The President shook his head. "I'm afraid I didn't make myself clear. You'll be doing the briefing from where you are via video conference."
"Oh." Rachel hesitated. "What time did you have in mind?"
"Actually," Herney said, grinning. "How about right now? Everyone is already assembled, and they're staring at a big blank television set. They're waiting for you."
Rachel's body tensed. "Sir, I'm totally unprepared. I can't possibly-"
"Just tell them the truth. How hard is that?"
"Rachel," the President said, leaning toward the screen. "Remember, you compile and relay data for a living. It's what you do. Just talk about what's going on up there." He reached up to flick a switch on his video transmission gear, but paused. "And I think you'll be pleased to find I've set you up in a position of power."
Rachel didn't understand what he meant, but it was too late to ask. The President threw the switch.
The screen in front of Rachel went blank for a moment. When it refreshed, Rachel was staring at one of the most unnerving images she had ever seen. Directly in front of her was the White House Oval Office. It was packed. Standing room only. The entire White House staff appeared to be there. And every one of them was staring at her. Rachel now realized her view was from atop the President's desk.
Speaking from a position of power. Rachel was sweating already.
From the looks on the faces of the White House staffers, they were as surprised to see Rachel as she was to see them.
"Ms. Sexton?" a raspy voice called out.
Rachel searched the sea of faces and found who had spoken. It was a lanky woman just now taking a seat in the front row. Marjorie Tench. The woman's distinctive appearance was unmistakable, even in a crowd.
"Thank you for joining us, Ms. Sexton," Marjorie Tench said, sounding smug. "The President tells us you have some news?"
Enjoying the darkness, paleontologist Wailee Ming sat alone in quiet reflection at his private work area. His senses were alive with anticipation for tonight's event. Soon I will be the most famous paleontologist in the world. He hoped Michael Tolland had been generous and featured Ming's comments in the documentary.
As Ming savored his impending fame, a faint vibration shuddered through the ice beneath his feet, causing him to jump up. His earthquake instinct from living in Los Angeles made him hypersensitive to even the faintest palpitations of the ground. At the moment, though, Ming felt foolish to realize the vibration was perfectly normal. It's just ice calving, he reminded himself, exhaling. He still hadn't gotten used to it. Every few hours, a distant explosion rumbled through the night as somewhere along the glacial frontier a huge block of ice cracked off and fell into the sea. Norah Mangor had a nice way of putting it. New icebergs being born...
On his feet now, Ming stretched his arms. He looked across the habisphere, and off in the distance beneath the blaze of television spotlights, he could see a celebration was getting underway. Ming was not much for parties and headed in the opposite direction across the habisphere.
The labyrinth of deserted work areas now felt like a ghost town, the entire dome taking on an almost sepulchral feel. A chill seemed to have settled inside, and Ming buttoned up his long, camel-hair coat.
Up ahead he saw the extraction shaft-the point from which the most magnificent fossils in all of human history had been taken. The giant metal tripod had now been stowed and the pool sat alone, surrounded by pylons like some kind of shunned pothole on a vast parking lot of ice. Ming wandered over to the pit, standing a safe distance back, peering into the two-hundred-foot-deep pool of frigid water. Soon it would refreeze, erasing all traces that anyone had ever been here.
The pool of water was a beautiful sight, Ming thought. Even in the dark.
Especially in the dark.
Ming hesitated at the thought. Then it registered.
There's something wrong.
As Ming focused more closely on the water, he felt his previous contentedness give way to a sudden whirlwind of confusion. He blinked his eyes, stared again, and then quickly turned his gaze across the dome... fifty yards away toward the mass of people celebrating in the press area. He knew they could not see him way over here in the dark.
I should tell someone about this, shouldn't I?
Ming looked again at the water, wondering what he would tell them. Was he seeing an optical illusion? Some kind of strange reflection?
Uncertain, Ming stepped beyond the pylons and squatted down at the edge of the pit. The water level was four feet below the ice level, and he leaned down to get a better look. Yes, something was definitely strange. It was impossible to miss, and yet it had not become visible until the lights in the dome had gone out.
Ming stood up. Somebody definitely needed to hear about this. He started off at a hurried pace toward the press area. Completing only a few steps, Ming slammed on the brakes. Good God! He spun back toward the hole, his eyes going wide with realization. It had just dawned on him.
"Impossible!" he blurted aloud.
And yet Ming knew that was the only explanation. Think, carefully, he cautioned. There must be a more reasonable rationale. But the harder Ming thought, the more convinced he was of what he was seeing. There is no other explanation! He could not believe that NASA and Corky Marlinson had somehow missed something this incredible, but Ming wasn't complaining.
This is Wailee Ming's discovery now!
Trembling with excitement, Ming ran to a nearby work area and found a beaker. All he needed was a little water sample. Nobody was going to believe this!
"As intelligence liaison to the White House," Rachel Sexton was saying, trying to keep her voice from shaking as she addressed the crowd on the screen before her, "my duties include traveling to political hot spots around the globe, analyzing volatile situations, and reporting to the President and White House staff."
A bead of sweat formed just below her hairline and Rachel dabbed it away, silently cursing the President for dropping this briefing into her lap with zero warning.
"Never before have my travels taken me to quite this exotic a spot." Rachel motioned stiffly to the cramped trailer around her. "Believe it or not, I am addressing you right now from above the Arctic Circle on a sheet of ice that is over three hundred feet thick."
Rachel sensed a bewildered anticipation in the faces on the screen before her. They obviously knew they had been packed into the Oval Office for a reason, but certainly none of them imagined it would have anything to do with a development above the Arctic Circle.
The sweat was beading again. Get it together, Rachel. This is what you do. "I sit before you tonight with great honor, pride, and... above all, excitement."
Screw it, she thought, angrily wiping the sweat away. I didn't sign up for this. Rachel knew what her mother would say if she were here now: When in doubt, just spit it out! The old Yankee proverb embodied one of her mom's basic beliefs-that all challenges can be overcome by speaking the truth, no matter how it comes out.
Taking a deep breath, Rachel sat up tall and looked straight into the camera. "Sorry, folks, if you're wondering how I could be sweating my butt off above the Arctic Circle... I'm a little nervous."
The faces before her seemed to jolt back a moment. Some uneasy laughter.
"In addition," Rachel said, "your boss gave me about ten seconds' warning before telling me I would be facing his entire staff. This baptism by fire is not exactly what I had in mind for my first visit to the Oval Office."