Michael Tolland closed his eyes and listened to the drone of the G4 jet engine. He had given up trying to think anymore about the meteorite until they got back to Washington. The chondrules, according to Corky, were conclusive; the rock in the Milne Ice Shelf could only be a meteorite. Rachel had hoped to have a conclusive answer for William Pickering by the time they landed, but her thought experiments had run into a dead end with the chondrules. As suspicious as the meteorite evidence was, the meteorite appeared to be authentic.
So be it.
Rachel had obviously been shaken by the trauma in the ocean. Tolland was amazed, though, by her resilience. She was focused now on the issue at hand-trying to find a way to debunk or authenticate the meteorite, and trying to assess who had tried to kill them.
For most of the trip, Rachel had been in the seat beside Tolland. He’d enjoyed talking to her, despite the trying circumstances. Several minutes ago, she’d headed back to the restroom, and now Tolland was surprised to find himself missing her beside him. He wondered how long it had been since he’d missed a woman’s presence-a woman other than Celia.
Tolland glanced up.
The pilot was sticking his head into the cabin. “You asked me to tell you when we were in telephone range of your ship? I can get you that connection if you want.”
“Thanks.” Tolland made his way up the aisle.
Inside the cockpit, Tolland placed a call to his crew. He wanted to let them know he would not be back for another day or two. Of course, he had no intention of telling them what trouble he’d run into.
The phone rang several times, and Tolland was surprised to hear the ship’s SHINCOM 2100 communications system pick up. The outgoing message was not the usual professional-sounding greeting but rather the rowdy voice of one of Tolland’s crew, the onboard joker.
“Hiya, hiya, this is the Goya,” the voice announced. “We’re sorry nobody’s here right now, but we’ve all been abducted by very large lice! Actually, we’ve taken temporary shore leave to celebrate Mike’s huge night. Gosh, are we proud! You can leave your name and number, and maybe we’ll be back tomorrow when we’re sober. Ciao! Go, ET!”
Tolland laughed, missing his crew already. Obviously they’d seen the press conference. He was glad they’d gone ashore; he’d abandoned them rather abruptly when the President called, and their sitting idle at sea was crazy. Although the message said everyone had gone ashore, Tolland had to assume they would not have left his ship unattended, particularly in the strong currents where it was now anchored.
Tolland pressed the numeric code to play any internal voice mail messages they’d left for him. The line beeped once. One message. The voice was the same rowdy crewmember.
“Hi Mike, hell of a show! If you’re hearing this, you’re probably checking your messages from some swanky White House party and wondering where the hell we are. Sorry we abandoned ship, buddy, but this was not a dry-celebration kind of night. Don’t worry, we anchored her really good and left the porch light on. We’re secretly hoping she gets pirated so you’ll let NBC buy you that new boat! Just kidding, man. Don’t worry, Xavia agreed to stay onboard and mind the fort. She said she preferred time alone to partying with a bunch of drunken fishmongers? Can you believe that?”
Tolland chuckled, relieved to hear someone was aboard watching the ship. Xavia was responsible, definitely not the partying type. A respected marine geologist, Xavia had the reputation for speaking her mind with a caustic honesty.
“Anyhow, Mike,” the message went on, “tonight was incredible. Kind of makes you proud to be a scientist, doesn’t it? Everyone’s talking about how good this looks for NASA. Screw NASA, I say! This looks even better for us! Amazing Seas ratings must have gone up a few million points tonight. You’re a star, man. A real one. Congrats. Excellent job.”
There was hushed talking on the line, and the voice came back. “Oh, yeah, and speaking of Xavia, just so you don’t get too big a head, she wants to razz you about something. Here she is.”
