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Chapter 71

Inside the Charlotte’s dead room, Rachel Sexton introduced Michael Tolland and Corky Marlinson to Pickering. Then she took charge and launched into a quick account of the day’s incredible chain of events.

The NRO director sat motionless as he listened.

Rachel told him about the bioluminescent plankton in the extraction pit, their journey onto the ice shelf and discovery of an insertion shaft beneath the meteorite, and finally of their sudden attack by a military team she suspected was Special Ops.

William Pickering was known for his ability to listen to disturbing information without so much as flinching an eye, and yet his gaze grew more and more troubled with each progression in Rachel’s story. She sensed disbelief and then rage when she talked about Norah Mangor’s murder and their own near-death escape. Although Rachel wanted to voice her suspicions of the NASA administrator’s involvement, she knew Pickering well enough not to point fingers without evidence. She gave Pickering the story as cold hard facts. When she was finished, Pickering did not respond for several seconds.

“Ms. Sexton,” he finally said, “all of you… ” He moved his gaze to each of them. “If what you’re saying is true, and I cannot imagine why three of you would lie about this, you are all very lucky to be alive.”

They all nodded in silence. The President had called in four civilian scientists… and two of them were now dead.

Pickering heaved a disconsolate sigh, as if he had no idea what to say next. The events clearly made little sense. “Is there any way,” Pickering asked, “that this insertion shaft you’re seeing in that GPR printout is a natural phenomenon?”

Rachel shook her head. “It’s too perfect.” She unfolded the soggy GPR printout and held it up in front of the camera. “Flawless.”

Pickering studied the image, scowling in agreement. “Don’t let that out of your hands.”

“I called Marjorie Tench to warn her to stop the President,” Rachel said. “But she shut me down.”

“I know. She told me.”

Rachel looked up, stunned. “Marjorie Tench called you?” That was fast.

“Just now. She’s very concerned. She feels you are attempting some kind of stunt to discredit the President and NASA. Perhaps to help your father.”

Rachel stood up. She waved the GPR printout and motioned to her two companions. “We were almost killed! Does this look like some kind of stunt? And why would I-”

Pickering held up his hands. “Easy. What Ms. Tench failed to tell me was that there were three of you.”

Rachel could not recall if Tench had even given her time to mention Corky and Tolland.

“Nor did she tell me you had physical evidence,” Pickering said. “I was skeptical of her claims before I spoke to you, and now I am convinced she is mistaken. I do not doubt your claims. The question at this point is what it all means.”

There was a long silence.

William Pickering rarely looked confused, but he shook his head, seeming lost. “Let’s assume for the moment that someone did insert this meteorite beneath the ice. That begs the obvious issue of why. If NASA has a meteorite with fossils in it, why would they, or anyone else for that matter, care where it is found?”

“It appears,” Rachel said, “that the insertion was performed such that PODS would make the discovery, and the meteorite would appear to be a fragment from a known impact.”

“The Jungersol Fall,” Corky prompted.

“But of what value is the meteorite’s association with a known impact?” Pickering demanded, sounding almost mad. “Aren’t these fossils an astounding discovery anywhere and anytime? No matter what meteoritic event they are associated with?”

All three nodded.

Pickering hesitated, looking displeased. “Unless… of course… ”

Rachel saw the wheels turning behind the director’s eyes. He had found the simplest explanation for placing the meteorite concurrent with the Jungersol strata, but the simplest explanation was also the most troubling.

“Unless,” Pickering continued, “the careful placement was intended to lend credibility to totally false data.” He sighed, turning to Corky. “Dr. Marlinson, what is the possibility that this meteorite is a counterfeit.”

“Counterfeit, sir?”

“Yes. A fake. Manufactured.”

“A fake meteorite?” Corky gave an awkward laugh. “Utterly impossible! That meteorite was examined by professionals. Myself included. Chemical scans, spectrograph, rubidium-strontium dating. It is unlike any kind of rock ever seen on earth. The meteorite is authentic. Any astrogeologist would agree.”

