Norah Mangor stood at the extraction shaft beside Tolland, Rachel, and Corky and stared into the pitch‑black meteorite hole. Mike, she said, youre cute, but youre insane. Theres no bioluminescence here.
Tolland now wished hed thought to take some video; while Corky had gone to find Norah and Ming, the bioluminescence had begun fading rapidly. Within a couple of minutes, all the twinkling had simply stopped.
Tolland threw another piece of ice into the water, but nothing happened. No green splash.
Where did they go? Corky asked.
Tolland had a fairly good idea. Bioluminescence‑one of natures most ingenious defense mechanisms‑was a natural response for plankton in distress. A plankton sensing it was about to be consumed by larger organisms would begin flashing in hopes of attracting much larger predators that would scare off the original attackers. In this case, the plankton, having entered the shaft through a crack, suddenly found themselves in a primarily freshwater environment and bioluminesced in panic as the freshwater slowly killed them. I think they died.
They were murdered, Norah scoffed. The Easter Bunny swam in and ate them.
Corky glared at her. I saw the luminescence too, Norah.
Was it before or after you took LSD?
Why would we lie about this? Corky demanded.
Yeah, about sleeping with other women, but never about bioluminescent plankton.
Tolland sighed. Norah, certainly youre aware that plankton do live in the oceans beneath the ice.
Mike, she replied with a glare, please dont tell me my business. For the record, there are over two hundred species of diatoms that thrive under Arctic ice shelves. Fourteen species of autotrophic nannoflagellates, twenty heterotrophic flagellates, forty heterotrophic dinoflagellates, and several metazoans, including polychaetes, amphipods, copepods, euphausids, and fish. Any questions?
Tolland frowned. Clearly you know more about Arctic fauna than I do, and you agree theres plenty of life underneath us. So why are you so skeptical that we saw bioluminescent plankton?
Because, Mike, this shaft is sealed. Its a closed, freshwater environment. No ocean plankton could possibly get in here!
I tasted salt in the water, Tolland insisted. Very faint, but present. Saltwater is getting in here somehow.
Right, Norah said skeptically. You tasted salt. You licked the sleeve of an old sweaty parka, and now youve decided that the PODS density scans and fifteen separate core samples are inaccurate.
Tolland held out the wet sleeve of his parka as proof.
Mike, Im not licking your damn jacket. She looked into the hole. Might I ask why droves of alleged plankton decided to swim into this alleged crack?
Heat? Tolland ventured. A lot of sea creatures are attracted by heat. When we extracted the meteorite, we heated it. The plankton may have been drawn instinctively toward the temporarily warmer environment in the shaft.
Corky nodded. Sounds logical.
Logical? Norah rolled her eyes. You know, for a prize‑winning physicist and a world‑famous oceanographer, youre a couple of pretty dense specimens. Has it occurred to you that even if there is a crack‑which I can assure you there is not‑it is physically impossible for any sea‑water to be flowing into this shaft. She stared at both of them with pathetic disdain.
But, Norah . . . . . Corky began.
Gentlemen! Were standing above sea level here. She stamped her foot on the ice. Hello? This ice sheet rises a hundred feet above the sea. You might recall the big cliff at the end of this shelf? Were higher than the ocean. If there were a fissure into this shaft, the water would be flowing out of this shaft, not into it. Its called gravity.
Tolland and Corky looked at each other.
Shit, Corky said. I didnt think of that.
Norah pointed into the water‑filled shaft. You may also have noticed that the water level isnt changing?
Tolland felt like an idiot. Norah was absolutely right. If there had been a crack, the water would be flowing out, not in. Tolland stood in silence a long moment, wondering what to do next.
Okay. Tolland sighed. Apparently, the fissure theory makes no sense. But we saw bioluminescence in the water. The only conclusion is that this is not a closed environment after all. I realize much of your icedating data is built on the premise that the glacier is a solid block, but
Premise? Norah was obviously getting agitated. Remember, this was not just my data, Mike. NASA made the same findings. We all confirmed this glacier is solid. No cracks.
Tolland glanced across the dome toward the crowd gathered around the press conference area. Whatever is going on, I think, in good faith, we need to inform the administrator and
This is bullshit! Norah hissed. Im telling you this glacial matrix is pristine. Im not about to have my core data questioned by a salt lick and some absurd hallucinations. She stormed over to a nearby supply area and began collecting some tools. Ill take a proper water sample, and show you this water contains no saltwater plankton‑living or dead!
Rachel and the others looked on as Norah used a sterile pipette on a string to harvest a water sample from the melt pool. Norah placed several drops in a tiny device that resembled a miniature telescope. Then she peered through the oculus, pointing the device toward the light emanating from the other side of the dome. Within seconds she was cursing.
Jesus Christ! Norah shook the device and looked again. Damn it! Somethings got to be wrong with this refractometer!
Saltwater? Corky gloated.
Norah frowned. Partial. Its registering three percent brine‑which is totally impossible. This glacier is a snow pack. Pure freshwater. There should be no salt. Norah carried the sample to a nearby microscope and examined it. She groaned.
Plankton? Tolland asked.
G. polyhedra, she replied, her voice now sedate. Its one of the planktons we glaciologists commonly see in the oceans under ice shelves. She glanced over at Tolland. Theyre dead now. Obviously they didnt survive long in a three percent saltwater environment.
The four of them stood in silence a moment beside the deep shaft.
Rachel wondered what the ramifications of this paradox were for the overall discovery. The dilemma appeared minor when compared to the overall scope of the meteorite, and yet, as an intel analyst, Rachel had witnessed the collapse of entire theories based on smaller snags than this.
Whats going on over here? The voice was a low rumble.
Everyone looked up. The bearish frame of the NASA administrator emerged from the dark.
Minor quandary with the water in the shaft, Tolland said. Were trying to sort it out.
Corky sounded almost gleeful. Norahs ice data is screwed.
Bite me twice, Norah whispered.
The administrator approached, his furry eyebrows lowering. Whats wrong with the ice data.
Tolland heaved an uncertain sigh. Were showing a three percent saltwater mix in the meteorite shaft, which contradicts the glaciology report that the meteorite was encased in a pristine freshwater glacier. He paused. Theres also plankton present.
Ekstrom looked almost angry. Obviously thats impossible. There are no fissures in this glacier. The PODS scans confirmed that. This meteorite was sealed in a solid matrix of ice.
Rachel knew Ekstrom was correct. According to NASAs density scans, the ice sheet was rock solid. Hundreds of feet of frozen glacier on all sides of the meteorite. No cracks. And yet as Rachel imagined how density scans were taken, a strange thought occurred to her . . .
In addition, Ekstrom was saying, Dr. Mangors core samples confirmed the solidity of the glacier.
Exactly! Norah said, tossing the refractometer on a desk. Double corroboration. No fault lines in the ice. Which leaves us no explanation whatsoever for the salt and plankton.
Actually, Rachel said, the boldness of her voice surprising even herself. There is another possibility. The brainstorm had hit her from the most unlikely of memories.
Everyone was looking at her now, their skepticism obvious.
Rachel smiled. Theres a perfectly sound rationale for the presence of salt and plankton. She gave Tolland a wry look. And frankly, Mike, Im surprised it didnt occur to you.