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Swimmers May Surface without Warning 2 ñòðàíèöà
Delta‑One felt momentarily disoriented, unable to fathom how this possibly could have happened. The Delta Force’s errors on the ice shelf earlier had been a rare but explainable occurrence. This, however, was unimaginable.
Delta‑One’s humiliation would have been excruciating enough under normal circumstances. But tonight his shame was magnified by the presence of another individual riding with him inside the chopper, a person whose presence here was highly unconventional.
Following the Delta’s kill at the FDR Memorial, the controller had ordered Delta‑One to fly to a deserted public park not far from the White House. On the controller’s command, Delta‑One had set down on a grassy knoll among some trees just as the controller, having parked nearby, strode out of the darkness and boarded the Kiowa. They were all en route again in a matter of seconds.
Although a controller’s direct involvement in mission operations was rare, Delta‑One could hardly complain. The controller, distressed by the way the Delta Force had handled the kills on the Milne Ice Shelf and fearing increasing suspicions and scrutiny from a number of parties, had informed Delta‑One that the final phase of the operation would be overseen in person.
Now the controller was riding shotgun, witnessing in person a failure the likes of which Delta‑One had never endured.
This must end. Now.
The controller gazed down from the Kiowa at the deck of the Goya and wondered how this could possibly have happened. Nothing had gone properly‑the suspicions about the meteorite, the failed Delta kills on the ice shelf, the necessity of the high‑profile kill at the FDR.
“Controller,” Delta‑One stammered, his tone one of stunned disgrace as he looked at the situation on the deck of the Goya. “I cannot imagine . . . “
Nor can I, the controller thought. Their quarry had obviously been grossly underestimated.
The controller looked down at Rachel Sexton, who stared up blankly at the chopper’s reflective windshield and raised a CrypTalk device to her mouth. When her synthesized voice crackled inside the Kiowa, the controller expected her to demand that the chopper back off or extinguish the jamming system so Tolland could call for help. But the words Rachel Sexton spoke were far more chilling.
“You’re too late,” she said. “We’re not the only ones who know.”
The words echoed for a moment inside the chopper. Although the claim seemed far‑fetched, the faintest possibility of truth gave the controller pause. The success of the entire project required the elimination of all those who knew the truth, and as bloody as the containment had turned out to be, the controller had to be certain this was the conclusion.
Someone else knows . . .
Considering Rachel Sexton’s reputation for following strict protocol of classified data, the controller found it very hard to believe that she would have decided to share this with an outside source.
Rachel was on the CrypTalk again. “Back off and we’ll spare your men. Come any closer and they die. Either way, the truth comes out. Cut your losses. Back off.”
“You’re bluffing,” the controller said, knowing the voice Rachel Sexton was hearing was an androgynous robotic tone. “You have told no one.”
“Are you ready to take that chance?” Rachel fired back. “I couldn’t get through to William Pickering earlier, so I got spooked and took out some insurance.”
The controller frowned. It was plausible.
“They’re not buying it,” Rachel said, glancing at Tolland.
The soldier in the claws gave a pained smirk. “Your gun is empty, and the chopper’s going to blow you to hell. You’re both going to die. Your only hope is to let us go.”
Like hell, Rachel thought, trying to assess their next move. She looked at the bound and gagged man who lay at her feet directly in front of the sub. He looked delirious from loss of blood. She crouched beside him, looking into the man’s hard eyes. “I’m going to take off your gag and hold the CrypTalk; you’re going to convince the helicopter to back off. Is that clear?”
The man nodded earnestly.
Rachel pulled out the man’s gag. The soldier spat a wad of bloody saliva up into Rachel’s face.
“Bitch,” he hissed, coughing. “I’m going to watch you die. They’re going to kill you like a pig, and I’m going to enjoy every minute.”
Rachel wiped the hot saliva from her face as she felt Tolland’s hands lifting her away, pulling her back, steadying her as he took her machine gun. She could feel in his trembling touch that something inside him had just snapped. Tolland walked to a control panel a few yards away, put his hand on a lever, and locked eyes with the man lying on the deck.
“Strike two,” Tolland said. “And on my ship, that’s all you get.”