Pickering seemed to consider this a long time, gently stroking his tie. “And yet taking into account the amount NASA has to gain from this discovery right now, the apparent signs of tampering with evidence, and your being attacked… the first and only logical conclusion I can draw is that this meteorite is a well-executed fraud.”

“Impossible!” Corky sounded angry now. “With all respect, sir, meteorites are not some Hollywood special effect that can be conjured up in a lab to fool a bunch of unsuspecting astrophysicists. They are chemically complex objects with unique crystalline structures and element ratios!”

“I am not challenging you, Dr. Marlinson. I am simply following a logical chain of analysis. Considering someone wanted to kill you to keep you from revealing it was inserted under the ice, I’m inclined to entertain all kinds of wild scenarios here. What specifically makes you certain this rock is indeed a meteorite?”

“Specifically?” Corky’s voice cracked in the headphones. “A flawless fusion crust, the presence of chondrules, a nickel ratio unlike anything ever found on earth. If you’re suggesting that someone tricked us by manufacturing this rock in a lab, then all I can say is that the lab was about 190 million years old.” Corky dug in his pocket and pulled out a stone shaped like a CD. He held it in front of the camera. “We chemically dated samples like this with numerous methods. Rubidium-strontium dating is not something you can fake!”

Pickering looked surprised. “You have a sample?”

Corky shrugged. “NASA had dozens of them floating around.”

“You mean to tell me,” Pickering said, looking at Rachel now, “that NASA discovered a meteorite they think contains life, and they’re letting people walk off with samples?”

“The point,” Corky said, “is that the sample in my hands is genuine.” He held the rock close to the camera. “You could give this to any petrologist or geologist or astronomer on earth, they would run tests, and they would tell you two things: one, it is 190 million years old; and two, it is chemically dissimilar from the kind of rock we have here on earth.”

Pickering leaned forward, studying the fossil embedded in the rock. He seemed momentarily transfixed. Finally, he sighed. “I am not a scientist. All I can say is that if that meteorite is genuine, which it appears it is, I would like to know why NASA didn’t present it to the world at face value? Why has someone carefully placed it under the ice as if to persuade us of its authenticity?”

At that moment, inside the White House, a security officer was dialing Marjorie Tench.

The senior adviser answered on the first ring. “Yeah?”

“Ms. Tench,” the officer said, “I have the information you requested earlier. The radiophone call that Rachel Sexton placed to you earlier this evening. We have the trace.”

“Tell me.”

“Secret Service ops says the signal originated aboard the naval submarine U.S.S. Charlotte.”

“What!”

“They don’t have coordinates, ma’am, but they are certain of the vessel code.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” Tench slammed down the receiver without another word.

Chapter 72

The muted acoustics of the Charlotte’s dead room were starting to make Rachel feel mildly nauseated. On-screen, William Pickering’s troubled gaze moved now to Michael Tolland. “You’re quiet, Mr. Tolland.”

Tolland glanced up like a student who had been called on unexpectedly. “Sir?”

“You just gave quite a convincing documentary on television,” Pickering said. “What’s your take on the meteorite now?”

“Well, sir,” Tolland said, his discomfort obvious, “I have to agree with Dr. Marlinson. I believe the fossils and meteorite are authentic. I’m fairly well versed in dating techniques, and the age of that stone was confirmed by multiple tests. The nickel content as well. These data cannot be forged. There exists no doubt the rock, formed 190 million years ago, exhibits nonterrestrial nickel ratios and contains dozens of confirmed fossils whose formation is also dated at 190 million years. I can think of no other possible explanation than that NASA has found an authentic meteorite.”

Pickering fell silent now. His expression was one of quandary, a look Rachel had never before seen on William Pickering.

“What should we do, sir?” Rachel asked. “Obviously we need to alert the President there are problems with the data.”

Pickering frowned. “Let’s hope the President doesn’t already know.”

Rachel felt a knot rise in her throat. Pickering’s implication was clear. President Herney could be involved. Rachel strongly doubted it, and yet both the President and NASA had plenty to gain here.

“Unfortunately,” Pickering said, “with the exception of this GPR printout revealing an insertion shaft, all of the scientific data points to a credible NASA discovery.” He paused, dire. “And this issue of your being attacked… ” He looked up at Rachel. “You mentioned special ops.”

