Wailee Ming lay on his stomach beside the extraction hole, his right arm extended over the rim trying to extract a water sample. His eyes were definitely not playing tricks on him; his face, now only a yard or so from the water, could see everything perfectly.
This is incredible!
Straining harder, Ming maneuvered the beaker in his fingers, trying to reach down to the surface of the water. All he needed was another few inches.
Unable to extend his arm any farther, Ming repositioned himself closer to the hole. He pressed the toes of his boots against the ice and firmly replanted his left hand on the rim. Again, he extended his right arm as far as he could. Almost. He shifted a little closer. Yes! The edge of the beaker broke the surface of the water. As the liquid flowed into the container, Ming stared in disbelief.
Then, without warning, something utterly inexplicable occurred. Out of the darkness, like a bullet from a gun, flew a tiny speck of metal. Ming only saw it for a fraction of a second before it smashed into his right eye.
The human instinct to protect one’s eyes was so innately ingrained, that despite Ming’s brain telling him that any sudden movements risked his balance, he recoiled. It was a jolting reaction more out of surprise than pain. Ming’s left hand, closest to his face, shot up reflexively to protect the assaulted eyeball. Even as his hand was in motion, Ming knew he had made a mistake. With all of his weight leaning forward, and his only means of support suddenly gone, Wailee Ming teetered. He recovered too late. Dropping the beaker and trying to grab on to the slick ice to stop his fall, he slipped-plummeting forward into the darkened hole.
The fall was only four feet, and yet as Ming hit the icy water head first he felt like his face had hit pavement at fifty miles an hour. The liquid that engulfed his face was so cold it felt like burning acid. It brought an instantaneous spike of panic.
Upside down and in the darkness, Ming was momentarily disoriented, not knowing which way to turn toward the surface. His heavy camel-hair coat kept the icy blast from his body-but only for a second or two. Finally righting himself, Ming came sputtering up for air, just as the water found its way to his back and chest, engulfing his body in a lung-crushing vise of cold.
“Hee… lp,” he gasped, but Ming could barely pull in enough air to let out a whimper. He felt like the wind had been knocked out of him.
“Heee… lp!” His cries were inaudible even to himself. Ming clambered toward the side of the extraction pit and tried to pull himself out. The wall before him was vertical ice. Nothing to grab. Underwater, his boots kicked the side of the wall, searching for a foothold. Nothing. He strained upward, reaching for the rim. It was only a foot out of reach.
Ming’s muscles were already having trouble responding. He kicked his legs harder, trying to propel himself high enough up the wall to grab the rim. His body felt like lead, and his lungs seemed to have shrunk to nothing, as if they were being crushed by a python. His water-laden coat was getting heavier by the second, pulling him downward. Ming tried to pull it off his body, but the heavy fabric stuck.
The fear came on in torrents now.
Drowning, Ming had once read, was the most horrific death imaginable. He had never dreamed he would find himself on the verge of experiencing it. His muscles refused to cooperate with his mind, and already he was fighting just to keep his head above water. His soggy clothing pulled him downward as his numb fingers scratched the sides of the pit.
His screams were only in his mind now.
And then it happened.
Ming went under. The sheer terror of being conscious of his own impending death was something he never imagined he would experience. And yet here he was… sinking slowly down the sheer ice wall of a two-hundred-foot-deep hole in the ice. Multitudes of thoughts flashed before his eyes. Moments from his childhood. His career. He wondered if anyone would find him down here. Or would he simply sink to the bottom and freeze there… entombed in the glacier for all time.
Ming’s lungs were screaming for oxygen. He held his breath, still trying to kick toward the surface. Breathe! He fought the reflex, clamping his insensate lips together. Breathe! He tried in vain to swim upward. Breathe! At that instant, in a deadly battle of human reflex against reason, Ming’s breathing instinct overcame his ability to keep his mouth closed.
Wailee Ming inhaled.
The water crashing into his lungs felt like scalding oil on his sensitive pulmonary tissue. He felt like he was burning from the inside out. Cruelly, water does not kill immediately. Ming spent seven horrifying seconds inhaling in the icy water, each breath more painful than the last, each inhalation offering none of what his body so desperately craved.