Xavia’s razor voice came on the machine. “Mike, Xavia, you’re a God, yada yada. And because I love you so much, I’ve agreed to baby-sit this antediluvian wreck of yours. Frankly, it will be nice to be away from these hoodlums you call scientists. Anyhow, in addition to baby-sitting the ship, the crew has asked me, in my role as onboard bitch, to do everything in my power to keep you from turning into a conceited bastard, which after tonight I realize is going to be difficult, but I had to be the first to tell you that you made a boo-boo in your documentary. Yes, you heard me. A rare Michael Tolland brain fart. Don’t worry, there are only about three people on earth who will notice, and they’re all anal-retentive marine geologists with no sense of humor. A lot like me. But you know what they say about us geologists-always looking for faults!” She laughed. “Anyhow, it’s nothing, a minuscule point about meteorite petrology. I only mention it to ruin your night. You might get a call or two about it, so I thought I’d give you the heads-up so you don’t end up sounding like the moron we all know you really are.” She laughed again. “Anyhow, I’m not much of a party animal, so I’m staying onboard. Don’t bother calling me; I had to turn on the machine because the goddamned press have been calling all night. You’re a real star tonight, despite your screwup. Anyhow, I’ll fill you in on it when you get back. Ciao.”
The line went dead.
Michael Tolland frowned. A mistake in my documentary?
Rachel Sexton stood in the restroom of the G4 and looked at herself in the mirror. She looked pale, she thought, and more frail than she’d imagined. Tonight’s scare had taken a lot out of her. She wondered how long it would be before she would stop shivering, or before she would go near an ocean. Removing her U.S.S. Charlotte cap, she let her hair down. Better, she thought, feeling more like herself.
Looking into her eyes, Rachel sensed a deep weariness. Beneath it, though, she saw the resolve. She knew that was her mother’s gift. Nobody tells you what you can and can’t do. Rachel wondered if her mother had seen what happened tonight. Someone tried to kill me, Mom. Someone tried to kill all of us…
Rachel’s mind, as it had for several hours now, scrolled through the list of names.
Lawrence Ekstrom… Marjorie Tench… President Zach Herney. All had motives. And, more chillingly, all had means. The President is not involved, Rachel told herself, clinging to her hope that the President she respected so much more than her own father was an innocent bystander in this mysterious incident.
We still know nothing.
Not who… not if… not why.
Rachel had wanted to have answers for William Pickering but, so far, all she’d managed to do was raise more questions.
When Rachel left the restroom, she was surprised to see Michael Tolland was not in his seat. Corky was dozing nearby. As Rachel looked around, Mike stepped out of the cockpit as the pilot hung up a radiophone. His eyes were wide with concern.
“What is it?” Rachel asked.
Tolland’s voice was heavy as he told her about the phone message.
A mistake in his presentation? Rachel thought Tolland was overreacting. “It’s probably nothing. She didn’t tell you specifically what the error was?”
“Something to do with meteorite petrology.”
“Yeah. She said the only people who would notice the mistake were a few other geologists. It sounds like whatever error I made was related to the composition of the meteorite itself.”
Rachel drew a quick breath, understanding now. “Chondrules?”
“I don’t know, but it seems pretty coincidental.”
Rachel agreed. The chondrules were the one remaining shred of evidence that categorically supported NASA’s claim that this was indeed a meteorite.
Corky came over, rubbing his eyes. “What’s going on?”
Tolland filled him in.
Corky scowled, shaking his head. “It’s not a problem with the chondrules, Mike. No way. All of your data came from NASA. And from me. It was flawless.”
“What other petrologic error could I have made?”
“Who the hell knows? Besides, what do marine geologists know about chondrules?”
“I have no idea, but she’s damned sharp.”
“Considering the circumstances,” Rachel said, “I think we should talk to this woman before we talk to Director Pickering.”
Tolland shrugged. “I called her four times and got the machine. She’s probably in the hydrolab and can’t hear a damn thing anyway. She won’t get my messages until morning at the earliest.” Tolland paused, checking his watch. “Although… ”
Tolland eyed her intensely. “How important do you think it is that we talk to Xavia before we talk to your boss?”
“If she has something to say about chondrules? I’d say it’s critical. Mike,” Rachel said, “at the moment, we’ve got all kinds of contradictory data. William Pickering is a man accustomed to having clear answers. When we meet him, I’d love to have something substantial for him to act on.”
“Then we should make a stop.”
Rachel did a double take. “On your ship?”
