Rachel nodded. She was both.
Four minutes later, Rachel Sexton exited the NRO and climbed into the waiting helicopter. Before she had even buckled herself in, the craft was airborne, banking hard across the Virginia woods. Rachel gazed out at the blur of trees beneath her and felt her pulse rising. It would have risen faster had she known this chopper would never reach the White House.
The frigid wind battered the fabric of the ThermaTech tent, but Delta-One hardly noticed. He and Delta-Three were focused on their comrade, who was manipulating the joystick in his hand with surgical dexterity. The screen before them displayed a live video transmission from a pinpoint camera mounted aboard the microrobot.
The ultimate surveillance tool, Delta-One thought, still amazed every time they powered it up. Lately, in the world of micromechanics, fact seemed to be out-pacing fiction.
Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS) - microbots - were the newest tool in high-tech surveillance - "fly on the wall technology," they called it.
Although microscopic, remote-controlled robots sounded like science fiction, in fact they had been around since the 1990s. Discovery magazine had run a cover story in May 1997 on microbots, featuring both "flying" and "swimming" models. The swimmers - nanosubs the size of salt grains - could be injected into the human bloodstream a la the movie Fantastic Voyage. They were now being used by advanced medical facilities to help doctors navigate arteries by remote control, observe live intravenous video transmissions, and locate arterial blockages without ever lifting a scalpel.
Contrary to intuition, building a flying microbot was even simpler business. The aerodynamics technology for getting a machine to fly had been around since Kitty Hawk, and all that remained had been the issue of miniaturization. The first flying microbots, designed by NASA as unmanned exploration tools for future Mars missions, had been several inches long. Now, however, advances in nanotechnology, lightweight energy-absorbent materials, and micromechanics had made the flying microbots a reality.
The true breakthrough had come from the new field biomimics - copying Mother Nature. Miniature dragonflies, as it turned out, were the ideal prototype for these agile and efficient flying microbots. The PH2 model Delta-Two was currently flying was only one centimeter long - the size of a mosquito - and employed a dual pair of transparent, hinged, silicon-leaf wings, giving it unparalleled mobility and efficiency in the air.
The microbot's refueling mechanism had been another breakthrough. The first microbot prototypes could only recharge their energy cells by hovering directly beneath a bright light source, not ideal for stealth or use in dark locales. The newer prototypes, however, could recharge simply by parking within a few inches of a magnetic field. Conveniently, in modern society, magnetic fields were ubiquitous and discreetly placed - power outlets, computer monitors, electric motors, audio speakers, cellphones - it seemed there was never any shortage of obscure recharging stations. Once a microbot had been introduced successfully into a locale, it could transmit audio and video almost indefinitely. The Delta Force's PH2 had been transmitting for over a week now with no trouble whatsoever.
Now, like an insect hovering inside a cavernous barn, the airborne microbot hung silently in the still air of the structure's massive central room. With a bird's-eye view of the space below, the microbot circled silently above unsuspecting occupants - technicians, scientists, specialists in numerous fields of study. As the PH2 circled, Delta-One spotted two familiar faces engaged in conversation. They would be a telling mark. He told Delta-Two to drop down and have a listen.
Manipulating the controls, Delta-Two switched on the robot's sound sensors, oriented the microbot's parabolic amplifier, and decreased the robot's elevation until it was ten feet over the scientists' heads. The transmission was faint, but discernible.
"I still can't believe it," one scientist was saying. The excitement in his voice had not diminished since his arrival here forty-eight hours ago.
The man with whom he was talking obviously shared the enthusiasm. "In your lifetime... did you ever think you would witness anything like this?"
"Never," the scientist replied, beaming. "It's all a magnificent dream."
Delta-One had heard enough. Clearly everything inside was proceeding as expected. Delta-Two maneuvered the microbot away from the conversation and flew it back to its hiding place. He parked the tiny device undetected near the cylinder of an electric generator. The PH2's power cells immediately began recharging for the next mission.
Rachel Sexton's thoughts were lost in the morning's bizarre developments as her PaveHawk transport tore across the morning sky, and it was not until the helicopter rocketed out across Chesapeake Bay that she realized they were heading in entirely the wrong direction. The initial flash of confusion instantly gave way to trepidation.
"Hey!" she yelled to the pilot. "What are you doing?" Her voice was barely audible over the rotors. "You're supposed to be taking me to the White House!"
The pilot shook his head. "Sorry, ma'am. The President is not at the White House this morning."
Rachel tried to remember if Pickering had specifically mentioned the White House or whether she had simply assumed. "So where is the President?"
"Your meeting with him is elsewhere."
No shit. "Where elsewhere?"
"Not far now."
"That's not what I asked."
"Sixteen more miles."
Rachel scowled at him. This guy should be a politician. "Do you dodge bullets as well as you dodge questions?"
The pilot did not answer.
It took less than seven minutes for the chopper to cross the Chesapeake. When land was in sight again, the pilot banked north and skirted a narrow peninsula, where Rachel saw a series of runways and military-looking buildings. The pilot dropped down toward them, and Rachel then realized what this place was. The six launchpads and charred rocket towers were a good clue, but if that was not enough, the roof of one of the buildings had been painted with two enormous words: WALLOPS ISLAND.
Wallops Island was one of NASA's oldest launch sites. Still used today for satellite launches and testing of experimental aircraft, Wallops was NASA's base away from the spotlight.
The President is at Wallops Island? It made no sense.
The chopper pilot aligned his trajectory with a series of three runways that ran the length of the narrow peninsula. They seemed to be heading for the far end of the center runway.
The pilot began to slow. "You will be meeting the President in his office."
Rachel turned, wondering if the guy was joking. "The President of the United States has an office on Wallops Island?"
The pilot looked dead serious. "The President of the United States has an office wherever he likes, ma'am."
He pointed toward the end of the runway. Rachel saw the mammoth shape glistening in the distance, and her heart almost stopped. Even at three hundred yards, she recognized the light blue hull of the modified 747.
"I'm meeting him aboard the... "
"Yes, ma'am. His home away from home."
Rachel stared out at the massive aircraft. The military's cryptic designation for this prestigious plane was VC-25-A, although the rest of the world knew it by another name: Air Force One.
"Looks like you're in the new one this morning," the pilot said, motioning to the numbers on the plane's tail fin.
Rachel nodded blankly. Few Americans knew that there were actually two Air Force Ones in service - a pair of identical, specially configured 747-200-Bs, one with the tail number 28000 and the other 29000. Both planes had cruising speeds of 600 mph and had been modified for in-flight refueling, giving them virtually unlimited range.