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67

The White House telephone switchboard was located on the lower level of the East Wing. Three switchboard operators were always on duty. At the moment, only two were seated at the controls. The third operator was at a full sprint toward the Briefing Room. In her hand, she carried a cordless phone. She’d tried to patch the call through to the Oval Office, but the President was already en route to the press conference. She’d tried to call his aides on their cellulars, but before televised briefings, all cellular phones in and around the Briefing Room were turned off so as not to interrupt the proceedings.

Running a cordless phone directly to the President at a time like this seemed questionable at best, and yet when the White House’s NRO liaison called claiming she had emergency information that the President must get before going live, the operator had little doubt she needed to jump. The question now was whether she would get there in time.

In a small medical office onboard the U.S.S. Charlotte, Rachel Sexton clutched a phone receiver to her ear and waited to talk to the President. Tolland and Corky sat nearby, still looking shaken. Corky had five stitches and a deep bruise on his cheekbone. All three of them had been helped into Thinsulate thermal underwear, heavy navy flight suits, oversized wool socks, and deck boots. With a hot cup of stale coffee in her hand, Rachel was starting to feel almost human again.

“What’s the holdup?” Tolland pressed. “It’s seven fifty‑six!”

Rachel could not imagine. She had successfully reached one of the White House operators, explained who she was and that this was an emergency. The operator seemed sympathetic, had placed Rachel on hold, and was now, supposedly, making it her top priority to patch Rachel through to the President.

Four minutes, Rachel thought. Hurry up!

Closing her eyes, Rachel tried to gather her thoughts. It had been one hell of a day. I’m on a nuclear submarine, she said to herself, knowing she was damned lucky to be anywhere at all. According to the submarine captain, the Charlotte had been on a routine patrol in the Bering Sea two days ago and had picked up anomalous underwater sounds coming from the Milne Ice Shelf‑drilling, jet noise, lots of encrypted radio traffic. They had been redirected and told to lie quietly and listen. An hour or so ago, they’d heard an explosion in the ice shelf and moved in to check it out. That was when they heard Rachel’s SOS call.

“Three minutes left!” Tolland sounded anxious now as he monitored the clock.

Rachel was definitely getting nervous now. What was taking so long? Why hadn’t the President taken her call? If Zach Herney went public with the data as it stood‑

Rachel forced the thought from her mind and shook the receiver. Pick up!

As the White House operator dashed toward the stage entrance of the Briefing Room, she was met with a gathering throng of staff members. Everyone here was talking excitedly, making final preparations. She could see the President twenty yards away waiting at the entrance. The makeup people were still primping.

“Coming through!” the operator said, trying to get through the crowd. “Call for the President. Excuse me. Coming through!”

“Live in two minutes!” a media coordinator called out.

Clutching the phone, the operator shoved her way toward the President. “Call for the President!” she panted. “Coming through!”

A towering roadblock stepped into her path. Marjorie Tench. The senior adviser’s long face grimaced down in disapproval. “What’s going on?”

“I have an emergency!” The operator was breathless. “. . . phone call for the President.”

Tench looked incredulous. “Not now, you don’t!”

“It’s from Rachel Sexton. She says it’s urgent.”

The scowl that darkened Tench’s face appeared to be more one of puzzlement than anger. Tench eyed the cordless phone. “That’s a house line. That’s not secure.”

“No, ma’am. But the incoming call is open anyway. She’s on a radiophone. She needs to speak to the President right away.”

“Live in ninety seconds!”

Tench’s cold eyes stared, and she held out a spider‑like hand. “Give me the phone.”

The operator’s heart was pounding now. “Ms. Sexton wants to speak to President Herney directly. She told me to postpone the press conference until she’d talked to him. I assured‑”

Tench stepped toward the operator now, her voice a seething whisper. “Let me tell you how this works. You do not take orders from the daughter of the President’s opponent, you take them from me. I can assure you, this is as close as you are getting to the President until I find out what the hell is going on.”

The operator looked toward the President, who was now surrounded by microphone technicians, stylists, and several staff members talking him through final revisions of his speech.

“Sixty seconds!” the television supervisor yelled.

Onboard the Charlotte, Rachel Sexton was pacing wildly in the tight space when she finally heard a click on the telephone line.

A raspy voice came on. “Hello?”

“President Herney?” Rachel blurted.

“Marjorie Tench,” the voice corrected. “I am the President’s senior adviser. Whoever this is, I must warn you that prank calls against the White House are in violation of‑”

For Christ’s sake! “This is not a prank! This is Rachel Sexton. I’m your NRO liaison and‑”

“I am aware of who Rachel Sexton is, ma’am. And I am doubtful that you are she. You’ve called the White House on an unsecured line telling me to interrupt a major presidential broadcast. That is hardly proper MO for someone with‑”

“Listen,” Rachel fumed, “I briefed your whole staff a couple of hours ago on a meteorite. You sat in the front row. You watched my briefing on a television sitting on the President’s desk! Any questions?”

Tench fell silent a moment. “Ms. Sexton, what is the meaning of this?”

“The meaning is that you have to stop the President! His meteorite data is all wrong! We’ve just learned the meteorite was inserted from beneath the ice shelf. I don’t know by whom, and I don’t know why! But things are not what they seem up here! The President is about to endorse some seriously errant data, and I strongly advise‑”

“Wait one goddamned minute!” Tench lowered her voice. “Do you realize what you are saying?”

“Yes! I suspect the NASA administrator has orchestrated some kind of large‑scale fraud, and President Herney is about to get caught in the middle. You’ve at least got to postpone ten minutes so I can explain to him what’s been going on up here. Someone tried to kill me, for God’s sake!”

Tench’s voice turned to ice. “Ms. Sexton, let me give you a word of warning. If you are having second thoughts about your role in helping the White House in this campaign, you should have thought of that long before you personally endorsed that meteorite data for the President.”

“What!” Is she even listening?

“I’m revolted by your display. Using an unsecured line is a cheap stunt. Implying the meteorite data has been faked? What kind of intelligence official uses a radiophone to call the White House and talk about classified information? Obviously you are hoping someone intercepts this message.”

“Norah Mangor was killed over this! Dr. Ming is also dead. You’ve got to warn‑”

“Stop right there! I don’t know what you’re playing at, but I will remind you‑and anyone else who happens to be intercepting this phone call‑that the White House possesses videotaped depositions from NASA’s top scientists, several renowned civilian scientists, and yourself, Ms. Sexton, all endorsing the meteorite data as accurate. Why you are suddenly changing your story, I can only imagine. Whatever the reason, consider yourself relieved of your White House post as of this instant, and if you try to taint this discovery with any more absurd allegations of foul play, I assure you the White House and NASA will sue you for defamation so fast you won’t have a chance to pack a suitcase before you go to jail.”

Rachel opened her mouth to speak, but no words came.

“Zach Herney has been generous to you,” Tench snapped, “and frankly this smacks of a cheap Sexton publicity stunt. Drop it right now, or we’ll press charges. I swear it.”

The line went dead.

Rachel’s mouth was still hanging open when the captain knocked on the door.

“Ms. Sexton?” the captain said, peering in. “We’re picking up a faint signal from Canadian National Radio. President Zach Herney has just begun his press conference.”