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Chapter 41

Norah Mangor stood at the extraction shaft beside Tolland, Rachel, and Corky and stared into the pitch-black meteorite hole. “Mike,” she said, “you’re cute, but you’re insane. There’s no bioluminescence here.”

Tolland now wished he’d thought to take some video; while Corky had gone to find Norah and Ming, the bioluminescence had begun fading rapidly. Within a couple of minutes, all the twinkling had simply stopped.

Tolland threw another piece of ice into the water, but nothing happened. No green splash.

“Where did they go?” Corky asked.

Tolland had a fairly good idea. Bioluminescence-one of nature’s most ingenious defense mechanisms-was a natural response for plankton in distress. A plankton sensing it was about to be consumed by larger organisms would begin flashing in hopes of attracting much larger predators that would scare off the original attackers. In this case, the plankton, having entered the shaft through a crack, suddenly found themselves in a primarily freshwater environment and bioluminesced in panic as the freshwater slowly killed them. “I think they died.”

“They were murdered,” Norah scoffed. “The Easter Bunny swam in and ate them.”

Corky glared at her. “I saw the luminescence too, Norah.”

“Was it before or after you took LSD?”

“Why would we lie about this?” Corky demanded.

“Men lie.”

“Yeah, about sleeping with other women, but never about bioluminescent plankton.”

Tolland sighed. “Norah, certainly you’re aware that plankton do live in the oceans beneath the ice.”

“Mike,” she replied with a glare, “please don’t tell me my business. For the record, there are over two hundred species of diatoms that thrive under Arctic ice shelves. Fourteen species of autotrophic nannoflagellates, twenty heterotrophic flagellates, forty heterotrophic dinoflagellates, and several metazoans, including polychaetes, amphipods, copepods, euphausids, and fish. Any questions?”

Tolland frowned. “Clearly you know more about Arctic fauna than I do, and you agree there’s plenty of life underneath us. So why are you so skeptical that we saw bioluminescent plankton?”

“Because, Mike, this shaft is sealed. It’s a closed, freshwater environment. No ocean plankton could possibly get in here!”

“I tasted salt in the water,” Tolland insisted. “Very faint, but present. Saltwater is getting in here somehow.”

“Right,” Norah said skeptically. “You tasted salt. You licked the sleeve of an old sweaty parka, and now you’ve decided that the PODS density scans and fifteen separate core samples are inaccurate.”

Tolland held out the wet sleeve of his parka as proof.

“Mike, I’m not licking your damn jacket.” She looked into the hole. “Might I ask why droves of alleged plankton decided to swim into this alleged crack?”

“Heat?” Tolland ventured. “A lot of sea creatures are attracted by heat. When we extracted the meteorite, we heated it. The plankton may have been drawn instinctively toward the temporarily warmer environment in the shaft.”

Corky nodded. “Sounds logical.”

“Logical?” Norah rolled her eyes. “You know, for a prize-winning physicist and a world-famous oceanographer, you’re a couple of pretty dense specimens. Has it occurred to you that even if there is a crack-which I can assure you there is not-it is physically impossible for any sea-water to be flowing into this shaft.” She stared at both of them with pathetic disdain.

“But, Norah…,” Corky began.

“Gentlemen! We’re standing above sea level here.” She stamped her foot on the ice. “Hello? This ice sheet rises a hundred feet above the sea. You might recall the big cliff at the end of this shelf? We’re higher than the ocean. If there were a fissure into this shaft, the water would be flowing out of this shaft, not into it. It’s called gravity.”

Tolland and Corky looked at each other.

“Shit,” Corky said. “I didn’t think of that.”

Norah pointed into the water-filled shaft. “You may also have noticed that the water level isn’t changing?”

Tolland felt like an idiot. Norah was absolutely right. If there had been a crack, the water would be flowing out, not in. Tolland stood in silence a long moment, wondering what to do next.

“Okay.” Tolland sighed. “Apparently, the fissure theory makes no sense. But we saw bioluminescence in the water. The only conclusion is that this is not a closed environment after all. I realize much of your icedating data is built on the premise that the glacier is a solid block, but-”

“Premise?” Norah was obviously getting agitated. “Remember, this was not just my data, Mike. NASA made the same findings. We all confirmed this glacier is solid. No cracks.”

