Gabrielle Ashe was brimming with new hope as she stood at Yolanda Cole’s desk in the ABC production room and dialed directory assistance.
The allegations Sexton had just conveyed to her, if confirmed, had shocking potential. NASA lied about PODS? Gabrielle had seen the press conference in question and recalled thinking it was odd, and yet she’d forgotten all about it; PODS was not a critical issue a few weeks ago. Tonight, however, PODS had become the issue.
Now Sexton needed inside information, and he needed it fast. He was relying on Gabrielle’s “informant” to get the information. Gabrielle had assured the senator she would do her best. The problem, of course, was that her informant was Marjorie Tench, who would be no help at all. So Gabrielle would have to get the information another way.
“Directory assistance,” the voice on the phone said.
Gabrielle told them what she needed. The operator came back with three listings for a Chris Harper in Washington. Gabrielle tried them all.
The first number was a law firm. The second had no answer. The third was now ringing.
A woman answered on the first ring. “Harper residence.”
“Mrs. Harper?” Gabrielle said as politely as possible. “I hope I haven’t woken you?”
“Heavens no! I don’t think anyone’s asleep tonight.” She sounded excited. Gabrielle could hear the television in the background. Meteorite coverage. “You’re calling for Chris, I assume?”
Gabrielle’s pulse quickened. “Yes, ma’am.”
“I’m afraid Chris isn’t here. He raced off to work as soon as the President’s address was over.” The woman chuckled to herself. “Of course, I doubt there’s any work going on. Most likely a party. The announcement came as quite a surprise to him, you know. To everyone. Our phone’s been ringing all night. I bet the whole NASA crew’s over there by now.”
“E Street complex?” Gabrielle asked, assuming the woman meant NASA headquarters.
“Righto. Take a party hat.”
“Thanks. I’ll track him down over there.”
Gabrielle hung up. She hurried out onto the production room floor and found Yolanda, who was just finishing prepping a group of space experts who were about to give enthusiastic commentary on the meteorite.
Yolanda smiled when she saw Gabrielle coming. “You look better,” she said. “Starting to see the silver lining here?”
“I just talked to the senator. His meeting tonight wasn’t what I thought.”
“I told you Tench was playing you. How’s the senator taking the meteorite news?”
“Better than expected.”
Yolanda looked surprised. “I figured he’d jumped in front of a bus by now.”
“He thinks there may be a snag in the NASA data.”
Yolanda let out a dubious snort. “Did he see the same press conference I just saw? How much more confirmation and reconfirmation can anyone need?”
“I’m going over to NASA to check on something.”
Yolanda’s penciled eyebrows raised in cautionary arches. “Senator Sexton’s right-hand aide is going to march into NASA headquarters? Tonight? Can you say ‘public stoning’?”
Gabrielle told Yolanda about Sexton’s suspicion that the PODS section manager Chris Harper had lied about fixing the anomaly software.
Yolanda clearly wasn’t buying it. “We covered that press conference, Gabs, and I’ll admit, Harper was not himself that night, but NASA said he was sick as a dog.”
“Senator Sexton is convinced he lied. Others are convinced too. Powerful people.”
“If the PODS anomaly-detection software wasn’t fixed, how did PODS spot the meteorite?”
Sexton’s point exactly, Gabrielle thought. “I don’t know. But the senator wants me to get him some answers.”
Yolanda shook her head. “Sexton is sending you into a hornet’s nest on a desperate pipe dream. Don’t go. You don’t owe him a thing.”
“I totally screwed up his campaign.”
“Rotten luck screwed up his campaign.”
“But if the senator is right and the PODS section manager actually lied-”
“Honey, if the PODS section manager lied to the world, what makes you think he’ll tell you the truth.”
Gabrielle had considered that and was already formulating her plan. “If I find a story over there, I’ll call you.”
Yolanda gave a skeptical laugh. “If you find a story over there, I’ll eat my hat.”
Erase everything you know about this rock sample.
Michael Tolland had been struggling with his own disquieting ruminations about the meteorite, but now, with Rachel’s probing questions, he was feeling an added unease over the issue. He looked down at the rock slice in his hand.
Pretend someone handed it to you with no explanation of where it was found or what it is. What would your analysis be?
Rachel’s question, Tolland knew, was loaded, and yet as an analytical exercise, it proved powerful. By discarding all the data he had been given on his arrival at the habisphere, Tolland had to admit that his analysis of the fossils was profoundly biased by a singular premise-that the rock in which the fossils were found was a meteorite.