“Yes, sir.” She told him again about the Improvised Munitions and tactics.

Pickering looked more and more unhappy by the moment. Rachel sensed her boss was contemplating the number of people who might have access to a small military kill force. Certainly the President had access. Probably Marjorie Tench too, as senior adviser. Quite possibly NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom with his ties to the Pentagon. Unfortunately, as Rachel considered the myriad of possibilities, she realized the controlling force behind the attack could have been almost anyone with high-level political clout and the right connections.

“I could phone the President right now,” Pickering said, “but I don’t think that’s wise, at least until we know who’s involved. My ability to protect you becomes limited once we involve the White House. In addition, I’m not sure what I would tell him. If the meteorite is real, which you all feel it is, then your allegation of an insertion shaft and attack doesn’t make sense; the President would have every right to question the validity of my claim.” He paused as if calculating the options. “Regardless… whatever the truth is or who the players are, some very powerful people will take hits if this information goes public. I suggest we get you to safety right away, before we start rocking any boats.”

Get us to safety? The comment surprised Rachel. “I think we’re fairly safe on a nuclear submarine, sir.”

Pickering looked skeptical. “Your presence on that submarine won’t stay secret long. I’m pulling you out immediately. Frankly, I’ll feel better when the three of you are sitting in my office.”

Chapter 73

Senator Sexton huddled alone on his couch feeling like a refugee. His Westbrooke Place apartment that had only an hour ago been filled with new friends and supporters now looked forsaken, scattered with the rubble of snifters and business cards, abandoned by men who had quite literally dashed out the door.

Now Sexton crouched in solitude before his television, wanting more than anything to turn it off and yet being unable to pull himself from the endless media analyses. This was Washington, and it didn’t take long for the analysts to rush through their pseudoscientific and philosophical hyperbole and lock in on the ugly stuff-the politics. Like torture masters rubbing acid in Sexton’s wounds, the newscasters were stating and restating the obvious.

“Hours ago, Sexton’s campaign was soaring,” one analyst said. “Now, with NASA’s discovery, the senator’s campaign has crashed back to earth.”

Sexton winced, reaching for the Courvoisier and taking a hit right out of the bottle. Tonight, he knew, would be the longest and loneliest night of his life. He despised Marjorie Tench for setting him up. He despised Gabrielle Ashe for ever mentioning NASA in the first place. He despised the President for being so goddamned lucky. And he despised the world for laughing at him.

“Obviously, this is devastating for the senator,” the analyst was saying. “The President and NASA have claimed an incalculable triumph with this discovery. News like this would revitalize the President’s campaign regardless of Sexton’s position on NASA, but with Sexton’s admission today that he would go so far as to abolish NASA funding outright if need be… well, this presidential announcement is a one-two punch from which the senator will not recover.”

I was tricked, Sexton said. The White House fucking set me up.

The analyst was smiling now. “All of the credibility NASA has lost with Americans recently has just been restored in spades. There’s a real feeling of national pride out there on the streets right now.”

“As there should be. They love Zach Herney, and they were losing faith. You’ve got to admit, the President was lying down and took some pretty big hits recently, but he’s come out of it smelling like a rose.”

Sexton thought of the CNN debate that afternoon and hung his head, thinking he might be sick to his stomach. All of the NASA inertia he had so carefully built up over the last months had not only come to a screeching halt, but it had become an anchor around his neck. He looked like a fool. He’d been brazenly played by the White House. He was already dreading all the cartoons in tomorrow’s paper. His name would be the punch line to every joke in the country. Obviously, there would be no more quiet SFF campaign funding. Everything had changed. All of the men who had been in his apartment had just seen their dreams go down the toilet. The privatization of space had just struck a brick wall.

Taking another hit of cognac, the senator stood up and walked unevenly to his desk. He gazed down at the unhooked phone receiver. Knowing it was an act of masochistic self-flagellation, he slowly replaced the phone receiver in its cradle and began counting the seconds.

One… two… The phone rang. He let the machine pick up.

