Rachel Sexton had been flying due north for over an hour. Other than a fleeting glimpse of Newfoundland, she had seen nothing but water beneath the F-14 for the entire journey.
Why did it have to be water? she thought, grimacing. Rachel had plunged through the ice on a frozen pond while ice-skating when she was seven. Trapped beneath the surface, she was certain she would die. It had been her mother's powerful grasp that finally yanked Rachel's waterlogged body to safety. Ever since that harrowing ordeal, Rachel had battled a persistent case of hydrophobia-a distinct wariness of open water, especially cold water. Today, with nothing but the North Atlantic as far as Rachel could see, her old fears had come creeping back.
Not until the pilot checked his bearings with Thule airbase in northern Greenland did Rachel realize how far they had traveled. I'm above the Arctic Circle? The revelation intensified her uneasiness. Where are they taking me? What has NASA found? Soon the blue-gray expanse below her became speckled with thousands of stark white dots.
Rachel had seen icebergs only once before in her life, six years ago when her mother persuaded Rachel to join her on an Alaskan mother-daughter cruise. Rachel had suggested a number of alternative land-based vacations, but her mother was insistent. "Rachel, honey," her mother had said, "two thirds of this planet is covered with water, and sooner or later, you've got to learn to deal with it." Mrs. Sexton was a resilient New Englander intent on raising a strong daughter.
The cruise had been the last trip Rachel and her mother ever took.
Katherine Wentworth Sexton. Rachel felt a distant pang of loneliness. Like the howling wind outside the plane, the memories came tearing back, pulling at her the way they always did. Their final conversation had been by phone. Thanksgiving morning.
"I'm so sorry, Mom," Rachel said, phoning home from a snowbound O'Hare airport. "I know our family has never spent Thanksgiving Day apart. It looks like today will be our first."
Rachel's mom sounded crushed. "I was so looking forward to seeing you."
"Me too, Mom. Think of me eating airport food while you and Dad feast on turkey."
There was a pause on the line. "Rachel, I wasn't going to tell you until you got here, but your father says he has too much work to make it home this year. He'll be staying at his D.C. suite for the long weekend."
"What!" Rachel's surprise gave way immediately to anger. "But, it's Thanksgiving. The Senate isn't in session! He's less than two hours away. He should be with you!"
"I know. He says he's exhausted-far too tired to drive. He's decided he needs to spend this weekend curled up with his backlog of work."
Work? Rachel was skeptical. A more likely guess was that Senator Sexton would be curled up with another woman. His infidelities, though discreet, had been going on for years. Mrs. Sexton was no fool, but her husband's affairs were always accompanied by persuasive alibis and pained indignity at the mere suggestion he could be unfaithful. Finally, Mrs. Sexton saw no alternative but to bury her pain by turning a blind eye. Although Rachel had urged her mother to consider divorce, Katherine Wentworth Sexton was a woman of her word. Till death do us part, she told Rachel. Your father blessed me with you-a beautiful daughter-and for that I thank him. He will have to answer for his actions to a higher power someday.
Now, standing in the airport, Rachel's anger was simmering. "But, this means you'll be alone for Thanksgiving!" She felt sick to her stomach. The senator deserting his family on Thanksgiving Day was a new low, even for him.
"Well...," Mrs. Sexton said, her voice disappointed but decisive. "I obviously can't let all this food go to waste. I'll drive it up to Aunt Ann's. She's always invited us up for Thanksgiving. I'll give her a call right now."
Rachel felt only marginally less guilty. "Okay. I'll be home as soon as I can. I love you, Mom."
"Safe flight, sweetheart."
It was 10:30 that night when Rachel's taxi finally pulled up the winding driveway of the Sextons' luxurious estate. Rachel immediately knew something was wrong. Three police cars sat in the driveway. Several news vans too. All the house lights were on. Rachel dashed in, her heart racing.
A Virginia State policeman met her at the doorway. His face was grim. He didn't have to say a word. Rachel knew. There had been an accident.
"Route Twenty-five was slick with freezing rain," the officer said. "Your mother went off the road into a wooded ravine. I'm sorry. She died on impact."
Rachel's body went numb. Her father, having returned immediately when he got the news, was now in the living room holding a small press conference, stoically announcing to the world that his wife had passed away in a crash on her way back from Thanksgiving dinner with family.
