Corky leaned forward to look at her. "Please don't tell me your new theory is that NASA took a fossilized rock up in the space shuttle and sent it hurtling toward earth hoping nobody would notice the fireball, the massive crater, or the explosion?"
Rachel had not thought of that, although it was an interesting premise. Not feasible, but interesting all the same. Her thoughts were actually closer to home. All natural atmospheric elements. Clean burn. Striations from racing through the air. A faint light had gone off in a distant corner of her mind. "The ratios of the atmospheric elements you saw," she said. "Were they exactly the same ratios you see on every other meteorite with a fusion crust?"
Corky seemed to hedge slightly at the question. "Why do you ask?"
Rachel saw him hesitate and felt her pulse quicken. "The ratios were off, weren't they?"
"There is a scientific explanation."
Rachel's heart was suddenly pounding. "Did you by any chance see an unusually high content of one element in particular?"
Tolland and Corky exchanged startled looks. "Yes," Corky said, "but-"
"Was it ionized hydrogen?"
The astrophysicist's eyes turned to saucers. "How could you possibly know that!"
Tolland also looked utterly amazed.
Rachel stared at them both. "Why didn't anyone mention this to me?"
"Because there's a perfectly sound scientific explanation!" Corky declared.
"I'm all ears," Rachel said.
"There was surplus ionized hydrogen," Corky said, "because the meteorite passed through the atmosphere near the North Pole, where the earth's magnetic field causes an abnormally high concentration of hydrogen ions."
Rachel frowned. "Unfortunately, I have another explanation."
The fourth floor of NASA headquarters was less impressive than the lobby-long sterile corridors with office doors equally spaced along the walls. The corridor was deserted. Laminated signs pointed in all directions.
Gabrielle followed the signs for PODS. Winding her way down a series of long corridors and intersections, she came to a set of heavy steel doors. The stencil read:
Polar Orbiting Density Scanner (PODS)
Section Manager, Chris Harper
The doors were locked, secured both by key card and a PIN pad access. Gabrielle put her ear to the cold metal door. For a moment, she thought she heard talking. Arguing. Maybe not. She wondered if she should just bang on the door until someone inside let her in. Unfortunately, her plan for dealing with Chris Harper required a bit more subtlety than banging on doors. She looked around for another entrance but saw none. A custodial alcove stood adjacent to the door, and Gabrielle stepped in, searching the dimly lit niche for a janitor's key ring or key card. Nothing. Just brooms and mops.
Returning to the door, she put her ear to the metal again. This time she definitely heard voices. Getting louder. And footsteps. The latch engaged from inside.
Gabrielle had no time to hide as the metal door burst open. She jumped to the side, plastering herself against the wall behind the door as a group of people hurried through, talking loudly. They sounded angry.
"What the hell is Harper's problem? I thought he'd be on cloud nine!"
"On a night like tonight," another said as the group passed by, "he wants to be alone? He should be celebrating!"
As the group moved away from Gabrielle, the heavy door started swinging closed on pneumatic hinges, revealing her location. She remained rigid as the men continued down the hall. Waiting as long as she possibly could, until the door was only inches from closing, Gabrielle lunged forward and caught the door handle with just inches to spare. She stood motionless as the men turned the corner down the hall, too engaged in their conversation to look back.
Heart pounding, Gabrielle pulled open the door and stepped into the dimly lit area beyond. She quietly closed the door.
The space was a wide open work area that reminded her of a college physics laboratory: computers, work islands, electronic gear. As her eyes became accustomed to the darkness, Gabrielle could see blueprints and sheets of calculations scattered around. The entire area was dark except for an office on the far side of the lab, where a light shone under the door. Gabrielle walked over quietly. The door was closed, but through the window she could see a man sitting at a computer. She recognized the man from the NASA press conference. The nameplate on the door read:
Section Manager, PODS
Having come this far, Gabrielle suddenly felt apprehensive, wondering if she could actually pull this off. She reminded herself how certain Sexton was that Chris Harper had lied. I would bet my campaign on it, Sexton had said. Apparently there were others who felt the same, others who were waiting for Gabrielle to uncover the truth so they could close in on NASA, attempting to gain even a tiny foothold after tonight's devastating developments. After the way Tench and the Herney administration had played Gabrielle this afternoon, she was eager to help.
Gabrielle raised her hand to knock on the door but paused, Yolanda's voice running through her mind. If Chris Harper lied to the world about PODS, what makes you think he'll tell YOU the truth?
Fear, Gabrielle told herself, having almost fallen victim to it herself today. She had a plan. It involved a tactic she'd seen the senator use on occasion to scare information out of political opponents. Gabrielle had absorbed a lot under Sexton's tutelage, and not all of it attractive or ethical. But tonight she needed every advantage. If she could persuade Chris Harper to admit he had lied-for whatever reason-Gabrielle would open a small door of opportunity for the senator's campaign. Beyond that, Sexton was a man who, if given an inch to maneuver, could wriggle his way out of almost any jam.
Gabrielle's plan for dealing with Harper was something Sexton called "overshooting"-an interrogation technique invented by the early Roman authorities to coax confessions from criminals they suspected were lying. The method was deceptively simple:
Assert the information you want confessed.
Then allege something far worse.
The object was to give the opponent a chance to choose the lesser of two evils-in this case, the truth.
The trick was exuding confidence, something Gabrielle was not feeling at the moment. Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle ran through the script in her mind, and then knocked firmly on the office door.
"I told you I'm busy!" Harper called out, his English accent familiar.
She knocked again. Louder.
"I told you I'm not interested in coming down!"
This time she banged on the door with her fist.
Chris Harper came over and yanked open the door. "Bloody hell, do you-" He stopped short, clearly surprised to see Gabrielle.
"Dr. Harper," she said, infusing her voice with intensity.
"How did you get up here?"
Gabrielle's face was stern. "Do you know who I am?"
"Of course. Your boss has been slamming my project for months. How did you get in?"
"Senator Sexton sent me."
Harper's eyes scanned the lab behind Gabrielle. "Where is your staff escort?"
"That's not your concern. The senator has influential connections."
"In this building?" Harper looked dubious.
"You've been dishonest, Dr. Harper. And I'm afraid the senator has called a special senatorial justice board to look into your lies."
A pall crossed Harper's face. "What are you talking about?"