Norah took a final look up the incline, grateful for the illuminated pathway home. As she looked out, though, something odd occurred. For an instant, one of the nearest flares entirely disappeared from view. Before Norah could worry that it was dying out, the flare reappeared. If Norah didn't know better, she would assume something had passed between the flare and her location. Certainly nobody else was out here... unless of course the administrator had started to feel guilty and sent a NASA team out after them. Somehow Norah doubted it. Probably nothing, she decided. A gust of wind had momentarily killed the flame.
Norah returned to the GPR. "All lined up?"
Tolland shrugged. "I think so."
Norah went over to the control device on the sled and pressed a button. A sharp buzz emanated from the GPR and then stopped. "Okay," she said. "Done."
"That's it?" Corky said.
"All the work is in setup. The actual shot takes only a second."
Onboard the sled, the heat-transfer printer had already begun to hum and click. The printer was enclosed in a clear plastic covering and was slowly ejecting a heavy, curled paper. Norah waited until the device had completed printing, and then she reached up under the plastic and removed the printout. They'll see, she thought, carrying the printout over to the flare so that everyone could see it. There won't be any saltwater.
Everyone gathered around as Norah stood over the flare, clutching the printout tightly in her gloves. She took a deep breath and uncurled the paper to examine the data. The image on the paper made her recoil in horror.
"Oh, God!" Norah stared, unable to believe what she was looking at. As expected, the printout revealed a clear cross section of the water-filled meteorite shaft. But what Norah had never expected to see was the hazy grayish outline of a humanoid form floating halfway down the shaft. Her blood turned to ice. "Oh God... there's a body in the extraction pit."
Everyone stared in stunned silence.
The ghostlike body was floating head down in the narrow shaft. Billowing around the corpse like some sort of cape was an eerie shroudlike aura. Norah now realized what the aura was. The GPR had captured a faint trace of the victim's heavy coat, what could only be a familiar, long, dense camel hair.
"It's... Ming," she said in a whisper. "He must have slipped...."
Norah Mangor never imagined that seeing Ming's body in the extraction pit would be the lesser of the two shocks the printout would reveal, but as her eyes traced downward in the shaft, she saw something else.
The ice beneath the extraction shaft...
Norah stared. Her first thought was that something had gone wrong with the scan. Then, as she studied the image more closely, an unsettling realization began to grow, like the storm gathering around them. The paper's edges flapped wildly in the wind as she turned and looked more intently at the printout.
But... that's impossible!
Suddenly, the truth came crashing down. The realization felt like it was going to bury her. She forgot all about Ming.
Norah now understood. The saltwater in the shaft! She fell to her knees in the snow beside the flare. She could barely breathe. Still clutching the paper in her hands, she began trembling.
My God... it didn't even occur to me.
Then, with a sudden eruption of rage, she spun her head in the direction of the NASA habisphere. "You bastards!" she screamed, her voice trailing off in the wind. "You goddamned bastards!"
In the darkness, only fifty yards away, Delta-One held his CrypTalk device to his mouth and spoke only two words to his controller. "They know."
Norah Mangor was still kneeling on the ice when the bewildered Michael Tolland pulled the Ground Penetrating Radar's printout from her trembling hands. Shaken from seeing the floating body of Ming, Tolland tried to gather his thoughts and decipher the image before him.
He saw the cross section of the meteorite shaft descending from the surface down to two hundred feet into the ice. He saw Ming's body floating in the shaft. Tolland's eyes drifted lower now, and he sensed something was amiss. Directly beneath the extraction shaft, a dark column of sea ice extended downward to the open ocean below. The vertical pillar of saltwater ice was massive-the same diameter as the shaft.
"My God!" Rachel yelled, looking over Tolland's shoulder. "It looks like the meteorite shaft continues all the way through the ice shelf into the ocean!"
Tolland stood transfixed, his brain unable to accept what he knew to be the only logical explanation. Corky looked equally alarmed.
Norah shouted, "Someone drilled up under the shelf!" Her eyes were wild with rage. "Someone intentionally inserted that rock from underneath the ice!"
Although the idealist in Tolland wanted to reject Norah's words, the scientist in him knew she could easily be right. The Milne Ice Shelf was floating over the ocean with plenty of clearance for a submersible. Because everything weighed significantly less underwater, even a small submersible not much bigger than Tolland's one-man research Triton easily could have transported the meteorite in its payload arms. The sub could have approached from the ocean, submerged beneath the ice shelf, and drilled upward into the ice. Then, it could have used an extending payload arm or inflatable balloons to push the meteorite up into the shaft. Once the meteorite was in place, the ocean water that had risen into the shaft behind the meteorite would begin to freeze. As soon as the shaft closed enough to hold the meteorite in place, the sub could retract its arm and disappear, leaving Mother Nature to seal the remainder of the tunnel and erase all traces of the deception.
"But why?" Rachel demanded, taking the printout from Tolland and studying it. "Why would someone do that? Are you sure your GPR is working?"
"Of course, I'm sure! And the printout perfectly explains the presence of phosphorescent bacteria in the water!"
Tolland had to admit, Norah's logic was chillingly sound. Phosphorescent dinoflagellates would have followed instinct and swum upward into the meteorite shaft, becoming trapped just beneath the meteorite and freezing into the ice. Later, when Norah heated the meteorite, the ice directly beneath would have melted, releasing the plankton. Again, they would swim upward, this time reaching the surface inside the habisphere, where they would eventually die for lack of saltwater.
"This is crazy!" Corky yelled. "NASA has a meteorite with extraterrestrial fossils in it. Why would they care where it's found? Why would they go to the trouble to bury it under an ice shelf?"
"Who the hell knows," Norah fired back, "but GPR printouts don't lie. We were tricked. That meteorite isn't part of the Jungersol Fall. It was inserted in the ice recently. Within the last year, or the plankton would be dead!" She was already packing up her GPR gear on the sled and fastening it down. "We've to get back and tell someone! The President is about to go public with all the wrong data! NASA tricked him!"
"Wait a minute!" Rachel yelled. "We should at least run another scan to make sure. None of this makes sense. Who will believe it?"
"Everyone," Norah said, preparing her sled. "When I march into the habisphere and drill another core sample out of the bottom of the meteorite shaft and it comes up as saltwater ice, I guarantee you everyone will believe this!"
Norah disengaged the brakes on the equipment sled, redirected it toward the habisphere, and started back up the slope, digging her crampons into the ice and pulling the sled behind her with surprising ease. She was a woman on a mission.