Rachel stood in the wings, sobbing through the entire event.
"I only wish," her father told the media, his eyes tearful, "that I had been home for her this weekend. This never would have happened."
You should have thought of that years ago, Rachel cried, her loathing for her father deepening with every passing instant.
From that moment on, Rachel divorced herself from her father in the way Mrs. Sexton never had. The senator barely seemed to notice. He suddenly had gotten very busy using his late wife's fortunes to begin courting his party's nomination for president. The sympathy vote didn't hurt either.
Cruelly now, three years later, even at a distance the senator was making Rachel's life lonely. Her father's run for the White House had put Rachel's dreams of meeting a man and starting a family on indefinite hold. For Rachel it had become far easier to take herself completely out of the social game than to deal with the endless stream of power-hungry Washingtonian suitors hoping to snag a grieving, potential "first daughter" while she was still in their league.
Outside the F-14, the daylight had started to fade. It was late winter in the Arctic-a time of perpetual darkness. Rachel realized she was flying into a land of permanent night.
As the minutes passed, the sun faded entirely, dropping below the horizon. They continued north, and a brilliant three-quarter moon appeared, hanging white in the crystalline glacial air. Far below, the ocean waves shimmered, the icebergs looking like diamonds sewn into a dark sequin mesh.
Finally, Rachel spotted the hazy outline of land. But it was not what she had expected. Looming out of the ocean before the plane was an enormous snowcapped mountain range.
"Mountains?" Rachel asked, confused. "There are mountains north of Greenland?"
"Apparently," the pilot said, sounding equally surprised.
As the nose of the F-14 tipped downward, Rachel felt an eerie weightlessness. Through the ringing in her ears she could hear a repeated electronic ping in the cockpit. The pilot had apparently locked on to some kind of directional beacon and was following it in.
As they passed below three thousand feet, Rachel stared out at the dramatic moonlit terrain beneath them. At the base of the mountains, an expansive, snowy plain swept wide. The plateau spread gracefully seaward about ten miles until it ended abruptly at a sheer cliff of solid ice that dropped vertically into the ocean.
It was then that Rachel saw it. A sight like nothing she had ever seen anywhere on earth. At first she thought the moonlight must be playing tricks on her. She squinted down at the snowfields, unable to comprehend what she was looking at. The lower the plane descended, the clearer the image became.
What in the name of God?
The plateau beneath them was striped... as if someone had painted the snow with three huge striations of silver paint. The glistening strips ran parallel to the coastal cliff. Not until the plane dropped past five hundred feet did the optical illusion reveal itself. The three silver stripes were deep troughs, each one over thirty yards wide. The troughs had filled with water and frozen into broad, silvery channels that stretched in parallel across the plateau. The white berms between them were mounded dikes of snow.
As they dropped toward the plateau, the plane started bucking and bouncing in heavy turbulence. Rachel heard the landing gear engage with a heavy clunk, but she still saw no landing strip. As the pilot struggled to keep the plane under control, Rachel peered out and spotted two lines of blinking strobes straddling the outermost ice trough. She realized to her horror what the pilot was about to do.
"We're landing on ice?" she demanded.
The pilot did not respond. He was concentrating on the buffeting wind. Rachel felt a drag in her gut as the craft decelerated and dropped toward the ice channel. High snow berms rose on either side of the aircraft, and Rachel held her breath, knowing the slightest miscalculation in the narrow channel would mean certain death. The wavering plane dropped lower between the berms, and the turbulence suddenly disappeared. Sheltered there from the wind, the plane touched down perfectly on the ice.
The Tomcat's rear thrusters roared, slowing the plane. Rachel exhaled. The jet taxied about a hundred yards farther and rolled to a stop at a red line spray-painted boldly across the ice.
The view to the right was nothing but a wall of snow in the moonlight-the side of an ice berm. The view on the left was identical. Only through the windshield ahead of them did Rachel have any visibility... an endless expanse of ice. She felt like she had landed on a dead planet. Aside from the line on the ice, there were no signs of life.
Then Rachel heard it. In the distance, another engine was approaching. Higher pitched. The sound grew louder until a machine came into view. It was a large, multitreaded snow tractor churning toward them up the ice trough. Tall and spindly, it looked like a towering futuristic insect grinding toward them on voracious spinning feet. Mounted high on the chassis was an enclosed Plexiglas cabin with a rack of floodlights illuminating its way.
