"Where... are we?" Rachel managed, the simple act of trying to speak bringing on a crashing headache.
The man massaging her replied, "You're on the medical deck of a Los Angeles class-"
"On deck!" someone called out.
Rachel sensed a sudden commotion all around her, and she tried to sit up. One of the men in blue helped, propping her up, and pulling the blankets up around her. Rachel rubbed her eyes and saw someone striding into the room.
The newcomer was a powerful African-American man. Handsome and authoritative. His uniform was khaki. "At ease," he declared, moving toward Rachel, stopping over her and gazing down at her with strong black eyes. "Harold Brown," he said, his voice deep and commanding. "Captain of the U.S.S. Charlotte. And you are?"
U.S.S. Charlotte, Rachel thought. The name seemed vaguely familiar. "Sexton...," she replied. "I'm Rachel Sexton."
The man looked puzzled. He stepped closer, studying her more carefully. "I'll be damned. So you are."
Rachel felt lost. He knows me? Rachel was certain she did not recognize the man, although as her eyes dropped from his face to the patch on his chest, she saw the familiar emblem of an eagle clutching an anchor surrounded by the words U.S. NAVY.
It now registered why she knew the name Charlotte.
"Welcome aboard, Ms. Sexton," the captain said. "You've gisted a number of this ship's recon reports. I know who you are."
"But what are you doing in these waters?" she stammered.
His face hardened somewhat. "Frankly, Ms. Sexton, I was about to ask you the same question."
Tolland sat up slowly now, opening his mouth to speak. Rachel silenced him with a firm shake of her head. Not here. Not now. She had no doubt the first thing Tolland and Corky would want to talk about was the meteorite and the attack, but this was certainly not a topic to discuss in front of a Navy submarine crew. In the world of intelligence, regardless of crisis, CLEARANCE remained king; the meteorite situation remained highly classified.
"I need to speak to NRO director William Pickering," she told the captain. "In private, and immediately."
The captain arched his eyebrows, apparently unaccustomed to taking orders on his own ship.
"I have classified information I need to share."
The captain studied her a long moment. "Let's get your body temperature back, and then I'll put you in contact with the NRO director."
"It's urgent, sir. I-" Rachel stopped short. Her eyes had just seen a clock on the wall over the pharmaceutical closet.
Rachel blinked, staring. "Is... is that clock right?"
"You're on a navy vessel, ma'am. Our clocks are accurate."
"And is that... Eastern time?"
"7:51 P.M. Eastern Standard. We're out of Norfolk."
My God! she thought, stunned. It's only 7:51 P.M.? Rachel had the impression hours had passed since she passed out. It was not even past eight o'clock? The President has not yet gone public about the meteorite! I still have time to stop him! She immediately slid down off the bed, wrapping the blanket around her. Her legs felt shaky. "I need to speak to the President right away."
The captain looked confused. "The president of what?"
"Of the United States!"
"I thought you wanted William Pickering."
"I don't have time. I need the President."
The captain did not move, his huge frame blocking her way. "My understanding is that the President is about to give a very important live press conference. I doubt he's taking personal phone calls."
Rachel stood as straight as she could on her wobbly legs and fixed her eyes on the captain. "Sir, you do not have the clearance for me to explain the situation, but the President is about to make a terrible mistake. I have information he desperately needs to hear. Now. You need to trust me."
The captain stared at her a long moment. Frowning, he checked the clock again. "Nine minutes? I can't get you a secure connection to the White House in that short a time. All I could offer is a radiophone. Unsecured. And we'd have to go to antenna depth, which will take a few-"
"Do it! Now!"
The White House telephone switchboard was located on the lower level of the East Wing. Three switchboard operators were always on duty. At the moment, only two were seated at the controls. The third operator was at a full sprint toward the Briefing Room. In her hand, she carried a cordless phone. She'd tried to patch the call through to the Oval Office, but the President was already en route to the press conference. She'd tried to call his aides on their cellulars, but before televised briefings, all cellular phones in and around the Briefing Room were turned off so as not to interrupt the proceedings.
Running a cordless phone directly to the President at a time like this seemed questionable at best, and yet when the White House's NRO liaison called claiming she had emergency information that the President must get before going live, the operator had little doubt she needed to jump. The question now was whether she would get there in time.
In a small medical office onboard the U.S.S. Charlotte, Rachel Sexton clutched a phone receiver to her ear and waited to talk to the President. Tolland and Corky sat nearby, still looking shaken. Corky had five stitches and a deep bruise on his cheekbone. All three of them had been helped into Thinsulate thermal underwear, heavy navy flight suits, oversized wool socks, and deck boots. With a hot cup of stale coffee in her hand, Rachel was starting to feel almost human again.
"What's the holdup?" Tolland pressed. "It's seven fifty-six!"
Rachel could not imagine. She had successfully reached one of the White House operators, explained who she was and that this was an emergency. The operator seemed sympathetic, had placed Rachel on hold, and was now, supposedly, making it her top priority to patch Rachel through to the President.
Four minutes, Rachel thought. Hurry up!
Closing her eyes, Rachel tried to gather her thoughts. It had been one hell of a day. I'm on a nuclear submarine, she said to herself, knowing she was damned lucky to be anywhere at all. According to the submarine captain, the Charlotte had been on a routine patrol in the Bering Sea two days ago and had picked up anomalous underwater sounds coming from the Milne Ice Shelf-drilling, jet noise, lots of encrypted radio traffic. They had been redirected and told to lie quietly and listen. An hour or so ago, they'd heard an explosion in the ice shelf and moved in to check it out. That was when they heard Rachel's SOS call.
"Three minutes left!" Tolland sounded anxious now as he monitored the clock.
Rachel was definitely getting nervous now. What was taking so long? Why hadn't the President taken her call? If Zach Herney went public with the data as it stood-
Rachel forced the thought from her mind and shook the receiver. Pick up!
As the White House operator dashed toward the stage entrance of the Briefing Room, she was met with a gathering throng of staff members. Everyone here was talking excitedly, making final preparations. She could see the President twenty yards away waiting at the entrance. The makeup people were still primping.
"Coming through!" the operator said, trying to get through the crowd. "Call for the President. Excuse me. Coming through!"
"Live in two minutes!" a media coordinator called out.
Clutching the phone, the operator shoved her way toward the President. "Call for the President!" she panted. "Coming through!"
A towering roadblock stepped into her path. Marjorie Tench. The senior adviser's long face grimaced down in disapproval. "What's going on?"