“It’s off the coast of New Jersey. Almost directly on our way to Washington. We can talk to Xavia, find out what she knows. Corky still has the meteorite sample, and if Xavia wants to run some geologic tests on it, the ship has a fairly well-equipped lab. I can’t imagine it would take us more than an hour to get some conclusive answers.”
Rachel felt a pulse of anxiety. The thought of having to face the ocean again so soon was unnerving. Conclusive answers, she told herself, tempted by the possibility. Pickering will definitely want answers.
Delta-One was glad to be back on solid ground.
The Aurora aircraft, despite running at only one-half power and taking a circuitous ocean route, had completed its journey in under two hours and afforded the Delta Force a healthy head start to take up position and prepare themselves for the additional kill the controller had requested.
Now, on a private military runway outside D.C., the Delta Force left the Aurora behind and boarded their new transport-a waiting OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter.
Yet again, the controller has arranged for the best, Delta-One thought.
The Kiowa Warrior, originally designed as a light observation helicopter, had been “expanded and improved” to create the military’s newest breed of attack helicopter. The Kiowa boasted infrared thermal imaging capability enabling its designator/laser range finder to provide autonomous designation for laser-guided precision weapons like Air-to-Air Stinger missiles and the AGM-1148 Hellfire Missile System. A high-speed digital signal processor provided simultaneous multitarget tracking of up to six targets. Few enemies had ever seen a Kiowa up close and survived to tell the tale.
Delta-One felt a familiar rush of power as he climbed into the Kiowa pilot’s seat and strapped himself in. He had trained on this craft and flown it in covert ops three times. Of course, never before had he been gunning for a prominent American official. The Kiowa, he had to admit, was the perfect aircraft for the job. Its Rolls-Royce Allison engine and twin semirigid blades were “silent running,” which essentially meant targets on the ground could not hear the chopper until it was directly over them. And because the aircraft was capable of flying blind without lights and was painted flat black with no reflective tail numbers, it was essentially invisible unless the target had radar.
Silent black helicopters.
The conspiracy theorists were going nuts over these. Some claimed the invasion of silent black helicopters was proof of “New World Order storm troopers” under the authority of the United Nations. Others claimed the choppers were silent alien probes. Still others who saw the Kiowas in tight formation at night were deceived into thinking they were looking at fixed running lights on a much larger craft-a single flying saucer that was apparently capable of vertical flight.
Wrong again. But the military loved the diversion.
During a recent covert mission, Delta-One had flown a Kiowa armed with the most secretive new U.S. military technology-an ingenious holographic weapon nicknamed S M. Despite conjuring associations with sadomasochism, S M stood for “smoke and mirrors”-holographic images “projected” into the sky over enemy territory. The Kiowa had used S M technology to project holograms of U.S. aircraft over an enemy anti-aircraft installation. The panicked anti-aircraft gunners fired maniacally at the circling ghosts. When all of their ammunition was gone, the United States sent in the real thing.
As Delta-One and his men lifted off the runway, Delta-One could still hear the words of his controller. You have another mark. It seemed an egregious under-statement considering their new target’s identity. Delta-One reminded himself, however, that it was not his place to question. His team had been given an order, and they would carry it out in the exact method instructed-as shocking as that method was.
I hope to hell the controller is certain this is the right move.
As the Kiowa lifted off the runway, Delta-One headed southwest. He had seen the FDR Memorial twice, but tonight would be his first time from the air.
“This meteorite was originally discovered by a Canadian geologist?” Gabrielle Ashe stared in astonishment at the young programmer, Chris Harper. “And this Canadian is now dead?”
Harper gave a grim nod.
“How long have you known this?” she demanded.
“A couple of weeks. After the administrator and Marjorie Tench forced me to perjure myself in the press conference, they knew I couldn’t go back on my word. They told me the truth about how the meteorite was really discovered.”
PODS is not responsible for finding the meteorite! Gabrielle had no idea where all of this information would lead, but clearly it was scandalous. Bad news for Tench. Great news for the senator.
