Rachel was quiet now, staring blankly at the cabin of the G4 as the plane headed south along the Canadian coastline of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Tolland sat nearby, talking to Corky. Despite the majority of evidence suggesting the meteorite was authentic, Corky’s admission that the nickel content was “outside the preestablished midrange values” had served to rekindle Rachel’s initial suspicion. Secretly planting a meteorite beneath the ice only made sense as part of a brilliantly conceived fraud.
Nonetheless, the remaining scientific evidence pointed toward the meteorite’s validity.
Rachel turned from the window, glancing down at the disk-shaped meteorite sample in her hand. The tiny chondrules shimmered. Tolland and Corky had been discussing these metallic chondrules for some time now, talking in scientific terms well over Rachel’s head-equilibrated olivine levels, metastable glass matrices, and metamorphic rehomogenation. Nonetheless, the upshot was clear: Corky and Tolland were in agreement that the chondrules were decidedly meteoric. No fudging of that data.
Rachel rotated the disk-shaped specimen in her hand, running a finger over the rim where part of the fusion crust was visible. The charring looked relatively fresh-certainly not three hundred years old-although Corky had explained that the meteorite had been hermetically sealed in ice and avoided atmospheric erosion. This seemed logical. Rachel had seen programs on television where human remains were dug from the ice after four thousand years and the person’s skin looked almost perfect.
As she studied the fusion crust, an odd thought occurred to her-an obvious piece of data had been omitted. Rachel wondered if it had simply been an oversight in all the data that was thrown at her or did someone simply forget to mention it.
She turned suddenly to Corky. “Did anyone date the fusion crust?”
Corky glanced over, looking confused. “What?”
“Did anyone date the burn. That is, do we know for a fact that the burn on the rock occurred at exactly the time of the Jungersol Fall?”
“Sorry,” Corky said, “that’s impossible to date. Oxidation resets all the necessary isotopic markers. Besides, radioisotope decay rates are too slow to measure anything under five hundred years.”
Rachel considered that a moment, understanding now why the burn date was not part of the data. “So, as far as we know, this rock could have been burned in the Middle Ages or last weekend, right?”
Tolland chuckled. “Nobody said science had all the answers.”
Rachel let her mind wander aloud. “A fusion crust is essentially just a severe burn. Technically speaking, the burn on this rock could have happened at any time in the past half century, in any number of different ways.”
“Wrong,” Corky said. “Burned in any number of different ways? No. Burned in one way. Falling through the atmosphere.”
“There’s no other possibility? How about in a furnace?”
“A furnace?” Corky said. “These samples were examined under an electron microscope. Even the cleanest furnace on earth would have left fuel residue all over the stone-nuclear, chemical, fossil fuel. Forget it. And how about the striations from streaking through the atmosphere? You wouldn’t get those in a furnace.”
Rachel had forgotten about the orientation striations on the meteorite. It did indeed appear to have fallen through the air. “How about a volcano?” she ventured. “Ejecta thrown violently from an eruption?”
Corky shook his head. “The burn is far too clean.”
Rachel glanced at Tolland.
The oceanographer nodded. “Sorry, I’ve had some experience with volcanoes, both above and below water. Corky’s right. Volcanic ejecta is penetrated by dozens of toxins-carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrochloric acid-all of which would have been detected in our electronic scans. That fusion crust, whether we like it or not, is the result of a clean atmospheric friction burn.”
Rachel sighed, looking back out the window. A clean burn. The phrase stuck with her. She turned back to Tolland. “What do you mean by a clean burn?”
He shrugged. “Simply that under an electron microscope, we see no remnants of fuel elements, so we know heating was caused by kinetic energy and friction, rather than chemical or nuclear ingredients.”
“If you didn’t find any foreign fuel elements, what did you find? Specifically, what was the composition of the fusion crust?”
“We found,” Corky said, “exactly what we expected to find. Pure atmospheric elements. Nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen. No petroleums. No sulfurs. No volcanic acids. Nothing peculiar. All the stuff we see when meteorites fall through the atmosphere.”
Rachel leaned back in her seat, her thoughts focusing now.
Corky leaned forward to look at her. “Please don’t tell me your new theory is that NASA took a fossilized rock up in the space shuttle and sent it hurtling toward earth hoping nobody would notice the fireball, the massive crater, or the explosion?”
