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69

Marjorie Tench was livid as she broke away from the jovial chaos outside the Briefing Room and marched back to her private corner in the West Wing. She was in no mood for celebration. The phone call from Rachel Sexton had been most unexpected.

Most disappointing.

Tench slammed her office door, stalked to her desk, and dialed the White House operator. “William Pickering. NRO.”

Tench lit a cigarette and paced the room as she waited for the operator to track down Pickering. Normally, he might have gone home for the night, but with the White House’s big windup into tonight’s press conference, Tench guessed Pickering had been in his office all evening, glued to his television screen, wondering what could possibly be going on in the world about which the NRO director did not have prior knowledge.

Tench cursed herself for not trusting her instincts when the President said he wanted to send Rachel Sexton to Milne. Tench had been wary, feeling it was an unnecessary risk. But the President had been convincing, persuading Tench that the White House staff had grown cynical over the past weeks and would be suspect of the NASA discovery if the news came from in‑house. As Herney had promised, Rachel Sexton’s endorsement had squelched suspicions, prevented any skeptical in‑house debate, and forced the White House staff to move forward with a unified front. Invaluable, Tench had to admit. And yet now Rachel Sexton had changed her tune.

The bitch called me on an unsecured line.

Rachel Sexton was obviously intent on destroying the credibility of this discovery, and Tench’s only solace was knowing the President had captured Rachel’s earlier briefing on videotape. Thank God. At least Herney had thought to obtain that small insurance. Tench was starting to fear they were going to need it.

At the moment, however, Tench was trying to stem the bleeding in other ways. Rachel Sexton was a smart woman, and if she truly intended to go head‑to‑head with the White House and NASA, she would need to recruit some powerful allies. Her first logical choice would be William Pickering. Tench already knew how Pickering felt about NASA. She needed to get to Pickering before Rachel did.

“Ms. Tench?” the transparent voice on the line said. “William Pickering, here. To what do I owe this honor?”

Tench could hear the television in the background‑NASA commentary. She could already sense in his tone that he was still reeling from the press conference. “Do you have a minute, director?”

“I expected you’d be busy celebrating. Quite a night for you. Looks like NASA and the President are back in the fight.”

Tench heard stark amazement in his voice, combined with a tinge of acrimony‑the latter no doubt on account of the man’s legendary distaste for hearing breaking news at the same time as the rest of the world.

“I apologize,” Tench said, trying to build an immediate bridge, “that the White House and NASA were forced to keep you unapprised.”

“You are aware,” Pickering said, “that the NRO detected NASA activity up there a couple weeks ago and ran an inquiry.”

Tench frowned. He’s pissed. “Yes, I know. And yet‑”

“NASA told us it was nothing. They said they were running some kind of extreme environment training exercises. Testing equipment, that sort of thing.” Pickering paused. “We bought the lie.”

“Let’s not call it a lie,” Tench said. “More of a necessary misdirection. Considering the magnitude of the discovery, I trust you understand NASA’s need to keep this quiet.”

“From the public, perhaps.”

Pouting was not in the repertoire of men like William Pickering, and Tench sensed this was as close as he would get. “I only have a minute,” Tench said, working to retain her dominant position, “but I thought I should call and warn you.”

“Warn me?” Pickering waxed wry momentarily. “Has Zach Herney decided to appoint a new, NASA‑friendly NRO director?”

“Of course not. The President understands your criticisms of NASA are simply issues of security, and he is working to plug those holes. I’m actually calling about one of your employees.” She paused. “Rachel Sexton. Have you heard from her this evening?”

“No. I sent her to the White House this morning at the President’s request. You’ve obviously kept her busy. She has yet to check in.”

Tench was relieved to have gotten to Pickering first. She took a drag on her cigarette and spoke as calmly as possible. “I suspect you may be getting a call from Ms. Sexton sometime soon.”

“Good. I’ve been expecting one. I’ve got to tell you, when the President’s press conference began, I was concerned Zach Herney might have convinced Ms. Sexton to participate publicly. I’m pleased to see he resisted.”

