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 Gabrielles 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 hed 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 hed 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 wasnt 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 couldnt find them. I looked everywhere. Thats what took so long.
He stared directly into her eyes. Were you in my office?
I owe my life to his fax machine, Gabrielle thought.
Only minutes ago shed been sitting at Sextons computer, trying to make printouts of the images of illegal checks on his computer. The files were protected somehow, and she was going to need more time to figure out how to print them. She would probably still be trying right now if Sextons fax machine had not rung, startling her and snapping her back to reality. Gabrielle took it as her cue to get out. Without taking time to see what the incoming fax was, she logged off Sextons computer, tidied up, and headed out the way she had come. She was just climbing out of Sextons bathroom when she heard him coming in.
Now, with Sexton standing before her, staring down, she sensed him searching her eyes for a lie. Sedgewick Sexton could smell untruths like nobody Gabrielle had ever met. If she lied to him, Sexton would know.
Youve been drinking, Gabrielle said, turning away. How does he know I was in his office?
Sexton put his hands on her shoulders and spun her back around. Were you in my office?
Gabrielle felt a rising fear. Sexton had indeed been drinking. His touch was rough. In your office? she demanded, forcing a confused laugh. How? Why?
I heard my Jourdain in the background when I called you.
Gabrielle cringed inwardly. His clock? It had not even occurred to her. Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?
I spend all day in that office. I know what my clock sounds like.
Gabrielle sensed she had to end this immediately. The best defense is a good offense. At least thats what Yolanda Cole always said. Placing her hands on her hips, Gabrielle went for him with all she had. She stepped toward him, getting in his face, glaring. Let me get this straight, senator. Its four oclock in the morning, youve been drinking, you heard a ticking on your phone, and thats why youre here? She pointed her finger indignantly down the hall at his door. Just for the record, are you accusing me of disarming a federal alarm system, picking two sets of locks, breaking into your office, being stupid enough to answer my cellphone while in the process of committing a felony, rearming the alarm system on my way out, and then calmly using the ladies room before I run off with nothing to show for it? Is that the story here?
Sexton blinked, wide‑eyed.
Theres a reason people shouldnt drink alone, Gabrielle said. Now do you want to talk about NASA, or not?
Sexton felt befuddled as he walked back into his office. He went straight to his wet bar and poured himself a Pepsi. He sure as hell didnt feel drunk. Could he really have been wrong about this? Across the room, his Jourdain ticked mockingly. Sexton drained his Pepsi and poured himself another, and one for Gabrielle.
Drink, Gabrielle? he asked, turning back into the room. Gabrielle had not followed him in. She was still standing in the doorway, rubbing his nose in it. Oh, for Gods sake! Come in. Tell me what you found out at NASA.
I think Ive had enough for tonight, she said, sounding distant. Lets talk tomorrow.
Sexton was in no mood for games. He needed this information now, and he had no intention of begging for it. He heaved a tired sigh. Extend the bond of trust. Its all about trust. I screwed up, he said. Im sorry. Its been a hell of a day. I dont know what I was thinking.
Gabrielle remained in the doorway.
Sexton walked to his desk and set Gabrielles Pepsi down on his blotter. He motioned to his leather chair‑the position of power. Have a seat. Enjoy a soda. Im going to go stick my head in the sink. He headed for the bathroom.
Gabrielle still wasnt moving.
I think I saw a fax in the machine, Sexton called over his shoulder as he entered the bathroom. Show her you trust her. Have a look at it for me, will you?
Sexton closed the door and filled the sink with cold water. He splashed it on his face and felt no clearer. This had never happened to him before‑being so sure, and being so wrong. Sexton was a man who trusted his instincts, and his instincts told him Gabrielle Ashe had been in his office.
But how? It was impossible.
Sexton told himself to forget about it and focus on the matter at hand. NASA. He needed Gabrielle right now. This was no time to alienate her. He needed to know what she knew. Forget your instincts. You were wrong.
As Sexton dried his face, he threw his head back and took a deep breath. Relax, he told himself. Dont get punchy. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply again, feeling better.
When Sexton exited the bathroom, he was relieved to see Gabrielle had acquiesced and come back into his office. Good, he thought. Now we can get to business. Gabrielle was standing at his fax machine flipping through whatever pages had come in. Sexton was confused, however, when he saw her face. It was a mask of disorientation and fear.
What is it? Sexton said, moving toward her.
Gabrielle teetered, as if she were about to pass out.
The meteorite . . . she choked, her voice frail as her trembling hand held the stack of fax papers out to him. And your daughter . . . shes in danger.
Bewildered, Sexton walked over, and took the fax pages from Gabrielle. The top sheet was a handwritten note. Sexton immediately recognized the writing. The communique was awkward and shocking in its simplicity.
Meteorite is fake. Heres proof. NASA/White House trying to kill me. Help! RS
The senator seldom felt totally at a loss of understanding, but as he reread Rachels words, he had no idea what to make of them.
The meteorite is a fake? NASA and the White House are trying to kill her?
In a deepening haze, Sexton began sifting through the half dozen sheets. The first page was a computerized image whose heading read Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). The picture appeared to be an ice‑sounding of some sort. Sexton saw the extraction pit they had talked about on television. His eye was drawn to what looked like the faint outline of a body floating in the shaft. Then he saw something even more shocking‑the clear outline of a second shaft directly beneath where the meteorite had been‑as if the stone had been inserted from underneath the ice.