Finally, as Ming slid downward into the icy darkness, he felt himself going unconscious. He welcomed the escape. All around him in the water Ming saw tiny glowing specks of light. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
The East Appointment Gate of the White House is located on East Executive Avenue between the Treasury Department and the East Lawn. The reinforced perimeter fence and cement bollards installed after the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut give this entry an air that is anything but welcoming.
Outside the gate, Gabrielle Ashe checked her watch, feeling a growing nervousness. It was 4:45 P.M., and still nobody had made contact.
EAST APPOINTMENT GATE, 4:30 P.M. COME ALONE.
Here I am, she thought. Where are you?
Gabrielle scanned the faces of the tourists milling about, waiting for someone to catch her eye. A few men looked her over and moved on. Gabrielle was beginning to wonder if this had been such a good idea. She sensed the Secret Serviceman in the sentry shack had his eye on her now. Gabrielle decided her informant had gotten cold feet. Gazing one last time through the heavy fence toward the White House, Gabrielle sighed and turned to go.
“Gabrielle Ashe?” the Secret Serviceman called out behind her.
Gabrielle wheeled, her heart catching in her throat. Yes?
The man in the guard shack waved her over. He was lean with a humorless face. “Your party is ready to see you now.” He unlocked the main gate and motioned for her to enter.
Gabrielle’s feet refused to move. “I’m coming inside?”
The guard nodded. “I was asked to apologize for keeping you waiting.”
Gabrielle looked at the open doorway and still could not move. What’s going on! This was not at all what she had expected.
“You are Gabrielle Ashe, are you not?” the guard demanded, looking impatient now.
“Yes, sir, but-”
“Then I strongly suggest you follow me.”
Gabrielle’s feet jolted into motion. As she stepped tentatively over the threshold, the gate slammed shut behind her.
Two days without sunlight had rearranged Michael Tolland’s biological clock. Although his watch said it was late afternoon, Tolland’s body insisted it was the middle of the night. Now, having put the finishing touches on his documentary, Michael Tolland had downloaded the entire video file onto a digital video disk and was making his way across the darkened dome. Arriving at the illuminated press area, he delivered the disk to the NASA media technician in charge of overseeing the presentation.
“Thanks, Mike,” the technician said, winking as he held up the video disk. “Kind of redefines ‘must-see TV,’ eh?”
Tolland gave a tired chuckle. “I hope the President likes it.”
“No doubt. Anyhow, your work is done. Sit back and enjoy the show.”
“Thanks.” Tolland stood in the brightly lit press area and surveyed the convivial NASA personnel toasting the meteorite with cans of Canadian beer. Even though Tolland wanted to celebrate, he felt exhausted, emotionally drained. He glanced around for Rachel Sexton, but apparently she was still talking to the President.
He wants to put her on-air, Tolland thought. Not that he blamed him; Rachel would be a perfect addition to the cast of meteorite spokespeople. In addition to her good looks, Rachel exuded an accessible poise and self-confidence that Tolland seldom saw in the women he met. Then again, most of the women Tolland met were in television-either ruthless power women or gorgeous on-air “personalities” who lacked exactly that.
Now, slipping quietly away from the crowd of bustling NASA employees, Tolland navigated the web of pathways across the dome, wondering where the other civilian scientists had disappeared to. If they felt half as drained as he did, they should be in the bunking area grabbing a catnap before the big moment. Ahead of him in the distance, Tolland could see the circle of SHABA pylons around the deserted extraction pit. The empty dome overhead seemed to echo with the hollow voices of distant memories. Tolland tried to block them out.
Forget the ghosts, he willed himself. They often haunted him at times like these, when he was tired or alone-times of personal triumph or celebration. She should be with you right now, the voice whispered. Alone in the darkness, he felt himself reeling backward into oblivion.
Celia Birch had been his sweetheart in graduate school. One Valentine’s Day, Tolland took her to her favorite restaurant. When the waiter brought Celia’s dessert, it was a single rose and a diamond ring. Celia understood immediately. With tears in her eyes, she spoke a single word that made Michael Tolland as happy as he’d ever been.
Filled with anticipation, they bought a small house near Pasadena, where Celia got a job as a science teacher. Although the pay was modest, it was a start, and it was also close to Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, where Tolland had landed his dream job aboard a geologic research ship. Tolland’s work meant he was away for three or four days at a time, but his reunions with Celia were always passionate and exciting.
