"I'll come to your office."
"No," she said hurriedly. "It's late. Your presence here would raise concerns. I'd prefer to keep this matter between us."
Pickering read between the lines. The President knows nothing about this. "You're welcome to come here," he said.
Tench sounded distrusting. "Let's meet somewhere discreet."
Pickering had expected as much.
"The FDR Memorial is convenient to the White House," Tench said. "It will be empty at this time of night."
Pickering considered it. The FDR Memorial sat midway between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, in an extremely safe part of town. After a long beat, Pickering agreed.
"One hour," Tench said, signing off. "And come alone."
Immediately upon hanging up, Marjorie Tench phoned NASA administrator Ekstrom. Her voice was tight as she relayed the bad news.
"Pickering could be a problem."
Gabrielle Ashe was brimming with new hope as she stood at Yolanda Cole's desk in the ABC production room and dialed directory assistance.
The allegations Sexton had just conveyed to her, if confirmed, had shocking potential. NASA lied about PODS? Gabrielle had seen the press conference in question and recalled thinking it was odd, and yet she'd forgotten all about it; PODS was not a critical issue a few weeks ago. Tonight, however, PODS had become the issue.
Now Sexton needed inside information, and he needed it fast. He was relying on Gabrielle's "informant" to get the information. Gabrielle had assured the senator she would do her best. The problem, of course, was that her informant was Marjorie Tench, who would be no help at all. So Gabrielle would have to get the information another way.
"Directory assistance," the voice on the phone said.
Gabrielle told them what she needed. The operator came back with three listings for a Chris Harper in Washington. Gabrielle tried them all.
The first number was a law firm. The second had no answer. The third was now ringing.
A woman answered on the first ring. "Harper residence."
"Mrs. Harper?" Gabrielle said as politely as possible. "I hope I haven't woken you?"
"Heavens no! I don't think anyone's asleep tonight." She sounded excited. Gabrielle could hear the television in the background. Meteorite coverage. "You're calling for Chris, I assume?"
Gabrielle's pulse quickened. "Yes, ma'am."
"I'm afraid Chris isn't here. He raced off to work as soon as the President's address was over." The woman chuckled to herself. "Of course, I doubt there's any work going on. Most likely a party. The announcement came as quite a surprise to him, you know. To everyone. Our phone's been ringing all night. I bet the whole NASA crew's over there by now."
"E Street complex?" Gabrielle asked, assuming the woman meant NASA headquarters.
"Righto. Take a party hat."
"Thanks. I'll track him down over there."
Gabrielle hung up. She hurried out onto the production room floor and found Yolanda, who was just finishing prepping a group of space experts who were about to give enthusiastic commentary on the meteorite.
Yolanda smiled when she saw Gabrielle coming. "You look better," she said. "Starting to see the silver lining here?"
"I just talked to the senator. His meeting tonight wasn't what I thought."
"I told you Tench was playing you. How's the senator taking the meteorite news?"
"Better than expected."
Yolanda looked surprised. "I figured he'd jumped in front of a bus by now."
"He thinks there may be a snag in the NASA data."
Yolanda let out a dubious snort. "Did he see the same press conference I just saw? How much more confirmation and reconfirmation can anyone need?"
"I'm going over to NASA to check on something."
Yolanda's penciled eyebrows raised in cautionary arches. "Senator Sexton's right-hand aide is going to march into NASA headquarters? Tonight? Can you say 'public stoning'?"
Gabrielle told Yolanda about Sexton's suspicion that the PODS section manager Chris Harper had lied about fixing the anomaly software.
Yolanda clearly wasn't buying it. "We covered that press conference, Gabs, and I'll admit, Harper was not himself that night, but NASA said he was sick as a dog."
"Senator Sexton is convinced he lied. Others are convinced too. Powerful people."
"If the PODS anomaly-detection software wasn't fixed, how did PODS spot the meteorite?"
Sexton's point exactly, Gabrielle thought. "I don't know. But the senator wants me to get him some answers."
Yolanda shook her head. "Sexton is sending you into a hornet's nest on a desperate pipe dream. Don't go. You don't owe him a thing."
"I totally screwed up his campaign."
"Rotten luck screwed up his campaign."
"But if the senator is right and the PODS section manager actually lied-"
"Honey, if the PODS section manager lied to the world, what makes you think he'll tell you the truth."
Gabrielle had considered that and was already formulating her plan. "If I find a story over there, I'll call you."
Yolanda gave a skeptical laugh. "If you find a story over there, I'll eat my hat."
Erase everything you know about this rock sample.
Michael Tolland had been struggling with his own disquieting ruminations about the meteorite, but now, with Rachel's probing questions, he was feeling an added unease over the issue. He looked down at the rock slice in his hand.
Pretend someone handed it to you with no explanation of where it was found or what it is. What would your analysis be?
Rachel's question, Tolland knew, was loaded, and yet as an analytical exercise, it proved powerful. By discarding all the data he had been given on his arrival at the habisphere, Tolland had to admit that his analysis of the fossils was profoundly biased by a singular premise-that the rock in which the fossils were found was a meteorite.
What if I had NOT been told about the meteorite? he asked himself. Although still unable to fathom any other explanation, Tolland allowed himself the leeway of hypothetically removing "the meteorite" as a pre-supposition, and when he did, the results were somewhat unsettling. Now Tolland and Rachel, joined by a groggy Corky Marlinson, were discussing the ideas.
"So," Rachel repeated, her voice intense, "Mike, you're saying that if someone handed you this fossilized rock with no explanation whatsoever, you would have to conclude it was from earth."
"Of course," Tolland replied. "What else could I conclude? It's a far greater leap to assert you've found extraterrestrial life than it is to assert you've found a fossil of some previously undiscovered terrestrial species. Scientists discover dozens of new species every year."
"Two-foot-long lice?" Corky demanded, sounding incredulous. "You would assume a bug that big is from earth?"
"Not now, maybe," Tolland replied, "but the species doesn't necessarily have to be currently living. It's a fossil. It's 170 million years old. About the same age as our Jurassic. A lot of prehistoric fossils are oversized creatures that look shocking when we discover their fossilized remains-enormous winged reptiles, dinosaurs, birds."
"Not to be the physicist here, Mike," Corky said, "but there's a serious flaw in your argument. The prehistoric creatures you just named-dinosaurs, reptiles, birds-they all have internal skeletons, which gives them the capability to grow to large sizes despite the earth's gravity. But this fossil... " He took the sample and held it up. "These guys have exo skeletons. They're arthropods. Bugs. You yourself said that any bug this big could only have evolved in a low-gravity environment. Otherwise its outer skeleton would have collapsed under its own weight."