Page 61 of Deception Point

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The chamber looked like a walk-in closet whose ceiling, walls, and floor had been completely covered with foam spires jutting inward from all directions. It reminded Rachel of a cramped underwater cave where stalagmites had run wild, growing off every surface. Most unsettling, however, was the apparent lack of a floor.

The floor was a taut, meshed chicken-wire grid strung horizontally across the room like a fishing net, giving the inhabitants the feeling that they were suspended midway up the wall. The mesh was rubberized and stiff beneath the feet. As Rachel gazed down through the webbed flooring, she felt like she was crossing a string bridge suspended over a surrealistic fractalized landscape. Three feet below, a forest of foam needles pointed ominously upward.

Instantly upon entering Rachel had sensed the disorientating lifelessness to the air, as if every bit of energy had been sucked out. Her ears felt as if they'd been stuffed with cotton. Only her breath was audible inside her head. She called out, and the effect was that of speaking into a pillow. The walls absorbed every reverberation, making the only perceivable vibrations those inside her head.

Now the captain had departed, closing the padded door behind him. Rachel, Corky, and Tolland were seated in the center of the room at a small U-shaped table that stood on long metal stilts that descended through the mesh. On the table were affixed several gooseneck microphones, headphones, and a video console with a fish-eye camera on top. It looked like a mini-United Nations symposium.

As someone who worked in the U.S. intelligence community-the world's foremost manufacturers of hard laser microphones, underwater parabolic eavesdroppers, and other hypersensitive listening devices-Rachel was well aware there were few places on earth where one could have a truly secure conversation. The dead room was apparently one of those places. The mics and headphones on the table enabled a face-to-face "conference call" in which people could speak freely, knowing the vibrations of their words could not escape the room. Their voices, upon entering the microphones, would be heavily encrypted for their long journey through the atmosphere.

"Level check." The voice materialized suddenly inside their headphones, causing Rachel, Tolland, and Corky to jump. "Do you read me, Ms. Sexton?"

Rachel leaned into the microphone. "Yes. Thank you." Whoever you are.

"I have Director Pickering on the line for you. He's accepting AV. I am signing off now. You will have your data stream momentarily."

Rachel heard the line go dead. There was a distant whirr of static and then a rapid series of beeps and clicks in the headphones. With startling clarity, the video screen in front of them sprang to life, and Rachel saw Director Pickering in the NRO conference room. He was alone. His head snapped up and he looked into Rachel's eyes.

She felt oddly relieved to see him.

"Ms. Sexton," he said, his expression perplexed and troubled. "What in the world is going on?"

"The meteorite, sir," Rachel said. "I think we may have a serious problem."


Inside the Charlotte's dead room, Rachel Sexton introduced Michael Tolland and Corky Marlinson to Pickering. Then she took charge and launched into a quick account of the day's incredible chain of events.

The NRO director sat motionless as he listened.

Rachel told him about the bioluminescent plankton in the extraction pit, their journey onto the ice shelf and discovery of an insertion shaft beneath the meteorite, and finally of their sudden attack by a military team she suspected was Special Ops.

William Pickering was known for his ability to listen to disturbing information without so much as flinching an eye, and yet his gaze grew more and more troubled with each progression in Rachel's story. She sensed disbelief and then rage when she talked about Norah Mangor's murder and their own near-death escape. Although Rachel wanted to voice her suspicions of the NASA administrator's involvement, she knew Pickering well enough not to point fingers without evidence. She gave Pickering the story as cold hard facts. When she was finished, Pickering did not respond for several seconds.

"Ms. Sexton," he finally said, "all of you... " He moved his gaze to each of them. "If what you're saying is true, and I cannot imagine why three of you would lie about this, you are all very lucky to be alive."

They all nodded in silence. The President had called in four civilian scientists... and two of them were now dead.

Pickering heaved a disconsolate sigh, as if he had no idea what to say next. The events clearly made little sense. "Is there any way," Pickering asked, "that this insertion shaft you're seeing in that GPR printout is a natural phenomenon?"

Rachel shook her head. "It's too perfect." She unfolded the soggy GPR printout and held it up in front of the camera. "Flawless."

Pickering studied the image, scowling in agreement. "Don't let that out of your hands."

"I called Marjorie Tench to warn her to stop the President," Rachel said. "But she shut me down."

"I know. She told me."

Rachel looked up, stunned. "Marjorie Tench called you?" That was fast.

"Just now. She's very concerned. She feels you are attempting some kind of stunt to discredit the President and NASA. Perhaps to help your father."

Rachel stood up. She waved the GPR printout and motioned to her two companions. "We were almost killed! Does this look like some kind of stunt? And why would I-"

Pickering held up his hands. "Easy. What Ms. Tench failed to tell me was that there were three of you."

Rachel could not recall if Tench had even given her time to mention Corky and Tolland.

"Nor did she tell me you had physical evidence," Pickering said. "I was skeptical of her claims before I spoke to you, and now I am convinced she is mistaken. I do not doubt your claims. The question at this point is what it all means."

There was a long silence.

William Pickering rarely looked confused, but he shook his head, seeming lost. "Let's assume for the moment that someone did insert this meteorite beneath the ice. That begs the obvious issue of why. If NASA has a meteorite with fossils in it, why would they, or anyone else for that matter, care where it is found?"

"It appears," Rachel said, "that the insertion was performed such that PODS would make the discovery, and the meteorite would appear to be a fragment from a known impact."

"The Jungersol Fall," Corky prompted.

"But of what value is the meteorite's association with a known impact?" Pickering demanded, sounding almost mad. "Aren't these fossils an astounding discovery anywhere and anytime? No matter what meteoritic event they are associated with?"

All three nodded.

Pickering hesitated, looking displeased. "Unless... of course... "

Rachel saw the wheels turning behind the director's eyes. He had found the simplest explanation for placing the meteorite concurrent with the Jungersol strata, but the simplest explanation was also the most troubling.

"Unless," Pickering continued, "the careful placement was intended to lend credibility to totally false data." He sighed, turning to Corky. "Dr. Marlinson, what is the possibility that this meteorite is a counterfeit."

"Counterfeit, sir?"

"Yes. A fake. Manufactured."

"A fake meteorite?" Corky gave an awkward laugh. "Utterly impossible! That meteorite was examined by professionals. Myself included. Chemical scans, spectrograph, rubidium-strontium dating. It is unlike any kind of rock ever seen on earth. The meteorite is authentic. Any astrogeologist would agree."

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