepting this phone call-that the White House possesses videotaped depositions from NASA’s top scientists, several renowned civilian scientists, and yourself, Ms. Sexton, all endorsing the meteorite data as accurate. Why you are suddenly changing your story, I can only imagine. Whatever the reason, consider yourself relieved of your White House post as of this instant, and if you try to taint this discovery with any more absurd allegations of foul play, I assure you the White House and NASA will sue you for defamation so fast you won’t have a chance to pack a suitcase before you go to jail.”
Rachel opened her mouth to speak, but no words came.
“Zach Herney has been generous to you,” Tench snapped, “and frankly this smacks of a cheap Sexton publicity stunt. Drop it right now, or we’ll press charges. I swear it.”
The line went dead.
Rachel’s mouth was still hanging open when the captain knocked on the door.
“Ms. Sexton?” the captain said, peering in. “We’re picking up a faint signal from Canadian National Radio. President Zach Herney has just begun his press conference.”
Standing at the podium in the White House Briefing Room, Zach Herney felt the heat of the media lights and knew the world was watching. The targeted blitz performed by the White House Press Office had created a contagion of media buzz. Those who did not hear about the address via television, radio, or on-line news invariably heard about it from neighbors, coworkers, and family. By 8:00 P.M., anyone not living in a cave was speculating about the topic of the President’s address. In bars and living rooms over the globe, millions leaned toward their televisions in apprehensive wonder.
It was during moments like these-facing the world-that Zach Herney truly felt the weight of his office. Anyone who said power was not addictive had never really experienced it. As he began his address, however, Herney sensed something was amiss. He was not a man prone to stage fright, and so the tingle of apprehension now tightening in his core startled him.
It’s the magnitude of the audience, he told himself. And yet he knew something else. Instinct. Something he had seen.
It had been such a little thing, and yet…
He told himself to forget it. It was nothing. And yet it stuck.
Moments ago, as Herney was preparing to take the stage, he had seen Marjorie Tench in the yellow hallway, talking on a cordless phone. This was strange in itself, but it was made more so by the White House operator standing beside her, her face white with apprehension. Herney could not hear Tench’s phone conversation, but he could see it was contentious. Tench was arguing with a vehemence and anger the President had seldom seen-even from Tench. He paused a moment and caught her eye, inquisitive.
Tench gave him the thumbs-up. Herney had never seen Tench give anyone the thumbs-up. It was the last image in Herney’s mind as he was cued onto the stage.
On the blue rug in the press area inside the NASA habisphere on Ellesmere Island, Administrator Lawrence Ekstrom was seated at the center of the long symposium table, flanked by top NASA officials and scientists. On a large monitor facing them the President’s opening statement was being piped in live. The remainder of the NASA crew was huddled around other monitors, teeming with excitement as their commander-in-chief launched into his press conference.
“Good evening,” Herney was saying, sounding uncharacteristically stiff. “To my fellow countrymen, and to our friends around the world… ”
Ekstrom gazed at the huge charred mass of rock displayed prominently in front of him. His eyes moved to a standby monitor, where he watched himself, flanked by his most austere personnel, against a backdrop of a huge American flag and NASA logo. The dramatic lighting made the setting look like some kind of neomodern painting-the twelve apostles at the last supper. Zach Herney had turned this whole thing into a political sideshow. Herney had no choice. Ekstrom still felt like a televangelist, packaging God for the masses.
In about five minutes the President would introduce Ekstrom and his NASA staff. Then, in a dramatic satellite linkup from the top of the world, NASA would join the President in sharing this news with the world. After a brief account of how the discovery was made, what it meant for space science, and some mutual backpatting, NASA and the President would hand duty off to celebrity scientist Michael Tolland, whose documentary would roll for just under fifteen minutes. Afterward, with credibility and enthusiasm at its peak, Ekstrom and the President would say their good-nights, promising more information to come in the days ahead via endless NASA press conferences.