Rachel had not thought of that, although it was an interesting premise. Not feasible, but interesting all the same. Her thoughts were actually closer to home. All natural atmospheric elements. Clean burn. Striations from racing through the air. A faint light had gone off in a distant corner of her mind. “The ratios of the atmospheric elements you saw,” she said. “Were they exactly the same ratios you see on every other meteorite with a fusion crust?”
Corky seemed to hedge slightly at the question. “Why do you ask?”
Rachel saw him hesitate and felt her pulse quicken. “The ratios were off, weren’t they?”
“There is a scientific explanation.”
Rachel’s heart was suddenly pounding. “Did you by any chance see an unusually high content of one element in particular?”
Tolland and Corky exchanged startled looks. “Yes,” Corky said, “but-”
“Was it ionized hydrogen?”
The astrophysicist’s eyes turned to saucers. “How could you possibly know that!”
Tolland also looked utterly amazed.
Rachel stared at them both. “Why didn’t anyone mention this to me?”
“Because there’s a perfectly sound scientific explanation!” Corky declared.
“I’m all ears,” Rachel said.
“There was surplus ionized hydrogen,” Corky said, “because the meteorite passed through the atmosphere near the North Pole, where the earth’s magnetic field causes an abnormally high concentration of hydrogen ions.”
Rachel frowned. “Unfortunately, I have another explanation.”
The fourth floor of NASA headquarters was less impressive than the lobby-long sterile corridors with office doors equally spaced along the walls. The corridor was deserted. Laminated signs pointed in all directions.
Gabrielle followed the signs for PODS. Winding her way down a series of long corridors and intersections, she came to a set of heavy steel doors. The stencil read:
Polar Orbiting Density Scanner (PODS)
Section Manager, Chris Harper
The doors were locked, secured both by key card and a PIN pad access. Gabrielle put her ear to the cold metal door. For a moment, she thought she heard talking. Arguing. Maybe not. She wondered if she should just bang on the door until someone inside let her in. Unfortunately, her plan for dealing with Chris Harper required a bit more subtlety than banging on doors. She looked around for another entrance but saw none. A custodial alcove stood adjacent to the door, and Gabrielle stepped in, searching the dimly lit niche for a janitor’s key ring or key card. Nothing. Just brooms and mops.
Returning to the door, she put her ear to the metal again. This time she definitely heard voices. Getting louder. And footsteps. The latch engaged from inside.
Gabrielle had no time to hide as the metal door burst open. She jumped to the side, plastering herself against the wall behind the door as a group of people hurried through, talking loudly. They sounded angry.
“What the hell is Harper’s problem? I thought he’d be on cloud nine!”
“On a night like tonight,” another said as the group passed by, “he wants to be alone? He should be celebrating!”
As the group moved away from Gabrielle, the heavy door started swinging closed on pneumatic hinges, revealing her location. She remained rigid as the men continued down the hall. Waiting as long as she possibly could, until the door was only inches from closing, Gabrielle lunged forward and caught the door handle with just inches to spare. She stood motionless as the men turned the corner down the hall, too engaged in their conversation to look back.
Heart pounding, Gabrielle pulled open the door and stepped into the dimly lit area beyond. She quietly closed the door.
The space was a wide open work area that reminded her of a college physics laboratory: computers, work islands, electronic gear. As her eyes became accustomed to the darkness, Gabrielle could see blueprints and sheets of calculations scattered around. The entire area was dark except for an office on the far side of the lab, where a light shone under the door. Gabrielle walked over quietly. The door was closed, but through the window she could see a man sitting at a computer. She recognized the man from the NASA press conference. The nameplate on the door read:
Section Manager, PODS
Having come this far, Gabrielle suddenly felt apprehensive, wondering if she could actually pull this off. She reminded herself how certain Sexton was that Chris Harper had lied. I would bet my campaign on it, Sexton had said. Apparently there were others who felt the same, others who were waiting for Gabrielle to uncover the truth so they could close in on NASA, attempting to gain even a tiny foothold after tonight’s devastating developments. After the way Tench and the Herney administration had played Gabrielle this afternoon, she was eager to help.
Gabrielle raised her hand to knock on the door but paused, Yolanda’s voice running through her mind. If Chris Harper lied to the world about PODS, what makes you think he’ll tell YOU the truth?
