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Chapter 21

The cavernous main chamber of NASA’s habisphere would have been a strange sight anywhere on earth, but the fact that it existed on an Arctic ice shelf made it that much more difficult for Rachel Sexton to assimilate.

Staring upward into a futuristic dome crafted of white interlocking triangular pads, Rachel felt like she had entered a colossal sanatorium. The walls sloped downward to a floor of solid ice, where an army of halogen lamps stood like sentinels around the perimeter, casting stark light skyward and giving the whole chamber an ephemeral luminosity.

Snaking across the ice floor, black foam carpetrunners wound like boardwalks through a maze of portable scientific work stations. Amid the electronics, thirty or forty white-clad NASA personnel were hard at work, conferring happily and talking in excited tones. Rachel immediately recognized the electricity in the room.

It was the thrill of new discovery.

As Rachel and the administrator circled the outer edge of the dome, she noted the surprised looks of displeasure from those who recognized her. Their whispers carried clearly in the reverberant space.

Isn’t that Senator Sexton’s daughter?

What the hell is SHE doing here?

I can’t believe the administrator is even speaking to her!

Rachel half expected to see voodoo dolls of her father dangling everywhere. The animosity around her, though, was not the only emotion in the air; Rachel also sensed a distinct smugness-as if NASA clearly knew who would be having the last laugh.

The administrator led Rachel toward a series of tables where a lone man sat at a computer work station. He was dressed in a black turtleneck, wide-wale corduroys, and heavy boat shoes, rather than the matching NASA weather gear everyone else seemed to be wearing. He had his back to them.

The administrator asked Rachel to wait as he went over and spoke to the stranger. After a moment, the man in the turtleneck gave him a congenial nod and started shutting down his computer. The administrator returned.

“Mr. Tolland will take it from here,” he said. “He’s another one of the President’s recruits, so you two should get along fine. I’ll join you later.”

“Thank you.”

“I assume you’ve heard of Michael Tolland?”

Rachel shrugged, her brain still taking in the incredible surroundings. “Name doesn’t ring a bell.”

The man in the turtleneck arrived, grinning. “Doesn’t ring a bell?” His voice was resonant and friendly. “Best news I’ve heard all day. Seems I never get a chance to make a first impression anymore.”

When Rachel glanced up at the newcomer, her feet froze in place. She knew the man’s handsome face in an instant. Everyone in America did.

“Oh,” she said, blushing as the man shook her hand. “You’re that Michael Tolland.”

When the President had told Rachel he had recruited top-notch civilian scientists to authenticate NASA’s discovery, Rachel had imagined a group of wizened nerds with monogrammed calculators. Michael Tolland was the antithesis. One of the best known “science celebrities” in America today, Tolland hosted a weekly documentary called Amazing Seas, during which he brought viewers face-to-face with spellbinding oceanic phenomena-underwater volcanoes, ten-foot sea worms, killer tidal waves. The media hailed Tolland as a cross between Jacques Cousteau and Carl Sagan, crediting his knowledge, unpretentious enthusiasm, and lust for adventure as the formula that had rocketed Amazing Seas to the top of the ratings. Of course, most critics admitted, Tolland’s rugged good looks and self-effacing charisma probably didn’t hurt his popularity with the female audience.

“Mr. Tolland…,” Rachel said, fumbling the words a bit. “I’m Rachel Sexton.”

Tolland smiled a pleasant, crooked smile. “Hi, Rachel. Call me Mike.”

Rachel found herself uncharacteristically tongue-tied. Sensory overload was setting in… the habisphere, the meteorite, the secrets, finding herself unexpectedly face-to-face with a television star. “I’m surprised to see you here,” she said, attempting to recover. “When the President told me he’d recruited civilian scientists for authentication of a NASA find, I guess I expected… ” She hesitated.

“Real scientists?” Tolland grinned.

Rachel flushed, mortified. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Tolland said. “That’s all I’ve heard since I got here.”

The administrator excused himself, promising to catch up with them later. Tolland turned now to Rachel with a curious look. “The administrator tells me your father is Senator Sexton?”

Rachel nodded. Unfortunately.

“A Sexton spy behind enemy lines?”

“Battle lines are not always drawn where you might think.”

An awkward silence.

“So tell me,” Rachel said quickly, “what’s a world-famous oceanographer doing on a glacier with a bunch of NASA rocket scientists?”

Tolland chuckled. “Actually, some guy who looked a lot like the President asked me to do him a favor. I opened my mouth to say ‘Go to hell,’ but somehow I blurted, ‘Yes, sir.'”

Rachel laughed for the first time all morning. “Join the club.”

Although most celebrities seemed smaller in person, Rachel thought Michael Tolland appeared taller. His brown eyes were just as vigilant and passionate as they were on television, and his voice carried the same modest warmth and enthusiasm. Looking to be a weathered and athletic forty-five, Michael Tolland had coarse black hair that fell in a permanent windswept tuft across his forehead. He had a strong chin and a carefree mannerism that exuded confidence. When he’d shaken Rachel’s hand, the callused roughness of his palms reminded her he was not a typical “soft” television personality but rather an accomplished seaman and hands-on researcher.

“To be honest,” Tolland admitted, sounding sheepish, “I think I was recruited more for my PR value than for my scientific knowledge. The president asked me to come up and make a documentary for him.”

