Corky turned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Why couldn't the heating and cooling event have occurred here on earth artificially?" Rachel asked. "The rock could have been blasted by a slush-hydrogen engine and then rapidly cooled in a cryogenic freezer."
Corky stared. "Manufactured chondrules?"
"It's an idea."
"A ridiculous one," Corky replied, flashing his meteorite sample. "Perhaps you forget? These chondrules were irrefutably dated at 190 million years." His tone grew patronizing. "To the best of my knowledge, Ms. Sexton, 190 million years ago, nobody was running slush-hydrogen engines and cryogenic coolers."
Chondrules or not, Tolland thought, the evidence is piling up. He had been silent now for several minutes, deeply troubled by Rachel's newest revelation about the fusion crust. Her hypothesis, though staggeringly bold, had opened all kinds of new doors and gotten Tolland thinking in new directions. If the fusion crust is explainable... what other possibilities does that present?
"You're quiet," Rachel said, beside him.
Tolland glanced over. For an instant, in the muted lighting of the plane, he saw a softness in Rachel's eyes that reminded him of Celia. Shaking off the memories, he gave her a tired sigh. "Oh, I was just thinking... "
She smiled. "About meteorites?"
"Running through all the evidence, trying to figure out what's left?"
"Something like that."
"Not really. I'm troubled by how much of the data has collapsed in light of discovering that insertion shaft beneath the ice."
"Hierarchical evidence is a house of cards," Rachel said. "Pull out your primary assumption, and everything gets shaky. The location of the meteorite find was a primary assumption."
I'll say. "When I arrived at Milne, the administrator told me the meteorite had been found inside a pristine matrix of three-hundred-year-old ice and was more dense than any rock found anywhere in the area, which I took as logical proof that the rock had to fall from space."
"You and the rest of us."
"The midrange nickel content, though persuasive, is apparently not conclusive."
"It's close," Corky said nearby, apparently listening in.
"But not exact."
Corky acquiesced with a reluctant nod.
"And," Tolland said, "this never before seen species of space bug, though shockingly bizarre, in reality could be nothing more than a very old, deepwater crustacean."
Rachel nodded. "And now the fusion crust... "
"I hate to say it," Tolland said, glancing at Corky, "but it's starting to feel like there's more negative evidence than positive."
"Science is not about hunches," Corky said. "It's about evidence. The chondrules in this rock are decidedly meteoric. I agree with you both that everything we've seen is deeply disturbing, but we cannot ignore these chondrules. The evidence in favor is conclusive, while the evidence against is circumstantial."
Rachel frowned. "So where does that leave us?"
"Nowhere," Corky said. "The chondrules prove we are dealing with a meteorite. The only question is why someone stuck it under the ice."
Tolland wanted to believe his friend's sound logic, but something just felt wrong.
"You don't look convinced, Mike," Corky said.
Tolland gave his friend a bewildered sigh. "I don't know. Two out of three wasn't bad, Corky. But we're down to one out of three. I just feel like we're missing something."
I got caught, Chris Harper thought, feeling a chill as he pictured an American prison cell. Senator Sexton knows I lied about the PODS software.
As the PODS section manager escorted Gabrielle Ashe back into his office and closed the door, he felt his hatred of the NASA administrator grow deeper by the instant. Tonight Harper had learned just how deep the administrator's lies truly ran. In addition to forcing Harper to lie about having fixed PODS's software, the administrator had apparently set up some insurance just in case Harper got cold feet and decided not to be a team player.
Evidence of embezzlement, Harper thought. Blackmail. Very sly. After all, who would believe an embezzler trying to discredit the single greatest moment in American space history? Harper had already witnessed to what lengths the NASA administrator would go to save America's space agency, and now with the announcement of a meteorite with fossils, the stakes had skyrocketed.
Harper paced for several seconds around the widetable on which sat a scale model of the PODS satellite-a cylindrical prism with multiple antennae and lenses behind reflective shields. Gabrielle sat down, her dark eyes watching, waiting. The nausea in Harper's gut reminded him of how he had felt during the infamous press conference. He'd put on a lousy show that night, and everyone had questioned him about it. He'd had to lie again and say he was feeling ill that night and was not himself. His colleagues and the press shrugged off his lackluster performance and quickly forgot about it.
Now the lie had come back to haunt him.
Gabrielle Ashe's expression softened. "Mr. Harper, with the administrator as an enemy, you will need a powerful ally. Senator Sexton could well be your only friend at this point. Let's start with the PODS software lie. Tell me what happened."
Harper sighed. He knew it was time to tell the truth. I bloody well should have told the truth in the first place! "The PODS launch went smoothly," he began. "The satellite settled into a perfect polar orbit just as planned."
Gabrielle Ashe looked bored. She apparently knew all this. "Go on."
"Then came the trouble. When we geared up to start searching the ice for density anomalies, the onboard anomaly-detection software failed."
Harper's words came faster now. "The software was supposed to be able to rapidly examine thousands of acres of data and find parts of the ice that fell outside the range of normal ice density. Primarily the software was looking for soft spots in the ice-global warming indicators-but if it stumbled across other density incongruities, it was programmed to flag those as well. The plan was for PODS to scan the Arctic Circle over several weeks and identify any anomalies that we could use to measure global warming."
"But without functioning software," Gabrielle said, "PODS was no good. NASA would have had to examine images of every square inch of the Arctic by hand, looking for trouble spots."
Harper nodded, reliving the nightmare of his programming gaffe. "It would take decades. The situation was terrible. Because of a flaw in my programming, PODS was essentially worthless. With the election coming up and Senator Sexton being so critical of NASA... " He sighed.
"Your mistake was devastating to NASA and the President."
"It couldn't have come at a worse time. The administrator was livid. I promised him I could fix the problem during the next shuttle mission-a simple matter of swapping out the chip that held the PODS software system. But it was too little too late. He sent me home on leave-but essentially I was fired. That was a month ago."
"And yet you were back on television two weeks ago announcing you'd found a work-around."
Harper slumped. "A terrible mistake. That was the day I got a desperate call from the administrator. He told me something had come up, a possible way to redeem myself. I came into the office immediately and met with him. He asked me to hold a press conference and tell everyone I'd found a work-around for the PODS software and that we would have data in a few weeks. He said he'd explain it to me later."