Rachel Sexton felt a dreamlike mist swirling around her as she walked across the habisphere, flanked by Michael Tolland. Corky and Ming followed close behind.
You okay? Tolland asked, watching her.
Rachel glanced over, giving a weak smile. Thanks. Its just . . . so much.
Her mind reeled back to the infamous 1996 NASA discovery‑ALH84001‑a Mars meteorite that NASA claimed contained fossil traces of bacterial life. Sadly, only weeks after NASAs triumphant press conference, several civilian scientists stepped forward with proof that the rocks signs of life were really nothing more than kerogen produced by terrestrial contamination. NASAs credibility had taken a huge hit over that gaffe. The New York Times took the opportunity to sarcastically redefine the agencys acronym: NASA‑NOT ALWAYS SCIENTIFICALLY ACCURATE.
In that same edition, paleobiologist Stephen Jay Gould summed up the problems with ALH84001 by pointing out that the evidence in it was chemical and inferential, rather than solid, like an unambiguous bone or shell.
Now, however, Rachel realized NASA had found irrefutable proof. No skeptical scientist could possibly step forward and question these fossils. NASA was no longer touting blurry, enlarged photos of alleged microscopic bacteria‑they were offering up real meteorite samples where bio‑organisms visible to the naked eye had been embedded in the stone. Foot‑long lice!
Rachel had to laugh when she realized shed been a childhood fan of a song by David Bowie that referred to spiders from Mars. Few would have guessed how close the androgynous British pop star would come to foreseeing astrobiologys greatest moment.
As the distant strains of the song ran through Rachels mind, Corky hurried up behind her. Has Mike bragged about his documentary yet?
Rachel replied, No, but Id love to hear about it.
Corky slapped Tolland on the back. Go for it, big boy. Tell her why the President decided that the most important moment in science history should be handed over to a snorkeling TV star.
Tolland groaned. Corky, if you dont mind?
Fine, Ill explain, Corky said, prying his way in between them. As you probably know, Ms. Sexton, the President will be giving a press conference tonight to tell the world about the meteorite. Because the vast majority of the world is made up of half‑wits, the President asked Mike to come onboard and dumb everything down for them.
Thanks, Corky, Tolland said. Very nice. He looked at Rachel. What Corkys trying to say is that because theres so much scientific data to convey, the President thought a short visual documentary about the meteorite might help make the information more accessible to mainstream America, many of whom, oddly, dont have advanced degrees in astrophysics.
Did you know, Corky said to Rachel, that Ive just learned our nations President is a closet fan of Amazing Seas? He shook his head in mock disgust. Zach Herney‑the ruler of the free world‑has his secretary tape Mikes program so he can decompress after a long day.
Tolland shrugged. The mans got taste, what can I say?
Rachel was now starting to realize just how masterful the Presidents plan was. Politics was a media game, and Rachel could already imagine the enthusiasm and scientific credibility the face of Michael Tolland on‑screen would bring to the press conference. Zach Herney had recruited the ideal man to endorse his little NASA coup. Skeptics would be hard‑pressed to challenge the Presidents data if it came from the nations top television science personality as well as several respected civilian scientists.
Corky said, Mikes already taken video depositions from all of us civilians for his documentary, as well as from most of the top NASA specialists. And Ill bet my National Medal that youre next on his list.
Rachel turned and eyed him. Me? What are you talking about? I have no credentials. Im an intelligence liaison.
Then why did the President send you up here?
He hasnt told me yet.
An amused grin crossed Corkys lips. Youre a White House intelligence liaison who deals in clarification and authentication of data, right?
Yes, but nothing scientific.
And youre the daughter of the man who built a campaign around criticizing the money NASA has wasted in space?
Rachel could hear it coming.
You have to admit, Ms. Sexton, Ming chimed in, a deposition from you would give this documentary a whole new dimension of credibility. If the President sent you up here, he must want you to participate somehow.
Rachel again flashed on William Pickerings concern that she was being used.
Tolland checked his watch. We should probably head over, he said, motioning toward the center of the habisphere. They should be getting close.
Close to what? Rachel asked.
Extraction time. NASA is bringing the meteorite to the surface. It should be up any time now.
Rachel was stunned. You guys are actually removing an eight‑ton rock from under two hundred feet of solid ice?
Corky looked gleeful. You didnt think NASA was going to leave a discovery like this buried in the ice, did you?
No, but . . . . . Rachel had seen no signs of large‑scale excavation equipment anywhere inside the habisphere. How the heck is NASA planning on getting the meteorite out?
Corky puffed up. No problem. Youre in a room full of rocket scientists!
Blather, Ming scoffed, looking at Rachel. Dr. Marlinson enjoys flexing other peoples muscles. The truth is that everyone here was stumped about how to get the meteorite out. It was Dr. Mangor who proposed a viable solution.
I havent met Dr. Mangor.
Glaciologist from the University of New Hampshire, Tolland said. The fourth and final civilian scientist recruited by the President. And Ming here is correct, it was Mangor who figured it out.
Okay, Rachel said. So what did this guy propose?
Gal, Ming corrected, sounding smitten. Dr. Mangor is a woman.
Debatable, Corky grumbled. He looked over at Rachel. And by the way, Dr. Mangor is going to hate you.
Tolland shot Corky an angry look.
Well, she will! Corky defended. Shell hate the competition.
Rachel felt lost. Im sorry? Competition?
Ignore him, Tolland said. Unfortunately, the fact that Corky is a total moron somehow escaped the National Science Committee. You and Dr. Mangor will get along fine. She is a professional. Shes considered one of the worlds top glaciologists. She actually moved to Antarctica for a few years to study glacial movement.
Odd, Corky said, I heard UNH took up a donation and sent her there so they could get some peace and quiet on campus.
Are you aware, Ming snapped, seeming to have taken the comment personally, that Dr. Mangor almost died down there! She got lost in a storm and lived on seal blubber for five weeks before anyone found her.
Corky whispered to Rachel, I heard no one was looking.