The limousine ride back from the CNN studio to Sexton’s office felt long for Gabrielle Ashe. The senator sat across from her, gazing out the window, obviously gloating over the debate.
“They sent Tench to an afternoon cable show,” he said, turning with a handsome smile. “The White House is getting frantic.”
Gabrielle nodded, noncommittal. She’d sensed a look of smug satisfaction on Marjorie Tench’s face as the woman drove off. It made her nervous.
Sexton’s personal cellphone rang, and he fished in his pocket to grab it. The senator, like most politicians, had a hierarchy of phone numbers at which his contacts could reach him, depending on how important they were. Whoever was calling him now was at the top of the list; the call was coming in on Sexton’s private line, a number even Gabrielle was discouraged to call.
“Senator Sedgewick Sexton,” he chimed, accentuating the musical quality of his name.
Gabrielle couldn’t hear the caller over the sound of the limo, but Sexton listened intently, replying with enthusiasm. “Fantastic. I’m so pleased you called. I’m thinking six o’clock? Super. I have an apartment here in D.C. Private. Comfortable. You have the address, right? Okay. Looking forward to meeting you. See you tonight then.”
Sexton hung up, looking pleased with himself.
“New Sexton fan?” Gabrielle asked.
“They’re multiplying,” he said. “This guy’s a heavy hitter.”
“Must be. Meeting him in your apartment?” Sexton usually defended the sanctified privacy of his apartment like a lion protecting its only remaining hiding place.
Sexton shrugged. “Yeah. Thought I’d give him the personal touch. This guy might have some pull in the home stretch. Got to keep making those personal connections, you know. It’s all about trust.”
Gabrielle nodded, pulling out Sexton’s daily planner. “You want me to put him in your calendar?”
“No need. I’d planned to take a night at home anyway.”
Gabrielle found tonight’s page and noticed it was already shaded out in Sexton’s handwriting with the bold letters “P.E.”-Sexton shorthand for either personal event, private evening, or piss-off everyone; nobody was quite sure which. From time to time, the senator scheduled himself a “P.E.” night so he could hole up in his apartment, take his phones off the hook, and do what he enjoyed most-sip brandy with old cronies and pretend he’d forgotten about politics for the evening.
Gabrielle gave him a surprised look. “So you’re actually letting business intrude on prescheduled P.E. time? I’m impressed.”
“This guy happened to catch me on a night when I’ve got some time. I’ll talk to him for a little while. See what he has to say.”
Gabrielle wanted to ask who this mystery caller was, but Sexton clearly was being intentionally vague. Gabrielle had learned when not to pry.
As they turned off the beltway and headed back toward Sexton’s office building, Gabrielle glanced down again at the P.E. time blocked out in Sexton’s planner and had the strange sensation Sexton knew this call was coming.
The ice at the center of the NASA habisphere was dominated by an eighteen-foot tripod structure of composite scaffolding, which looked like a cross between an oil rig and an awkward model of the Eiffel Tower. Rachel studied the device, unable to fathom how it could be used to extract the enormous meteorite.
Beneath the tower, several winches had been screwed into steel plates affixed to the ice with heavy bolts. Threaded through the winches, iron cables banked upward over a series of pulleys atop the tower. From there, the cables plunged vertically downward into narrow bore holes drilled in the ice. Several large NASA men took turns tightening the winches. With each new tightening, the cables slithered a few inches upward through the bore holes, as if the men were raising an anchor.
I’m clearly missing something, Rachel thought, as she and the others moved closer to the extraction site. The men seemed to be hoisting the meteorite directly through the ice.
“EVEN TENSION! DAMN IT!” a woman’s voice screamed nearby, with all the grace of a chain saw.
Rachel looked over to see a small woman in a bright yellow snowsuit smeared with grease. She had her back to Rachel, but even so, Rachel had no trouble guessing that she was in charge of this operation. Making notations on a clipboard, the woman stalked back and forth like a disgusted drillmaster.
“Don’t tell me you ladies are tired!”
Corky called out, “Hey, Norah, quit bossing those poor NASA boys and come flirt with me.”
The woman did not even turn around. “Is that you, Marlinson? I’d know that weenie little voice anywhere. Come back when you reach puberty.”
