Rachel was quiet now, staring blankly at the cabin of the G4 as the plane headed south along the Canadian coastline of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Tolland sat nearby, talking to Corky. Despite the majority of evidence suggesting the meteorite was authentic, Corkys admission that the nickel content was outside the preestablished midrange values had served to rekindle Rachels initial suspicion. Secretly planting a meteorite beneath the ice only made sense as part of a brilliantly conceived fraud.
Nonetheless, the remaining scientific evidence pointed toward the meteorites validity.
Rachel turned from the window, glancing down at the disk‑shaped meteorite sample in her hand. The tiny chondrules shimmered. Tolland and Corky had been discussing these metallic chondrules for some time now, talking in scientific terms well over Rachels head‑equilibrated olivine levels, metastable glass matrices, and metamorphic rehomogenation. Nonetheless, the upshot was clear: Corky and Tolland were in agreement that the chondrules were decidedly meteoric. No fudging of that data.
Rachel rotated the disk‑shaped specimen in her hand, running a finger over the rim where part of the fusion crust was visible. The charring looked relatively fresh‑certainly not three hundred years old‑although Corky had explained that the meteorite had been hermetically sealed in ice and avoided atmospheric erosion. This seemed logical. Rachel had seen programs on television where human remains were dug from the ice after four thousand years and the persons skin looked almost perfect.
As she studied the fusion crust, an odd thought occurred to her‑an obvious piece of data had been omitted. Rachel wondered if it had simply been an oversight in all the data that was thrown at her or did someone simply forget to mention it.
She turned suddenly to Corky. Did anyone date the fusion crust?
Corky glanced over, looking confused. What?
Did anyone date the burn. That is, do we know for a fact that the burn on the rock occurred at exactly the time of the Jungersol Fall?
Sorry, Corky said, thats impossible to date. Oxidation resets all the necessary isotopic markers. Besides, radioisotope decay rates are too slow to measure anything under five hundred years.
Rachel considered that a moment, understanding now why the burn date was not part of the data. So, as far as we know, this rock could have been burned in the Middle Ages or last weekend, right?
Tolland chuckled. Nobody said science had all the answers.
Rachel let her mind wander aloud. A fusion crust is essentially just a severe burn. Technically speaking, the burn on this rock could have happened at any time in the past half century, in any number of different ways.
Wrong, Corky said. Burned in any number of different ways? No. Burned in one way. Falling through the atmosphere.
Theres no other possibility? How about in a furnace?
A furnace? Corky said. These samples were examined under an electron microscope. Even the cleanest furnace on earth would have left fuel residue all over the stone‑nuclear, chemical, fossil fuel. Forget it. And how about the striations from streaking through the atmosphere? You wouldnt get those in a furnace.
Rachel had forgotten about the orientation striations on the meteorite. It did indeed appear to have fallen through the air. How about a volcano? she ventured. Ejecta thrown violently from an eruption?
Corky shook his head. The burn is far too clean.
Rachel glanced at Tolland.
The oceanographer nodded. Sorry, Ive had some experience with volcanoes, both above and below water. Corkys right. Volcanic ejecta is penetrated by dozens of toxins‑carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrochloric acid‑all of which would have been detected in our electronic scans. That fusion crust, whether we like it or not, is the result of a clean atmospheric friction burn.
Rachel sighed, looking back out the window. A clean burn. The phrase stuck with her. She turned back to Tolland. What do you mean by a clean burn?
He shrugged. Simply that under an electron microscope, we see no remnants of fuel elements, so we know heating was caused by kinetic energy and friction, rather than chemical or nuclear ingredients.
If you didnt find any foreign fuel elements, what did you find? Specifically, what was the composition of the fusion crust?
We found, Corky said, exactly what we expected to find. Pure atmospheric elements. Nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen. No petroleums. No sulfurs. No volcanic acids. Nothing peculiar. All the stuff we see when meteorites fall through the atmosphere.
Rachel leaned back in her seat, her thoughts focusing now.
Corky leaned forward to look at her. Please dont tell me your new theory is that NASA took a fossilized rock up in the space shuttle and sent it hurtling toward earth hoping nobody would notice the fireball, the massive crater, or the explosion?
Rachel had not thought of that, although it was an interesting premise. Not feasible, but interesting all the same. Her thoughts were actually closer to home. All natural atmospheric elements. Clean burn. Striations from racing through the air. A faint light had gone off in a distant corner of her mind. The ratios of the atmospheric elements you saw, she said. Were they exactly the same ratios you see on every other meteorite with a fusion crust?
Corky seemed to hedge slightly at the question. Why do you ask?
Rachel saw him hesitate and felt her pulse quicken. The ratios were off, werent they?
There is a scientific explanation.
Rachels heart was suddenly pounding. Did you by any chance see an unusually high content of one element in particular?
Tolland and Corky exchanged startled looks. Yes, Corky said, but‑
Was it ionized hydrogen?
The astrophysicists eyes turned to saucers. How could you possibly know that!
Tolland also looked utterly amazed.
Rachel stared at them both. Why didnt anyone mention this to me?
Because theres a perfectly sound scientific explanation! Corky declared.
Im all ears, Rachel said.
There was surplus ionized hydrogen, Corky said, because the meteorite passed through the atmosphere near the North Pole, where the earths magnetic field causes an abnormally high concentration of hydrogen ions.
Rachel frowned. Unfortunately, I have another explanation.