Tolland glanced across the dome toward the crowd gathered around the press conference area. “Whatever is going on, I think, in good faith, we need to inform the administrator and-”

“This is bullshit!” Norah hissed. “I’m telling you this glacial matrix is pristine. I’m not about to have my core data questioned by a salt lick and some absurd hallucinations.” She stormed over to a nearby supply area and began collecting some tools. “I’ll take a proper water sample, and show you this water contains no saltwater plankton-living or dead!”

Rachel and the others looked on as Norah used a sterile pipette on a string to harvest a water sample from the melt pool. Norah placed several drops in a tiny device that resembled a miniature telescope. Then she peered through the oculus, pointing the device toward the light emanating from the other side of the dome. Within seconds she was cursing.

“Jesus Christ!” Norah shook the device and looked again. “Damn it! Something’s got to be wrong with this refractometer!”

“Saltwater?” Corky gloated.

Norah frowned. “Partial. It’s registering three percent brine-which is totally impossible. This glacier is a snow pack. Pure freshwater. There should be no salt.” Norah carried the sample to a nearby microscope and examined it. She groaned.

“Plankton?” Tolland asked.

“G. polyhedra,” she replied, her voice now sedate. “It’s one of the planktons we glaciologists commonly see in the oceans under ice shelves.” She glanced over at Tolland. “They’re dead now. Obviously they didn’t survive long in a three percent saltwater environment.”

The four of them stood in silence a moment beside the deep shaft.

Rachel wondered what the ramifications of this paradox were for the overall discovery. The dilemma appeared minor when compared to the overall scope of the meteorite, and yet, as an intel analyst, Rachel had witnessed the collapse of entire theories based on smaller snags than this.

“What’s going on over here?” The voice was a low rumble.

Everyone looked up. The bearish frame of the NASA administrator emerged from the dark.

“Minor quandary with the water in the shaft,” Tolland said. “We’re trying to sort it out.”

Corky sounded almost gleeful. “Norah’s ice data is screwed.”

“Bite me twice,” Norah whispered.

The administrator approached, his furry eyebrows lowering. “What’s wrong with the ice data.”

Tolland heaved an uncertain sigh. “We’re showing a three percent saltwater mix in the meteorite shaft, which contradicts the glaciology report that the meteorite was encased in a pristine freshwater glacier.” He paused. “There’s also plankton present.”

Ekstrom looked almost angry. “Obviously that’s impossible. There are no fissures in this glacier. The PODS scans confirmed that. This meteorite was sealed in a solid matrix of ice.”

Rachel knew Ekstrom was correct. According to NASA’s density scans, the ice sheet was rock solid. Hundreds of feet of frozen glacier on all sides of the meteorite. No cracks. And yet as Rachel imagined how density scans were taken, a strange thought occurred to her…

“In addition,” Ekstrom was saying, “Dr. Mangor’s core samples confirmed the solidity of the glacier.”

“Exactly!” Norah said, tossing the refractometer on a desk. “Double corroboration. No fault lines in the ice. Which leaves us no explanation whatsoever for the salt and plankton.”

“Actually,” Rachel said, the boldness of her voice surprising even herself. “There is another possibility.” The brainstorm had hit her from the most unlikely of memories.

Everyone was looking at her now, their skepticism obvious.

Rachel smiled. “There’s a perfectly sound rationale for the presence of salt and plankton.” She gave Tolland a wry look. “And frankly, Mike, I’m surprised it didn’t occur to you.”

Chapter 42

“Plankton frozen in the glacier?” Corky Marlinson sounded not at all sold on Rachel’s explanation. “Not to rain on your parade, but usually when things freeze they die. These little buggers were flashing us, remember?”

“Actually,” Tolland said, giving Rachel an impressed look, “she may have a point. There are a number of species that enter suspended animation when their environment requires it. I did an episode on that phenomenon once.”

Rachel nodded. “You showed northern pike that got frozen in lakes and had to wait until the thaw to swim away. You also talked about micro-organisms called ‘waterbears’ that became totally dehydrated in the desert, remained that way for decades, and then reinflated when rains returned.”

Tolland chuckled. “So you really do watch my show?”

Rachel gave a slightly embarrassed shrug.