Corky turned to Rachel. “Norah keeps us warm with her charm.”
“I heard that, space boy,” Dr. Mangor fired back, still making notes. “And if you’re checking out my ass, these snow pants add thirty pounds.”
“No worries,” Corky called. “It’s not your woolly-mammoth butt that drives me wild, it’s your winning personality.”
Corky laughed again. “I have great news, Norah. Looks like you’re not the only woman the President recruited.”
“No shit. He recruited you.”
Tolland took over. “Norah? Have you got a minute to meet someone?”
At the sound of Tolland’s voice, Norah immediately stopped what she was doing and turned around. Her hardened demeanor dissolved instantly. “Mike!” She rushed over, beaming. “Haven’t seen you in a few hours.”
“I’ve been editing the documentary.”
“How’s my segment?”
“You look brilliant and lovely.”
“He used special effects,” Corky said.
Norah ignored the remark, glancing now at Rachel with a polite but standoffish smile. She looked back at Tolland. “I hope you’re not cheating on me, Mike.”
Tolland’s rugged face flushed slightly as he made introductions. “Norah, I’d like you to meet Rachel Sexton. Ms. Sexton works in the intelligence community and is here at the request of the President. Her father is Senator Sedgewick Sexton.”
The introduction brought a confused look to Norah’s face. “I won’t even pretend to understand that one.” Norah did not remove her gloves as she gave Rachel’s hand a half-hearted shake. “Welcome to the top of the world.”
Rachel smiled. “Thanks.” She was surprised to see that Norah Mangor, despite the toughness of her voice, had a pleasant and impish countenance. Her pixie haircut was brown with streaks of gray, and her eyes were keen and sharp-two ice crystals. There was a steely confidence about her that Rachel liked.
“Norah,” Tolland said. “Have you got a minute to share what you’re doing with Rachel?”
Norah arched her eyebrows. “You two on a first-name basis already? My, my.”
Corky groaned. “I told you, Mike.”
Norah Mangor showed Rachel around the base of the tower while Tolland and the others trailed behind, talking among themselves.
“See those boreholes in the ice under the tripod?” Norah asked, pointing, her initial put-out tone softening now to one of rapt fervor for her work.
Rachel nodded, gazing down at the holes in the ice. Each was about a foot in diameter and had a steel cable inserted into it.
“Those holes are left over from when we drilled core samples and took X rays of the meteorite. Now we’re using them as entry points to lower heavy-duty screw eyes down the empty shafts and screw them into the meteorite. After that, we dropped a couple hundred feet of braided cable down each hole, snagged the screw eyes with industrial hooks, and now we’re simply winching it up. It’s taking these ladies several hours to get it to the surface, but it’s coming.”
“I’m not sure I follow,” Rachel said. “The meteorite is under thousands of tons of ice. How are you lifting it?”
Norah pointed to the top of the scaffolding where a narrow beam of pristine red light shone vertically downward toward the ice beneath the tripod. Rachel had seen it earlier and assumed it was simply some sort of visual indicator-a pointer demarking the spot where the object was buried.
“That’s a gallium arsenide semiconductor laser,” Norah said.
Rachel looked more closely at the beam of light and now saw that it had actually melted a tiny hole in the ice and shone down into the depths.
“Very hot beam,” Norah said. “We’re heating the meteorite as we lift.”
When Rachel grasped the simple brilliance of the woman’s plan, she was impressed. Norah had simply aimed the laser beam downward, melting through the ice until the beam hit the meteorite. The stone, being too dense to be melted by a laser, began absorbing the laser’s heat, eventually getting warm enough to melt the ice around it. As the NASA men hoisted the hot meteorite, the heated rock, combined with the upward pressure, melted the surrounding ice, clearing a pathway to raise it to the surface. The melt water accumulating over the meteorite simply seeped back down around the edges of the stone to refill the shaft.
Like a hot knife through a frozen stick of butter.
Norah motioned to the NASA men on the winches. “The generators can’t handle this kind of strain, so I’m using manpower to lift.”
“That’s crap!” one of the workers interjected. “She’s using manpower because she likes to see us sweat!”
“Relax,” Norah fired back. “You girls have been bitching for two days that you’re cold. I cured that. Now keep pulling.”
The workers laughed.