Fear, Gabrielle told herself, having almost fallen victim to it herself today. She had a plan. It involved a tactic she’d seen the senator use on occasion to scare information out of political opponents. Gabrielle had absorbed a lot under Sexton’s tutelage, and not all of it attractive or ethical. But tonight she needed every advantage. If she could persuade Chris Harper to admit he had lied-for whatever reason-Gabrielle would open a small door of opportunity for the senator’s campaign. Beyond that, Sexton was a man who, if given an inch to maneuver, could wriggle his way out of almost any jam.
Gabrielle’s plan for dealing with Harper was something Sexton called “overshooting”-an interrogation technique invented by the early Roman authorities to coax confessions from criminals they suspected were lying. The method was deceptively simple:
Assert the information you want confessed.
Then allege something far worse.
The object was to give the opponent a chance to choose the lesser of two evils-in this case, the truth.
The trick was exuding confidence, something Gabrielle was not feeling at the moment. Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle ran through the script in her mind, and then knocked firmly on the office door.
“I told you I’m busy!” Harper called out, his English accent familiar.
She knocked again. Louder.
“I told you I’m not interested in coming down!”
This time she banged on the door with her fist.
Chris Harper came over and yanked open the door. “Bloody hell, do you-” He stopped short, clearly surprised to see Gabrielle.
“Dr. Harper,” she said, infusing her voice with intensity.
“How did you get up here?”
Gabrielle’s face was stern. “Do you know who I am?”
“Of course. Your boss has been slamming my project for months. How did you get in?”
“Senator Sexton sent me.”
Harper’s eyes scanned the lab behind Gabrielle. “Where is your staff escort?”
“That’s not your concern. The senator has influential connections.”
“In this building?” Harper looked dubious.
“You’ve been dishonest, Dr. Harper. And I’m afraid the senator has called a special senatorial justice board to look into your lies.”
A pall crossed Harper’s face. “What are you talking about?”
“Smart people like yourself don’t have the luxury of playing stupid, Dr. Harper. You’re in trouble, and the senator sent me up here to offer you a deal. The senator’s campaign took a huge hit tonight. He’s got nothing left to lose, and he’s ready to take you down with him if he needs to.”
“What the devil are you talking about?”
Gabrielle took a deep breath and made her play. “You lied in your press conference about the PODS anomaly-detection software. We know that. A lot of people know that. That’s not the issue.” Before Harper could open his mouth to argue, Gabrielle steamed onward. “The senator could blow the whistle on your lies right now, but he’s not interested. He’s interested in the bigger story. I think you know what I’m talking about.”
“Here’s the senator’s offer. He’ll keep his mouth shut about your software lies if you give him the name of the top NASA executive with whom you’re embezzling funds.”
Chris Harper’s eyes seemed to cross for a moment. “What? I’m not embezzling!”
“I suggest you watch what you say, sir. The senatorial committee has been collecting documentation for months now. Did you really think you two would slip by undetected? Doctoring PODS paperwork and redirecting allocated NASA funds to private accounts? Lying and embezzling can put you in jail, Dr. Harper.”
“I did no such thing!”
“You’re saying you didn’t lie about PODS?”
“No, I’m saying I bloody well didn’t embezzle money!”
“So, you’re saying you did lie about PODS.”
Harper stared, clearly at a loss for words.
“Forget about the lying,” Gabrielle said, waving it off. “Senator Sexton is not interested in the issue of your lying in a press conference. We’re used to that. You guys found a meteorite, nobody cares how you did it. The issue for him is the embezzlement. He needs to take down someone high in NASA. Just tell him who you’re working with, and he’ll steer the investigation clear of you entirely. You can make it easy and tell us who the other person is, or the senator will make it ugly and start talking about anomaly-detection software and phony work-arounds.”
“You’re bluffing. There are no embezzled funds.”
“You’re an awful liar, Dr. Harper. I’ve seen the documentation. Your name is on all the incriminating paperwork. Over and over.”
“I swear I know nothing about any embezzlement!”
Gabrielle let out a disappointed sigh. “Put yourself in my position, Dr. Harper. I can only draw two conclusions here. Either you’re lying to me, the same way you lied in that press conference. Or you’re telling the truth, and someone powerful in the agency is setting you up as a fall guy for his own misdealings.”
