Section Manager, PODS 1


Having come this far, Gabrielle suddenly felt apprehensive, wondering if she could actually pull this off. She reminded herself how certain Sexton was that Chris Harper had lied. I would bet my campaign on it, Sexton had said. Apparently there were others who felt the same, others who were waiting for Gabrielle to uncover the truth so they could close in on NASA, attempting to gain even a tiny foothold after tonights devastating developments. After the way Tench and the Herney administration had played Gabrielle this afternoon, she was eager to help.

Gabrielle raised her hand to knock on the door but paused, Yolandas voice running through her mind. If Chris Harper lied to the world about PODS, what makes you think hell tell YOU the truth?

Fear, Gabrielle told herself, having almost fallen victim to it herself today. She had a plan. It involved a tactic shed seen the senator use on occasion to scare information out of political opponents. Gabrielle had absorbed a lot under Sextons tutelage, and not all of it attractive or ethical. But tonight she needed every advantage. If she could persuade Chris Harper to admit he had lied‑for whatever reason‑Gabrielle would open a small door of opportunity for the senators campaign. Beyond that, Sexton was a man who, if given an inch to maneuver, could wriggle his way out of almost any jam.

Gabrielles plan for dealing with Harper was something Sexton called overshooting"‑an interrogation technique invented by the early Roman authorities to coax confessions from criminals they suspected were lying. The method was deceptively simple:

Assert the information you want confessed.

Then allege something far worse.

The object was to give the opponent a chance to choose the lesser of two evils‑in this case, the truth.

The trick was exuding confidence, something Gabrielle was not feeling at the moment. Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle ran through the script in her mind, and then knocked firmly on the office door.

I told you Im busy! Harper called out, his English accent familiar.

She knocked again. Louder.

I told you Im not interested in coming down!

This time she banged on the door with her fist.

Chris Harper came over and yanked open the door. Bloody hell, do you‑ He stopped short, clearly surprised to see Gabrielle.

Dr. Harper, she said, infusing her voice with intensity.

How did you get up here?

Gabrielles face was stern. Do you know who I am?

Of course. Your boss has been slamming my project for months. How did you get in?

Senator Sexton sent me.

Harpers eyes scanned the lab behind Gabrielle. Where is your staff escort?

Thats not your concern. The senator has influential connections.

In this building? Harper looked dubious.

Youve been dishonest, Dr. Harper. And Im afraid the senator has called a special senatorial justice board to look into your lies.

A pall crossed Harpers face. What are you talking about?

Smart people like yourself dont have the luxury of playing stupid, Dr. Harper. Youre in trouble, and the senator sent me up here to offer you a deal. The senators campaign took a huge hit tonight. Hes got nothing left to lose, and hes ready to take you down with him if he needs to.

What the devil are you talking about?

Gabrielle took a deep breath and made her play. You lied in your press conference about the PODS anomaly‑detection software. We know that. A lot of people know that. Thats not the issue. Before Harper could open his mouth to argue, Gabrielle steamed onward. The senator could blow the whistle on your lies right now, but hes not interested. Hes interested in the bigger story. I think you know what Im talking about.

No, I‑

Heres the senators offer. Hell keep his mouth shut about your software lies if you give him the name of the top NASA executive with whom youre embezzling funds.

Chris Harpers eyes seemed to cross for a moment. What? Im not embezzling!

I suggest you watch what you say, sir. The senatorial committee has been collecting documentation for months now. Did you really think you two would slip by undetected? Doctoring PODS paperwork and redirecting allocated NASA funds to private accounts? Lying and embezzling can put you in jail, Dr. Harper.

I did no such thing!

Youre saying you didnt lie about PODS?

No, Im saying I bloody well didnt embezzle money!

So, youre saying you did lie about PODS.

Harper stared, clearly at a loss for words.

Forget about the lying, Gabrielle said, waving it off. Senator Sexton is not interested in the issue of your lying in a press conference. Were used to that. You guys found a meteorite, nobody cares how you did it. The issue for him is the embezzlement. He needs to take down someone high in NASA. Just tell him who youre working with, and hell steer the investigation clear of you entirely. You can make it easy and tell us who the other person is, or the senator will make it ugly and start talking about anomaly‑detection software and phony work‑arounds.

Youre bluffing. There are no embezzled funds.

Youre an awful liar, Dr. Harper. Ive seen the documentation. Your name is on all the incriminating paperwork. Over and over.

I swear I know nothing about any embezzlement!

Gabrielle let out a disappointed sigh. Put yourself in my position, Dr. Harper. I can only draw two conclusions here. Either youre lying to me, the same way you lied in that press conference. Or youre telling the truth, and someone powerful in the agency is setting you up as a fall guy for his own misdealings.

