Three months after leaving the Amazon, Professor Michael McCarter waited in the warmly lit corridors of the Harry Hopkins Federal Building. The hallway exuded a quiet charm, its walls covered with cherry-stained wood, its railing and handles made of polished brass from the glamorous, stylistic decade of the 1920s. Surrounded by that ambience, McCarter lingered, having just finished giving some testimony in front of a hastily convened Senate committee.
The senators on the panel had questioned him politely and directly for the better part of four hours. But in a style that he found welcome at first—and strange later on—they avoided pressing him for any type of significant detail. Only in the later stages of the hearing did it occur to him that they were being deliberate: they didn’t want complete disclosure.
At the hearing’s conclusion McCarter was sworn to secrecy under the Espionage Prevention Act of 1949, thanked deeply for his service and dismissed. Since then he’d remained in the foyer, reading his newspaper and waiting patiently for another of the participants to finish testifying.
Danielle had been the last to testify and had gained her own unique perspective on the events. To her great surprise the senators did not consider the actions of the NRI to be all that egregious, even though they violated American, international and Brazilian laws in at least fifteen different ways.
One senator even commended Danielle for being so bold in the name of her country. As it turned out, the only real problem for the committee was Stuart Gibbs and his private pursuit of the technology. That had quickly become the focus of debate, and in his absence the blame fell heavily upon him—as it should have. As both she and Arnold Moore had been unaware of Gibbs’ illegal actions, they were exculpated—even lauded, in part.
Now, with the hearings winding down and the transcripts in the midst of being sealed, the rumors had begun to fly. It appeared that the NRI would survive, and it was privately expected that Arnold Moore would be promoted to the director’s position, though nothing had been put in writing just yet.
Danielle shook her head. Only in Washington.
A voice called out to her and she looked over to see McCarter. She smiled. “What’s a nice guy like you doing in a place like this?”
“Who says I’m a nice guy?” he asked, laughing at the private joke.
“I do,” she insisted.
“They told me I could speak with you after you got out, as long as we didn’t discuss the specifics of our testimony.” He glanced toward the hearing room, its doors being closed. “Are you finished in there? Or do you have to come back?”
“We’re done,” she said. “This is the last of the hearings. And from the look of things, we seem to have held our own.”
McCarter looked around nervously, appearing uncomfortable speaking in the halls of power. “Can I walk you out?”
He offered his arm in the fashion of a gentleman and she accepted. Together they walked across the polished floor to the large foyer. A uniformed guard opened the outside door to the muted sound of softly falling rain. In late April, a mild spring storm had settled over the northeast, the third front to move through since they’d arrived home.
As they stepped under the well-lit porte cochere, a taxi came swishing down the curved driveway, lights blazing, wipers flipping back and forth. It stopped and a passenger got out and dashed inside the building.
“More rain,” she noted, gazing at the drizzle and fog.
“I don’t think I’ll ever complain about it again,” he said.
She smiled. “Neither will I.”
McCarter looked at her in a kindly way. “I was wondering if you’d heard from Hawker.”
Her smile faded. She hadn’t. “Not a word, I’m afraid. No one has.”
“Any chance they’ll let him come home?”
“I’m not done fighting with them yet,” she said. “But they’re attempting to save the organization by the looks of things, and they seem unwilling to make it harder on themselves by trying to deal with Hawker’s reputation.”
McCarter seemed greatly disappointed. They’d all grown to care deeply for Hawker.
“Don’t worry about him,” she insisted. “If my guess is right, he’s down there in the sun, tipping back a beer at some riverside café, with an absurdly pretty woman or three to help soothe his aches and pains.”
McCarter smiled at her and she wondered if he detected the jealousy in her voice. Either way, he changed the subject.
“Are they going to leave it alone?” McCarter asked.
“As far as I know,” she said. “We brought back what they were looking for. The body …” her voice trailed off. “No one’s all that interested in the effort it would take to retrieve it. It’s a long way from here, in a friendly country whose sovereignty we’ve already violated once. To go back would mean another clandestine mission or opening up a giant can of worms with the Brazilians about what we did there the first time.”
“It’s just …” he began, “I wonder if we could learn something from it. Maybe things we need to know.”
She’d thought that herself. There were clues to the future of humanity in the cells of that body. Clues that might paint a horrendous picture. Was that really mankind’s destiny? Perhaps it was better not to know. “It’s buried,” she said. “Maybe it should stay that way.”
McCarter pursed his lips and nodded. “Maybe it should.”
She would’ve liked to think so. “No, I didn’t,” she insisted. “But I’m working on it.”
Another taxi curved down the circular drop-off in front of the building. It pulled to a stop, brakes squealing slightly, the rain falling in thin pencil lines through the beams of its headlights.
“Share a cab?” he asked. “I’m down at the Omni.”