“Zach Herney is a decent person,” Tench said, “which is more than I can say for Rachel Sexton.”

There was a long pause on the line. “I hope I misunderstood that.”

Tench sighed heavily. “No, sir, I’m afraid you did not. I’d prefer not to talk specifics on the phone, but Rachel Sexton, it seems, has decided she wants to undermine the credibility of this NASA announcement. I have no idea why, but after she reviewed and endorsed NASA’s data earlier this afternoon, she has suddenly pulled an about‑face and is spouting some of the most improbable allegations imaginable of NASA treachery and fraud.”

Pickering sounded intense now. “Excuse me?”

“Troubling, yes. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but Ms. Sexton contacted me two minutes before the press conference and warned me to cancel the whole thing.”

“On what grounds?”

“Absurd ones, frankly. She said she’d found serious flaws in the data.”

Pickering’s long silence was more wary than Tench would have liked. “Flaws?” he finally said.

“Ridiculous, really, after two full weeks of NASA experimentation and‑”

“I find it very hard to believe someone like Rachel Sexton would have told you to postpone the President’s press conference unless she had a damn good reason.” Pickering sounded troubled. “Maybe you should have listened to her.”

“Oh, please!” Tench blurted, coughing. “You saw the press conference. The meteorite data was confirmed and reconfirmed by countless specialists. Including civilians. Doesn’t it seem suspicious to you that Rachel Sexton‑the daughter of the only man whom this announcement hurts‑is suddenly changing her tune?”

“It seems suspicious, Ms. Tench, only because I happen to know that Ms. Sexton and her father are barely civil to one another. I cannot imagine why Rachel Sexton would, after years of service to the President, suddenly decide to switch camps and tell lies to support her father.”

“Ambition, perhaps? I really don’t know. Maybe the opportunity to be first daughter . . . “Tench let it hang.

Pickering’s tone hardened instantly. “Thin ice, Ms. Tench. Very thin.”

Tench scowled. What the hell did she expect? She was accusing a prominent member of Pickering’s staff of treason against the President. The man was going to be defensive.

“Put her on,” Pickering demanded. “I’d like to speak to Ms. Sexton myself.”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible,” Tench replied. “She’s not at the White House.”

“Where is she?”

“The President sent her to Milne this morning to examine the data firsthand. She has yet to return.”

Pickering sounded livid now. “I was never informed‑”

“I do not have time for hurt pride, director. I have simply called as a courtesy. I wanted to warn you that Rachel Sexton has decided to pursue her own agenda with respect to tonight’s announcement. She will be looking for allies. If she contacts you, you would be wise to know that the White House is in possession of a video taken earlier today in which she endorsed this meteorite data in its entirety in front of the President, his cabinet, and his entire staff. If now, for whatever motives she might have, Rachel Sexton attempts to besmirch the good name of Zach Herney or of NASA, then I swear to you the White House will see to it she falls hard and far.” Tench waited a moment, to be sure her meaning had settled in. “I expect you to repay the courtesy of this call by informing me immediately if Rachel Sexton contacts you. She is attacking the President directly, and the White House intends to detain her for questioning before she does any serious damage. I will be waiting for your call, director. That’s all. Good night.”

Marjorie Tench hung up, certain that William Pickering had never been talked to like that in his life. At least now he knew she was serious.

On the top floor of the NRO, William Pickering stood at his window and stared into the Virginia night. The call from Marjorie Tench had been deeply troubling. He chewed at his lip as he tried to assemble the pieces in his mind.

“Director?” his secretary said, knocking quietly. “You have another phone call.”

“Not now,” Pickering said absently.

“It’s Rachel Sexton.”

Pickering wheeled. Tench was apparently a fortune‑teller. “Okay. Patch her through, right away.”

“Actually, sir, it’s an encrypted AV stream. Do you want to take it in the conference room?”

An AV stream? “Where is she calling from?”

The secretary told him.

Pickering stared. Bewildered, he hurried down the hall toward the conference room. This was something he had to see.