Step aside! Norah hollered, moving through the growing crowd. The workers scattered. Norah took control, making a show of checking the cable tensions and alignments.
Heave! one of the NASA men yelled. The men tightened their winches, and the cables ascended another six inches out of the hole.
As the cables continued to move upward, Rachel felt the crowd inching forward in anticipation. Corky and Tolland were nearby, looking like kids at Christmas. On the far side of the hole, the hulking frame of NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom arrived, taking a position to watch the extraction.
Hasps! one of the NASA men yelled. Leaders are showing!
The steel cables rising through the boreholes changed from silver braid to yellow leader chains.
Six more feet! Keep it steady!
The group around the scaffolding fell into a rapt silence, like onlookers at a seance awaiting the appearance of some divine specter‑everyone straining for the first glimpse.
Then Rachel saw it.
Emerging from the thinning layer of ice, the hazy form of the meteorite began to show itself. The shadow was oblong and dark, blurry at first, but getting clearer every moment as it melted its way upward.
Tighter! a technician yelled. The men tightened the winches, and the scaffolding creaked.
Five more feet! Keep the tension even!
Rachel could now see the ice above the stone beginning to bulge upward like a pregnant beast about to give birth. Atop the hump, surrounding the lasers point of entry, a small circle of surface ice began to give way, melting, dissolving into a widening hole.
Cervix is dilated! someone shouted. Nine hundred centimeters!
A tense laughter broke the silence.
Okay, kill the laser!
Someone threw a switch, and the beam disappeared.
And then it happened.
Like the fiery arrival of some paleolithic god, the huge rock broke the surface with a hiss of steam. Through the swirling fog, the hulking shape rose out of the ice. The men manning the winches strained harder until finally the entire stone broke free of the frozen restraints and swung, hot and dripping, over an open shaft of simmering water.
Rachel felt mesmerized.
Dangling there on its cables, dripping wet, the meteorites rugged surface glistened in the fluorescent lights, charred and rippled with the appearance of an enormous petrified prune. The rock was smooth and rounded on one end, this section apparently blasted away by friction as it streaked through the atmosphere.
Looking at the charred fusion crust, Rachel could almost see the meteor rocketing earthward in a furious ball of flames. Incredibly, that was centuries ago. Now, the captured beast hung there on its cables, water dripping from its body.
The hunt was over.
Not until this moment had the drama of this event truly struck Rachel. The object hanging before her was from another world, millions of miles away. And trapped within it was evidence‑no, proof‑that man was not alone in the universe.
The euphoria of the moment seemed to grip everyone at the same instant, and the crowd broke into spontaneous hoots and applause. Even the administrator seemed caught up in it. He clapped his men and women on the back, congratulating them. Looking on, Rachel felt a sudden joy for NASA. Theyd had some tough luck in the past. Finally things were changing. They deserved this moment.
The gaping hole in the ice now looked like a small swimming pool in the middle of the habisphere. The surface of the two‑hundred‑foot‑deep pool of melted water sloshed for a while against the icy walls of the shaft and then finally grew calm. The waterline in the shaft was a good four feet beneath the glaciers surface, the discrepancy caused by both the removal of the meteorites mass and ices property of shrinking as it melts.
Norah Mangor immediately set up SHABA pylons all around the hole. Although the hole was clearly visible, any curious soul who ventured too close and accidentally slipped in would be in dire jeopardy. The walls of the shaft were solid ice, with no footholds, and climbing out unassisted would be impossible.
Lawrence Ekstrom came padding across the ice toward them. He moved directly to Norah Mangor and shook her hand firmly. Well done, Dr. Mangor.
Ill expect lots of praise in print, Norah replied.
Youll get it. The administrator turned now to Rachel. He looked happier, relieved. So, Ms. Sexton, is the professional skeptic convinced?
Rachel couldnt help but smile. Stunned is more like it.
Good. Then follow me.
Rachel followed the administrator across the habisphere to a large metal box that resembled an industrial shipping container. The box was painted with military camouflage patterns and stenciled letters: P‑S‑C.
Youll call the President from in here, Ekstrom said.
Portable Secure Comm, Rachel thought. These mobile communications booths were standard battlefield installations, although Rachel had never expected to see one used as part of a peacetime NASA mission. Then again, Administrator Ekstroms background was the Pentagon, so he certainly had access to toys like this. From the stern faces on the two armed guards watching over the PSC, Rachel got the distinct impression that contact with the outside world was made only with express consent from Administrator Ekstrom.
Looks like Im not the only one who is off‑the‑grid.
Ekstrom spoke briefly with one of the guards outside the trailer and then returned to Rachel. Good luck, he said. Then he left.
A guard rapped on the trailer door, and it opened from within. A technician emerged and motioned for Rachel to enter. She followed him in.
The inside of the PSC was dark and stuffy. In the bluish glow of the lone computer monitor, Rachel could make out racks of telephone gear, radios, and satellite telecommunications devices. She already felt claustrophobic. The air inside was bitter, like a basement in winter.
Sit here, please, Ms. Sexton. The technician produced a rolling stool and positioned Rachel in front of a flat‑screen monitor. He arranged a microphone in front of her and placed a bulky pair of AKG headphones on her head. Checking a logbook of encryption passwords, the technician typed a long series of keys on a nearby device. A timer materialized on the screen in front of Rachel.
The technician gave a satisfied nod as the timer began to count down. One minute until connection. He turned and left, slamming the door behind him. Rachel could hear the bolt lock outside.
As she waited in the dark, watching the sixty‑second clock slowly count down, she realized that this was the first moment of privacy shed had since early that morning. Shed woken up today without the slightest inkling of what lay ahead. Extraterrestrial life. As of today, the most popular modern myth of all time was no longer a myth.
Rachel was just now starting to sense how truly devastating this meteorite would be to her fathers campaign. Although NASA funding had no business being on a political par with abortion rights, welfare, and health care, her father had made it an issue. Now it was going to blow up in his face.
Within hours, Americans would feel the thrill of a NASA triumph all over again. There would be teary‑eyed dreamers. Slack‑jawed scientists. Childrens imaginations running free. Issues of dollars and cents would fade away as petty, overshadowed by this monumental moment. The President would emerge like a phoenix, transforming himself into a hero, while in the midst of the celebration, the businesslike senator would suddenly appear small‑minded, a penny‑pinching Scrooge with no American sense of adventure.
The computer beeped, and Rachel glanced up.
The screen in front of her flickered suddenly, and a blurry image of the White House seal materialized on‑screen. After a moment, the image dissolved into the face of President Herney.
Hello, Rachel, he said, a mischievous glint in his eye. I trust youve had an interesting afternoon?