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131

The Washington morning was clear and crisp.

A breeze sent eddies of leaves skittering around the base of the Washington Monument. The world’s largest obelisk usually awoke to its own peaceful image in the reflecting pool, but today the morning brought with it a chaos of jostling reporters, all crowding around the monument’s base in anticipation.

Senator Sedgewick Sexton felt larger than Washington itself as he stepped from his limousine and strode like a lion toward the press area awaiting him at the base of the monument. He had invited the nation’s ten largest media networks here and promised them the scandal of the decade.

Nothing brings out the vultures like the smell of death, Sexton thought.

In his hand, Sexton clutched the stack of white linen envelopes, each elegantly wax‑embossed with his monogrammed seal. If information was power, then Sexton was carrying a nuclear warhead.

He felt intoxicated as he approached the podium, pleased to see his improvised stage included two “fameframes"‑large, free‑standing partitions that flanked his podium like navy‑blue curtains‑an old Ronald Reagan trick to ensure he stood out against any backdrop.

Sexton entered stage right, striding out from behind the partition like an actor out of the wings. The reporters quickly took their seats in the several rows of folding chairs facing his podium. To the east, the sun was just breaking over the Capitol dome, shooting rays of pink and gold down on Sexton like rays from heaven.

A perfect day to become the most powerful man in the world.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” Sexton said, laying the envelopes on the lectern before him. “I will make this as short and painless as possible. The information I am about to share with you is, frankly, quite disturbing. These envelopes contain proof of a deceit at the highest levels of government. I am ashamed to say that the President called me half an hour ago and begged me‑yes, begged me‑not to go public with this evidence.” He shook his head with dismay. “And yet, I am a man who believes in the truth. No matter how painful.”

Sexton paused, holding up the envelopes, tempting the seated crowd. The reporters’ eyes followed the envelopes back and forth, a pack of dogs salivating over some unknown delicacy.

The President had called Sexton a half hour ago and explained everything. Herney had talked to Rachel, who was safely aboard a plane somewhere. Incredibly, it seemed the White House and NASA were innocent bystanders in this fiasco, a plot masterminded by William Pickering.

Not that it matters, Sexton thought. Zach Herney is still going down hard.

Sexton wished he could be a fly on the wall of the White House right now to see the President’s face when he realized Sexton was going public. Sexton had agreed to meet Herney at the White House right now to discuss how best to tell the nation the truth about the meteorite. Herney was probably standing in front of a television at this very moment in dumbfounded shock, realizing that there was nothing the White House could do to stop the hand of fate.

“My friends,” Sexton said, letting his eyes connect with the crowd. “I have weighed this heavily. I have considered honoring the President’s desire to keep this data secret, but I must do what is in my heart.” Sexton sighed, hanging his head like a man trapped by history. “The truth is the truth. I will not presume to color your interpretation of these facts in any way. I will simply give you the data at face value.”

In the distance, Sexton heard the beating of huge helicopter rotors. For a moment, he wondered if maybe the President were flying over from the White House in a panic, hoping to halt the press conference. That would be the icing on the cake, Sexton thought mirthfully. How guilty would Herney appear THEN?

“I do not take pleasure in doing this,” Sexton continued, sensing his timing was perfect. “But I feel it is my duty to let the American people know they have been lied to.”

The aircraft thundered in, touching down on the esplanade to their right. When Sexton glanced over, he was surprised to see it was not the presidential helicopter after all, but rather a large Osprey tilt‑rotor airplane.

The fuselage read:

United States Coast Guard

Baffled, Sexton watched as the cabin door opened and a woman emerged. She wore an orange Coast Guard parka and looked disheveled, like she’d been through a war. She strode toward the press area. For a moment, Sexton didn’t recognize her. Then it hit him.

Rachel? He gaped in shock. What the hell is SHE doing here?

A murmur of confusion went through the crowd.