What if I had NOT been told about the meteorite? he asked himself. Although still unable to fathom any other explanation, Tolland allowed himself the leeway of hypothetically removing “the meteorite” as a pre-supposition, and when he did, the results were somewhat unsettling. Now Tolland and Rachel, joined by a groggy Corky Marlinson, were discussing the ideas.
“So,” Rachel repeated, her voice intense, “Mike, you’re saying that if someone handed you this fossilized rock with no explanation whatsoever, you would have to conclude it was from earth.”
“Of course,” Tolland replied. “What else could I conclude? It’s a far greater leap to assert you’ve found extraterrestrial life than it is to assert you’ve found a fossil of some previously undiscovered terrestrial species. Scientists discover dozens of new species every year.”
“Two-foot-long lice?” Corky demanded, sounding incredulous. “You would assume a bug that big is from earth?”
“Not now, maybe,” Tolland replied, “but the species doesn’t necessarily have to be currently living. It’s a fossil. It’s 170 million years old. About the same age as our Jurassic. A lot of prehistoric fossils are oversized creatures that look shocking when we discover their fossilized remains-enormous winged reptiles, dinosaurs, birds.”
“Not to be the physicist here, Mike,” Corky said, “but there’s a serious flaw in your argument. The prehistoric creatures you just named-dinosaurs, reptiles, birds-they all have internal skeletons, which gives them the capability to grow to large sizes despite the earth’s gravity. But this fossil… ” He took the sample and held it up. “These guys have exo skeletons. They’re arthropods. Bugs. You yourself said that any bug this big could only have evolved in a low-gravity environment. Otherwise its outer skeleton would have collapsed under its own weight.”
“Correct,” Tolland said. “This species would have collapsed under its own weight if it walked around on earth.”
Corky’s brow furrowed with annoyance. “Well, Mike, unless some caveman was running an antigravity louse farm, I don’t see how you could possibly conclude a two-foot-long bug is earthly in origin.”
Tolland smiled inwardly to think Corky was missing such a simple point. “Actually, there is another possibility.” He focused closely on his friend. “Corky, you’re used to looking up. Look down. There’s an abundant antigravity environment right here on earth. And it’s been here since prehistoric times.”
Corky stared. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Rachel also looked surprised.
Tolland pointed out the window at the moonlit sea glistening beneath the plane. “The ocean.”
Rachel let out a low whistle. “Of course.”
“Water is a low-gravity environment,” Tolland explained. “Everything weighs less underwater. The ocean supports enormous fragile structures that could never exist on land-jellyfish, giant squid, ribbon eels.”
Corky acquiesced, but only slightly. “Fine, but the prehistoric ocean never had giant bugs.”
“Sure, it did. And it still does, in fact. People eat them everyday. They’re a delicacy in most countries.”
“Mike, who the hell eats giant sea bugs!”
“Anyone who eats lobsters, crabs, and shrimp.”
“Crustaceans are essentially giant sea bugs,” Tolland explained. “They’re a suborder of the phylum Arthropoda-lice, crabs, spiders, insects, grasshoppers, scorpions, lobsters-they’re all related. They’re all species with jointed appendages and external skeletons.”
Corky suddenly looked ill.
“From a classification standpoint, they look a lot like bugs,” Tolland explained. “Horseshoe crabs resemble giant trilobites. And the claws of a lobster resemble those of a large scorpion.”
Corky turned green. “Okay, I’ve eaten my last lobster roll.”
Rachel looked fascinated. “So arthropods on land stay small because the gravity selects naturally for smallness. But in the water, their bodies are buoyed up, so they can grow very large.”
“Exactly,” Tolland said. “An Alaskan king crab could be wrongly classified as a giant spider if we had limited fossil evidence.”
Rachel’s excitement seemed to fade now to concern. “Mike, again barring the issue of the meteorite’s apparent authenticity, tell me this: Do you think the fossils we saw at Milne could possibly have come from the ocean? Earth’s ocean?”
Tolland felt the directness of her gaze and sensed the true weight of her question. “Hypothetically, I would have to say yes. The ocean floor has sections that are 190 million years old. The same age as the fossils. And theoretically the oceans could have sustained life-forms that looked like this.”