“Senator Sexton, Judy Oliver from CNN. I’d like to give you an opportunity to react to the NASA discovery this evening. Please call me.” She hung up.

Sexton started counting again. One… The phone started ringing. He ignored it, letting the machine get it. Another reporter.

Holding his bottle of Courvoisier, Sexton wandered toward the sliding door of his balcony. He pulled it aside and stepped out into the cool air. Leaning against the railing, he gazed out across town to the illuminated facade of the White House in the distance. The lights seemed to twinkle gleefully in the wind.

Bastards, he thought. For centuries we’ve been looking for proof of life in the heavens. Now we find it in the same fucking year as my election? This wasn’t propitious, this was goddamned clairvoyant. Every apartment window for as far as Sexton could see had a television on. Sexton wondered where Gabrielle Ashe was tonight. This was all her fault. She’d fed him NASA failure after NASA failure.

He raised the bottle to take another swig.

Goddamned Gabrielle… she’s the reason I’m in this so deep.

Across town, standing amid the chaos of the ABC production room, Gabrielle Ashe felt numb. The President’s announcement had come out of left field, leaving her suspended in a semicatatonic haze. She stood, lock-kneed in the center of the production room floor, staring up at one of the television monitors while pandemonium raged around her.

The initial seconds of the announcement had brought dead silence to the newsroom floor. It had lasted only moments before the place erupted into a deafening carnival of scrambling reporters. These people were professionals. They had no time for personal reflection. There would be time for that after the work was done. At the moment, the world wanted to know more, and ABC had to provide it. This story had everything-science, history, political drama-an emotional mother lode. Nobody in the media was sleeping tonight.

“Gabs?” Yolanda’s voice was sympathetic. “Let’s get you back into my office before someone realizes who you are and starts grilling you on what this means for Sexton’s campaign.”

Gabrielle felt herself guided through a haze into Yolanda’s glass-walled office. Yolanda sat her down and handed her a glass of water. She tried to force a smile. “Look on the bright side, Gabs. Your candidate’s campaign is fucked, but at least you’re not.”

“Thanks. Terrific.”

Yolanda’s tone turned serious. “Gabrielle, I know you feel like shit. Your candidate just got hit by a Mack truck, and if you ask me, he’s not getting up. At least not in time to turn this thing around. But at least nobody’s splashing your picture all over the television. Seriously. This is good news. Herney won’t need a sex scandal now. He’s looking far too presidential right now to talk sex.”

It seemed a small consolation to Gabrielle.

“As for Tench’s allegations of Sexton’s illegal campaign finance… ” Yolanda shook her head. “I have my doubts. Granted, Herney is serious about no negative campaigning. And granted, a bribery investigation would be bad for the country. But is Herney really so patriotic that he would forgo a chance to crush his opposition, simply to protect national morale? My guess is Tench stretched the truth about Sexton’s finances in an effort to scare. She gambled, hoping you’d jump ship and give the President a free sex scandal. And you’ve got to admit, Gabs, tonight would have been a hell of a night for Sexton’s morals to come into question!”

Gabrielle nodded vaguely. A sex scandal would have been a one-two punch from which Sexton’s career never would have recovered… ever.

“You outlasted her, Gabs. Marjorie Tench went fishing, but you didn’t bite. You’re home free. There’ll be other elections.”

Gabrielle nodded vaguely, unsure what to believe anymore.

“You’ve got to admit,” Yolanda said, “the White House played Sexton brilliantly-luring him down the NASA path, getting him to commit, coaxing him to put all his eggs in the NASA basket.”

Totally my fault, Gabrielle thought.

“And this announcement we just watched, my God, it was genius! The importance of the discovery entirely aside, the production values were brilliant. Live feeds from the Arctic? A Michael Tolland documentary? Good God, how can you compete? Zach Herney nailed it tonight. There’s a reason the guy is President.”

And will be for another four years…

“I’ve got to get back to work, Gabs,” Yolanda said. “You sit right there as long as you want. Get your feet under you.” Yolanda headed out the door. “Hon, I’ll check back in a few minutes.”