While at sea, Tolland began videotaping some of his adventures for Celia, making minidocumentaries of his work onboard the ship. After one trip, he returned with a grainy home video that he’d shot out of the window of a deepwater submersible-the first footage ever shot of a bizarre chemotropic cuttlefish that nobody even knew existed. On camera, as he narrated the video, Tolland was practically bursting out of the submarine with enthusiasm.
Literally thousands of undiscovered species, he gushed, live in these depths! We’ve barely scratched the surface! There are mysteries down here that none of us can imagine!
Celia was enthralled with her husband’s ebullience and concise scientific explanation. On a whim, she showed the tape to her science class, and it became an instant hit. Other teachers wanted to borrow it. Parents wanted to make copies. It seemed everyone was eagerly awaiting Michael’s next installment. Celia suddenly had an idea. She called a college friend of hers who worked for NBC and sent her a videotape.
Two months later, Michael Tolland came to Celia and asked her to take a walk with him on Kingman Beach. It was their special place, where they always went to share their hopes and dreams.
“I have something I want to tell you,” Tolland said.
Celia stopped, taking her husband’s hands as the water lapped around their feet. “What is it?”
Tolland was bursting. “Last week, I got a call from NBC television. They think I should host an oceanic documentary series. It’s perfect. They want to make a pilot next year! Can you believe it?”
Celia kissed him, beaming. “I believe it. You’ll be great.”
Six months later, Celia and Tolland were sailing near Catalina when Celia began complaining of pain in her side. They ignored it for a few weeks, but finally it got too much. Celia went in to have it checked out.
In an instant, Tolland’s dream life shattered into a hellish nightmare. Celia was ill. Very ill.
“Advanced stages of lymphoma,” the doctors explained. “Rare in people her age, but certainly not unheard of.”
Celia and Tolland visited countless clinics and hospitals, consulting with specialists. The answer was always the same. Incurable.
I will not accept that! Tolland immediately quit his job at Scripps Institute, forgot all about the NBC documentary, and focused all of his energy and love on helping Celia get well. She fought hard too, bearing the pain with a grace that only made him love her more. He took her for long walks on Kingman Beach, made her healthy meals, and told her stories of the things they would do when she got better.
But it was not to be.
Only seven months had passed when Michael Tolland found himself sitting beside his dying wife in a stark hospital ward. He no longer recognized her face. The savageness of the cancer was rivaled only by the brutality of the chemotherapy. She was left a ravaged skeleton. The final hours were the hardest.
“Michael,” she said, her voice raspy. “It’s time to let go.”
“I can’t.” Tolland’s eyes welled.
“You’re a survivor,” Celia said. “You have to be. Promise me you’ll find another love.”
“I’ll never want another.” Tolland meant it.
“You’ll have to learn.”
Celia died on a crystal clear Sunday morning in June. Michael Tolland felt like a ship torn from its moorings and thrown adrift in a raging sea, his compass smashed. For weeks he spun out of control. Friends tried to help, but his pride could not bear their pity.
You have a choice to make, he finally realized. Work or die.
Hardening his resolve, Tolland threw himself back into Amazing Seas. The program quite literally saved his life. In the four years that followed, Tolland’s show took off. Despite the matchmaking efforts of his friends, Tolland endured only a handful of dates. All were fiascos or mutual disappointments, so Tolland finally gave up and blamed his busy travel schedule for his lack of social life. His best friends knew better, though; Michael Tolland simply was not ready.
The meteorite extraction pit loomed before Tolland now, pulling him from his painful reverie. He shook off the chill of his memories and approached the opening. In the darkened dome, the melt water in the hole had taken on an almost surreal and magical beauty. The surface of the pool was shimmering like a moonlit pond. Tolland’s eyes were drawn to specks of light on the top layer of the water, as if someone had sprinkled blue-green sparkles onto the surface. He stared a long moment at the shimmering.
Something about it seemed peculiar.
At first glance, he thought the gleaming water was simply reflecting the glow of the spotlights from across the dome. Now he saw this was not the case at all. The shimmers possessed a greenish tint and seemed to pulse in a rhythm, as if the surface of the water were alive, illuminating itself from within.
Unsettled, Tolland stepped beyond the pylons for a closer look.
