Pickering seemed to consider this a long time, gently stroking his tie. "And yet taking into account the amount NASA has to gain from this discovery right now, the apparent signs of tampering with evidence, and your being attacked... the first and only logical conclusion I can draw is that this meteorite is a well-executed fraud."
"Impossible!" Corky sounded angry now. "With all respect, sir, meteorites are not some Hollywood special effect that can be conjured up in a lab to fool a bunch of unsuspecting astrophysicists. They are chemically complex objects with unique crystalline structures and element ratios!"
"I am not challenging you, Dr. Marlinson. I am simply following a logical chain of analysis. Considering someone wanted to kill you to keep you from revealing it was inserted under the ice, I'm inclined to entertain all kinds of wild scenarios here. What specifically makes you certain this rock is indeed a meteorite?"
"Specifically?" Corky's voice cracked in the headphones. "A flawless fusion crust, the presence of chondrules, a nickel ratio unlike anything ever found on earth. If you're suggesting that someone tricked us by manufacturing this rock in a lab, then all I can say is that the lab was about 190 million years old." Corky dug in his pocket and pulled out a stone shaped like a CD. He held it in front of the camera. "We chemically dated samples like this with numerous methods. Rubidium-strontium dating is not something you can fake!"
Pickering looked surprised. "You have a sample?"
Corky shrugged. "NASA had dozens of them floating around."
"You mean to tell me," Pickering said, looking at Rachel now, "that NASA discovered a meteorite they think contains life, and they're letting people walk off with samples?"
"The point," Corky said, "is that the sample in my hands is genuine." He held the rock close to the camera. "You could give this to any petrologist or geologist or astronomer on earth, they would run tests, and they would tell you two things: one, it is 190 million years old; and two, it is chemically dissimilar from the kind of rock we have here on earth."
Pickering leaned forward, studying the fossil embedded in the rock. He seemed momentarily transfixed. Finally, he sighed. "I am not a scientist. All I can say is that if that meteorite is genuine, which it appears it is, I would like to know why NASA didn't present it to the world at face value? Why has someone carefully placed it under the ice as if to persuade us of its authenticity?"
At that moment, inside the White House, a security officer was dialing Marjorie Tench.
The senior adviser answered on the first ring. "Yeah?"
"Ms. Tench," the officer said, "I have the information you requested earlier. The radiophone call that Rachel Sexton placed to you earlier this evening. We have the trace."
"Secret Service ops says the signal originated aboard the naval submarine U.S.S. Charlotte."
"They don't have coordinates, ma'am, but they are certain of the vessel code."
"Oh, for Christ's sake!" Tench slammed down the receiver without another word.
The muted acoustics of the Charlotte's dead room were starting to make Rachel feel mildly nauseated. On-screen, William Pickering's troubled gaze moved now to Michael Tolland. "You're quiet, Mr. Tolland."
Tolland glanced up like a student who had been called on unexpectedly. "Sir?"
"You just gave quite a convincing documentary on television," Pickering said. "What's your take on the meteorite now?"
"Well, sir," Tolland said, his discomfort obvious, "I have to agree with Dr. Marlinson. I believe the fossils and meteorite are authentic. I'm fairly well versed in dating techniques, and the age of that stone was confirmed by multiple tests. The nickel content as well. These data cannot be forged. There exists no doubt the rock, formed 190 million years ago, exhibits nonterrestrial nickel ratios and contains dozens of confirmed fossils whose formation is also dated at 190 million years. I can think of no other possible explanation than that NASA has found an authentic meteorite."
Pickering fell silent now. His expression was one of quandary, a look Rachel had never before seen on William Pickering.
"What should we do, sir?" Rachel asked. "Obviously we need to alert the President there are problems with the data."
Pickering frowned. "Let's hope the President doesn't already know."
Rachel felt a knot rise in her throat. Pickering's implication was clear. President Herney could be involved. Rachel strongly doubted it, and yet both the President and NASA had plenty to gain here.
"Unfortunately," Pickering said, "with the exception of this GPR printout revealing an insertion shaft, all of the scientific data points to a credible NASA discovery." He paused, dire. "And this issue of your being attacked... " He looked up at Rachel. "You mentioned special ops."
"Yes, sir." She told him again about the Improvised Munitions and tactics.
Pickering looked more and more unhappy by the moment. Rachel sensed her boss was contemplating the number of people who might have access to a small military kill force. Certainly the President had access. Probably Marjorie Tench too, as senior adviser. Quite possibly NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom with his ties to the Pentagon. Unfortunately, as Rachel considered the myriad of possibilities, she realized the controlling force behind the attack could have been almost anyone with high-level political clout and the right connections.
"I could phone the President right now," Pickering said, "but I don't think that's wise, at least until we know who's involved. My ability to protect you becomes limited once we involve the White House. In addition, I'm not sure what I would tell him. If the meteorite is real, which you all feel it is, then your allegation of an insertion shaft and attack doesn't make sense; the President would have every right to question the validity of my claim." He paused as if calculating the options. "Regardless... whatever the truth is or who the players are, some very powerful people will take hits if this information goes public. I suggest we get you to safety right away, before we start rocking any boats."
Get us to safety? The comment surprised Rachel. "I think we're fairly safe on a nuclear submarine, sir."
Pickering looked skeptical. "Your presence on that submarine won't stay secret long. I'm pulling you out immediately. Frankly, I'll feel better when the three of you are sitting in my office."
Senator Sexton huddled alone on his couch feeling like a refugee. His Westbrooke Place apartment that had only an hour ago been filled with new friends and supporters now looked forsaken, scattered with the rubble of snifters and business cards, abandoned by men who had quite literally dashed out the door.
Now Sexton crouched in solitude before his television, wanting more than anything to turn it off and yet being unable to pull himself from the endless media analyses. This was Washington, and it didn't take long for the analysts to rush through their pseudoscientific and philosophical hyperbole and lock in on the ugly stuff-the politics. Like torture masters rubbing acid in Sexton's wounds, the newscasters were stating and restating the obvious.
"Hours ago, Sexton's campaign was soaring," one analyst said. "Now, with NASA's discovery, the senator's campaign has crashed back to earth."
Sexton winced, reaching for the Courvoisier and taking a hit right out of the bottle. Tonight, he knew, would be the longest and loneliest night of his life. He despised Marjorie Tench for setting him up. He despised Gabrielle Ashe for ever mentioning NASA in the first place. He despised the President for being so goddamned lucky. And he despised the world for laughing at him.