“What’s your point, Ms. Sexton?” Norah demanded.

“Her point,” Tolland said, “which should have dawned on me earlier, is that one of the species I mentioned on that program was a kind of plankton that gets frozen in the polar ice cap every winter, hibernates inside the ice, and then swims away every summer when the ice cap thins.” Tolland paused. “Granted the species I featured on the show was not the bioluminescent species we saw here, but maybe the same thing happened.”

“Frozen plankton,” Rachel continued, excited to have Michael Tolland so enthusiastic about her idea, “could explain everything we’re seeing here. At some point in the past, fissures could have opened in this glacier, filled with plankton-rich saltwater, and then refroze. What if there were frozen pockets of saltwater in this glacier? Frozen saltwater containing frozen plankton? Imagine if while you were raising the heated meteorite through the ice, it passed through a frozen saltwater pocket. The saltwater ice would have melted, releasing the plankton from hibernation, and giving us a small percentage of salt mixed in the freshwater.”

“Oh, for the love of God!” Norah exclaimed with a hostile groan. “Suddenly everyone’s a glaciologist!”

Corky also looked skeptical. “But wouldn’t PODS have spotted any brine ice pockets when it did its density scans? After all, brine ice and freshwater ice have different densities.”

“Barely different,” Rachel said.

“Four percent is a substantial difference,” Norah challenged.

“Yes, in a lab,” Rachel replied. “But PODS takes its measurements from 120 miles up in space. Its computers were designed to differentiate between the obvious-ice and slush, granite and limestone.” She turned to the administrator. “Am I right to assume that when PODS measures densities from space, it probably lacks the resolution to distinguish brine ice from fresh ice?”

The administrator nodded. “Correct. A four percent differential is below PODS’s tolerance threshold. The satellite would see brine ice and fresh ice as identical.”

Tolland now looked intrigued. “This would also explain the static water level in the shaft.” He looked at Norah. “You said the plankton species you saw in the extraction shaft was called-”

“G. polyhedra, Norah declared. “And now you’re wondering if G. polyhedra is capable of hibernating inside the ice? You’ll be pleased to know the answer is yes. Absolutely. G. polyhedra is found in droves around ice shelves, it bioluminesces, and it can hibernate inside the ice. Any other questions?”

Everyone exchanged looks. From Norah’s tone, there was obviously some sort of “but”-and yet it seemed she had just confirmed Rachel’s theory.

“So,” Tolland ventured, “you’re saying it’s possible, right? This theory makes sense?”

“Sure,” Norah said, “if you’re totally retarded.”

Rachel glared. “I beg your pardon?”

Norah Mangor locked stares with Rachel. “I imagine in your business, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing? Well, trust me when I tell you that the same holds true for glaciology.” Norah’s eyes shifted now, looking at each of the four people around her. “Let me clarify this for everyone once and for all. The frozen brine pockets that Ms. Sexton has proposed do occur. They are what glaciologists call interstices. Interstices, however, form not as pockets of saltwater but rather as highly branched networks of brine ice whose tendrils are as wide as a human hair. That meteorite would have had to pass through one hell of a dense series of interstices to release enough saltwater to create a three percent mixture in a pool that deep.”

Ekstrom scowled. “So is it possible or not?”

“Not on your life,” Norah said flatly. “Totally impossible. I would have hit pockets of brine ice in my core samples.”

“Core samples are drilled essentially in random spots, right?” Rachel asked. “Is there any chance the cores’ placements, simply by bad luck, could have missed a pocket of sea ice?”

“I drilled directly down over the meteorite. Then I drilled multiple cores only a few yards on either side. You can’t get any closer.”

“Just asking.”

“The point is moot,” Norah said. “Brine interstices occur only in seasonal ice-ice that forms and melts every season. The Milne Ice Shelf is fast ice-ice that forms in the mountains and holds fast until it migrates to the calving zone and falls into the sea. As convenient as frozen plankton would be for explaining this mysterious little phenomenon, I can guarantee there are no hidden networks of frozen plankton in this glacier.”

The group fell silent again.

Despite the stark rebuttal of the frozen plankton theory, Rachel’s systematic analysis of the data refused to accept the rejection. Instinctively, Rachel knew that the presence of frozen plankton in the glacier beneath them was the simplest solution to the riddle. The Law of Parsimony, she thought. Her NRO instructors had driven it into her subconscious. When multiple explanations exist, the simplest is usually correct.

