The cavernous main chamber of NASAs habisphere would have been a strange sight anywhere on earth, but the fact that it existed on an Arctic ice shelf made it that much more difficult for Rachel Sexton to assimilate.
Staring upward into a futuristic dome crafted of white interlocking triangular pads, Rachel felt like she had entered a colossal sanatorium. The walls sloped downward to a floor of solid ice, where an army of halogen lamps stood like sentinels around the perimeter, casting stark light skyward and giving the whole chamber an ephemeral luminosity.
Snaking across the ice floor, black foam carpetrunners wound like boardwalks through a maze of portable scientific work stations. Amid the electronics, thirty or forty white‑clad NASA personnel were hard at work, conferring happily and talking in excited tones. Rachel immediately recognized the electricity in the room.
It was the thrill of new discovery.
As Rachel and the administrator circled the outer edge of the dome, she noted the surprised looks of displeasure from those who recognized her. Their whispers carried clearly in the reverberant space.
Isnt that Senator Sextons daughter?
What the hell is SHE doing here?
I cant believe the administrator is even speaking to her!
Rachel half expected to see voodoo dolls of her father dangling everywhere. The animosity around her, though, was not the only emotion in the air; Rachel also sensed a distinct smugness‑as if NASA clearly knew who would be having the last laugh.
The administrator led Rachel toward a series of tables where a lone man sat at a computer work station. He was dressed in a black turtleneck, wide‑wale corduroys, and heavy boat shoes, rather than the matching NASA weather gear everyone else seemed to be wearing. He had his back to them.
The administrator asked Rachel to wait as he went over and spoke to the stranger. After a moment, the man in the turtleneck gave him a congenial nod and started shutting down his computer. The administrator returned.
Mr. Tolland will take it from here, he said. Hes another one of the Presidents recruits, so you two should get along fine. Ill join you later.
I assume youve heard of Michael Tolland?
Rachel shrugged, her brain still taking in the incredible surroundings. Name doesnt ring a bell.
The man in the turtleneck arrived, grinning. Doesnt ring a bell? His voice was resonant and friendly. Best news Ive heard all day. Seems I never get a chance to make a first impression anymore.
When Rachel glanced up at the newcomer, her feet froze in place. She knew the mans handsome face in an instant. Everyone in America did.
Oh, she said, blushing as the man shook her hand. Youre that Michael Tolland.
When the President had told Rachel he had recruited top‑notch civilian scientists to authenticate NASAs discovery, Rachel had imagined a group of wizened nerds with monogrammed calculators. Michael Tolland was the antithesis. One of the best known science celebrities in America today, Tolland hosted a weekly documentary called Amazing Seas, during which he brought viewers face‑to‑face with spellbinding oceanic phenomena‑underwater volcanoes, ten‑foot sea worms, killer tidal waves. The media hailed Tolland as a cross between Jacques Cousteau and Carl Sagan, crediting his knowledge, unpretentious enthusiasm, and lust for adventure as the formula that had rocketed Amazing Seas to the top of the ratings. Of course, most critics admitted, Tollands rugged good looks and self‑effacing charisma probably didnt hurt his popularity with the female audience.
Mr. Tolland . . . . . Rachel said, fumbling the words a bit. Im Rachel Sexton.
Tolland smiled a pleasant, crooked smile. Hi, Rachel. Call me Mike.
Rachel found herself uncharacteristically tongue‑tied. Sensory overload was setting in . . . the habisphere, the meteorite, the secrets, finding herself unexpectedly face‑to‑face with a television star. Im surprised to see you here, she said, attempting to recover. When the President told me hed recruited civilian scientists for authentication of a NASA find, I guess I expected . . . She hesitated.
Real scientists? Tolland grinned.
Rachel flushed, mortified. Thats not what I meant.
Dont worry about it, Tolland said. Thats all Ive heard since I got here.
The administrator excused himself, promising to catch up with them later. Tolland turned now to Rachel with a curious look. The administrator tells me your father is Senator Sexton?
Rachel nodded. Unfortunately.
A Sexton spy behind enemy lines?
Battle lines are not always drawn where you might think.
An awkward silence.
So tell me, Rachel said quickly, whats a world‑famous oceanographer doing on a glacier with a bunch of NASA rocket scientists?
Tolland chuckled. Actually, some guy who looked a lot like the President asked me to do him a favor. I opened my mouth to say Go to hell, but somehow I blurted, Yes, sir.
