Despite most people's discomfort around William Pickering's blunt demeanor, Rachel had always liked the man. He was the exact antithesis of her father...physically unimposing, anything but charismatic, and he did his duty with a selfless patriotism, shunning the spotlight her father loved so much. Pickering removed his glasses and gazed at her.
"Agent Sexton, the President called me about a half hour ago. In direct reference to you."
Rachel shifted in her seat. Pickering was known for getting to the point. One hell of an opening, she thought.
"Not a problem with one of my gists, I hope."
"On the contrary. He says the White House is impressed with your work."
Rachel exhaled silently. "So what did he want?"
"A meeting with you. In person. Immediately."
Rachel's unease sharpened.
"A personal meeting? About what?"
"Damn good question. He wouldn't tell me."
Now Rachel was lost. Keeping information from the director of the NRO was like keeping Vatican secrets from the Pope. The standing joke in the intelligence community was that if William Pickering didn't know about it, it hadn't happened. Pickering stood, pacing now in front of his window.
"He asked that I contact you immediately and send you to meet with him."
"He sent transportation. It's waiting outside."
Rachel frowned. The President's request was unnerving on its own account, but it was the look of concern on Pickering's face that really worried her.
"You obviously have reservations." "
I sure as hell do!" Pickering showed a rare flash of emotion. "The President's timing seems almost callow in its transparency. You are the daughter of the man who is currently challenging him in the polls, and he demands a private meeting with you? I find this highly inappropriate. Your father no doubt would agree."
Rachel knew Pickering was right--not that she gave a damn what her father thought. "Do you not trust the President's motives?"
"My oath is to provide intel support to the current White House administration, not pass judgment on their politics."
Typical Pickering response, Rachel realized. William Pickering made no bones about his view of politicians as transitory figureheads who passed fleetingly across a chessboard whose real players were men like Pickering himself--seasoned "lifers" who had been around long enough to understand the game with some perspective. Two full terms in the White House, Pickering often said, was not nearly enough to comprehend the true complexities of the global political landscape.
"Maybe it's an innocent request," Rachel offered, hoping the President was above trying some sort of cheap campaign stunt. "Maybe he needs a reduction of some sensitive data."
"Not to sound belittling, Agent Sexton, but the White House has access to plenty of qualified gisting personnel if they need it. If it's an internal White House job, the President should know better than to contact you. And if not, then he sure as hell should know better than to request an NRO asset and then refuse to tell me what he wants it for." Pickering always referred to his employees as assets, a manner of speech many found disconcertingly cold.
"Your father is gaining political momentum," Pickering said. "A lot of it. The White House has got to be getting nervous." He sighed. "Politics is a desperate business. When the President calls a secret meeting with his challenger's daughter, I'd guess there's more on his mind than intelligence gists." Rachel felt a distant chill. Pickering's hunches had an uncanny tendency to be dead on.
"And you're afraid the White House feels desperate enough to introduce me into the political mix?"
Pickering paused a moment. "You are not exactly silent about your feelings for your father, and I have little doubt the President's campaign staff is aware of the rift. It occurs to me that they may want to use you against him somehow."
"Where do I sign up?" Rachel said, only half-joking.
Pickering looked unimpressed. He gave her a stern stare. "A word of warning, Agent Sexton. If you feel that your personal issues with your father are going to cloud your judgment in dealing with the President, I strongly advise that you decline the President's request for a meeting."
"Decline?" Rachel gave a nervous chuckle.
"I obviously can't refuse the President."
"No," the director said, "but I can."
His words rumbled a bit, reminding Rachel of the other reason Pickering was called the "Quaker." Despite being a small man, William Pickering could cause political earthquakes if he were crossed. "My concerns here are simple," Pickering said. "I have a responsibility to protect the people who work for me, and I don't appreciate even the vague implication that one of them might be used as a pawn in a political game."
"What do you recommend I do?"
Pickering sighed. "My suggestion is that you meet with him. Commit to nothing. Once the President tells you what the hell is on his mind, call me. If I think he's playing political hardball with you, trust me, I'll pull you out so fast the man won't know what hit him."
"Thank you, sir." Rachel sensed a protective aura from the director that she often longed for in her own father.
"And you said the President already sent a car?"
Pickering frowned and pointed out the window. Uncertain, Rachel went over and gazed out in the direction of Pickering's outstretched finger. A snub-nosed MH-60G PaveHawk helicopter sat idling on the lawn. One of the fastest choppers ever made, this PaveHawk was emblazoned with the White House insignia. The pilot stood nearby, checking his watch. Rachel turned to Pickering in disbelief. "The White House sent a PaveHawk to take me fifteen miles into D.C.?"