“As I mentioned,” Harper said, looking somber now, “the true way the meteorite was discovered was through an intercepted radio transmission. Are you familiar with a program called INSPIRE? The Interactive NASA Space Physics Ionosphere Radio Experiment.”
Gabrielle had heard of it only vaguely.
“Essentially,” Harper said, “it’s a series of very low frequency radio receivers near the North Pole that listen to the sounds of the earth-plasma wave emissions from the northern lights, broadband pulses from lightning storms, that sort of thing.”
“A few weeks ago, one of INSPIRE’s radio receivers picked up a stray transmission from Ellesmere Island. A Canadian geologist was calling for help at an exceptionally low frequency.” Harper paused. “In fact, the frequency was so low that nobody other than NASA’s VLF receivers could possibly have heard it. We assumed the Canadian was long-waving.”
“Broadcasting at the lowest possible frequency to get maximum distance on his transmission. He was in the middle of nowhere, remember; a standard frequency transmission probably would not have made it far enough to be heard.”
“What did his message say?”
“The transmission was short. The Canadian said he had been out doing ice soundings on the Milne Ice Shelf, had detected an ultradense anomaly buried in the ice, suspected it was a giant meteorite, and while taking measurements had become trapped in a storm. He gave his coordinates, asked for rescue from the storm, and signed off. The NASA listening post sent a plane from Thule to rescue him. They searched for hours and finally discovered him, miles off course, dead at the bottom of a crevasse with his sled and dogs. Apparently he tried to outrun the storm, got blinded, went off course, and fell into a crevasse.”
Gabrielle considered the information, intrigued. “So suddenly NASA knew about a meteorite that nobody else knew about?”
“Exactly. And ironically, if my software had been working properly, the PODS satellite would have spotted that same meteorite-a week before the Canadian did.”
The coincidence gave Gabrielle pause. “A meteorite buried for three hundred years was almost discovered twice in the same week?”
“I know. A little bizarre, but science can be like that. Feast or famine. The point is that the administrator felt like the meteorite should have been our discovery anyway-if I had done my job correctly. He told me that because the Canadian was dead, nobody would be the wiser if I simply redirected PODS to the coordinates the Canadian had transmitted in his SOS. Then I could pretend to discover the meteorite from scratch, and we could salvage some respect from an embarrassing failure.”
“And that’s what you did.”
“As I said, I had no choice. I had let down the mission.” He paused. “Tonight, though, when I heard the President’s press conference and found out the meteorite I’d pretended to discover contained fossils… ”
“You were stunned.”
“Bloody well floored, I’d say!”
“Do you think the administrator knew the meteorite contained fossils before he asked you to pretend PODS found it?”
“I can’t imagine how. That meteorite was buried and untouched until the first NASA team got there. My best guess is that NASA had no idea what they’d really found until they got a team up there to drill cores and x-ray. They asked me to lie about PODS, thinking they’d have a moderate victory with a big meteorite. Then when they got there, they realized just how big a find it really was.”
Gabrielle’s breath was shallow with excitement. “Dr. Harper, will you testify that NASA and the White House forced you to lie about the PODS software?”
“I don’t know.” Harper looked frightened. “I can’t imagine what kind of damage that would do to the agency… to this discovery.”
“Dr. Harper, you and I both know this meteorite remains a wonderful discovery, regardless of how it came about. The point here is that you lied to the American people. They have a right to know that PODS is not everything NASA says it is.”
“I don’t know. I despise the administrator, but my coworkers… they are good people.”
“And they deserve to know they are being deceived.”
“And this evidence against me of embezzlement?”
“You can erase that from your mind,” Gabrielle said, having almost forgotten her con. “I will tell the senator you know nothing of the embezzlement. It is simply a frame job-insurance set up by the administrator to keep you quiet about PODS.”
“Can the senator protect me?”
“Fully. You’ve done nothing wrong. You were simply following orders. Besides, with the information you’ve just given me about this Canadian geologist, I can’t imagine the senator will even need to raise the issue of embezzlement at all. We can focus entirely on NASA’s misinformation regarding PODS and the meteorite. Once the senator breaks the information about the Canadian, the administrator won’t be able to risk trying to discredit you with lies.”