“What are the pylons for?” Rachel asked, pointing to several orange highway cones positioned around the tower at what appeared to be random locations. Rachel had seen similar cones dispersed around the dome.
“Critical glaciology tool,” Norah said. “We call them SHABAs. That’s short for ‘step here and break ankle.'” She picked up one of the pylons to reveal a circular bore hole that plunged like a bottomless well into the depths of the glacier. “Bad place to step.” She replaced the pylon. “We drilled holes all over the glacier for a structural continuity check. As in normal archeology, the number of years an object has been buried is indicated by how deep beneath the surface it’s found. The farther down one finds it, the longer it’s been there. So when an object is discovered under the ice, we can date that object’s arrival by how much ice has accumulated on top of it. To make sure our core dating measurements are accurate, we check multiple areas of the ice sheet to confirm that the area is one solid slab and hasn’t been disrupted by earthquake, fissuring, avalanche, what have you.”
“So how does this glacier look?”
“Flawless,” Norah said. “A perfect, solid slab. No fault lines or glacial turnover. This meteorite is what we call a ‘static fall.’ It’s been in the ice untouched and unaffected since it landed in 1716.”
Rachel did a double take. “You know the exact year it fell?”
Norah looked surprised by the question. “Hell, yes. That’s why they called me in. I read ice.” She motioned to a nearby pile of cylindrical tubes of ice. Each looked like a translucent telephone pole and was marked with a bright orange tag. “Those ice cores are a frozen geologic record.” She led Rachel over to the tubes. “If you look closely you can see individual layers in the ice.”
Rachel crouched down and could indeed see that the tube was made up of what appeared to be strata of ice with subtle differences in luminosity and clarity. The layers varied between paper thin to about a quarter of an inch thick.
“Each winter brings a heavy snowfall to the ice shelf,” Norah said, “and each spring brings a partial thaw. So we see a new compression layer every season. We simply start at the top-the most recent winter-and count backward.”
“Like counting rings on a tree.”
“It’s not quite that simple, Ms. Sexton. Remember, we’re measuring hundreds of feet of layerings. We need to read climatological markers to benchmark our work-precipitation records, airborne pollutants, that sort of thing.”
Tolland and the others joined them now. Tolland smiled at Rachel. “She knows a lot about ice, doesn’t she?”
Rachel felt oddly happy to see him. “Yeah, she’s amazing.”
“And for the record,” Tolland nodded, “Dr. Mangor’s 1716 date is right on. NASA came up with the exact same year of impact well before we even got here. Dr. Mangor drilled her own cores, ran her own tests, and confirmed NASA’s work.”
Rachel was impressed.
“And coincidentally,” Norah said, “1716 is the exact year early explorers claimed to have seen a bright fire-ball in the sky over northern Canada. The meteor became known as the Jungersol Fall, after the name of the exploration’s leader.”
“So,” Corky added, “the fact that the core dates and the historic record match is virtual proof that we’re looking at a fragment of the same meteorite that Jungersol recorded seeing in 1716.”
“Dr. Mangor!” one of the NASA workers called out “Leader hasps are starting to show!”
“Tour’s over, folks,” Norah said. “Moment of truth.” She grabbed a folding chair, climbed up onto it, and shouted out at the top of her lungs. “Surfacing in five minutes, everyone!”
All around the dome, like Pavlovian dogs responding to a dinner bell, the scientists dropped what they were doing and hurried toward the extraction zone.
Norah Mangor put her hands on her hips and surveyed her domain. “Okay, let’s raise the Titanic.”
“Step aside!” Norah hollered, moving through the growing crowd. The workers scattered. Norah took control, making a show of checking the cable tensions and alignments.
“Heave!” one of the NASA men yelled. The men tightened their winches, and the cables ascended another six inches out of the hole.
As the cables continued to move upward, Rachel felt the crowd inching forward in anticipation. Corky and Tolland were nearby, looking like kids at Christmas. On the far side of the hole, the hulking frame of NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom arrived, taking a position to watch the extraction.
“Hasps!” one of the NASA men yelled. “Leaders are showing!”
The steel cables rising through the boreholes changed from silver braid to yellow leader chains.
“Six more feet! Keep it steady!”
