The weather was changing.
Like a mournful harbinger of impending conflict, the katabatic wind let out a plaintive howl and gusted hard against the Delta Force’s shelter. Delta-One finished battening down the storm coverings and went back inside to his two partners. They’d been through this before. It would soon pass.
Delta-Two was staring at the live video feed from the microbot. “You better look at this,” he said.
Delta-One came over. The inside of the habisphere was in total darkness except for the bright lighting on the north side of the dome near the stage. The remainder of the habisphere appeared only as a dim outline. “It’s nothing,” he said. “They’re just testing their television lighting for tonight.”
“The lighting’s not the problem.” Delta-Two pointed to the dark blob in the middle of the ice-the water-filled hole from which the meteorite had been extracted. “That’s the problem.”
Delta-One looked at the hole. It was still surrounded by pylons, and the surface of the water appeared calm. “I don’t see anything.”
“Look again.” He maneuvered the joystick, spiraling the microbot down toward the surface of the hole.
As Delta-One studied the darkened pool of melted water more closely, he saw something that caused him to recoil in shock. “What the…?”
Delta-Three came over and looked. He too looked stunned. “My God. Is that the extraction pit? Is the water supposed to be doing that?”
“No,” Delta-One said. “It sure as hell isn’t.”
Although Rachel Sexton was currently sitting inside a large metal box situated three thousand miles from Washington, D.C., she felt the same pressure as if she’d been summoned to the White House. The videophone monitor before her displayed a crystal clear image of President Zach Herney seated in the White House communications room before the presidential seal. The digital audio connection was flawless, and with the exception of an almost imperceptible delay, the man could have been in the next room.
Their conversation was upbeat and direct. The President seemed pleased, though not at all surprised, by Rachel’s favorable assessment of NASA’s find and of his choice to use Michael Tolland’s captivating persona as a spokesman. The President’s mood was good-natured and jocular.
“As I’m sure you will agree,” Herney said, his voice growing more serious now, “in a perfect world, the ramifications of this discovery would be purely scientific in nature.” He paused, leaning forward, his face filling the screen. “Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and this NASA triumph is going to be a political football the moment I announce it.”
“Considering the conclusive proof and who you’ve recruited for endorsements, I can’t imagine how the public or any of your opposition will be able to do anything other than accept this discovery as confirmed fact.”
Herney gave an almost sad chuckle. “My political opponents will believe what they see, Rachel. My concerns are that they won’t like what they see.”
Rachel noted how careful the President was being not to mention her father. He spoke only in terms of “the opposition” or “political opponents.” “And you think your opposition will cry conspiracy simply for political reasons?” she asked.
“That is the nature of the game. All anyone needs to do is cast a faint doubt, saying that this discovery is some kind of political fraud concocted by NASA and the White House, and all of a sudden, I’m facing an inquiry. The newspapers forget NASA has found proof of extraterrestrial life, and the media starts focusing on uncovering evidence of a conspiracy. Sadly, any innuendo of conspiracy with respect to this discovery will be bad for science, bad for the White House, bad for NASA, and, quite frankly, bad for the country.”
“Which is why you postponed announcing until you had full confirmation and some reputable civilian endorsements.”
“My goal is to present this data in so incontrovertible a way that any cynicism is nipped in the bud. I want this discovery celebrated with the untainted dignity it deserves. NASA merits no less.”
Rachel’s intuition was tingling now. What does he want from me?
“Obviously,” he continued, “you’re in a unique position to help me. Your experience as an analyst as well as your obvious ties to my opponent give you enormous credibility with respect to this discovery.”
Rachel felt a growing disillusionment. He wants to use me… just like Pickering said he would!
“That said,” Herney continued, “I would like to ask that you endorse this discovery personally, for the record, as my White House intelligence liaison… and as the daughter of my opponent.”
There it was. On the table.
Herney wants me to endorse.
Rachel really had thought Zach Herney was above this kind of spiteful politics. A public endorsement from Rachel would immediately make the meteorite a personal issue for her father, leaving the senator unable to attack the discovery’s credibility without attacking the credibility of his own daughter-a death sentence for a “families first” candidate.
“Frankly, sir,” Rachel said, looking into the monitor, “I’m stunned you would ask me to do that.”
The President looked taken aback. “I thought you would be excited to help out.”
“Excited? Sir, my differences with my father aside, this request puts me in an impossible position. I have enough problems with my father without going head-to-head with him in some kind of public death match. Despite my admitted dislike of the man, he is my father, and pitting me against him in a public forum frankly seems beneath you.”
“Hold on!” Herney waved his hands in surrender.