Across the habisphere, Rachel Sexton exited the PSC trailer into darkness. She paused a moment, disoriented by the shadowy vault around her. The habisphere was now a gaping cavern, lit only by incidental effulgence radiating out from the stark media lights against the north wall. Unnerved by the darkness around her, she headed instinctively for the illuminated press area.
Rachel felt pleased with the outcome of her briefing of the White House staff. Once she’d recovered from the President’s little stunt, she’d smoothly conveyed everything she knew about the meteorite. As she spoke, she watched the expressions on the faces of the President’s staff go from incredulous shock, to hopeful belief, and finally to awestruck acceptance.
“Extraterrestrial life?” she had heard one of them exclaim. “Do you know what that means?”
“Yes,” another replied. “It means we’re going to win this election.”
As Rachel approached the dramatic press area, she imagined the impending announcement and couldn’t help but wonder if her father really deserved the presidential steamroller that was about to blindside him, crushing his campaign in a single blow.
The answer, of course, was yes.
Whenever Rachel Sexton felt any soft spot for her father, all she had to do was remember her mother. Katherine Sexton. The pain and shame Sedgewick Sexton had brought on her was reprehensible… coming home late every night, looking smug and smelling of perfume. The feigned religious zeal her father hid behind-all the while lying and cheating, knowing Katherine would never leave him.
Yes, she decided, Senator Sexton was about to get exactly what he deserved.
The crowd in the press area was jovial. Everyone held beers. Rachel moved through the crowd feeling like a coed at a frat party. She wondered where Michael Tolland had gone.
Corky Marlinson materialized beside her. “Looking for Mike?”
Rachel startled. “Well… no… sort of.”
Corky shook his head in disgust. “I knew it. Mike just left. I think he was headed back to go grab a few winks.” Corky squinted across the dusky dome. “Although it looks like you can still catch him.” He gave her a puggish smile and pointed. “Mike becomes mesmerized every time he sees water.”
Rachel followed Corky’s outstretched finger toward the center of the dome, where the silhouette of Michael Tolland stood, gazing down into the water in the extraction pit.
“What’s he doing?” she asked. “That’s kind of dangerous over there.”
Corky grinned. “Probably taking a leak. Let’s go push him.”
Rachel and Corky crossed the darkened dome toward the extraction pit. As they drew close to Michael Tolland, Corky called out.
“Hey, aqua man! Forget your swimsuit?”
Tolland turned. Even in the dimness, Rachel could see his expression was uncharacteristically grave. His face looked oddly illuminated, as if he were being lit from below.
“Everything okay, Mike?” she asked.
“Not exactly.” Tolland pointed into the water.
Corky stepped over the pylons and joined Tolland at the edge of the shaft. Corky’s mood seemed to cool instantly when he looked in the water. Rachel joined them, stepping past the pylons to the edge of the pit. When she peered into the hole, she was surprised to see specks of blue-green light shimmering on the surface. Like neon dust particles floating in the water. They seemed to be pulsating green. The effect was beautiful.
Tolland picked up a shard of ice off the glacial floor and tossed it into the water. The water phosphoresced at the point of impact, glowing with a sudden green splash.
“Mike,” Corky said, looking uneasy, “please tell me you know what that is.”
Tolland frowned. “I know exactly what this is. My question is, what the hell is it doing here?”
“We’ve got flagellates,” Tolland said, staring into the luminescent water.
“Flatulence?” Corky scowled. “Speak for yourself.”
Rachel sensed Michael Tolland was in no joking mood.
“I don’t know how it could have happened,” Tolland said, “but somehow this water contains bioluminescent dinoflagellates.”
“Bioluminescent what?” Rachel said. Speak English.
“Monocelled plankton capable of oxidizing a luminescent catalyst called luceferin.”
That was English?
Tolland exhaled and turned to his friend. “Corky, there any chance the meteorite we pulled out of that hole had living organisms on it?”
Corky burst out laughing. “Mike, be serious!”
“I am serious.”
“No chance, Mike! Believe me, if NASA had any inkling whatsoever that there were extraterrestrial organisms living on that rock, you can be damn sure they never would have extracted it into the open air.”