The proposition seemed to give Harper pause.

Gabrielle checked her watch. The senators deal is on the table for an hour. You can save yourself by giving him the name of the NASA exec with whom youre embezzling taxpayers money. He doesnt care about you. He wants the big fish. Obviously the individual in question has some power here at NASA; he or she has managed to keep his or her identity off the paper trail, allowing you to be the fall guy.

Harper shook his head. Youre lying.

Would you like to tell that to a court?

Sure. Ill deny the whole thing.

Under oath? Gabrielle grunted in disgust. Suppose youll also deny you lied about fixing the PODS software? Gabrielles heart was pounding as she stared straight into the mans eyes. Think carefully about your options here, Dr. Harper. American prisons can be most unpleasant.

Harper glared back, and Gabrielle willed him to fold. For a moment she thought she saw a glimmer of surrender, but when Harper spoke, his voice was like steel.

Ms. Ashe, he declared, anger simmering in his eyes, you are clutching at thin air. You and I both know there is no embezzlement going on at NASA. The only liar in this room is you.

Gabrielle felt her muscles go rigid. The mans gaze was angry and sharp. She wanted to turn and run. You tried to bluff a rocket scientist. What the hell did you expect? She forced herself to hold her head high. All I know, she said, feigning utter confidence and indifference to his position, is the incriminating documents Ive seen‑conclusive evidence that you and another are embezzling NASA funds. The senator simply asked me to come here tonight and offer you the option of giving up your partner instead of facing the inquiry alone. I will tell the senator you prefer to take your chances with a judge. You can tell the court what you told me‑youre not embezzling funds and you didnt lie about the PODS software. She gave a grim smile. But after that lame press conference you gave two weeks ago, somehow I doubt it. Gabrielle spun on her heel and strode across the darkened PODS laboratory. She wondered if maybe shed be seeing the inside of a prison instead of Harper.

Gabrielle held her head high as she walked off, waiting for Harper to call her back. Silence. She pushed her way through the metal doors and strode out into the hallway, hoping the elevators up here were not key‑card operated like the lobby. Shed lost. Despite her best efforts, Harper wasnt biting. Maybe he was telling the truth in his PODS press conference, Gabrielle thought.

A crash resounded down the hall as the metal doors behind her burst open. Ms. Ashe, Harpers voice called out. I swear I know nothing about any embezzlement. Im an honest man!

Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat. She forced herself to keep walking. She gave a casual shrug and called out over her shoulder. And yet you lied in your press conference.

Silence. Gabrielle kept moving down the hallway.

Hold on! Harper yelled. He came jogging up beside her, his face pale. This embezzlement thing, he said, lowering his voice. I think I know who set me up.

Gabrielle stopped dead in her tracks, wondering if she had heard him correctly. She turned as slowly and casually as she could. You expect me to believe someone is setting you up?

Harper sighed. I swear I know nothing about embezzlement. But if theres evidence against me . . .

Mounds of it.

Harper sighed. Then its all been planted. To discredit me if need be. And theres only one person who would have done that.


Harper looked her in the eye. Lawrence Ekstrom hates me.

Gabrielle was stunned. The administrator of NASA?

Harper gave a grim nod. Hes the one who forced me to lie in that press conference.




Even with the Aurora aircrafts misted‑methane propulsion system at half power, the Delta Force was hurtling through the night at three times the speed of sound‑over two thousand miles an hour. The repetitive throb of the Pulse Detonation Wave Engines behind them gave the ride a hypnotic rhythm. A hundred feet below, the ocean churned wildly, whipped up by the Auroras vacuum wake, which sucked fifty‑foot rooster tails skyward in long parallel sheets behind the plane.

This is the reason the SR‑71 Blackbird was retired, Delta‑One thought.

The Aurora was one of those secret aircraft that nobody was supposed to know existed, but everyone did. Even the Discovery channel had covered Aurora and its testing out at Groom Lake in Nevada. Whether the security leaks had come from the repeated skyquakes heard as far away as Los Angeles, or the unfortunate eyewitness sighting by a North Sea oil‑rig driller, or the administrative gaffe that left a description of Aurora in a public copy of the Pentagon budget, nobody would ever know. It hardly mattered. The word was out: The U.S. military had a plane capable of Mach 6 flight, and it was no longer on the drawing board. It was in the skies overhead.

Built by Lockheed, the Aurora looked like a flattened American football. It was 110 feet long, sixty feet wide, smoothly contoured with a crystalline patina of thermal tiles much like the space shuttle. The speed was primarily the result of an exotic new propulsion system known as a Pulse Detonation Wave Engine, which burned a clean, misted, liquid hydrogen and left a telltale pulse contrail in the sky. For this reason, it only flew at night.