The machine shuddered to a halt directly beside the F-14. The door on the Plexiglas cabin opened, and a figure climbed down a ladder onto the ice. He was bundled from head to foot in a puffy white jumpsuit that gave the impression he had been inflated.
Mad Max meets the Pillsbury Dough Boy, Rachel thought, relieved at least to see this strange planet was inhabited.
The man signaled for the F-14 pilot to pop the hatch.
The pilot obeyed.
When the cockpit opened, the gust of air that tore through Rachel's body chilled her instantly to the core.
Close the damn lid!
"Ms. Sexton?" the figure called up to her. His accent was American. "On behalf of NASA, I welcome you."
Rachel was shivering. Thanks a million.
"Please unhook your flight harness, leave your helmet in the craft, and deplane by using the fuselage toe-holds. Do you have any questions?"
"Yes," Rachel shouted back. "Where the hell am I?"
Marjorie Tench-senior adviser to the President-was a loping skeleton of a creature. Her gaunt six-foot frame resembled an Erector Set construction of joints and limbs. Overhanging her precarious body was a jaundiced face whose skin resembled a sheet of parchment paper punctured by two emotionless eyes. At fifty-one, she looked seventy.
Tench was revered in Washington as a goddess in the political arena. She was said to possess analytical skills that bordered on the clairvoyant. Her decade running the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research had helped hone a lethally sharp, critical mind. Unfortunately, accompanying Tench's political savvy came an icy temperament that few could endure for more than a few minutes. Marjorie Tench had been blessed with all the brains of a supercomputer-and the warmth of one, too. Nonetheless, President Zach Herney had little trouble tolerating the woman's idiosyncrasies; her intellect and hard work were almost single-handedly responsible for putting Herney in office in the first place.
"Marjorie," the President said, standing to welcome her into the Oval Office. "What can I do for you?" He did not offer her a seat. The typical social graces did not apply to women like Marjorie Tench. If Tench wanted a seat, she would damn well take one.
"I see you set the staff briefing for four o'clock this afternoon." Her voice was raspy from cigarettes. "Excellent."
Tench paced a moment, and Herney sensed the intricate cogs of her mind turning over and over. He was grateful. Marjorie Tench was one of the select few on the President's staff who was fully aware of the NASA discovery, and her political savvy was helping the President plan his strategy.
"This CNN debate today at one o'clock," Tench said, coughing. "Who are we sending to spar with Sexton?"
Herney smiled. "A junior campaign spokesperson." The political tactic of frustrating the "hunter" by never sending him any big game was as old as debates themselves.
"I have a better idea," Tench said, her barren eyes finding his. "Let me take the spot myself."
Zach Herney's head shot up. "You?" What the hell is she thinking? "Marjorie, you don't do media spots. Besides, it's a midday cable show. If I send my senior adviser, what kind of message does that send? It makes us look like we're panicking."
Herney studied her. Whatever convoluted scheme Tench was hatching, there was no way in hell Herney would permit her to appear on CNN. Anyone who had ever laid eyes on Marjorie Tench knew there was a reason she worked behind the scenes. Tench was a frightful-looking woman-not the kind of face a President wanted delivering the White House message.
"I am taking this CNN debate," she repeated. This time she was not asking.
"Marjorie," the President maneuvered, feeling uneasy now, "Sexton's campaign will obviously claim your presence on CNN is proof the White House is running scared. Sending out our big guns early makes us look desperate."
The woman gave a quiet nod and lit a cigarette. "The more desperate we look, the better."
For the next sixty seconds, Marjorie Tench outlined why the President would be sending her to the CNN debate instead of some lowly campaign staffer. When Tench was finished, the President could only stare in amazement.
Once again, Marjorie Tench had proven herself a political genius.
The Milne Ice Shelf is the largest solid ice floe in the Northern Hemisphere. Located above the Eighty-second Parallel on the northernmost coast of Ellesmere Island in the high Arctic, the Milne Ice Shelf is four miles wide and reaches thicknesses of over three hundred feet.
Now, as Rachel climbed into the Plexiglas enclosure atop the ice tractor, she was grateful for the extra parka and gloves waiting for her on her seat, as well as the heat pouring out of the tractor's vents. Outside, on the ice runway, the F-14's engines roared, and the plane began taxiing away.