As Ekstrom sat and waited for his cue, he felt a cavernous shame settling inside him. He’d known he would feel it. He’d been expecting it.
He’d told lies… endorsed untruths.
Somehow, though, the lies seemed inconsequential now. Ekstrom had a bigger weight on his mind.
In the chaos of the ABC production room, Gabrielle Ashe stood shoulder to shoulder with dozens of strangers, all necks craned toward the bank of television monitors suspended from the ceiling. A hush fell as the moment arrived. Gabrielle closed her eyes, praying that when she opened them she would not be looking at images of her own naked body.
The air inside Senator Sexton’s den was alive with excitement. All of his visitors were standing now, their eyes glued to the large-screen television.
Zach Herney stood before the world, and incredibly, his greeting had been awkward. He seemed momentarily uncertain.
He looks shaky, Sexton thought. He never looks shaky.
“Look at him,” somebody whispered. “It has to be bad news.”
The space station? Sexton wondered.
Herney looked directly into the camera and took a deep breath. “My friends, I have puzzled for many days now over how best to make this announcement… ”
Three easy words, Senator Sexton willed him. We blew it.
Herney spoke for a moment about how unfortunate it was that NASA had become such an issue in this election and how, that being the case, he felt he needed to preface the timing of his impending statement with an apology.
“I would have preferred any other moment in history to make this announcement,” he said. “The political charge in the air tends to make doubters out of dreamers, and yet as your President, I have no choice but to share with you what I have recently learned.” He smiled. “It seems the magic of the cosmos is something which does not work on any human schedule… not even that of a president.”
Everyone in Sexton’s den seemed to recoil in unison. What?
“Two weeks ago,” Herney said, “NASA’s new Polar Orbiting Density Scanner passed over the Milne Ice Shelf on Ellesmere Island, a remote landmass located above the Eightieth Parallel in the high Arctic Ocean.”
Sexton and the others exchanged confused looks.
“This NASA satellite,” Herney continued, “detected a large, high-density rock buried two hundred feet under the ice.” Herney smiled now for the first time, finding his stride. “On receiving the data, NASA immediately suspected PODS had found a meteorite.”
“A meteorite?” Sexton sputtered, standing. “This is news?”
“NASA sent a team up to the ice shelf to take core samples. It was then that NASA made… ” He paused.
“Frankly, they made the scientific discovery of the century.”
Sexton took an incredulous step toward the television. No…. His guests shifted uneasily.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Herney announced, “several hours ago, NASA pulled from the Arctic ice an eight-ton meteorite, which contains… ” The President paused again, giving the whole world time to lean forward. “A meteorite which contains fossils of a life-form. Dozens of them. Unequivocal proof of extraterrestrial life.”
On cue, a brilliant image illuminated on the screen behind the President-a perfectly delineated fossil of an enormous buglike creature embedded in a charred rock.
In Sexton’s den, six entrepreneurs jumped up in wide-eyed horror. Sexton stood frozen in place.
“My friends,” the President said, “the fossil behind me is 190 million years old. It was discovered in a fragment of a meteorite called the Jungersol Fall which hit the Arctic Ocean almost three centuries ago. NASA’s exciting new PODS satellite discovered this meteorite fragment buried in an ice shelf. NASA and this administration have taken enormous care over the past two weeks to confirm every aspect of this momentous discovery before making it public. In the next half hour you will be hearing from numerous NASA and civilian scientists, as well as viewing a short documentary prepared by a familiar face whom I’m sure you all will recognize. Before I go any further, though, I absolutely must welcome, live via satellite from above the Arctic Circle, the man whose leadership, vision, and hard work is solely responsible for this historic moment. It is with great honor that I present NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom.”
Herney turned to the screen on perfect cue.
The image of the meteorite dramatically dissolved into a regal-looking panel of NASA scientists seated at a long table, flanked by the dominant frame of Lawrence Ekstrom.
