The President dropped a sugar cube into his mug. "As surprising as this may sound, the NASA discovery I'm referring to was made by EOS."
Now Rachel felt lost. If EOS had enjoyed a recent success, NASA certainly would have announced it, wouldn't they? Her father had been crucifying EOS in the media, and the space agency could use any good news they could find.
"I've heard nothing," Rachel said, "about any EOS discovery."
"I know. NASA prefers to keep the good news to themselves for a while."
Rachel doubted it. "In my experience, sir, when it comes to NASA, no news is generally bad news." Restraint was not a forte of the NASA public relations department. The standing joke at the NRO was that NASA held a press conference every time one of their scientists so much as farted.
The President frowned. "Ah, yes. I forget I'm talking to one of Pickering's NRO security disciples. Is he still moaning and groaning about NASA's loose lips?"
"Security is his business, sir. He takes it very seriously."
"He damn well better. I just find it hard to believe that two agencies with so much in common constantly find something to fight about."
Rachel had learned early in her tenure under William Pickering that although both NASA and the NRO were space-related agencies, they had philosophies that were polar opposites. The NRO was a defense agency and kept all of its space activities classified, while NASA was academic and excitedly publicized all of its breakthroughs around the globe - often, William Pickering argued, at the risk of national security. Some of NASA's finest technologies-high-resolution lenses for satellite telescopes, long-range communications systems, and radio imaging devices - had a nasty habit of appearing in the intelligence arsenal of hostile countries and being used to spy against us. Bill Pickering often grumbled that NASA scientists had big brains... and even bigger mouths.
A more pointed issue between the agencies, however, was the fact that because NASA handled the NRO's satellite launches, many of NASA's recent failures directly affected the NRO. No failure had been more dramatic than that of August 12, 1998, when a NASA/Air Force Titan 4 rocket blew up forty seconds into launch and obliterated its payload - a $1.2 billion NRO satellite code-named Vortex 2. Pickering seemed particularly unwilling to forget that one.
"So why hasn't NASA gone public about this recent success?" Rachel challenged. "They certainly could use some good news right now."
"NASA is being silent," the President declared, "because I ordered them to be."
Rachel wondered if she had heard him correctly. If so, the President was committing some kind of political hara-kiri that she did not understand.
"This discovery," the President said, "is... shall we say... nothing short of astounding in its ramifications."
Rachel felt an uneasy chill. In the world of intelligence, "astounding ramifications" seldom meant good news. She now wondered if all the EOS secrecy was on account of the satellite system having spotted some impending environmental disaster. "Is there a problem?"
"No problem at all. What EOS discovered is quite wonderful."
Rachel fell silent.
"Suppose, Rachel, that I told you NASA has just made a discovery of such scientific importance... such earth-shattering significance... that it validated every dollar Americans have ever spent in space?"
Rachel could not imagine.
The President stood up. "Let's take a walk, shall we?"
Rachel followed President Herney out onto the glistening gangway of Air Force One. As they descended the stairs, Rachel felt the bleak March air clearing her mind. Unfortunately, clarity only made the President's claims seem more outlandish than before.
NASA made a discovery of such scientific importance that it validates every dollar Americans have ever spent in space?
Rachel could only imagine that a discovery of that magnitude would only center on one thing - the holy grail of NASA - contact with extraterrestrial life. Unfortunately, Rachel knew enough about that particular holy grail to know it was utterly implausible.
As an intelligence analyst, Rachel constantly fielded questions from friends who wanted to know about the alleged government cover-ups of alien contact. She was consistently appalled by the theories her "educated" friends bought into - crashed alien saucers hidden in secret government bunkers, extraterrestrial corpses kept on ice, even unsuspecting civilians being abducted and surgically probed.
It was all absurd, of course. There were no aliens. No cover-ups.
Everyone in the intelligence community understood that the vast majority of sightings and alien abductions were simply the product of active imaginations or moneymaking hoaxes. When authentic photographic UFO evidence did exist, it had a strange habit of occurring near U.S. military airbases that were testing advanced classified aircraft. When Lockheed began air-testing aradical new jet called the Stealth Bomber, UFO sightings around Edwards Air Force Base increased fifteen-fold.
"You have a skeptical look on your face," the President said, eyeing her askance.
The sound of his voice startled Rachel. She glanced over, unsure how to respond. "Well... " She hesitated. "May I assume, sir, that we are not talking about alien spacecrafts or little green men?"
The President looked quietly amused. "Rachel, I think you'll find this discovery far more intriguing than science fiction."
Rachel was relieved to hear NASA had not been so desperate as to try selling the President on an alien story. Nonetheless, his comment served only to deepen the mystery. "Well," she said, "whatever NASA found, I must say the timing is exceptionally convenient."
Herney paused on the gangway. "Convenient? How so?"
How so? Rachel stopped and stared. "Mr. President, NASA is currently in a life or death battle to justify its very existence, and you are under attack for continuing to fund it. A major NASA breakthrough right now would be a panacea for both NASA and your campaign. Your critics will obviously find the timing highly suspect."
"So... are you calling me a liar or a fool?"
Rachel felt a knot rise in her throat. "I meant no disrespect, sir. I simply-"
"Relax." A faint grin grew on Herney's lips, and he started to descend again. "When the NASA administrator first told me about this discovery, I flat out rejected it as absurd. I accused him of masterminding the most transparent political sham in history."
Rachel felt the knot in her throat dissolve somewhat.
At the bottom of the ramp, Herney stopped and looked at her. "One reason I've asked NASA to keep their discovery under wraps is to protect them. The magnitude of this find is well beyond anything NASA has ever announced. It will make landing men on the moon seem insignificant. Because everyone, myself included, has so much to gain - and lose - I thought it prudent for someone to double-check the NASA data before we step into the world spotlight with a formal announcement."
Rachel was startled. "Certainly you can't mean me, sir?"
The President laughed. "No, this is not your area of expertise. Besides, I've already achieved verification through extragovernmental channels."
Rachel's relief gave way to a new mystification. "Extragovernmental, sir? You mean you used the private sector? On something this classified?"
The President nodded with conviction. "I put together an external confirmation team - four civilian scientists-non-NASA personnel with big names and serious reputations to protect. They used their own equipment to make observations and come to their own conclusions. Over the past forty-eight hours, these civilian scientists have confirmed the NASA discovery beyond the shadow of a doubt."