“A documentary? About a meteorite? But you’re an oceanographer.”

“That’s exactly what I told him! But he said he didn’t know of any meteorite documentarians. He told me my involvement would help bring mainstream credibility to this find. Apparently he plans to broadcast my documentary as part of tonight’s big press conference when he announces the discovery.”

A celebrity spokesman. Rachel sensed the savvy political maneuverings of Zach Herney at work. NASA was often accused of talking over the public’s head. Not this time. They’d pulled in the master scientific communicator, a face Americans already knew and trusted when it came to science.

Tolland pointed kitty-corner across the dome to a far wall where a press area was being set up. There was a blue carpet on the ice, television cameras, media lights, a long table with several microphones. Someone was hanging a backdrop of a huge American flag.

“That’s for tonight,” he explained. “The NASA administrator and some of his top scientists will be connected live via satellite to the White House so they can participate in the President’s eight o’clock broadcast.”

Appropriate, Rachel thought, pleased to know Zach Herney didn’t plan to cut NASA out of the announcement entirely.

“So,” Rachel said with a sigh, “is someone finally going to tell me what’s so special about this meteorite?”

Tolland arched his eyebrows and gave her a mysterious grin. “Actually, what’s so special about this meteorite is best seen, not explained.” He motioned for Rachel to follow him toward the neighboring work area. “The guy stationed over here has plenty of samples he can show you.”

“Samples? You actually have samples of the meteorite?”

“Absolutely. We’ve drilled quite a few. In fact, it was the initial core samples that alerted NASA to the importance of the find.”

Unsure of what to expect, Rachel followed Tolland into the work area. It appeared deserted. A cup of coffee sat on a desk scattered with rock samples, calipers, and other diagnostic gear. The coffee was steaming.

“Marlinson!” Tolland yelled, looking around. No answer. He gave a frustrated sigh and turned to Rachel. “He probably got lost trying to find cream for his coffee. I’m telling you, I went to Princeton postgrad with this guy, and he used to get lost in his own dorm. Now he’s a National Medal of Science recipient in astrophysics. Go figure.”

Rachel did a double take. “Marlinson? You don’t by any chance mean the famous Corky Marlinson, do you?”

Tolland laughed. “One and the same.”

Rachel was stunned. “Corky Marlinson is here?” Marlinson’s ideas on gravitational fields were legendary among NRO satellite engineers. “Marlinson is one of the President’s civilian recruits?”

“Yeah, one of the real scientists.”

Real is right, Rachel thought. Corky Marlinson was as brilliant and respected as they came.

“The incredible paradox about Corky,” Tolland said, “is that he can quote you the distance to Alpha Centauri in millimeters, but he can’t tie his own necktie.”

“I wear clip-ons!” a nasal, good-natured voice barked nearby. “Efficiency over style, Mike. You Hollywood types don’t understand that!”

Rachel and Tolland turned to the man now emerging from behind a large stack of electronic gear. He was squat and rotund, resembling a pug dog with bubble eyes and a thinning, comb-over haircut. When the man saw Tolland standing with Rachel, he stopped in his tracks.

“Jesus Christ, Mike! We’re at the friggin’ North Pole and you still manage to meet gorgeous women. I knew I should have gone into television!”

Michael Tolland was visibly embarrassed. “Ms. Sexton, please excuse Dr. Marlinson. What he lacks in tact, he more than makes up for in random bits of totally useless knowledge about our universe.”

Corky approached. “A true pleasure, ma’am. I didn’t catch your name.”

“Rachel,” she said. “Rachel Sexton.”

“Sexton?” Corky let out a playful gasp. “No relation to that shortsighted, depraved senator, I hope!”

Tolland winced. “Actually, Corky, Senator Sexton is Rachel’s father.”

Corky stopped laughing and slumped. “You know, Mike, it’s really no wonder I’ve never had any luck with the ladies.”

Chapter 22

Prize-winning astrophysicist Corky Marlinson ushered Rachel and Tolland into his work area and began sifting through his tools and rock samples. The man moved like a tightly wound spring about to explode.

“All right,” he said, quivering excitedly, “Ms. Sexton, you’re about to get the Corky Marlinson thirty-second meteorite primer.”

Tolland gave Rachel a be-patient wink. “Bear with him. The man really wanted to be an actor.”

“Yeah, and Mike wanted to be a respected scientist.” Corky rooted around in a shoebox and produced three small rock samples and aligned them on his desk. “These are the three main classes of meteorites in the world.”

Rachel looked at the three samples. All appeared as awkward spheroids about the size of golf balls. Each had been sliced in half to reveal its cross section.

“All meteorites,” Corky said, “consist of varying amounts of nickel-iron alloys, silicates, and sulfides. We classify them on the basis of their metal-to-silicate ratios.”

Rachel already had the feeling Corky Marlinson’s meteorite “primer” was going to be more than thirty seconds.

“This first sample here,” Corky said, pointing to a shiny, jet-black stone, “is an iron-core meteorite. Very heavy. This little guy landed in Antarctica a few years back.”

Rachel studied the meteorite. It most certainly looked otherworldly-a blob of heavy grayish iron whose outer crust was burned and blackened.

“That charred outer layer is called a fusion crust,” Corky said. “It’s the result of extreme heating as the meteor falls through our atmosphere. All meteorites exhibit that charring.” Corky moved quickly to the next sample. “This next one is what we call a stony-iron meteorite.”

