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Chapter 76

Senator Sexton was not sure how long he had been staring into space when he heard the pounding. When he realized the throbbing in his ears was not from the alcohol but rather from someone at his apartment door, he got up from the couch, stowed the bottle of Courvoisier, and made his way to the foyer.

“Who is it?” Sexton yelled, in no mood for visitors.

His bodyguard’s voice called in with the identity of Sexton’s unexpected guest. Sexton sobered instantly. That was fast. Sexton had hoped not to have to have this conversation until morning.

Taking a deep breath and straightening his hair, Sexton opened the door. The face before him was all too familiar-tough and leathery despite the man’s seventy-something years. Sexton had met with him only this morning in the white Ford Windstar minivan in a hotel parking garage. Was it only this morning? Sexton wondered. God, how things had changed since then.

“May I come in?” the dark-haired man asked.

Sexton stepped aside, allowing the head of the Space Frontier Foundation to pass.

“Did the meeting go well?” the man asked, as Sexton closed the door.

Did it go well? Sexton wondered if the man lived in a cocoon. “Things were terrific until the President came on television.”

The old man nodded, looking displeased. “Yes. An incredible victory. It will hurt our cause greatly.”

Hurt our cause? Here was an optimist. With NASA’s triumph tonight, this guy would be dead and buried before the Space Frontier Foundation attained their goals of privatization.

“For years I have suspected proof was forthcoming,” the old man said. “I did not know how or when, but sooner or later we had to know for sure.”

Sexton was stunned. “You’re not surprised?”

“The mathematics of the cosmos virtually requires other life-forms,” the man said, moving toward Sexton’s den. “I am not surprised that this discovery has been made. Intellectually, I am thrilled. Spiritually, I am in awe. Politically, I am deeply disturbed. The timing could not be worse.”

Sexton wondered why the man had come. It sure as hell wasn’t to cheer him up.

“As you know,” the man said, “SFF member companies have spent millions trying to open the frontier of space to private citizens. Recently, much of that money has gone to your campaign.”

Sexton felt suddenly defensive. “I had no control over tonight’s fiasco. The White House baited me to attack NASA!”

“Yes. The President played the game well. And yet, all may not be lost.” There was an odd glint of hope in the old man’s eyes.

He’s senile, Sexton decided. All was definitely lost. Every station on television right now was talking about the destruction of the Sexton campaign.

The old man showed himself into the den, sat on the couch, and fixed his tired eyes on the senator. “Do you recall,” the man said, “the problems NASA initially had with the anomaly software onboard the PODS satellite?”

Sexton could not imagine where this was headed. What the hell difference does that make now? PODS found a goddamned meteorite with fossils!

“If you remember,” the man said. “The onboard software did not function properly at first. You made a big deal of it in the press.”

“As I should have!” Sexton said, sitting down opposite the man. “It was another NASA failure!”

The man nodded. “I agree. But shortly after that, NASA held a press conference announcing they had come up with a work-around-some sort of patch for the software.”

Sexton hadn’t actually seen the press conference, but he’d heard it was short, flat, and hardly newsworthy-the PODS project leader giving a dull technical description of how NASA had overcome a minor glitch in PODS’s anomaly-detection software and gotten everything up and running.

“I have been watching PODS with interest ever since it failed,” the man said. He produced a videocassette and walked to Sexton’s television, putting the video in the VCR. “This should interest you.”

The video began to play. It showed the NASA press room at headquarters in Washington. A well-dressed man was taking the podium and greeting the audience. The subtitle beneath the podium read:

CHRIS HARPER, Section Manager

Polar Orbiting Density Scanner Satellite (PODS)

Chris Harper was tall, refined, and spoke with the quiet dignity of a European American who still clung proudly to his roots. His accent was erudite and polished. He was addressing the press with confidence, giving them some bad news about PODS.

“Although the PODS satellite is in orbit and functioning well, we have a minor setback with the onboard computers. A minor programming error for which I take full responsibility. Specifically, the FIR filter has a faulty voxel index, which means the PODS’s anomaly-detection software is not functioning properly. We’re working on a fix.”

The crowd sighed, apparently accustomed to NASA letdowns. “What does that mean for the current effectiveness of the satellite?” someone asked.

Harper took it like a pro. Confident and matter-of-fact. “Imagine a perfect set of eyes without a functioning brain. Essentially the PODS satellite is seeing twenty-twenty, but it has no idea what it’s looking at. The purpose of the PODS mission is to look for melt pockets in the polar ice cap, but without the computer to analyze the density data PODS receives from its scanners, PODS cannot discern where the points of interest are. We should have the situation remedied after the next shuttle mission can make an adjustment to the onboard computer.”

