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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II, 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II?”
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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II,” 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II’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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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.
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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II, 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II. 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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 EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II 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)