I got caught, Chris Harper thought, feeling a chill as he pictured an American prison cell. Senator Sexton knows I lied about the PODS software.
As the PODS section manager escorted Gabrielle Ashe back into his office and closed the door, he felt his hatred of the NASA administrator grow deeper by the instant. Tonight Harper had learned just how deep the administrators lies truly ran. In addition to forcing Harper to lie about having fixed PODSs software, the administrator had apparently set up some insurance just in case Harper got cold feet and decided not to be a team player.
Evidence of embezzlement, Harper thought. Blackmail. Very sly. After all, who would believe an embezzler trying to discredit the single greatest moment in American space history? Harper had already witnessed to what lengths the NASA administrator would go to save Americas space agency, and now with the announcement of a meteorite with fossils, the stakes had skyrocketed.
Harper paced for several seconds around the widetable on which sat a scale model of the PODS satellite‑a cylindrical prism with multiple antennae and lenses behind reflective shields. Gabrielle sat down, her dark eyes watching, waiting. The nausea in Harpers gut reminded him of how he had felt during the infamous press conference. Hed put on a lousy show that night, and everyone had questioned him about it. Hed had to lie again and say he was feeling ill that night and was not himself. His colleagues and the press shrugged off his lackluster performance and quickly forgot about it.
Now the lie had come back to haunt him.
Gabrielle Ashes expression softened. Mr. Harper, with the administrator as an enemy, you will need a powerful ally. Senator Sexton could well be your only friend at this point. Lets start with the PODS software lie. Tell me what happened.
Harper sighed. He knew it was time to tell the truth. I bloody well should have told the truth in the first place! The PODS launch went smoothly, he began. The satellite settled into a perfect polar orbit just as planned.
Gabrielle Ashe looked bored. She apparently knew all this. Go on.
Then came the trouble. When we geared up to start searching the ice for density anomalies, the onboard anomaly‑detection software failed.
Uh . . . huh.
Harpers words came faster now. The software was supposed to be able to rapidly examine thousands of acres of data and find parts of the ice that fell outside the range of normal ice density. Primarily the software was looking for soft spots in the ice‑global warming indicators‑but if it stumbled across other density incongruities, it was programmed to flag those as well. The plan was for PODS to scan the Arctic Circle over several weeks and identify any anomalies that we could use to measure global warming.
But without functioning software, Gabrielle said, PODS was no good. NASA would have had to examine images of every square inch of the Arctic by hand, looking for trouble spots.
Harper nodded, reliving the nightmare of his programming gaffe. It would take decades. The situation was terrible. Because of a flaw in my programming, PODS was essentially worthless. With the election coming up and Senator Sexton being so critical of NASA . . . He sighed.
Your mistake was devastating to NASA and the President.
It couldnt have come at a worse time. The administrator was livid. I promised him I could fix the problem during the next shuttle mission‑a simple matter of swapping out the chip that held the PODS software system. But it was too little too late. He sent me home on leave‑but essentially I was fired. That was a month ago.
And yet you were back on television two weeks ago announcing youd found a work‑around.
Harper slumped. A terrible mistake. That was the day I got a desperate call from the administrator. He told me something had come up, a possible way to redeem myself. I came into the office immediately and met with him. He asked me to hold a press conference and tell everyone Id found a work‑around for the PODS software and that we would have data in a few weeks. He said hed explain it to me later.
And you agreed.
No, I refused! But an hour later, the administrator was back in my office‑with the White House senior adviser!
What! Gabrielle looked astounded by this. Marjorie Tench?
An awful creature, Harper thought, nodding. She and the administrator sat me down and told me my mistake had quite literally put NASA and the President on the brink of total collapse. Ms. Tench told me about the senators plans to privatize NASA. She told me I owed it to the President and space agency to make it all right. Then she told me how.
Gabrielle leaned forward. Go on.
Marjorie Tench informed me that the White House, by sheer good fortune, had intercepted strong geologic evidence that an enormous meteorite was buried in the Milne Ice Shelf. One of the biggest ever. A meteorite of that size would be a major find for NASA.
Gabrielle looked stunned. Hold on, so youre saying someone already knew the meteorite was there before PODS discovered it?
Yes. PODS had nothing to do with the discovery. The administrator knew the meteorite existed. He simply gave me the coordinates and told me to reposition PODS over the ice shelf and pretend PODS made the discovery.
Youre kidding me.
That was my reaction when they asked me to participate in the sham. They refused to tell me how theyd found out the meteorite was there, but Ms. Tench insisted it didnt matter and that this was the ideal opportunity to salvage my PODS fiasco. If I could pretend the PODS satellite located the meteorite, then NASA could praise PODS as a much needed success and boost the President before the election.
Gabrielle was awestruck. And of course you couldnt claim PODS had detected a meteorite until youd announced that the PODS anomaly‑detection software was up and running.
Harper nodded. Hence the press conference lie. I was forced into it. Tench and the administrator were ruthless. They reminded me Id let everyone down‑the President had funded my PODS project, NASA had spent years on it, and now Id ruined the whole thing with a programming blunder.
So you agreed to help.
I didnt have a choice. My career was essentially over if I didnt. And the reality was that if I hadnt muffed the software, PODS would have found that meteorite on its own. So, it seemed a small lie at the time. I rationalized it by telling myself that the software would be fixed in a few months when the space shuttle went up, so I would simply be announcing the fix a little early.
Gabrielle let out a whistle. A tiny lie to take advantage of a meteoric opportunity.
Harper was feeling ill just talking about it. So . . . I did it. Following the administrators orders, I held a press conference announcing that Id found a work‑around for my anomaly‑detection software, I waited a few days, and then I repositioned PODS over the administrators meteorite coordinates. Then, following the proper chain of command, I phoned the EOS director and reported that PODS had located a hard density anomaly in the Milne Ice Shelf. I gave him the coordinates and told him the anomaly appeared to be dense enough to be a meteorite. Excitedly, NASA sent a small team up to Milne to take some drill cores. Thats when the operation got very hush‑hush.
So, you had no idea the meteorite had fossils until tonight?
Nobody here did. Were all in shock. Now everyone is calling me a hero for finding proof of extraterrestrial bioforms, and I dont know what to say.
Gabrielle was silent a long moment, studying Harper with firm black eyes. But if PODS didnt locate the meteorite in the ice, how did the administrator know the meteorite was there?
Someone else found it first.
Someone else? Who?
Harper sighed. A Canadian geologist named Charles Brophy‑a researcher on Ellesmere Island. Apparently he was doing geologic ice soundings on the Milne Ice Shelf when he by chance discovered the presence of what appeared to be a huge meteorite in the ice. He radioed it in, and NASA happened to intercept the transmission.
Gabrielle stared. But isnt this Canadian furious that NASA is taking all the credit for the find?
No, Harper said, feeling a chill. Conveniently, hes dead.