Alone now, Gabrielle sipped her water, but it tasted foul. Everything did. It’s all my fault, she thought, trying to ease her conscience by reminding herself of all the glum NASA press conferences of the past year-the space station setbacks, the postponement of the X-33, all the failed Mars probes, continuous budget bailouts. Gabrielle wondered what she could have done differently.

Nothing, she told herself. You did everything right.

It had simply backfired.

Chapter 74

The thundering navy SeaHawk chopper had been scrambled under a covert operation status out of Thule Air Force Base in northern Greenland. It stayed low, out of radar range, as it shot through the gale winds across seventy miles of open sea. Then, executing the bizarre orders they had been given, the pilots fought the wind and brought the craft to a hover above a pre-ordained set of coordinates on the empty ocean.

“Where’s the rendezvous?” the copilot yelled, confused. They had been told to bring a chopper with a rescue winch, so he anticipated a search-and-retrieve operation. “You sure these are the right coordinates?” He scanned the choppy seas with a searchlight, but there was nothing below them except-

“Holy shit!” The pilot pulled back on the stick, jolting upward.

The black mountain of steel rose before them out of the waves without warning. A gargantuan unmarked submarine blew its ballast and rose on a cloud of bubbles.

The pilots exchanged uneasy laughs. “Guess that’s them.”

As ordered, the transaction proceeded under complete radio silence. The doublewide portal on the peak of the sail opened and a seaman flashed them signals with a strobe light. The chopper then moved over the sub and dropped a three-man rescue harness, essentially three rubberized loops on a retractable cable. Within sixty seconds, the three unknown “danglers” were swinging beneath the chopper, ascending slowly against the downdraft of the rotors.

When the copilot hauled them aboard-two men and a woman-the pilot flashed the sub the “all clear.” Within seconds, the enormous vessel disappeared beneath the windswept sea, leaving no trace it had ever been there.

With the passengers safely aboard, the chopper pilot faced front, dipped the nose of the chopper, and accelerated south to complete his mission. The storm was closing fast, and these three strangers were to be brought safely back to Thule AFB for further jet transport. Where they were headed, the pilot had no idea. All he knew was that his orders had been from high up, and he was transporting very precious cargo.

Chapter 75

When the Milne storm finally exploded, unleashing its full force on the NASA habisphere, the dome shuddered as if ready to lift off the ice and launch out to sea. The steel stabilizing cables pulled taut against their stakes, vibrating like huge guitar strings and letting out a doleful drone. The generators outside stuttered, causing the lights to flicker, threatening to plunge the huge room into total blackness.

NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom strode across the interior of the dome. He wished he were getting the hell out of here tonight, but that was not to be. He would remain another day, giving additional on-site press conferences in the morning and overseeing preparations to transport the meteorite back to Washington. He wanted nothing more at the moment than to get some sleep; the day’s unexpected problems had taken a lot out of him.

Ekstrom’s thoughts turned yet again to Wailee Ming, Rachel Sexton, Norah Mangor, Michael Tolland, and Corky Marlinson. Some of the NASA staff had begun noticing the civilians were missing.

Relax, Ekstrom told himself. Everything is under control.

He breathed deeply, reminding himself that everyone on the planet was excited about NASA and space right now. Extraterrestrial life hadn’t been this exciting a topic since the famous “Roswell incident” back in 1947-the alleged crash of an alien spaceship in Roswell, New Mexico, which was now the shrine to millions of UFO-conspiracy theorists even today.

During Ekstrom’s years working at the Pentagon, he had learned that the Roswell incident had been nothing more than a military accident during a classified operation called Project Mogul-the flight test of a spy balloon being designed to listen in on Russian atomic tests. A prototype, while being tested, had drifted off course and crashed in the New Mexico desert. Unfortunately, a civilian found the wreckage before the military did.

Unsuspecting rancher William Brazel had stumbled across a debris field of radical synthesized neoprene and lightweight metals unlike anything he’d ever seen, and he immediately called in the sheriff. Newspapers carried the story of the bizarre wreckage, and public interest grew fast. Fueled by the military’s denial that the wreckage was theirs, reporters launched investigations, and the covert status of Project Mogul came into serious jeopardy. Just as it seemed the sensitive issue of a spy balloon was about to be revealed, something wonderful happened.

