Should I consult Sexton? She quickly decided against it. He was in a meeting. Besides, if she told him about this e-mail, she'd have to tell him about the others. She decided her informant's offer to meet in public in broad daylight must be to make Gabrielle feel safe. After all, this person had done nothing but help her for the last two weeks. He or she was obviously a friend.
Reading the e-mail one last time, Gabrielle checked the clock. She had an hour.
The NASA administrator was feeling less edgy now that the meteorite was successfully out of the ice. Everything is falling into place, he told himself as he headed across the dome to the work area of Michael Tolland. Nothing can stop us now.
"How's it coming?" Ekstrom asked, striding up behind the television scientist.
Tolland glanced up from his computer, looking tired but enthusiastic. "Editing is almost done. I'm just overlaying some of the extraction footage your people shot. Should be done momentarily."
"Good." The President had asked Ekstrom to upload Tolland's documentary to the White House as soon as possible.
Although Ekstrom had been cynical about the President's desire to use Michael Tolland on this project, seeing the rough cuts of Tolland's documentary had changed Ekstrom's mind. The television star's spirited narrative, combined with his interviews of the civilian scientists, had been brilliantly fused into a thrilling and comprehensible fifteen minutes of scientific programming. Tolland had achieved effortlessly what NASA so often failed to do-describe a scientific discovery at the level of the average American intellect without being patronizing.
"When you're done editing," Ekstrom said, "bring the finished product over to the press area. I'll have someone upload a digital copy to the White House."
"Yes, sir." Tolland went back to work.
Ekstrom moved on. When he arrived at the north wall, he was encouraged to find the habisphere's "press area" had come together nicely. A large blue carpet had been rolled out on the ice. Centered on the rug sat a long symposium table with several microphones, a NASA drape, and an enormous American flag as a backdrop. To complete the visual drama, the meteorite had been transported on a palette sled to its position of honor, directly in front of the symposium table.
Ekstrom was pleased to see the mood in the press area was one of celebration. Much of his staff was now crowded around the meteorite, holding their hands out over its still-warm mass like campers around a campfire.
Ekstrom decided that this was the moment. He walked over to several cardboard boxes sitting on the ice behind the press area. He'd had the boxes flown in from Greenland this morning.
"Drinks are on me!" he yelled, handing out cans of beer to his cavorting staff.
"Hey, boss!" someone yelled. "Thanks! It's even cold!"
Ekstrom gave a rare smile. "I've been keeping it on ice."
"Wait a minute!" someone else yelled, scowling good-naturedly at his can. "This stuff's Canadian! Where's your patriotism?"
"We're on a budget, here, folks. Cheapest stuff I could find."
"Attention shoppers," one of the NASA television crew yelled into a megaphone. "We're about to switch to media lighting. You may experience temporary blindness."
"And no kissing in the dark," someone yelled. "This is a family program!"
Ekstrom chuckled, enjoying the raillery as his crew made final adjustments to the spotlights and accent lighting.
"Switching to media lighting in five, four, three, two... "
The dome's interior dimmed rapidly as the halogen lamps shut down. Within seconds, all the lights were off. An impenetrable darkness engulfed the dome.
Someone let out a mock scream.
"Who pinched my ass?" someone yelled, laughing.
The blackness lasted only a moment before it was pierced by the intense glare of media spotlights. Everyone squinted. The transformation was now complete; the north quadrant of the NASA habisphere had become a television studio. The remainder of the dome now looked like a gaping barn at night. The only light in the other sections was the muted reflection of the media lights reflecting off the arched ceiling and throwing long shadows across the now deserted work stations.
Ekstrom stepped back into the shadows, gratified to see his team carousing around the illuminated meteorite. He felt like a father at Christmas, watching his kids enjoy themselves around the tree.
God knows they deserve it, Ekstrom thought, never suspecting what calamity lay ahead.
The weather was changing.
Like a mournful harbinger of impending conflict, the katabatic wind let out a plaintive howl and gusted hard against the Delta Force's shelter. Delta-One finished battening down the storm coverings and went back inside to his two partners. They'd been through this before. It would soon pass.
Delta-Two was staring at the live video feed from the microbot. "You better look at this," he said.
Delta-One came over. The inside of the habisphere was in total darkness except for the bright lighting on the north side of the dome near the stage. The remainder of the habisphere appeared only as a dim outline. "It's nothing," he said. "They're just testing their television lighting for tonight."
"The lighting's not the problem." Delta-Two pointed to the dark blob in the middle of the ice-the water-filled hole from which the meteorite had been extracted. "That's the problem."
Delta-One looked at the hole. It was still surrounded by pylons, and the surface of the water appeared calm. "I don't see anything."
"Look again." He maneuvered the joystick, spiraling the microbot down toward the surface of the hole.
As Delta-One studied the darkened pool of melted water more closely, he saw something that caused him to recoil in shock. "What the...?"
Delta-Three came over and looked. He too looked stunned. "My God. Is that the extraction pit? Is the water supposed to be doing that?"
"No," Delta-One said. "It sure as hell isn't."
Although Rachel Sexton was currently sitting inside a large metal box situated three thousand miles from Washington, D.C., she felt the same pressure as if she'd been summoned to the White House. The videophone monitor before her displayed a crystal clear image of President Zach Herney seated in the White House communications room before the presidential seal. The digital audio connection was flawless, and with the exception of an almost imperceptible delay, the man could have been in the next room.
Their conversation was upbeat and direct. The President seemed pleased, though not at all surprised, by Rachel's favorable assessment of NASA's find and of his choice to use Michael Tolland's captivating persona as a spokesman. The President's mood was good-natured and jocular.
"As I'm sure you will agree," Herney said, his voice growing more serious now, "in a perfect world, the ramifications of this discovery would be purely scientific in nature." He paused, leaning forward, his face filling the screen. "Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world, and this NASA triumph is going to be a political football the moment I announce it."
"Considering the conclusive proof and who you've recruited for endorsements, I can't imagine how the public or any of your opposition will be able to do anything other than accept this discovery as confirmed fact."
Herney gave an almost sad chuckle. "My political opponents will believe what they see, Rachel. My concerns are that they won't like what they see."