The proposition seemed to give Harper pause.
Gabrielle checked her watch. “The senator’s deal is on the table for an hour. You can save yourself by giving him the name of the NASA exec with whom you’re embezzling taxpayers’ money. He doesn’t care about you. He wants the big fish. Obviously the individual in question has some power here at NASA; he or she has managed to keep his or her identity off the paper trail, allowing you to be the fall guy.”
Harper shook his head. “You’re lying.”
“Would you like to tell that to a court?”
“Sure. I’ll deny the whole thing.”
“Under oath?” Gabrielle grunted in disgust. “Suppose you’ll also deny you lied about fixing the PODS software?” Gabrielle’s heart was pounding as she stared straight into the man’s eyes. “Think carefully about your options here, Dr. Harper. American prisons can be most unpleasant.”
Harper glared back, and Gabrielle willed him to fold. For a moment she thought she saw a glimmer of surrender, but when Harper spoke, his voice was like steel.
“Ms. Ashe,” he declared, anger simmering in his eyes, “you are clutching at thin air. You and I both know there is no embezzlement going on at NASA. The only liar in this room is you.”
Gabrielle felt her muscles go rigid. The man’s gaze was angry and sharp. She wanted to turn and run. You tried to bluff a rocket scientist. What the hell did you expect? She forced herself to hold her head high. “All I know,” she said, feigning utter confidence and indifference to his position, “is the incriminating documents I’ve seen-conclusive evidence that you and another are embezzling NASA funds. The senator simply asked me to come here tonight and offer you the option of giving up your partner instead of facing the inquiry alone. I will tell the senator you prefer to take your chances with a judge. You can tell the court what you told me-you’re not embezzling funds and you didn’t lie about the PODS software.” She gave a grim smile. “But after that lame press conference you gave two weeks ago, somehow I doubt it.” Gabrielle spun on her heel and strode across the darkened PODS laboratory. She wondered if maybe she’d be seeing the inside of a prison instead of Harper.
Gabrielle held her head high as she walked off, waiting for Harper to call her back. Silence. She pushed her way through the metal doors and strode out into the hallway, hoping the elevators up here were not key-card operated like the lobby. She’d lost. Despite her best efforts, Harper wasn’t biting. Maybe he was telling the truth in his PODS press conference, Gabrielle thought.
A crash resounded down the hall as the metal doors behind her burst open. “Ms. Ashe,” Harper’s voice called out. “I swear I know nothing about any embezzlement. I’m an honest man!”
Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat. She forced herself to keep walking. She gave a casual shrug and called out over her shoulder. “And yet you lied in your press conference.”
Silence. Gabrielle kept moving down the hallway.
“Hold on!” Harper yelled. He came jogging up beside her, his face pale. “This embezzlement thing,” he said, lowering his voice. “I think I know who set me up.”
Gabrielle stopped dead in her tracks, wondering if she had heard him correctly. She turned as slowly and casually as she could. “You expect me to believe someone is setting you up?”
Harper sighed. “I swear I know nothing about embezzlement. But if there’s evidence against me… ”
“Mounds of it.”
Harper sighed. “Then it’s all been planted. To discredit me if need be. And there’s only one person who would have done that.”
Harper looked her in the eye. “Lawrence Ekstrom hates me.”
Gabrielle was stunned. “The administrator of NASA?”
Harper gave a grim nod. “He’s the one who forced me to lie in that press conference.”
Even with the Aurora aircraft’s misted-methane propulsion system at half power, the Delta Force was hurtling through the night at three times the speed of sound-over two thousand miles an hour. The repetitive throb of the Pulse Detonation Wave Engines behind them gave the ride a hypnotic rhythm. A hundred feet below, the ocean churned wildly, whipped up by the Aurora’s vacuum wake, which sucked fifty-foot rooster tails skyward in long parallel sheets behind the plane.
This is the reason the SR-71 Blackbird was retired, Delta-One thought.
The Aurora was one of those secret aircraft that nobody was supposed to know existed, but everyone did. Even the Discovery channel had covered Aurora and its testing out at Groom Lake in Nevada. Whether the security leaks had come from the repeated “skyquakes” heard as far away as Los Angeles, or the unfortunate eyewitness sighting by a North Sea oil-rig driller, or the administrative gaffe that left a description of Aurora in a public copy of the Pentagon budget, nobody would ever know. It hardly mattered. The word was out: The U.S. military had a plane capable of Mach 6 flight, and it was no longer on the drawing board. It was in the skies overhead.