“Who said anything about a public forum?”
Rachel paused. “I assume you’d like me to join the administrator of NASA on the podium for the eight o’clock press conference.”
Herney’s guffaw boomed in the audio speakers. “Rachel, what kind of man do you think I am? Do you really imagine I’d ask someone to stab her father in the back on national television?”
“But, you said-”
“And do you think I would make the NASA administrator share the limelight with the daughter of his arch enemy? Not to burst your bubble, Rachel, but this press conference is a scientific presentation. I’m not sure your knowledge of meteorites, fossils, or ice structures would lend the event much credibility.”
Rachel felt herself flush. “But then… what endorsement did you have in mind?”
“One more appropriate to your position.”
“You are my White House intelligence liaison. You brief my staff on issues of national importance.”
“You want me to endorse this for your staff?”
Herney still looked amused by the misunderstanding. “Yes, I do. The skepticism I’ll face outside the White House is nothing compared to what I’m facing from my staff right now. We’re in the midst of a full-scale mutiny here. My credibility in-house is shot. My staff has begged me to cut back NASA funding. I’ve ignored them, and it’s been political suicide.”
“Exactly. As we discussed this morning, this discovery’s timing will seem suspect to political cynics, and nobody’s as cynical as my staff is at the moment. Therefore, when they hear this information for the first time, I want it to come from-”
“You haven’t told your staff about the meteorite?”
“Only a few top advisers. Keeping this discovery a secret has been a top priority.”
Rachel was stunned. No wonder he’s facing a mutiny. “But this is not my usual area. A meteorite could hardly be considered an intelligence-related gist.”
“Not in the traditional sense, but it certainly has all the elements of your usual work-complex data that needs to be distilled, substantial political ramifications-”
“I am not a meteorite specialist, sir. Shouldn’t your staff be briefed by the administrator of NASA?”
“Are you kidding? Everyone here hates him. As far as my staff is concerned, Ekstrom is the snake-oil salesman who has lured me into bad deal after bad deal.”
Rachel could see the point. “How about Corky Marlinson? The National Medal in Astrophysics? He’s got far more credibility than I do.”
“My staff is made up of politicians, Rachel, not scientists. You’ve met Dr. Marlinson. I think he’s terrific, but if I let an astrophysicist loose on my team of left-brain, think-inside-the-box intellectuals, I’ll end up with a herd of deer in the headlights. I need someone accessible. You’re the one, Rachel. My staff knows your work, and considering your family name, you’re about as unbiased a spokesperson as my staff could hope to hear from.”
Rachel felt herself being pulled in by the President’s affable style. “At least you admit my being the daughter of your opponent has something to do with your request.”
The President gave a sheepish chuckle. “Of course it does. But, as you can imagine, my staff will be briefed one way or another, no matter what you decide. You are not the cake, Rachel, you are simply the icing. You are the individual most qualified to do this briefing, and you also happen to be a close relative of the man who wants to kick my staff out of the White House next term. You’ve got credibility on two accounts.”
“You should be in sales.”
“As a matter of fact, I am. As is your father. And to be honest, I’d like to close a deal for a change.” The President removed his glasses and looked into Rachel’s eyes. She felt a touch of her father’s power in him. “I am asking you as a favor, Rachel, and also because I believe it is part of your job. So which is it? Yes or no? Will you brief my staff on this matter?”
Rachel felt trapped inside the tiny PSC trailer. Nothing like the hard sell. Even from three thousand miles away, Rachel could feel the strength of his will pressing through the video screen. She also knew this was a perfectly reasonable request, whether she liked it or not.
“I’d have conditions,” Rachel said.
Herney arched his eyebrows. “Being?”
“I meet your staff in private. No reporters. This is a private briefing, not a public endorsement.”
“You have my word. Your meeting is already slated for a very private location.”
Rachel sighed. “All right then.”
The President beamed. “Excellent.”
Rachel checked her watch, surprised to see it was already a little past four o’clock. “Hold on,” she said, puzzled, “if you’re going live at eight P.M., we don’t have time. Even in that vile contraption you sent me up here in, I couldn’t get back to the White House for another couple of hours at the very fastest. I’d have to prepare my remarks and-”
The President shook his head. “I’m afraid I didn’t make myself clear. You’ll be doing the briefing from where you are via video conference.”
“Oh.” Rachel hesitated. “What time did you have in mind?”
“Actually,” Herney said, grinning. “How about right now? Everyone is already assembled, and they’re staring at a big blank television set. They’re waiting for you.”