Rachel studied the sample, noting that it too was charred on the outside. This sample, however, had a light-greenish tint, and the cross section looked like a collage of colorful angular fragments resembling a kaleidoscopic puzzle.

“Pretty,” Rachel said.

“Are you kidding, it’s gorgeous!” Corky talked for a minute about the high olivine content causing the green luster, and then he reached dramatically for the third and final sample, handing it to Rachel.

Rachel held the final meteorite in her palm. This one was grayish brown in color, resembling granite. It felt heavier than a terrestrial stone, but not substantially. The only indication suggesting it was anything other than a normal rock was its fusion crust-the scorched outer surface.

“This,” Corky said with finality, “is called a stony meteorite. It’s the most common class of meteorite. More than ninety percent of meteorites found on earth are of this category.”

Rachel was surprised. She had always pictured meteorites more like the first sample-metallic, alien-looking blobs. The meteorite in her hand looked anything but extraterrestrial. Aside from the charred exterior, it looked like something she might step over on the beach.

Corky’s eyes were bulging now with excitement. “The meteorite buried in the ice here at Milne is a stony meteorite-a lot like the one in your hand. Stony meteorites appear almost identical to our terrestrial igneous rocks, which makes them tough to spot. Usually a blend of lightweight silicates-feldspar, olivine, pyroxene. Nothing too exciting.”

I’ll say, Rachel thought, handing the sample back to him. “This one looks like a rock someone left in a fireplace and burned.”

Corky burst out laughing. “One hell of a fireplace! The meanest blast furnace ever built doesn’t come close to reproducing the heat a meteoroid feels when it hits our atmosphere. They get ravaged!”

Tolland gave Rachel an empathetic smile. “This is the good part.”

“Picture this,” Corky said, taking the meteorite sample from Rachel. “Let’s imagine this little fella is the size of a house.” He held the sample high over his head. “Okay… it’s in space… floating across our solar system… cold-soaked from the temperature of space to minus one hundred degrees Celsius.”

Tolland was chuckling to himself, apparently already having seen Corky’s reenactment of the meteorite’s arrival on Ellesmere Island.

Corky began lowering the sample. “Our meteorite is moving toward earth… and as it’s getting very close, our gravity locks on… accelerating… accelerating… ”

Rachel watched as Corky sped up the sample’s trajectory, mimicking the acceleration of gravity.

“Now it’s moving fast,” Corky exclaimed. “Over ten miles per second-thirty-six thousand miles per hour! At 135 kilometers above the earth’s surface, the meteorite begins to encounter friction with the atmosphere.” Corky shook the sample violently as he lowered it toward the ice. “Falling below one hundred kilometers, it’s starting to glow! Now the atmospheric density is increasing, and the friction is incredible! The air around the meteoroid is becoming incandescent as the surface material melts from the heat.” Corky started making burning and sizzling sound effects. “Now it’s falling past the eighty-kilometer mark, and the exterior becomes heated to over eighteen hundred degrees Celsius!”

Rachel watched in disbelief as the presidential award-winning astrophysicist shook the meteorite more fiercely, sputtering out juvenile sound effects.

“Sixty kilometers!” Corky was shouting now. “Our meteoroid encounters the atmospheric wall. The air is too dense! It violently decelerates at more than three hundred times the force of gravity!” Corky made a screeching braking sound and slowed his descent dramatically. “Instantly, the meteorite cools and stops glowing. We’ve hit dark flight! The meteoroid’s surface hardens from its molten stage to a charred fusion crust.”

Rachel heard Tolland groan as Corky knelt on the ice to perform the coup de grace-earth impact.

“Now,” Corky said, “our huge meteorite is skipping across our lower atmosphere… ” On his knees, he arched the meteorite toward the ground on a shallow slant. “It’s headed toward the Arctic Ocean… on an oblique angle… falling… looking almost like it will skip off the ocean… falling… and… ” He touched the sample to the ice. “BAM!”

Rachel jumped.

“The impact is cataclysmic! The meteorite explodes. Fragments fly off, skipping and spinning across the ocean.” Corky went into slow motion now, rolling and tumbling the sample across the invisible ocean toward Rachel’s feet. “One piece keeps skimming, tumbling toward Ellesmere Island… ” He brought it right up to her toe. “It skips off the ocean, bouncing up onto land… ” He moved it up and over the tongue of her shoe and rolled it to a stop on top of her foot near her ankle. “And finally comes to rest high on the Milne Glacier, where snow and ice quickly cover it, protecting it from atmospheric erosion.” Corky stood up with a smile.

Rachel’s mouth fell slack. She gave an impressed laugh. “Well, Dr. Marlinson, that explanation was exceptionally… ”

“Lucid?” Corky offered.

Rachel smiled. “In a word.”

Corky handed the sample back to her. “Look at the cross section.”

Rachel studied the rock’s interior a moment, seeing nothing.

“Tilt it into the light,” Tolland prompted, his voice warm and kind. “And look closely.”

Rachel brought the rock close to her eyes and tilted it against the dazzling halogens reflecting overhead. Now she saw it-tiny metallic globules glistening in the stone. Dozens of them were peppered throughout the cross section like minuscule droplets of mercury, each only about a millimeter across.