A groan of disappointment rose in the room.

The old man glanced over at Sexton. “He presents bad news pretty well, doesn’t he?”

“He’s from NASA,” Sexton grumbled. “That’s what they do.”

The VCR tape went blank for an instant and then switched to another NASA press conference.

“This second press conference,” the old man said to Sexton, “was given only a few weeks ago. Quite late at night. Few people saw it. This time Dr. Harper is announcing good news.”

The footage launched. This time Chris Harper looked disheveled and uneasy. “I am pleased to announce,” Harper said, sounding anything but pleased, “that NASA has found a work-around for the PODS satellite’s software problem.” He fumbled through an explanation of the work-around-something about redirecting the raw data from PODS and sending it through computers here on earth rather than relying on the onboard PODS computer. Everyone seemed impressed. It all sounded quite feasible and exciting. When Harper was done, the room gave him an enthusiastic round of applause.

“So we can expect data soon?” someone in the audience asked.

Harper nodded, sweating. “A couple of weeks.”

More applause. Hands shot up around the room.

“That’s all I have for you now,” Harper said, looking ill as he packed up his papers. “PODS is up and running. We’ll have data soon.” He practically ran off the stage.

Sexton scowled. He had to admit, this was odd. Why did Chris Harper look so comfortable giving bad news and so uncomfortable giving good news? It should have been in reverse. Sexton hadn’t actually seen this press conference when it aired, although he’d read about the software fix. The fix, at the time, seemed an inconsequential NASA salvage; the public perception remained unimpressed-PODS was just another NASA project that had malfunctioned and was being awkwardly patched together with a less than ideal solution.

The old man turned off the television. “NASA claimed Dr. Harper was not feeling well that night.” He paused. “I happen to think Harper was lying.”

Lying? Sexton stared, his fuzzy thoughts unable to piece together any logical rationale for why Harper would have lied about the software. Still, Sexton had told enough lies in his life to recognize a poor liar when he saw one. He had to admit, Dr. Harper sure looked suspicious.

“Perhaps you don’t realize?” the old man said. “This little announcement you just heard Chris Harper give is the single most important press conference in NASA history.” He paused. “That convenient software fix he just described is what allowed PODS to find the meteorite.”

Sexton puzzled. And you think he was lying about it? “But, if Harper was lying, and the PODS software isn’t really working, then how the hell did NASA find the meteorite?”

The old man smiled. “Exactly.”

Chapter 77

The U.S. military’s fleet of “repo” aircraft repossessed during drug-trade arrests consisted of over a dozen private jets, including three reconditioned G4s used for transporting military VIPs. A half hour ago, one of those G4s had lifted off the Thule runway, fought its way above the storm, and was now pounding southward into the Canadian night en route to Washington. Onboard, Rachel Sexton, Michael Tolland, and Corky Marlinson had the eight-seat cabin to themselves, looking like some kind of disheveled sports team in their matching blue U.S.S. Charlotte jumpsuits and caps.

Despite the roar of the Grumman engines, Corky Marlinson was asleep in the rear. Tolland sat near the front, looking exhausted as he gazed out the window at the sea. Rachel was beside him, knowing she could not sleep even if she’d been sedated. Her mind churned through the mystery of the meteorite, and, most recently, the dead room conversation with Pickering. Before signing off, Pickering had given Rachel two additional pieces of disturbing information.

First, Marjorie Tench claimed to possess a video recording of Rachel’s private deposition to the White House staff. Tench was now threatening to use the video as evidence if Rachel tried to go back on her confirmation of the meteorite data. The news was particularly unsettling because Rachel had specifically told Zach Herney that her remarks to the staff were for in-house use only. Apparently Zach Herney had ignored that request.

The second bit of troubling news dealt with a CNN debate her father had attended earlier in the afternoon. Apparently, Marjorie Tench had made a rare appearance and deftly baited Rachel’s father into crystallizing his position against NASA. More specifically, Tench had cajoled him into crudely proclaiming his skepticism that extraterrestrial life would ever be found.

Eat his hat? That’s what Pickering said her father had offered to do if NASA ever found extraterrestrial life. Rachel wondered how Tench had managed to coax out that propitious little sound bite. Clearly, the White House had been setting the stage carefully-ruthlessly lining up all the dominoes, preparing for the big Sexton collapse. The President and Marjorie Tench, like some sort of political tag team wrestling duo, had maneuvered for the kill. While the President remained dignified outside the ring, Tench had moved in, circling, cunningly lining up the senator for the presidential body slam.