Tonight, with the luxury of enormous speed, the Delta Force was taking the long way home, out across the open ocean. Even so, they were overtaking their quarry. At this rate, the Delta Force would be arriving on the eastern seaboard in under an hour, a good two hours before its prey. There had been discussion of tracking and shooting down the plane in question, but the controller rightly feared a radar capture of the incident or the burned wreckage might bring on a massive investigation. It was best to let the plane land as scheduled, the controller had decided. Once it became clear where their quarry intended to land, the Delta Force would move in.

Now, as Aurora streaked over the desolate Labrador Sea, Delta‑Ones CrypTalk indicated an incoming call. He answered.

The situation has changed, the electronic voice informed them. You have another mark before Rachel Sexton and the scientists land.

Another mark. Delta‑One could feel it. Things were unraveling. The controllers ship had sprung another leak, and the controller needed them to patch it as fast as possible. The ship would not be leaking, Delta‑One reminded himself, if we had hit our marks successfully on the Milne Ice Shelf. Delta‑One knew damn well he was cleaning up his own mess.

A fourth party has become involved, the controller said.


The controller paused a moment‑and then gave them a name.

The three men exchanged startled looks. It was a name they knew well.

No wonder the controller sounded reluctant! Delta‑One thought. For an operation conceived as a zero‑casualty venture, the body count and target profile was climbing fast. He felt his sinews tighten as the controller prepared to inform them exactly how and where they would eliminate this new individual.

The stakes have increased considerably, the controller said. Listen closely. I will give you these instructions only once.




High above northern Maine, a G4 jet continued speeding toward Washington. Onboard, Michael Tolland and Corky Marlinson looked on as Rachel Sexton began to explain her theory for why there might be increased hydrogen ions in the fusion crust of the meteorite.

NASA has a private test facility called Plum Brook Station, Rachel explained, hardly able to believe she was going to talk about this. Sharing classified information out of protocol was not something she had ever done, but considering the circumstances, Tolland and Corky had a right to know this. Plum Brook is essentially a test chamber for NASAs most radical new engine systems. Two years ago I wrote a gist about a new design NASA was testing there‑something called an expander cycle engine.

Corky eyed her suspiciously. Expander cycle engines are still in the theoretical stage. On paper. Nobodys actually testing. Thats decades away.

Rachel shook her head. Sorry, Corky. NASA has prototypes. Theyre testing.

What? Corky looked skeptical. ECEs run on liquid oxygen‑hydrogen, which freezes in space, making the engine worthless to NASA. They said they were not even going to try to build an ECE until they overcame the freezing fuel problem.

They overcame it. They got rid of the oxygen and turned the fuel into a slush‑hydrogen mixture, which is some kind of cryogenic fuel consisting of pure hydrogen in a semifrozen state. Its very powerful and very clean burning. Its also a contender for the propulsion system if NASA runs missions to Mars.

Corky looked amazed. This cant be true.

It better be true, Rachel said. I wrote a brief about it for the President. My boss was up in arms because NASA wanted to publicly announce slush‑hydrogen as a big success, and Pickering wanted the White House to force NASA to keep slush‑hydrogen classified.


Not important, Rachel said, having no intention of sharing more secrets than she had to. The truth was that Pickerings desire to classify slush‑hydrogens success was to fight a growing national security concern few knew existed‑the alarming expansion of Chinas space technology. The Chinese were currently developing a deadly for‑hire launch platform, which they intended to rent out to high bidders, most of whom would be U.S. enemies. The implications for U.S. security were devastating. Fortunately, the NRO knew China was pursuing a doomed propulsion‑fuel model for their launch platform, and Pickering saw no reason to tip them off about NASAs more promising slush‑hydrogen propellant.

So, Tolland said, looking uneasy, youre saying NASA has a clean‑burning propulsion system that runs on pure hydrogen?

Rachel nodded. I dont have figures, but the exhaust temperatures of these engines are apparently several times hotter than anything ever before developed. Theyre requiring NASA to develop all kinds of new nozzle materials. She paused. A large rock, placed behind one of these slush‑hydrogen engines, would be scalded by a hydrogen‑rich blast of exhaust fire coming out at an unprecedented temperature. Youd get quite a fusion crust.

Come on now! Corky said. Are we back to the fake meteorite scenario?

Tolland seemed suddenly intrigued. Actually, thats quite an idea. The setup would be more or less like leaving a boulder on the launchpad under the space shuttle during liftoff.

