NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom was a giant of a man, ruddy and gruff, like an angry Norse god. His prickly blond hair was cropped military short above a furrowed brow, and his bulbous nose was spidered with veins. At the moment, his stony eyes drooped with the weight of countless sleepless nights. An influential aerospace strategist and operations adviser at the Pentagon before his appointment to NASA, Ekstrom had a reputation for surliness matched only by his incontestable dedication to whatever mission was at hand.
As Rachel Sexton followed Lawrence Ekstrom into the habisphere, she found herself walking through an eerie, translucent maze of hallways. The labyrinthine network appeared to have been fashioned by hanging sheets of opaque plastic across tautly strung wires. The floor of the maze was nonexistent‑a sheet of solid ice, carpeted with strips of rubber matting for traction. They passed a rudimentary living area lined with cots and chemical toilets.
Thankfully, the air in the habisphere was warm, albeit heavy with the mingled potpourri of indistinguishable smells that accompany humans in tight quarters. Somewhere a generator droned, apparently the source of the electricity that powered the bare bulbs hanging from draped extension cords in the hallway.
Ms. Sexton, Ekstrom grunted, guiding her briskly toward some unknown destination. Let me be candid with you right from the start. His tone conveyed anything but pleasure to have Rachel as his guest. You are here because the President wants you here. Zach Herney is a personal friend of mine and a faithful NASA supporter. I respect him. I owe him. And I trust him. I do not question his direct orders, even when I resent them. Just so there is no confusion, be aware that I do not share the Presidents enthusiasm for involving you in this matter.
Rachel could only stare. I traveled three thousand miles for this kind of hospitality? This guy was no Martha Stewart. With all due respect, she fired back, I am also under presidential orders. I have not been told my purpose here. I made this trip on good faith.
Fine, Ekstrom said. Then I will speak bluntly.
Youve made a damn good start.
Rachels tough response seemed to jolt the administrator. His stride slowed a moment, his eyes clearing as he studied her. Then, like a snake uncoiling, he heaved a long sigh and picked up the pace.
Understand, Ekstrom began, that you are here on a classified NASA project against my better judgment. Not only are you a representative of the NRO, whose director enjoys dishonoring NASA personnel as loose‑lipped children, but you are the daughter of the man who has made it his personal mission to destroy my agency. This should be NASAs hour in the sun; my men and women have endured a lot of criticism lately and deserve this moment of glory. However, due to a torrent of skepticism spearheaded by your father, NASA finds itself in a political situation where my hardworking personnel are forced to share the spotlight with a handful of random civilian scientists and the daughter of the man who is trying to destroy us.
I am not my father, Rachel wanted to shout, but this was hardly the moment to debate politics with the head of NASA. I did not come here for the spotlight, sir.
Ekstrom glared. You may find you have no alternative.
The comment took her by surprise. Although President Herney had said nothing specific about her assisting him in any sort of public way, William Pickering had certainly aired his suspicions that Rachel might become a political pawn. Id like to know what Im doing here, Rachel demanded.
You and me both. I do not have that information.
The President asked me to brief you fully on our discovery the moment you arrived. Whatever role he wants you to play in this circus is between you and him.
He told me your Earth Observation System had made a discovery.
Ekstrom glanced sidelong at her. How familiar are you with the EOS project?
EOS is a constellation of five NASA satellites which scrutinize the earth in different ways‑ocean mapping, geologic fault analyses, polar ice‑melt observation, location of fossil fuel reserves‑
Fine, Ekstrom said, sounding unimpressed. So youre aware of the newest addition to the EOS constellation? Its called PODS.
Rachel nodded. The Polar Orbiting Density Scanner (PODS) was designed to help measure the effects of global warming. As I understand it, PODS measures the thickness and hardness of the polar ice cap?
In effect, yes. It uses spectral band technology to take composite density scans of large regions and find softness anomalies in the ice‑slush spots, internal melting, large fissures‑indicators of global warming.
