The tourists laughed.
Gabrielle followed past the stairway through a series of ropes and barricades into a more private section of the building. Here they entered a room Gabrielle had only seen in books and on television. Her breath grew short.
My God, this is the Map Room!
No tour ever came in here. The room's paneled walls could swing outward to reveal layer upon layer of world maps. This was the place where Roosevelt had charted the course of World War II. Unsettlingly, it was also the room from which Clinton had admitted his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Gabrielle pushed that particular thought from her mind. Most important, the Map Room was a passageway into the West Wing-the area inside the White House where the true powerbrokers worked. This was the last place Gabrielle Ashe had expected to be going. She had imagined her e-mail was coming from some enterprising young intern or secretary working in one of the complex's more mundane offices. Apparently not.
I'm going into the West Wing...
The Secret Serviceman marched her to the very end of a carpeted hallway and stopped at an unmarked door. He knocked. Gabrielle's heart was pounding.
"It's open," someone called from inside.
The man opened the door and motioned for Gabrielle to enter.
Gabrielle stepped in. The shades were down, and the room was dim. She could see the faint outline of a person sitting at a desk in the darkness.
"Ms. Ashe?" The voice came from behind a cloud of cigarette smoke. "Welcome."
As Gabrielle's eyes accustomed to the dark, she began to make out an unsettlingly familiar face, and her muscles went taut with surprise. THIS is who has been sending me e-mail?
"Thank you for coming," Marjorie Tench said, her voice cold.
"Ms.... Tench?" Gabrielle stammered, suddenly unable to breathe.
"Call me Marjorie." The hideous woman stood up, blowing smoke out of her nose like a dragon. "You and I are about to become best friends."
Norah Mangor stood at the extraction shaft beside Tolland, Rachel, and Corky and stared into the pitch-black meteorite hole. "Mike," she said, "you're cute, but you're insane. There's no bioluminescence here."
Tolland now wished he'd thought to take some video; while Corky had gone to find Norah and Ming, the bioluminescence had begun fading rapidly. Within a couple of minutes, all the twinkling had simply stopped.
Tolland threw another piece of ice into the water, but nothing happened. No green splash.
"Where did they go?" Corky asked.
Tolland had a fairly good idea. Bioluminescence-one of nature's most ingenious defense mechanisms-was a natural response for plankton in distress. A plankton sensing it was about to be consumed by larger organisms would begin flashing in hopes of attracting much larger predators that would scare off the original attackers. In this case, the plankton, having entered the shaft through a crack, suddenly found themselves in a primarily freshwater environment and bioluminesced in panic as the freshwater slowly killed them. "I think they died."
"They were murdered," Norah scoffed. "The Easter Bunny swam in and ate them."
Corky glared at her. "I saw the luminescence too, Norah."
"Was it before or after you took LSD?"
"Why would we lie about this?" Corky demanded.
"Yeah, about sleeping with other women, but never about bioluminescent plankton."
Tolland sighed. "Norah, certainly you're aware that plankton do live in the oceans beneath the ice."
"Mike," she replied with a glare, "please don't tell me my business. For the record, there are over two hundred species of diatoms that thrive under Arctic ice shelves. Fourteen species of autotrophic nannoflagellates, twenty heterotrophic flagellates, forty heterotrophic dinoflagellates, and several metazoans, including polychaetes, amphipods, copepods, euphausids, and fish. Any questions?"
Tolland frowned. "Clearly you know more about Arctic fauna than I do, and you agree there's plenty of life underneath us. So why are you so skeptical that we saw bioluminescent plankton?"
"Because, Mike, this shaft is sealed. It's a closed, freshwater environment. No ocean plankton could possibly get in here!"
"I tasted salt in the water," Tolland insisted. "Very faint, but present. Saltwater is getting in here somehow."
"Right," Norah said skeptically. "You tasted salt. You licked the sleeve of an old sweaty parka, and now you've decided that the PODS density scans and fifteen separate core samples are inaccurate."
Tolland held out the wet sleeve of his parka as proof.
"Mike, I'm not licking your damn jacket." She looked into the hole. "Might I ask why droves of alleged plankton decided to swim into this alleged crack?"
"Heat?" Tolland ventured. "A lot of sea creatures are attracted by heat. When we extracted the meteorite, we heated it. The plankton may have been drawn instinctively toward the temporarily warmer environment in the shaft."
Corky nodded. "Sounds logical."
"Logical?" Norah rolled her eyes. "You know, for a prize-winning physicist and a world-famous oceanographer, you're a couple of pretty dense specimens. Has it occurred to you that even if there is a crack-which I can assure you there is not-it is physically impossible for any sea-water to be flowing into this shaft." She stared at both of them with pathetic disdain.
"But, Norah...," Corky began.
"Gentlemen! We're standing above sea level here." She stamped her foot on the ice. "Hello? This ice sheet rises a hundred feet above the sea. You might recall the big cliff at the end of this shelf? We're higher than the ocean. If there were a fissure into this shaft, the water would be flowing out of this shaft, not into it. It's called gravity."
Tolland and Corky looked at each other.
"Shit," Corky said. "I didn't think of that."
Norah pointed into the water-filled shaft. "You may also have noticed that the water level isn't changing?"
Tolland felt like an idiot. Norah was absolutely right. If there had been a crack, the water would be flowing out, not in. Tolland stood in silence a long moment, wondering what to do next.
"Okay." Tolland sighed. "Apparently, the fissure theory makes no sense. But we saw bioluminescence in the water. The only conclusion is that this is not a closed environment after all. I realize much of your icedating data is built on the premise that the glacier is a solid block, but-"
"Premise?" Norah was obviously getting agitated. "Remember, this was not just my data, Mike. NASA made the same findings. We all confirmed this glacier is solid. No cracks."
Tolland glanced across the dome toward the crowd gathered around the press conference area. "Whatever is going on, I think, in good faith, we need to inform the administrator and-"
"This is bullshit!" Norah hissed. "I'm telling you this glacial matrix is pristine. I'm not about to have my core data questioned by a salt lick and some absurd hallucinations." She stormed over to a nearby supply area and began collecting some tools. "I'll take a proper water sample, and show you this water contains no saltwater plankton-living or dead!"
Rachel and the others looked on as Norah used a sterile pipette on a string to harvest a water sample from the melt pool. Norah placed several drops in a tiny device that resembled a miniature telescope. Then she peered through the oculus, pointing the device toward the light emanating from the other side of the dome. Within seconds she was cursing.