"And you agreed."
"No, I refused! But an hour later, the administrator was back in my office-with the White House senior adviser!"
"What!" Gabrielle looked astounded by this. "Marjorie Tench?"
An awful creature, Harper thought, nodding. "She and the administrator sat me down and told me my mistake had quite literally put NASA and the President on the brink of total collapse. Ms. Tench told me about the senator's plans to privatize NASA. She told me I owed it to the President and space agency to make it all right. Then she told me how."
Gabrielle leaned forward. "Go on."
"Marjorie Tench informed me that the White House, by sheer good fortune, had intercepted strong geologic evidence that an enormous meteorite was buried in the Milne Ice Shelf. One of the biggest ever. A meteorite of that size would be a major find for NASA."
Gabrielle looked stunned. "Hold on, so you're saying someone already knew the meteorite was there before PODS discovered it?"
"Yes. PODS had nothing to do with the discovery. The administrator knew the meteorite existed. He simply gave me the coordinates and told me to reposition PODS over the ice shelf and pretend PODS made the discovery."
"You're kidding me."
"That was my reaction when they asked me to participate in the sham. They refused to tell me how they'd found out the meteorite was there, but Ms. Tench insisted it didn't matter and that this was the ideal opportunity to salvage my PODS fiasco. If I could pretend the PODS satellite located the meteorite, then NASA could praise PODS as a much needed success and boost the President before the election."
Gabrielle was awestruck. "And of course you couldn't claim PODS had detected a meteorite until you'd announced that the PODS anomaly-detection software was up and running."
Harper nodded. "Hence the press conference lie. I was forced into it. Tench and the administrator were ruthless. They reminded me I'd let everyone down-the President had funded my PODS project, NASA had spent years on it, and now I'd ruined the whole thing with a programming blunder."
"So you agreed to help."
"I didn't have a choice. My career was essentially over if I didn't. And the reality was that if I hadn't muffed the software, PODS would have found that meteorite on its own. So, it seemed a small lie at the time. I rationalized it by telling myself that the software would be fixed in a few months when the space shuttle went up, so I would simply be announcing the fix a little early."
Gabrielle let out a whistle. "A tiny lie to take advantage of a meteoric opportunity."
Harper was feeling ill just talking about it. "So... I did it. Following the administrator's orders, I held a press conference announcing that I'd found a work-around for my anomaly-detection software, I waited a few days, and then I repositioned PODS over the administrator's meteorite coordinates. Then, following the proper chain of command, I phoned the EOS director and reported that PODS had located a hard density anomaly in the Milne Ice Shelf. I gave him the coordinates and told him the anomaly appeared to be dense enough to be a meteorite. Excitedly, NASA sent a small team up to Milne to take some drill cores. That's when the operation got very hush-hush."
"So, you had no idea the meteorite had fossils until tonight?"
"Nobody here did. We're all in shock. Now everyone is calling me a hero for finding proof of extraterrestrial bioforms, and I don't know what to say."
Gabrielle was silent a long moment, studying Harper with firm black eyes. "But if PODS didn't locate the meteorite in the ice, how did the administrator know the meteorite was there?"
"Someone else found it first."
"Someone else? Who?"
Harper sighed. "A Canadian geologist named Charles Brophy-a researcher on Ellesmere Island. Apparently he was doing geologic ice soundings on the Milne Ice Shelf when he by chance discovered the presence of what appeared to be a huge meteorite in the ice. He radioed it in, and NASA happened to intercept the transmission."
Gabrielle stared. "But isn't this Canadian furious that NASA is taking all the credit for the find?"
"No," Harper said, feeling a chill. "Conveniently, he's dead."
Michael Tolland closed his eyes and listened to the drone of the G4 jet engine. He had given up trying to think anymore about the meteorite until they got back to Washington. The chondrules, according to Corky, were conclusive; the rock in the Milne Ice Shelf could only be a meteorite. Rachel had hoped to have a conclusive answer for William Pickering by the time they landed, but her thought experiments had run into a dead end with the chondrules. As suspicious as the meteorite evidence was, the meteorite appeared to be authentic.
So be it.
Rachel had obviously been shaken by the trauma in the ocean. Tolland was amazed, though, by her resilience. She was focused now on the issue at hand-trying to find a way to debunk or authenticate the meteorite, and trying to assess who had tried to kill them.
For most of the trip, Rachel had been in the seat beside Tolland. He'd enjoyed talking to her, despite the trying circumstances. Several minutes ago, she'd headed back to the restroom, and now Tolland was surprised to find himself missing her beside him. He wondered how long it had been since he'd missed a woman's presence-a woman other than Celia.
Tolland glanced up.
The pilot was sticking his head into the cabin. "You asked me to tell you when we were in telephone range of your ship? I can get you that connection if you want."
"Thanks." Tolland made his way up the aisle.
Inside the cockpit, Tolland placed a call to his crew. He wanted to let them know he would not be back for another day or two. Of course, he had no intention of telling them what trouble he'd run into.
The phone rang several times, and Tolland was surprised to hear the ship's SHINCOM 2100 communications system pick up. The outgoing message was not the usual professional-sounding greeting but rather the rowdy voice of one of Tolland's crew, the onboard joker.
"Hiya, hiya, this is the Goya," the voice announced. "We're sorry nobody's here right now, but we've all been abducted by very large lice! Actually, we've taken temporary shore leave to celebrate Mike's huge night. Gosh, are we proud! You can leave your name and number, and maybe we'll be back tomorrow when we're sober. Ciao! Go, ET!"
Tolland laughed, missing his crew already. Obviously they'd seen the press conference. He was glad they'd gone ashore; he'd abandoned them rather abruptly when the President called, and their sitting idle at sea was crazy. Although the message said everyone had gone ashore, Tolland had to assume they would not have left his ship unattended, particularly in the strong currents where it was now anchored.
Tolland pressed the numeric code to play any internal voice mail messages they'd left for him. The line beeped once. One message. The voice was the same rowdy crewmember.
"Hi Mike, hell of a show! If you're hearing this, you're probably checking your messages from some swanky White House party and wondering where the hell we are. Sorry we abandoned ship, buddy, but this was not a dry-celebration kind of night. Don't worry, we anchored her really good and left the porch light on. We're secretly hoping she gets pirated so you'll let NBC buy you that new boat! Just kidding, man. Don't worry, Xavia agreed to stay onboard and mind the fort. She said she preferred time alone to partying with a bunch of drunken fishmongers? Can you believe that?"
Tolland chuckled, relieved to hear someone was aboard watching the ship. Xavia was responsible, definitely not the partying type. A respected marine geologist, Xavia had the reputation for speaking her mind with a caustic honesty.