Tolland looked only partially comforted, his relief apparently clouded by a deeper mystery. “I can’t be for sure without a microscope,” Tolland said, “but it looks to me like this is a bioluminescent plankton from the phylum Pyrrophyta. Its name means fire plant. The Arctic Ocean is filled with it.”
Corky shrugged. “So why’d you ask if they were from space?”
“Because,” Tolland said, “the meteorite was buried in glacial ice-fresh water from snowfalls. The water in that hole is glacial melt and has been frozen for three centuries. How could ocean creatures get in there?”
Tolland’s point brought a long silence.
Rachel stood at the edge of the pool and tried to get her mind around what she was looking at. Bioluminescent plankton in the extraction shaft. What does it mean?
“There’s got to be a crack somewhere down there,” Tolland said. “It’s the only explanation. The plankton must have entered the shaft through a fissure in the ice that allowed ocean water to seep in.”
Rachel didn’t understand. “Seep in? From where?” She recalled her long IceRover ride in from the ocean. “The coast is a good two miles from here.”
Both Corky and Tolland gave Rachel an odd look. “Actually,” Corky said, “the ocean is directly underneath us. This slab of ice is floating.”
Rachel stared at the two men, feeling utterly perplexed. “Floating? But… we’re on a glacier.”
“Yes, we’re on a glacier,” Tolland said, “but we’re not over land. Glaciers sometimes flow off a landmass and fan out over water. Because ice is lighter than water, the glacier simply continues to flow, floating out over the ocean like an enormous ice raft. That’s the definition of an ice shelf… the floating section of a glacier.” He paused. “We’re actually almost a mile out to sea at the moment.”
Shocked, Rachel instantly became wary. As she adjusted her mental picture of her surroundings, the thought of standing over the Arctic Ocean brought with it a sense of fear.
Tolland seemed to sense her uneasiness. He stamped his foot reassuringly on the ice. “Don’t worry. This ice is three hundred feet thick, with two hundred of those feet floating below the water like an ice cube in a glass. Makes the shelf very stable. You could build a skyscraper on this thing.”
Rachel gave a wan nod, not entirely convinced. The misgivings aside, she now understood Tolland’s theory about the origins of the plankton. He thinks there’s a crack that goes all the way down to the ocean, allowing plankton to come up through it into the hole. It was feasible, Rachel decided, and yet it involved a paradox that bothered her. Norah Mangor had been very clear about the integrity of the glacier, having drilled dozens of test cores to confirm its solidity.
Rachel looked at Tolland. “I thought the glacier’s perfection was the cornerstone of all the strata-dating records. Didn’t Dr. Mangor say the glacier had no cracks or fissures?”
Corky frowned. “Looks like the ice queen muffed it.”
Don’t say that too loudly, Rachel thought, or you’ll get an ice pick in the back.
Tolland stroked his chin as he watched the phosphorescing creatures. “There’s literally no other explanation. There must be a crack. The weight of the ice shelf on top of the ocean must be pushing plankton-rich sea-water up into the hole.”
One hell of a crack, Rachel thought. If the ice here was three hundred feet thick and the hole was two hundred feet deep, then this hypothetical crack had to pass through a hundred feet of solid ice. Norah Mangor’s test cores showed no cracks.
“Do me a favor,” Tolland said to Corky. “Go find Norah. Let’s hope to God she knows something about this glacier that she’s not telling us. And find Ming, too, maybe he can tell us what these little glow-beasties are.”
Corky headed off.
“Better hurry,” Tolland called after him, glancing back into the hole. “I could swear this bioluminescence is fading.”
Rachel looked at the hole. Sure enough, the green was not so brilliant now.
Tolland removed his parka and lay down on the ice next to the hole.
Rachel watched, confused. “Mike?”
“I want to find out if there’s any saltwater flowing in.”
“By lying on the ice without a coat?”
“Yup.” Tolland crawled on his belly to the edge of the hole. Holding one sleeve of the coat over the edge, he let the other sleeve dangle down the shaft until the cuff skimmed the water. “This is a highly accurate salinity test used by world-class oceanographers. It’s called ‘licking a wet jacket.'”
Out on the ice shelf, Delta-One struggled with the controls, trying to keep the damaged microbot in flight over the group now assembled around the excavation pit. From the sounds of the conversation beneath, he knew things were unraveling fast.