Pasting a broad smile on his face, Sexton turned back to the press and raised an apologetic finger. “If you could give me just one minute? I’m terribly sorry.” He heaved the weary, good‑natured sigh. “Family first.”

A few of the reporters laughed.

With his daughter bearing down fast from his right, Sexton had no doubt this father‑daughter reunion would best be held in private. Unfortunately, privacy was scarce at the moment. Sexton’s eyes darted to the large partition on his right.

Still smiling calmly, Sexton waved to his daughter and stepped away from the microphone. Moving toward her at an angle, he maneuvered such that Rachel had to pass behind the partition to get to him. Sexton met her halfway, hidden from the eyes and ears of the press.

“Honey?” he said, smiling and opening his arms as Rachel came toward him. “What a surprise!”

Rachel walked up and slapped his face.

Alone with her father now, ensconced behind the partition, Rachel glared with loathing. She had slapped him hard, but he barely flinched. With chilling control, his phony smile melted away, mutating into an admonishing glower.

His voice turned to a demonic whisper. “You should not be here.”

Rachel saw wrath in his eyes and for the first time in her life felt unafraid. “I turned to you for help, and you sold me out! I was almost killed!”

“You’re obviously fine.” His tone was almost disappointed.

“NASA is innocent!” she said. “The President told you that! What are you doing here?” Rachel’s short flight to Washington aboard the Coast Guard Osprey had been punctuated by a flurry of phone calls between herself, the White House, her father, and even a distraught Gabrielle Ashe. “You promised Zach Herney you were going to the White House!”

“I am.” He smirked. “On election day.”

Rachel felt sickened to think this man was her father. “What you’re about to do is madness.”

“Oh?” Sexton chuckled. He turned and motioned behind him to the podium, which was visible at the end of the partition. On the podium, a stack of white envelopes sat waiting. “Those envelopes contain information you sent me, Rachel. You. The President’s blood is on your hands.”

“I faxed you that information when I needed your help! When I thought the President and NASA were guilty!”

“Considering the evidence, NASA certainly appears guilty.”

“But they are not! They deserve a chance to admit their own mistakes. You’ve already won this election. Zach Herney is finished! You know that. Let the man retain some dignity.”

Sexton groaned. “So naive. It’s not about winning the election, Rachel, it’s about power. It’s about decisive victory, acts of greatness, crushing opposition, and controlling the forces in Washington so you can get something done.”

“At what cost?”

“Don’t be so self‑righteous. I’m simply presenting the evidence. The people can draw their own conclusions as to who is guilty.”

“You know how this will look.”

He shrugged. “Maybe NASA’s time has come.”

Senator Sexton sensed the press was getting restless beyond the partition, and he had no intention of standing here all morning and being lectured by his daughter. His moment of glory was waiting.

“We’re through here,” he said. “I have a press conference to give.”

“I’m asking you as your daughter,” Rachel pleaded. “Don’t do this. Think about what you’re about to do. There’s a better way.”

“Not for me.”

A howl of feedback echoed out of the PA system behind him, and Sexton wheeled to see a late‑arriving female reporter, huddled over his podium, attempting to attach a network microphone to one of the goose‑neck clips.

Why can’t these idiots arrive on time? Sexton fumed.

In her haste, the reporter knocked Sexton’s stack of envelopes to the ground.

Goddamn it! Sexton marched over, cursing his daughter for distracting him. When he arrived, the woman was on her hands and knees, collecting the envelopes off the ground. Sexton couldn’t see her face, but she was obviously “network"‑wearing a full‑length cashmere coat, matching scarf, and low‑slung mohair beret with an ABC press pass clipped to it.

Stupid bitch, Sexton thought. “I’ll take those,” he snapped, holding out his hand for the envelopes.

The woman scraped up the last of the envelopes and handed them up to Sexton without looking up. “Sorry . . .” she muttered, obviously embarrassed. Hunkering low in shame, she scurried off into the crowd.