“Oh please!” Corky scoffed. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing here. Barring the issue of the meteorite’s authenticity? The meteorite is irrefutable. Even if earth has ocean floor the same age as that meteorite, we sure as hell don’t have ocean floor that has fusion crust, anomalous nickel content, and chondrules. You’re grasping at straws.”
Tolland knew Corky was right, and yet imagining the fossils as sea creatures had robbed Tolland of some of his awe over them. They seemed somehow more familiar now.
“Mike,” Rachel said, “why didn’t any of the NASA scientists consider that these fossils might be ocean creatures? Even from an ocean on another planet?”
“Two reasons, really. Pelagic fossil samples-those from the ocean floor-tend to exhibit a plethora of intermingled species. Anything living in the millions of cubic feet of life above the ocean floor will eventually die and sink to the bottom. This means the ocean floor becomes a graveyard for species from every depth, pressure, and temperature environment. But the sample at Milne was clean-a single species. It looked more like something we might find in the desert. A brood of similar animals getting buried in a sandstorm, for example.”
Rachel nodded. “And the second reason you guessed land rather than sea?”
Tolland shrugged. “Gut instinct. Scientists have always believed space, if it were populated, would be populated by insects. And from what we’ve observed of space, there’s a lot more dirt and rock out there than water.”
Rachel fell silent.
“Although…,” Tolland added. Rachel had him thinking now. “I’ll admit there are very deep parts of the ocean floor that oceanographers call dead zones. We don’t really understand them, but they are areas in which the currents and food sources are such that almost nothing lives there. Just a few species of bottom-dwelling scavengers. So from that standpoint, I suppose a single-species fossil is not entirely out of the question.”
“Hello?” Corky grumbled. “Remember the fusion crust? The mid-level nickel content? The chondrules? Why are we even talking about this?”
Tolland did not reply.
“This issue of the nickel content,” Rachel said to Corky. “Explain this to me again. The nickel content in earth rocks is either very high or very low, but in meteorites the nickel content is within a specific midrange window?”
Corky bobbed his head. “Precisely.”
“And so the nickel content in this sample falls precisely within the expected range of values.”
“Very close, yes.”
Rachel looked surprised. “Hold on. Close? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Corky looked exasperated. “As I explained earlier, all meteorite mineralogies are different. As scientists find new meteorites, we constantly need to update our calculations as to what we consider an acceptable nickel content for meteorites.”
Rachel looked stunned as she held up the sample. “So, this meteorite forced you to reevaluate what you consider acceptable nickel content in a meteorite? It fell outside the established midrange nickel window?”
“Only slightly,” Corky fired back.
“Why didn’t anyone mention this?”
“It’s a nonissue. Astrophysics is a dynamic science which is constantly being updated.”
“During an incredibly important analysis?”
“Look,” Corky said with a huff, “I can assure you the nickel content in that sample is a helluva lot closer to other meteorites than it is to any earth rock.”
Rachel turned to Tolland. “Did you know about this?”
Tolland gave a reluctant nod. It hadn’t seemed a major issue at the time. “I was told this meteorite exhibited slightly higher nickel content than seen in other meteorites, but the NASA specialists seemed unconcerned.”
“For good reason!” Corky interjected. “The mineralogical proof here is not that the nickel content is conclusively meteoritelike, but rather that it is conclusively non-earth-like.”
Rachel shook her head. “Sorry, but in my business that’s the kind of faulty logic that gets people killed. Saying a rock is non-earth-like doesn’t prove it’s a meteorite. It simply proves that it’s not like anything we’ve ever seen on earth.”
“What the hell’s the difference!”
“Nothing,” Rachel said. “If you’ve seen every rock on earth.”
Corky fell silent a moment. “Okay,” he finally said, “ignore the nickel content if it makes you nervous. We still have a flawless fusion crust and chondrules.”
“Sure,” Rachel said, sounding unimpressed. “Two out of three ain’t bad.”
The structure housing the NASA central headquarters was a mammoth glass rectangle located at 300 E Street in Washington, D.C. The building was spidered with over two hundred miles of data cabling and thousands of tons of computer processors. It was home to 1,134 civil servants who oversee NASA’s $15 billion annual budget and the daily operations of the twelve NASA bases nationwide.
Despite the late hour, Gabrielle was not at all surprised to see the building’s foyer filling with people, an apparent convergence of excited media crews and even more excited NASA personnel. Gabrielle hurried inside. The entryway resembled a museum, dominated dramatically by full-size replicas of famous mission capsules and satellites suspended overhead. Television crews were staking claims on the expansive marble floor, seizing wide-eyed NASA employees who came through the door.