Norah Mangor obviously had a lot to lose if her ice-core data was wrong, and Rachel wondered if maybe Norah had seen the plankton, realized she’d made a mistake in claiming the glacier was solid, and was now simply trying to cover her tracks.

“All I know,” Rachel said, “is that I just briefed the entire White House staff and told them this meteorite was discovered in a pristine matrix of ice and had been sealed there, untouched by outside influence since 1716, when it broke off of a famous meteorite called the Jungersol. This fact now appears to be in some question.”

The NASA administrator was silent, his expression grave.

Tolland cleared his throat. “I have to agree with Rachel. There was saltwater and plankton in the pool. No matter what the explanation is, that shaft is obviously not a closed environment. We can’t say it is.”

Corky was looking uncomfortable. “Um, folks, not to sound like the astrophysicist here, but in my field when we make mistakes, we’re usually off by billions of years. Is this little plankton/saltwater mix-up really all that important? I mean, the perfection of the ice surrounding the meteorite in no way affects the meteorite itself, right? We still have the fossils. Nobody is questioning their authenticity. If it turns out we’ve made a mistake with the ice-core data, nobody will really care. All they’ll care about is that we found proof of life on another planet.”

“I’m sorry, Dr. Marlinson,” Rachel said, “as someone who analyzes data for a living, I have to disagree. Any tiny flaw in the data NASA presents tonight has the potential to cast doubt over the credibility of the entire discovery. Including the authenticity of the fossils.”

Corky’s jaw fell open. “What are you talking about? Those fossils are irrefutable!”

“I know that. You know that. But if the public catches wind that NASA knowingly presented ice-core data that was in question, trust me, they will immediately start wondering what else NASA lied about.”

Norah stepped forward, eyes flashing. “My ice-core data is not in question.” She turned to the administrator. “I can prove to you, categorically, that there is no brine ice trapped anywhere in this ice shelf!”

The administrator eyed her a long moment. “How?”

Norah outlined her plan. When she was done, Rachel had to admit, the idea sounded like a reasonable one.

The administrator did not look so sure. “And the results will be definitive?”

“One hundred percent confirmation,” Norah assured him. “If there’s one goddamn ounce of frozen saltwater anywhere near that meteorite shaft, you will see it. Even a few droplets will light up on my gear like Times Square.”

The administrator’s brow furrowed beneath his military buzz cut. “There’s not much time. The press conference is in a couple of hours.”

“I can be back in twenty minutes.”

“How far out on the glacier did you say you have to go?”

“Not far. Two hundred yards should do it.”

Ekstrom nodded. “Are you certain it’s safe?”

“I’ll take flares,” Norah replied. “And Mike will go with me.”

Tolland’s head shot up. “I will?”

“You sure as hell will, Mike! We’ll be tethered. I’d appreciate a strong set of arms out there if the wind whips up.”

“But-”

“She’s right,” the administrator said, turning to Tolland. “If she goes, she can’t go alone. I’d send some of my men with her, but frankly, I’d rather keep this plankton issue to ourselves until we figure out if it’s a problem or not.”

Tolland gave a reluctant nod.

“I’d like to go too,” Rachel said.

Norah spun like a cobra. “The hell you will.”

“Actually,” the administrator said, as if an idea had just occurred to him, “I think I’d feel safer if we used the standard quad tether configuration. If you go dual, and Mike slips, you’ll never hold him. Four people are a lot safer than two.” He paused glancing at Corky. “That would mean either you or Dr. Ming.” Ekstrom glanced around the habisphere. “Where is Dr. Ming, anyway?”

“I haven’t seen him in a while,” Tolland said. “He might be catching a nap.”

Ekstrom turned to Corky. “Dr. Marlinson, I cannot require that you go out with them, and yet-”

“What the hell?” Corky said. “Seeing as everyone is getting along so well.”

“No!” Norah exclaimed. “Four people will slow us down. Mike and I are going alone.”

“You are not going alone.” The administrator’s tone was final. “There’s a reason tethers are built as quads, and we’re going to do this as safely as possible. The last thing I need is an accident a couple hours before the biggest press conference in NASA’s history.”

