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91

Michael Tolland closed his eyes and listened to the drone of the G4 jet engine. He had given up trying to think anymore about the meteorite until they got back to Washington. The chondrules, according to Corky, were conclusive; the rock in the Milne Ice Shelf could only be a meteorite. Rachel had hoped to have a conclusive answer for William Pickering by the time they landed, but her thought experiments had run into a dead end with the chondrules. As suspicious as the meteorite evidence was, the meteorite appeared to be authentic.

So be it.

Rachel had obviously been shaken by the trauma in the ocean. Tolland was amazed, though, by her resilience. She was focused now on the issue at hand‑trying to find a way to debunk or authenticate the meteorite, and trying to assess who had tried to kill them.

For most of the trip, Rachel had been in the seat beside Tolland. He’d enjoyed talking to her, despite the trying circumstances. Several minutes ago, she’d headed back to the restroom, and now Tolland was surprised to find himself missing her beside him. He wondered how long it had been since he’d missed a woman’s presence‑a woman other than Celia.

“Mr. Tolland?”

Tolland glanced up.

The pilot was sticking his head into the cabin. “You asked me to tell you when we were in telephone range of your ship? I can get you that connection if you want.”

“Thanks.” Tolland made his way up the aisle.

Inside the cockpit, Tolland placed a call to his crew. He wanted to let them know he would not be back for another day or two. Of course, he had no intention of telling them what trouble he’d run into.

The phone rang several times, and Tolland was surprised to hear the ship’s SHINCOM 2100 communications system pick up. The outgoing message was not the usual professional‑sounding greeting but rather the rowdy voice of one of Tolland’s crew, the onboard joker.

“Hiya, hiya, this is the Goya,” the voice announced. “We’re sorry nobody’s here right now, but we’ve all been abducted by very large lice! Actually, we’ve taken temporary shore leave to celebrate Mike’s huge night. Gosh, are we proud! You can leave your name and number, and maybe we’ll be back tomorrow when we’re sober. Ciao! Go, ET!”

Tolland laughed, missing his crew already. Obviously they’d seen the press conference. He was glad they’d gone ashore; he’d abandoned them rather abruptly when the President called, and their sitting idle at sea was crazy. Although the message said everyone had gone ashore, Tolland had to assume they would not have left his ship unattended, particularly in the strong currents where it was now anchored.

Tolland pressed the numeric code to play any internal voice mail messages they’d left for him. The line beeped once. One message. The voice was the same rowdy crewmember.

“Hi Mike, hell of a show! If you’re hearing this, you’re probably checking your messages from some swanky White House party and wondering where the hell we are. Sorry we abandoned ship, buddy, but this was not a dry‑celebration kind of night. Don’t worry, we anchored her really good and left the porch light on. We’re secretly hoping she gets pirated so you’ll let NBC buy you that new boat! Just kidding, man. Don’t worry, Xavia agreed to stay onboard and mind the fort. She said she preferred time alone to partying with a bunch of drunken fishmongers? Can you believe that?”

Tolland chuckled, relieved to hear someone was aboard watching the ship. Xavia was responsible, definitely not the partying type. A respected marine geologist, Xavia had the reputation for speaking her mind with a caustic honesty.

“Anyhow, Mike,” the message went on, “tonight was incredible. Kind of makes you proud to be a scientist, doesn’t it? Everyone’s talking about how good this looks for NASA. Screw NASA, I say! This looks even better for us! Amazing Seas ratings must have gone up a few million points tonight. You’re a star, man. A real one. Congrats. Excellent job.”

There was hushed talking on the line, and the voice came back. “Oh, yeah, and speaking of Xavia, just so you don’t get too big a head, she wants to razz you about something. Here she is.”

Xavia’s razor voice came on the machine. “Mike, Xavia, you’re a God, yada yada. And because I love you so much, I’ve agreed to baby‑sit this antediluvian wreck of yours. Frankly, it will be nice to be away from these hoodlums you call scientists. Anyhow, in addition to baby‑sitting the ship, the crew has asked me, in my role as onboard bitch, to do everything in my power to keep you from turning into a conceited bastard, which after tonight I realize is going to be difficult, but I had to be the first to tell you that you made a boo‑boo in your documentary. Yes, you heard me. A rare Michael Tolland brain fart. Don’t worry, there are only about three people on earth who will notice, and they’re all anal‑retentive marine geologists with no sense of humor. A lot like me. But you know what they say about us geologists‑always looking for faults!” She laughed. “Anyhow, it’s nothing, a minuscule point about meteorite petrology. I only mention it to ruin your night. You might get a call or two about it, so I thought I’d give you the heads‑up so you don’t end up sounding like the moron we all know you really are.” She laughed again. “Anyhow, I’m not much of a party animal, so I’m staying onboard. Don’t bother calling me; I had to turn on the machine because the goddamned press have been calling all night. You’re a real star tonight, despite your screwup. Anyhow, I’ll fill you in on it when you get back. Ciao.”