With a resolute rage, Tolland yanked down on the lever. A huge trapdoor in the deck beneath the Triton fell open like the floor of a gallows. The bound soldier gave a short howl of fear and then disappeared, plummeting through the hole. He fell thirty feet to the ocean below. The splash was crimson. The sharks were on him instantly.
The controller shook with rage, looking down from the Kiowa at what was left of Delta‑Three’s body drifting out from under the boat on the strong current. The illuminated water was pink. Several fish fought over something that looked like an arm.
The controller looked back at the deck. Delta‑Two still hung in the Triton’s claws, but now the sub was suspended over a gaping hole in the deck. His feet dangled over the void. All Tolland had to do was release the claws, and Delta‑Two would be next.
“Okay,” the controller barked into the CrypTalk. “Hold on. Just hold on!”
Rachel stood below on the deck and stared up at the Kiowa. Even from this height the controller sensed the resolve in her eyes. Rachel raised the CrypTalk to her mouth. “You still think we’re bluffing?” she said. “Call the main switchboard at the NRO. Ask for Jim Samiljan. He’s in P A on the nightshift. I told him everything about the meteorite. He will confirm.”
She’s giving me a specific name? This did not bode well. Rachel Sexton was no fool, and this was a bluff the controller could check in a matter of seconds. Although the controller knew of no one at the NRO named Jim Samiljan, the organization was enormous. Rachel could quite possibly be telling the truth. Before ordering the final kill, the controller had to confirm if this was a bluff‑or not.
Delta‑One looked over his shoulder. “You want me to deactivate the jammer so you can call and check it out?”
The controller peered down at Rachel and Tolland, both in plain view. If either of them made a move for a cellphone or radio, the controller knew Delta‑One could always reactivate and cut them off. The risk was minimal.
“Kill the jammer,” the controller said, pulling out a cellphone. “I’ll confirm Rachel’s lying. Then we’ll find a way to get Delta‑Two and end this.”
In Fairfax, the operator at the NRO’s central switchboard was getting impatient. “As I just told you, I see no Jim Samiljan in the Plans and Analysis Division.”
The caller was insistent. “Have you tried multiple spellings? Have you tried other departments?”
The operator had already checked, but she checked again. After several seconds, she said, “Nowhere on staff do we have a Jim Samiljan. Under any spelling.”
The caller sounded oddly pleased by this. “So you are certain the NRO employs no Jim Samil‑”
A sudden flurry of activity erupted on the line. Someone yelled. The caller cursed aloud and promptly hung up.
Onboard the Kiowa, Delta‑One was screaming with rage as he scrambled to reactivate the jamming system. He had made the realization too late. In the huge array of lighted controls in the cockpit, a tiny LED meter indicated that a SATCOM data signal was being transmitted from the Goya. But how? Nobody left the deck! Before Delta‑One could engage the jammer, the connection from the Goya terminated on its own accord.
Inside the hydrolab, the fax machine beeped contentedly.
CARRIER FOUND . . . FAX SENT
Kill or be killed. Rachel had discovered a part of herself she never knew existed. Survival mode‑a savage fortitude fueled by fear.
“What was in that outbound fax?” the voice on the CrypTalk demanded.
Rachel was relieved to hear confirmation that the fax had gone out as planned. “Leave the area,” she demanded, speaking into the CrypTalk and glaring up at the hovering chopper. “It’s over. Your secret is out.” Rachel informed their attackers of all the information she had just sent. A half dozen pages of images and text. Incontrovertible evidence that the meteorite was a fake. “Harming us will only make your situation worse.”
There was a heavy pause. “Who did you send the fax to?”
Rachel had no intention of answering that question. She and Tolland needed to buy as much time as possible. They had positioned themselves near the opening in the deck, on a direct line with the Triton, making it impossible for the chopper to shoot without hitting the soldier dangling in the sub’s claws.
“William Pickering,” the voice guessed, sounding oddly hopeful. “You faxed Pickering.”
Wrong, Rachel thought. Pickering would have been her first choice, but she had been forced to choose someone else for fear her attackers had already eliminated Pickering‑a move whose boldness would be a chilling testimony to her enemy’s resolve. In a moment of desperate decision, Rachel had faxed the data to the only other fax number she knew by heart.