Chapter 43

Gabrielle Ashe felt a precarious uncertainty as she sat in the heavy air of Marjorie Tench’s office. What could this woman possibly want with me? Behind the room’s sole desk, Tench leaned back in her chair, her hard features seeming to radiate pleasure with Gabrielle’s discomfort.

“Does the smoke bother you?” Tench asked, tapping a fresh cigarette from her pack.

“No,” Gabrielle lied.

Tench was already lighting up anyway. “You and your candidate have taken quite an interest in NASA during this campaign.”

“True,” Gabrielle snapped, making no effort to hide her anger, “thanks to some creative encouragement. I’d like an explanation.”

Tench gave an innocent pout. “You want to know why I’ve been sending you e-mail fodder for your attack on NASA?”

“The information you sent me hurt your President.”

“In the short run, yes.”

The ominous tone in Tench’s voice made Gabrielle uneasy. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Relax, Gabrielle. My e-mails didn’t change things much. Senator Sexton was NASA-bashing long before I stepped in. I simply helped him clarify his message. Solidify his position.”

“Solidify his position?”

“Exactly.” Tench smiled, revealing stained teeth. “Which, I must say, he did quite effectively this afternoon on CNN.”

Gabrielle recalled the senator’s reaction to Tench’s fence-buster question. Yes, I would act to abolish NASA. Sexton had gotten himself cornered, but he’d played out of the rough with a strong drive. It was the right move. Wasn’t it? From Tench’s contented look, Gabrielle sensed there was information missing.

Tench stood suddenly, her lanky frame dominating the cramped space. With the cigarette dangling from her lips, she walked over to a wall safe, removed a thick manila envelope, returned to the desk, and sat back down.

Gabrielle eyed the burgeoning envelope.

Tench smiled, cradling the envelope in her lap like a poker player holding a royal flush. Her yellowed fingertips flicked at the corner, making an annoying repetitive scratch, as if savoring the anticipation.

Gabrielle knew it was just her own guilty conscience, but her first fears were that the envelope contained some kind of proof of her sexual indiscretion with the senator. Ridiculous, she thought. The encounter had occurred after hours in Sexton’s locked senatorial office. Not to mention, if the White House actually had any evidence, they would have gone public with it already.

They may be suspicious, Gabrielle thought, but they don’t have proof.

Tench crushed out her cigarette. “Ms. Ashe, whether or not you are aware, you are caught in the middle of a battle that has been raging behind the scenes in Washington since 1996.”

This opening gambit was not at all what Gabrielle expected. “I beg your pardon?”

Tench lit another cigarette. Her spindly lips curled around it, and the tip glowed red. “What do you know about a bill called the Space Commercialization Promotions Act?”

Gabrielle had never heard of it. She shrugged, lost.

“Really?” Tench said. “That surprises me. Considering your candidate’s platform. The Space Commercialization Promotions Act was proposed back in 1996 by Senator Walker. The bill, in essence, cites the failure of NASA to do anything worthwhile since putting a man on the moon. It calls for the privatization of NASA by immediately selling off NASA assets to private aerospace companies and allowing the free-market system to explore space more efficiently, thus relieving the burden NASA now places on taxpayers.”

Gabrielle had heard NASA critics suggest privatization as a solution to NASA’s woes, but she was not aware the idea had actually taken the form of an official bill.

“This commercialization bill,” Tench said, “has been presented to Congress four times now. It is similar to bills that have successfully privatized government industries like uranium production. Congress has passed the space commercialization bill all four times it has seen it. Thankfully, the White House vetoed it on all occasions. Zachary Herney has had to veto it twice.”

“Your point?”

“My point is that this bill is one Senator Sexton will certainly support if he becomes President. I have reason to believe Sexton will have no qualms about selling off NASA assets to commercial bidders the first chance he gets. In short, your candidate would support privatization over having American tax dollars fund space exploration.”

“To my knowledge, the senator has never commented publicly about his stance on any Space Commercialization Promotions Act.”

“True. And yet knowing his politics, I assume you would not be surprised if he supported it.”

“Free-market systems tend to breed efficiency.”

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes.'” Tench stared. “Sadly, privatizing NASA is an abominable idea, and there are countless reasons why every White House administration since the bill’s inception has shot it down.”