Rachel’s body tensed. “Sir, I’m totally unprepared. I can’t possibly-”
“Just tell them the truth. How hard is that?”
“Rachel,” the President said, leaning toward the screen. “Remember, you compile and relay data for a living. It’s what you do. Just talk about what’s going on up there.” He reached up to flick a switch on his video transmission gear, but paused. “And I think you’ll be pleased to find I’ve set you up in a position of power.”
Rachel didn’t understand what he meant, but it was too late to ask. The President threw the switch.
The screen in front of Rachel went blank for a moment. When it refreshed, Rachel was staring at one of the most unnerving images she had ever seen. Directly in front of her was the White House Oval Office. It was packed. Standing room only. The entire White House staff appeared to be there. And every one of them was staring at her. Rachel now realized her view was from atop the President’s desk.
Speaking from a position of power. Rachel was sweating already.
From the looks on the faces of the White House staffers, they were as surprised to see Rachel as she was to see them.
“Ms. Sexton?” a raspy voice called out.
Rachel searched the sea of faces and found who had spoken. It was a lanky woman just now taking a seat in the front row. Marjorie Tench. The woman’s distinctive appearance was unmistakable, even in a crowd.
“Thank you for joining us, Ms. Sexton,” Marjorie Tench said, sounding smug. “The President tells us you have some news?”
Enjoying the darkness, paleontologist Wailee Ming sat alone in quiet reflection at his private work area. His senses were alive with anticipation for tonight’s event. Soon I will be the most famous paleontologist in the world. He hoped Michael Tolland had been generous and featured Ming’s comments in the documentary.
As Ming savored his impending fame, a faint vibration shuddered through the ice beneath his feet, causing him to jump up. His earthquake instinct from living in Los Angeles made him hypersensitive to even the faintest palpitations of the ground. At the moment, though, Ming felt foolish to realize the vibration was perfectly normal. It’s just ice calving, he reminded himself, exhaling. He still hadn’t gotten used to it. Every few hours, a distant explosion rumbled through the night as somewhere along the glacial frontier a huge block of ice cracked off and fell into the sea. Norah Mangor had a nice way of putting it. New icebergs being born…
On his feet now, Ming stretched his arms. He looked across the habisphere, and off in the distance beneath the blaze of television spotlights, he could see a celebration was getting underway. Ming was not much for parties and headed in the opposite direction across the habisphere.
The labyrinth of deserted work areas now felt like a ghost town, the entire dome taking on an almost sepulchral feel. A chill seemed to have settled inside, and Ming buttoned up his long, camel-hair coat.
Up ahead he saw the extraction shaft-the point from which the most magnificent fossils in all of human history had been taken. The giant metal tripod had now been stowed and the pool sat alone, surrounded by pylons like some kind of shunned pothole on a vast parking lot of ice. Ming wandered over to the pit, standing a safe distance back, peering into the two-hundred-foot-deep pool of frigid water. Soon it would refreeze, erasing all traces that anyone had ever been here.
The pool of water was a beautiful sight, Ming thought. Even in the dark.
Especially in the dark.
Ming hesitated at the thought. Then it registered.
There’s something wrong.
As Ming focused more closely on the water, he felt his previous contentedness give way to a sudden whirlwind of confusion. He blinked his eyes, stared again, and then quickly turned his gaze across the dome… fifty yards away toward the mass of people celebrating in the press area. He knew they could not see him way over here in the dark.
I should tell someone about this, shouldn’t I?
Ming looked again at the water, wondering what he would tell them. Was he seeing an optical illusion? Some kind of strange reflection?
Uncertain, Ming stepped beyond the pylons and squatted down at the edge of the pit. The water level was four feet below the ice level, and he leaned down to get a better look. Yes, something was definitely strange. It was impossible to miss, and yet it had not become visible until the lights in the dome had gone out.
Ming stood up. Somebody definitely needed to hear about this. He started off at a hurried pace toward the press area. Completing only a few steps, Ming slammed on the brakes. Good God! He spun back toward the hole, his eyes going wide with realization. It had just dawned on him.
“Impossible!” he blurted aloud.
And yet Ming knew that was the only explanation. Think, carefully, he cautioned. There must be a more reasonable rationale. But the harder Ming thought, the more convinced he was of what he was seeing. There is no other explanation! He could not believe that NASA and Corky Marlinson had somehow missed something this incredible, but Ming wasn’t complaining.
This is Wailee Ming’s discovery now!
Trembling with excitement, Ming ran to a nearby work area and found a beaker. All he needed was a little water sample. Nobody was going to believe this!
