Page 36 of Deception Point

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"Jesus Christ!" Norah shook the device and looked again. "Damn it! Something's got to be wrong with this refractometer!"

"Saltwater?" Corky gloated.

Norah frowned. "Partial. It's registering three percent brine-which is totally impossible. This glacier is a snow pack. Pure freshwater. There should be no salt." Norah carried the sample to a nearby microscope and examined it. She groaned.

"Plankton?" Tolland asked.

"G. polyhedra," she replied, her voice now sedate. "It's one of the planktons we glaciologists commonly see in the oceans under ice shelves." She glanced over at Tolland. "They're dead now. Obviously they didn't survive long in a three percent saltwater environment."

The four of them stood in silence a moment beside the deep shaft.

Rachel wondered what the ramifications of this paradox were for the overall discovery. The dilemma appeared minor when compared to the overall scope of the meteorite, and yet, as an intel analyst, Rachel had witnessed the collapse of entire theories based on smaller snags than this.

"What's going on over here?" The voice was a low rumble.

Everyone looked up. The bearish frame of the NASA administrator emerged from the dark.

"Minor quandary with the water in the shaft," Tolland said. "We're trying to sort it out."

Corky sounded almost gleeful. "Norah's ice data is screwed."

"Bite me twice," Norah whispered.

The administrator approached, his furry eyebrows lowering. "What's wrong with the ice data."

Tolland heaved an uncertain sigh. "We're showing a three percent saltwater mix in the meteorite shaft, which contradicts the glaciology report that the meteorite was encased in a pristine freshwater glacier." He paused. "There's also plankton present."

Ekstrom looked almost angry. "Obviously that's impossible. There are no fissures in this glacier. The PODS scans confirmed that. This meteorite was sealed in a solid matrix of ice."

Rachel knew Ekstrom was correct. According to NASA's density scans, the ice sheet was rock solid. Hundreds of feet of frozen glacier on all sides of the meteorite. No cracks. And yet as Rachel imagined how density scans were taken, a strange thought occurred to her...

"In addition," Ekstrom was saying, "Dr. Mangor's core samples confirmed the solidity of the glacier."

"Exactly!" Norah said, tossing the refractometer on a desk. "Double corroboration. No fault lines in the ice. Which leaves us no explanation whatsoever for the salt and plankton."

"Actually," Rachel said, the boldness of her voice surprising even herself. "There is another possibility." The brainstorm had hit her from the most unlikely of memories.

Everyone was looking at her now, their skepticism obvious.

Rachel smiled. "There's a perfectly sound rationale for the presence of salt and plankton." She gave Tolland a wry look. "And frankly, Mike, I'm surprised it didn't occur to you."


"Plankton frozen in the glacier?" Corky Marlinson sounded not at all sold on Rachel's explanation. "Not to rain on your parade, but usually when things freeze they die. These little buggers were flashing us, remember?"

"Actually," Tolland said, giving Rachel an impressed look, "she may have a point. There are a number of species that enter suspended animation when their environment requires it. I did an episode on that phenomenon once."

Rachel nodded. "You showed northern pike that got frozen in lakes and had to wait until the thaw to swim away. You also talked about micro-organisms called 'waterbears' that became totally dehydrated in the desert, remained that way for decades, and then reinflated when rains returned."

Tolland chuckled. "So you really do watch my show?"

Rachel gave a slightly embarrassed shrug.

"What's your point, Ms. Sexton?" Norah demanded.

"Her point," Tolland said, "which should have dawned on me earlier, is that one of the species I mentioned on that program was a kind of plankton that gets frozen in the polar ice cap every winter, hibernates inside the ice, and then swims away every summer when the ice cap thins." Tolland paused. "Granted the species I featured on the show was not the bioluminescent species we saw here, but maybe the same thing happened."

"Frozen plankton," Rachel continued, excited to have Michael Tolland so enthusiastic about her idea, "could explain everything we're seeing here. At some point in the past, fissures could have opened in this glacier, filled with plankton-rich saltwater, and then refroze. What if there were frozen pockets of saltwater in this glacier? Frozen saltwater containing frozen plankton? Imagine if while you were raising the heated meteorite through the ice, it passed through a frozen saltwater pocket. The saltwater ice would have melted, releasing the plankton from hibernation, and giving us a small percentage of salt mixed in the freshwater."

"Oh, for the love of God!" Norah exclaimed with a hostile groan. "Suddenly everyone's a glaciologist!"

Corky also looked skeptical. "But wouldn't PODS have spotted any brine ice pockets when it did its density scans? After all, brine ice and freshwater ice have different densities."

"Barely different," Rachel said.

"Four percent is a substantial difference," Norah challenged.

"Yes, in a lab," Rachel replied. "But PODS takes its measurements from 120 miles up in space. Its computers were designed to differentiate between the obvious-ice and slush, granite and limestone." She turned to the administrator. "Am I right to assume that when PODS measures densities from space, it probably lacks the resolution to distinguish brine ice from fresh ice?"

The administrator nodded. "Correct. A four percent differential is below PODS's tolerance threshold. The satellite would see brine ice and fresh ice as identical."

Tolland now looked intrigued. "This would also explain the static water level in the shaft." He looked at Norah. "You said the plankton species you saw in the extraction shaft was called-"

"G. polyhedra, Norah declared. "And now you're wondering if G. polyhedra is capable of hibernating inside the ice? You'll be pleased to know the answer is yes. Absolutely. G. polyhedra is found in droves around ice shelves, it bioluminesces, and it can hibernate inside the ice. Any other questions?"

Everyone exchanged looks. From Norah's tone, there was obviously some sort of "but"-and yet it seemed she had just confirmed Rachel's theory.

"So," Tolland ventured, "you're saying it's possible, right? This theory makes sense?"

"Sure," Norah said, "if you're totally retarded."

Rachel glared. "I beg your pardon?"

Norah Mangor locked stares with Rachel. "I imagine in your business, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing? Well, trust me when I tell you that the same holds true for glaciology." Norah's eyes shifted now, looking at each of the four people around her. "Let me clarify this for everyone once and for all. The frozen brine pockets that Ms. Sexton has proposed do occur. They are what glaciologists call interstices. Interstices, however, form not as pockets of saltwater but rather as highly branched networks of brine ice whose tendrils are as wide as a human hair. That meteorite would have had to pass through one hell of a dense series of interstices to release enough saltwater to create a three percent mixture in a pool that deep."

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