Her father’s office.
Senator Sexton’s office fax number had been painfully engraved into Rachel’s memory after her mother’s death when her father chose to work out many of the particulars of the estate without having to deal with Rachel in person. Rachel never imagined she would turn to her father in a time of need, but tonight the man possessed two critical qualities‑all the correct political motivations to release the meteorite data without hesitation, and enough clout to call the White House and blackmail them into calling off this kill squad.
Although her father was most certainly not in the office at this hour, Rachel knew he kept his office locked like a vault. Rachel had, in effect, faxed the data into a time‑lock safe. Even if the attackers knew where she had sent it, chances were slim they could get through the tight federal security at the Philip A. Hart Senate Office Building and break into a senator’s office without anyone noticing.
“Wherever you sent the fax,” the voice from above said. “You’ve put that person in danger.”
Rachel knew she had to speak from a position of power regardless of the fear she was feeling. She motioned to the soldier trapped in the Triton’s claws. His legs dangled over the abyss, dripping blood thirty feet to the ocean. “The only person in danger here is your agent,” she said into the CrypTalk. “It’s over. Back off. The data is gone. You’ve lost. Leave the area, or this man dies.”
The voice on the CrypTalk fired back, “Ms. Sexton, you do not understand the importance‑”
“Understand?” Rachel exploded. “I understand that you killed innocent people! I understand that you lied about the meteorite! And I understand that you won’t get away with this! Even if you kill us all, it’s over!”
There was a long pause. Finally the voice said, “I’m coming down.”
Rachel felt her muscles tighten. Coming down?
“I am unarmed,” the voice said. “Do not do anything rash. You and I need to talk face‑to‑face.”
Before Rachel could react, the chopper dropped onto the Goya’s deck. The passenger door on the fuselage opened and a figure stepped out. He was a plain‑looking man in a black coat and tie. For an instant, Rachel’s thoughts went totally blank.
She was staring at William Pickering.
William Pickering stood on the deck of the Goya and gazed with regret at Rachel Sexton. He had never imagined today would come to this. As he moved toward her, he could see the dangerous combination of emotions in his employee’s eyes.
Shock, betrayal, confusion, rage.
All understandable, he thought. There is so much she does not understand.
For a moment, Pickering flashed on his daughter, Diana, wondering what emotions she had felt before she died. Both Diana and Rachel were casualties of the same war, a war Pickering had vowed to fight forever. Sometimes the casualties could be so cruel.
“Rachel,” Pickering said. “We can still work this out. There’s a lot I need to explain.”
Rachel Sexton looked aghast, nauseated almost. Tolland had the machine gun now and was aiming at Pickering’s chest. He too looked bewildered.
“Stay back!” Tolland yelled.
Pickering stopped five yards away, focusing on Rachel. “Your father is taking bribes, Rachel. Payoffs from private space companies. He plans to dismantle NASA and open space to the private sector. He had to be stopped, as a matter of national security.”
Rachel’s expression was blank.
Pickering sighed. “NASA, for all its flaws, must remain a government entity.” Certainly she can understand the dangers. Privatization would send NASA’s best minds and ideas flooding into the private sector. The brain trust would dissolve. The military would lose access. Private space companies looking to raise capital would start selling NASA patents and ideas to the highest bidders worldwide!
Rachel’s voice was tremulous. “You faked the meteorite and killed innocent people . . . in the name of national security?”
“It was never supposed to happen like this,” Pickering said. “The plan was to save an important government agency. Killing was not part of it.”
The meteorite deception, Pickering knew, like most intelligence proposals, had been the product of fear. Three years ago, in an effort to extend the NRO hydrophones into deeper water where they could not be touched by enemy saboteurs, Pickering spearheaded a program that utilized a newly developed NASA building material to secretly design an astonishingly durable submarine capable of carrying humans to the deepest regions of the ocean‑including the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
Forged from a revolutionary ceramic, this two‑man submarine was designed from blueprints hacked from the computer of a California engineer named Graham Hawkes, a genius sub designer whose life dream was to build an ultra‑deepwater submersible he called Deep Flight II. Hawkes was having trouble finding funding to build a prototype. Pickering, on the other hand, had an unlimited budget.