Rachel laughed for the first time all morning. Join the club.
Although most celebrities seemed smaller in person, Rachel thought Michael Tolland appeared taller. His brown eyes were just as vigilant and passionate as they were on television, and his voice carried the same modest warmth and enthusiasm. Looking to be a weathered and athletic forty‑five, Michael Tolland had coarse black hair that fell in a permanent windswept tuft across his forehead. He had a strong chin and a carefree mannerism that exuded confidence. When hed shaken Rachels hand, the callused roughness of his palms reminded her he was not a typical soft television personality but rather an accomplished seaman and hands‑on researcher.
To be honest, Tolland admitted, sounding sheepish, I think I was recruited more for my PR value than for my scientific knowledge. The president asked me to come up and make a documentary for him.
A documentary? About a meteorite? But youre an oceanographer.
Thats exactly what I told him! But he said he didnt know of any meteorite documentarians. He told me my involvement would help bring mainstream credibility to this find. Apparently he plans to broadcast my documentary as part of tonights big press conference when he announces the discovery.
A celebrity spokesman. Rachel sensed the savvy political maneuverings of Zach Herney at work. NASA was often accused of talking over the publics head. Not this time. Theyd pulled in the master scientific communicator, a face Americans already knew and trusted when it came to science.
Tolland pointed kitty‑corner across the dome to a far wall where a press area was being set up. There was a blue carpet on the ice, television cameras, media lights, a long table with several microphones. Someone was hanging a backdrop of a huge American flag.
Thats for tonight, he explained. The NASA administrator and some of his top scientists will be connected live via satellite to the White House so they can participate in the Presidents eight oclock broadcast.
Appropriate, Rachel thought, pleased to know Zach Herney didnt plan to cut NASA out of the announcement entirely.
So, Rachel said with a sigh, is someone finally going to tell me whats so special about this meteorite?
Tolland arched his eyebrows and gave her a mysterious grin. Actually, whats so special about this meteorite is best seen, not explained. He motioned for Rachel to follow him toward the neighboring work area. The guy stationed over here has plenty of samples he can show you.
Samples? You actually have samples of the meteorite?
Absolutely. Weve drilled quite a few. In fact, it was the initial core samples that alerted NASA to the importance of the find.
Unsure of what to expect, Rachel followed Tolland into the work area. It appeared deserted. A cup of coffee sat on a desk scattered with rock samples, calipers, and other diagnostic gear. The coffee was steaming.
Marlinson! Tolland yelled, looking around. No answer. He gave a frustrated sigh and turned to Rachel. He probably got lost trying to find cream for his coffee. Im telling you, I went to Princeton postgrad with this guy, and he used to get lost in his own dorm. Now hes a National Medal of Science recipient in astrophysics. Go figure.
Rachel did a double take. Marlinson? You dont by any chance mean the famous Corky Marlinson, do you?
Tolland laughed. One and the same.
Rachel was stunned. Corky Marlinson is here? Marlinsons ideas on gravitational fields were legendary among NRO satellite engineers. Marlinson is one of the Presidents civilian recruits?
Yeah, one of the real scientists.
Real is right, Rachel thought. Corky Marlinson was as brilliant and respected as they came.
The incredible paradox about Corky, Tolland said, is that he can quote you the distance to Alpha Centauri in millimeters, but he cant tie his own necktie.
I wear clip‑ons! a nasal, good‑natured voice barked nearby. Efficiency over style, Mike. You Hollywood types dont understand that!
Rachel and Tolland turned to the man now emerging from behind a large stack of electronic gear. He was squat and rotund, resembling a pug dog with bubble eyes and a thinning, comb‑over haircut. When the man saw Tolland standing with Rachel, he stopped in his tracks.
Jesus Christ, Mike! Were at the friggin North Pole and you still manage to meet gorgeous women. I knew I should have gone into television!
Michael Tolland was visibly embarrassed. Ms. Sexton, please excuse Dr. Marlinson. What he lacks in tact, he more than makes up for in random bits of totally useless knowledge about our universe.
Corky approached. A true pleasure, maam. I didnt catch your name.
Rachel, she said. Rachel Sexton.
Sexton? Corky let out a playful gasp. No relation to that shortsighted, depraved senator, I hope!
Tolland winced. Actually, Corky, Senator Sexton is Rachels father.
Corky stopped laughing and slumped. You know, Mike, its really no wonder Ive never had any luck with the ladies.