“I’ve heard the arguments against privatizing space,” Gabrielle said, “and I understand your concerns.”

“Do you?” Tench leaned toward her. “Which arguments have you heard?”

Gabrielle shifted uneasily. “Well, the standard academic fears mostly-the most common being that if we privatize NASA, our current pursuit of scientific space knowledge would be quickly abandoned in favor of profitable ventures.”

“True. Space science would die in a heartbeat. Instead of spending money to study our universe, private space companies would strip-mine asteroids, build tourist hotels in space, offer commercial satellite launch services. Why would private companies bother studying the origins of our universe when it would cost them billions and show no financial return?”

“They wouldn’t,” Gabrielle countered. “But certainly a National Endowment for Space Science could be founded to fund academic missions.”

“We already have that system in place. It’s called NASA.”

Gabrielle fell silent.

“The abandonment of science in favor of profits is a side issue,” Tench said. “Hardly relevant compared to the utter chaos that would result by permitting the private sector to run free in space. We would have the wild west all over again. We would see pioneers staking claims on the moon and on asteroids and protecting those claims with force. I’ve heard petitions from companies who want to build neon billboards that blink advertisements in the nighttime sky. I’ve seen petitions from space hotels and tourist attractions whose proposed operations include ejecting their trash into the void of space and creating orbiting trash heaps. In fact, I just read a proposal yesterday from a company that wants to turn space into a mausoleum by launching the deceased into orbit. Can you imagine our telecommunications satellites colliding with dead bodies? Last week, I had a billionaire CEO in my office who was petitioning to launch a mission to a near-field asteroid, drag it closer to earth, and mine it for precious minerals. I actually had to remind this guy that dragging asteroids into near earth orbit posed potential risks of global catastrophe! Ms. Ashe, I can assure you, if this bill passes, the throngs of entrepreneurs rushing into space will not be rocket scientists. They will be entrepreneurs with deep pockets and shallow minds.”

“Persuasive arguments,” Gabrielle said, “and I’m sure the senator would weigh those issues carefully if he ever found himself in a position to vote on the bill. Might I ask what any of this has to do with me?”

Tench’s gaze narrowed over her cigarette. “A lot of people stand to make a lot of money in space, and the political lobby is mounting to remove all restrictions and open the floodgates. The veto power of the office of the President is the only remaining barrier against privatization… against complete anarchy in space.”

“Then I commend Zach Herney for vetoing the bill.”

“My fear is that your candidate would not be so prudent if elected.”

“Again, I assume the senator would carefully weigh all the issues if he were ever in a position to pass judgment on the bill.”

Tench did not look entirely convinced. “Do you know how much Senator Sexton spends on media advertising?”

The question came out of left field. “Those figures are public domain.”

“More than three million a month.”

Gabrielle shrugged. “If you say so.” The figure was close.

“That’s a lot of money to spend.”

“He’s got a lot of money to spend.”

“Yes, he planned well. Or rather, married well.” Tench paused to blow smoke. “It’s sad about his wife, Katherine. Her death hit him hard.” A tragic sigh followed, clearly feigned. “Her death was not all that long ago, was it?”

“Come to your point, or I’m leaving.”

Tench let out a lung-shaking cough and reached for the burgeoning manila folder. She pulled out a small stack of stapled papers and handed them to Gabrielle. “Sexton’s financial records.”

Gabrielle studied the documents in astonishment. The records went back several years. Although Gabrielle was not privy to the internal workings of Sexton’s finances, she sensed this data was authentic-banking accounts, credit card accounts, loans, stock assets, real estate assets, debts, capital gains and losses. “This is private data. Where did you get this?”

“My source is not your concern. But if you spend some time studying these figures, you will clearly see that Senator Sexton does not have the kind of money he is currently spending. After Katherine died, he squandered the vast majority of her legacy on bad investments, personal comforts, and buying himself what appears to be certain victory in the primaries. As of six months ago, your candidate was broke.”

Gabrielle sensed this had to be a bluff. If Sexton were broke, he sure wasn’t acting it. He was buying advertising time in bigger and bigger blocks every week.

“Your candidate,” Tench continued, “is currently outspending the President four to one. And he has no personal money.”