Built by Lockheed, the Aurora looked like a flattened American football. It was 110 feet long, sixty feet wide, smoothly contoured with a crystalline patina of thermal tiles much like the space shuttle. The speed was primarily the result of an exotic new propulsion system known as a Pulse Detonation Wave Engine, which burned a clean, misted, liquid hydrogen and left a telltale pulse contrail in the sky. For this reason, it only flew at night.
Tonight, with the luxury of enormous speed, the Delta Force was taking the long way home, out across the open ocean. Even so, they were overtaking their quarry. At this rate, the Delta Force would be arriving on the eastern seaboard in under an hour, a good two hours before its prey. There had been discussion of tracking and shooting down the plane in question, but the controller rightly feared a radar capture of the incident or the burned wreckage might bring on a massive investigation. It was best to let the plane land as scheduled, the controller had decided. Once it became clear where their quarry intended to land, the Delta Force would move in.
Now, as Aurora streaked over the desolate Labrador Sea, Delta-One’s CrypTalk indicated an incoming call. He answered.
“The situation has changed,” the electronic voice informed them. “You have another mark before Rachel Sexton and the scientists land.”
Another mark. Delta-One could feel it. Things were unraveling. The controller’s ship had sprung another leak, and the controller needed them to patch it as fast as possible. The ship would not be leaking, Delta-One reminded himself, if we had hit our marks successfully on the Milne Ice Shelf. Delta-One knew damn well he was cleaning up his own mess.
“A fourth party has become involved,” the controller said.
The controller paused a moment-and then gave them a name.
The three men exchanged startled looks. It was a name they knew well.
No wonder the controller sounded reluctant! Delta-One thought. For an operation conceived as a “zero-casualty” venture, the body count and target profile was climbing fast. He felt his sinews tighten as the controller prepared to inform them exactly how and where they would eliminate this new individual.
“The stakes have increased considerably,” the controller said. “Listen closely. I will give you these instructions only once.”
High above northern Maine, a G4 jet continued speeding toward Washington. Onboard, Michael Tolland and Corky Marlinson looked on as Rachel Sexton began to explain her theory for why there might be increased hydrogen ions in the fusion crust of the meteorite.
“NASA has a private test facility called Plum Brook Station,” Rachel explained, hardly able to believe she was going to talk about this. Sharing classified information out of protocol was not something she had ever done, but considering the circumstances, Tolland and Corky had a right to know this. “Plum Brook is essentially a test chamber for NASA’s most radical new engine systems. Two years ago I wrote a gist about a new design NASA was testing there-something called an expander cycle engine.”
Corky eyed her suspiciously. “Expander cycle engines are still in the theoretical stage. On paper. Nobody’s actually testing. That’s decades away.”
Rachel shook her head. “Sorry, Corky. NASA has prototypes. They’re testing.”
“What?” Corky looked skeptical. “ECE’s run on liquid oxygen-hydrogen, which freezes in space, making the engine worthless to NASA. They said they were not even going to try to build an ECE until they overcame the freezing fuel problem.”
“They overcame it. They got rid of the oxygen and turned the fuel into a ‘slush-hydrogen’ mixture, which is some kind of cryogenic fuel consisting of pure hydrogen in a semifrozen state. It’s very powerful and very clean burning. It’s also a contender for the propulsion system if NASA runs missions to Mars.”
Corky looked amazed. “This can’t be true.”
“It better be true,” Rachel said. “I wrote a brief about it for the President. My boss was up in arms because NASA wanted to publicly announce slush-hydrogen as a big success, and Pickering wanted the White House to force NASA to keep slush-hydrogen classified.”
“Not important,” Rachel said, having no intention of sharing more secrets than she had to. The truth was that Pickering’s desire to classify slush-hydrogen’s success was to fight a growing national security concern few knew existed-the alarming expansion of China’s space technology. The Chinese were currently developing a deadly “for-hire” launch platform, which they intended to rent out to high bidders, most of whom would be U.S. enemies. The implications for U.S. security were devastating. Fortunately, the NRO knew China was pursuing a doomed propulsion-fuel model for their launch platform, and Pickering saw no reason to tip them off about NASA’s more promising slush-hydrogen propellant.