Harper still looked worried. He fell silent, somber as he pondered his options. Gabrielle gave him a moment. She’d realized earlier that there was another troubling coincidence to this story. She wasn’t going to mention it, but she could see Dr. Harper needed a final push.
“Do you have dogs, Dr. Harper?”
He glanced up. “I’m sorry?”
“I just thought it was odd. You told me that shortly after this Canadian geologist radioed in the meteorite coordinates, his sled dogs ran blindly into a crevasse?”
“There was a storm. They were off course.”
Gabrielle shrugged, letting her skepticism show. “Yeah… okay.”
Harper clearly sensed her hesitation. “What are you saying?”
“I don’t know. There’s just a lot of coincidence surrounding this discovery. A Canadian geologist transmits meteorite coordinates on a frequency that only NASA can hear? And then his sled dogs run blindly off a cliff?” She paused. “You obviously understand that this geologist’s death paved the way for this entire NASA triumph.”
The color drained from Harper’s face. “You think the administrator would kill over this meteorite.”
Big politics. Big money, Gabrielle thought. “Let me talk to the senator and we’ll be in touch. Is there a back way out of here?”
Gabrielle Ashe left a pale Chris Harper and descended a fire stairwell into a deserted alley behind NASA. She flagged down a taxi that had just dropped off more NASA celebrators.
“Westbrooke Place Luxury Apartments,” she told the driver. She was about to make Senator Sexton a much happier man.
Wondering what she had agreed to, Rachel stood near the entrance of the G4 cockpit, stretching a radio transceiver cable into the cabin so she could place her call out of earshot of the pilot. Corky and Tolland looked on. Although Rachel and NRO director William Pickering had planned to maintain radio silence until her arrival at Bollings Air Force Base outside of D.C., Rachel now had information she was certain Pickering would want to hear immediately. She had phoned his secure cellular, which he carried at all times.
When William Pickering came on the line, he was all business. “Speak with care, please. I cannot guarantee this connection.”
Rachel understood. Pickering’s cellular, like most NRO field phones, had an indicator that detected unsecured incoming calls. Because Rachel was on a radiophone, one of the least secure communication modes available, Pickering’s phone had warned him. This conversation would need to be vague. No names. No locations.
“My voice is my identity,” Rachel said, using the standard field greeting in this situation. She had expected the director’s response would be displeasure that she had risked contacting him, but Pickering’s reaction sounded positive.
“Yes, I was about to make contact with you myself. We need to redirect. I’m concerned you may have a welcoming party.”
Rachel felt a sudden trepidation. Someone is watching us. She could hear the danger in Pickering’s tone. Redirect. He would be pleased to know she had called to make that exact request, albeit for entirely different reasons.
“The issue of authenticity,” Rachel said. “We’ve been discussing it. We may have a way to confirm or deny categorically.”
“Excellent. There have been developments, and at least then I would have solid ground on which to proceed.”
“The proof involves our making a quick stop. One of us has access to a laboratory facility-”
“No exact locations, please. For your own safety.”
Rachel had no intention of broadcasting her plans over this line. “Can you get us clearance to land at GAS-AC?”
Pickering was silent a moment. Rachel sensed he was trying to process the word. GAS-AC was an obscure NRO gisting shorthand for the Coast Guard’s Group Air Station Atlantic City. Rachel hoped the director would know it.
“Yes,” he finally said. “I can arrange that. Is that your final destination?”
“No. We will require further helicopter transport.”
“An aircraft will be waiting.”
“I recommend you exercise extreme caution until we know more. Speak to no one. Your suspicions have drawn deep concern among powerful parties.”
Tench, Rachel thought, wishing she had managed to make contact with the President directly.
“I am currently in my car, en route to meet the woman in question. She has requested a private meeting in a neutral location. It should reveal much.”
Pickering is driving somewhere to meet Tench? Whatever Tench was going to tell him must be important if she refused to tell him on the phone.
Pickering said, “Do not discuss your final coordinates with anyone. And no more radio contact. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir. We’ll be at GAS-AC in an hour.”