“We get a lot of donations.”

“Yes, some of them legal.”

Gabrielle’s head shot up. “I beg your pardon?”

Tench leaned across the desk, and Gabrielle could smell her nicotine breath. “Gabrielle Ashe, I am going to ask you a question, and I suggest you think very carefully before you answer. It could affect whether you spend the next few years in jail or not. Are you aware that Senator Sexton is accepting enormous illegal campaign bribes from aerospace companies who have billions to gain from the privatization of NASA?”

Gabrielle stared. “That’s an absurd allegation!”

“Are you saying you are unaware of this activity?”

“I think I would know if the senator were accepting bribes of the magnitude you are suggesting.”

Tench smiled coldly. “Gabrielle, I understand that Senator Sexton has shared a lot of himself with you, but I assure you there is plenty you do not know about the man.”

Gabrielle stood up. “This meeting is over.”

“On the contrary,” Tench said, removing the remaining contents of the folder and spreading it on the desk. “This meeting is just beginning.”

Chapter 44

Inside the habisphere’s “staging room,” Rachel Sexton felt like an astronaut as she slid into one of NASA’s Mark IX microclimate survival suits. The black, one-piece, hooded jumpsuit resembled an inflatable scuba suit. Its two-ply, memory-foam fabric was fitted with hollow channels through which a dense gel was pumped to help the wearer regulate body temperature in both hot and cold environments.

Now, as Rachel pulled the tight-fitting hood over her head, her eyes fell on the NASA administrator. He appeared as a silent sentinel at the door, clearly displeased with the necessity for this little mission.

Norah Mangor was muttering obscenities as she got everyone outfitted. “Here’s an extra pudgy,” she said, tossing Corky his suit.

Tolland was already half into his.

Once Rachel was fully zipped up, Norah found the stopcock on Rachel’s side and connected her to an infusion tube that coiled out of a silver canister resembling a large scuba tank.

“Inhale,” Norah said, opening the valve.

Rachel heard a hiss and felt gel being injected into the suit. The memory foam expanded, and the suit compressed around her, pressing down on her inner layer of clothing. The sensation reminded her of sticking her hand underwater while wearing a rubber glove. As the hood inflated around her head, it pressed in on her ears, making everything sound muffled. I’m in a cocoon.

“Best thing about the Mark IX,” Norah said, “is the padding. You can fall on your ass and not feel a thing.”

Rachel believed it. She felt like she was trapped inside a mattress.

Norah handed Rachel a series of tools-an ice ax, tether snaps, and carabiners, which she affixed to the belt harnessed on Rachel’s waist.

“All this?” Rachel asked, eyeing the gear. “To go two hundred yards?”

Norah’s eyes narrowed. “You want to come or not?”

Tolland gave Rachel a reassuring nod. “Norah’s just being careful.”

Corky connected to the infusion tank and inflated his suit, looking amused. “I feel like I’m wearing a giant condom.”

Norah gave a disgusted groan. “Like you’d know, virgin boy.”

Tolland sat down next to Rachel. He gave her a weak smile as she donned her heavy boots and crampons. “You sure you want to come?” His eyes had a protective concern that drew her in.

Rachel hoped her confident nod belied her growing trepidation. Two hundred yards… not far at all. “And you thought you could find excitement only on the high seas.”

Tolland chuckled, talking as he attached his own crampons. “I’ve decided I like liquid water much better than this frozen stuff.”

“I’ve never been a big fan of either,” Rachel said. “I fell through the ice as a kid. Water’s made me nervous ever since.”

Tolland glanced over, his eyes sympathetic. “Sorry to hear that. When this is over, you’ll have to come out and visit me on the Goya. I’ll change your mind about water. Promise.”

The invitation surprised her. The Goya was Tolland’s research ship-well-known both from its role in Amazing Seas as well as its reputation as one of the strangest-looking ships on the ocean. Although a visit to the Goya would be unnerving for Rachel, she knew it would be hard to pass up.

“She’s anchored twelve miles off the coast of New Jersey at the moment,” Tolland said, struggling with his crampon latches.

“Sounds like an unlikely spot.”

“Not at all. The Atlantic seaboard is an incredible place. We were gearing up to shoot a new documentary when I was so rudely interrupted by the President.”

