Ekstrom scowled. "So is it possible or not?"
"Not on your life," Norah said flatly. "Totally impossible. I would have hit pockets of brine ice in my core samples."
"Core samples are drilled essentially in random spots, right?" Rachel asked. "Is there any chance the cores' placements, simply by bad luck, could have missed a pocket of sea ice?"
"I drilled directly down over the meteorite. Then I drilled multiple cores only a few yards on either side. You can't get any closer."
"The point is moot," Norah said. "Brine interstices occur only in seasonal ice-ice that forms and melts every season. The Milne Ice Shelf is fast ice-ice that forms in the mountains and holds fast until it migrates to the calving zone and falls into the sea. As convenient as frozen plankton would be for explaining this mysterious little phenomenon, I can guarantee there are no hidden networks of frozen plankton in this glacier."
The group fell silent again.
Despite the stark rebuttal of the frozen plankton theory, Rachel's systematic analysis of the data refused to accept the rejection. Instinctively, Rachel knew that the presence of frozen plankton in the glacier beneath them was the simplest solution to the riddle. The Law of Parsimony, she thought. Her NRO instructors had driven it into her subconscious. When multiple explanations exist, the simplest is usually correct.
Norah Mangor obviously had a lot to lose if her ice-core data was wrong, and Rachel wondered if maybe Norah had seen the plankton, realized she'd made a mistake in claiming the glacier was solid, and was now simply trying to cover her tracks.
"All I know," Rachel said, "is that I just briefed the entire White House staff and told them this meteorite was discovered in a pristine matrix of ice and had been sealed there, untouched by outside influence since 1716, when it broke off of a famous meteorite called the Jungersol. This fact now appears to be in some question."
The NASA administrator was silent, his expression grave.
Tolland cleared his throat. "I have to agree with Rachel. There was saltwater and plankton in the pool. No matter what the explanation is, that shaft is obviously not a closed environment. We can't say it is."
Corky was looking uncomfortable. "Um, folks, not to sound like the astrophysicist here, but in my field when we make mistakes, we're usually off by billions of years. Is this little plankton/saltwater mix-up really all that important? I mean, the perfection of the ice surrounding the meteorite in no way affects the meteorite itself, right? We still have the fossils. Nobody is questioning their authenticity. If it turns out we've made a mistake with the ice-core data, nobody will really care. All they'll care about is that we found proof of life on another planet."
"I'm sorry, Dr. Marlinson," Rachel said, "as someone who analyzes data for a living, I have to disagree. Any tiny flaw in the data NASA presents tonight has the potential to cast doubt over the credibility of the entire discovery. Including the authenticity of the fossils."
Corky's jaw fell open. "What are you talking about? Those fossils are irrefutable!"
"I know that. You know that. But if the public catches wind that NASA knowingly presented ice-core data that was in question, trust me, they will immediately start wondering what else NASA lied about."
Norah stepped forward, eyes flashing. "My ice-core data is not in question." She turned to the administrator. "I can prove to you, categorically, that there is no brine ice trapped anywhere in this ice shelf!"
The administrator eyed her a long moment. "How?"
Norah outlined her plan. When she was done, Rachel had to admit, the idea sounded like a reasonable one.
The administrator did not look so sure. "And the results will be definitive?"
"One hundred percent confirmation," Norah assured him. "If there's one goddamn ounce of frozen saltwater anywhere near that meteorite shaft, you will see it. Even a few droplets will light up on my gear like Times Square."
The administrator's brow furrowed beneath his military buzz cut. "There's not much time. The press conference is in a couple of hours."
"I can be back in twenty minutes."
"How far out on the glacier did you say you have to go?"
"Not far. Two hundred yards should do it."
Ekstrom nodded. "Are you certain it's safe?"
"I'll take flares," Norah replied. "And Mike will go with me."
Tolland's head shot up. "I will?"
"You sure as hell will, Mike! We'll be tethered. I'd appreciate a strong set of arms out there if the wind whips up."
"She's right," the administrator said, turning to Tolland. "If she goes, she can't go alone. I'd send some of my men with her, but frankly, I'd rather keep this plankton issue to ourselves until we figure out if it's a problem or not."
Tolland gave a reluctant nod.
"I'd like to go too," Rachel said.
Norah spun like a cobra. "The hell you will."
"Actually," the administrator said, as if an idea had just occurred to him, "I think I'd feel safer if we used the standard quad tether configuration. If you go dual, and Mike slips, you'll never hold him. Four people are a lot safer than two." He paused glancing at Corky. "That would mean either you or Dr. Ming." Ekstrom glanced around the habisphere. "Where is Dr. Ming, anyway?"
"I haven't seen him in a while," Tolland said. "He might be catching a nap."
Ekstrom turned to Corky. "Dr. Marlinson, I cannot require that you go out with them, and yet-"
"What the hell?" Corky said. "Seeing as everyone is getting along so well."
"No!" Norah exclaimed. "Four people will slow us down. Mike and I are going alone."
"You are not going alone." The administrator's tone was final. "There's a reason tethers are built as quads, and we're going to do this as safely as possible. The last thing I need is an accident a couple hours before the biggest press conference in NASA's history."
Gabrielle Ashe felt a precarious uncertainty as she sat in the heavy air of Marjorie Tench's office. What could this woman possibly want with me? Behind the room's sole desk, Tench leaned back in her chair, her hard features seeming to radiate pleasure with Gabrielle's discomfort.
"Does the smoke bother you?" Tench asked, tapping a fresh cigarette from her pack.
"No," Gabrielle lied.
Tench was already lighting up anyway. "You and your candidate have taken quite an interest in NASA during this campaign."
"True," Gabrielle snapped, making no effort to hide her anger, "thanks to some creative encouragement. I'd like an explanation."
Tench gave an innocent pout. "You want to know why I've been sending you e-mail fodder for your attack on NASA?"
"The information you sent me hurt your President."
"In the short run, yes."
The ominous tone in Tench's voice made Gabrielle uneasy. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Relax, Gabrielle. My e-mails didn't change things much. Senator Sexton was NASA-bashing long before I stepped in. I simply helped him clarify his message. Solidify his position."
"Solidify his position?"
"Exactly." Tench smiled, revealing stained teeth. "Which, I must say, he did quite effectively this afternoon on CNN."
Gabrielle recalled the senator's reaction to Tench's fence-buster question. Yes, I would act to abolish NASA. Sexton had gotten himself cornered, but he'd played out of the rough with a strong drive. It was the right move. Wasn't it? From Tench's contented look, Gabrielle sensed there was information missing.