The gaping hole in the ice now looked like a small swimming pool in the middle of the habisphere. The surface of the two-hundred-foot-deep pool of melted water sloshed for a while against the icy walls of the shaft and then finally grew calm. The waterline in the shaft was a good four feet beneath the glacier's surface, the discrepancy caused by both the removal of the meteorite's mass and ice's property of shrinking as it melts.
Norah Mangor immediately set up SHABA pylons all around the hole. Although the hole was clearly visible, any curious soul who ventured too close and accidentally slipped in would be in dire jeopardy. The walls of the shaft were solid ice, with no footholds, and climbing out unassisted would be impossible.
Lawrence Ekstrom came padding across the ice toward them. He moved directly to Norah Mangor and shook her hand firmly. "Well done, Dr. Mangor."
"I'll expect lots of praise in print," Norah replied.
"You'll get it." The administrator turned now to Rachel. He looked happier, relieved. "So, Ms. Sexton, is the professional skeptic convinced?"
Rachel couldn't help but smile. "Stunned is more like it."
"Good. Then follow me."
Rachel followed the administrator across the habisphere to a large metal box that resembled an industrial shipping container. The box was painted with military camouflage patterns and stenciled letters: P-S-C.
"You'll call the President from in here," Ekstrom said.
Portable Secure Comm, Rachel thought. These mobile communications booths were standard battlefield installations, although Rachel had never expected to see one used as part of a peacetime NASA mission. Then again, Administrator Ekstrom's background was the Pentagon, so he certainly had access to toys like this. From the stern faces on the two armed guards watching over the PSC, Rachel got the distinct impression that contact with the outside world was made only with express consent from Administrator Ekstrom.
Looks like I'm not the only one who is off-the-grid.
Ekstrom spoke briefly with one of the guards outside the trailer and then returned to Rachel. "Good luck," he said. Then he left.
A guard rapped on the trailer door, and it opened from within. A technician emerged and motioned for Rachel to enter. She followed him in.
The inside of the PSC was dark and stuffy. In the bluish glow of the lone computer monitor, Rachel could make out racks of telephone gear, radios, and satellite telecommunications devices. She already felt claustrophobic. The air inside was bitter, like a basement in winter.
"Sit here, please, Ms. Sexton." The technician produced a rolling stool and positioned Rachel in front of a flat-screen monitor. He arranged a microphone in front of her and placed a bulky pair of AKG headphones on her head. Checking a logbook of encryption passwords, the technician typed a long series of keys on a nearby device. A timer materialized on the screen in front of Rachel.
The technician gave a satisfied nod as the timer began to count down. "One minute until connection." He turned and left, slamming the door behind him. Rachel could hear the bolt lock outside.
As she waited in the dark, watching the sixty-second clock slowly count down, she realized that this was the first moment of privacy she'd had since early that morning. She'd woken up today without the slightest inkling of what lay ahead. Extraterrestrial life. As of today, the most popular modern myth of all time was no longer a myth.
Rachel was just now starting to sense how truly devastating this meteorite would be to her father's campaign. Although NASA funding had no business being on a political par with abortion rights, welfare, and health care, her father had made it an issue. Now it was going to blow up in his face.
Within hours, Americans would feel the thrill of a NASA triumph all over again. There would be teary-eyed dreamers. Slack-jawed scientists. Children's imaginations running free. Issues of dollars and cents would fade away as petty, overshadowed by this monumental moment. The President would emerge like a phoenix, transforming himself into a hero, while in the midst of the celebration, the businesslike senator would suddenly appear small-minded, a penny-pinching Scrooge with no American sense of adventure.
The computer beeped, and Rachel glanced up.
The screen in front of her flickered suddenly, and a blurry image of the White House seal materialized on-screen. After a moment, the image dissolved into the face of President Herney.
"Hello, Rachel," he said, a mischievous glint in his eye. "I trust you've had an interesting afternoon?"
The office of Senator Sedgewick Sexton was located in the Philip A. Hart Senate Office Building on C Street to the northeast of the Capitol. The building was a neo-modern grid of white rectangles that critics claimed looked more like a prison than an office building. Many who worked there felt the same.
On the third floor, Gabrielle Ashe's long legs paced briskly back and forth in front of her computer terminal. On the screen was a new e-mail message. She was not sure what to make of it.
The first two lines read:
SEDGEWICK WAS IMPRESSIVE ON CNN.
I HAVE MORE INFORMATION FOR YOU.
Gabrielle had been receiving messages like this for the last couple of weeks. The return address was bogus, although she'd been able to track it to a "whitehouse.gov" domain. It seemed her mysterious informant was a White House insider, and whoever it was had become Gabrielle's source for all kinds of valuable political information recently, including the news of a covert meeting between the NASA administrator and the President.
Gabrielle had been leery of the e-mails at first, but when she checked out the tips, she was amazed to find the information consistently accurate and helpful-classified information on NASA overexpenditures, costly upcoming missions, data showing that NASA's search for extraterrestrial life was grossly overfunded and pathetically unproductive, even internal opinion polls warning that NASA was the issue turning voters away from the President.
To enhance her perceived value to the senator, Gabrielle had not informed him she was receiving unsolicited e-mail help from inside the White House. Instead, she simply passed the information to him as coming from "one of her sources." Sexton was always appreciative and seemed to know better than to ask who her source was. She could tell he suspected Gabrielle was doing sexual favors. Troublingly, it didn't seem to bother him in the least.
Gabrielle stopped pacing and looked again at the newly arrived message. The connotations of all the e-mails were clear: Someone inside the White House wanted Senator Sexton to win this election and was helping him do it by aiding his attack against NASA.
But who? And why?
A rat from a sinking ship, Gabrielle decided. In Washington it was not at all uncommon for a White House employee, fearing his President was about to be ousted from office, to offer quiet favors to the apparent successor in hopes of securing power or another position after the changeover. It seemed someone smelled Sexton victory and was buying stock early.
The message currently on Gabrielle's screen made her nervous. It was like none other she had ever received. The first two lines didn't bother her so much. It was the last two:
EAST APPOINTMENT GATE, 4:30 P.M.
Her informant had never before asked to meet in person. Even so, Gabrielle would have expected a more subtle location for a face-to-face meeting. East Appointment Gate? Only one East Appointment Gate existed in Washington, as far as she knew. Outside the White House? Is this some kind of joke?
Gabrielle knew she could not respond via e-mail; her messages were always bounced back as undeliverable. Her correspondent's account was anonymous. Not surprising.