Page 21 of Deception Point

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Tolland groaned. "Now he's showing off. What Corky means is that we can prove a rock is a meteorite simply by measuring its chemical content."

"Hey, ocean boy!" Corky chided. "Let's leave the science to the scientists, shall we?" He immediately turned back to Rachel. "In earth rocks, the mineral nickel occurs in either extremely high percentages or extremely low; nothing in the middle. In meteorites, though, the nickel content falls within a midrange set of values. Therefore, if we analyze a sample and find the nickel content reflects a midrange value, we can guarantee beyond the shadow of a doubt that the sample is a meteorite."

Rachel felt exasperated. "Okay, gentlemen, fusion crusts, chondrules, midrange nickel contents, all of which prove it's from space. I get the picture." She laid the sample back on Corky's table. "But why am I here?"

Corky heaved a portentous sigh. "You want to see a sample of the meteorite NASA found in the ice underneath us?"

Before I die here, please.

This time Corky reached in his breast pocket and produced a small, disk-shaped piece of stone. The slice of rock was shaped like an audio CD, about half an inch thick, and appeared to be similar in composition to the stony meteorite she had just seen.

"This is a slice of a core sample that we drilled yesterday." Corky handed the disk to Rachel.

The appearance certainly was not earth-shattering. It was an orangish-white, heavy rock. Part of the rim was charred and black, apparently a segment of the meteorite's outer skin. "I see the fusion crust," she said.

Corky nodded. "Yeah, this sample was taken from near the outside of the meteorite, so it still has some crust on it."

Rachel tilted the disk in the light and spotted the tiny metallic globules. "And I see the chondrules."

"Good," Corky said, his voice tense with excitement. "And I can tell you from having run this thing through a petrographic polarizing microscope that its nickel content is midrange-nothing like a terrestrial rock. Congratulations, you've now successfully confirmed the rock in your hand came from space."

Rachel looked up, confused. "Dr. Marlinson, it's a meteorite. It's supposed to come from space. Am I missing something here?"

Corky and Tolland exchanged knowing looks. Tolland put a hand on Rachel's shoulder and whispered, "Flip it over."

Rachel turned the disk over so she could see the other side. It took only an instant for her brain to process what she was looking at.

Then the truth hit her like a truck.

Impossible! she gasped, and yet as she stared at the rock she realized her definition of "impossible" had just changed forever. Embedded in the stone was a form that in an earth specimen might be considered commonplace, and yet in a meteorite was utterly inconceivable.

"It's... " Rachel stammered, almost unable to speak the word. "It's... a bug! This meteorite contains the fossil of a bug!"

Both Tolland and Corky were beaming. "Welcome aboard," Corky said.

The torrent of emotions that gripped Rachel left her momentarily mute, and yet even in her bewilderment, she could clearly see that this fossil, beyond question, had once been a living biological organism. The petrified impression was about three inches long and looked to be the underside of some kind of huge beetle or crawling insect. Seven pairs of hinged legs were clustered beneath a protective outer shell, which seemed to be segmented in plates like that of an armadillo.

Rachel felt dizzy. "An insect from space... "

"It's an isopod," Corky said. "Insects have three pairs of legs, not seven."

Rachel did not even hear him. Her head was spinning as she studied the fossil before her.

"You can clearly see," Corky said, "that the dorsal shell is segmented in plates like a terrestrial pill bug, and yet the two prominent tail-like appendages differentiate it as something closer to a louse."

Rachel's mind had already tuned Corky out. The classification of the species was totally irrelevant. The puzzle pieces now came crashing into place-the President's secrecy, the NASA excitement...

There is a fossil in this meteorite! Not just a speck of bacteria or microbes, but an advanced life-form! Proof of life elsewhere in the universe!


Ten minutes into the CNN debate, Senator Sexton wondered how he could have been worried at all. Marjorie Tench was grossly overestimated as an opponent. Despite the senior adviser's reputation for ruthless sagacity, she was turning out to be more of a sacrificial lamb than a worthy opponent.

Granted, early in the conversation Tench had grabbed the upper hand by hammering the senator's prolife platform as biased against women, but then, just as it seemed Tench was tightening her grip, she'd made a careless mistake. While questioning how the senator expected to fund educational improvements without raising taxes, Tench made a snide allusion to Sexton's constant scapegoating of NASA.

Although NASA was a topic Sexton definitely intended to address toward the end of the discussion, Marjorie Tench had opened the door early. Idiot!

"Speaking of NASA," Sexton segued casually. "Can you comment on the rumors I keep hearing that NASA has suffered another recent failure?"

Marjorie Tench did not flinch. "I'm afraid I have not heard that rumor." Her cigarette voice was like sandpaper.

"So, no comment?"

"I'm afraid not."

Sexton gloated. In the world of media sound bites, "no comment" translated loosely to "guilty as charged."

"I see," Sexton said. "And how about the rumors of a secret, emergency meeting between the President and the administrator of NASA?"

This time Tench looked surprised. "I'm not sure what meeting you're referring to. The President takes many meetings."

"Of course, he does." Sexton decided to go straight at her. "Ms. Tench, you are a great supporter of the space agency, is that right?"

Tench sighed, sounding tired of Sexton's pet issue. "I believe in the importance of preserving America's technological edge-be that military, industry, intelligence, telecommunications. NASA is certainly part of that vision. Yes."

In the production booth, Sexton could see Gabrielle's eyes telling him to back off, but Sexton could taste blood. "I'm curious, ma'am, is it your influence behind the President's continued support of this obviously ailing agency?"

Tench shook her head. "No. The President is also a staunch believer in NASA. He makes his own decisions."

Sexton could not believe his ears. He had just given Marjorie Tench a chance to partially exonerate the President by personally accepting some of the blame for NASA funding. Instead, Tench had thrown it right back at the President. The President makes his own decisions. It seemed Tench was already trying to distance herself from a campaign in trouble. No big surprise. After all, when the dust settled, Marjorie Tench would be looking for a job.

Over the next few minutes, Sexton and Tench parried. Tench made some weak attempts to change the subject, while Sexton kept pressing her on the NASA budget.

"Senator," Tench argued, "you want to cut NASA's budget, but do you have any idea how many high-tech jobs will be lost?"

Sexton almost laughed in the woman's face. This gal is considered the smartest mind in Washington? Tench obviously had something to learn about the demographics of this country. High-tech jobs were inconsequential in comparison to the huge numbers of hardworking blue-collar Americans.

Sexton pounced. "We're talking about billions in savings here, Marjorie, and if the result is that a bunch of NASA scientists have to get in their BMWs and take their marketable skills elsewhere, then so be it. I'm committed to being tough on spending."

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