Page 11 of Deception Point

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Now Rachel was impressed. The President had protected himself with typical Herney aplomb. By hiring the ultimate team of skeptics - outsiders who had nothing to gain by confirming the NASA discovery - Herney had immunized himself against suspicions that this might be a desperate NASA ploy to justify its budget, reelect their NASA-friendly President, and ward off Senator Sexton's attacks.

"Tonight at eight P.M.," Herney said, "I will be calling a press conference at the White House to announce this discovery to the world."

Rachel felt frustrated. Herney had essentially told her nothing. "And this discovery is what, precisely?"

The President smiled. "You will find patience a virtue today. This discovery is something you need to see for yourself. I need you to understand this situation fully before we proceed. The administrator of NASA is waiting to brief you. He will tell you everything you need to know. Afterward, you and I will further discuss your role."

Rachel sensed an impending drama in the President's eyes and recalled Pickering's hunch that the White House had something up its sleeve. Pickering, it appeared, was right, as usual.

Herney motioned to a nearby airplane hangar. "Follow me," he said, walking toward it.

Rachel followed, confused. The building before them had no windows, and its towering bay doors were sealed. The only access seemed to be a small entryway on the side. The door was ajar. The President guided Rachel to within a few feet of the door and stopped.

"End of the line for me," he said, motioning to the door. "You go through there."

Rachel hesitated. "You're not coming?"

"I need to return to the White House. I'll speak to you shortly. Do you have a cellphone?"

"Of course, sir."

"Give it to me."

Rachel produced her phone and handed it to him, assuming he intended to program a private contact number into it. Instead, he slipped her phone into his pocket.

"You're now off-the-grid," the President said. "All your responsibilities at work have been covered. You will not speak to anyone else today without express permission from myself or the NASA administrator. Do you understand?"

Rachel stared. Did the President just steal my cell-phone?

"After the administrator briefs you on the discovery, he will put you in contact with me via secure channels. I'll talk to you soon. Good luck."

Rachel looked at the hangar door and felt a growing uneasiness.

President Herney put a reassuring hand on her shoulder and nodded toward the door. "I assure you, Rachel, you will not regret assisting me in this matter."

Without another word, the President strode toward the PaveHawk that had brought Rachel in. He climbed aboard, and took off. He never once looked back.


Rachel Sexton stood alone on the threshold of the isolated Wallops hangar and peered into the blackness beyond. She felt like she was on the cusp of another world. A cool and musty breeze flowed outward from the cavernous interior, as if the building were breathing.

"Hello?" she called out, her voice wavering slightly.


With rising trepidation, she stepped over the threshold. Her vision went blank for an instant as her eyes became accustomed to the dimness.

"Ms. Sexton, I presume?" a man's voice said, only yards away.

Rachel jumped, wheeling toward the sound. "Yes, sir."

The hazy shape of a man approached.

As Rachel's vision cleared, she found herself standing face to face with a young, stone-jawed buck in a NASA flight suit. His body was fit and muscle-bound, his chest bedecked with patches.

"Commander Wayne Loosigian," the man said. "Sorry if I startled you, ma'am. It's pretty dark in here. I haven't had a chance to open the bay doors yet." Before Rachel could respond, the man added, "It will be my honor to be your pilot this morning."

"Pilot?" Rachel stared at the man. I just had a pilot. "I'm here to see the administrator."

"Yes, ma'am. My orders are to transport you to him immediately."

It took a moment for the statement to sink in. When it hit her, she felt a stab of deceit. Apparently, her travels were not over. "Where is the administrator?" Rachel demanded, wary now.

"I do not have that information," the pilot replied. "I will receive his coordinates after we are airborne."

Rachel sensed that the man was telling the truth. Apparently she and Director Pickering were not the only two people being kept in the dark this morning. The President was taking the issue of security very seriously, and Rachel felt embarrassed by how quickly and effortlessly the President had taken her "off-the-grid." Half an hour in the field, and I'm already stripped of all communication, and my director has no idea where I am.

Standing now before her stiff-backed NASA pilot, Rachel had little doubt her morning plans were cast in stone. This carnival ride was leaving with Rachel onboard whether she liked it or not. The only question was where it was headed.

The pilot strode over to the wall and pressed a button. The far side of the hangar began sliding loudly to one side. Light poured in from the outside, silhouetting a large object in the center of the hangar.

Rachel's mouth fell open. God help me.

There in the middle of the hangar stood a ferocious-looking black fighter jet. It was the most streamlined aircraft Rachel had ever seen.

"You are joking," she said.

"Common first reaction, ma'am, but the F-14 Tomcat Split-tail is a highly proven craft."

It's a missile with wings.

The pilot led Rachel toward his craft. He motioned to the dual cockpit. "You'll be riding in back."

"Really?" She gave him a tight smile. "And here I thought you wanted me to drive."

After donning a thermal flight suit over her clothes, Rachel found herself climbing into the cockpit. Awkwardly, she wedged her hips into the narrow seat.

"NASA obviously has no fat-assed pilots," she said.

The pilot gave a grin as he helped Rachel buckle herself in. Then he slid a helmet over her head.

"We'll be flying pretty high," he said. "You'll want oxygen." He pulled an oxygen mask from the side dash and began snapping it onto her helmet.

"I can manage," Rachel said, reaching up and taking over.

"Of course, ma'am."

Rachel fumbled with the molded mouthpiece and then finally snapped it onto her helmet. The mask's fit was surprisingly awkward and uncomfortable.

The commander stared at her for a long moment, looking vaguely amused.

"Is something wrong?" she demanded.

"Not at all, ma'am." He seemed to be hiding a smirk. "Hack sacks are under your seat. Most people get sick their first time in a split-tail."

"I should be fine," Rachel assured him, her voice muffled by the smothering fit of the mask. "I'm not prone to motion sickness."

The pilot shrugged. "A lot of Navy Seals say the same thing, and I've cleaned plenty of Seal puke out of my cockpit."

She nodded weakly. Lovely.

"Any questions before we go?"

Rachel hesitated a moment and then tapped on the mouthpiece cutting into her chin. "It's cutting off my circulation. How do you wear these things on long flights?"

The pilot smiled patiently. "Well, ma'am, we don't usually wear them upside down."

Poised at the end of the runway, engines throbbing beneath her, Rachel felt like a bullet in a gun waiting for someone to pull the trigger. When the pilot pushed the throttle forward, the Tomcat's twin Lockheed 345 engines roared to life, and the entire world shook. The brakes released, and Rachel slammed backward in her seat. The jet tore down the runway and lifted off within a matter of seconds. Outside, the earth dropped away at a dizzying rate.

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