The line went dead.

Michael Tolland frowned. A mistake in my documentary?

Rachel Sexton stood in the restroom of the G4 and looked at herself in the mirror. She looked pale, she thought, and more frail than she’d imagined. Tonight’s scare had taken a lot out of her. She wondered how long it would be before she would stop shivering, or before she would go near an ocean. Removing her U.S.S. Charlotte cap, she let her hair down. Better, she thought, feeling more like herself.

Looking into her eyes, Rachel sensed a deep weariness. Beneath it, though, she saw the resolve. She knew that was her mother’s gift. Nobody tells you what you can and can’t do. Rachel wondered if her mother had seen what happened tonight. Someone tried to kill me, Mom. Someone tried to kill all of us . . .

Rachel’s mind, as it had for several hours now, scrolled through the list of names.

Lawrence Ekstrom . . . Marjorie Tench . . . President Zach Herney. All had motives. And, more chillingly, all had means. The President is not involved, Rachel told herself, clinging to her hope that the President she respected so much more than her own father was an innocent bystander in this mysterious incident.

We still know nothing.

Not who . . . not if . . . not why.

Rachel had wanted to have answers for William Pickering but, so far, all she’d managed to do was raise more questions.

When Rachel left the restroom, she was surprised to see Michael Tolland was not in his seat. Corky was dozing nearby. As Rachel looked around, Mike stepped out of the cockpit as the pilot hung up a radiophone. His eyes were wide with concern.

“What is it?” Rachel asked.

Tolland’s voice was heavy as he told her about the phone message.

A mistake in his presentation? Rachel thought Tolland was overreacting. “It’s probably nothing. She didn’t tell you specifically what the error was?”

“Something to do with meteorite petrology.”

“Rock structure?”

“Yeah. She said the only people who would notice the mistake were a few other geologists. It sounds like whatever error I made was related to the composition of the meteorite itself.”

Rachel drew a quick breath, understanding now. “Chondrules?”

“I don’t know, but it seems pretty coincidental.”

Rachel agreed. The chondrules were the one remaining shred of evidence that categorically supported NASA’s claim that this was indeed a meteorite.

Corky came over, rubbing his eyes. “What’s going on?”

Tolland filled him in.

Corky scowled, shaking his head. “It’s not a problem with the chondrules, Mike. No way. All of your data came from NASA. And from me. It was flawless.”

“What other petrologic error could I have made?”

“Who the hell knows? Besides, what do marine geologists know about chondrules?”

“I have no idea, but she’s damned sharp.”

“Considering the circumstances,” Rachel said, “I think we should talk to this woman before we talk to Director Pickering.”

Tolland shrugged. “I called her four times and got the machine. She’s probably in the hydrolab and can’t hear a damn thing anyway. She won’t get my messages until morning at the earliest.” Tolland paused, checking his watch. “Although . . .”

“Although what?”

Tolland eyed her intensely. “How important do you think it is that we talk to Xavia before we talk to your boss?”

“If she has something to say about chondrules? I’d say it’s critical. Mike,” Rachel said, “at the moment, we’ve got all kinds of contradictory data. William Pickering is a man accustomed to having clear answers. When we meet him, I’d love to have something substantial for him to act on.”

“Then we should make a stop.”

Rachel did a double take. “On your ship?”

“It’s off the coast of New Jersey. Almost directly on our way to Washington. We can talk to Xavia, find out what she knows. Corky still has the meteorite sample, and if Xavia wants to run some geologic tests on it, the ship has a fairly well‑equipped lab. I can’t imagine it would take us more than an hour to get some conclusive answers.”

Rachel felt a pulse of anxiety. The thought of having to face the ocean again so soon was unnerving. Conclusive answers, she told herself, tempted by the possibility. Pickering will definitely want answers.