The media drew an unexpected conclusion. They decided the scraps of futuristic substance could only have come from an extraterrestrial source-creatures more scientifically advanced than humans. The military’s denial of the incident obviously had to be one thing only-a cover-up of contact with aliens! Although baffled by this new hypothesis, the air force was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. They grabbed the alien story and ran with it; the world’s suspicion that aliens were visiting New Mexico was far less a threat to national security than that of the Russians catching wind of Project Mogul.

To fuel the alien cover story, the intelligence community shrouded the Roswell incident in secrecy and began orchestrating “security leaks”-quiet murmurings of alien contacts, recovered spaceships, and even a mysterious “Hangar 18” at Dayton’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base where the government was keeping alien bodies on ice. The world bought the story, and Roswell fever swept the globe. From that moment on, whenever a civilian mistakenly spotted an advanced U.S. military aircraft, the intelligence community simply dusted off the old conspiracy.

That’s not an aircraft, that’s an alien spaceship!

Ekstrom was amazed to think this simple deception was still working today. Every time the media reported a sudden flurry of UFO sightings, Ekstrom had to laugh. Chances were some lucky civilian had caught a glimpse of one of the NRO’s fifty-seven fast-moving, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft known as Global Hawks-oblong, remote-controlled aircraft that looked like nothing else in the sky.

Ekstrom found it pathetic that countless tourists still made pilgrimages to the New Mexico desert to scan the night skies with their video cameras. Occasionally one got lucky and captured “hard evidence” of a UFO-bright lights flitting around the sky with more maneuverability and speed than any aircraft humans had ever built. What these people failed to realize, of course, was that there existed a twelve-year lag between what the government could build and what the public knew about. These UFO-gazers were simply catching a glimpse of the next generation of U.S. aircraft being developed out at Area 51-many of which were the brainstorms of NASA engineers. Of course, intelligence officials never corrected the misconception; it was obviously preferable that the world read about another UFO sighting than to have people learn the U.S. military’s true flight capabilities.

But everything has changed now, Ekstrom thought. In a few hours, the extraterrestrial myth would become a confirmed reality, forever.

“Administrator?” A NASA technician hurried across the ice behind him. “You have an emergency secure call in the PSC.”

Ekstrom sighed, turning. What the hell could it be now? He headed for the communications trailer.

The technician hurried along beside him. “The guys manning the radar in the PSC were curious, sir… ”

“Yeah?” Ekstrom’s thoughts were still far away.

“The fat-body sub stationed off the coast here? We were wondering why you didn’t mention it to us.”

Ekstrom glanced up. “I’m sorry?”

“The submarine, sir? You could have at least told the guys on radar. Additional seaboard security is understandable, but it took our radar team off guard.”

Ekstrom stopped short. “What submarine?”

The technician stopped now too, clearly not expecting the administrator’s surprise. “She’s not part of our operation?”

“No! Where is it?”

The technician swallowed hard. “About three miles out. We caught her on radar by chance. Only surfaced for a couple minutes. Pretty big blip. Had to be a fat-body. We figured you’d asked the navy to stand watch over this op without telling any of us.”

Ekstrom stared. “I most certainly did not!”

Now the technician’s voice wavered. “Well, sir, then I guess I should inform you that a sub just rendezvoused with an aircraft right off the coast here. Looked like a personnel change. Actually, we were all pretty impressed anyone would attempt a wet-dry vertical in this kind of wind.”

Ekstrom felt his muscles stiffen. What the hell is a submarine doing directly off the coast of Ellesmere Island without my knowledge? “Did you see what direction the aircraft flew after rendezvous?”

“Back toward Thule air base. For connecting transport to the mainland, I assume.”

Ekstrom said nothing the rest of the way to the PSC. When he entered the cramped darkness, the hoarse voice on the line had a familiar rasp.

“We’ve got a problem,” Tench said, coughing as she spoke. “It’s about Rachel Sexton.”

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