Two days without sunlight had rearranged Michael Tollands biological clock. Although his watch said it was late afternoon, Tollands body insisted it was the middle of the night. Now, having put the finishing touches on his documentary, Michael Tolland had downloaded the entire video file onto a digital video disk and was making his way across the darkened dome. Arriving at the illuminated press area, he delivered the disk to the NASA media technician in charge of overseeing the presentation.
Thanks, Mike, the technician said, winking as he held up the video disk. Kind of redefines must‑see TV, eh?
Tolland gave a tired chuckle. I hope the President likes it.
No doubt. Anyhow, your work is done. Sit back and enjoy the show.
Thanks. Tolland stood in the brightly lit press area and surveyed the convivial NASA personnel toasting the meteorite with cans of Canadian beer. Even though Tolland wanted to celebrate, he felt exhausted, emotionally drained. He glanced around for Rachel Sexton, but apparently she was still talking to the President.
He wants to put her on‑air, Tolland thought. Not that he blamed him; Rachel would be a perfect addition to the cast of meteorite spokespeople. In addition to her good looks, Rachel exuded an accessible poise and self‑confidence that Tolland seldom saw in the women he met. Then again, most of the women Tolland met were in television‑either ruthless power women or gorgeous on‑air personalities who lacked exactly that.
Now, slipping quietly away from the crowd of bustling NASA employees, Tolland navigated the web of pathways across the dome, wondering where the other civilian scientists had disappeared to. If they felt half as drained as he did, they should be in the bunking area grabbing a catnap before the big moment. Ahead of him in the distance, Tolland could see the circle of SHABA pylons around the deserted extraction pit. The empty dome overhead seemed to echo with the hollow voices of distant memories. Tolland tried to block them out.
Forget the ghosts, he willed himself. They often haunted him at times like these, when he was tired or alone‑times of personal triumph or celebration. She should be with you right now, the voice whispered. Alone in the darkness, he felt himself reeling backward into oblivion.
Celia Birch had been his sweetheart in graduate school. One Valentines Day, Tolland took her to her favorite restaurant. When the waiter brought Celias dessert, it was a single rose and a diamond ring. Celia understood immediately. With tears in her eyes, she spoke a single word that made Michael Tolland as happy as hed ever been.
Filled with anticipation, they bought a small house near Pasadena, where Celia got a job as a science teacher. Although the pay was modest, it was a start, and it was also close to Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, where Tolland had landed his dream job aboard a geologic research ship. Tollands work meant he was away for three or four days at a time, but his reunions with Celia were always passionate and exciting.
While at sea, Tolland began videotaping some of his adventures for Celia, making minidocumentaries of his work onboard the ship. After one trip, he returned with a grainy home video that hed shot out of the window of a deepwater submersible‑the first footage ever shot of a bizarre chemotropic cuttlefish that nobody even knew existed. On camera, as he narrated the video, Tolland was practically bursting out of the submarine with enthusiasm.
Literally thousands of undiscovered species, he gushed, live in these depths! Weve barely scratched the surface! There are mysteries down here that none of us can imagine!
Celia was enthralled with her husbands ebullience and concise scientific explanation. On a whim, she showed the tape to her science class, and it became an instant hit. Other teachers wanted to borrow it. Parents wanted to make copies. It seemed everyone was eagerly awaiting Michaels next installment. Celia suddenly had an idea. She called a college friend of hers who worked for NBC and sent her a videotape.
Two months later, Michael Tolland came to Celia and asked her to take a walk with him on Kingman Beach. It was their special place, where they always went to share their hopes and dreams.
I have something I want to tell you, Tolland said.
Celia stopped, taking her husbands hands as the water lapped around their feet. What is it?
Tolland was bursting. Last week, I got a call from NBC television. They think I should host an oceanic documentary series. Its perfect. They want to make a pilot next year! Can you believe it?
Celia kissed him, beaming. I believe it. Youll be great.
Six months later, Celia and Tolland were sailing near Catalina when Celia began complaining of pain in her side. They ignored it for a few weeks, but finally it got too much. Celia went in to have it checked out.
In an instant, Tollands dream life shattered into a hellish nightmare. Celia was ill. Very ill.
Advanced stages of lymphoma, the doctors explained. Rare in people her age, but certainly not unheard of.
Celia and Tolland visited countless clinics and hospitals, consulting with specialists. The answer was always the same. Incurable.
I will not accept that! Tolland immediately quit his job at Scripps Institute, forgot all about the NBC documentary, and focused all of his energy and love on helping Celia get well. She fought hard too, bearing the pain with a grace that only made him love her more. He took her for long walks on Kingman Beach, made her healthy meals, and told her stories of the things they would do when she got better.
But it was not to be.
Only seven months had passed when Michael Tolland found himself sitting beside his dying wife in a stark hospital ward. He no longer recognized her face. The savageness of the cancer was rivaled only by the brutality of the chemotherapy. She was left a ravaged skeleton. The final hours were the hardest.
