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111

The weather on the Milne Ice Shelf had settled, and the habisphere was quiet. Even so, NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom had not even tried to sleep. He had spent the hours alone, pacing the dome, staring into the extraction pit, running his hands over the grooves in the giant charred rock.

Finally, he’d made up his mind.

Now he sat at the videophone in the habisphere’s PSC tank and looked into the weary eyes of the President of the United States. Zach Herney was wearing a bathrobe and did not look at all amused. Ekstrom knew he would be significantly less amused when he learned what Ekstrom had to tell him.

When Ekstrom finished talking, Herney had an uncomfortable look on his face‑as if he thought he must still be too asleep to have understood correctly.

“Hold on,” Herney said. “We must have a bad connection. Did you just tell me that NASA intercepted this meteorite’s coordinates from an emergency radio transmission‑and then pretended that PODS found the meteorite?”

Ekstrom was silent, alone in the dark, willing his body to awake from this nightmare.

The silence clearly did not sit well with the President. “For Christ’s sake, Larry, tell me this isn’t true!”

Ekstrom’s mouth went dry. “The meteorite was found, Mr. President. That is all that’s relevant here.”

“I said tell me this is not true!”

The hush swelled to a dull roar in Ekstrom’s ears. I had to tell him, Ekstrom told himself. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. “Mr. President, the PODS failure was killing you in the polls, sir. When we intercepted a radio transmission that mentioned a large meteorite lodged in the ice, we saw a chance to get back in the fight.”

Herney sounded stunned. “By faking a PODS discovery?”

“PODS was going to be up and running soon, but not soon enough for the election. The polls were slipping, and Sexton was slamming NASA, so . . .”

“Are you insane! You lied to me, Larry!”

“The opportunity was staring us in the face, sir. I decided to take it. We intercepted the radio transmission of the Canadian who made the meteorite discovery. He died in a storm. Nobody else knew the meteorite was there. PODS was orbiting in the area. NASA needed a victory. We had the coordinates.”

“Why are you telling me this now?”

“I thought you should know.”

“Do you know what Sexton would do with this information if he found out?”

Ekstrom preferred not to think about it.

“He’d tell the world that NASA and the White House lied to the American people! And you know what, he’d be right!”

“You did not lie, sir, I did. And I will step down if‑”

“Larry, you’re missing the point. I’ve tried to run this presidency on truth and decency! Goddamn it! Tonight was clean. Dignified. Now I find out I lied to the world?”

“Only a small lie, sir.”

“There’s no such thing, Larry,” Herney said, steaming.

Ekstrom felt the tiny room closing in around him. There was so much more to tell the President, but Ekstrom could see it should wait until morning. “I’m sorry to have woken you, sir. I just thought you should know.”

Across town, Sedgewick Sexton took another hit of cognac and paced his apartment with rising irritation.

Where the hell is Gabrielle?