Rachel stood in silence as the Bathynomous pages rolled out of the printer. She tried to tell herself this was all an honest NASA mistake, but she knew it was not. People who made honest mistakes didn't try to kill people.
The nasal voice of Corky echoed suddenly across the lab. "Impossible!"
Both Tolland and Rachel turned.
"Measure the damn ratio again! It makes no sense!"
Xavia came hurrying in with a computer printout clutched in her hand. Her face was ashen. "Mike, I don't know how to say this... " Her voice cracked. "The titanium/zirconium ratios we're seeing in this sample?" She cleared her throat. "It's pretty obvious that NASA made a huge mistake. Their meteorite is an ocean rock."
Tolland and Rachel looked at each other but neither spoke a word. They knew. Just like that, all the suspicions and doubts had swelled up like the crest of a wave, reaching the breaking point.
Tolland nodded, a sadness in his eyes. "Yeah. Thanks, Xavia."
"But I don't understand," Xavia said. "The fusion crust... the location in the ice-"
"We'll explain on the way to shore," Tolland said. "We're leaving."
Quickly, Rachel collected all the papers and evidence they now had. The evidence was shockingly conclusive: the GPR printout showing the insertion shaft in the Milne Ice Shelf; photos of a living sea louse resembling NASA's fossil; Dr. Pollock's article on ocean chondrules; and microprobe data showing ultradepleted zirconium in the meteorite.
The conclusion was undeniable. Fraud.
Tolland looked at the stack of papers in Rachel's hands and heaved a melancholy sigh. "Well, I'd say William Pickering has his proof."
Rachel nodded, again wondering why Pickering had not answered his phone.
Tolland lifted the receiver of a nearby phone, holding it out for her. "You want to try him again from here?"
"No, let's get moving. I'll try to contact him from the chopper." Rachel had already decided if she could not make contact with Pickering, she'd have the Coast Guard fly them directly to the NRO, only about 180 miles.
Tolland began to hang up the phone, but he paused. Looking confused, he listened to the receiver, frowning. "Bizarre. No dial tone."
"What do you mean?" Rachel said, wary now.
"Weird," Tolland said. "Direct COMSAT lines never lose carrier-"
"Mr. Tolland?" The Coast Guard pilot came rushing into the lab, his face white.
"What is it?" Rachel demanded. "Is someone coming?"
"That's the problem," the pilot said. "I don't know. All onboard radar and communications have just gone dead."
Rachel stuffed the papers deep inside her shirt. "Get in the helicopter. We're leaving. NOW!"
Gabrielle's heart was racing as she crossed the darkened office of Senator Sexton. The room was as expansive as it was elegant-ornate wood-paneled walls, oil paintings, Persian carpets, leather rivet chairs, and a gargantuan mahogany desk. The room was lit only by the eerie neon glow of Sexton's computer screen.
Gabrielle moved toward his desk.
Senator Sexton had embraced the "digital office" to maniacal proportions, eschewing the overflow of file cabinets for the compact, searchable simplicity of his personal computer, into which he fed enormous amounts of information-digitized meeting notes, scanned articles, speeches, brainstorms. Sexton's computer was his sacred ground, and he kept his office locked at all times to protect it. He even refused to connect to the Internet for fear of hackers infiltrating his sacred digital vault.
A year ago Gabrielle would never have believed any politician would be stupid enough to store copies of self-incriminating documents, but Washington had taught her a lot. Information is power. Gabrielle had been amazed to learn that a common practice among politicians who accepted questionable campaign contributions was to keep actual proof of those donations-letters, bank records, receipts, logs-all hidden away in a safe place. This counterblackmail tactic, euphemistically known in Washington as "Siamese insurance," protected candidates from donors who felt their generosity somehow authorized them to assert undue political pressure on a candidate. If a contributor got too demanding, the candidate could simply produce evidence of the illegal donation and remind the donor that both parties had broken the law. The evidence ensured that candidates and donors were joined at the hip forever-like Siamese twins.
Gabrielle slipped behind the senator's desk and sat down. She took a deep breath, looking at his computer. If the senator is accepting SFF bribes, any evidence would be in here.
Sexton's computer screensaver was an ongoing slideshow of the White House and its grounds created for him by one of his gung-ho staffers who was big into visualization and positive thinking. Around the images crawled a ticker-tape banner that read: President of the United States Sedgewick Sexton... President of the United States Sedgewick Sexton... President of the...
Gabrielle jostled the mouse, and a security dialogue box came up.
She expected this. It would not be a problem. Last week, Gabrielle had entered Sexton's office just as the senator was sitting down and logging onto his computer. She saw him type three short keystrokes in rapid succession.
"That's a password?" she challenged from the doorway as she walked in.
Sexton glanced up. "What?"
"And here I thought you were concerned about security," Gabrielle scolded good-naturedly. "Your password's only three keys? I thought the tech guys told us all to use at least six."
"The tech guys are teenagers. They should try remembering six random letters when they're over forty. Besides, the door has an alarm. Nobody can get in."
Gabrielle walked toward him, smiling. "What if someone slipped in while you're in the loo?"
"And tried every combination of passwords?" He gave a skeptical laugh. "I'm slow in the bathroom, but not that slow."
"Dinner at Davide says I can guess your password in ten seconds."
Sexton looked intrigued and amused. "You can't afford Davide, Gabrielle."
"So you're saying you're chicken?"
Sexton appeared almost sorry for her as he accepted the challenge. "Ten seconds?" He logged off and motioned for Gabrielle to sit down and give it a try. "You know I only order the saltimbocca at Davide. And that ain't cheap."
She shrugged as she sat down. "It's your money."
"Ten seconds," Sexton reminded.
Gabrielle had to laugh. She would need only two. Even from the doorway she could see that Sexton had entered his three-key password in very rapid succession using only his index finger. Obviously all the same key. Not wise. She could also see that his hand had been positioned over the far left side of his keyboard-cutting the possible alphabet down to only about nine letters. Choosing the letter was simple; Sexton had always loved the triple alliteration of his title. Senator Sedgewick Sexton.
Never underestimate the ego of a politician.
She typed SSS, and the screensaver evaporated.
Sexton's jaw hit the floor.
That had been last week. Now, as Gabrielle faced his computer again, she was certain Sexton would not have taken time yet to figure out how to set up a different password. Why would he? He trusts me implicitly.
She typed in SSS.
Invalid Password - Access Denied
Gabrielle stared in shock.
Apparently she had overestimated her senator's level of trust.
The attack came without warning. Low out of the southwest sky above the Goya, the lethal silhouette of a gunship helicopter bore down like a giant wasp. Rachel had no doubt what it was, or why it was here.