Rachel looked up in alarm. "He's leaving?"
Her new host climbed into the tractor, nodding. "Only science personnel and immediate NASA support team members are allowed on-site."
As the F-14 tore off into the sunless sky, Rachel felt suddenly marooned.
"We'll be taking the IceRover from here," the man said. "The administrator is waiting."
Rachel gazed out at the silvery path of ice before them and tried to imagine what the hell the administrator of NASA was doing up here.
"Hold on," the NASA man shouted, working some levers. With a grinding growl, the machine rotated ninety degrees in place like a treaded army tank. It was now facing the high wall of a snow berm.
Rachel looked at the steep incline and felt a ripple of fear. Surely he doesn't intend to-
"Rock and roll!" The driver popped the clutch, and the craft accelerated directly toward the slope. Rachel let out a muffled cry and held on. As they hit the incline, the spiked treads tore into the snow, and the contraption began to climb. Rachel was certain they would tip over backward, but the cabin remained surprisingly horizontal as the treads clawed up the slope. When the huge machine heaved up onto the crest of the berm, the driver brought it to a stop and beamed at his white-knuckled passenger. "Try that in an SUV! We took the shock-system design from the Mars Pathfinder and popped it on this baby! Worked like a charm."
Rachel gave a wan nod. "Neat."
Sitting now atop the snow berm, Rachel looked out at the inconceivable view. One more large berm stood before them, and then the undulations stopped abruptly. Beyond, the ice smoothed into a glistening expanse that was inclined ever so slightly. The moonlit sheet of ice stretched out into the distance, where it eventually narrowed and snaked up into the mountains.
"That's the Milne Glacier," the driver said, pointing up into the mountains. "Starts up there and flows down into this wide delta that we're sitting on now."
The driver gunned the engine again, and Rachel held on as the craft accelerated down the steep face. At the bottom, they clawed across another ice river and rocketed up the next berm. Mounting the crest and quickly skimming down the far side, they slid out onto a smooth sheet of ice and started crunching across the glacier.
"How far?" Rachel saw nothing but ice in front of them.
"About two miles ahead."
Rachel thought it seemed far. The wind outside pounded the IceRover in relentless gusts, rattling the Plexiglas as if trying to hurl them back toward the sea.
"That's the katabatic wind," the driver yelled. "Get used to it!" He explained that this area had a permanent offshore gale called the katabatic-Greek for flowing downhill. The relentless wind was apparently the product of heavy, cold air "flowing" down the glacial face like a raging river downhill. "This is the only place on earth," the driver added, laughing, "where hell actually freezes over!"
Several minutes later, Rachel began to see a hazy shape in the distance in front of them-the silhouette of an enormous white dome emerging from the ice. Rachel rubbed her eyes. What in the world...?
"Big Eskimos up here, eh?" the man joked.
Rachel tried to make sense of the structure. It looked like a scaled-down Houston Astrodome.
"NASA put it up a week and a half ago," he said. "Multistage inflatable plexipolysorbate. Inflate the pieces, affix them to one another, connect the whole thing to the ice with pitons and wires. Looks like an enclosed big top tent, but it's actually the NASA prototype for the portable habitat we hope to use on Mars someday. We call it a 'habisphere.'"
"Yeah, get it? Because it's not a whole sphere, it's only habi-sphere."
Rachel smiled and stared out at the bizarre building now looming closer on the glacial plain. "And because NASA hasn't gone to Mars yet, you guys decided to have a big sleepover out here instead?"
The man laughed. "Actually, I would have preferred Tahiti, but fate pretty much decided the location."
Rachel gazed uncertainly up at the edifice. The off-white shell was a ghostly contour against a dark sky. As the IceRover neared the structure, it ground to a stop at a small door on the side of the dome, which was now opening. Light from inside spilled out onto the snow. A figure stepped out. He was a bulky giant wearing a black fleece pullover that amplified his size and made him look like a bear. He moved toward the IceRover.
Rachel had no doubt who the huge man was: Lawrence Ekstrom, administrator of NASA.
The driver gave a solacing grin. "Don't let his size fool you. The guy's a pussycat."