"Apparently the President hopes you are either impressed or intimidated." Pickering eyed her. "I suggest you are neither."
Rachel nodded. She was both. Four minutes later, Rachel Sexton exited the NRO and climbed into the waiting helicopter. Before she had even buckled herself in, the craft was airborne, banking hard across the Virginia woods. Rachel gazed out at the blur of trees beneath her and felt her pulse rising. It would have risen faster had she known this chopper would never reach the White House.
The frigid wind battered the fabric of the ThermaTech tent, but Delta-One hardly noticed. He and Delta-Three were focused on their comrade, who was manipulating the joystick in his hand with surgical dexterity. The screen before them displayed a live video transmission from a pinpoint camera mounted aboard the microrobot. The ultimate surveillance tool, Delta-One thought, still amazed every time they powered it up. Lately, in the world of micromechanics, fact seemed to be outpacing fiction. Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS)--microbots--were the newest tool in high-tech surveillance--"fly on the wall technology," they called it. Literally. Although microscopic, remote-controlled robots sounded like science fiction, in fact they had been around since the 1990s.
Discovery magazine had run a cover story in May 1997 on microbots, featuring both "flying" and "swimming" models. The swimmers--nanosubs the size of salt grains--could be injected into the human bloodstream ? la the movie Fantastic Voyage. They were now being used by advanced medical facilities to help doctors navigate arteries by remote control, observe live intravenous video transmissions, and locate arterial blockages without ever lifting a scalpel. Contrary to intuition, building a flying microbot was even simpler business. The aerodynamics technology for getting a machine to fly had been around since Kitty Hawk, and all that remained had been the issue of miniaturization. The first flying microbots, designed by NASA as unmanned exploration tools for future Mars missions, had been several inches long. Now, however, advances in nanotechnology, lightweight energy-absorbent materials, and micromechanics had made the flying microbots a reality.
The true breakthrough had come from the new field biomimics--copying Mother Nature. Miniature dragonflies, as it turned out, were the ideal prototype for these agile and efficient flying microbots. The PH2 model Delta-Two was currently flying was only one centimeter long--the size of a mosquito--and employed a dual pair of transparent, hinged, silicon-leaf wings, giving it unparalleled mobility and efficiency in the air. The microbot's refueling mechanism had been another breakthrough. The first microbot prototypes could only recharge their energy cells by hovering directly beneath a bright light source, not ideal for stealth or use in dark locales. The newer prototypes, however, could recharge simply by parking within a few inches of a magnetic field.
Conveniently, in modern society, magnetic fields were ubiquitous and discreetly placed--power outlets, computer monitors, electric motors, audio speakers, cellphones--it seemed there was never any shortage of obscure recharging stations. Once a microbot had been introduced successfully into a locale, it could transmit audio and video almost indefinitely. The Delta Force's PH2 had been transmitting for over a week now with no trouble whatsoever. Now, like an insect hovering inside a cavernous barn, the airborne microbot hung silently in the still air of the structure's massive central room. With a bird's-eye view of the space below, the microbot circled silently above unsuspecting occupants--technicians, scientists, specialists in numerous fields of study.
As the PH2 circled, Delta-One spotted two familiar faces engaged in conversation. They would be a telling mark. He told Delta-Two to drop down and have a listen. Manipulating the controls, Delta-Two switched on the robot's sound sensors, oriented the microbot's parabolic amplifier, and decreased the robot's elevation until it was ten feet over the scientists' heads. The transmission was faint, but discernible.
"I still can't believe it," one scientist was saying. The excitement in his voice had not diminished since his arrival here forty-eight hours ago. The man with whom he was talking obviously shared the enthusiasm.
"In your lifetime...did you ever think you would witness anything like this?"
"Never," the scientist replied, beaming. "It's all a magnificent dream."
Delta-One had heard enough. Clearly everything inside was proceeding as expected. Delta-Two maneuvered the microbot away from the conversation and flew it back to its hiding place. He parked the tiny device undetected near the cylinder of an electric generator. The PH2's power cells immediately began recharging for the next mission.
About the book:
When a NASA satellite discovers an astonishingly rare object buried deep in the Arctic ice, the floundering space agency proclaims a much-needed victory -- a victory with profound implications for NASA policy and the impending presidential election. To verify the authenticity of the find, the White House calls upon the skills of intelligence analyst Rachel Sexton. Rachel travels to the Arctic and uncovers the unthinkable: evidence of scientific trickery -- a bold deception that threatens to plunge the world into controversy.
Excerpt from Swing Time
- Zadie Smith
Excerpt from The Master and Margarita
- Mikhail Bulgakov