“Those little bubbles are called ‘chondrules,'” Corky said. “And they occur only in meteorites.”

Rachel squinted at the droplets. “Granted, I’ve never seen anything like this in an earth rock.”

“Nor will you!” Corky declared. “Chondrules are one geologic structure we simply do not have on earth. Some chondrules are exceptionally old-perhaps madeup of the earliest materials in the universe. Other chondrules are much younger, like the ones in your hand. The chondrules in that meteorite date only about 190 million years old.”

“One hundred ninety million years is young?”

“Heck, yes! In cosmological terms, that’s yesterday. The point here, though, is that this sample contains chondrules-conclusive meteoric evidence.”

“Okay,” Rachel said. “Chondrules are conclusive. Got it.”

“And finally,” Corky said, heaving a sigh, “if the fusion crust and chondrules don’t convince you, we astronomers have a foolproof method to confirm meteoric origin.”

“Being?”

Corky gave a casual shrug. “We simply use a petrographic polarizing microscope, an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer, a neutron activation analyzer, or an induction-coupled plasma spectrometer to measure ferromagnetic ratios.”

Tolland groaned. “Now he’s showing off. What Corky means is that we can prove a rock is a meteorite simply by measuring its chemical content.”

“Hey, ocean boy!” Corky chided. “Let’s leave the science to the scientists, shall we?” He immediately turned back to Rachel. “In earth rocks, the mineral nickel occurs in either extremely high percentages or extremely low; nothing in the middle. In meteorites, though, the nickel content falls within a midrange set of values. Therefore, if we analyze a sample and find the nickel content reflects a midrange value, we can guarantee beyond the shadow of a doubt that the sample is a meteorite.”

Rachel felt exasperated. “Okay, gentlemen, fusion crusts, chondrules, midrange nickel contents, all of which prove it’s from space. I get the picture.” She laid the sample back on Corky’s table. “But why am I here?”

Corky heaved a portentous sigh. “You want to see a sample of the meteorite NASA found in the ice underneath us?”

Before I die here, please.

This time Corky reached in his breast pocket and produced a small, disk-shaped piece of stone. The slice of rock was shaped like an audio CD, about half an inch thick, and appeared to be similar in composition to the stony meteorite she had just seen.

“This is a slice of a core sample that we drilled yesterday.” Corky handed the disk to Rachel.

The appearance certainly was not earth-shattering. It was an orangish-white, heavy rock. Part of the rim was charred and black, apparently a segment of the meteorite’s outer skin. “I see the fusion crust,” she said.

Corky nodded. “Yeah, this sample was taken from near the outside of the meteorite, so it still has some crust on it.”

Rachel tilted the disk in the light and spotted the tiny metallic globules. “And I see the chondrules.”

“Good,” Corky said, his voice tense with excitement. “And I can tell you from having run this thing through a petrographic polarizing microscope that its nickel content is midrange-nothing like a terrestrial rock. Congratulations, you’ve now successfully confirmed the rock in your hand came from space.”

Rachel looked up, confused. “Dr. Marlinson, it’s a meteorite. It’s supposed to come from space. Am I missing something here?”

Corky and Tolland exchanged knowing looks. Tolland put a hand on Rachel’s shoulder and whispered, “Flip it over.”

Rachel turned the disk over so she could see the other side. It took only an instant for her brain to process what she was looking at.

Then the truth hit her like a truck.

Impossible! she gasped, and yet as she stared at the rock she realized her definition of “impossible” had just changed forever. Embedded in the stone was a form that in an earth specimen might be considered commonplace, and yet in a meteorite was utterly inconceivable.

“It’s… ” Rachel stammered, almost unable to speak the word. “It’s… a bug! This meteorite contains the fossil of a bug!”

Both Tolland and Corky were beaming. “Welcome aboard,” Corky said.

The torrent of emotions that gripped Rachel left her momentarily mute, and yet even in her bewilderment, she could clearly see that this fossil, beyond question, had once been a living biological organism. The petrified impression was about three inches long and looked to be the underside of some kind of huge beetle or crawling insect. Seven pairs of hinged legs were clustered beneath a protective outer shell, which seemed to be segmented in plates like that of an armadillo.

Rachel felt dizzy. “An insect from space… ”

“It’s an isopod,” Corky said. “Insects have three pairs of legs, not seven.”

Rachel did not even hear him. Her head was spinning as she studied the fossil before her.

“You can clearly see,” Corky said, “that the dorsal shell is segmented in plates like a terrestrial pill bug, and yet the two prominent tail-like appendages differentiate it as something closer to a louse.”

Rachel’s mind had already tuned Corky out. The classification of the species was totally irrelevant. The puzzle pieces now came crashing into place-the President’s secrecy, the NASA excitement…

There is a fossil in this meteorite! Not just a speck of bacteria or microbes, but an advanced life-form! Proof of life elsewhere in the universe!

Chapter 23

Ten minutes into the CNN debate, Senator Sexton wondered how he could have been worried at all. Marjorie Tench was grossly overestimated as an opponent. Despite the senior adviser’s reputation for ruthless sagacity, she was turning out to be more of a sacrificial lamb than a worthy opponent.

Granted, early in the conversation Tench had grabbed the upper hand by hammering the senator’s prolife platform as biased against women, but then, just as it seemed Tench was tightening her grip, she’d made a careless mistake. While questioning how the senator expected to fund educational improvements without raising taxes, Tench made a snide allusion to Sexton’s constant scapegoating of NASA.