“Call the controller,” he said. “We’ve got a serious problem.”
Gabrielle Ashe had taken the White House public tour many times in her youth, secretly dreaming of someday working inside the presidential mansion and becoming part of the elite team that charted the country’s future. At the moment, however, she would have preferred to be anywhere else in the world.
As the Secret Serviceman from the East Gate led Gabrielle into an ornate foyer, she wondered what in the world her anonymous informant was trying to prove. Inviting Gabrielle into the White House was insane. What if I’m seen? Gabrielle had become quite visible lately in the media as Senator Sexton’s right-hand aide. Certainly someone would recognize her.
Gabrielle looked up. A kind-faced sentry in the foyer gave her a welcoming smile. “Look over there, please.” He pointed.
Gabrielle looked where he was pointing and was blinded by a flashbulb.
“Thank you, ma’am.” The sentry led her to a desk and handed her a pen. “Please sign the entry log.” He pushed a heavy leather binder in front of her.
Gabrielle looked at the log. The page before her was blank. She recalled hearing once that all White House visitors sign on their own blank page to preserve the privacy of their visit. She signed her name.
So much for a secret meeting.
Gabrielle walked through a metal detector, and was then given a cursory pat down.
The sentry smiled. “Enjoy your visit, Ms. Ashe.”
Gabrielle followed the Secret Serviceman fifty feet down a tiled hallway to a second security desk. Here, another sentry was assembling a guest pass that was just rolling out of a lamination machine. He punched a hole in it, affixed a neck cord, and slipped it over Gabrielle’s head. The plastic was still warm. The photo on the ID was the snapshot they had taken fifteen seconds earlier down the hall.
Gabrielle was impressed. Who says government is inefficient?
They continued, the Secret Serviceman leading her deeper into the White House complex. Gabrielle was feeling more uneasy with every step. Whoever had extended the mysterious invitation certainly was not concerned about keeping the meeting private. Gabrielle had been issued an official pass, signed the guest log, and was now being marched in plain view through the first floor of the White House where public tours were gathered.
“And this is the China Room,” a tour guide was saying to a group of tourists, “home of Nancy Reagan’s $952 per setting red-rimmed china that sparked a debate over conspicuous consumption back in 1981.”
The Secret Serviceman led Gabrielle past the tour toward a huge marble staircase, where another tour was ascending. “You are about to enter the thirty-two-hundred-square-foot East Room,” the guide was narrating, “where Abigail Adams once hung John Adams’s laundry. Then we will pass to the Red Room, where Dolley Madison liquored up visiting heads of state before James Madison negotiated with them.”
The tourists laughed.
Gabrielle followed past the stairway through a series of ropes and barricades into a more private section of the building. Here they entered a room Gabrielle had only seen in books and on television. Her breath grew short.
My God, this is the Map Room!
No tour ever came in here. The room’s paneled walls could swing outward to reveal layer upon layer of world maps. This was the place where Roosevelt had charted the course of World War II. Unsettlingly, it was also the room from which Clinton had admitted his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Gabrielle pushed that particular thought from her mind. Most important, the Map Room was a passageway into the West Wing-the area inside the White House where the true powerbrokers worked. This was the last place Gabrielle Ashe had expected to be going. She had imagined her e-mail was coming from some enterprising young intern or secretary working in one of the complex’s more mundane offices. Apparently not.
I’m going into the West Wing…
The Secret Serviceman marched her to the very end of a carpeted hallway and stopped at an unmarked door. He knocked. Gabrielle’s heart was pounding.
“It’s open,” someone called from inside.
The man opened the door and motioned for Gabrielle to enter.
Gabrielle stepped in. The shades were down, and the room was dim. She could see the faint outline of a person sitting at a desk in the darkness.
“Ms. Ashe?” The voice came from behind a cloud of cigarette smoke. “Welcome.”
As Gabrielle’s eyes accustomed to the dark, she began to make out an unsettlingly familiar face, and her muscles went taut with surprise. THIS is who has been sending me e-mail?
“Thank you for coming,” Marjorie Tench said, her voice cold.
“Ms…. Tench?” Gabrielle stammered, suddenly unable to breathe.
“Call me Marjorie.” The hideous woman stood up, blowing smoke out of her nose like a dragon. “You and I are about to become best friends.”