More like a tiger, Rachel thought, well acquainted with Ekstrom's reputation for biting the heads off those who stood in the way of his dreams.
When Rachel climbed down from the IceRover, the wind almost blew her over. She wrapped the coat around herself and moved toward the dome.
The NASA administrator met her halfway, extending a huge gloved paw. "Ms. Sexton. Thank you for coming."
Rachel nodded uncertainly and shouted over the howling wind. "Frankly, sir, I'm not sure I had much choice."
A thousand meters farther up the glacier, Delta-One gazed through infrared binoculars and watched as the administrator of NASA ushered Rachel Sexton into the dome.
NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom was a giant of a man, ruddy and gruff, like an angry Norse god. His prickly blond hair was cropped military short above a furrowed brow, and his bulbous nose was spidered with veins. At the moment, his stony eyes drooped with the weight of countless sleepless nights. An influential aerospace strategist and operations adviser at the Pentagon before his appointment to NASA, Ekstrom had a reputation for surliness matched only by his incontestable dedication to whatever mission was at hand.
As Rachel Sexton followed Lawrence Ekstrom into the habisphere, she found herself walking through an eerie, translucent maze of hallways. The labyrinthine network appeared to have been fashioned by hanging sheets of opaque plastic across tautly strung wires. The floor of the maze was nonexistent-a sheet of solid ice, carpeted with strips of rubber matting for traction. They passed a rudimentary living area lined with cots and chemical toilets.
Thankfully, the air in the habisphere was warm, albeit heavy with the mingled potpourri of indistinguishable smells that accompany humans in tight quarters. Somewhere a generator droned, apparently the source of the electricity that powered the bare bulbs hanging from draped extension cords in the hallway.
"Ms. Sexton," Ekstrom grunted, guiding her briskly toward some unknown destination. "Let me be candid with you right from the start." His tone conveyed anything but pleasure to have Rachel as his guest. "You are here because the President wants you here. Zach Herney is a personal friend of mine and a faithful NASA supporter. I respect him. I owe him. And I trust him. I do not question his direct orders, even when I resent them. Just so there is no confusion, be aware that I do not share the President's enthusiasm for involving you in this matter."
Rachel could only stare. I traveled three thousand miles for this kind of hospitality? This guy was no Martha Stewart. "With all due respect," she fired back, "I am also under presidential orders. I have not been told my purpose here. I made this trip on good faith."
"Fine," Ekstrom said. "Then I will speak bluntly."
"You've made a damn good start."
Rachel's tough response seemed to jolt the administrator. His stride slowed a moment, his eyes clearing as he studied her. Then, like a snake uncoiling, he heaved a long sigh and picked up the pace.
"Understand," Ekstrom began, "that you are here on a classified NASA project against my better judgment. Not only are you a representative of the NRO, whose director enjoys dishonoring NASA personnel as loose-lipped children, but you are the daughter of the man who has made it his personal mission to destroy my agency. This should be NASA's hour in the sun; my men and women have endured a lot of criticism lately and deserve this moment of glory. However, due to a torrent of skepticism spearheaded by your father, NASA finds itself in a political situation where my hardworking personnel are forced to share the spotlight with a handful of random civilian scientists and the daughter of the man who is trying to destroy us."
I am not my father, Rachel wanted to shout, but this was hardly the moment to debate politics with the head of NASA. "I did not come here for the spotlight, sir."
Ekstrom glared. "You may find you have no alternative."
The comment took her by surprise. Although President Herney had said nothing specific about her assisting him in any sort of "public" way, William Pickering had certainly aired his suspicions that Rachel might become a political pawn. "I'd like to know what I'm doing here," Rachel demanded.
"You and me both. I do not have that information."
"The President asked me to brief you fully on our discovery the moment you arrived. Whatever role he wants you to play in this circus is between you and him."
"He told me your Earth Observation System had made a discovery."
Ekstrom glanced sidelong at her. "How familiar are you with the EOS project?"
"EOS is a constellation of five NASA satellites which scrutinize the earth in different ways-ocean mapping, geologic fault analyses, polar ice-melt observation, location of fossil fuel reserves-"
"Fine," Ekstrom said, sounding unimpressed. "So you're aware of the newest addition to the EOS constellation? It's called PODS."
Rachel nodded. The Polar Orbiting Density Scanner (PODS) was designed to help measure the effects of global warming. "As I understand it, PODS measures the thickness and hardness of the polar ice cap?"