Although NASA was a topic Sexton definitely intended to address toward the end of the discussion, Marjorie Tench had opened the door early. Idiot!

“Speaking of NASA,” Sexton segued casually. “Can you comment on the rumors I keep hearing that NASA has suffered another recent failure?”

Marjorie Tench did not flinch. “I’m afraid I have not heard that rumor.” Her cigarette voice was like sandpaper.

“So, no comment?”

“I’m afraid not.”

Sexton gloated. In the world of media sound bites, “no comment” translated loosely to “guilty as charged.”

“I see,” Sexton said. “And how about the rumors of a secret, emergency meeting between the President and the administrator of NASA?”

This time Tench looked surprised. “I’m not sure what meeting you’re referring to. The President takes many meetings.”

“Of course, he does.” Sexton decided to go straight at her. “Ms. Tench, you are a great supporter of the space agency, is that right?”

Tench sighed, sounding tired of Sexton’s pet issue. “I believe in the importance of preserving America’s technological edge-be that military, industry, intelligence, telecommunications. NASA is certainly part of that vision. Yes.”

In the production booth, Sexton could see Gabrielle’s eyes telling him to back off, but Sexton could taste blood. “I’m curious, ma’am, is it your influence behind the President’s continued support of this obviously ailing agency?”

Tench shook her head. “No. The President is also a staunch believer in NASA. He makes his own decisions.”

Sexton could not believe his ears. He had just given Marjorie Tench a chance to partially exonerate the President by personally accepting some of the blame for NASA funding. Instead, Tench had thrown it right back at the President. The President makes his own decisions. It seemed Tench was already trying to distance herself from a campaign in trouble. No big surprise. After all, when the dust settled, Marjorie Tench would be looking for a job.

Over the next few minutes, Sexton and Tench parried. Tench made some weak attempts to change the subject, while Sexton kept pressing her on the NASA budget.

“Senator,” Tench argued, “you want to cut NASA’s budget, but do you have any idea how many high-tech jobs will be lost?”

Sexton almost laughed in the woman’s face. This gal is considered the smartest mind in Washington? Tench obviously had something to learn about the demographics of this country. High-tech jobs were inconsequential in comparison to the huge numbers of hardworking blue-collar Americans.

Sexton pounced. “We’re talking about billions in savings here, Marjorie, and if the result is that a bunch of NASA scientists have to get in their BMWs and take their marketable skills elsewhere, then so be it. I’m committed to being tough on spending.”

Marjorie Tench fell silent, as if reeling from that last punch.

The CNN host prompted, “Ms. Tench? A reaction?”

The woman finally cleared her throat and spoke. “I guess I’m just surprised to hear that Mr. Sexton is willing to establish himself as so staunchly anti-NASA.”

Sexton’s eyes narrowed. Nice try, lady. “I am not anti-NASA, and I resent the accusation. I am simply saying that NASA’s budget is indicative of the kind of runaway spending that your President endorses. NASA said they could build the shuttle for five billion; it cost twelve billion. They said they could build the space station for eight billion; now it’s one hundred billion.”

“Americans are leaders,” Tench countered, “because we set lofty goals and stick to them through the tough times.”

“That national pride speech doesn’t work on me, Marge. NASA has overspent its allowance three times in the past two years and crawled back to the President with its tail between its legs and asked for more money to fix its mistakes. Is that national pride? If you want to talk about national pride, talk about strong schools. Talk about universal health care. Talk about smart kids growing up in a country of opportunity. That’s national pride!”

Tench glared. “May I ask you a direct question, senator?”

Sexton did not respond. He simply waited.

The woman’s words came out deliberately, with a sudden infusion of grit. “Senator, if I told you that we could not explore space for less than NASA is currently spending, would you act to abolish the space agency altogether?”

The question felt like a boulder landing in Sexton’s lap. Maybe Tench wasn’t so stupid after all. She had just blindsided Sexton with a “fence-buster”-a carefully crafted yes/no question designed to force a fence-straddling opponent to choose clear sides and clarify his position once and for all.

Instinctively Sexton tried sidestepping. “I have no doubt that with proper management NASA can explore space for a lot less than we are currently-”

“Senator Sexton, answer the question. Exploring space is a dangerous and costly business. It’s much like building a passenger jet. We should either do it right-or not at all. The risks are too great. My question remains: If you become president, and you are faced with the decision to continue NASA funding at its current level or entirely scrap the U.S. space program, which would you choose?”

Shit. Sexton glanced up at Gabrielle through the glass. Her expression echoed what Sexton already knew. You’re committed. Be direct. No waffling. Sexton held his chin high. “Yes. I would transfer NASA’s current budget directly into our school systems if faced with that decision. I would vote for our children over space.”

The look on Marjorie Tench’s face was one of absolute shock. “I’m stunned. Did I hear you correctly? As president, you would act to abolish this nation’s space program?”

Sexton felt an anger simmering. Now Tench was putting words in his mouth. He tried to counter, but Tench was already talking.

“So you’re saying, senator, for the record, that you would do away with the agency that put men on the moon?”

“I am saying that the space race is over! Times have changed. NASA no longer plays a critical role in the lives of everyday Americans and yet we continue to fund them as though they do.”