Using the classified ceramic submersible, Pickering sent a covert team underwater to affix new hydrophones to the walls of the Mariana Trench, deeper than any enemy could possibly look. In the process of drilling, however, they uncovered geologic structures unlike any that scientists had ever seen. The discoveries included chondrules and fossils of several unknown species. Of course, because the NRO’s ability to dive this deep was classified, none of the information could ever be shared.
It was not until recently, driven yet again by fear, that Pickering and his quiet team of NRO science advisers had decided to put their knowledge of the Mariana’s unique geology to work to help save NASA. Turning a Mariana rock into a meteorite had proven to be a deceptively simple task. Using an ECE slush‑hydrogen engine, the NRO team charred the rock with a convincing fusion crust. Then, using a small payload sub, they had descended beneath the Milne Ice Shelf and inserted the charred rock up into the ice from beneath. Once the insertion shaft refroze, the rock looked like it had been there for over three hundred years.
Unfortunately, as was often the case in the world of covert operations, the grandest of plans could be undone by the smallest of snags. Yesterday, the entire illusion had been shattered by a few bioluminescent plankton . . .
From the cockpit of the idling Kiowa, Delta‑One watched the drama unfold before him. Rachel and Tolland appeared to be in clear control, although Delta‑One almost had to laugh at the hollowness of the illusion. The machine gun in Tolland’s hands was worthless; even from here Delta‑One could see the cocking bar assembly had kicked back, indicating the clip was empty.
As Delta‑One gazed out at his partner struggling in the Triton’s claws, he knew he had to hurry. The focus on deck had turned completely to Pickering, and now Delta‑One could make his move. Leaving the rotors idling, he slipped out of the rear of the fuselage and, using the chopper for cover, made his way unseen onto the starboard gangway. With his own machine gun in hand, he headed for the bow. Pickering had given him specific orders before they landed on deck, and Delta‑One had no intention of failing at this simple task.
In a matter of minutes, he knew, this will all be over.
Still wearing his bathrobe, Zach Herney sat at his desk in the Oval Office, his head throbbing. The newest piece of the puzzle had just been revealed.
Marjorie Tench is dead.
Herney’s aides said they had information suggesting Tench had driven to the FDR Memorial for a private meeting with William Pickering. Now that Pickering was missing, the staff feared Pickering too might be dead.
The President and Pickering had endured their battles lately. Months ago Herney learned that Pickering had engaged in illegal activity on Herney’s behalf in an attempt to save Herney’s floundering campaign.
Employing NRO assets, Pickering had discreetly obtained enough dirt on Senator Sexton to sink his campaign‑scandalous sexual photos of the senator with his aide Gabrielle Ashe, incriminating financial records proving Sexton was taking bribes from private space companies. Pickering anonymously sent all the evidence to Marjorie Tench, assuming the White House would use it wisely. But Herney, upon seeing the data, had forbidden Tench to use it. Sex scandals and bribery were cancers in Washington, and waving another one in front of the public only added to their distrust of government.
Cynicism is killing this country.
Although Herney knew he could destroy Sexton with scandal, the cost would be besmirching the dignity of the U.S. Senate, something Herney refused to do.
No more negatives. Herney would beat Senator Sexton on the issues.
Pickering, angered by the White House’s refusal to use the evidence he had provided, tried to jump‑start the scandal by leaking a rumor that Sexton had slept with Gabrielle Ashe. Unfortunately, Sexton declared his innocence with such convincing indignation that the President ended up having to apologize for the leak personally. In the end William Pickering had done more damage than good. Herney told Pickering that if he ever interfered in the campaign again, he would be indicted. The grand irony, of course, was that Pickering did not even like President Herney. The NRO director’s attempts to help Herney’s campaign were simply fears over the fate of NASA. Zach Herney was the lesser of two evils.
Now has someone killed Pickering?
Herney could not imagine.
“Mr. President?” an aide said. “As you requested, I called Lawrence Ekstrom and told him about Marjorie Tench.”
