Section Manager, PODS 2


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.




Michael Tolland closed his eyes and listened to the drone of the G4 jet engine. He had given up trying to think anymore about the meteorite until they got back to Washington. The chondrules, according to Corky, were conclusive; the rock in the Milne Ice Shelf could only be a meteorite. Rachel had hoped to have a conclusive answer for William Pickering by the time they landed, but her thought experiments had run into a dead end with the chondrules. As suspicious as the meteorite evidence was, the meteorite appeared to be authentic.

So be it.

Rachel had obviously been shaken by the trauma in the ocean. Tolland was amazed, though, by her resilience. She was focused now on the issue at hand‑trying to find a way to debunk or authenticate the meteorite, and trying to assess who had tried to kill them.

For most of the trip, Rachel had been in the seat beside Tolland. Hed enjoyed talking to her, despite the trying circumstances. Several minutes ago, shed headed back to the restroom, and now Tolland was surprised to find himself missing her beside him. He wondered how long it had been since hed missed a womans presence‑a woman other than Celia.

Mr. Tolland?

Tolland glanced up.

The pilot was sticking his head into the cabin. You asked me to tell you when we were in telephone range of your ship? I can get you that connection if you want.

Thanks. Tolland made his way up the aisle.

Inside the cockpit, Tolland placed a call to his crew. He wanted to let them know he would not be back for another day or two. Of course, he had no intention of telling them what trouble hed run into.

The phone rang several times, and Tolland was surprised to hear the ships SHINCOM 2100 communications system pick up. The outgoing message was not the usual professional‑sounding greeting but rather the rowdy voice of one of Tollands crew, the onboard joker.

Hiya, hiya, this is the Goya, the voice announced. Were sorry nobodys here right now, but weve all been abducted by very large lice! Actually, weve taken temporary shore leave to celebrate Mikes huge night. Gosh, are we proud! You can leave your name and number, and maybe well be back tomorrow when were sober. Ciao! Go, ET!

Tolland laughed, missing his crew already. Obviously theyd seen the press conference. He was glad theyd gone ashore; hed abandoned them rather abruptly when the President called, and their sitting idle at sea was crazy. Although the message said everyone had gone ashore, Tolland had to assume they would not have left his ship unattended, particularly in the strong currents where it was now anchored.

Tolland pressed the numeric code to play any internal voice mail messages theyd left for him. The line beeped once. One message. The voice was the same rowdy crewmember.

Hi Mike, hell of a show! If youre hearing this, youre probably checking your messages from some swanky White House party and wondering where the hell we are. Sorry we abandoned ship, buddy, but this was not a dry‑celebration kind of night. Dont worry, we anchored her really good and left the porch light on. Were secretly hoping she gets pirated so youll let NBC buy you that new boat! Just kidding, man. Dont worry, Xavia agreed to stay onboard and mind the fort. She said she preferred time alone to partying with a bunch of drunken fishmongers? Can you believe that?

Tolland chuckled, relieved to hear someone was aboard watching the ship. Xavia was responsible, definitely not the partying type. A respected marine geologist, Xavia had the reputation for speaking her mind with a caustic honesty.

Anyhow, Mike, the message went on, tonight was incredible. Kind of makes you proud to be a scientist, doesnt it? Everyones talking about how good this looks for NASA. Screw NASA, I say! This looks even better for us! Amazing Seas ratings must have gone up a few million points tonight. Youre a star, man. A real one. Congrats. Excellent job.

There was hushed talking on the line, and the voice came back. Oh, yeah, and speaking of Xavia, just so you dont get too big a head, she wants to razz you about something. Here she is.

Xavias razor voice came on the machine. Mike, Xavia, youre a God, yada yada. And because I love you so much, Ive agreed to baby‑sit this antediluvian wreck of yours. Frankly, it will be nice to be away from these hoodlums you call scientists. Anyhow, in addition to baby‑sitting the ship, the crew has asked me, in my role as onboard bitch, to do everything in my power to keep you from turning into a conceited bastard, which after tonight I realize is going to be difficult, but I had to be the first to tell you that you made a boo‑boo in your documentary. Yes, you heard me. A rare Michael Tolland brain fart. Dont worry, there are only about three people on earth who will notice, and theyre all anal‑retentive marine geologists with no sense of humor. A lot like me. But you know what they say about us geologists‑always looking for faults! She laughed. Anyhow, its nothing, a minuscule point about meteorite petrology. I only mention it to ruin your night. You might get a call or two about it, so I thought Id give you the heads‑up so you dont end up sounding like the moron we all know you really are. She laughed again. Anyhow, Im not much of a party animal, so Im staying onboard. Dont bother calling me; I had to turn on the machine because the goddamned press have been calling all night. Youre a real star tonight, despite your screwup. Anyhow, Ill fill you in on it when you get back. Ciao.