Gabrielle scanned the crowd, but did not see anyone who looked like PODS mission director Chris Harper. Half the people in the lobby had press passes and half had NASA photo IDs around their necks. Gabrielle had neither. She spotted a young woman with a NASA ID and hurried over to her.
“Hi. I’m looking for Chris Harper?”
The woman eyed Gabrielle strangely, as if she recognized her from somewhere and couldn’t quite place it. “I saw Dr. Harper go through a while ago. I think he headed upstairs. Do I know you?”
“I don’t think so,” Gabrielle said, turning away. “How do I get upstairs?”
“Do you work for NASA?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Then you can’t get upstairs.”
“Oh. Is there a phone I might use to-”
“Hey,” the woman said, looking suddenly angry. “I know who you are. I’ve seen you on television with Senator Sexton. I can’t believe you would have the nerve-”
Gabrielle was already gone, disappearing into the crowd. Behind her, she could hear the woman angrily telling others Gabrielle was here.
Terrific. Two seconds through the door, and I’m already on the Most Wanted List.
Gabrielle kept her head down as she hurried to the far side of the lobby. A building directory was mounted on the wall. She scanned the listings, looking for Chris Harper. Nothing. The directory showed no names at all. It was arranged by department.
PODS? she wondered, scanning the list for anything that had to do with the Polar Orbiting Density Scanner. She saw nothing. She was afraid to glance over her shoulder, half expecting to see a crew of angry NASA employees coming to stone her. All she saw on the list that looked even remotely promising was on the fourth floor:
EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II
Earth Observing System (EOS)
Keeping her head turned away from the crowd, Gabrielle made her way toward an alcove that housed a bank of elevators and a water fountain. She searched for the elevator call buttons, but saw only slits. Damn. The elevators were security controlled-key card ID access for employees only.
A group of young men came hurrying toward the elevators, talking exuberantly. They wore NASA photo IDs around their necks. Gabrielle quickly bent over the fountain, watching behind her. A pimple-faced man inserted his ID into the slot and opened the elevator. He was laughing, shaking his head in amazement.
“The guys in SETI must be going nuts!” he said as everyone boarded the elevator. “Their horn carts traced drift fields under two hundred milliJanskys for twenty years, and the physical proof was buried in the ice here on earth the whole time!”
The elevator doors closed, and the men disappeared.
Gabrielle stood up, wiping her mouth, wondering what to do. She looked around for an interoffice phone. Nothing. She wondered if she could somehow steal a key card, but something told her that was probably unwise. Whatever she did, she knew she had to do it fast. She could now see the woman she’d first spoken to out in the lobby, moving through the crowd with a NASA security officer.
A trim, bald man came around the corner, hustling toward the elevators. Gabrielle again bent over the fountain. The man did not seem to notice her. Gabrielle watched in silence as the man leaned forward and inserted his ID card into the slit. Another set of elevator doors slid open, and the man stepped on.
Screw it, Gabrielle thought, making up her mind. Now or never.
As the elevator slid closed, Gabrielle spun from the fountain and ran over, sticking her hand out and catching the door. The doors bounced back open, and she stepped in, her face bright with excitement. “You ever seen it like this?” she gushed to the startled bald man. “My God. It’s crazy!”
The man gave her an odd look.
“The guys at SETI must be going nuts!” Gabrielle said. “Their horn carts traced drift fields under two hundred milliJanskys for twenty years, and the physical proof was buried in the ice here on earth the whole time!”
The man looked surprised. “Well… yes, it’s quite… ” He glanced at her neck, apparently troubled not to see an ID. “I’m sorry, do you-”
“Fourth floor please. Came in such a hurry I barely remembered to put on my underwear!” She laughed, stealing a quick look at the guy’s ID: JAMES THEISEN, Finance Administration.
“Do you work here?” The man looked uncomfortable. “Miss…?”
Gabrielle let her mouth fall slack. “Jim! I’m hurt! Nothing like making a woman feel unmemorable!”
The man went pale for a moment, looking uneasy, and running an embarrassed hand across his head. “I’m sorry. All this excitement, you know. I admit, you do look very familiar. What program are you working on?”
Shit. Gabrielle flashed a confident smile. “EOS.”
The man pointed to the illuminated fourth floor button. “Obviously. I mean specifically, which project?”
Gabrielle felt her pulse quicken. She could only think of one. “PODS.”
