"Delta-One," he said, speaking into the transmitter.
The two words were instantly identified by the voice recognition software inside the device. Each word was then assigned a reference number, which was encrypted and sent via satellite to the caller. On the caller's end, at a similar device, the numbers were decrypted, translated back into words using a predetermined, self-randomizing dictionary. Then the words were spoken aloud by a synthetic voice. Total delay, eighty milliseconds.
"Controller, here," said the person overseeing the operation. The robotic tone of the CrypTalk was eerie-inorganic and androgynous. "What is your op status?"
"Everything proceeding as planned," Delta-One replied.
"Excellent. I have an update on the time frame. The information goes public tonight at eight P.M. Eastern."
Delta-One checked his chronograph. Only eight more hours. His job here would be finished soon. That was encouraging.
"There is another development," the controller said. "A new player has entered the arena."
"What new player?"
Delta-One listened. An interesting gamble. Someone out there was playing for keeps. "Do you think she can be trusted?"
"She needs to be watched very closely."
"And if there is trouble?"
There was no hesitation on the line. "Your orders stand."
Rachel Sexton had been flying due north for over an hour. Other than a fleeting glimpse of Newfoundland, she had seen nothing but water beneath the F-14 for the entire journey.
Why did it have to be water? she thought, grimacing. Rachel had plunged through the ice on a frozen pond while ice-skating when she was seven. Trapped beneath the surface, she was certain she would die. It had been her mother's powerful grasp that finally yanked Rachel's waterlogged body to safety. Ever since that harrowing ordeal, Rachel had battled a persistent case of hydrophobia-a distinct wariness of open water, especially cold water. Today, with nothing but the North Atlantic as far as Rachel could see, her old fears had come creeping back.
Not until the pilot checked his bearings with Thule airbase in northern Greenland did Rachel realize how far they had traveled. I'm above the Arctic Circle? The revelation intensified her uneasiness. Where are they taking me? What has NASA found? Soon the blue-gray expanse below her became speckled with thousands of stark white dots.
Rachel had seen icebergs only once before in her life, six years ago when her mother persuaded Rachel to join her on an Alaskan mother-daughter cruise. Rachel had suggested a number of alternative land-based vacations, but her mother was insistent. "Rachel, honey," her mother had said, "two thirds of this planet is covered with water, and sooner or later, you've got to learn to deal with it." Mrs. Sexton was a resilient New Englander intent on raising a strong daughter.
The cruise had been the last trip Rachel and her mother ever took.
Katherine Wentworth Sexton. Rachel felt a distant pang of loneliness. Like the howling wind outside the plane, the memories came tearing back, pulling at her the way they always did. Their final conversation had been by phone. Thanksgiving morning.
"I'm so sorry, Mom," Rachel said, phoning home from a snowbound O'Hare airport. "I know our family has never spent Thanksgiving Day apart. It looks like today will be our first."
Rachel's mom sounded crushed. "I was so looking forward to seeing you."
"Me too, Mom. Think of me eating airport food while you and Dad feast on turkey."
There was a pause on the line. "Rachel, I wasn't going to tell you until you got here, but your father says he has too much work to make it home this year. He'll be staying at his D.C. suite for the long weekend."
"What!" Rachel's surprise gave way immediately to anger. "But, it's Thanksgiving. The Senate isn't in session! He's less than two hours away. He should be with you!"
"I know. He says he's exhausted-far too tired to drive. He's decided he needs to spend this weekend curled up with his backlog of work."
Work? Rachel was skeptical. A more likely guess was that Senator Sexton would be curled up with another woman. His infidelities, though discreet, had been going on for years. Mrs. Sexton was no fool, but her husband's affairs were always accompanied by persuasive alibis and pained indignity at the mere suggestion he could be unfaithful. Finally, Mrs. Sexton saw no alternative but to bury her pain by turning a blind eye. Although Rachel had urged her mother to consider divorce, Katherine Wentworth Sexton was a woman of her word. Till death do us part, she told Rachel. Your father blessed me with you-a beautiful daughter-and for that I thank him. He will have to answer for his actions to a higher power someday.
Now, standing in the airport, Rachel's anger was simmering. "But, this means you'll be alone for Thanksgiving!" She felt sick to her stomach. The senator deserting his family on Thanksgiving Day was a new low, even for him.
"Well...," Mrs. Sexton said, her voice disappointed but decisive. "I obviously can't let all this food go to waste. I'll drive it up to Aunt Ann's. She's always invited us up for Thanksgiving. I'll give her a call right now."
Rachel felt only marginally less guilty. "Okay. I'll be home as soon as I can. I love you, Mom."
"Safe flight, sweetheart."
It was 10:30 that night when Rachel's taxi finally pulled up the winding driveway of the Sextons' luxurious estate. Rachel immediately knew something was wrong. Three police cars sat in the driveway. Several news vans too. All the house lights were on. Rachel dashed in, her heart racing.
A Virginia State policeman met her at the doorway. His face was grim. He didn't have to say a word. Rachel knew. There had been an accident.
"Route Twenty-five was slick with freezing rain," the officer said. "Your mother went off the road into a wooded ravine. I'm sorry. She died on impact."
Rachel's body went numb. Her father, having returned immediately when he got the news, was now in the living room holding a small press conference, stoically announcing to the world that his wife had passed away in a crash on her way back from Thanksgiving dinner with family.
Rachel stood in the wings, sobbing through the entire event.
"I only wish," her father told the media, his eyes tearful, "that I had been home for her this weekend. This never would have happened."
You should have thought of that years ago, Rachel cried, her loathing for her father deepening with every passing instant.
From that moment on, Rachel divorced herself from her father in the way Mrs. Sexton never had. The senator barely seemed to notice. He suddenly had gotten very busy using his late wife's fortunes to begin courting his party's nomination for president. The sympathy vote didn't hurt either.
Cruelly now, three years later, even at a distance the senator was making Rachel's life lonely. Her father's run for the White House had put Rachel's dreams of meeting a man and starting a family on indefinite hold. For Rachel it had become far easier to take herself completely out of the social game than to deal with the endless stream of power-hungry Washingtonian suitors hoping to snag a grieving, potential "first daughter" while she was still in their league.
Outside the F-14, the daylight had started to fade. It was late winter in the Arctic-a time of perpetual darkness. Rachel realized she was flying into a land of permanent night.
As the minutes passed, the sun faded entirely, dropping below the horizon. They continued north, and a brilliant three-quarter moon appeared, hanging white in the crystalline glacial air. Far below, the ocean waves shimmered, the icebergs looking like diamonds sewn into a dark sequin mesh.