Michael, she said, her voice raspy. Its time to let go.
I cant. Tollands eyes welled.
Youre a survivor, Celia said. You have to be. Promise me youll find another love.
Ill never want another. Tolland meant it.
Youll have to learn.
Celia died on a crystal clear Sunday morning in June. Michael Tolland felt like a ship torn from its moorings and thrown adrift in a raging sea, his compass smashed. For weeks he spun out of control. Friends tried to help, but his pride could not bear their pity.
You have a choice to make, he finally realized. Work or die.
Hardening his resolve, Tolland threw himself back into Amazing Seas. The program quite literally saved his life. In the four years that followed, Tollands show took off. Despite the matchmaking efforts of his friends, Tolland endured only a handful of dates. All were fiascos or mutual disappointments, so Tolland finally gave up and blamed his busy travel schedule for his lack of social life. His best friends knew better, though; Michael Tolland simply was not ready.
The meteorite extraction pit loomed before Tolland now, pulling him from his painful reverie. He shook off the chill of his memories and approached the opening. In the darkened dome, the melt water in the hole had taken on an almost surreal and magical beauty. The surface of the pool was shimmering like a moonlit pond. Tollands eyes were drawn to specks of light on the top layer of the water, as if someone had sprinkled blue‑green sparkles onto the surface. He stared a long moment at the shimmering.
Something about it seemed peculiar.
At first glance, he thought the gleaming water was simply reflecting the glow of the spotlights from across the dome. Now he saw this was not the case at all. The shimmers possessed a greenish tint and seemed to pulse in a rhythm, as if the surface of the water were alive, illuminating itself from within.
Unsettled, Tolland stepped beyond the pylons for a closer look.
Across the habisphere, Rachel Sexton exited the PSC trailer into darkness. She paused a moment, disoriented by the shadowy vault around her. The habisphere was now a gaping cavern, lit only by incidental effulgence radiating out from the stark media lights against the north wall. Unnerved by the darkness around her, she headed instinctively for the illuminated press area.
Rachel felt pleased with the outcome of her briefing of the White House staff. Once shed recovered from the Presidents little stunt, shed smoothly conveyed everything she knew about the meteorite. As she spoke, she watched the expressions on the faces of the Presidents staff go from incredulous shock, to hopeful belief, and finally to awestruck acceptance.
Extraterrestrial life? she had heard one of them exclaim. Do you know what that means?
Yes, another replied. It means were going to win this election.
As Rachel approached the dramatic press area, she imagined the impending announcement and couldnt help but wonder if her father really deserved the presidential steamroller that was about to blindside him, crushing his campaign in a single blow.
The answer, of course, was yes.
Whenever Rachel Sexton felt any soft spot for her father, all she had to do was remember her mother. Katherine Sexton. The pain and shame Sedgewick Sexton had brought on her was reprehensible . . . coming home late every night, looking smug and smelling of perfume. The feigned religious zeal her father hid behind‑all the while lying and cheating, knowing Katherine would never leave him.
Yes, she decided, Senator Sexton was about to get exactly what he deserved.
The crowd in the press area was jovial. Everyone held beers. Rachel moved through the crowd feeling like a coed at a frat party. She wondered where Michael Tolland had gone.
Corky Marlinson materialized beside her. Looking for Mike?
Rachel startled. Well . . . no . . . sort of.
Corky shook his head in disgust. I knew it. Mike just left. I think he was headed back to go grab a few winks. Corky squinted across the dusky dome. Although it looks like you can still catch him. He gave her a puggish smile and pointed. Mike becomes mesmerized every time he sees water.
Rachel followed Corkys outstretched finger toward the center of the dome, where the silhouette of Michael Tolland stood, gazing down into the water in the extraction pit.
Whats he doing? she asked. Thats kind of dangerous over there.
Corky grinned. Probably taking a leak. Lets go push him.
Rachel and Corky crossed the darkened dome toward the extraction pit. As they drew close to Michael Tolland, Corky called out.
Hey, aqua man! Forget your swimsuit?
Tolland turned. Even in the dimness, Rachel could see his expression was uncharacteristically grave. His face looked oddly illuminated, as if he were being lit from below.
Everything okay, Mike? she asked.
Not exactly. Tolland pointed into the water.
Corky stepped over the pylons and joined Tolland at the edge of the shaft. Corkys mood seemed to cool instantly when he looked in the water. Rachel joined them, stepping past the pylons to the edge of the pit. When she peered into the hole, she was surprised to see specks of blue‑green light shimmering on the surface. Like neon dust particles floating in the water. They seemed to be pulsating green. The effect was beautiful.
Tolland picked up a shard of ice off the glacial floor and tossed it into the water. The water phosphoresced at the point of impact, glowing with a sudden green splash.
Mike, Corky said, looking uneasy, please tell me you know what that is.
Tolland frowned. I know exactly what this is. My question is, what the hell is it doing here?