“So you don’t think space is the future?”

“Obviously space is the future, but NASA is a dinosaur! Let the private sector explore space. American taxpayers shouldn’t have to open their wallets every time some Washington engineer wants to take a billion-dollar photograph of Jupiter. Americans are tired of selling out their children’s future to fund an outdated agency that provides so little in return for its gargantuan costs!”

Tench sighed dramatically. “So little in return? With the exception perhaps of the SETI program, NASA has had enormous returns.”

Sexton was shocked that the mention of SETI had even escaped Tench’s lips. Major blunder. Thanks for reminding me. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence was NASA’s most abysmal money pit ever. Although NASA had tried to give the project a facelift by renaming it “Origins” and shuffling some of its objectives, it was still the same losing gamble.

“Marjorie,” Sexton said, taking his opening, “I’ll address SETI only because you mention it.”

Oddly, Tench looked almost eager to hear this.

Sexton cleared his throat. “Most people are not aware that NASA has been looking for ET for thirty-five years now. And it’s a pricey treasure hunt-satellite dish arrays, huge transceivers, millions in salaries to scientists who sit in the dark and listen to blank tape. It’s an embarrassing waste of resources.”

“You’re saying there’s nothing up there?”

“I’m saying that if any other government agency had spent forty-five million over thirty-five years and had not produced one single result, they would have been axed a long time ago.” Sexton paused to let the gravity of the statement settle in. “After thirty-five years, I think it’s pretty obvious we’re not going to find extraterrestrial life.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

Sexton rolled his eyes. “Oh, for heavens sake, Ms. Tench, if I’m wrong I’ll eat my hat.”

Marjorie Tench locked her jaundiced eyes on Senator Sexton. “I’ll remember you said that, senator.” She smiled for the first time. “I think we all will.”

Six miles away, inside the Oval Office, President Zach Herney turned off the television and poured himself a drink. As Marjorie Tench had promised, Senator Sexton had taken the bait-hook, line, and sinker.

Chapter 24

Michael Tolland felt himself beaming empathetically as Rachel Sexton gaped in silence at the fossilized meteorite in her hand. The refined beauty of the woman’s face now seemed to dissolve into the expression of innocent wonder-a young girl who had just seen Santa Claus for the first time.

I know just how you feel, he thought.

Tolland had been struck the same way only forty-eight hours ago. He too had been stunned into silence. Even now, the scientific and philosophical implications of the meteorite astounded him, forcing him to rethink everything he had ever believed about nature.

Tolland’s oceanographic discoveries included several previously unknown deepwater species, and yet this “space bug” was another level of breakthrough altogether. Despite Hollywood’s propensity for casting extraterrestrials as little green men, astrobiologists and science buffs all agreed that given the sheer numbers and adaptability of earth’s insects, extraterrestrial life would in all probability be buglike if it were ever discovered.

Insects were members of the phylum arthropoda-creatures having hard outer skeletons and jointed legs. With over 1.25 million known species and an estimated five hundred thousand still to be classified, earth’s “bugs” outnumbered all of the other animals combined. They made up 95 percent of all the planet’s species and an astounding 40 percent of the planet’s biomass.

It was not so much the bugs’ abundance that impressed as it was their resilience. From the Antarctic ice beetle to Death Valley’s sun scorpion, bugs happily inhabited deadly ranges in temperature, dryness, and even pressure. They also had mastered exposure to the most deadly force known in the universe-radiation. Following a nuclear test in 1945, air force officers had donned radiation suits and examined ground zero, only to discover cockroaches and ants happily carrying on as if nothing had happened. Astronomers realized that an arthropod’s protective exoskeleton made it a perfectly viable candidate to inhabit the countless radiation-saturated planets where nothing else could live.

It appeared the astrobiologists had been right, Tolland thought. ET is a bug.

Rachel’s legs felt weak beneath her. “I can’t… believe it,” she said, turning the fossil in her hands. “I never thought… ”

“Give it some time to sink in,” Tolland said, grinning. “Took me twenty-four hours to get my feet back under me.”

“I see we have a newcomer,” said an uncharacteristically tall Asian man, walking over to join them.

Corky and Tolland seemed to deflate instantly with the man’s arrival. Apparently the moment of magic had been shattered.

“Dr. Wailee Ming,” the man said, introducing himself. “Chairman of paleontology at UCLA.”

The man carried himself with the pompous rigidity of renaissance aristocracy, continuously stroking the out-of-place bow tie that he wore beneath his knee-length camel-hair coat. Wailee Ming was apparently not one to let a remote setting come in the way of his prim appearance.

“I’m Rachel Sexton.” Her hand was still trembling as she shook Ming’s smooth palm. Ming was obviously another of the President’s civilian recruits.

“It would be my pleasure, Ms. Sexton,” the paleontologist said, “to tell you anything you want to know about these fossils.”

“And plenty you don’t want to know,” Corky grumbled.

Ming fingered his bow tie. “My paleontologic specialty is extinct Arthropoda and Mygalomorphae. Obviously the most impressive characteristic of this organism is-”

“-is that it’s from another friggin’ planet!” Corky interjected.

Ming scowled and cleared his throat. “The most impressive characteristic of this organism is that it fits perfectly into our Darwinian system of terrestrial taxonomy and classification.”