“He would like to speak to you, sir.”
Herney was still furious with Ekstrom for lying about PODS. “Tell him I’ll talk to him in the morning.”
“Mr. Ekstrom wants to talk to you right away, sir.” The aide looked uneasy. “He’s very upset.”
HE’s upset? Herney could feel his temper fraying around the edges. As he stalked off to take Ekstrom’s call, the President wondered what the hell else could possibly go wrong tonight.
Onboard the Goya, Rachel felt lightheaded. The mystification that had settled around her like a heavy fog was lifting now. The stark reality that came into focus left her feeling naked and disgusted. She looked at the stranger before her and could barely hear his voice.
“We needed to rebuild NASA’s image,” Pickering was saying. “Their declining popularity and funding had become dangerous on so many levels.” Pickering paused, his gray eyes locking on hers. “Rachel, NASA was desperate for a triumph. Someone had to make it happen.”
Something had to be done, Pickering thought.
The meteorite had been a final act of desperation. Pickering and others had tried to save NASA by lobbying to incorporate the space agency into the intelligence community where it would enjoy increased funding and better security, but the White House continuously rebuffed the idea as an assault on pure science. Shortsighted idealism. With the rising popularity of Sexton’s anti‑NASA rhetoric, Pickering and his band of military powerbrokers knew time was running short. They decided that capturing the imagination of taxpayers and Congress was the only remaining way to salvage NASA’s image and save it from the auction block. If the space agency was to survive, it would need an infusion of grandeur‑something to remind the taxpayers of NASA’s Apollo glory days. And if Zach Herney was going to defeat Senator Sexton, he was going to need help.
I tried to help him, Pickering told himself, recalling all the damaging evidence he had sent Marjorie Tench. Unfortunately, Herney had forbidden its use, leaving Pickering no choice but to take drastic measures.
“Rachel,” Pickering said, “the information you just faxed off this ship is dangerous. You must understand that. If it gets out, the White House and NASA will look complicit. The backlash against the President and NASA will be enormous. The President and NASA know nothing, Rachel. They are innocent. They believe the meteorite is authentic.”
Pickering had not even tried to bring Herney or Ekstrom into the fold because both were far too idealistic to have agreed to any deceit, regardless of its potential to save the presidency or space agency. Administrator Ekstrom’s only crime had been persuading the PODS mission supervisor to lie about the anomaly software, a move Ekstrom no doubt regretted the moment he realized how scrutinized this particular meteorite would become.
Marjorie Tench, frustrated by Herney’s insistence on fighting a clean campaign, conspired with Ekstrom on the PODS lie, hoping a small PODS success might help the President fend off the rising Sexton tide.
If Tench had used the photos and bribery data I gave her, none of this would have happened!
Tench’s murder, though deeply regrettable, had been destined as soon as Rachel called Tench and made accusations of fraud. Pickering knew Tench would investigate ruthlessly until she got to the bottom of Rachel’s motives for the outrageous claims, and this was one investigation Pickering obviously could never let happen. Ironically, Tench would serve her president best in death, her violent end helping cement a sympathy vote for the White House as well as cast vague suspicions of foul play on a desperate Sexton campaign which had been so publicly humiliated by Marjorie Tench on CNN.
Rachel stood her ground, glaring at her boss.
“Understand,” Pickering said, “if news of this meteorite fraud gets out, you will destroy an innocent president and an innocent space agency. You will also put a very dangerous man in the Oval Office. I need to know where you faxed the data.”
As he spoke those words, a strange look came across Rachel’s face. It was the pained expression of horror of someone who had just realized they may have made a grave mistake.
Having circled the bow and come back down the port side, Delta‑One now stood in the hydrolab from which he had seen Rachel emerge as the chopper had flown in. A computer in the lab displayed an unsettling image‑a polychromatic rendering of the pulsating, deepwater vortex that was apparently hovering over the ocean floor somewhere beneath the Goya.
Another reason to get the hell out of here, he thought, moving now toward his target.
The fax machine was on a counter on the far side of the wall. The tray was filled with a stack of papers, exactly as Pickering had guessed it would be. Delta‑One picked up the stack. A note from Rachel was on top. Only two lines. He read it.