The line went dead.

Michael Tolland frowned. A mistake in my documentary?


Rachel Sexton stood in the restroom of the G4 and looked at herself in the mirror. She looked pale, she thought, and more frail than shed imagined. Tonights scare had taken a lot out of her. She wondered how long it would be before she would stop shivering, or before she would go near an ocean. Removing her U.S.S. Charlotte cap, she let her hair down. Better, she thought, feeling more like herself.

Looking into her eyes, Rachel sensed a deep weariness. Beneath it, though, she saw the resolve. She knew that was her mothers gift. Nobody tells you what you can and cant do. Rachel wondered if her mother had seen what happened tonight. Someone tried to kill me, Mom. Someone tried to kill all of us . . .

Rachels mind, as it had for several hours now, scrolled through the list of names.

Lawrence Ekstrom . . . Marjorie Tench . . . President Zach Herney. All had motives. And, more chillingly, all had means. The President is not involved, Rachel told herself, clinging to her hope that the President she respected so much more than her own father was an innocent bystander in this mysterious incident.

We still know nothing.

Not who . . . not if . . . not why.

Rachel had wanted to have answers for William Pickering but, so far, all shed managed to do was raise more questions.

When Rachel left the restroom, she was surprised to see Michael Tolland was not in his seat. Corky was dozing nearby. As Rachel looked around, Mike stepped out of the cockpit as the pilot hung up a radiophone. His eyes were wide with concern.

What is it? Rachel asked.

Tollands voice was heavy as he told her about the phone message.

A mistake in his presentation? Rachel thought Tolland was overreacting. Its probably nothing. She didnt tell you specifically what the error was?

Something to do with meteorite petrology.

Rock structure?

Yeah. She said the only people who would notice the mistake were a few other geologists. It sounds like whatever error I made was related to the composition of the meteorite itself.

Rachel drew a quick breath, understanding now. Chondrules?

I dont know, but it seems pretty coincidental.

Rachel agreed. The chondrules were the one remaining shred of evidence that categorically supported NASAs claim that this was indeed a meteorite.

Corky came over, rubbing his eyes. Whats going on?

Tolland filled him in.

Corky scowled, shaking his head. Its not a problem with the chondrules, Mike. No way. All of your data came from NASA. And from me. It was flawless.

What other petrologic error could I have made?

Who the hell knows? Besides, what do marine geologists know about chondrules?

I have no idea, but shes damned sharp.

Considering the circumstances, Rachel said, I think we should talk to this woman before we talk to Director Pickering.

Tolland shrugged. I called her four times and got the machine. Shes probably in the hydrolab and cant hear a damn thing anyway. She wont get my messages until morning at the earliest. Tolland paused, checking his watch. Although . . .

Although what?

Tolland eyed her intensely. How important do you think it is that we talk to Xavia before we talk to your boss?

If she has something to say about chondrules? Id say its critical. Mike, Rachel said, at the moment, weve got all kinds of contradictory data. William Pickering is a man accustomed to having clear answers. When we meet him, Id love to have something substantial for him to act on.

Then we should make a stop.

Rachel did a double take. On your ship?

Its off the coast of New Jersey. Almost directly on our way to Washington. We can talk to Xavia, find out what she knows. Corky still has the meteorite sample, and if Xavia wants to run some geologic tests on it, the ship has a fairly well‑equipped lab. I cant imagine it would take us more than an hour to get some conclusive answers.

Rachel felt a pulse of anxiety. The thought of having to face the ocean again so soon was unnerving. Conclusive answers, she told herself, tempted by the possibility. Pickering will definitely want answers.




Delta‑One was glad to be back on solid ground.

The Aurora aircraft, despite running at only one‑half power and taking a circuitous ocean route, had completed its journey in under two hours and afforded the Delta Force a healthy head start to take up position and prepare themselves for the additional kill the controller had requested.

Now, on a private military runway outside D.C . . . the Delta Force left the Aurora behind and boarded their new transport‑a waiting OH‑58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter.

Yet again, the controller has arranged for the best, Delta‑One thought.

The Kiowa Warrior, originally designed as a light observation helicopter, had been expanded and improved to create the militarys newest breed of attack helicopter. The Kiowa boasted infrared thermal imaging capability enabling its designator/laser range finder to provide autonomous designation for laser‑guided precision weapons like Air‑to‑Air Stinger missiles and the AGM‑1148 Hellfire Missile System. A high‑speed digital signal processor provided simultaneous multitarget tracking of up to six targets. Few enemies had ever seen a Kiowa up close and survived to tell the tale.