“Thank you, Mr. President.” Ekstrom’s air was stern and proud as he stood up and looked directly into the camera. “It gives me great pride to share with all of you, this-NASA’s finest hour.”
Ekstrom spoke passionately about NASA and the discovery. With a fanfare of patriotism and triumph, he segued flawlessly to a documentary hosted by civilian science-celebrity Michael Tolland.
As he watched, Senator Sexton fell to his knees in front of the television, his fingers clutching at his silver mane. No! God, no!
Marjorie Tench was livid as she broke away from the jovial chaos outside the Briefing Room and marched back to her private corner in the West Wing. She was in no mood for celebration. The phone call from Rachel Sexton had been most unexpected.
Tench slammed her office door, stalked to her desk, and dialed the White House operator. “William Pickering. NRO.”
Tench lit a cigarette and paced the room as she waited for the operator to track down Pickering. Normally, he might have gone home for the night, but with the White House’s big windup into tonight’s press conference, Tench guessed Pickering had been in his office all evening, glued to his television screen, wondering what could possibly be going on in the world about which the NRO director did not have prior knowledge.
Tench cursed herself for not trusting her instincts when the President said he wanted to send Rachel Sexton to Milne. Tench had been wary, feeling it was an unnecessary risk. But the President had been convincing, persuading Tench that the White House staff had grown cynical over the past weeks and would be suspect of the NASA discovery if the news came from in-house. As Herney had promised, Rachel Sexton’s endorsement had squelched suspicions, prevented any skeptical in-house debate, and forced the White House staff to move forward with a unified front. Invaluable, Tench had to admit. And yet now Rachel Sexton had changed her tune.
The bitch called me on an unsecured line.
Rachel Sexton was obviously intent on destroying the credibility of this discovery, and Tench’s only solace was knowing the President had captured Rachel’s earlier briefing on videotape. Thank God. At least Herney had thought to obtain that small insurance. Tench was starting to fear they were going to need it.
At the moment, however, Tench was trying to stem the bleeding in other ways. Rachel Sexton was a smart woman, and if she truly intended to go head-to-head with the White House and NASA, she would need to recruit some powerful allies. Her first logical choice would be William Pickering. Tench already knew how Pickering felt about NASA. She needed to get to Pickering before Rachel did.
“Ms. Tench?” the transparent voice on the line said. “William Pickering, here. To what do I owe this honor?”
Tench could hear the television in the background-NASA commentary. She could already sense in his tone that he was still reeling from the press conference. “Do you have a minute, director?”
“I expected you’d be busy celebrating. Quite a night for you. Looks like NASA and the President are back in the fight.”
Tench heard stark amazement in his voice, combined with a tinge of acrimony-the latter no doubt on account of the man’s legendary distaste for hearing breaking news at the same time as the rest of the world.
“I apologize,” Tench said, trying to build an immediate bridge, “that the White House and NASA were forced to keep you unapprised.”
“You are aware,” Pickering said, “that the NRO detected NASA activity up there a couple weeks ago and ran an inquiry.”
Tench frowned. He’s pissed. “Yes, I know. And yet-”
“NASA told us it was nothing. They said they were running some kind of extreme environment training exercises. Testing equipment, that sort of thing.” Pickering paused. “We bought the lie.”
“Let’s not call it a lie,” Tench said. “More of a necessary misdirection. Considering the magnitude of the discovery, I trust you understand NASA’s need to keep this quiet.”
“From the public, perhaps.”
Pouting was not in the repertoire of men like William Pickering, and Tench sensed this was as close as he would get. “I only have a minute,” Tench said, working to retain her dominant position, “but I thought I should call and warn you.”
“Warn me?” Pickering waxed wry momentarily. “Has Zach Herney decided to appoint a new, NASA-friendly NRO director?”
