The old man turned off the television. "NASA claimed Dr. Harper was not feeling well that night." He paused. "I happen to think Harper was lying."
Lying? Sexton stared, his fuzzy thoughts unable to piece together any logical rationale for why Harper would have lied about the software. Still, Sexton had told enough lies in his life to recognize a poor liar when he saw one. He had to admit, Dr. Harper sure looked suspicious.
"Perhaps you don't realize?" the old man said. "This little announcement you just heard Chris Harper give is the single most important press conference in NASA history." He paused. "That convenient software fix he just described is what allowed PODS to find the meteorite."
Sexton puzzled. And you think he was lying about it? "But, if Harper was lying, and the PODS software isn't really working, then how the hell did NASA find the meteorite?"
The old man smiled. "Exactly."
The U.S. military's fleet of "repo" aircraft repossessed during drug-trade arrests consisted of over a dozen private jets, including three reconditioned G4s used for transporting military VIPs. A half hour ago, one of those G4s had lifted off the Thule runway, fought its way above the storm, and was now pounding southward into the Canadian night en route to Washington. Onboard, Rachel Sexton, Michael Tolland, and Corky Marlinson had the eight-seat cabin to themselves, looking like some kind of disheveled sports team in their matching blue U.S.S. Charlotte jumpsuits and caps.
Despite the roar of the Grumman engines, Corky Marlinson was asleep in the rear. Tolland sat near the front, looking exhausted as he gazed out the window at the sea. Rachel was beside him, knowing she could not sleep even if she'd been sedated. Her mind churned through the mystery of the meteorite, and, most recently, the dead room conversation with Pickering. Before signing off, Pickering had given Rachel two additional pieces of disturbing information.
First, Marjorie Tench claimed to possess a video recording of Rachel's private deposition to the White House staff. Tench was now threatening to use the video as evidence if Rachel tried to go back on her confirmation of the meteorite data. The news was particularly unsettling because Rachel had specifically told Zach Herney that her remarks to the staff were for in-house use only. Apparently Zach Herney had ignored that request.
The second bit of troubling news dealt with a CNN debate her father had attended earlier in the afternoon. Apparently, Marjorie Tench had made a rare appearance and deftly baited Rachel's father into crystallizing his position against NASA. More specifically, Tench had cajoled him into crudely proclaiming his skepticism that extraterrestrial life would ever be found.
Eat his hat? That's what Pickering said her father had offered to do if NASA ever found extraterrestrial life. Rachel wondered how Tench had managed to coax out that propitious little sound bite. Clearly, the White House had been setting the stage carefully-ruthlessly lining up all the dominoes, preparing for the big Sexton collapse. The President and Marjorie Tench, like some sort of political tag team wrestling duo, had maneuvered for the kill. While the President remained dignified outside the ring, Tench had moved in, circling, cunningly lining up the senator for the presidential body slam.
The President had told Rachel he'd asked NASA to delay announcing the discovery in order to provide time to confirm the accuracy of the data. Rachel now realized there were other advantages to waiting. The extra time had given the White House time to dole out the rope with which the senator would hang himself.
Rachel felt no sympathy for her father, and yet she now realized that beneath the warm and fuzzy exterior of President Zach Herney, a shrewd shark lurked. You did not become the most powerful man in the world without a killer instinct. The question now was whether this shark was an innocent bystander-or a player.
Rachel stood, stretching her legs. As she paced the aisle of the plane, she felt frustrated that the pieces to this puzzle seemed so contradictory. Pickering, with his trademark chaste logic, had concluded the meteorite must be fake. Corky and Tolland, with scientific assurance, insisted the meteorite was authentic. Rachel only knew what she had seen-a charred, fossilized rock being pulled from the ice.
Now, as she passed beside Corky, she gazed down at the astrophysicist, battered from his ordeal on the ice. The swelling on his cheek was going down now, and the stitches looked good. He was asleep, snoring, his pudgy hands clutching the disk-shaped meteorite sample like some kind of security blanket.
Rachel reached down and gently slipped the meteorite sample away from him. She held it up, studying the fossils again. Remove all assumptions, she told herself, forcing herself to reorganize her thoughts. Reestablish the chain of substantiation. It was an old NRO trick. Rebuilding a proof from scratch was a process known as a "null start"-something all data analysts practiced when the pieces didn't quite fit.
Reassemble the proof.
She began pacing again.
Does this stone represent proof of extraterrestrial life?
Proof, she knew, was a conclusion built on a pyramid of facts, a broad base of accepted information on which more specific assertions were made.
Remove all the base assumptions. Start again.
What do we have?
She pondered that for a moment. A rock. A rock with fossilized creatures. Walking back toward the front of the plane, she took her seat beside Michael Tolland.
"Mike, let's play a game."
Tolland turned from the window, looking distant, apparently deep in his own thoughts. "A game?"
She handed him the meteorite sample. "Let's pretend you're seeing this fossilized rock for the first time. I've told you nothing about where it came from or how it was found. What would you tell me it is?"
Tolland heaved a disconsolate sigh. "Funny you should ask. I just had the strangest thought... "
Hundreds of miles behind Rachel and Tolland, a strange-looking aircraft stayed low as it tore south above a deserted ocean. Onboard, the Delta Force was silent. They had been pulled out of locations in a hurry, but never like this.
Their controller was furious.
Earlier, Delta-One had informed the controller that unexpected events on the ice shelf had left his team with no option but to exercise force-force that had included killing four civilians, including Rachel Sexton and Michael Tolland.
The controller reacted with shock. Killing, although an authorized last resort, obviously never had been part of the controller's plan.
Later, the controller's displeasure over the killings turned to outright rage when he learned the assassinations had not gone as planned.
"Your team failed!" the controller seethed, the androgynous tone hardly masking the person's rage. "Three of your four targets are still alive!"
Impossible! Delta-One had thought. "But we witnessed-"
"They made contact with a submarine and are now en route to Washington."
The controller's tone turned lethal. "Listen carefully. I am about to give you new orders. And this time you will not fail."
Senator Sexton was actually feeling a flicker of hope as he walked his unexpected visitor back out to the elevator. The head of the SFF, as it turned out, had not come to chastise Sexton, but rather to give him a pep talk and tell him the battle was not yet over.
A possible chink in NASA's armor.
The videotape of the bizarre NASA press conference had convinced Sexton that the old man was right-PODS mission director Chris Harper was lying. But why? And if NASA never fixed the PODS software, how did NASA find the meteorite?