Delta‑One felt a familiar rush of power as he climbed into the Kiowa pilots seat and strapped himself in. He had trained on this craft and flown it in covert ops three times. Of course, never before had he been gunning for a prominent American official. The Kiowa, he had to admit, was the perfect aircraft for the job. Its Rolls‑Royce Allison engine and twin semirigid blades were silent running, which essentially meant targets on the ground could not hear the chopper until it was directly over them. And because the aircraft was capable of flying blind without lights and was painted flat black with no reflective tail numbers, it was essentially invisible unless the target had radar.

Silent black helicopters.

The conspiracy theorists were going nuts over these. Some claimed the invasion of silent black helicopters was proof of New World Order storm troopers under the authority of the United Nations. Others claimed the choppers were silent alien probes. Still others who saw the Kiowas in tight formation at night were deceived into thinking they were looking at fixed running lights on a much larger craft‑a single flying saucer that was apparently capable of vertical flight.

Wrong again. But the military loved the diversion.

During a recent covert mission, Delta‑One had flown a Kiowa armed with the most secretive new U.S. military technology‑an ingenious holographic weapon nicknamed S M. Despite conjuring associations with sadomasochism, S M stood for smoke and mirrors"‑holographic images projected into the sky over enemy territory. The Kiowa had used S M technology to project holograms of U.S. aircraft over an enemy anti‑aircraft installation. The panicked anti‑aircraft gunners fired maniacally at the circling ghosts. When all of their ammunition was gone, the United States sent in the real thing.

As Delta‑One and his men lifted off the runway, Delta‑One could still hear the words of his controller. You have another mark. It seemed an egregious under‑statement considering their new targets identity. Delta‑One reminded himself, however, that it was not his place to question. His team had been given an order, and they would carry it out in the exact method instructed‑as shocking as that method was.

I hope to hell the controller is certain this is the right move.

As the Kiowa lifted off the runway, Delta‑One headed southwest. He had seen the FDR Memorial twice, but tonight would be his first time from the air.




This meteorite was originally discovered by a Canadian geologist? Gabrielle Ashe stared in astonishment at the young programmer, Chris Harper. And this Canadian is now dead?

Harper gave a grim nod.

How long have you known this? she demanded.

A couple of weeks. After the administrator and Marjorie Tench forced me to perjure myself in the press conference, they knew I couldnt go back on my word. They told me the truth about how the meteorite was really discovered.

PODS is not responsible for finding the meteorite! Gabrielle had no idea where all of this information would lead, but clearly it was scandalous. Bad news for Tench. Great news for the senator.

As I mentioned, Harper said, looking somber now, the true way the meteorite was discovered was through an intercepted radio transmission. Are you familiar with a program called INSPIRE? The Interactive NASA Space Physics Ionosphere Radio Experiment.

Gabrielle had heard of it only vaguely.

Essentially, Harper said, its a series of very low frequency radio receivers near the North Pole that listen to the sounds of the earth‑plasma wave emissions from the northern lights, broadband pulses from lightning storms, that sort of thing.


A few weeks ago, one of INSPIREs radio receivers picked up a stray transmission from Ellesmere Island. A Canadian geologist was calling for help at an exceptionally low frequency. Harper paused. In fact, the frequency was so low that nobody other than NASAs VLF receivers could possibly have heard it. We assumed the Canadian was long‑waving.

Im sorry?

Broadcasting at the lowest possible frequency to get maximum distance on his transmission. He was in the middle of nowhere, remember; a standard frequency transmission probably would not have made it far enough to be heard.

What did his message say?

The transmission was short. The Canadian said he had been out doing ice soundings on the Milne Ice Shelf, had detected an ultradense anomaly buried in the ice, suspected it was a giant meteorite, and while taking measurements had become trapped in a storm. He gave his coordinates, asked for rescue from the storm, and signed off. The NASA listening post sent a plane from Thule to rescue him. They searched for hours and finally discovered him, miles off course, dead at the bottom of a crevasse with his sled and dogs. Apparently he tried to outrun the storm, got blinded, went off course, and fell into a crevasse.

Gabrielle considered the information, intrigued. So suddenly NASA knew about a meteorite that nobody else knew about?

Exactly. And ironically, if my software had been working properly, the PODS satellite would have spotted that same meteorite‑a week before the Canadian did.

The coincidence gave Gabrielle pause. A meteorite buried for three hundred years was almost discovered twice in the same week?