The President had told Rachel he’d asked NASA to delay announcing the discovery in order to provide time to confirm the accuracy of the data. Rachel now realized there were other advantages to waiting. The extra time had given the White House time to dole out the rope with which the senator would hang himself.

Rachel felt no sympathy for her father, and yet she now realized that beneath the warm and fuzzy exterior of President Zach Herney, a shrewd shark lurked. You did not become the most powerful man in the world without a killer instinct. The question now was whether this shark was an innocent bystander-or a player.

Rachel stood, stretching her legs. As she paced the aisle of the plane, she felt frustrated that the pieces to this puzzle seemed so contradictory. Pickering, with his trademark chaste logic, had concluded the meteorite must be fake. Corky and Tolland, with scientific assurance, insisted the meteorite was authentic. Rachel only knew what she had seen-a charred, fossilized rock being pulled from the ice.

Now, as she passed beside Corky, she gazed down at the astrophysicist, battered from his ordeal on the ice. The swelling on his cheek was going down now, and the stitches looked good. He was asleep, snoring, his pudgy hands clutching the disk-shaped meteorite sample like some kind of security blanket.

Rachel reached down and gently slipped the meteorite sample away from him. She held it up, studying the fossils again. Remove all assumptions, she told herself, forcing herself to reorganize her thoughts. Reestablish the chain of substantiation. It was an old NRO trick. Rebuilding a proof from scratch was a process known as a “null start”-something all data analysts practiced when the pieces didn’t quite fit.

Reassemble the proof.

She began pacing again.

Does this stone represent proof of extraterrestrial life?

Proof, she knew, was a conclusion built on a pyramid of facts, a broad base of accepted information on which more specific assertions were made.

Remove all the base assumptions. Start again.

What do we have?

A rock.

She pondered that for a moment. A rock. A rock with fossilized creatures. Walking back toward the front of the plane, she took her seat beside Michael Tolland.

“Mike, let’s play a game.”

Tolland turned from the window, looking distant, apparently deep in his own thoughts. “A game?”

She handed him the meteorite sample. “Let’s pretend you’re seeing this fossilized rock for the first time. I’ve told you nothing about where it came from or how it was found. What would you tell me it is?”

Tolland heaved a disconsolate sigh. “Funny you should ask. I just had the strangest thought… ”

Hundreds of miles behind Rachel and Tolland, a strange-looking aircraft stayed low as it tore south above a deserted ocean. Onboard, the Delta Force was silent. They had been pulled out of locations in a hurry, but never like this.

Their controller was furious.

Earlier, Delta-One had informed the controller that unexpected events on the ice shelf had left his team with no option but to exercise force-force that had included killing four civilians, including Rachel Sexton and Michael Tolland.

The controller reacted with shock. Killing, although an authorized last resort, obviously never had been part of the controller’s plan.

Later, the controller’s displeasure over the killings turned to outright rage when he learned the assassinations had not gone as planned.

“Your team failed!” the controller seethed, the androgynous tone hardly masking the person’s rage. “Three of your four targets are still alive!”

Impossible! Delta-One had thought. “But we witnessed-”

“They made contact with a submarine and are now en route to Washington.”


The controller’s tone turned lethal. “Listen carefully. I am about to give you new orders. And this time you will not fail.”

Chapter 78

Senator Sexton was actually feeling a flicker of hope as he walked his unexpected visitor back out to the elevator. The head of the SFF, as it turned out, had not come to chastise Sexton, but rather to give him a pep talk and tell him the battle was not yet over.

A possible chink in NASA’s armor.

The videotape of the bizarre NASA press conference had convinced Sexton that the old man was right-PODS mission director Chris Harper was lying. But why? And if NASA never fixed the PODS software, how did NASA find the meteorite?

As they walked to the elevator, the old man said, “Sometimes all it takes to unravel something is a single strand. Perhaps we can find a way to eat away at NASA’s victory from within. Cast a shadow of distrust. Who knows where it will lead?” The old man locked his tired eyes on Sexton. “I am not ready to lay down and die, senator. And I trust nor are you.”

“Of course not,” Sexton said, mustering resolve in his voice. “We’ve come too far.”

“Chris Harper lied about fixing PODS,” the man said as he boarded the elevator. “And we need to know why.”