The group around the scaffolding fell into a rapt silence, like onlookers at a seance awaiting the appearance of some divine specter-everyone straining for the first glimpse.
Then Rachel saw it.
Emerging from the thinning layer of ice, the hazy form of the meteorite began to show itself. The shadow was oblong and dark, blurry at first, but getting clearer every moment as it melted its way upward.
“Tighter!” a technician yelled. The men tightened the winches, and the scaffolding creaked.
“Five more feet! Keep the tension even!”
Rachel could now see the ice above the stone beginning to bulge upward like a pregnant beast about to give birth. Atop the hump, surrounding the laser’s point of entry, a small circle of surface ice began to give way, melting, dissolving into a widening hole.
“Cervix is dilated!” someone shouted. “Nine hundred centimeters!”
A tense laughter broke the silence.
“Okay, kill the laser!”
Someone threw a switch, and the beam disappeared.
And then it happened.
Like the fiery arrival of some paleolithic god, the huge rock broke the surface with a hiss of steam. Through the swirling fog, the hulking shape rose out of the ice. The men manning the winches strained harder until finally the entire stone broke free of the frozen restraints and swung, hot and dripping, over an open shaft of simmering water.
Rachel felt mesmerized.
Dangling there on its cables, dripping wet, the meteorite’s rugged surface glistened in the fluorescent lights, charred and rippled with the appearance of an enormous petrified prune. The rock was smooth and rounded on one end, this section apparently blasted away by friction as it streaked through the atmosphere.
Looking at the charred fusion crust, Rachel could almost see the meteor rocketing earthward in a furious ball of flames. Incredibly, that was centuries ago. Now, the captured beast hung there on its cables, water dripping from its body.
The hunt was over.
Not until this moment had the drama of this event truly struck Rachel. The object hanging before her was from another world, millions of miles away. And trapped within it was evidence-no, proof-that man was not alone in the universe.
The euphoria of the moment seemed to grip everyone at the same instant, and the crowd broke into spontaneous hoots and applause. Even the administrator seemed caught up in it. He clapped his men and women on the back, congratulating them. Looking on, Rachel felt a sudden joy for NASA. They’d had some tough luck in the past. Finally things were changing. They deserved this moment.
The gaping hole in the ice now looked like a small swimming pool in the middle of the habisphere. The surface of the two-hundred-foot-deep pool of melted water sloshed for a while against the icy walls of the shaft and then finally grew calm. The waterline in the shaft was a good four feet beneath the glacier’s surface, the discrepancy caused by both the removal of the meteorite’s mass and ice’s property of shrinking as it melts.
Norah Mangor immediately set up SHABA pylons all around the hole. Although the hole was clearly visible, any curious soul who ventured too close and accidentally slipped in would be in dire jeopardy. The walls of the shaft were solid ice, with no footholds, and climbing out unassisted would be impossible.
Lawrence Ekstrom came padding across the ice toward them. He moved directly to Norah Mangor and shook her hand firmly. “Well done, Dr. Mangor.”
“I’ll expect lots of praise in print,” Norah replied.
“You’ll get it.” The administrator turned now to Rachel. He looked happier, relieved. “So, Ms. Sexton, is the professional skeptic convinced?”
Rachel couldn’t help but smile. “Stunned is more like it.”
“Good. Then follow me.”
Rachel followed the administrator across the habisphere to a large metal box that resembled an industrial shipping container. The box was painted with military camouflage patterns and stenciled letters: P-S-C.
“You’ll call the President from in here,” Ekstrom said.
Portable Secure Comm, Rachel thought. These mobile communications booths were standard battlefield installations, although Rachel had never expected to see one used as part of a peacetime NASA mission. Then again, Administrator Ekstrom’s background was the Pentagon, so he certainly had access to toys like this. From the stern faces on the two armed guards watching over the PSC, Rachel got the distinct impression that contact with the outside world was made only with express consent from Administrator Ekstrom.
Looks like I’m not the only one who is off-the-grid.
Ekstrom spoke briefly with one of the guards outside the trailer and then returned to Rachel. “Good luck,” he said. Then he left.
A guard rapped on the trailer door, and it opened from within. A technician emerged and motioned for Rachel to enter. She followed him in.