Sexton quickly counted the envelopes. Ten. Good. Nobody was going to steal his thunder today. Regrouping, he adjusted the microphones and gave a joking smile to the crowd. “I guess I’d better hand these out before someone gets hurt!”

The crowd laughed, looking eager.

Sexton sensed his daughter nearby, standing just off‑stage behind the partition.

“Don’t do this,” Rachel said to him. “You’ll regret it.”

Sexton ignored her.

“I’m asking you to trust me,” Rachel said, her voice growing louder. “It’s a mistake.”

Sexton picked up his envelopes, straightening the edges.

“Dad,” Rachel said, intense and pleading now. “This is your last chance to do what’s right.”

Do what’s right? Sexton covered the microphone and turned as if clearing his throat. He glanced discreetly over at his daughter. “You’re just like your mother‑idealistic and small. Women simply do not understand the true nature of power.”

Sedgewick Sexton had already forgotten his daughter by the time he turned back toward the jostling media. Head held high, he walked around the podium and handed the stack of envelopes into the hands of the waiting press. He watched the envelopes disseminate rapidly through the crowd. He could hear the seals being broken, the envelopes being torn apart like Christmas presents.

A sudden hush came over the crowd.

In the silence, Sexton could hear the defining moment of his career.

The meteorite is a fraud. And I am the man who revealed it.

Sexton knew it would take the press a moment to understand the true implications of what they were looking at: GPR images of an insertion shaft in the ice; a living ocean species almost identical to the NASA fossils; evidence of chondrules that formed on earth. It all led to one shocking conclusion.

“Sir?” one reporter stammered, sounding stunned as he looked in his envelope. “Is this for real?”

Sexton gave a somber sigh. “Yes, I’m afraid it’s very real indeed.”

Murmurs of confusion now spread through the crowd.

“I’ll give everyone a moment to look through these pages,” Sexton said, “and then I’ll take questions and attempt to shed some light on what you’re looking at.”

“Senator?” another reporter asked, sounding utterly bewildered. “Are these images authentic? . . . Unretouched?”

“One hundred percent,” Sexton said, speaking more firmly now. “I would not present the evidence to you otherwise.”

The confusion in the crowd seemed to deepen, and Sexton thought he even heard some laughter‑not at all the reaction he had expected. He was starting to fear he had overestimated the media’s ability to connect the obvious dots.

“Um, senator?” someone said, sounding oddly amused. “For the record, you stand behind the authenticity of these images?”

Sexton was getting frustrated. “My friends, I will say this one last time, the evidence in your hands is one‑hundred‑percent accurate. And if anyone can prove otherwise, I’ll eat my hat!”

Sexton waited for the laugh, but it never came.

Dead silence. Blank stares.

The reporter who had just spoken walked toward Sexton, shuffling through his photocopies as he came forward. “You’re right, senator. This is scandalous data.” The reporter paused, scratching his head. “So I guess we’re puzzled as to why you’ve decided to share it with us like this, especially after denying it so vehemently earlier.”

Sexton had no idea what the man was talking about. The reporter handed him the photocopies. Sexton looked at the pages‑and for a moment, his mind went totally blank.

No words came.

He was staring at unfamiliar photographs. Black‑and‑white images. Two people. Naked. Arms and legs intertwined. For an instant, Sexton had no idea what he was looking at. Then it registered. A cannonball to the gut.

In horror, Sexton’s head snapped up to the crowd. They were laughing now. Half of them were already phoning in the story to their news desks.

Sexton felt a tap on his shoulder.

In a daze, he wheeled.

Rachel was standing there. “We tried to stop you,” she said. “We gave you every chance.” A woman stood beside her.

Sexton was trembling as his eyes moved to the woman at Rachel’s side. She was the reporter in the cashmere coat and mohair beret‑the woman who had knocked over his envelopes. Sexton saw her face, and his blood turned to ice.

Gabrielle’s dark eyes seemed to bore right through him as she reached down and opened her coat to reveal a stack of white envelopes tucked neatly beneath her arm.