What in the world?
Flipping to the next page, Sexton came face‑to‑face with a photograph of some sort of living ocean species called a Bathynomous giganteus. He stared in utter amazement. Thats the animal from the meteorite fossils!
Flipping faster now, he saw a graphic display depicting the ionized hydrogen content in the meteorites crust. This page had a handwritten scrawl on it: Slush‑hydrogen burn? NASA Expander Cycle Engine?
Sexton could not believe his eyes. With the room starting to spin around him, he flipped to the final page‑a photo of a rock containing metallic bubbles that looked exactly like those in the meteorite. Shockingly, the accompanying description said the rock was the product of oceanic volcanism. A rock from the ocean? Sexton wondered. But NASA said chondrules form only in space!
Sexton set the sheets down on his desk and collapsed in his chair. It had taken him only fifteen seconds to piece together everything he was looking at. The implications of the images on the papers were crystal clear. Anyone with half a brain could see what these photos proved.
The NASA meteorite is a fake!
No day in Sextons career had been filled with such extreme highs and lows. Today had been a roller‑coaster ride of hope and despair. Sextons bafflement over how this enormous scam could possibly have been pulled off evaporated into irrelevance when he realized what the scam meant for him politically.
When I go public with this information, the presidency is mine!
In his upwelling of celebration, Senator Sedgewick Sexton had momentarily forgotten his daughters claim that she was in trouble.
Rachel is in danger, Gabrielle said. Her note says NASA and the White House are trying to‑
Sextons fax machine suddenly began ringing again. Gabrielle wheeled and stared at the machine. Sexton found himself staring too. He could not imagine what else Rachel could be sending him. More proof? How much more could there be? This is plenty!
When the fax machine answered the call, however, no pages came through. The machine, detecting no data signal, had switched to its answering machine feature.
Hello, Sextons outbound message crackled. This is the office of Senator Sedgewick Sexton. If you are trying to send a fax, you may transmit at any time. If not, you may leave a message at the tone.
Before Sexton could pick up, the machine beeped.
Senator Sexton? The mans voice had a lucid rawness to it. This is William Pickering, director of the National Reconnaissance Office. Youre probably not in the office at this hour, but I need to speak immediately. He paused as if waiting for someone to pick up.
Gabrielle reached to pick up the receiver.
Sexton grabbed her hand and violently yanked it away.
Gabrielle looked stunned. But thats the director of‑
Senator, Pickering continued, sounding almost relieved that no one had picked up. Im afraid I am calling with some very troubling news. Ive just received word that your daughter Rachel is in extreme danger. I have a team trying to help her as we speak. I cannot talk in detail about the situation on the phone, but I was just informed she may have faxed you some data relating to the NASA meteorite. I have not seen the data, nor do I know what it is, but the people threatening your daughter have just warned me that if you or anyone goes public with the information, your daughter will die. Im sorry to be so blunt, sir; I do it for claritys sake. Your daughters life is being threatened. If she has indeed faxed you something, do not share it with anyone. Not yet. Your daughters life depends on it. Stay where you are. I will be there shortly. He paused. With luck, senator, all of this will be resolved by the time you wake up. If, by chance, you get this message before I arrive at your office, stay where you are and call no one. I am doing everything in my power to get your daughter back safely.
Pickering hung up.
Gabrielle was trembling. Rachel is a hostage?
Sexton sensed that even in her disillusionment with him, Gabrielle felt a pained empathy to think of a bright young woman in danger. Oddly, Sexton was having trouble mustering the same emotions. Most of him felt like a child who had just been given his most wanted Christmas present, and he refused to let anyone yank it out of his hands.
Pickering wants me to be quiet about this?
He stood a moment, trying to decide what all of this meant. In a cold, calculating side of his mind, Sexton felt the machinery beginning to turn‑a political computer, playing out every scenario and evaluating each outcome. He glanced at the stack of faxes in his hands and began to sense the raw power of the images. This NASA meteorite had shattered his dream of the presidency. But it was all a lie. A construct. Now, those who did this would pay. The meteorite that his enemies had created to destroy him would now make him powerful beyond anyones wildest imagination. His daughter had seen to that.
There is only one acceptable outcome, he knew. Only one course of action for a true leader to take.
Feeling hypnotized by the shining images of his own resurrection, Sexton was drifting through a fog as he crossed the room. He went to his copy machine and turned it on, preparing to copy the papers Rachel had faxed him.
What are you doing? Gabrielle demanded, sounding bewildered.
They wont kill Rachel, Sexton declared. Even if something went wrong, Sexton knew losing his daughter to the enemy would only make him more powerful still. Either way he would win. Acceptable risk.
Who are those copies for? Gabrielle demanded. William Pickering said not to tell anyone!
Sexton turned from the machine and looked at Gabrielle, amazed by how unattractive he suddenly found her. In that instant, Senator Sexton was an island. Untouchable. Everything he needed to accomplish his dreams was now in his hands. Nothing could stop him now. Not claims of bribery. Not rumors of sex. Nothing.
Go home, Gabrielle. I have no more use for you.