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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.”