“Of course not. The President understands your criticisms of NASA are simply issues of security, and he is working to plug those holes. I’m actually calling about one of your employees.” She paused. “Rachel Sexton. Have you heard from her this evening?”
“No. I sent her to the White House this morning at the President’s request. You’ve obviously kept her busy. She has yet to check in.”
Tench was relieved to have gotten to Pickering first. She took a drag on her cigarette and spoke as calmly as possible. “I suspect you may be getting a call from Ms. Sexton sometime soon.”
“Good. I’ve been expecting one. I’ve got to tell you, when the President’s press conference began, I was concerned Zach Herney might have convinced Ms. Sexton to participate publicly. I’m pleased to see he resisted.”
“Zach Herney is a decent person,” Tench said, “which is more than I can say for Rachel Sexton.”
There was a long pause on the line. “I hope I misunderstood that.”
Tench sighed heavily. “No, sir, I’m afraid you did not. I’d prefer not to talk specifics on the phone, but Rachel Sexton, it seems, has decided she wants to undermine the credibility of this NASA announcement. I have no idea why, but after she reviewed and endorsed NASA’s data earlier this afternoon, she has suddenly pulled an about-face and is spouting some of the most improbable allegations imaginable of NASA treachery and fraud.”
Pickering sounded intense now. “Excuse me?”
“Troubling, yes. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but Ms. Sexton contacted me two minutes before the press conference and warned me to cancel the whole thing.”
“On what grounds?”
“Absurd ones, frankly. She said she’d found serious flaws in the data.”
Pickering’s long silence was more wary than Tench would have liked. “Flaws?” he finally said.
“Ridiculous, really, after two full weeks of NASA experimentation and-”
“I find it very hard to believe someone like Rachel Sexton would have told you to postpone the President’s press conference unless she had a damn good reason.” Pickering sounded troubled. “Maybe you should have listened to her.”
“Oh, please!” Tench blurted, coughing. “You saw the press conference. The meteorite data was confirmed and reconfirmed by countless specialists. Including civilians. Doesn’t it seem suspicious to you that Rachel Sexton-the daughter of the only man whom this announcement hurts-is suddenly changing her tune?”
“It seems suspicious, Ms. Tench, only because I happen to know that Ms. Sexton and her father are barely civil to one another. I cannot imagine why Rachel Sexton would, after years of service to the President, suddenly decide to switch camps and tell lies to support her father.”
“Ambition, perhaps? I really don’t know. Maybe the opportunity to be first daughter… ” Tench let it hang.
Pickering’s tone hardened instantly. “Thin ice, Ms. Tench. Very thin.”
Tench scowled. What the hell did she expect? She was accusing a prominent member of Pickering’s staff of treason against the President. The man was going to be defensive.
“Put her on,” Pickering demanded. “I’d like to speak to Ms. Sexton myself.”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible,” Tench replied. “She’s not at the White House.”
“Where is she?”
“The President sent her to Milne this morning to examine the data firsthand. She has yet to return.”
Pickering sounded livid now. “I was never informed-”
“I do not have time for hurt pride, director. I have simply called as a courtesy. I wanted to warn you that Rachel Sexton has decided to pursue her own agenda with respect to tonight’s announcement. She will be looking for allies. If she contacts you, you would be wise to know that the White House is in possession of a video taken earlier today in which she endorsed this meteorite data in its entirety in front of the President, his cabinet, and his entire staff. If now, for whatever motives she might have, Rachel Sexton attempts to besmirch the good name of Zach Herney or of NASA, then I swear to you the White House will see to it she falls hard and far.” Tench waited a moment, to be sure her meaning had settled in. “I expect you to repay the courtesy of this call by informing me immediately if Rachel Sexton contacts you. She is attacking the President directly, and the White House intends to detain her for questioning before she does any serious damage. I will be waiting for your call, director. That’s all. Good night.”
Marjorie Tench hung up, certain that William Pickering had never been talked to like that in his life. At least now he knew she was serious.
