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72

The muted acoustics of the Charlotte’s dead room were starting to make Rachel feel mildly nauseated. On‑screen, William Pickering’s troubled gaze moved now to Michael Tolland. “You’re quiet, Mr. Tolland.”

Tolland glanced up like a student who had been called on unexpectedly. “Sir?”

“You just gave quite a convincing documentary on television,” Pickering said. “What’s your take on the meteorite now?”

“Well, sir,” Tolland said, his discomfort obvious, “I have to agree with Dr. Marlinson. I believe the fossils and meteorite are authentic. I’m fairly well versed in dating techniques, and the age of that stone was confirmed by multiple tests. The nickel content as well. These data cannot be forged. There exists no doubt the rock, formed 190 million years ago, exhibits nonterrestrial nickel ratios and contains dozens of confirmed fossils whose formation is also dated at 190 million years. I can think of no other possible explanation than that NASA has found an authentic meteorite.”

Pickering fell silent now. His expression was one of quandary, a look Rachel had never before seen on William Pickering.

“What should we do, sir?” Rachel asked. “Obviously we need to alert the President there are problems with the data.”

Pickering frowned. “Let’s hope the President doesn’t already know.”

Rachel felt a knot rise in her throat. Pickering’s implication was clear. President Herney could be involved. Rachel strongly doubted it, and yet both the President and NASA had plenty to gain here.

“Unfortunately,” Pickering said, “with the exception of this GPR printout revealing an insertion shaft, all of the scientific data points to a credible NASA discovery.” He paused, dire. “And this issue of your being attacked . . . “He looked up at Rachel. “You mentioned special ops.”

“Yes, sir.” She told him again about the Improvised Munitions and tactics.

Pickering looked more and more unhappy by the moment. Rachel sensed her boss was contemplating the number of people who might have access to a small military kill force. Certainly the President had access. Probably Marjorie Tench too, as senior adviser. Quite possibly NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom with his ties to the Pentagon. Unfortunately, as Rachel considered the myriad of possibilities, she realized the controlling force behind the attack could have been almost anyone with high‑level political clout and the right connections.

“I could phone the President right now,” Pickering said, “but I don’t think that’s wise, at least until we know who’s involved. My ability to protect you becomes limited once we involve the White House. In addition, I’m not sure what I would tell him. If the meteorite is real, which you all feel it is, then your allegation of an insertion shaft and attack doesn’t make sense; the President would have every right to question the validity of my claim.” He paused as if calculating the options. “Regardless . . . whatever the truth is or who the players are, some very powerful people will take hits if this information goes public. I suggest we get you to safety right away, before we start rocking any boats.”

Get us to safety? The comment surprised Rachel. “I think we’re fairly safe on a nuclear submarine, sir.”

Pickering looked skeptical. “Your presence on that submarine won’t stay secret long. I’m pulling you out immediately. Frankly, I’ll feel better when the three of you are sitting in my office.”