Rachel glanced up. They can classify this thing? “You mean kingdom, phylum, species, that sort of thing?”

“Exactly,” Ming said. “This species, if found on earth, would be classified as the order Isopoda and would fall into a class with about two thousand species of lice.”

“Lice?” she said. “But it’s huge.”

“Taxonomy is not size specific. House cats and tigers are related. Classification is about physiology. This species is clearly a louse: It has a flattened body, seven pairs of legs, and a reproductive pouch identical in structure to wood lice, pill bugs, beach hoppers, sow bugs, and gribbles. The other fossils clearly reveal more specialized-”

“Other fossils?”

Ming glanced at Corky and Tolland. “She doesn’t know?”

Tolland shook his head.

Ming’s face brightened instantly. “Ms. Sexton, you haven’t heard the good part yet.”

“There are more fossils,” Corky interjected, clearly trying to steal Ming’s thunder. “Lots more.” Corky scurried over to a large manila envelope and retrieved a folded sheet of oversized paper. He spread it out on the desk in front of Rachel. “After we drilled some cores, we dropped an x-ray camera down. This is a graphic rendering of the cross section.”

Rachel looked at the x-ray printout on the table, and immediately had to sit down. The three-dimensional cross section of the meteorite was packed with dozens of these bugs.

“Paleolithic records,” Ming said, “are usually found in heavy concentrations. Often times, mud slides trap organisms en masse, covering nests or entire communities.”

Corky grinned. “We think the collection in the meteorite represents a nest.” He pointed to one of the bugs on the printout. “And there’s mommy.”

Rachel looked at the specimen in question, and her jaw dropped. The bug looked to be about two feet long.

“Big-ass louse, eh?” Corky said.

Rachel nodded, dumbstruck, as she pictured lice the size of bread loaves wandering around on some distant planet.

“On earth,” Ming said, “our bugs stay relatively small because gravity keeps them in check. They can’t grow larger than their exoskeletons can support. However, on a planet with diminished gravity, insects could evolve to much greater dimensions.”

“Imagine swatting mosquitoes the size of condors,” Corky joked, taking the core sample from Rachel and slipping it into his pocket.

Ming scowled. “You had better not be stealing that!”

“Relax,” Corky said. “We’ve got eight tons more where this came from.”

Rachel’s analytical mind churned through the data before her. “But how can life from space be so similar to life on earth? I mean, you’re saying this bug fits in our Darwinian classification?”

“Perfectly,” Corky said. “And believe it or not, a lot of astronomers have predicted that extraterrestrial life would be very similar to life on earth.”

“But why?” she demanded. “This species came from an entirely different environment.”

“Panspermia.” Corky smiled broadly.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Panspermia is the theory that life was seeded here from another planet.”

Rachel stood up. “You’re losing me.”

Corky turned to Tolland. “Mike, you’re the primordial seas guy.”

Tolland looked happy to take over. “Earth was once a lifeless planet, Rachel. Then suddenly, as if overnight, life exploded. Many biologists think the explosion of life was the magical result of an ideal mixture of elements in the primordial seas. But we’ve never been able to reproduce that in a lab, so religious scholars have seized that failure as proof of God, meaning life could not exist unless God touched the primordial seas and infused them with life.”

“But we astronomers,” Corky declared, “came up with another explanation for the overnight explosion of life on earth.”

“Panspermia,” Rachel said, now understanding what they were talking about. She had heard the panspermia theory before but didn’t know its name. “The theory that a meteorite splashed into the primordial soup, bringing the first seeds of microbial life to earth.”

“Bingo,” Corky said. “Where they percolated and sprang to life.”

“And if that’s true,” Rachel said, “then the underlying ancestry of earth’s life-forms and extraterrestrial life-forms would be identical.”

“Double bingo.”

Panspermia, Rachel thought, still barely able to grasp the implications. “So, not only does this fossil confirm that life exists elsewhere in the universe, but it practically proves panspermia… that life on earth was seeded from elsewhere in the universe.”

“Triple bingo.” Corky flashed her an enthusiastic nod. “Technically, we may all be extraterrestrials.” He put his fingers over his head like two antennas, crossed his eyes, and wagged his tongue like some kind of insect.

Tolland looked at Rachel with a pathetic grin. “And this guy’s the pinnacle of our evolution.”

Chapter 25

Rachel Sexton felt a dreamlike mist swirling around her as she walked across the habisphere, flanked by Michael Tolland. Corky and Ming followed close behind.

“You okay?” Tolland asked, watching her.

Rachel glanced over, giving a weak smile. “Thanks. It’s just… so much.”

Her mind reeled back to the infamous 1996 NASA discovery-ALH84001-a Mars meteorite that NASA claimed contained fossil traces of bacterial life. Sadly, only weeks after NASA’s triumphant press conference, several civilian scientists stepped forward with proof that the rock’s “signs of life” were really nothing more than kerogen produced by terrestrial contamination. NASA’s credibility had taken a huge hit over that gaffe. The New York Times took the opportunity to sarcastically redefine the agency’s acronym: NASA-NOT ALWAYS SCIENTIFICALLY ACCURATE.

In that same edition, paleobiologist Stephen Jay Gould summed up the problems with ALH84001 by pointing out that the evidence in it was chemical and inferential, rather than “solid,” like an unambiguous bone or shell.

