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71

Inside the Charlotte’s dead room, Rachel Sexton introduced Michael Tolland and Corky Marlinson to Pickering. Then she took charge and launched into a quick account of the day’s incredible chain of events.

The NRO director sat motionless as he listened.

Rachel told him about the bioluminescent plankton in the extraction pit, their journey onto the ice shelf and discovery of an insertion shaft beneath the meteorite, and finally of their sudden attack by a military team she suspected was Special Ops.

William Pickering was known for his ability to listen to disturbing information without so much as flinching an eye, and yet his gaze grew more and more troubled with each progression in Rachel’s story. She sensed disbelief and then rage when she talked about Norah Mangor’s murder and their own near‑death escape. Although Rachel wanted to voice her suspicions of the NASA administrator’s involvement, she knew Pickering well enough not to point fingers without evidence. She gave Pickering the story as cold hard facts. When she was finished, Pickering did not respond for several seconds.

“Ms. Sexton,” he finally said, “all of you . . . “He moved his gaze to each of them. “If what you’re saying is true, and I cannot imagine why three of you would lie about this, you are all very lucky to be alive.”

They all nodded in silence. The President had called in four civilian scientists . . . and two of them were now dead.

Pickering heaved a disconsolate sigh, as if he had no idea what to say next. The events clearly made little sense. “Is there any way,” Pickering asked, “that this insertion shaft you’re seeing in that GPR printout is a natural phenomenon?”

Rachel shook her head. “It’s too perfect.” She unfolded the soggy GPR printout and held it up in front of the camera. “Flawless.”

Pickering studied the image, scowling in agreement. “Don’t let that out of your hands.”

“I called Marjorie Tench to warn her to stop the President,” Rachel said. “But she shut me down.”

“I know. She told me.”

Rachel looked up, stunned. “Marjorie Tench called you?” That was fast.

“Just now. She’s very concerned. She feels you are attempting some kind of stunt to discredit the President and NASA. Perhaps to help your father.”

Rachel stood up. She waved the GPR printout and motioned to her two companions. “We were almost killed! Does this look like some kind of stunt? And why would I‑”

Pickering held up his hands. “Easy. What Ms. Tench failed to tell me was that there were three of you.”

Rachel could not recall if Tench had even given her time to mention Corky and Tolland.

“Nor did she tell me you had physical evidence,” Pickering said. “I was skeptical of her claims before I spoke to you, and now I am convinced she is mistaken. I do not doubt your claims. The question at this point is what it all means.”

There was a long silence.

William Pickering rarely looked confused, but he shook his head, seeming lost. “Let’s assume for the moment that someone did insert this meteorite beneath the ice. That begs the obvious issue of why. If NASA has a meteorite with fossils in it, why would they, or anyone else for that matter, care where it is found?”

“It appears,” Rachel said, “that the insertion was performed such that PODS would make the discovery, and the meteorite would appear to be a fragment from a known impact.”

“The Jungersol Fall,” Corky prompted.

“But of what value is the meteorite’s association with a known impact?” Pickering demanded, sounding almost mad. “Aren’t these fossils an astounding discovery anywhere and anytime? No matter what meteoritic event they are associated with?”

All three nodded.

Pickering hesitated, looking displeased. “Unless . . . of course . . .”

Rachel saw the wheels turning behind the director’s eyes. He had found the simplest explanation for placing the meteorite concurrent with the Jungersol strata, but the simplest explanation was also the most troubling.

“Unless,” Pickering continued, “the careful placement was intended to lend credibility to totally false data.” He sighed, turning to Corky. “Dr. Marlinson, what is the possibility that this meteorite is a counterfeit.”

“Counterfeit, sir?”

“Yes. A fake. Manufactured.”

“A fake meteorite?” Corky gave an awkward laugh. “Utterly impossible! That meteorite was examined by professionals. Myself included. Chemical scans, spectrograph, rubidium‑strontium dating. It is unlike any kind of rock ever seen on earth. The meteorite is authentic. Any astrogeologist would agree.”

Pickering seemed to consider this a long time, gently stroking his tie. “And yet taking into account the amount NASA has to gain from this discovery right now, the apparent signs of tampering with evidence, and your being attacked . . . the first and only logical conclusion I can draw is that this meteorite is a well‑executed fraud.”

“Impossible!” Corky sounded angry now. “With all respect, sir, meteorites are not some Hollywood special effect that can be conjured up in a lab to fool a bunch of unsuspecting astrophysicists. They are chemically complex objects with unique crystalline structures and element ratios!”

“I am not challenging you, Dr. Marlinson. I am simply following a logical chain of analysis. Considering someone wanted to kill you to keep you from revealing it was inserted under the ice, I’m inclined to entertain all kinds of wild scenarios here. What specifically makes you certain this rock is indeed a meteorite?”

“Specifically?” Corky’s voice cracked in the headphones. “A flawless fusion crust, the presence of chondrules, a nickel ratio unlike anything ever found on earth. If you’re suggesting that someone tricked us by manufacturing this rock in a lab, then all I can say is that the lab was about 190 million years old.” Corky dug in his pocket and pulled out a stone shaped like a CD. He held it in front of the camera. “We chemically dated samples like this with numerous methods. Rubidium‑strontium dating is not something you can fake!”

Pickering looked surprised. “You have a sample?”

Corky shrugged. “NASA had dozens of them floating around.”

“You mean to tell me,” Pickering said, looking at Rachel now, “that NASA discovered a meteorite they think contains life, and they’re letting people walk off with samples?”

“The point,” Corky said, “is that the sample in my hands is genuine.” He held the rock close to the camera. “You could give this to any petrologist or geologist or astronomer on earth, they would run tests, and they would tell you two things: one, it is 190 million years old; and two, it is chemically dissimilar from the kind of rock we have here on earth.”

Pickering leaned forward, studying the fossil embedded in the rock. He seemed momentarily transfixed. Finally, he sighed. “I am not a scientist. All I can say is that if that meteorite is genuine, which it appears it is, I would like to know why NASA didn’t present it to the world at face value? Why has someone carefully placed it under the ice as if to persuade us of its authenticity?”

At that moment, inside the White House, a security officer was dialing Marjorie Tench.

The senior adviser answered on the first ring. “Yeah?”

“Ms. Tench,” the officer said, “I have the information you requested earlier. The radiophone call that Rachel Sexton placed to you earlier this evening. We have the trace.”

“Tell me.”

“Secret Service ops says the signal originated aboard the naval submarine U.S.S. Charlotte.”

“What!”

“They don’t have coordinates, ma’am, but they are certain of the vessel code.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” Tench slammed down the receiver without another word.