The inside of the PSC was dark and stuffy. In the bluish glow of the lone computer monitor, Rachel could make out racks of telephone gear, radios, and satellite telecommunications devices. She already felt claustrophobic. The air inside was bitter, like a basement in winter.
“Sit here, please, Ms. Sexton.” The technician produced a rolling stool and positioned Rachel in front of a flat-screen monitor. He arranged a microphone in front of her and placed a bulky pair of AKG headphones on her head. Checking a logbook of encryption passwords, the technician typed a long series of keys on a nearby device. A timer materialized on the screen in front of Rachel.
The technician gave a satisfied nod as the timer began to count down. “One minute until connection.” He turned and left, slamming the door behind him. Rachel could hear the bolt lock outside.
As she waited in the dark, watching the sixty-second clock slowly count down, she realized that this was the first moment of privacy she’d had since early that morning. She’d woken up today without the slightest inkling of what lay ahead. Extraterrestrial life. As of today, the most popular modern myth of all time was no longer a myth.
Rachel was just now starting to sense how truly devastating this meteorite would be to her father’s campaign. Although NASA funding had no business being on a political par with abortion rights, welfare, and health care, her father had made it an issue. Now it was going to blow up in his face.
Within hours, Americans would feel the thrill of a NASA triumph all over again. There would be teary-eyed dreamers. Slack-jawed scientists. Children’s imaginations running free. Issues of dollars and cents would fade away as petty, overshadowed by this monumental moment. The President would emerge like a phoenix, transforming himself into a hero, while in the midst of the celebration, the businesslike senator would suddenly appear small-minded, a penny-pinching Scrooge with no American sense of adventure.
The computer beeped, and Rachel glanced up.
The screen in front of her flickered suddenly, and a blurry image of the White House seal materialized on-screen. After a moment, the image dissolved into the face of President Herney.
“Hello, Rachel,” he said, a mischievous glint in his eye. “I trust you’ve had an interesting afternoon?”
The office of Senator Sedgewick Sexton was located in the Philip A. Hart Senate Office Building on C Street to the northeast of the Capitol. The building was a neo-modern grid of white rectangles that critics claimed looked more like a prison than an office building. Many who worked there felt the same.
On the third floor, Gabrielle Ashe’s long legs paced briskly back and forth in front of her computer terminal. On the screen was a new e-mail message. She was not sure what to make of it.
The first two lines read:
SEDGEWICK WAS IMPRESSIVE ON CNN.
I HAVE MORE INFORMATION FOR YOU.
Gabrielle had been receiving messages like this for the last couple of weeks. The return address was bogus, although she’d been able to track it to a “whitehouse.gov” domain. It seemed her mysterious informant was a White House insider, and whoever it was had become Gabrielle’s source for all kinds of valuable political information recently, including the news of a covert meeting between the NASA administrator and the President.
Gabrielle had been leery of the e-mails at first, but when she checked out the tips, she was amazed to find the information consistently accurate and helpful-classified information on NASA overexpenditures, costly upcoming missions, data showing that NASA’s search for extraterrestrial life was grossly overfunded and pathetically unproductive, even internal opinion polls warning that NASA was the issue turning voters away from the President.
To enhance her perceived value to the senator, Gabrielle had not informed him she was receiving unsolicited e-mail help from inside the White House. Instead, she simply passed the information to him as coming from “one of her sources.” Sexton was always appreciative and seemed to know better than to ask who her source was. She could tell he suspected Gabrielle was doing sexual favors. Troublingly, it didn’t seem to bother him in the least.
Gabrielle stopped pacing and looked again at the newly arrived message. The connotations of all the e-mails were clear: Someone inside the White House wanted Senator Sexton to win this election and was helping him do it by aiding his attack against NASA.
But who? And why?
A rat from a sinking ship, Gabrielle decided. In Washington it was not at all uncommon for a White House employee, fearing his President was about to be ousted from office, to offer quiet favors to the apparent successor in hopes of securing power or another position after the changeover. It seemed someone smelled Sexton victory and was buying stock early.
The message currently on Gabrielle’s screen made her nervous. It was like none other she had ever received. The first two lines didn’t bother her so much. It was the last two:
EAST APPOINTMENT GATE, 4:30 P.M.
