Deception Point Page 99

Deception Point Page 99

Pickering sighed. “NASA, for all its flaws, must remain a government entity.” Certainly she can understand the dangers. Privatization would send NASA’s best minds and ideas flooding into the private sector. The brain trust would dissolve. The military would lose access. Private space companies looking to raise capital would start selling NASA patents and ideas to the highest bidders worldwide!

Rachel’s voice was tremulous. “You faked the meteorite and killed innocent people… in the name of national security?”

“It was never supposed to happen like this,” Pickering said. “The plan was to save an important government agency. Killing was not part of it.”

The meteorite deception, Pickering knew, like most intelligence proposals, had been the product of fear. Three years ago, in an effort to extend the NRO hydrophones into deeper water where they could not be touched by enemy saboteurs, Pickering spearheaded a program that utilized a newly developed NASA building material to secretly design an astonishingly durable submarine capable of carrying humans to the deepest regions of the ocean-including the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Forged from a revolutionary ceramic, this two-man submarine was designed from blueprints hacked from the computer of a California engineer named Graham Hawkes, a genius sub designer whose life dream was to build an ultra-deepwater submersible he called Deep Flight II. Hawkes was having trouble finding funding to build a prototype. Pickering, on the other hand, had an unlimited budget.

Using the classified ceramic submersible, Pickering sent a covert team underwater to affix new hydrophones to the walls of the Mariana Trench, deeper than any enemy could possibly look. In the process of drilling, however, they uncovered geologic structures unlike any that scientists had ever seen. The discoveries included chondrules and fossils of several unknown species. Of course, because the NRO’s ability to dive this deep was classified, none of the information could ever be shared.

It was not until recently, driven yet again by fear, that Pickering and his quiet team of NRO science advisers had decided to put their knowledge of the Mariana’s unique geology to work to help save NASA. Turning a Mariana rock into a meteorite had proven to be a deceptively simple task. Using an ECE slush-hydrogen engine, the NRO team charred the rock with a convincing fusion crust. Then, using a small payload sub, they had descended beneath the Milne Ice Shelf and inserted the charred rock up into the ice from beneath. Once the insertion shaft refroze, the rock looked like it had been there for over three hundred years.

Unfortunately, as was often the case in the world of covert operations, the grandest of plans could be undone by the smallest of snags. Yesterday, the entire illusion had been shattered by a few bioluminescent plankton…

From the cockpit of the idling Kiowa, Delta-One watched the drama unfold before him. Rachel and Tolland appeared to be in clear control, although Delta-One almost had to laugh at the hollowness of the illusion. The machine gun in Tolland’s hands was worthless; even from here Delta-One could see the cocking bar assembly had kicked back, indicating the clip was empty.

As Delta-One gazed out at his partner struggling in the Triton’s claws, he knew he had to hurry. The focus on deck had turned completely to Pickering, and now Delta-One could make his move. Leaving the rotors idling, he slipped out of the rear of the fuselage and, using the chopper for cover, made his way unseen onto the starboard gangway. With his own machine gun in hand, he headed for the bow. Pickering had given him specific orders before they landed on deck, and Delta-One had no intention of failing at this simple task.

In a matter of minutes, he knew, this will all be over.

122

Still wearing his bathrobe, Zach Herney sat at his desk in the Oval Office, his head throbbing. The newest piece of the puzzle had just been revealed.

Marjorie Tench is dead.

Herney’s aides said they had information suggesting Tench had driven to the FDR Memorial for a private meeting with William Pickering. Now that Pickering was missing, the staff feared Pickering too might be dead.

The President and Pickering had endured their battles lately. Months ago Herney learned that Pickering had engaged in illegal activity on Herney’s behalf in an attempt to save Herney’s floundering campaign.

Employing NRO assets, Pickering had discreetly obtained enough dirt on Senator Sexton to sink his campaign-scandalous sexual photos of the senator with his aide Gabrielle Ashe, incriminating financial records proving Sexton was taking bribes from private space companies. Pickering anonymously sent all the evidence to Marjorie Tench, assuming the White House would use it wisely. But Herney, upon seeing the data, had forbidden Tench to use it. Sex scandals and bribery were cancers in Washington, and waving another one in front of the public only added to their distrust of government.

Cynicism is killing this country.

Although Herney knew he could destroy Sexton with scandal, the cost would be besmirching the dignity of the U.S. Senate, something Herney refused to do.

No more negatives. Herney would beat Senator Sexton on the issues.

Pickering, angered by the White House’s refusal to use the evidence he had provided, tried to jump-start the scandal by leaking a rumor that Sexton had slept with Gabrielle Ashe. Unfortunately, Sexton declared his innocence with such convincing indignation that the President ended up having to apologize for the leak personally. In the end William Pickering had done more damage than good. Herney told Pickering that if he ever interfered in the campaign again, he would be indicted. The grand irony, of course, was that Pickering did not even like President Herney. The NRO director’s attempts to help Herney’s campaign were simply fears over the fate of NASA. Zach Herney was the lesser of two evils.

Now has someone killed Pickering?

Herney could not imagine.

“Mr. President?” an aide said. “As you requested, I called Lawrence Ekstrom and told him about Marjorie Tench.”

“Thank you.”

“He would like to speak to you, sir.”

Herney was still furious with Ekstrom for lying about PODS. “Tell him I’ll talk to him in the morning.”

“Mr. Ekstrom wants to talk to you right away, sir.” The aide looked uneasy. “He’s very upset.”

HE’S upset? Herney could feel his temper fraying around the edges. As he stalked off to take Ekstrom’s call, the President wondered what the hell else could possibly go wrong tonight.

123

Onboard the Goya, Rachel felt lightheaded. The mystification that had settled around her like a heavy fog was lifting now. The stark reality that came into focus left her feeling naked and disgusted. She looked at the stranger before her and could barely hear his voice.

“We needed to rebuild NASA’s image,” Pickering was saying. “Their declining popularity and funding had become dangerous on so many levels.” Pickering paused, his gray eyes locking on hers. “Rachel, NASA was desperate for a triumph. Someone had to make it happen.”

Something had to be done, Pickering thought.

The meteorite had been a final act of desperation. Pickering and others had tried to save NASA by lobbying to incorporate the space agency into the intelligence community where it would enjoy increased funding and better security, but the White House continuously rebuffed the idea as an assault on pure science. Shortsighted idealism. With the rising popularity of Sexton’s anti-NASA rhetoric, Pickering and his band of military powerbrokers knew time was running short. They decided that capturing the imagination of taxpayers and Congress was the only remaining way to salvage NASA’s image and save it from the auction block. If the space agency was to survive, it would need an infusion of grandeur-something to remind the taxpayers of NASA’s Apollo glory days. And if Zach Herney was going to defeat Senator Sexton, he was going to need help.