“So,” Tolland said, looking uneasy, “you’re saying NASA has a clean-burning propulsion system that runs on pure hydrogen?”
Rachel nodded. “I don’t have figures, but the exhaust temperatures of these engines are apparently several times hotter than anything ever before developed. They’re requiring NASA to develop all kinds of new nozzle materials.” She paused. “A large rock, placed behind one of these slush-hydrogen engines, would be scalded by a hydrogen-rich blast of exhaust fire coming out at an unprecedented temperature. You’d get quite a fusion crust.”
“Come on now!” Corky said. “Are we back to the fake meteorite scenario?”
Tolland seemed suddenly intrigued. “Actually, that’s quite an idea. The setup would be more or less like leaving a boulder on the launchpad under the space shuttle during liftoff.”
“God save me,” Corky muttered. “I’m airborne with idiots.”
“Corky,” Tolland said. “Hypothetically speaking, a rock placed in an exhaust field would exhibit similar burn features to one that fell through the atmosphere, wouldn’t it? You’d have the same directional striations and backflow of the melting material.”
Corky grunted. “I suppose.”
“And Rachel’s clean-burning hydrogen fuel would leave no chemical residue. Only hydrogen. Increased levels of hydrogen ions in the fusion pocking.”
Corky rolled his eyes. “Look, if one of these ECE engines actually exists, and runs on slush-hydrogen, I suppose what you’re talking about is possible. But it’s extremely far-fetched.”
“Why?” Tolland asked. “The process seems fairly simple.”
Rachel nodded. “All you need is a 190-million-year-old fossilized rock. Blast it in a slush-hydrogen-engine exhaust fire, and bury it in the ice. Instant meteorite.”
“To a tourist, maybe,” Corky said, “but not to a NASA scientist! You still haven’t explained the chondrules!”
Rachel tried to recall Corky’s explanation of how chondrules formed. “You said chondrules are caused by rapid heating and cooling events in space, right?”
Corky sighed. “Chondrules form when a rock, chilled in space, suddenly becomes superheated to a partial-melt stage-somewhere near 1550 Celsius. Then the rock must cool again, extremely rapidly, hardening the liquid pockets into chondrules.”
Tolland studied his friend. “And this process can’t happen on earth?”
“Impossible,” Corky said. “This planet does not have the temperature variance to cause that kind of rapid shift. You’re talking here about nuclear heat and the absolute zero of space. Those extremes simply don’t exist on earth.”
Rachel considered it. “At least not naturally.”
Corky turned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Why couldn’t the heating and cooling event have occurred here on earth artificially?” Rachel asked. “The rock could have been blasted by a slush-hydrogen engine and then rapidly cooled in a cryogenic freezer.”
Corky stared. “Manufactured chondrules?”
“It’s an idea.”
“A ridiculous one,” Corky replied, flashing his meteorite sample. “Perhaps you forget? These chondrules were irrefutably dated at 190 million years.” His tone grew patronizing. “To the best of my knowledge, Ms. Sexton, 190 million years ago, nobody was running slush-hydrogen engines and cryogenic coolers.”
Chondrules or not, Tolland thought, the evidence is piling up. He had been silent now for several minutes, deeply troubled by Rachel’s newest revelation about the fusion crust. Her hypothesis, though staggeringly bold, had opened all kinds of new doors and gotten Tolland thinking in new directions. If the fusion crust is explainable… what other possibilities does that present?
“You’re quiet,” Rachel said, beside him.
Tolland glanced over. For an instant, in the muted lighting of the plane, he saw a softness in Rachel’s eyes that reminded him of Celia. Shaking off the memories, he gave her a tired sigh. “Oh, I was just thinking… ”
She smiled. “About meteorites?”
“Running through all the evidence, trying to figure out what’s left?”
“Something like that.”
“Not really. I’m troubled by how much of the data has collapsed in light of discovering that insertion shaft beneath the ice.”
“Hierarchical evidence is a house of cards,” Rachel said. “Pull out your primary assumption, and everything gets shaky. The location of the meteorite find was a primary assumption.”
