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11

Rachel followed President Herney out onto the glistening gangway of Air Force One. As they descended the stairs, Rachel felt the bleak March air clearing her mind. Unfortunately, clarity only made the President’s claims seem more outlandish than before.

NASA made a discovery of such scientific importance that it validates every dollar Americans have ever spent in space?

Rachel could only imagine that a discovery of that magnitude would only center on one thing—the holy grail of NASA—contact with extraterrestrial life. Unfortunately, Rachel knew enough about that particular holy grail to know it was utterly implausible.

As an intelligence analyst, Rachel constantly fielded questions from friends who wanted to know about the alleged government cover‑ups of alien contact. She was consistently appalled by the theories her “educated” friends bought into—crashed alien saucers hidden in secret government bunkers, extraterrestrial corpses kept on ice, even unsuspecting civilians being abducted and surgically probed.

It was all absurd, of course. There were no aliens. No cover‑ups.

Everyone in the intelligence community understood that the vast majority of sightings and alien abductions were simply the product of active imaginations or moneymaking hoaxes. When authentic photographic UFO evidence did exist, it had a strange habit of occurring near U.S. military airbases that were testing advanced classified aircraft. When Lockheed began air‑testing aradical new jet called the Stealth Bomber, UFO sightings around Edwards Air Force Base increased fifteen‑fold.

“You have a skeptical look on your face,” the President said, eyeing her askance.

The sound of his voice startled Rachel. She glanced over, unsure how to respond. “Well . . . “She hesitated. “May I assume, sir, that we are not talking about alien spacecrafts or little green men?”

The President looked quietly amused. “Rachel, I think you’ll find this discovery far more intriguing than science fiction.”

Rachel was relieved to hear NASA had not been so desperate as to try selling the President on an alien story. Nonetheless, his comment served only to deepen the mystery. “Well,” she said, “whatever NASA found, I must say the timing is exceptionally convenient.”

Herney paused on the gangway. “Convenient? How so?”

How so? Rachel stopped and stared. “Mr. President, NASA is currently in a life or death battle to justify its very existence, and you are under attack for continuing to fund it. A major NASA breakthrough right now would be a panacea for both NASA and your campaign. Your critics will obviously find the timing highly suspect.”

“So . . . are you calling me a liar or a fool?”

Rachel felt a knot rise in her throat. “I meant no disrespect, sir. I simply‑”

“Relax.” A faint grin grew on Herney’s lips, and he started to descend again. “When the NASA administrator first told me about this discovery, I flat out rejected it as absurd. I accused him of masterminding the most transparent political sham in history.”

Rachel felt the knot in her throat dissolve somewhat.

At the bottom of the ramp, Herney stopped and looked at her. “One reason I’ve asked NASA to keep their discovery under wraps is to protect them. The magnitude of this find is well beyond anything NASA has ever announced. It will make landing men on the moon seem insignificant. Because everyone, myself included, has so much to gain—and lose—I thought it prudent for someone to double‑check the NASA data before we step into the world spotlight with a formal announcement.”

Rachel was startled. “Certainly you can’t mean me, sir?”

The President laughed. “No, this is not your area of expertise. Besides, I’ve already achieved verification through extragovernmental channels.”

Rachel’s relief gave way to a new mystification. “Extragovernmental, sir? You mean you used the private sector? On something this classified?”

The President nodded with conviction. “I put together an external confirmation team—four civilian scientists‑non‑NASA personnel with big names and serious reputations to protect. They used their own equipment to make observations and come to their own conclusions. Over the past forty‑eight hours, these civilian scientists have confirmed the NASA discovery beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

Now Rachel was impressed. The President had protected himself with typical Herney aplomb. By hiring the ultimate team of skeptics—outsiders who had nothing to gain by confirming the NASA discovery—Herney had immunized himself against suspicions that this might be a desperate NASA ploy to justify its budget, reelect their NASA‑friendly President, and ward off Senator Sexton’s attacks.

“Tonight at eight P.M . . .” Herney said, “I will be calling a press conference at the White House to announce this discovery to the world.”

Rachel felt frustrated. Herney had essentially told her nothing. “And this discovery is what, precisely?”

The President smiled. “You will find patience a virtue today. This discovery is something you need to see for yourself. I need you to understand this situation fully before we proceed. The administrator of NASA is waiting to brief you. He will tell you everything you need to know. Afterward, you and I will further discuss your role.”

Rachel sensed an impending drama in the President’s eyes and recalled Pickering’s hunch that the White House had something up its sleeve. Pickering, it appeared, was right, as usual.

Herney motioned to a nearby airplane hangar. “Follow me,” he said, walking toward it.

Rachel followed, confused. The building before them had no windows, and its towering bay doors were sealed. The only access seemed to be a small entryway on the side. The door was ajar. The President guided Rachel to within a few feet of the door and stopped.

“End of the line for me,” he said, motioning to the door. “You go through there.”

Rachel hesitated. “You’re not coming?”

“I need to return to the White House. I’ll speak to you shortly. Do you have a cellphone?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Give it to me.”

Rachel produced her phone and handed it to him, assuming he intended to program a private contact number into it. Instead, he slipped her phone into his pocket.

“You’re now off‑the‑grid,” the President said. “All your responsibilities at work have been covered. You will not speak to anyone else today without express permission from myself or the NASA administrator. Do you understand?”

Rachel stared. Did the President just steal my cell‑phone?

“After the administrator briefs you on the discovery, he will put you in contact with me via secure channels. I’ll talk to you soon. Good luck.”

Rachel looked at the hangar door and felt a growing uneasiness.

President Herney put a reassuring hand on her shoulder and nodded toward the door. “I assure you, Rachel, you will not regret assisting me in this matter.”

Without another word, the President strode toward the PaveHawk that had brought Rachel in. He climbed aboard, and took off. He never once looked back.