“Transport will be arranged. When you reach your ultimate destination, you can call me via more secure channels.” He paused. “I cannot overstate the importance of secrecy to your safety. You have made powerful enemies tonight. Take appropriate caution.” Pickering was gone.
Rachel felt tense as she closed the connection and turned to Tolland and Corky.
“Change of destination?” Tolland said, looking eager for answers.
Rachel nodded, feeling reluctant. “The Goya.”
Corky sighed, glancing down at the meteorite sample in his hand. “I still can’t imagine NASA could possibly have… ” He faded off, looking more worried with every passing minute.
We’ll know soon enough, Rachel thought.
She went into the cockpit and returned the radio transceiver. Glancing out the windscreen at the rolling plateau of moonlit clouds racing beneath them, she had the unsettling feeling they were not going to like what they found onboard Tolland’s ship.
William Pickering felt an unusual solitude as he drove his sedan down the Leesburg Highway. It was almost 2:00 A.M., and the road was empty. It had been years since he’d been driving this late.
Marjorie Tench’s raspy voice still grated on his mind. Meet me at the FDR Memorial.
Pickering tried to recall the last time he had seen Marjorie Tench face-to-face-never a pleasant experience. It had been two months ago. At the White House. Tench was seated opposite Pickering at a long oak table surrounded by members of the National Security Council, Joint Chiefs, CIA, President Herney, and the administrator of NASA.
“Gentlemen,” the head of the CIA had said, looking directly at Marjorie Tench. “Yet again, I am before you to urge this administration to confront the ongoing security crisis of NASA.”
The declaration took no one in the room by surprise. NASA’s security woes had become a tired issue in the intelligence community. Two days previously, more than three hundred high-resolution satellite photos from one of NASA’s earth-observing satellites had been stolen by hackers out of a NASA database. The photos-inadvertently revealing a classified U.S. military training facility in North Africa-had turned up on the black market, where they had been purchased by hostile intelligence agencies in the Middle East.
“Despite the best of intentions,” the CIA director said with a weary voice, “NASA continues to be a threat to national security. Simply put, our space agency is not equipped to protect the data and technologies they develop.”
“I realize,” the President replied, “that there have been indiscretions. Damaging leaks. And it troubles me deeply.” He motioned across the table to the stern face of NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom. “We are yet again looking into ways to tighten NASA’s security.”
“With due respect,” the CIA director said, “whatever security changes NASA implements will be ineffective as long as NASA operations remain outside the umbrella of the United States intelligence community.”
The statement brought an uneasy rustle from those assembled. Everyone knew where this was headed.
“As you know,” the CIA director went on, his tone sharpening, “all U.S. government entities who deal with sensitive intelligence information are governed by strict rules of secrecy-military, CIA, NSA, NRO-all of them must abide by stringent laws regarding the concealment of the data they glean and the technologies they develop. I ask you all, yet again, why NASA-the agency currently producing the largest portion of cutting-edge aerospace, imaging, flight, software, reconnaissance, and telecom technologies used by the military and intelligence community-exists outside this umbrella of secrecy.”
The President heaved a weighty sigh. The proposal was clear. Restructure NASA to become part of the U.S. military intelligence community. Although similar restructurings had happened with other agencies in the past, Herney refused to entertain the idea of placing NASA under the auspices of the Pentagon, the CIA, the NRO, or any other military directive. The National Security Council was starting to splinter on the issue, many siding with the intelligence community.
Lawrence Ekstrom never looked pleased at these meetings, and this was no exception. He shot an acrimonious glare toward the CIA director. “At the risk of repeating myself, sir, the technologies NASA develops are for nonmilitary, academic applications. If your intelligence community wants to turn one of our space telescopes around and look at China, that’s your choice.”
The CIA director looked like he was about to boil over.
Pickering caught his eye and stepped in. “Larry,” he said, careful to keep an even tone, “every year NASA kneels before Congress and begs for money. You’re running operations with too little funding, and you’re paying the price in failed missions. If we incorporate NASA into the intelligence community, NASA will no longer need to ask Congress for help. You would be funded by the black budget at significantly higher levels. It’s a win-win. NASA will have the money it needs to run itself properly, and the intelligence community will have peace of mind that NASA technologies are protected.”