“I will get that information as fast as I can,” Sexton replied. I have just the person.

“Good. Your future depends on it.”

As Sexton headed back toward his apartment, his step was a little lighter, his head a little clearer. NASA lied about PODS. The only question was how Sexton could prove it.

His thoughts had already turned to Gabrielle Ashe. Wherever she was at the moment, she had to be feeling like shit. Gabrielle had no doubt seen the press conference and was now standing on a ledge somewhere getting ready to jump. Her proposition of making NASA a major issue in Sexton’s campaign had turned out to be the biggest mistake of Sexton’s career.

She owes me, Sexton thought. And she knows it.

Gabrielle already had proven she had a knack for obtaining NASA secrets. She has a contact, Sexton thought. She’d been scoring insider information for weeks now. Gabrielle had connections she was not sharing. Connections she could pump for information on PODS. Moreover, tonight Gabrielle would be motivated. She had a debt to repay, and Sexton suspected she would do anything to regain his favor.

As Sexton arrived back at his apartment door, his bodyguard nodded. “Evening, senator. I trust I did the right thing by letting Gabrielle in earlier? She said it was critical she talk to you.”

Sexton paused. “I’m sorry?”

“Ms. Ashe? She had important information for you earlier tonight. That’s why I let her in.”

Sexton felt his body stiffen. He looked at his apartment door. What the hell is this guy talking about?

The guard’s expression changed to one of confusion and concern. “Senator, are you okay? You remember, right? Gabrielle arrived during your meeting. She talked to you, right? She must have. She was in there quite a while.”

Sexton stared a long moment, feeling his pulse skyrocket. This moron let Gabrielle into my apartment during a private SFF meeting? She stuck around inside and then departed without a word? Sexton could only imagine what Gabrielle might have overheard. Swallowing his anger, he forced a smile to his guard. “Oh, yes! I’m sorry. I’m exhausted. Had a couple of drinks, too. Ms. Ashe and I did indeed speak. You did the right thing.”

The guard looked relieved.

“Did she say where she went when she left?”

The guard shook his head. “She was in a big hurry.”

“Okay, thanks.”

Sexton entered his apartment fuming. How complicated were my goddamn directions? No visitors! He had to assume if Gabrielle had been inside for any length of time and then snuck out without a word, she must have heard things she was not meant to hear. Tonight of all nights.

Senator Sexton knew above all he could not afford to lose Gabrielle Ashe’s trust; women could become vengeful and stupid when they felt deceived. Sexton needed to bring her back. Tonight more than ever, he needed her in his camp.

Chapter 79

On the fourth floor of the ABC television studios, Gabrielle Ashe sat alone in Yolanda’s glass-walled office and stared at the fraying carpet. She had always prided herself on good instincts and knowing whom she could trust. Now, for the first time in years, Gabrielle felt alone, uncertain which way to turn.

The sound of her cellphone lifted her gaze from the carpet. Reluctant, she picked up. “Gabrielle Ashe.”

“Gabrielle, it’s me.”

She recognized the timbre of Senator Sexton’s voice immediately, although he sounded surprisingly calm considering what had just transpired.

“It’s been one hell of a night over here,” he said, “so just let me talk. I’m sure you saw the President’s conference. Christ, did we play the wrong cards. I’m sick over it. You’re probably blaming yourself. Don’t. Who the hell would have guessed? Not your fault. Anyhow, listen up. I think there may be a way to get our feet back under us.”

Gabrielle stood up, unable to imagine what Sexton could be talking about. This was hardly the reaction she had expected.

“I had a meeting tonight,” Sexton said, “with representatives from private space industries, and-”

“You did?” Gabrielle blurted, stunned to hear him admit it. “I mean… I had no idea.”

“Yeah, nothing major. I would have asked you to sit in, but these guys are touchy about privacy. Some of them are donating money to my campaign. It’s not something they like to advertise.”

Gabrielle felt totally disarmed. “But… isn’t that illegal?”

“Illegal? Hell no! All the donations are under the two-thousand-dollar cap. Small potatoes. These guys barely make a dent, but I listen to their gripes anyway. Call it an investment in the future. I’m quiet about it because, frankly, the appearances aren’t so great. If the White House caught wind, they’d spin the hell out of it. Anyhow, look, that’s not the point. I called to tell you that after tonight’s meeting, I was talking to the head of the SFF… ”

For several seconds, although Sexton was still talking, all Gabrielle could hear was the blood rushing in shame to her face. Without the slightest challenge from her, the senator had calmly admitted tonight’s meeting with private space companies. Perfectly legal. And to think what Gabrielle had almost considered doing! Thank God Yolanda had stopped her. I almost jumped ship to Marjorie Tench!