On the top floor of the NRO, William Pickering stood at his window and stared into the Virginia night. The call from Marjorie Tench had been deeply troubling. He chewed at his lip as he tried to assemble the pieces in his mind.
“Director?” his secretary said, knocking quietly. “You have another phone call.”
“Not now,” Pickering said absently.
“It’s Rachel Sexton.”
Pickering wheeled. Tench was apparently a fortune-teller. “Okay. Patch her through, right away.”
“Actually, sir, it’s an encrypted AV stream. Do you want to take it in the conference room?”
An AV stream? “Where is she calling from?”
The secretary told him.
Pickering stared. Bewildered, he hurried down the hall toward the conference room. This was something he had to see.
The Charlotte’s “dead room”-designed after a similar structure at Bell Laboratories-was what was formally known as an anechoic chamber. An acoustical clean room containing no parallel or reflective surfaces, it absorbed sound with 99.4 percent efficiency. Because of the acoustically conductive nature of metal and water, conversations onboard submarines were always vulnerable to interception by nearby eavesdroppers or parasitic suction mics attached to the outer hull. The dead room was, in effect, a tiny chamber inside the submarine from which absolutely no sound could escape. All conversations inside this insulated box were entirely secure.
The chamber looked like a walk-in closet whose ceiling, walls, and floor had been completely covered with foam spires jutting inward from all directions. It reminded Rachel of a cramped underwater cave where stalagmites had run wild, growing off every surface. Most unsettling, however, was the apparent lack of a floor.
The floor was a taut, meshed chicken-wire grid strung horizontally across the room like a fishing net, giving the inhabitants the feeling that they were suspended midway up the wall. The mesh was rubberized and stiff beneath the feet. As Rachel gazed down through the webbed flooring, she felt like she was crossing a string bridge suspended over a surrealistic fractalized landscape. Three feet below, a forest of foam needles pointed ominously upward.
Instantly upon entering Rachel had sensed the disorientating lifelessness to the air, as if every bit of energy had been sucked out. Her ears felt as if they’d been stuffed with cotton. Only her breath was audible inside her head. She called out, and the effect was that of speaking into a pillow. The walls absorbed every reverberation, making the only perceivable vibrations those inside her head.
Now the captain had departed, closing the padded door behind him. Rachel, Corky, and Tolland were seated in the center of the room at a small U-shaped table that stood on long metal stilts that descended through the mesh. On the table were affixed several gooseneck microphones, headphones, and a video console with a fish-eye camera on top. It looked like a mini-United Nations symposium.
As someone who worked in the U.S. intelligence community-the world’s foremost manufacturers of hard laser microphones, underwater parabolic eavesdroppers, and other hypersensitive listening devices-Rachel was well aware there were few places on earth where one could have a truly secure conversation. The dead room was apparently one of those places. The mics and headphones on the table enabled a face-to-face “conference call” in which people could speak freely, knowing the vibrations of their words could not escape the room. Their voices, upon entering the microphones, would be heavily encrypted for their long journey through the atmosphere.
“Level check.” The voice materialized suddenly inside their headphones, causing Rachel, Tolland, and Corky to jump. “Do you read me, Ms. Sexton?”
Rachel leaned into the microphone. “Yes. Thank you.” Whoever you are.
“I have Director Pickering on the line for you. He’s accepting AV. I am signing off now. You will have your data stream momentarily.”
Rachel heard the line go dead. There was a distant whirr of static and then a rapid series of beeps and clicks in the headphones. With startling clarity, the video screen in front of them sprang to life, and Rachel saw Director Pickering in the NRO conference room. He was alone. His head snapped up and he looked into Rachel’s eyes.
She felt oddly relieved to see him.
“Ms. Sexton,” he said, his expression perplexed and troubled. “What in the world is going on?”
“The meteorite, sir,” Rachel said. “I think we may have a serious problem.”