Ekstrom shook his head. “On principle, I cannot endorse painting NASA with that brush. NASA is about space science; we have nothing to do with national security.”
The CIA director stood up, something never done when the President was seated. Nobody stopped him. He glared down at the administrator of NASA. “Are you telling me you think science has nothing to do with national security? Larry, they are synonymous, for God’s sake! It is only this country’s scientific and technological edge that keeps us secure, and whether we like it or not, NASA is playing a bigger and bigger part in developing those technologies. Unfortunately, your agency leaks like a sieve and has proven time and again that its security is a liability!”
The room fell silent.
Now the administrator of NASA stood up and locked eyes with his attacker. “So you suggest locking twenty thousand NASA scientists in airtight military labs and making them work for you? Do you really think NASA’s newest space telescopes would have been conceived had it not been for our scientists’ personal desire to see deeper into space? NASA makes astonishing breakthroughs for one reason only-our employees want to understand the cosmos more deeply. They are a community of dreamers who grew up staring at starry skies and asking themselves what was up there. Passion and curiosity are what drive NASA’s innovation, not the promise of military superiority.”
Pickering cleared his throat, speaking softly, trying to lower the temperatures around the table. “Larry, I’m certain the director is not talking about recruiting NASA scientists to build military satellites. Your NASA mission statement would not change. NASA would carry on business as usual, except you would have increased funding and increased security.” Pickering turned now to the President. “Security is expensive. Everyone in this room certainly realizes that NASA’s security leaks are a result of underfunding. NASA has to toot its own horn, cut corners on security measures, run joint projects with other countries so they can share the price tag. I am proposing that NASA remain the superb, scientific, nonmilitary entity it currently is, but with a bigger budget, and some discretion.”
Several members of the security council nodded in quiet agreement.
President Herney stood slowly, staring directly at William Pickering, clearly not at all amused with the way Pickering had just taken over. “Bill, let me ask you this: NASA is hoping to go to Mars in the next decade. How will the intelligence community feel about spending a hefty portion of the black budget running a mission to Mars-a mission that has no immediate national security benefits?”
“NASA will be able to do as they please.”
“Bullshit,” Herney replied flatly.
Everyone’s eyes shot up. President Herney seldom used profanity.
“If there is one thing I’ve learned as president,” Herney declared, “it’s that those who control the dollars control the direction. I refuse to put NASA’s purse strings in the hands of those who do not share the objectives for which the agency was founded. I can only imagine how much pure science would get done with the military deciding which NASA missions are viable.”
Herney’s eyes scanned the room. Slowly, purposefully, he returned his rigid gaze to William Pickering.
“Bill,” Herney sighed, “your displeasure that NASA is engaged in joint projects with foreign space agencies is painfully shortsighted. At least someone is working constructively with the Chinese and Russians. Peace on this planet will not be forged by military strength. It will be forged by those who come together despite their governments’ differences. If you ask me, NASA’s joint missions do more to promote national security than any billion-dollar spy satellite, and with a hell of a lot better hope for the future.”
Pickering felt an anger welling deep within him. How dare a politician talk down to me this way! Herney’s idealism played fine in a boardroom, but in the real world, it got people killed.
“Bill,” Marjorie Tench interrupted, as if sensing Pickering was about to explode, “we know you lost a child. We know this is a personal issue for you.”
Pickering heard nothing but condescension in her tone.
“But please remember,” Tench said, “that the White House is currently holding back a floodgate of investors who want us to open space to the private sector. If you ask me, for all its mistakes, NASA has been one hell of a friend to the intel community. You all might just want to count your blessings.”
A rumble strip on the shoulder of the highway jolted Pickering’s mind back to the present. His exit was coming up. As he approached the exit for D.C., he passed a bloody deer lying dead by the side of the road. He felt an odd hesitation… but he kept driving.
He had a rendezvous to keep.