Despite the late hour, Gabrielle was not at all surprised to see the building's foyer filling with people, an apparent convergence of excited media crews and even more excited NASA personnel. Gabrielle hurried inside. The entryway resembled a museum, dominated dramatically by full-size replicas of famous mission capsules and satellites suspended overhead. Television crews were staking claims on the expansive marble floor, seizing wide-eyed NASA employees who came through the door.
Gabrielle scanned the crowd, but did not see anyone who looked like PODS mission director Chris Harper. Half the people in the lobby had press passes and half had NASA photo IDs around their necks. Gabrielle had neither. She spotted a young woman with a NASA ID and hurried over to her.
"Hi. I'm looking for Chris Harper?"
The woman eyed Gabrielle strangely, as if she recognized her from somewhere and couldn't quite place it. "I saw Dr. Harper go through a while ago. I think he headed upstairs. Do I know you?"
"I don't think so," Gabrielle said, turning away. "How do I get upstairs?"
"Do you work for NASA?"
"No, I don't."
"Then you can't get upstairs."
"Oh. Is there a phone I might use to-"
"Hey," the woman said, looking suddenly angry. "I know who you are. I've seen you on television with Senator Sexton. I can't believe you would have the nerve-"
Gabrielle was already gone, disappearing into the crowd. Behind her, she could hear the woman angrily telling others Gabrielle was here.
Terrific. Two seconds through the door, and I'm already on the Most Wanted List.
Gabrielle kept her head down as she hurried to the far side of the lobby. A building directory was mounted on the wall. She scanned the listings, looking for Chris Harper. Nothing. The directory showed no names at all. It was arranged by department.
PODS? she wondered, scanning the list for anything that had to do with the Polar Orbiting Density Scanner. She saw nothing. She was afraid to glance over her shoulder, half expecting to see a crew of angry NASA employees coming to stone her. All she saw on the list that looked even remotely promising was on the fourth floor:
EARTH SCIENCE ENTERPRISE, PHASE II
Earth Observing System (EOS)
Keeping her head turned away from the crowd, Gabrielle made her way toward an alcove that housed a bank of elevators and a water fountain. She searched for the elevator call buttons, but saw only slits. Damn. The elevators were security controlled-key card ID access for employees only.
A group of young men came hurrying toward the elevators, talking exuberantly. They wore NASA photo IDs around their necks. Gabrielle quickly bent over the fountain, watching behind her. A pimple-faced man inserted his ID into the slot and opened the elevator. He was laughing, shaking his head in amazement.
"The guys in SETI must be going nuts!" he said as everyone boarded the elevator. "Their horn carts traced drift fields under two hundred milliJanskys for twenty years, and the physical proof was buried in the ice here on earth the whole time!"
The elevator doors closed, and the men disappeared.
Gabrielle stood up, wiping her mouth, wondering what to do. She looked around for an interoffice phone. Nothing. She wondered if she could somehow steal a key card, but something told her that was probably unwise. Whatever she did, she knew she had to do it fast. She could now see the woman she'd first spoken to out in the lobby, moving through the crowd with a NASA security officer.
A trim, bald man came around the corner, hustling toward the elevators. Gabrielle again bent over the fountain. The man did not seem to notice her. Gabrielle watched in silence as the man leaned forward and inserted his ID card into the slit. Another set of elevator doors slid open, and the man stepped on.
Screw it, Gabrielle thought, making up her mind. Now or never.
As the elevator slid closed, Gabrielle spun from the fountain and ran over, sticking her hand out and catching the door. The doors bounced back open, and she stepped in, her face bright with excitement. "You ever seen it like this?" she gushed to the startled bald man. "My God. It's crazy!"
The man gave her an odd look.
"The guys at SETI must be going nuts!" Gabrielle said. "Their horn carts traced drift fields under two hundred milliJanskys for twenty years, and the physical proof was buried in the ice here on earth the whole time!"
The man looked surprised. "Well... yes, it's quite... " He glanced at her neck, apparently troubled not to see an ID. "I'm sorry, do you-"
"Fourth floor please. Came in such a hurry I barely remembered to put on my underwear!" She laughed, stealing a quick look at the guy's ID: JAMES THEISEN, Finance Administration.
"Do you work here?" The man looked uncomfortable. "Miss...?"
Gabrielle let her mouth fall slack. "Jim! I'm hurt! Nothing like making a woman feel unmemorable!"
The man went pale for a moment, looking uneasy, and running an embarrassed hand across his head. "I'm sorry. All this excitement, you know. I admit, you do look very familiar. What program are you working on?"
Shit. Gabrielle flashed a confident smile. "EOS."
The man pointed to the illuminated fourth floor button. "Obviously. I mean specifically, which project?"
Gabrielle felt her pulse quicken. She could only think of one. "PODS."
The man looked surprised. "Really? I thought I'd met everyone on Dr. Harper's team."
She gave an embarrassed nod. "Chris keeps me hidden away. I'm the idiot programmer who screwed up voxel index on the anomaly software."
Now it was the bald man whose jaw dropped. "That was you?"
Gabrielle frowned. "I haven't slept in weeks."
"But Dr. Harper took all the heat for that!"
"I know. Chris is that kind of guy. At least he got it straightened out. What an announcement tonight, though, isn't it? This meteorite. I'm just in shock!"
The elevator stopped on the fourth floor. Gabrielle jumped out. "Great seeing you, Jim. Give my best to the boys in budgeting!"
"Sure," the man stammered as the doors slid shut. "Nice seeing you again."
Zach Herney, like most presidents before him, survived on four or five hours of sleep a night. Over the last few weeks, however, he had survived on far less. As the excitement of the evening's events slowly began to ebb, Herney felt the late hour settling in his limbs.
He and some of his upper level staff were in the Roosevelt Room enjoying celebratory champagne and watching the endless loop of press conference replays, Tolland documentary excerpts, and pundit recaps on network television. On-screen at the moment, an exuberant network correspondent stood in front of the White House gripping her microphone.
"Beyond the mind-numbing repercussions for mankind as a species," she announced, "this NASA discovery has some harsh political repercussions here in Washington. The unearthing of these meteoric fossils could not have come at a better time for the embattled President." Her voice grew somber. "Nor at a worse time for Senator Sexton." The broadcast cut to a replay of the now infamous CNN debate from earlier in the day.
"After thirty-five years," Sexton declared, "I think it's pretty obvious we're not going to find extraterrestrial life!"
"And if you're wrong?" Marjorie Tench replied.
Sexton rolled his eyes. "Oh, for heavens sake, Ms. Tench, if I'm wrong I'll eat my hat."
Everyone in the Roosevelt Room laughed. Tench's cornering of the senator could have played as cruel and heavy-handed in retrospect, and yet viewers didn't seem to notice; the haughty tone of the senator's response was so smug that Sexton appeared to be getting exactly what he deserved.