"Smart people like yourself don't have the luxury of playing stupid, Dr. Harper. You're in trouble, and the senator sent me up here to offer you a deal. The senator's campaign took a huge hit tonight. He's got nothing left to lose, and he's ready to take you down with him if he needs to."
"What the devil are you talking about?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath and made her play. "You lied in your press conference about the PODS anomaly-detection software. We know that. A lot of people know that. That's not the issue." Before Harper could open his mouth to argue, Gabrielle steamed onward. "The senator could blow the whistle on your lies right now, but he's not interested. He's interested in the bigger story. I think you know what I'm talking about."
"Here's the senator's offer. He'll keep his mouth shut about your software lies if you give him the name of the top NASA executive with whom you're embezzling funds."
Chris Harper's eyes seemed to cross for a moment. "What? I'm not embezzling!"
"I suggest you watch what you say, sir. The senatorial committee has been collecting documentation for months now. Did you really think you two would slip by undetected? Doctoring PODS paperwork and redirecting allocated NASA funds to private accounts? Lying and embezzling can put you in jail, Dr. Harper."
"I did no such thing!"
"You're saying you didn't lie about PODS?"
"No, I'm saying I bloody well didn't embezzle money!"
"So, you're saying you did lie about PODS."
Harper stared, clearly at a loss for words.
"Forget about the lying," Gabrielle said, waving it off. "Senator Sexton is not interested in the issue of your lying in a press conference. We're used to that. You guys found a meteorite, nobody cares how you did it. The issue for him is the embezzlement. He needs to take down someone high in NASA. Just tell him who you're working with, and he'll steer the investigation clear of you entirely. You can make it easy and tell us who the other person is, or the senator will make it ugly and start talking about anomaly-detection software and phony work-arounds."
"You're bluffing. There are no embezzled funds."
"You're an awful liar, Dr. Harper. I've seen the documentation. Your name is on all the incriminating paperwork. Over and over."
"I swear I know nothing about any embezzlement!"
Gabrielle let out a disappointed sigh. "Put yourself in my position, Dr. Harper. I can only draw two conclusions here. Either you're lying to me, the same way you lied in that press conference. Or you're telling the truth, and someone powerful in the agency is setting you up as a fall guy for his own misdealings."
The proposition seemed to give Harper pause.
Gabrielle checked her watch. "The senator's deal is on the table for an hour. You can save yourself by giving him the name of the NASA exec with whom you're embezzling taxpayers' money. He doesn't care about you. He wants the big fish. Obviously the individual in question has some power here at NASA; he or she has managed to keep his or her identity off the paper trail, allowing you to be the fall guy."
Harper shook his head. "You're lying."
"Would you like to tell that to a court?"
"Sure. I'll deny the whole thing."
"Under oath?" Gabrielle grunted in disgust. "Suppose you'll also deny you lied about fixing the PODS software?" Gabrielle's heart was pounding as she stared straight into the man's eyes. "Think carefully about your options here, Dr. Harper. American prisons can be most unpleasant."
Harper glared back, and Gabrielle willed him to fold. For a moment she thought she saw a glimmer of surrender, but when Harper spoke, his voice was like steel.
"Ms. Ashe," he declared, anger simmering in his eyes, "you are clutching at thin air. You and I both know there is no embezzlement going on at NASA. The only liar in this room is you."
Gabrielle felt her muscles go rigid. The man's gaze was angry and sharp. She wanted to turn and run. You tried to bluff a rocket scientist. What the hell did you expect? She forced herself to hold her head high. "All I know," she said, feigning utter confidence and indifference to his position, "is the incriminating documents I've seen-conclusive evidence that you and another are embezzling NASA funds. The senator simply asked me to come here tonight and offer you the option of giving up your partner instead of facing the inquiry alone. I will tell the senator you prefer to take your chances with a judge. You can tell the court what you told me-you're not embezzling funds and you didn't lie about the PODS software." She gave a grim smile. "But after that lame press conference you gave two weeks ago, somehow I doubt it." Gabrielle spun on her heel and strode across the darkened PODS laboratory. She wondered if maybe she'd be seeing the inside of a prison instead of Harper.
Gabrielle held her head high as she walked off, waiting for Harper to call her back. Silence. She pushed her way through the metal doors and strode out into the hallway, hoping the elevators up here were not key-card operated like the lobby. She'd lost. Despite her best efforts, Harper wasn't biting. Maybe he was telling the truth in his PODS press conference, Gabrielle thought.
A crash resounded down the hall as the metal doors behind her burst open. "Ms. Ashe," Harper's voice called out. "I swear I know nothing about any embezzlement. I'm an honest man!"
Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat. She forced herself to keep walking. She gave a casual shrug and called out over her shoulder. "And yet you lied in your press conference."
Silence. Gabrielle kept moving down the hallway.
"Hold on!" Harper yelled. He came jogging up beside her, his face pale. "This embezzlement thing," he said, lowering his voice. "I think I know who set me up."
Gabrielle stopped dead in her tracks, wondering if she had heard him correctly. She turned as slowly and casually as she could. "You expect me to believe someone is setting you up?"
Harper sighed. "I swear I know nothing about embezzlement. But if there's evidence against me... "
"Mounds of it."
Harper sighed. "Then it's all been planted. To discredit me if need be. And there's only one person who would have done that."
Harper looked her in the eye. "Lawrence Ekstrom hates me."
Gabrielle was stunned. "The administrator of NASA?"
Harper gave a grim nod. "He's the one who forced me to lie in that press conference."
Even with the Aurora aircraft's misted-methane propulsion system at half power, the Delta Force was hurtling through the night at three times the speed of sound-over two thousand miles an hour. The repetitive throb of the Pulse Detonation Wave Engines behind them gave the ride a hypnotic rhythm. A hundred feet below, the ocean churned wildly, whipped up by the Aurora's vacuum wake, which sucked fifty-foot rooster tails skyward in long parallel sheets behind the plane.
This is the reason the SR-71 Blackbird was retired, Delta-One thought.
The Aurora was one of those secret aircraft that nobody was supposed to know existed, but everyone did. Even the Discovery channel had covered Aurora and its testing out at Groom Lake in Nevada. Whether the security leaks had come from the repeated "skyquakes" heard as far away as Los Angeles, or the unfortunate eyewitness sighting by a North Sea oil-rig driller, or the administrative gaffe that left a description of Aurora in a public copy of the Pentagon budget, nobody would ever know. It hardly mattered. The word was out: The U.S. military had a plane capable of Mach 6 flight, and it was no longer on the drawing board. It was in the skies overhead.