Now, however, Rachel realized NASA had found irrefutable proof. No skeptical scientist could possibly step forward and question these fossils. NASA was no longer touting blurry, enlarged photos of alleged microscopic bacteria-they were offering up real meteorite samples where bio-organisms visible to the naked eye had been embedded in the stone. Foot-long lice!

Rachel had to laugh when she realized she’d been a childhood fan of a song by David Bowie that referred to “spiders from Mars.” Few would have guessed how close the androgynous British pop star would come to foreseeing astrobiology’s greatest moment.

As the distant strains of the song ran through Rachel’s mind, Corky hurried up behind her. “Has Mike bragged about his documentary yet?”

Rachel replied, “No, but I’d love to hear about it.”

Corky slapped Tolland on the back. “Go for it, big boy. Tell her why the President decided that the most important moment in science history should be handed over to a snorkeling TV star.”

Tolland groaned. “Corky, if you don’t mind?”

“Fine, I’ll explain,” Corky said, prying his way in between them. “As you probably know, Ms. Sexton, the President will be giving a press conference tonight to tell the world about the meteorite. Because the vast majority of the world is made up of half-wits, the President asked Mike to come onboard and dumb everything down for them.”

“Thanks, Corky,” Tolland said. “Very nice.” He looked at Rachel. “What Corky’s trying to say is that because there’s so much scientific data to convey, the President thought a short visual documentary about the meteorite might help make the information more accessible to mainstream America, many of whom, oddly, don’t have advanced degrees in astrophysics.”

“Did you know,” Corky said to Rachel, “that I’ve just learned our nation’s President is a closet fan of Amazing Seas?” He shook his head in mock disgust. “Zach Herney-the ruler of the free world-has his secretary tape Mike’s program so he can decompress after a long day.”

Tolland shrugged. “The man’s got taste, what can I say?”

Rachel was now starting to realize just how masterful the President’s plan was. Politics was a media game, and Rachel could already imagine the enthusiasm and scientific credibility the face of Michael Tolland on-screen would bring to the press conference. Zach Herney had recruited the ideal man to endorse his little NASA coup. Skeptics would be hard-pressed to challenge the President’s data if it came from the nation’s top television science personality as well as several respected civilian scientists.

Corky said, “Mike’s already taken video depositions from all of us civilians for his documentary, as well as from most of the top NASA specialists. And I’ll bet my National Medal that you’re next on his list.”

Rachel turned and eyed him. “Me? What are you talking about? I have no credentials. I’m an intelligence liaison.”

“Then why did the President send you up here?”

“He hasn’t told me yet.”

An amused grin crossed Corky’s lips. “You’re a White House intelligence liaison who deals in clarification and authentication of data, right?”

“Yes, but nothing scientific.”

“And you’re the daughter of the man who built a campaign around criticizing the money NASA has wasted in space?”

Rachel could hear it coming.

“You have to admit, Ms. Sexton,” Ming chimed in, “a deposition from you would give this documentary a whole new dimension of credibility. If the President sent you up here, he must want you to participate somehow.”

Rachel again flashed on William Pickering’s concern that she was being used.

Tolland checked his watch. “We should probably head over,” he said, motioning toward the center of the habisphere. “They should be getting close.”

“Close to what?” Rachel asked.

“Extraction time. NASA is bringing the meteorite to the surface. It should be up any time now.”

Rachel was stunned. “You guys are actually removing an eight-ton rock from under two hundred feet of solid ice?”

Corky looked gleeful. “You didn’t think NASA was going to leave a discovery like this buried in the ice, did you?”

“No, but…,” Rachel had seen no signs of large-scale excavation equipment anywhere inside the habisphere. “How the heck is NASA planning on getting the meteorite out?”

Corky puffed up. “No problem. You’re in a room full of rocket scientists!”

“Blather,” Ming scoffed, looking at Rachel. “Dr. Marlinson enjoys flexing other people’s muscles. The truth is that everyone here was stumped about how to get the meteorite out. It was Dr. Mangor who proposed a viable solution.”

“I haven’t met Dr. Mangor.”

“Glaciologist from the University of New Hampshire,” Tolland said. “The fourth and final civilian scientist recruited by the President. And Ming here is correct, it was Mangor who figured it out.”

“Okay,” Rachel said. “So what did this guy propose?”

“Gal,” Ming corrected, sounding smitten. “Dr. Mangor is a woman.”

“Debatable,” Corky grumbled. He looked over at Rachel. “And by the way, Dr. Mangor is going to hate you.”

Tolland shot Corky an angry look.

“Well, she will!” Corky defended. “She’ll hate the competition.”

Rachel felt lost. “I’m sorry? Competition?”

“Ignore him,” Tolland said. “Unfortunately, the fact that Corky is a total moron somehow escaped the National Science Committee. You and Dr. Mangor will get along fine. She is a professional. She’s considered one of the world’s top glaciologists. She actually moved to Antarctica for a few years to study glacial movement.”

“Odd,” Corky said, “I heard UNH took up a donation and sent her there so they could get some peace and quiet on campus.”

“Are you aware,” Ming snapped, seeming to have taken the comment personally, “that Dr. Mangor almost died down there! She got lost in a storm and lived on seal blubber for five weeks before anyone found her.”

Corky whispered to Rachel, “I heard no one was looking.”

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