“… and so I told the head of the SFF,” the senator was saying, “that you might be able to get that information for us.”

Gabrielle tuned back in. “Okay.”

“The contact from whom you’ve been getting all your inside NASA information these past few months? I assume you still have access?”

Marjorie Tench. Gabrielle cringed knowing she could never tell the senator that the informant had been manipulating her all along. “Um… I think so,” Gabrielle lied.

“Good. There’s some information I need from you. Right away.”

As she listened, Gabrielle realized just how badly she had been underestimating Senator Sedgewick Sexton lately. Some of the man’s luster had worn off since she’d first begun following his career. But tonight, it was back. In the face of what appeared to be the ultimate death blow to his campaign, Sexton was plotting a counterattack. And although it had been Gabrielle who led him down this inauspicious path, he was not punishing her. Instead, he was giving her a chance to redeem herself.

And redeem herself she would.

Whatever it took.

Chapter 80

William Pickering gazed out his office window at the distant line of headlights on Leesburg Highway. He often thought about her when he stood up here alone at the top of the world.

All this power… and I couldn’t save her.

Pickering’s daughter, Diana, had died in the Red Sea while stationed aboard a small navy escort ship, training to become a navigator. Her ship had been anchored in safe harbor on a sunny afternoon when a handmade dory loaded with explosives and powered by two suicide terrorists motored slowly across the harbor and exploded on contact with the hull. Diana Pickering and thirteen other young American soldiers had been killed that day.

William Pickering had been devastated. The anguish overwhelmed him for weeks. When the terrorist attack was traced to a known cell whom the CIA had been tracking unsuccessfully for years, Pickering’s sadness turned into rage. He had marched into CIA headquarters and demanded answers.

The answers he got were hard to swallow.

Apparently the CIA had been prepared to move on this cell months before and was simply waiting for the high-res satellite photos so that they could plan a pinpoint attack on the terrorists’ mountain hideout in Afghanistan. Those photos were scheduled to be taken by the $1.2 billion NRO satellite code-named Vortex 2, the same satellite that had been blown up on the launchpad by its NASA launch vehicle. Because of the NASA accident, the CIA strike had been postponed, and now Diana Pickering had died.

Pickering’s mind told him that NASA had not been directly responsible, but his heart found it hard to forgive. The investigation of the rocket explosion revealed that the NASA engineers responsible for the fuel injections system had been forced to use second-rate materials in an effort to stay on budget.

“For nonmanned flights,” Lawrence Ekstrom explained in a press conference, “NASA strives for cost-effectiveness above all. In this case, the results were admittedly not optimal. We will be looking into it.”

Not optimal. Diana Pickering was dead.

Furthermore, because the spy satellite was classified, the public never learned that NASA had disintegrated a $1.2 billion NRO project, and along with it, indirectly, numerous American lives.

“Sir?” Pickering’s secretary’s voice came over his intercom, startling him. “Line one. It’s Marjorie Tench.”

Pickering shook himself out of his daze and looked at his telephone. Again? The blinking light on line one seemed to pulse with an irate urgency. Pickering frowned and took the call.

“Pickering here.”

Tench’s voice was seething mad. “What did she tell you?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Rachel Sexton contacted you. What did she tell you? She was on a submarine, for God’s sake! Explain that!”

Pickering could tell immediately that denying the fact was not an option; Tench had been doing her homework. Pickering was surprised she’d found out about the Charlotte, but she’d apparently thrown her weight around until she got some answers. “Ms. Sexton contacted me, yes.”

“You arranged a pickup. And you didn’t contact me?”

“I arranged transport. That is correct.” Two hours remained until Rachel Sexton, Michael Tolland, and Corky Marlinson were scheduled to arrive at the nearby Bollings Air Force Base.

“And yet you chose not to inform me?”

“Rachel Sexton has made some very disturbing accusations.”

“Regarding the authenticity of the meteorite… and some kind of attack on her life?”

“Among other things.”

“Obviously, she is lying.”

“You are aware she is with two others who corroborate her story?”

Tench paused. “Yes. Most disturbing. The White House is very concerned by their claims.”

“The White House? Or you personally?”

Her tone turned razor sharp. “As far as you are concerned, director, there is no difference tonight.”