God save me, Corky muttered. Im airborne with idiots.

Corky, Tolland said. Hypothetically speaking, a rock placed in an exhaust field would exhibit similar burn features to one that fell through the atmosphere, wouldnt it? Youd have the same directional striations and backflow of the melting material.

Corky grunted. I suppose.

And Rachels clean‑burning hydrogen fuel would leave no chemical residue. Only hydrogen. Increased levels of hydrogen ions in the fusion pocking.

Corky rolled his eyes. Look, if one of these ECE engines actually exists, and runs on slush‑hydrogen, I suppose what youre talking about is possible. But its extremely far‑fetched.

Why? Tolland asked. The process seems fairly simple.

Rachel nodded. All you need is a 190‑million‑year‑old fossilized rock. Blast it in a slush‑hydrogen‑engine exhaust fire, and bury it in the ice. Instant meteorite.

To a tourist, maybe, Corky said, but not to a NASA scientist! You still havent explained the chondrules!

Rachel tried to recall Corkys explanation of how chondrules formed. You said chondrules are caused by rapid heating and cooling events in space, right?

Corky sighed. Chondrules form when a rock, chilled in space, suddenly becomes superheated to a partial‑melt stage‑somewhere near 1550 Celsius. Then the rock must cool again, extremely rapidly, hardening the liquid pockets into chondrules.

Tolland studied his friend. And this process cant happen on earth?

Impossible, Corky said. This planet does not have the temperature variance to cause that kind of rapid shift. Youre talking here about nuclear heat and the absolute zero of space. Those extremes simply dont exist on earth.

Rachel considered it. At least not naturally.

Corky turned. Whats that supposed to mean?

Why couldnt the heating and cooling event have occurred here on earth artificially? Rachel asked. The rock could have been blasted by a slush‑hydrogen engine and then rapidly cooled in a cryogenic freezer.

Corky stared. Manufactured chondrules?

Its an idea.

A ridiculous one, Corky replied, flashing his meteorite sample. Perhaps you forget? These chondrules were irrefutably dated at 190 million years. His tone grew patronizing. To the best of my knowledge, Ms. Sexton, 190 million years ago, nobody was running slush‑hydrogen engines and cryogenic coolers.


Chondrules or not, Tolland thought, the evidence is piling up. He had been silent now for several minutes, deeply troubled by Rachels newest revelation about the fusion crust. Her hypothesis, though staggeringly bold, had opened all kinds of new doors and gotten Tolland thinking in new directions. If the fusion crust is explainable . . . what other possibilities does that present?

Youre quiet, Rachel said, beside him.

Tolland glanced over. For an instant, in the muted lighting of the plane, he saw a softness in Rachels eyes that reminded him of Celia. Shaking off the memories, he gave her a tired sigh. Oh, I was just thinking . . .

She smiled. About meteorites?

What else?

Running through all the evidence, trying to figure out whats left?

Something like that.

Any thoughts?

Not really. Im troubled by how much of the data has collapsed in light of discovering that insertion shaft beneath the ice.

Hierarchical evidence is a house of cards, Rachel said. Pull out your primary assumption, and everything gets shaky. The location of the meteorite find was a primary assumption.

Ill say. When I arrived at Milne, the administrator told me the meteorite had been found inside a pristine matrix of three‑hundred‑year‑old ice and was more dense than any rock found anywhere in the area, which I took as logical proof that the rock had to fall from space.

You and the rest of us.

The midrange nickel content, though persuasive, is apparently not conclusive.

Its close, Corky said nearby, apparently listening in.

But not exact.

Corky acquiesced with a reluctant nod.

And, Tolland said, this never before seen species of space bug, though shockingly bizarre, in reality could be nothing more than a very old, deepwater crustacean.

Rachel nodded. And now the fusion crust . . .

I hate to say it, Tolland said, glancing at Corky, but its starting to feel like theres more negative evidence than positive.

Science is not about hunches, Corky said. Its about evidence. The chondrules in this rock are decidedly meteoric. I agree with you both that everything weve seen is deeply disturbing, but we cannot ignore these chondrules. The evidence in favor is conclusive, while the evidence against is circumstantial.

Rachel frowned. So where does that leave us?

Nowhere, Corky said. The chondrules prove we are dealing with a meteorite. The only question is why someone stuck it under the ice.

Tolland wanted to believe his friends sound logic, but something just felt wrong.

You dont look convinced, Mike, Corky said.

Tolland gave his friend a bewildered sigh. I dont know. Two out of three wasnt bad, Corky. But were down to one out of three. I just feel like were missing something.




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.

: 2015-09-14; : 3;

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