I’ll say. “When I arrived at Milne, the administrator told me the meteorite had been found inside a pristine matrix of three-hundred-year-old ice and was more dense than any rock found anywhere in the area, which I took as logical proof that the rock had to fall from space.”
“You and the rest of us.”
“The midrange nickel content, though persuasive, is apparently not conclusive.”
“It’s close,” Corky said nearby, apparently listening in.
“But not exact.”
Corky acquiesced with a reluctant nod.
“And,” Tolland said, “this never before seen species of space bug, though shockingly bizarre, in reality could be nothing more than a very old, deepwater crustacean.”
Rachel nodded. “And now the fusion crust… ”
“I hate to say it,” Tolland said, glancing at Corky, “but it’s starting to feel like there’s more negative evidence than positive.”
“Science is not about hunches,” Corky said. “It’s about evidence. The chondrules in this rock are decidedly meteoric. I agree with you both that everything we’ve seen is deeply disturbing, but we cannot ignore these chondrules. The evidence in favor is conclusive, while the evidence against is circumstantial.”
Rachel frowned. “So where does that leave us?”
“Nowhere,” Corky said. “The chondrules prove we are dealing with a meteorite. The only question is why someone stuck it under the ice.”
Tolland wanted to believe his friend’s sound logic, but something just felt wrong.
“You don’t look convinced, Mike,” Corky said.
Tolland gave his friend a bewildered sigh. “I don’t know. Two out of three wasn’t bad, Corky. But we’re down to one out of three. I just feel like we’re missing something.”
I got caught, Chris Harper thought, feeling a chill as he pictured an American prison cell. Senator Sexton knows I lied about the PODS software.
As the PODS section manager escorted Gabrielle Ashe back into his office and closed the door, he felt his hatred of the NASA administrator grow deeper by the instant. Tonight Harper had learned just how deep the administrator’s lies truly ran. In addition to forcing Harper to lie about having fixed PODS’s software, the administrator had apparently set up some insurance just in case Harper got cold feet and decided not to be a team player.
Evidence of embezzlement, Harper thought. Blackmail. Very sly. After all, who would believe an embezzler trying to discredit the single greatest moment in American space history? Harper had already witnessed to what lengths the NASA administrator would go to save America’s space agency, and now with the announcement of a meteorite with fossils, the stakes had skyrocketed.
Harper paced for several seconds around the widetable on which sat a scale model of the PODS satellite-a cylindrical prism with multiple antennae and lenses behind reflective shields. Gabrielle sat down, her dark eyes watching, waiting. The nausea in Harper’s gut reminded him of how he had felt during the infamous press conference. He’d put on a lousy show that night, and everyone had questioned him about it. He’d had to lie again and say he was feeling ill that night and was not himself. His colleagues and the press shrugged off his lackluster performance and quickly forgot about it.
Now the lie had come back to haunt him.
Gabrielle Ashe’s expression softened. “Mr. Harper, with the administrator as an enemy, you will need a powerful ally. Senator Sexton could well be your only friend at this point. Let’s start with the PODS software lie. Tell me what happened.”
Harper sighed. He knew it was time to tell the truth. I bloody well should have told the truth in the first place! “The PODS launch went smoothly,” he began. “The satellite settled into a perfect polar orbit just as planned.”
Gabrielle Ashe looked bored. She apparently knew all this. “Go on.”
“Then came the trouble. When we geared up to start searching the ice for density anomalies, the onboard anomaly-detection software failed.”
Harper’s words came faster now. “The software was supposed to be able to rapidly examine thousands of acres of data and find parts of the ice that fell outside the range of normal ice density. Primarily the software was looking for soft spots in the ice-global warming indicators-but if it stumbled across other density incongruities, it was programmed to flag those as well. The plan was for PODS to scan the Arctic Circle over several weeks and identify any anomalies that we could use to measure global warming.”
“But without functioning software,” Gabrielle said, “PODS was no good. NASA would have had to examine images of every square inch of the Arctic by hand, looking for trouble spots.”
Harper nodded, reliving the nightmare of his programming gaffe. “It would take decades. The situation was terrible. Because of a flaw in my programming, PODS was essentially worthless. With the election coming up and Senator Sexton being so critical of NASA… ” He sighed.
“Your mistake was devastating to NASA and the President.”