Rachel was familiar with composite density scanning. It was like a subterranean ultrasound. NRO satellites had used similar technology to search for subsurface density variants in Eastern Europe and locate mass burial sites, which confirmed for the President that ethnic cleansing was indeed going on.
Two weeks ago, Ekstrom said, PODS passed over this ice shelf and spotted a density anomaly that looked nothing like anything wed expected to see. Two hundred feet beneath the surface, perfectly embedded in a matrix of solid ice, PODS saw what looked like an amorphous globule about ten feet in diameter.
A water pocket? Rachel asked.
No. Not liquid. Strangely, this anomaly was harder than the ice surrounding it.
Rachel paused. So . . . its a boulder or something?
Ekstrom nodded. Essentially.
Rachel waited for the punch line. It never came. Im here because NASA found a big rock in the ice?
Not until PODS calculated the density of this rock did we get excited. We immediately flew a team up here to analyze it. As it turns out, the rock in the ice beneath us is significantly more dense than any type of rock found here on Ellesmere Island. More dense, in fact, than any type of rock found within a four‑hundred‑mile radius.
Rachel gazed down at the ice beneath her feet, picturing the huge rock down there somewhere. Youre saying someone moved it here?
Ekstrom looked vaguely amused. The stone weighs more than eight tons. It is embedded under two hundred feet of solid ice, meaning it has been there untouched for over three hundred years.
Rachel felt tired as she followed the administrator into the mouth of a long, narrow corridor, passing between two armed NASA workers who stood guard. Rachel glanced at Ekstrom. I assume theres a logical explanation for the stones presence here . . . and for all this secrecy?
There most certainly is, Ekstrom said, deadpan. The rock PODS found is a meteorite.
Rachel stopped dead in the passageway and stared at the administrator. A meteorite? A surge of disappointment washed over her. A meteorite seemed utterly anti‑climactic after the Presidents big buildup. This discovery will single‑handedly justify all of NASAs past expenditures and blunders? What was Herney thinking? Meteorites were admittedly one of the rarest rocks on earth, but NASA discovered meteorites all the time.
This meteorite is one of the largest ever found, Ekstrom said, standing rigid before her. We believe it is a fragment of a larger meteorite documented to have hit the Arctic Ocean in the seventeen hundreds. Most likely, this rock was thrown as ejecta from that ocean impact, landed on the Milne Glacier, and was slowly buried by snow over the past three hundred years.
Rachel scowled. This discovery changed nothing. She felt a growing suspicion that she was witnessing an overblown publicity stunt by a desperate NASA and White House‑two struggling entities attempting to elevate a propitious find to the level of earth‑shattering NASA victory.
You dont look too impressed, Ekstrom said.
I guess I was just expecting something . . . else.
Ekstroms eyes narrowed. A meteorite of this size is a very rare find, Ms. Sexton. There are only a few larger in the world.
But the size of the meteorite is not what excites us.
Rachel glanced up.
If you would permit me to finish, Ekstrom said, you will learn that this meteorite displays some rather astonishing characteristics never before seen in any meteorite. Large or small. He motioned down the passageway. Now, if you would follow me, Ill introduce you to someone more qualified than I am to discuss this find.
Rachel was confused. Someone more qualified than the administrator of NASA?
Ekstroms Nordic eyes locked in on hers. More qualified, Ms. Sexton, insofar as he is a civilian. I had assumed because you are a professional data analyst that you would prefer to get your data from an unbiased source.
Touche. Rachel backed off.
She followed the administrator down the narrow corridor, where they dead‑ended at a heavy, black drapery. Beyond the drape, Rachel could hear the reverberant murmur of a crowd of voices rumbling on the other side, echoing as if in a giant open space.
Without a word, the administrator reached up and pulled aside the curtain. Rachel was blinded by a dazzling brightness. Hesitant, she stepped forward, squinting into the glistening space. As her eyes adjusted, she gazed out at the massive room before her and drew an awestruck breath.
My God, she whispered. What is this place?