Her informant had never before asked to meet in person. Even so, Gabrielle would have expected a more subtle location for a face-to-face meeting. East Appointment Gate? Only one East Appointment Gate existed in Washington, as far as she knew. Outside the White House? Is this some kind of joke?
Gabrielle knew she could not respond via e-mail; her messages were always bounced back as undeliverable. Her correspondent’s account was anonymous. Not surprising.
Should I consult Sexton? She quickly decided against it. He was in a meeting. Besides, if she told him about this e-mail, she’d have to tell him about the others. She decided her informant’s offer to meet in public in broad daylight must be to make Gabrielle feel safe. After all, this person had done nothing but help her for the last two weeks. He or she was obviously a friend.
Reading the e-mail one last time, Gabrielle checked the clock. She had an hour.
The NASA administrator was feeling less edgy now that the meteorite was successfully out of the ice. Everything is falling into place, he told himself as he headed across the dome to the work area of Michael Tolland. Nothing can stop us now.
“How’s it coming?” Ekstrom asked, striding up behind the television scientist.
Tolland glanced up from his computer, looking tired but enthusiastic. “Editing is almost done. I’m just overlaying some of the extraction footage your people shot. Should be done momentarily.”
“Good.” The President had asked Ekstrom to upload Tolland’s documentary to the White House as soon as possible.
Although Ekstrom had been cynical about the President’s desire to use Michael Tolland on this project, seeing the rough cuts of Tolland’s documentary had changed Ekstrom’s mind. The television star’s spirited narrative, combined with his interviews of the civilian scientists, had been brilliantly fused into a thrilling and comprehensible fifteen minutes of scientific programming. Tolland had achieved effortlessly what NASA so often failed to do-describe a scientific discovery at the level of the average American intellect without being patronizing.
“When you’re done editing,” Ekstrom said, “bring the finished product over to the press area. I’ll have someone upload a digital copy to the White House.”
“Yes, sir.” Tolland went back to work.
Ekstrom moved on. When he arrived at the north wall, he was encouraged to find the habisphere’s “press area” had come together nicely. A large blue carpet had been rolled out on the ice. Centered on the rug sat a long symposium table with several microphones, a NASA drape, and an enormous American flag as a backdrop. To complete the visual drama, the meteorite had been transported on a palette sled to its position of honor, directly in front of the symposium table.
Ekstrom was pleased to see the mood in the press area was one of celebration. Much of his staff was now crowded around the meteorite, holding their hands out over its still-warm mass like campers around a campfire.
Ekstrom decided that this was the moment. He walked over to several cardboard boxes sitting on the ice behind the press area. He’d had the boxes flown in from Greenland this morning.
“Drinks are on me!” he yelled, handing out cans of beer to his cavorting staff.
“Hey, boss!” someone yelled. “Thanks! It’s even cold!”
Ekstrom gave a rare smile. “I’ve been keeping it on ice.”
“Wait a minute!” someone else yelled, scowling good-naturedly at his can. “This stuff’s Canadian! Where’s your patriotism?”
“We’re on a budget, here, folks. Cheapest stuff I could find.”
“Attention shoppers,” one of the NASA television crew yelled into a megaphone. “We’re about to switch to media lighting. You may experience temporary blindness.”
“And no kissing in the dark,” someone yelled. “This is a family program!”
Ekstrom chuckled, enjoying the raillery as his crew made final adjustments to the spotlights and accent lighting.
“Switching to media lighting in five, four, three, two… ”
The dome’s interior dimmed rapidly as the halogen lamps shut down. Within seconds, all the lights were off. An impenetrable darkness engulfed the dome.
Someone let out a mock scream.
“Who pinched my ass?” someone yelled, laughing.
The blackness lasted only a moment before it was pierced by the intense glare of media spotlights. Everyone squinted. The transformation was now complete; the north quadrant of the NASA habisphere had become a television studio. The remainder of the dome now looked like a gaping barn at night. The only light in the other sections was the muted reflection of the media lights reflecting off the arched ceiling and throwing long shadows across the now deserted work stations.
Ekstrom stepped back into the shadows, gratified to see his team carousing around the illuminated meteorite. He felt like a father at Christmas, watching his kids enjoy themselves around the tree.
God knows they deserve it, Ekstrom thought, never suspecting what calamity lay ahead.