The man looked surprised. “Really? I thought I’d met everyone on Dr. Harper’s team.”
She gave an embarrassed nod. “Chris keeps me hidden away. I’m the idiot programmer who screwed up voxel index on the anomaly software.”
Now it was the bald man whose jaw dropped. “That was you?”
Gabrielle frowned. “I haven’t slept in weeks.”
“But Dr. Harper took all the heat for that!”
“I know. Chris is that kind of guy. At least he got it straightened out. What an announcement tonight, though, isn’t it? This meteorite. I’m just in shock!”
The elevator stopped on the fourth floor. Gabrielle jumped out. “Great seeing you, Jim. Give my best to the boys in budgeting!”
“Sure,” the man stammered as the doors slid shut. “Nice seeing you again.”
Zach Herney, like most presidents before him, survived on four or five hours of sleep a night. Over the last few weeks, however, he had survived on far less. As the excitement of the evening’s events slowly began to ebb, Herney felt the late hour settling in his limbs.
He and some of his upper level staff were in the Roosevelt Room enjoying celebratory champagne and watching the endless loop of press conference replays, Tolland documentary excerpts, and pundit recaps on network television. On-screen at the moment, an exuberant network correspondent stood in front of the White House gripping her microphone.
“Beyond the mind-numbing repercussions for mankind as a species,” she announced, “this NASA discovery has some harsh political repercussions here in Washington. The unearthing of these meteoric fossils could not have come at a better time for the embattled President.” Her voice grew somber. “Nor at a worse time for Senator Sexton.” The broadcast cut to a replay of the now infamous CNN debate from earlier in the day.
“After thirty-five years,” Sexton declared, “I think it’s pretty obvious we’re not going to find extraterrestrial life!”
“And if you’re wrong?” Marjorie Tench replied.
Sexton rolled his eyes. “Oh, for heavens sake, Ms. Tench, if I’m wrong I’ll eat my hat.”
Everyone in the Roosevelt Room laughed. Tench’s cornering of the senator could have played as cruel and heavy-handed in retrospect, and yet viewers didn’t seem to notice; the haughty tone of the senator’s response was so smug that Sexton appeared to be getting exactly what he deserved.
The President looked around the room for Tench. He had not seen her since before his press conference, and she was not here now. Odd, he thought. This is her celebration as much as it is mine.
The news report on television was wrapping up, outlining yet again the White House’s quantum political leap forward and Senator Sexton’s disastrous slide.
What a difference a day makes, the President thought. In politics, your world can change in an instant.
By dawn he would realize just how true those words could be.
Pickering could be a problem, Tench had said.
Administrator Ekstrom was too preoccupied with this new information to notice that the storm outside the habisphere was raging harder now. The howling cables had increased in pitch, and the NASA staff was nervously milling and chatting rather than going to sleep. Ekstrom’s thoughts were lost in a different storm-an explosive tempest brewing back in Washington. The last few hours had brought many problems, all of which Ekstrom was trying to deal with. And yet one problem now loomed larger than all the others combined.
Pickering could be a problem.
Pickering’s disgust with NASA, Ekstrom knew, went far deeper than the recent loss of his billion-dollar NRO SIGINT satellite in a NASA launchpad explosion, or the NASA security leaks, or the battle over recruiting key aerospace personnel. Pickering’s grievances against NASA were an ongoing drama of disillusionment and resentment.
NASA’s X-33 space plane, which was supposed to be the shuttle replacement, had run five years overdue, meaning dozens of NRO satellite maintenance and launch programs were scrapped or put on hold. Recently, Pickering’s rage over the X-33 reached a fever pitch when he discovered NASA had canceled the project entirely, swallowing an estimated $900 million loss.
Ekstrom arrived at his office, pulled the curtain aside, and entered. Sitting down at his desk he put his head in his hands. He had some decisions to make. What had started as a wonderful day was becoming a nightmare unraveling around him. He tried to put himself in the mindset of William Pickering. What would the man do next? Someone as intelligent as Pickering had to see the importance of this NASA discovery. He had to forgive certain choices made in desperation. He had to see the irreversible damage that would be done by polluting this moment of triumph.
What would Pickering do with the information he had? Would he let it ride, or would he make NASA pay for their shortcomings?
Ekstrom scowled, having little doubt which it would be.
After all, William Pickering had deeper issues with NASA… an ancient personal bitterness that went far deeper than politics.