Deception Point Page 80

Deception Point Page 80

“Do you have dogs, Dr. Harper?”

He glanced up. “I’m sorry?”

“I just thought it was odd. You told me that shortly after this Canadian geologist radioed in the meteorite coordinates, his sled dogs ran blindly into a crevasse?”

“There was a storm. They were off course.”

Gabrielle shrugged, letting her skepticism show. “Yeah… okay.”

Harper clearly sensed her hesitation. “What are you saying?”

“I don’t know. There’s just a lot of coincidence surrounding this discovery. A Canadian geologist transmits meteorite coordinates on a frequency that only NASA can hear? And then his sled dogs run blindly off a cliff?” She paused. “You obviously understand that this geologist’s death paved the way for this entire NASA triumph.”

The color drained from Harper’s face. “You think the administrator would kill over this meteorite.”

Big politics. Big money, Gabrielle thought. “Let me talk to the senator and we’ll be in touch. Is there a back way out of here?”

Gabrielle Ashe left a pale Chris Harper and descended a fire stairwell into a deserted alley behind NASA. She flagged down a taxi that had just dropped off more NASA celebrators.

“Westbrooke Place Luxury Apartments,” she told the driver. She was about to make Senator Sexton a much happier man.

94

Wondering what she had agreed to, Rachel stood near the entrance of the G4 cockpit, stretching a radio transceiver cable into the cabin so she could place her call out of earshot of the pilot. Corky and Tolland looked on. Although Rachel and NRO director William Pickering had planned to maintain radio silence until her arrival at Bollings Air Force Base outside of D.C., Rachel now had information she was certain Pickering would want to hear immediately. She had phoned his secure cellular, which he carried at all times.

When William Pickering came on the line, he was all business. “Speak with care, please. I cannot guarantee this connection.”

Rachel understood. Pickering’s cellular, like most NRO field phones, had an indicator that detected unsecured incoming calls. Because Rachel was on a radiophone, one of the least secure communication modes available, Pickering’s phone had warned him. This conversation would need to be vague. No names. No locations.

“My voice is my identity,” Rachel said, using the standard field greeting in this situation. She had expected the director’s response would be displeasure that she had risked contacting him, but Pickering’s reaction sounded positive.

“Yes, I was about to make contact with you myself. We need to redirect. I’m concerned you may have a welcoming party.”

Rachel felt a sudden trepidation. Someone is watching us. She could hear the danger in Pickering’s tone. Redirect. He would be pleased to know she had called to make that exact request, albeit for entirely different reasons.

“The issue of authenticity,” Rachel said. “We’ve been discussing it. We may have a way to confirm or deny categorically.”

“Excellent. There have been developments, and at least then I would have solid ground on which to proceed.”

“The proof involves our making a quick stop. One of us has access to a laboratory facility-“

“No exact locations, please. For your own safety.”

Rachel had no intention of broadcasting her plans over this line. “Can you get us clearance to land at GAS-AC?”

Pickering was silent a moment. Rachel sensed he was trying to process the word. GAS-AC was an obscure NRO gisting shorthand for the Coast Guard’s Group Air Station Atlantic City. Rachel hoped the director would know it.

“Yes,” he finally said. “I can arrange that. Is that your final destination?”

“No. We will require further helicopter transport.”

“An aircraft will be waiting.”

“Thank you.”

“I recommend you exercise extreme caution until we know more. Speak to no one. Your suspicions have drawn deep concern among powerful parties.”

Tench, Rachel thought, wishing she had managed to make contact with the President directly.

“I am currently in my car, en route to meet the woman in question. She has requested a private meeting in a neutral location. It should reveal much.”

Pickering is driving somewhere to meet Tench? Whatever Tench was going to tell him must be important if she refused to tell him on the phone.

Pickering said, “Do not discuss your final coordinates with anyone. And no more radio contact. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir. We’ll be at GAS-AC in an hour.”

“Transport will be arranged. When you reach your ultimate destination, you can call me via more secure channels.” He paused. “I cannot overstate the importance of secrecy to your safety. You have made powerful enemies tonight. Take appropriate caution.” Pickering was gone.

Rachel felt tense as she closed the connection and turned to Tolland and Corky.

“Change of destination?” Tolland said, looking eager for answers.

Rachel nodded, feeling reluctant. “The Goya.”

Corky sighed, glancing down at the meteorite sample in his hand. “I still can’t imagine NASA could possibly have… ” He faded off, looking more worried with every passing minute.

We’ll know soon enough, Rachel thought.

She went into the cockpit and returned the radio transceiver. Glancing out the windscreen at the rolling plateau of moonlit clouds racing beneath them, she had the unsettling feeling they were not going to like what they found onboard Tolland’s ship.

95

William Pickering felt an unusual solitude as he drove his sedan down the Leesburg Highway. It was almost 2:00 A.M., and the road was empty. It had been years since he’d been driving this late.

Marjorie Tench’s raspy voice still grated on his mind. Meet me at the FDR Memorial.

Pickering tried to recall the last time he had seen Marjorie Tench face-to-face-never a pleasant experience. It had been two months ago. At the White House. Tench was seated opposite Pickering at a long oak table surrounded by members of the National Security Council, Joint Chiefs, CIA, President Herney, and the administrator of NASA.

“Gentlemen,” the head of the CIA had said, looking directly at Marjorie Tench. “Yet again, I am before you to urge this administration to confront the ongoing security crisis of NASA.”

The declaration took no one in the room by surprise. NASA’s security woes had become a tired issue in the intelligence community. Two days previously, more than three hundred high-resolution satellite photos from one of NASA’s earth-observing satellites had been stolen by hackers out of a NASA database. The photos-inadvertently revealing a classified U.S. military training facility in North Africa-had turned up on the black market, where they had been purchased by hostile intelligence agencies in the Middle East.

“Despite the best of intentions,” the CIA director said with a weary voice, “NASA continues to be a threat to national security. Simply put, our space agency is not equipped to protect the data and technologies they develop.”

“I realize,” the President replied, “that there have been indiscretions. Damaging leaks. And it troubles me deeply.” He motioned across the table to the stern face of NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom. “We are yet again looking into ways to tighten NASA’s security.”

“With due respect,” the CIA director said, “whatever security changes NASA implements will be ineffective as long as NASA operations remain outside the umbrella of the United States intelligence community.”

The statement brought an uneasy rustle from those assembled. Everyone knew where this was headed.