In about five minutes the President would introduce Ekstrom and his NASA staff. Then, in a dramatic satellite linkup from the top of the world, NASA would join the President in sharing this news with the world. After a brief account of how the discovery was made, what it meant for space science, and some mutual backpatting, NASA and the President would hand duty off to celebrity scientist Michael Tolland, whose documentary would roll for just under fifteen minutes. Afterward, with credibility and enthusiasm at its peak, Ekstrom and the President would say their good-nights, promising more information to come in the days ahead via endless NASA press conferences.
As Ekstrom sat and waited for his cue, he felt a cavernous shame settling inside him. He'd known he would feel it. He'd been expecting it.
He'd told lies... endorsed untruths.
Somehow, though, the lies seemed inconsequential now. Ekstrom had a bigger weight on his mind.
In the chaos of the ABC production room, Gabrielle Ashe stood shoulder to shoulder with dozens of strangers, all necks craned toward the bank of television monitors suspended from the ceiling. A hush fell as the moment arrived. Gabrielle closed her eyes, praying that when she opened them she would not be looking at images of her own naked body.
The air inside Senator Sexton's den was alive with excitement. All of his visitors were standing now, their eyes glued to the large-screen television.
Zach Herney stood before the world, and incredibly, his greeting had been awkward. He seemed momentarily uncertain.
He looks shaky, Sexton thought. He never looks shaky.
"Look at him," somebody whispered. "It has to be bad news."
The space station? Sexton wondered.
Herney looked directly into the camera and took a deep breath. "My friends, I have puzzled for many days now over how best to make this announcement... "
Three easy words, Senator Sexton willed him. We blew it.
Herney spoke for a moment about how unfortunate it was that NASA had become such an issue in this election and how, that being the case, he felt he needed to preface the timing of his impending statement with an apology.
"I would have preferred any other moment in history to make this announcement," he said. "The political charge in the air tends to make doubters out of dreamers, and yet as your President, I have no choice but to share with you what I have recently learned." He smiled. "It seems the magic of the cosmos is something which does not work on any human schedule... not even that of a president."
Everyone in Sexton's den seemed to recoil in unison. What?
"Two weeks ago," Herney said, "NASA's new Polar Orbiting Density Scanner passed over the Milne Ice Shelf on Ellesmere Island, a remote landmass located above the Eightieth Parallel in the high Arctic Ocean."
Sexton and the others exchanged confused looks.
"This NASA satellite," Herney continued, "detected a large, high-density rock buried two hundred feet under the ice." Herney smiled now for the first time, finding his stride. "On receiving the data, NASA immediately suspected PODS had found a meteorite."
"A meteorite?" Sexton sputtered, standing. "This is news?"
"NASA sent a team up to the ice shelf to take core samples. It was then that NASA made... " He paused.
"Frankly, they made the scientific discovery of the century."
Sexton took an incredulous step toward the television. No.... His guests shifted uneasily.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Herney announced, "several hours ago, NASA pulled from the Arctic ice an eight-ton meteorite, which contains... " The President paused again, giving the whole world time to lean forward. "A meteorite which contains fossils of a life-form. Dozens of them. Unequivocal proof of extraterrestrial life."
On cue, a brilliant image illuminated on the screen behind the President-a perfectly delineated fossil of an enormous buglike creature embedded in a charred rock.
In Sexton's den, six entrepreneurs jumped up in wide-eyed horror. Sexton stood frozen in place.
"My friends," the President said, "the fossil behind me is 190 million years old. It was discovered in a fragment of a meteorite called the Jungersol Fall which hit the Arctic Ocean almost three centuries ago. NASA's exciting new PODS satellite discovered this meteorite fragment buried in an ice shelf. NASA and this administration have taken enormous care over the past two weeks to confirm every aspect of this momentous discovery before making it public. In the next half hour you will be hearing from numerous NASA and civilian scientists, as well as viewing a short documentary prepared by a familiar face whom I'm sure you all will recognize. Before I go any further, though, I absolutely must welcome, live via satellite from above the Arctic Circle, the man whose leadership, vision, and hard work is solely responsible for this historic moment. It is with great honor that I present NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom."
Herney turned to the screen on perfect cue.
The image of the meteorite dramatically dissolved into a regal-looking panel of NASA scientists seated at a long table, flanked by the dominant frame of Lawrence Ekstrom.
"Thank you, Mr. President." Ekstrom's air was stern and proud as he stood up and looked directly into the camera. "It gives me great pride to share with all of you, this-NASA's finest hour."
Ekstrom spoke passionately about NASA and the discovery. With a fanfare of patriotism and triumph, he segued flawlessly to a documentary hosted by civilian science-celebrity Michael Tolland.
As he watched, Senator Sexton fell to his knees in front of the television, his fingers clutching at his silver mane. No! God, no!
Marjorie Tench was livid as she broke away from the jovial chaos outside the Briefing Room and marched back to her private corner in the West Wing. She was in no mood for celebration. The phone call from Rachel Sexton had been most unexpected.
Tench slammed her office door, stalked to her desk, and dialed the White House operator. "William Pickering. NRO."
Tench lit a cigarette and paced the room as she waited for the operator to track down Pickering. Normally, he might have gone home for the night, but with the White House's big windup into tonight's press conference, Tench guessed Pickering had been in his office all evening, glued to his television screen, wondering what could possibly be going on in the world about which the NRO director did not have prior knowledge.
Tench cursed herself for not trusting her instincts when the President said he wanted to send Rachel Sexton to Milne. Tench had been wary, feeling it was an unnecessary risk. But the President had been convincing, persuading Tench that the White House staff had grown cynical over the past weeks and would be suspect of the NASA discovery if the news came from in-house. As Herney had promised, Rachel Sexton's endorsement had squelched suspicions, prevented any skeptical in-house debate, and forced the White House staff to move forward with a unified front. Invaluable, Tench had to admit. And yet now Rachel Sexton had changed her tune.
The bitch called me on an unsecured line.
Rachel Sexton was obviously intent on destroying the credibility of this discovery, and Tench's only solace was knowing the President had captured Rachel's earlier briefing on videotape. Thank God. At least Herney had thought to obtain that small insurance. Tench was starting to fear they were going to need it.
At the moment, however, Tench was trying to stem the bleeding in other ways. Rachel Sexton was a smart woman, and if she truly intended to go head-to-head with the White House and NASA, she would need to recruit some powerful allies. Her first logical choice would be William Pickering. Tench already knew how Pickering felt about NASA. She needed to get to Pickering before Rachel did.