The President looked around the room for Tench. He had not seen her since before his press conference, and she was not here now. Odd, he thought. This is her celebration as much as it is mine.
The news report on television was wrapping up, outlining yet again the White House's quantum political leap forward and Senator Sexton's disastrous slide.
What a difference a day makes, the President thought. In politics, your world can change in an instant.
By dawn he would realize just how true those words could be.
Pickering could be a problem, Tench had said.
Administrator Ekstrom was too preoccupied with this new information to notice that the storm outside the habisphere was raging harder now. The howling cables had increased in pitch, and the NASA staff was nervously milling and chatting rather than going to sleep. Ekstrom's thoughts were lost in a different storm-an explosive tempest brewing back in Washington. The last few hours had brought many problems, all of which Ekstrom was trying to deal with. And yet one problem now loomed larger than all the others combined.
Pickering could be a problem.
Pickering's disgust with NASA, Ekstrom knew, went far deeper than the recent loss of his billion-dollar NRO SIGINT satellite in a NASA launchpad explosion, or the NASA security leaks, or the battle over recruiting key aerospace personnel. Pickering's grievances against NASA were an ongoing drama of disillusionment and resentment.
NASA's X-33 space plane, which was supposed to be the shuttle replacement, had run five years overdue, meaning dozens of NRO satellite maintenance and launch programs were scrapped or put on hold. Recently, Pickering's rage over the X-33 reached a fever pitch when he discovered NASA had canceled the project entirely, swallowing an estimated $900 million loss.
Ekstrom arrived at his office, pulled the curtain aside, and entered. Sitting down at his desk he put his head in his hands. He had some decisions to make. What had started as a wonderful day was becoming a nightmare unraveling around him. He tried to put himself in the mindset of William Pickering. What would the man do next? Someone as intelligent as Pickering had to see the importance of this NASA discovery. He had to forgive certain choices made in desperation. He had to see the irreversible damage that would be done by polluting this moment of triumph.
What would Pickering do with the information he had? Would he let it ride, or would he make NASA pay for their shortcomings?
Ekstrom scowled, having little doubt which it would be.
After all, William Pickering had deeper issues with NASA... an ancient personal bitterness that went far deeper than politics.
Rachel was quiet now, staring blankly at the cabin of the G4 as the plane headed south along the Canadian coastline of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Tolland sat nearby, talking to Corky. Despite the majority of evidence suggesting the meteorite was authentic, Corky's admission that the nickel content was "outside the preestablished midrange values" had served to rekindle Rachel's initial suspicion. Secretly planting a meteorite beneath the ice only made sense as part of a brilliantly conceived fraud.
Nonetheless, the remaining scientific evidence pointed toward the meteorite's validity.
Rachel turned from the window, glancing down at the disk-shaped meteorite sample in her hand. The tiny chondrules shimmered. Tolland and Corky had been discussing these metallic chondrules for some time now, talking in scientific terms well over Rachel's head-equilibrated olivine levels, metastable glass matrices, and metamorphic rehomogenation. Nonetheless, the upshot was clear: Corky and Tolland were in agreement that the chondrules were decidedly meteoric. No fudging of that data.
Rachel rotated the disk-shaped specimen in her hand, running a finger over the rim where part of the fusion crust was visible. The charring looked relatively fresh-certainly not three hundred years old-although Corky had explained that the meteorite had been hermetically sealed in ice and avoided atmospheric erosion. This seemed logical. Rachel had seen programs on television where human remains were dug from the ice after four thousand years and the person's skin looked almost perfect.
As she studied the fusion crust, an odd thought occurred to her-an obvious piece of data had been omitted. Rachel wondered if it had simply been an oversight in all the data that was thrown at her or did someone simply forget to mention it.
She turned suddenly to Corky. "Did anyone date the fusion crust?"
Corky glanced over, looking confused. "What?"
"Did anyone date the burn. That is, do we know for a fact that the burn on the rock occurred at exactly the time of the Jungersol Fall?"
"Sorry," Corky said, "that's impossible to date. Oxidation resets all the necessary isotopic markers. Besides, radioisotope decay rates are too slow to measure anything under five hundred years."
Rachel considered that a moment, understanding now why the burn date was not part of the data. "So, as far as we know, this rock could have been burned in the Middle Ages or last weekend, right?"
Tolland chuckled. "Nobody said science had all the answers."
Rachel let her mind wander aloud. "A fusion crust is essentially just a severe burn. Technically speaking, the burn on this rock could have happened at any time in the past half century, in any number of different ways."
"Wrong," Corky said. "Burned in any number of different ways? No. Burned in one way. Falling through the atmosphere."
"There's no other possibility? How about in a furnace?"
"A furnace?" Corky said. "These samples were examined under an electron microscope. Even the cleanest furnace on earth would have left fuel residue all over the stone-nuclear, chemical, fossil fuel. Forget it. And how about the striations from streaking through the atmosphere? You wouldn't get those in a furnace."
Rachel had forgotten about the orientation striations on the meteorite. It did indeed appear to have fallen through the air. "How about a volcano?" she ventured. "Ejecta thrown violently from an eruption?"
Corky shook his head. "The burn is far too clean."
Rachel glanced at Tolland.
The oceanographer nodded. "Sorry, I've had some experience with volcanoes, both above and below water. Corky's right. Volcanic ejecta is penetrated by dozens of toxins-carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrochloric acid-all of which would have been detected in our electronic scans. That fusion crust, whether we like it or not, is the result of a clean atmospheric friction burn."
Rachel sighed, looking back out the window. A clean burn. The phrase stuck with her. She turned back to Tolland. "What do you mean by a clean burn?"
He shrugged. "Simply that under an electron microscope, we see no remnants of fuel elements, so we know heating was caused by kinetic energy and friction, rather than chemical or nuclear ingredients."
"If you didn't find any foreign fuel elements, what did you find? Specifically, what was the composition of the fusion crust?"
"We found," Corky said, "exactly what we expected to find. Pure atmospheric elements. Nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen. No petroleums. No sulfurs. No volcanic acids. Nothing peculiar. All the stuff we see when meteorites fall through the atmosphere."
Rachel leaned back in her seat, her thoughts focusing now.