I know. A little bizarre, but science can be like that. Feast or famine. The point is that the administrator felt like the meteorite should have been our discovery anyway‑if I had done my job correctly. He told me that because the Canadian was dead, nobody would be the wiser if I simply redirected PODS to the coordinates the Canadian had transmitted in his SOS. Then I could pretend to discover the meteorite from scratch, and we could salvage some respect from an embarrassing failure.

And thats what you did.

As I said, I had no choice. I had let down the mission. He paused. Tonight, though, when I heard the Presidents press conference and found out the meteorite Id pretended to discover contained fossils . . .

You were stunned.

Bloody well floored, Id say!

Do you think the administrator knew the meteorite contained fossils before he asked you to pretend PODS found it?

I cant imagine how. That meteorite was buried and untouched until the first NASA team got there. My best guess is that NASA had no idea what theyd really found until they got a team up there to drill cores and x‑ray. They asked me to lie about PODS, thinking theyd have a moderate victory with a big meteorite. Then when they got there, they realized just how big a find it really was.

Gabrielles breath was shallow with excitement. Dr. Harper, will you testify that NASA and the White House forced you to lie about the PODS software?

I dont know. Harper looked frightened. I cant imagine what kind of damage that would do to the agency . . . to this discovery.

Dr. Harper, you and I both know this meteorite remains a wonderful discovery, regardless of how it came about. The point here is that you lied to the American people. They have a right to know that PODS is not everything NASA says it is.

I dont know. I despise the administrator, but my coworkers . . . they are good people.

And they deserve to know they are being deceived.

And this evidence against me of embezzlement?

You can erase that from your mind, Gabrielle said, having almost forgotten her con. I will tell the senator you know nothing of the embezzlement. It is simply a frame job‑insurance set up by the administrator to keep you quiet about PODS.

Can the senator protect me?

Fully. Youve done nothing wrong. You were simply following orders. Besides, with the information youve just given me about this Canadian geologist, I cant imagine the senator will even need to raise the issue of embezzlement at all. We can focus entirely on NASAs misinformation regarding PODS and the meteorite. Once the senator breaks the information about the Canadian, the administrator wont be able to risk trying to discredit you with lies.

Harper still looked worried. He fell silent, somber as he pondered his options. Gabrielle gave him a moment. Shed realized earlier that there was another troubling coincidence to this story. She wasnt going to mention it, but she could see Dr. Harper needed a final push.

Do you have dogs, Dr. Harper?

He glanced up. Im sorry?

I just thought it was odd. You told me that shortly after this Canadian geologist radioed in the meteorite coordinates, his sled dogs ran blindly into a crevasse?

There was a storm. They were off course.

Gabrielle shrugged, letting her skepticism show. Yeah . . . okay.

Harper clearly sensed her hesitation. What are you saying?

I dont know. Theres just a lot of coincidence surrounding this discovery. A Canadian geologist transmits meteorite coordinates on a frequency that only NASA can hear? And then his sled dogs run blindly off a cliff? She paused. You obviously understand that this geologists death paved the way for this entire NASA triumph.

The color drained from Harpers face. You think the administrator would kill over this meteorite.

Big politics. Big money, Gabrielle thought. Let me talk to the senator and well be in touch. Is there a back way out of here?


Gabrielle Ashe left a pale Chris Harper and descended a fire stairwell into a deserted alley behind NASA. She flagged down a taxi that had just dropped off more NASA celebrators.

Westbrooke Place Luxury Apartments, she told the driver. She was about to make Senator Sexton a much happier man.




Wondering what she had agreed to, Rachel stood near the entrance of the G4 cockpit, stretching a radio transceiver cable into the cabin so she could place her call out of earshot of the pilot. Corky and Tolland looked on. Although Rachel and NRO director William Pickering had planned to maintain radio silence until her arrival at Bollings Air Force Base outside of D.C . . . Rachel now had information she was certain Pickering would want to hear immediately. She had phoned his secure cellular, which he carried at all times.

When William Pickering came on the line, he was all business. Speak with care, please. I cannot guarantee this connection.

Rachel understood. Pickerings cellular, like most NRO field phones, had an indicator that detected unsecured incoming calls. Because Rachel was on a radiophone, one of the least secure communication modes available, Pickerings phone had warned him. This conversation would need to be vague. No names. No locations.

My voice is my identity, Rachel said, using the standard field greeting in this situation. She had expected the directors response would be displeasure that she had risked contacting him, but Pickerings reaction sounded positive.

Yes, I was about to make contact with you myself. We need to redirect. Im concerned you may have a welcoming party.