Danielle shook her head. “I’m the other way, I’m afraid.”
“Right,” he said. “Well then, this one’s for you.” He opened the door.
She stepped forward and kissed him on the cheek. “Give my best to Susan,” she said. “And please, take care of yourself.”
“You as well.”
Danielle climbed in and McCarter shut the door behind her, just as the taxi began to pull away. She watched through the rain-streaked window as another cab pulled in for him and then she swung her eyes forward and pressed herself into the seat.
With the taxi moving cautiously into the traffic, Danielle pulled a folded sheet of paper from her purse. It was the promotion letter that Gibbs had sent to her before she went into the Amazon. One of the senators had asked her to bring it, but when given the chance they’d chosen not to put it in the record. Their explanation was simple: they now considered it irrelevant to the investigation. One senator even suggested the promotion was probably still valid, if she wanted it.
Danielle read the letter over again, cringing in disgust at the words and the ego boost they’d once brought her. With deliberate force she crumpled it up, dropping it in the small bin between the seats, right beside an empty soda can and the wrappers from someone’s fast-food lunch.
She sighed, leaning back once again and listening to the sound of the windshield wipers, the tires on the wet road and the static-filled news on the radio. For the first time in as long as she could remember, she had absolutely nothing to do, no deadline to meet, no superior to answer to, no goal to chase with every waking moment. To her great surprise, she found it a supremely agreeable feeling.
Twenty miles away, in the basement of Building Five at the VIC, Arnold Moore stood in a darkened, lead-lined room with the NRI’s head research scientist and another specialist, who worked with fusion theory. They’d been studying the glowing, triangular stone that Danielle had brought back from the Amazon.
“It’s definitely generating power,” the head scientist told Moore. “Massive amounts of it, in fact. But how, I don’t know.”
“Not from cold fusion?” Moore asked.
The scientist shook his head. It seemed they’d been looking for one thing and found something else.
“It’s more advanced than that,” the scientist told him.
“Is it hot?” Moore asked.
“Warm,” the man said, “but the heat is the least of its manifestations.”
“Most of it is being channeled into an electromagnetic pulse,” the scientist said, then pointed to the walls around them. “That’s why we had to bring it down here and line this room with lead.”
The glowing stone sat in front of them. Clean and polished now; it was almost invisible from the right angle. Unlike the Martin’s crystals, it contained no inclusions or scratches. To the naked eye, at least, it appeared devoid of any internal structures at all. And yet, the white glow had to come from somewhere, as did the heat and the power.
At this point, the researchers had only just begun to study it, but Moore expected they’d find similar properties to the Martin’s crystals, including the microscopic lines, nano-tubes and other, even more exotic designs.
It was machinery, Moore knew, but it looked like art. There was something mesmerizing about it, almost hypnotic. The longer he stared, the more certain he became that he could actually see the fluctuating pulse the men were talking about. It was rhythmic, harmonic.
“Does it always do that?” Moore asked.
The scientist nodded. “That’s the pulse,” he said. “The pattern is extremely complex with rapid fluctuations. But it is a pattern and it repeats itself over and over.”
Moore stared. He could see it, sense it.
The researcher gazed at him, studying his face. “You know what it is,” he guessed.
The two men exchanged glances. “Well, you should know,” the scientist said, “that we believe you’re right.”
“A signal of some kind,” Moore said. “A message.”
The man nodded. “As I told you, it repeats itself, over and over, identical and unchanging,” he said. “Except for …”
Moore looked into the man’s eyes. “Except for what?”
“For one minor change,” the man explained reluctantly, “one we didn’t notice until we separated out the various phases of the signal.”
“What kind of change?”
The man flicked on a computer screen that displayed what looked like a sound chart, a digital representation of this complex signal, with thousands of peaks and valleys. With a click of the mouse, the chart began scrolling to the left. It moved that way for seventeen seconds and then froze. A second color began to overlay it. The peaks and valleys were identical, matching exactly as the screen scrolled along. Except for the very last one, which, in the new color, was of a slightly lesser magnitude. Moore watched as the third iteration of the signal reduced the last bar once again.
“It’s counting down to something,” Moore said, guessing at the significance of what he was seeing.
“Each new version of the pulse is fractionally shorter than the one previous to it,” the scientist said.
“Have you calculated the duration?”
The scientist nodded. “If we’re right, the signal will reach a zero state sometime on December 21, 2012.”
“We don’t know what it means,” the researcher added. “But considering the power this thing is generating, we are concerned.”
The man offered nothing further, except a grim face and a tightly clenched jaw. Moore felt his own concern beginning to build.
He turned his attention back to the softly pulsing stone. Try as he might, he could not take his eyes off it, or strike down the sense of awe it filled him with, or shake away the feeling that the destinies of a great many people would be affected by what was found in that stone.