Weve got flagellates, Tolland said, staring into the luminescent water.
Flatulence? Corky scowled. Speak for yourself.
Rachel sensed Michael Tolland was in no joking mood.
I dont know how it could have happened, Tolland said, but somehow this water contains bioluminescent dinoflagellates.
Bioluminescent what? Rachel said. Speak English.
Monocelled plankton capable of oxidizing a luminescent catalyst called luceferin.
That was English?
Tolland exhaled and turned to his friend. Corky, there any chance the meteorite we pulled out of that hole had living organisms on it?
Corky burst out laughing. Mike, be serious!
I am serious.
No chance, Mike! Believe me, if NASA had any inkling whatsoever that there were extraterrestrial organisms living on that rock, you can be damn sure they never would have extracted it into the open air.
Tolland looked only partially comforted, his relief apparently clouded by a deeper mystery. I cant be for sure without a microscope, Tolland said, but it looks to me like this is a bioluminescent plankton from the phylum Pyrrophyta. Its name means fire plant. The Arctic Ocean is filled with it.
Corky shrugged. So whyd you ask if they were from space?
Because, Tolland said, the meteorite was buried in glacial ice‑fresh water from snowfalls. The water in that hole is glacial melt and has been frozen for three centuries. How could ocean creatures get in there?
Tollands point brought a long silence.
Rachel stood at the edge of the pool and tried to get her mind around what she was looking at. Bioluminescent plankton in the extraction shaft. What does it mean?
Theres got to be a crack somewhere down there, Tolland said. Its the only explanation. The plankton must have entered the shaft through a fissure in the ice that allowed ocean water to seep in.
Rachel didnt understand. Seep in? From where? She recalled her long IceRover ride in from the ocean. The coast is a good two miles from here.
Both Corky and Tolland gave Rachel an odd look. Actually, Corky said, the ocean is directly underneath us. This slab of ice is floating.
Rachel stared at the two men, feeling utterly perplexed. Floating? But . . . were on a glacier.
Yes, were on a glacier, Tolland said, but were not over land. Glaciers sometimes flow off a landmass and fan out over water. Because ice is lighter than water, the glacier simply continues to flow, floating out over the ocean like an enormous ice raft. Thats the definition of an ice shelf . . . the floating section of a glacier. He paused. Were actually almost a mile out to sea at the moment.
Shocked, Rachel instantly became wary. As she adjusted her mental picture of her surroundings, the thought of standing over the Arctic Ocean brought with it a sense of fear.
Tolland seemed to sense her uneasiness. He stamped his foot reassuringly on the ice. Dont worry. This ice is three hundred feet thick, with two hundred of those feet floating below the water like an ice cube in a glass. Makes the shelf very stable. You could build a skyscraper on this thing.
Rachel gave a wan nod, not entirely convinced. The misgivings aside, she now understood Tollands theory about the origins of the plankton. He thinks theres a crack that goes all the way down to the ocean, allowing plankton to come up through it into the hole. It was feasible, Rachel decided, and yet it involved a paradox that bothered her. Norah Mangor had been very clear about the integrity of the glacier, having drilled dozens of test cores to confirm its solidity.
Rachel looked at Tolland. I thought the glaciers perfection was the cornerstone of all the strata‑dating records. Didnt Dr. Mangor say the glacier had no cracks or fissures?
Corky frowned. Looks like the ice queen muffed it.
Dont say that too loudly, Rachel thought, or youll get an ice pick in the back.
Tolland stroked his chin as he watched the phosphorescing creatures. Theres literally no other explanation. There must be a crack. The weight of the ice shelf on top of the ocean must be pushing plankton‑rich sea‑water up into the hole.
One hell of a crack, Rachel thought. If the ice here was three hundred feet thick and the hole was two hundred feet deep, then this hypothetical crack had to pass through a hundred feet of solid ice. Norah Mangors test cores showed no cracks.
Do me a favor, Tolland said to Corky. Go find Norah. Lets hope to God she knows something about this glacier that shes not telling us. And find Ming, too, maybe he can tell us what these little glow‑beasties are.
Corky headed off.
Better hurry, Tolland called after him, glancing back into the hole. I could swear this bioluminescence is fading.
Rachel looked at the hole. Sure enough, the green was not so brilliant now.
Tolland removed his parka and lay down on the ice next to the hole.
Rachel watched, confused. Mike?
I want to find out if theres any saltwater flowing in.
By lying on the ice without a coat?
Yup. Tolland crawled on his belly to the edge of the hole. Holding one sleeve of the coat over the edge, he let the other sleeve dangle down the shaft until the cuff skimmed the water. This is a highly accurate salinity test used by world‑class oceanographers. Its called licking a wet jacket.
Out on the ice shelf, Delta‑One struggled with the controls, trying to keep the damaged microbot in flight over the group now assembled around the excavation pit. From the sounds of the conversation beneath, he knew things were unraveling fast.
Call the controller, he said. Weve got a serious problem.