“It couldn’t have come at a worse time. The administrator was livid. I promised him I could fix the problem during the next shuttle mission-a simple matter of swapping out the chip that held the PODS software system. But it was too little too late. He sent me home on leave-but essentially I was fired. That was a month ago.”
“And yet you were back on television two weeks ago announcing you’d found a work-around.”
Harper slumped. “A terrible mistake. That was the day I got a desperate call from the administrator. He told me something had come up, a possible way to redeem myself. I came into the office immediately and met with him. He asked me to hold a press conference and tell everyone I’d found a work-around for the PODS software and that we would have data in a few weeks. He said he’d explain it to me later.”
“And you agreed.”
“No, I refused! But an hour later, the administrator was back in my office-with the White House senior adviser!”
“What!” Gabrielle looked astounded by this. “Marjorie Tench?”
An awful creature, Harper thought, nodding. “She and the administrator sat me down and told me my mistake had quite literally put NASA and the President on the brink of total collapse. Ms. Tench told me about the senator’s plans to privatize NASA. She told me I owed it to the President and space agency to make it all right. Then she told me how.”
Gabrielle leaned forward. “Go on.”
“Marjorie Tench informed me that the White House, by sheer good fortune, had intercepted strong geologic evidence that an enormous meteorite was buried in the Milne Ice Shelf. One of the biggest ever. A meteorite of that size would be a major find for NASA.”
Gabrielle looked stunned. “Hold on, so you’re saying someone already knew the meteorite was there before PODS discovered it?”
“Yes. PODS had nothing to do with the discovery. The administrator knew the meteorite existed. He simply gave me the coordinates and told me to reposition PODS over the ice shelf and pretend PODS made the discovery.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“That was my reaction when they asked me to participate in the sham. They refused to tell me how they’d found out the meteorite was there, but Ms. Tench insisted it didn’t matter and that this was the ideal opportunity to salvage my PODS fiasco. If I could pretend the PODS satellite located the meteorite, then NASA could praise PODS as a much needed success and boost the President before the election.”
Gabrielle was awestruck. “And of course you couldn’t claim PODS had detected a meteorite until you’d announced that the PODS anomaly-detection software was up and running.”
Harper nodded. “Hence the press conference lie. I was forced into it. Tench and the administrator were ruthless. They reminded me I’d let everyone down-the President had funded my PODS project, NASA had spent years on it, and now I’d ruined the whole thing with a programming blunder.”
“So you agreed to help.”
“I didn’t have a choice. My career was essentially over if I didn’t. And the reality was that if I hadn’t muffed the software, PODS would have found that meteorite on its own. So, it seemed a small lie at the time. I rationalized it by telling myself that the software would be fixed in a few months when the space shuttle went up, so I would simply be announcing the fix a little early.”
Gabrielle let out a whistle. “A tiny lie to take advantage of a meteoric opportunity.”
Harper was feeling ill just talking about it. “So… I did it. Following the administrator’s orders, I held a press conference announcing that I’d found a work-around for my anomaly-detection software, I waited a few days, and then I repositioned PODS over the administrator’s meteorite coordinates. Then, following the proper chain of command, I phoned the EOS director and reported that PODS had located a hard density anomaly in the Milne Ice Shelf. I gave him the coordinates and told him the anomaly appeared to be dense enough to be a meteorite. Excitedly, NASA sent a small team up to Milne to take some drill cores. That’s when the operation got very hush-hush.”
“So, you had no idea the meteorite had fossils until tonight?”
“Nobody here did. We’re all in shock. Now everyone is calling me a hero for finding proof of extraterrestrial bioforms, and I don’t know what to say.”
Gabrielle was silent a long moment, studying Harper with firm black eyes. “But if PODS didn’t locate the meteorite in the ice, how did the administrator know the meteorite was there?”
“Someone else found it first.”
“Someone else? Who?”
Harper sighed. “A Canadian geologist named Charles Brophy-a researcher on Ellesmere Island. Apparently he was doing geologic ice soundings on the Milne Ice Shelf when he by chance discovered the presence of what appeared to be a huge meteorite in the ice. He radioed it in, and NASA happened to intercept the transmission.”
Gabrielle stared. “But isn’t this Canadian furious that NASA is taking all the credit for the find?”
“No,” Harper said, feeling a chill. “Conveniently, he’s dead.”