"In effect, yes. It uses spectral band technology to take composite density scans of large regions and find softness anomalies in the ice-slush spots, internal melting, large fissures-indicators of global warming."
Rachel was familiar with composite density scanning. It was like a subterranean ultrasound. NRO satellites had used similar technology to search for subsurface density variants in Eastern Europe and locate mass burial sites, which confirmed for the President that ethnic cleansing was indeed going on.
"Two weeks ago," Ekstrom said, "PODS passed over this ice shelf and spotted a density anomaly that looked nothing like anything we'd expected to see. Two hundred feet beneath the surface, perfectly embedded in a matrix of solid ice, PODS saw what looked like an amorphous globule about ten feet in diameter."
"A water pocket?" Rachel asked.
"No. Not liquid. Strangely, this anomaly was harder than the ice surrounding it."
Rachel paused. "So... it's a boulder or something?"
Ekstrom nodded. "Essentially."
Rachel waited for the punch line. It never came. I'm here because NASA found a big rock in the ice?
"Not until PODS calculated the density of this rock did we get excited. We immediately flew a team up here to analyze it. As it turns out, the rock in the ice beneath us is significantly more dense than any type of rock found here on Ellesmere Island. More dense, in fact, than any type of rock found within a four-hundred-mile radius."
Rachel gazed down at the ice beneath her feet, picturing the huge rock down there somewhere. "You're saying someone moved it here?"
Ekstrom looked vaguely amused. "The stone weighs more than eight tons. It is embedded under two hundred feet of solid ice, meaning it has been there untouched for over three hundred years."
Rachel felt tired as she followed the administrator into the mouth of a long, narrow corridor, passing between two armed NASA workers who stood guard. Rachel glanced at Ekstrom. "I assume there's a logical explanation for the stone's presence here... and for all this secrecy?"
"There most certainly is," Ekstrom said, deadpan. "The rock PODS found is a meteorite."
Rachel stopped dead in the passageway and stared at the administrator. "A meteorite?" A surge of disappointment washed over her. A meteorite seemed utterly anti-climactic after the President's big buildup. This discovery will single-handedly justify all of NASA's past expenditures and blunders? What was Herney thinking? Meteorites were admittedly one of the rarest rocks on earth, but NASA discovered meteorites all the time.
"This meteorite is one of the largest ever found," Ekstrom said, standing rigid before her. "We believe it is a fragment of a larger meteorite documented to have hit the Arctic Ocean in the seventeen hundreds. Most likely, this rock was thrown as ejecta from that ocean impact, landed on the Milne Glacier, and was slowly buried by snow over the past three hundred years."
Rachel scowled. This discovery changed nothing. She felt a growing suspicion that she was witnessing an overblown publicity stunt by a desperate NASA and White House-two struggling entities attempting to elevate a propitious find to the level of earth-shattering NASA victory.
"You don't look too impressed," Ekstrom said.
"I guess I was just expecting something... else."
Ekstrom's eyes narrowed. "A meteorite of this size is a very rare find, Ms. Sexton. There are only a few larger in the world."
"But the size of the meteorite is not what excites us."
Rachel glanced up.
"If you would permit me to finish," Ekstrom said, "you will learn that this meteorite displays some rather astonishing characteristics never before seen in any meteorite. Large or small." He motioned down the passageway. "Now, if you would follow me, I'll introduce you to someone more qualified than I am to discuss this find."
Rachel was confused. "Someone more qualified than the administrator of NASA?"
Ekstrom's Nordic eyes locked in on hers. "More qualified, Ms. Sexton, insofar as he is a civilian. I had assumed because you are a professional data analyst that you would prefer to get your data from an unbiased source."
Touche. Rachel backed off.
She followed the administrator down the narrow corridor, where they dead-ended at a heavy, black drapery. Beyond the drape, Rachel could hear the reverberant murmur of a crowd of voices rumbling on the other side, echoing as if in a giant open space.
Without a word, the administrator reached up and pulled aside the curtain. Rachel was blinded by a dazzling brightness. Hesitant, she stepped forward, squinting into the glistening space. As her eyes adjusted, she gazed out at the massive room before her and drew an awestruck breath.
"My God," she whispered. What is this place?