Pickering was unimpressed. He was no stranger to blustering politicians and support staff trying to establish footholds over the intel community. Few put up as strong a front as Marjorie Tench. “Does the President know you’re calling me?”

“Frankly, director, I’m shocked that you would even entertain these lunatic ravings.”

You didn’t answer my question. “I see no logical reason for these people to lie. I have to assume they are either telling the truth, or they have made an honest mistake.”

“Mistake? Claims of attacks? Flaws in the meteorite data that NASA never saw? Please! This is an obvious political ploy.”

“If so, the motives escape me.”

Tench sighed heavily and lowered her voice. “Director, there are forces at work here of which you might not be aware. We can speak about that at length later, but at the moment I need to know where Ms. Sexton and the others are. I need to get to the bottom of this before they do any lasting damage. Where are they?”

“That is not information I am comfortable sharing. I will contact you after they arrive.”

“Wrong. I will be there to greet them when they arrive.”

You and how many Secret Service agents? Pickering wondered. “If I inform you of their arrival time and location, will we all have a chance to chat like friends, or do you intend to have a private army take them into custody?”

“These people pose a direct threat to the President. The White House has every right to detain and question them.”

Pickering knew she was right. Under Title 18, Section 3056 of the United States Code, agents of the U.S. Secret Service can carry firearms, use deadly force, and make “un-warranted” arrests simply on suspicion that a person has committed or is intending to commit a felony or any act of aggression against the president. The service possessed carte blanche. Regular detainees included unsavory loiterers outside the White House and school kids who sent threatening e-mail pranks.

Pickering had no doubt the service could justify dragging Rachel Sexton and the others into the basement of the White House and keeping them there indefinitely. It would be a dangerous play, but Tench clearly realized the stakes were huge. The question was what would happen next if Pickering allowed Tench to take control. He had no intention of finding out.

“I will do whatever is necessary,” Tench declared, “to protect the President from false accusations. The mere implication of foul play will cast a heavy shadow on the White House and NASA. Rachel Sexton has abused the trust the President gave her, and I have no intention of seeing the President pay the price.”

“And if I request that Ms. Sexton be permitted to present her case to an official panel of inquiry?”

“Then you would be disregarding a direct presidential order and giving her a platform from which to make a goddamn political mess! I will ask you one more time, director. Where are you flying them?”

Pickering exhaled a long breath. Whether or not he told Marjorie Tench that the plane was coming into Bollings Air Force Base, he knew she had the means to find out. The question was whether or not she would do it. He sensed from the determination in her voice that she would not rest. Marjorie Tench was scared.

“Marjorie,” Pickering said, with unmistakable clarity of tone. “Someone is lying to me. Of this I am certain. Either it is Rachel Sexton and two civilian scientists-or it is you. I believe it is you.”

Tench exploded. “How dare-”

“Your indignity has no resonance with me, so save it. You would be wise to know that I have absolute proof NASA and the White House broadcast untruths tonight.”

Tench fell suddenly silent.

Pickering let her reel a moment. “I’m not looking for a political meltdown any more than you are. But there have been lies. Lies that cannot stand. If you want me to help you, you’ve got to start by being honest with me.”

Tench sounded tempted but wary. “If you’re so certain there were lies, why haven’t you stepped forward?”

“I don’t interfere in political matters.”

Tench muttered something that sounded a lot like “bullshit.”

“Are you trying to tell me, Marjorie, that the President’s announcement tonight was entirely accurate?”

There was a long silence on the line.

Pickering knew he had her. “Listen, we both know this is a time bomb waiting to explode. But it’s not too late. There are compromises we can make.”

Tench said nothing for several seconds. Finally she sighed. “We should meet.”

Touchdown, Pickering thought.

“I have something to show you,” Tench said. “And I believe it will shed some light on this matter.”

“I’ll come to your office.”

“No,” she said hurriedly. “It’s late. Your presence here would raise concerns. I’d prefer to keep this matter between us.”

Pickering read between the lines. The President knows nothing about this. “You’re welcome to come here,” he said.

Tench sounded distrusting. “Let’s meet somewhere discreet.”

Pickering had expected as much.

“The FDR Memorial is convenient to the White House,” Tench said. “It will be empty at this time of night.”

Pickering considered it. The FDR Memorial sat midway between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, in an extremely safe part of town. After a long beat, Pickering agreed.

“One hour,” Tench said, signing off. “And come alone.”

Immediately upon hanging up, Marjorie Tench phoned NASA administrator Ekstrom. Her voice was tight as she relayed the bad news.

“Pickering could be a problem.”

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