Rachel felt a sudden trepidation. Someone is watching us. She could hear the danger in Pickerings tone. Redirect. He would be pleased to know she had called to make that exact request, albeit for entirely different reasons.

The issue of authenticity, Rachel said. Weve been discussing it. We may have a way to confirm or deny categorically.

Excellent. There have been developments, and at least then I would have solid ground on which to proceed.

The proof involves our making a quick stop. One of us has access to a laboratory facility‑

No exact locations, please. For your own safety.

Rachel had no intention of broadcasting her plans over this line. Can you get us clearance to land at GAS‑AC?

Pickering was silent a moment. Rachel sensed he was trying to process the word. GAS‑AC was an obscure NRO gisting shorthand for the Coast Guards Group Air Station Atlantic City. Rachel hoped the director would know it.

Yes, he finally said. I can arrange that. Is that your final destination?

No. We will require further helicopter transport.

An aircraft will be waiting.

Thank you.

I recommend you exercise extreme caution until we know more. Speak to no one. Your suspicions have drawn deep concern among powerful parties.

Tench, Rachel thought, wishing she had managed to make contact with the President directly.

I am currently in my car, en route to meet the woman in question. She has requested a private meeting in a neutral location. It should reveal much.

Pickering is driving somewhere to meet Tench? Whatever Tench was going to tell him must be important if she refused to tell him on the phone.

Pickering said, Do not discuss your final coordinates with anyone. And no more radio contact. Is that clear?

Yes, sir. Well be at GAS‑AC in an hour.

Transport will be arranged. When you reach your ultimate destination, you can call me via more secure channels. He paused. I cannot overstate the importance of secrecy to your safety. You have made powerful enemies tonight. Take appropriate caution. Pickering was gone.

Rachel felt tense as she closed the connection and turned to Tolland and Corky.

Change of destination? Tolland said, looking eager for answers.

Rachel nodded, feeling reluctant. The Goya.

Corky sighed, glancing down at the meteorite sample in his hand. I still cant imagine NASA could possibly have . . . He faded off, looking more worried with every passing minute.

Well know soon enough, Rachel thought.

She went into the cockpit and returned the radio transceiver. Glancing out the windscreen at the rolling plateau of moonlit clouds racing beneath them, she had the unsettling feeling they were not going to like what they found onboard Tollands ship.




William Pickering felt an unusual solitude as he drove his sedan down the Leesburg Highway. It was almost 2:00 A.M . . . and the road was empty. It had been years since hed been driving this late.

Marjorie Tenchs raspy voice still grated on his mind. Meet me at the FDR Memorial.

Pickering tried to recall the last time he had seen Marjorie Tench face‑to‑face‑never a pleasant experience. It had been two months ago. At the White House. Tench was seated opposite Pickering at a long oak table surrounded by members of the National Security Council, Joint Chiefs, CIA, President Herney, and the administrator of NASA.

Gentlemen, the head of the CIA had said, looking directly at Marjorie Tench. Yet again, I am before you to urge this administration to confront the ongoing security crisis of NASA.

The declaration took no one in the room by surprise. NASAs security woes had become a tired issue in the intelligence community. Two days previously, more than three hundred high‑resolution satellite photos from one of NASAs earth‑observing satellites had been stolen by hackers out of a NASA database. The photos‑inadvertently revealing a classified U.S. military training facility in North Africa‑had turned up on the black market, where they had been purchased by hostile intelligence agencies in the Middle East.

Despite the best of intentions, the CIA director said with a weary voice, NASA continues to be a threat to national security. Simply put, our space agency is not equipped to protect the data and technologies they develop.

I realize, the President replied, that there have been indiscretions. Damaging leaks. And it troubles me deeply. He motioned across the table to the stern face of NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom. We are yet again looking into ways to tighten NASAs security.

With due respect, the CIA director said, whatever security changes NASA implements will be ineffective as long as NASA operations remain outside the umbrella of the United States intelligence community.

The statement brought an uneasy rustle from those assembled. Everyone knew where this was headed.

As you know, the CIA director went on, his tone sharpening, all U.S. government entities who deal with sensitive intelligence information are governed by strict rules of secrecy‑military, CIA, NSA, NRO‑all of them must abide by stringent laws regarding the concealment of the data they glean and the technologies they develop. I ask you all, yet again, why NASA‑the agency currently producing the largest portion of cutting‑edge aerospace, imaging, flight, software, reconnaissance, and telecom technologies used by the military and intelligence community‑exists outside this umbrella of secrecy.

: 2015-09-14; : 3;

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