"What did you just say?" Gabrielle demanded.
The guard's fist stopped in midair. "I said the senator was glad I let you in earlier. You were right. It was no problem at all."
"You and the senator talked about that?" Gabrielle sounded surprised.
"Yeah. So what?"
"No, I just didn't think... "
"Actually, it was kind of weird. The senator needed a couple of seconds to even remember you'd been in there. I think the boys were tossing back a few."
"When did you two talk, Owen?"
"Right after you left. Is something wrong?"
A momentary silence. "No... no. Nothing. Look, now that I think of it, let's not bother the senator this instant. I'll keep trying his house line, and if I don't have any luck, I'll call you back and you can knock."
The guard rolled his eyes. "Whatever you say, Ms. Ashe."
"Thanks, Owen. Sorry to bother you."
"No problem." The guard hung up, flopped back in his chair, and went to sleep.
Alone in her office, Gabrielle stood motionless for several seconds before hanging up the phone. Sexton knows I was inside his apartment... and he never mentioned it to me?
Tonight's ethereal strangeness was getting murkier. Gabrielle flashed on the senator's phone call to her while she was at ABC. The senator had stunned her with his unprovoked admission that he was meeting with space companies and accepting money. His honesty had brought her back to him. Shamed her even. His confession now seemed one hell of a lot less noble.
Soft money, Sexton had said. Perfectly legal.
Suddenly, all the vague misgivings Gabrielle had ever felt about Senator Sexton seemed to resurface all at once.
Outside, the taxi was honking.
The bridge of the Goya was a Plexiglas cube situated two levels above the main deck. From here Rachel had a 360-degree view of the surrounding darkened sea, an unnerving vista she looked at only once before blocking it out and turning her attention to the matter at hand.
Having sent Tolland and Corky to find Xavia, Rachel prepared to contact Pickering. She'd promised the director she would call him when they arrived, and she was eager to know what he had learned in his meeting with Marjorie Tench.
The Goya's SHINCOM 2100 digital communications system was a platform with which Rachel was familiar enough. She knew if she kept her call short, her communication should be secure.
Dialing Pickering's private number, she waited, clutching the SHINCOM 2100 receiver to her ear and waiting. She expected Pickering to pick up on the first ring. But the line just kept ringing.
Six rings. Seven. Eight...
Rachel gazed out at the darkened ocean, her inability to reach the director doing nothing to quell her uneasiness about being at sea.
Nine rings. Ten rings. Pick up!
She paced, waiting. What was going on? Pickering carried his phone with him at all times, and he had expressly told Rachel to call him.
After fifteen rings, she hung up.
With growing apprehension, she picked up the SHINCOM receiver and dialed again.
Four rings. Five rings.
Where is he?
Finally, the connection clicked open. Rachel felt a surge of relief, but it was short-lived. There was no one on the line. Only silence.
"Hello," she prompted. "Director?"
Three quick clicks.
"Hello?" Rachel said.
A burst of electronic static shattered the line, blasting in Rachel's ear. She yanked the receiver away from her head in pain. The static abruptly stopped. Now she could hear a series of rapidly oscillating tones that pulsed in half-second intervals. Rachel's confusion quickly gave way to realization. And then fear.
Wheeling back to the controls on the bridge, she slammed the receiver down in its cradle, severing the connection. For several moments she stood terrified, wondering if she'd hung up in time.
Amidships, two decks below, the Goya's hydrolab was an expansive work space segmented by long counters and islands packed to the gills with electronic gear-bottom profilers, current analyzers, wet sinks, fume hoods, a walk-in specimen cooler, PCs, and a stack of organizer crates for research data and the spare electronics to keep everything running.
When Tolland and Corky entered, the Goya's onboard geologist, Xavia, was reclining in front of a blaring television. She didn't even turn around.
"Did you guys run out of beer money?" she called over her shoulder, apparently thinking some of her crew had returned.
"Xavia," Tolland said. "It's Mike."
The geologist spun, swallowing part of a prepackaged sandwich she was eating. "Mike?" she stammered, clearly stunned to see him. She stood up, turned down the television, and came over, still chewing. "I thought some of the guys had come back from bar-hopping. What are you doing here?" Xavia was heavyset and dark-skinned, with a sharp voice and a surly air about her. She motioned to the television, which was broadcasting replays of Tolland's on-site meteorite documentary. "You sure didn't hang around on the ice shelf very long, did you?"
Something came up, Tolland thought. "Xavia, I'm sure you recognize Corky Marlinson."
Xavia nodded. "An honor, sir."
Corky was eyeing the sandwich in her hand. "That looks good."
Xavia gave him an odd look.
"I got your message," Tolland said to Xavia. "You said I made a mistake in my presentation? I want to talk to you about it."
The geologist stared at him and let out a shrill laugh. "That's why you're back? Oh, Mike, for God's sake, I told you, it was nothing. I was just pulling your chain. NASA obviously gave you some old data. Inconsequential. Seriously, only three or four marine geologists in the world might have noticed the oversight!"
Tolland held his breath. "This oversight. Does it by any chance have anything to do with chondrules?"
Xavia's face went blank with shock. "My God. One of those geologists called you already?"
Tolland slumped. The chondrules. He looked at Corky and then back to the marine geologist. "Xavia, I need to know everything you can tell me about these chondrules. What was the mistake I made?"
Xavia stared at him, apparently now sensing he was dead serious. "Mike, it's really nothing. I read a small article in a trade journal a while back. But I don't understand why you're so worried about this."
Tolland sighed. "Xavia, as strange as this may sound, the less you know tonight, the better. All I'm asking is for you to tell us what you know about chondrules, and then we'll need you to examine a rock sample for us."
Xavia looked mystified and vaguely perturbed to be out of the loop. "Fine, let me get you that article. It's in my office." She set her sandwich down and headed for the door.
Corky called after her. "Can I finish that?"
Xavia paused, sounding incredulous. "You want to finish my sandwich?"
"Well, I just thought if you-"
"Get your own damn sandwich." Xavia left.
Tolland chuckled, motioning across the lab toward a specimen cooler. "Bottom shelf, Corky. Between the sambuca and squid sacs."
Outside on deck, Rachel descended the steep stairway from the bridge and strode toward the chopper pad. The Coast Guard pilot was dozing but sat up when Rachel rapped on the cockpit.
"Done already?" he asked. "That was fast."
Rachel shook her head, on edge. "Can you run both surface and air radar?"
"Sure. Ten-mile radius."
"Turn it on, please."
Looking puzzled, the pilot threw a couple of switches and the radar screen lit up. The sweep arm spun lazy circles.