“As intelligence liaison to the White House,” Rachel Sexton was saying, trying to keep her voice from shaking as she addressed the crowd on the screen before her, “my duties include traveling to political hot spots around the globe, analyzing volatile situations, and reporting to the President and White House staff.”
A bead of sweat formed just below her hairline and Rachel dabbed it away, silently cursing the President for dropping this briefing into her lap with zero warning.
“Never before have my travels taken me to quite this exotic a spot.” Rachel motioned stiffly to the cramped trailer around her. “Believe it or not, I am addressing you right now from above the Arctic Circle on a sheet of ice that is over three hundred feet thick.”
Rachel sensed a bewildered anticipation in the faces on the screen before her. They obviously knew they had been packed into the Oval Office for a reason, but certainly none of them imagined it would have anything to do with a development above the Arctic Circle.
The sweat was beading again. Get it together, Rachel. This is what you do. “I sit before you tonight with great honor, pride, and… above all, excitement.”
Screw it, she thought, angrily wiping the sweat away. I didn’t sign up for this. Rachel knew what her mother would say if she were here now: When in doubt, just spit it out! The old Yankee proverb embodied one of her mom’s basic beliefs-that all challenges can be overcome by speaking the truth, no matter how it comes out.
Taking a deep breath, Rachel sat up tall and looked straight into the camera. “Sorry, folks, if you’re wondering how I could be sweating my butt off above the Arctic Circle… I’m a little nervous.”
The faces before her seemed to jolt back a moment. Some uneasy laughter.
“In addition,” Rachel said, “your boss gave me about ten seconds’ warning before telling me I would be facing his entire staff. This baptism by fire is not exactly what I had in mind for my first visit to the Oval Office.”
More laughter this time.
“And,” she said, glancing down at the bottom of the screen, “I had certainly not imagined I would be sitting at the President’s desk… much less on it!”
This brought a hearty laugh and some broad smiles. Rachel felt her muscles starting to relax. Just give it to them straight.
“Here’s the situation.” Rachel’s voice now sounded like her own. Easy and clear. “President Herney has been absent from the media spotlight this past week not because of his lack of interest in his campaign, but rather because he has been engrossed in another matter. One he felt was far more important.”
Rachel paused, her eyes making contact now with her audience.
“There has been a scientific discovery made in a location called the Milne Ice Shelf in the high Arctic. The President will be informing the world about it in a press conference tonight at eight o’clock. The find was made by a group of hardworking Americans who have endured a string of tough luck lately and deserve a break. I’m talking about NASA. You can be proud to know that your President, with apparent clairvoyant confidence, has made a point of standing beside NASA lately through thick and thin. Now, it appears his loyalty is going to be rewarded.”
It was not until that very instant that Rachel realized how historically momentous this was. A tightness rose in her throat, and she fought it off, plowing onward.
“As an intelligence officer who specializes in the analysis and verification of data, I am one of several people the President has called upon to examine the NASA data. I have examined it personally as well as conferring with several specialists-both government and civilian-men and women whose credentials are beyond reproach and whose stature is beyond political influence. It is my professional opinion that the data I am about to present to you is factual in its origins and unbiased in its presentation. Moreover, it is my personal opinion that the President, in good faith to his office and the American people, has shown admirable care and restraint in delaying an announcement I know he would have loved to have made last week.”
Rachel watched the crowd before her exchanging puzzled looks. They all returned their gaze to her, and she knew she had their undivided attention.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to hear what I’m sure you will agree is one of the most exciting pieces of information ever revealed in this office.”
The aerial view currently being transmitted to the Delta Force by the microbot circling inside the habisphere looked like something that would win an avant-garde film contest-the dim lighting, the glistening extraction hole, and the well-dressed Asian lying on the ice, his camel-hair coat splayed around him like enormous wings. He was obviously trying to extract a water sample.
“We’ve got to stop him,” said Delta-Three.
Delta-One agreed. The Milne Ice Shelf held secrets his team was authorized to protect with force.
“How do we stop him?” Delta-Two challenged, still gripping the joystick. “These microbots are not equipped.”
Delta-One scowled. The microbot currently hovering inside the habisphere was a recon model, stripped down for longer flight. It was about as lethal as a housefly.
“We should call the controller,” Delta-Three stated.
Delta-One stared intently at the image of the solitary Wailee Ming, perched precariously on the rim of the extraction pit. Nobody was anywhere near him-and ice cold water had a way of muffling one’s ability to scream. “Give me the controls.”
“What are you doing?” the soldier on the joystick demanded.
“What we were trained to do,” Delta-One snapped, taking over. “Improvise.”