"Anyhow, Mike," the message went on, "tonight was incredible. Kind of makes you proud to be a scientist, doesn't it? Everyone's talking about how good this looks for NASA. Screw NASA, I say! This looks even better for us! Amazing Seas ratings must have gone up a few million points tonight. You're a star, man. A real one. Congrats. Excellent job."
There was hushed talking on the line, and the voice came back. "Oh, yeah, and speaking of Xavia, just so you don't get too big a head, she wants to razz you about something. Here she is."
Xavia's razor voice came on the machine. "Mike, Xavia, you're a God, yada yada. And because I love you so much, I've agreed to baby-sit this antediluvian wreck of yours. Frankly, it will be nice to be away from these hoodlums you call scientists. Anyhow, in addition to baby-sitting the ship, the crew has asked me, in my role as onboard bitch, to do everything in my power to keep you from turning into a conceited bastard, which after tonight I realize is going to be difficult, but I had to be the first to tell you that you made a boo-boo in your documentary. Yes, you heard me. A rare Michael Tolland brain fart. Don't worry, there are only about three people on earth who will notice, and they're all anal-retentive marine geologists with no sense of humor. A lot like me. But you know what they say about us geologists-always looking for faults!" She laughed. "Anyhow, it's nothing, a minuscule point about meteorite petrology. I only mention it to ruin your night. You might get a call or two about it, so I thought I'd give you the heads-up so you don't end up sounding like the moron we all know you really are." She laughed again. "Anyhow, I'm not much of a party animal, so I'm staying onboard. Don't bother calling me; I had to turn on the machine because the goddamned press have been calling all night. You're a real star tonight, despite your screwup. Anyhow, I'll fill you in on it when you get back. Ciao."
The line went dead.
Michael Tolland frowned. A mistake in my documentary?
Rachel Sexton stood in the restroom of the G4 and looked at herself in the mirror. She looked pale, she thought, and more frail than she'd imagined. Tonight's scare had taken a lot out of her. She wondered how long it would be before she would stop shivering, or before she would go near an ocean. Removing her U.S.S. Charlotte cap, she let her hair down. Better, she thought, feeling more like herself.
Looking into her eyes, Rachel sensed a deep weariness. Beneath it, though, she saw the resolve. She knew that was her mother's gift. Nobody tells you what you can and can't do. Rachel wondered if her mother had seen what happened tonight. Someone tried to kill me, Mom. Someone tried to kill all of us...
Rachel's mind, as it had for several hours now, scrolled through the list of names.
Lawrence Ekstrom... Marjorie Tench... President Zach Herney. All had motives. And, more chillingly, all had means. The President is not involved, Rachel told herself, clinging to her hope that the President she respected so much more than her own father was an innocent bystander in this mysterious incident.
We still know nothing.
Not who... not if... not why.
Rachel had wanted to have answers for William Pickering but, so far, all she'd managed to do was raise more questions.
When Rachel left the restroom, she was surprised to see Michael Tolland was not in his seat. Corky was dozing nearby. As Rachel looked around, Mike stepped out of the cockpit as the pilot hung up a radiophone. His eyes were wide with concern.
"What is it?" Rachel asked.
Tolland's voice was heavy as he told her about the phone message.
A mistake in his presentation? Rachel thought Tolland was overreacting. "It's probably nothing. She didn't tell you specifically what the error was?"
"Something to do with meteorite petrology."
"Yeah. She said the only people who would notice the mistake were a few other geologists. It sounds like whatever error I made was related to the composition of the meteorite itself."
Rachel drew a quick breath, understanding now. "Chondrules?"
"I don't know, but it seems pretty coincidental."
Rachel agreed. The chondrules were the one remaining shred of evidence that categorically supported NASA's claim that this was indeed a meteorite.
Corky came over, rubbing his eyes. "What's going on?"
Tolland filled him in.
Corky scowled, shaking his head. "It's not a problem with the chondrules, Mike. No way. All of your data came from NASA. And from me. It was flawless."
"What other petrologic error could I have made?"
"Who the hell knows? Besides, what do marine geologists know about chondrules?"
"I have no idea, but she's damned sharp."
"Considering the circumstances," Rachel said, "I think we should talk to this woman before we talk to Director Pickering."
Tolland shrugged. "I called her four times and got the machine. She's probably in the hydrolab and can't hear a damn thing anyway. She won't get my messages until morning at the earliest." Tolland paused, checking his watch. "Although... "
Tolland eyed her intensely. "How important do you think it is that we talk to Xavia before we talk to your boss?"
"If she has something to say about chondrules? I'd say it's critical. Mike," Rachel said, "at the moment, we've got all kinds of contradictory data. William Pickering is a man accustomed to having clear answers. When we meet him, I'd love to have something substantial for him to act on."
"Then we should make a stop."
Rachel did a double take. "On your ship?"
"It's off the coast of New Jersey. Almost directly on our way to Washington. We can talk to Xavia, find out what she knows. Corky still has the meteorite sample, and if Xavia wants to run some geologic tests on it, the ship has a fairly well-equipped lab. I can't imagine it would take us more than an hour to get some conclusive answers."
Rachel felt a pulse of anxiety. The thought of having to face the ocean again so soon was unnerving. Conclusive answers, she told herself, tempted by the possibility. Pickering will definitely want answers.
Delta-One was glad to be back on solid ground.
The Aurora aircraft, despite running at only one-half power and taking a circuitous ocean route, had completed its journey in under two hours and afforded the Delta Force a healthy head start to take up position and prepare themselves for the additional kill the controller had requested.
Now, on a private military runway outside D.C., the Delta Force left the Aurora behind and boarded their new transport-a waiting OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter.
Yet again, the controller has arranged for the best, Delta-One thought.
The Kiowa Warrior, originally designed as a light observation helicopter, had been "expanded and improved" to create the military's newest breed of attack helicopter. The Kiowa boasted infrared thermal imaging capability enabling its designator/laser range finder to provide autonomous designation for laser-guided precision weapons like Air-to-Air Stinger missiles and the AGM-1148 Hellfire Missile System. A high-speed digital signal processor provided simultaneous multitarget tracking of up to six targets. Few enemies had ever seen a Kiowa up close and survived to tell the tale.
Delta-One felt a familiar rush of power as he climbed into the Kiowa pilot's seat and strapped himself in. He had trained on this craft and flown it in covert ops three times. Of course, never before had he been gunning for a prominent American official. The Kiowa, he had to admit, was the perfect aircraft for the job. Its Rolls-Royce Allison engine and twin semirigid blades were "silent running," which essentially meant targets on the ground could not hear the chopper until it was directly over them. And because the aircraft was capable of flying blind without lights and was painted flat black with no reflective tail numbers, it was essentially invisible unless the target had radar.