To the point, he thought.
As he flipped through the pages, he was both amazed and dismayed by the extent to which Tolland and Rachel had uncovered the meteorite deception. Whoever saw these printouts would have no doubt what they meant. Fortunately, Delta‑One would not even need to hit “redial” to find out where the printouts had gone. The last fax number was still displayed in the LCD window.
A Washington, D.C . . . prefix.
He carefully copied the fax number down, grabbed all the papers, and exited the lab.
Tolland’s hands felt sweaty on the machine gun as he gripped it, aiming the muzzle at William Pickering’s chest. The NRO director was still pressuring Rachel to tell him where the data had been sent, and Tolland was starting to get the uneasy feeling that Pickering was simply trying to buy time. For what?
“The White House and NASA are innocent,” Pickering repeated. “Work with me. Don’t let my mistakes destroy what little credibility NASA has left. NASA will look guilty if this gets out. You and I can come to an arrangement. The country needs this meteorite. Tell me where you faxed the data before it’s too late.”
“So you can kill someone else?” Rachel said. “You make me sick.”
Tolland was amazed with Rachel’s fortitude. She despised her father, but she clearly had no intention of putting the senator in any danger whatsoever. Unfortunately, Rachel’s plan to fax her father for help had backfired. Even if the senator came into his office, saw the fax, and called the President with news of the meteorite fraud and told him to call off the attack, nobody at the White House would have any idea what Sexton was talking about, or even where they were.
“I will only say this one more time,” Pickering said, fixing Rachel with a menacing glare. “This situation is too complex for you to fully understand. You’ve made an enormous mistake by sending that data off this ship. You’ve put your country at risk.”
William Pickering was indeed buying time, Tolland now realized. And the reason was striding calmly toward them up the starboard side of the boat. Tolland felt a flash of fear when he saw the soldier sauntering toward them carrying a stack of papers and a machine gun.
Tolland reacted with a decisiveness that shocked even himself. Gripping the machine gun, he wheeled, aimed at the soldier, and pulled the trigger.
The gun made an innocuous click.
“I found the fax number,” the soldier said, handing Pickering a slip of paper. “And Mr. Tolland is out of ammunition.”
Sedgewick Sexton stormed up the hallway of the Philip A. Hart Senate Office Building. He had no idea how Gabrielle had done it, but she had obviously gotten into his office. While they were speaking on the phone, Sexton had clearly heard the distinctive triple‑click of his Jourdain clock in the background. All he could imagine was that Gabrielle’s eavesdropping on the SFF meeting had undermined her trust in him and she had gone digging for evidence.
How the hell did she get into my office!
Sexton was glad he’d changed his computer password.
When he arrived at his private office, Sexton typed in his code to deactivate the alarm. Then he fumbled for his keys, unlocked the heavy doors, threw them open, and burst in, intent on catching Gabrielle in the act.
But the office was empty and dark, lit only by the glow of his computer screensaver. He turned on the lights, his eyes scanning. Everything looked in place. Dead silence except for the triple‑tick of his clock.
Where the hell is she?
He heard something rustle in his private bathroom and raced over, turning on the light. The bathroom was empty. He looked behind the door. Nothing.
Puzzled, Sexton eyed himself in the mirror, wondering if he’d had too much to drink tonight. I heard something. Feeling disoriented and confused, he walked back into his office.
“Gabrielle?” he called out. He went down the hall to her office. She wasn’t there. Her office was dark.
A toilet flushed in the ladies’ room, and Sexton spun, striding now back in the direction of the restrooms. He arrived just as Gabrielle was exiting, drying her hands. She jumped when she saw him.
“My God! You scared me!” she said, looking genuinely frightened. “What are you doing here?”
“You said you were getting NASA documents from your office,” he declared, eyeing her empty hands. “Where are they?”
“I couldn’t find them. I looked everywhere. That’s what took so long.”
He stared directly into her eyes. “Were you in my office?”
Äàòà äîáàâëåíèÿ: 2015-09-14; ïðîñìîòðîâ: 4; Íàðóøåíèå àâòîðñêèõ ïðàâ