Standing at the podium in the White House Briefing Room, Zach Herney felt the heat of the media lights and knew the world was watching. The targeted blitz performed by the White House Press Office had created a contagion of media buzz. Those who did not hear about the address via television, radio, or on‑line news invariably heard about it from neighbors, coworkers, and family. By 8:00 P.M . . . anyone not living in a cave was speculating about the topic of the Presidents address. In bars and living rooms over the globe, millions leaned toward their televisions in apprehensive wonder.
It was during moments like these‑facing the world‑that Zach Herney truly felt the weight of his office. Anyone who said power was not addictive had never really experienced it. As he began his address, however, Herney sensed something was amiss. He was not a man prone to stage fright, and so the tingle of apprehension now tightening in his core startled him.
Its the magnitude of the audience, he told himself. And yet he knew something else. Instinct. Something he had seen.
It had been such a little thing, and yet . . .
He told himself to forget it. It was nothing. And yet it stuck.
Moments ago, as Herney was preparing to take the stage, he had seen Marjorie Tench in the yellow hallway, talking on a cordless phone. This was strange in itself, but it was made more so by the White House operator standing beside her, her face white with apprehension. Herney could not hear Tenchs phone conversation, but he could see it was contentious. Tench was arguing with a vehemence and anger the President had seldom seen‑even from Tench. He paused a moment and caught her eye, inquisitive.
Tench gave him the thumbs‑up. Herney had never seen Tench give anyone the thumbs‑up. It was the last image in Herneys mind as he was cued onto the stage.
On the blue rug in the press area inside the NASA habisphere on Ellesmere Island, Administrator Lawrence Ekstrom was seated at the center of the long symposium table, flanked by top NASA officials and scientists. On a large monitor facing them the Presidents opening statement was being piped in live. The remainder of the NASA crew was huddled around other monitors, teeming with excitement as their commander‑in‑chief launched into his press conference.
Good evening, Herney was saying, sounding uncharacteristically stiff. To my fellow countrymen, and to our friends around the world . . .
Ekstrom gazed at the huge charred mass of rock displayed prominently in front of him. His eyes moved to a standby monitor, where he watched himself, flanked by his most austere personnel, against a backdrop of a huge American flag and NASA logo. The dramatic lighting made the setting look like some kind of neomodern painting‑the twelve apostles at the last supper. Zach Herney had turned this whole thing into a political sideshow. Herney had no choice. Ekstrom still felt like a televangelist, packaging God for the masses.
In about five minutes the President would introduce Ekstrom and his NASA staff. Then, in a dramatic satellite linkup from the top of the world, NASA would join the President in sharing this news with the world. After a brief account of how the discovery was made, what it meant for space science, and some mutual backpatting, NASA and the President would hand duty off to celebrity scientist Michael Tolland, whose documentary would roll for just under fifteen minutes. Afterward, with credibility and enthusiasm at its peak, Ekstrom and the President would say their good‑nights, promising more information to come in the days ahead via endless NASA press conferences.
As Ekstrom sat and waited for his cue, he felt a cavernous shame settling inside him. Hed known he would feel it. Hed been expecting it.
Hed told lies . . . endorsed untruths.
Somehow, though, the lies seemed inconsequential now. Ekstrom had a bigger weight on his mind.
In the chaos of the ABC production room, Gabrielle Ashe stood shoulder to shoulder with dozens of strangers, all necks craned toward the bank of television monitors suspended from the ceiling. A hush fell as the moment arrived. Gabrielle closed her eyes, praying that when she opened them she would not be looking at images of her own naked body.
The air inside Senator Sextons den was alive with excitement. All of his visitors were standing now, their eyes glued to the large‑screen television.
Zach Herney stood before the world, and incredibly, his greeting had been awkward. He seemed momentarily uncertain.
He looks shaky, Sexton thought. He never looks shaky.
Look at him, somebody whispered. It has to be bad news.
The space station? Sexton wondered.
Herney looked directly into the camera and took a deep breath. My friends, I have puzzled for many days now over how best to make this announcement . . .
Three easy words, Senator Sexton willed him. We blew it.
Herney spoke for a moment about how unfortunate it was that NASA had become such an issue in this election and how, that being the case, he felt he needed to preface the timing of his impending statement with an apology.
I would have preferred any other moment in history to make this announcement, he said. The political charge in the air tends to make doubters out of dreamers, and yet as your President, I have no choice but to share with you what I have recently learned. He smiled. It seems the magic of the cosmos is something which does not work on any human schedule . . . not even that of a president.
Everyone in Sextons den seemed to recoil in unison. What?
Two weeks ago, Herney said, NASAs new Polar Orbiting Density Scanner passed over the Milne Ice Shelf on Ellesmere Island, a remote landmass located above the Eightieth Parallel in the high Arctic Ocean.
Sexton and the others exchanged confused looks.
This NASA satellite, Herney continued, detected a large, high‑density rock buried two hundred feet under the ice. Herney smiled now for the first time, finding his stride. On receiving the data, NASA immediately suspected PODS had found a meteorite.
A meteorite? Sexton sputtered, standing. This is news?
NASA sent a team up to the ice shelf to take core samples. It was then that NASA made . . . He paused.
Frankly, they made the scientific discovery of the century.
Sexton took an incredulous step toward the television. No . . . . . His guests shifted uneasily.
Ladies and gentlemen, Herney announced, several hours ago, NASA pulled from the Arctic ice an eight‑ton meteorite, which contains . . . The President paused again, giving the whole world time to lean forward. A meteorite which contains fossils of a life‑form. Dozens of them. Unequivocal proof of extraterrestrial life.
On cue, a brilliant image illuminated on the screen behind the President‑a perfectly delineated fossil of an enormous buglike creature embedded in a charred rock.
In Sextons den, six entrepreneurs jumped up in wide‑eyed horror. Sexton stood frozen in place.
My friends, the President said, the fossil behind me is 190 million years old. It was discovered in a fragment of a meteorite called the Jungersol Fall which hit the Arctic Ocean almost three centuries ago. NASAs exciting new PODS satellite discovered this meteorite fragment buried in an ice shelf. NASA and this administration have taken enormous care over the past two weeks to confirm every aspect of this momentous discovery before making it public. In the next half hour you will be hearing from numerous NASA and civilian scientists, as well as viewing a short documentary prepared by a familiar face whom Im sure you all will recognize. Before I go any further, though, I absolutely must welcome, live via satellite from above the Arctic Circle, the man whose leadership, vision, and hard work is solely responsible for this historic moment. It is with great honor that I present NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom.
Herney turned to the screen on perfect cue.
The image of the meteorite dramatically dissolved into a regal‑looking panel of NASA scientists seated at a long table, flanked by the dominant frame of Lawrence Ekstrom.
Thank you, Mr. President. Ekstroms air was stern and proud as he stood up and looked directly into the camera. It gives me great pride to share with all of you, this‑NASAs finest hour.
Ekstrom spoke passionately about NASA and the discovery. With a fanfare of patriotism and triumph, he segued flawlessly to a documentary hosted by civilian science‑celebrity Michael Tolland.
As he watched, Senator Sexton fell to his knees in front of the television, his fingers clutching at his silver mane. No! God, no!