Rachel laughed. “Shooting a documentary on what?”

“Sphyrna mokarran and megaplumes.”

Rachel frowned. “Glad I asked.”

Tolland finished attaching his crampons and looked up. “Seriously, I’ll be filming out there for a couple weeks. Washington’s not that far from the Jersey coast. Come out when you get back home. No reason to spend your life afraid of the water. My crew would roll out the red carpet for you.”

Norah Mangor’s voice blared. “Are we going outside, or should I get you two some candles and champagne?”

Chapter 45

Gabrielle Ashe had no idea what to make of the documents now spread out before her on Marjorie Tench’s desk. The pile included photocopied letters, faxes, transcripts of phone conversations, and they all seemed to support the allegation that Senator Sexton was in covert dialogue with private space companies.

Tench pushed a couple of grainy black-and-white photographs toward Gabrielle. “I assume this is news to you?”

Gabrielle looked at the photos. The first candid shot showed Senator Sexton getting out of a taxi in some kind of underground garage. Sexton never takes taxis. Gabrielle looked at the second shot-a telephoto of Sexton climbing into a parked white minivan. An old man appeared to be in the van waiting for him.

“Who is that?” Gabrielle said, suspicious the photos might be faked.

“A big shot from the SFF.”

Gabrielle was doubtful. “The Space Frontier Foundation?”

The SFF was like a “union” for private space companies. It represented aerospace contractors, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists-any private entity that wanted to go into space. They tended to be critical of NASA, arguing that the U.S. space program employed unfair business practices to prevent private companies from launching missions into space.

“The SFF,” Tench said, “now represents over a hundred major corporations, some very wealthy enterprises who are waiting eagerly for the Space Commercialization Promotions Act to be ratified.”

Gabrielle considered it. For obvious reasons the SFF was a vocal supporter of Sexton’s campaign, although the senator had been careful not to get too close to them because of their controversial lobbying tactics. Recently the SFF had published an explosive rant charging that NASA was in fact an “illegal monopoly” whose ability to operate at a loss and still stay in business represented unfair competition to private firms. According to the SFF, whenever AT T needed a telecomm satellite launched, several private space companies offered to do the job at a reasonable $50 million. Unfortunately, NASA always stepped in and offered to launch AT T’s satellites for a mere twenty-five million, even though it cost NASA five times that to do the job! Operating at a loss is one way NASA keeps its grip on space, the SFF lawyers accused. And taxpayers pick up the tab.

“This photo reveals,” Tench said, “that your candidate is holding secret meetings with an organization that represents private space enterprises.” Tench motioned to several other documents on the table. “We also have internal SFF memos calling for huge sums of money to be collected from SFF member companies-in amounts commensurate with their net worth-and transferred to accounts controlled by Senator Sexton. In effect, these private space agencies are anteing up to put Sexton in office. I can only assume he has agreed to pass the commercialization bill and privatize NASA if elected.”

Gabrielle looked at the pile of papers, unconvinced. “Do you expect me to believe that the White House has evidence that its opponent is engaged in profoundly illegal campaign finance-and yet, for some reason, you are keeping it secret?”

“What would you believe?”

Gabrielle glared. “Frankly, considering your skills for manipulation, a more logical solution seems that you are plying me somehow with phony documents and photos produced by some enterprising White House staffer and his desktop publishing computer.”

“Possible, I admit. But not true.”

“No? Then how did you get all these internal documents from corporations? The resources required to steal all of this evidence from so many companies certainly exceeds the grasp of the White House.”

“You’re right. This information arrived here as an unsolicited gift.”

Gabrielle was now lost.

“Oh yes,” Tench said, “we get a lot of it. The President has many powerful political allies who would like to see him stay in office. Remember, your candidate is suggesting cuts all over the place-a lot of them right here in Washington. Senator Sexton certainly has no qualms about citing the FBI’s bloated budget as an example of government overspending. He’s taken some potshots at the IRS, too. Maybe someone at the bureau or at the service got a little annoyed.”

Gabrielle got the implication. People at the FBI and IRS would have ways of getting this kind of information. They might then send it to the White House as an unsolicited favor to help the President’s election. But what Gabrielle could not make herself believe was that Senator Sexton would ever be engaged in illegal campaign funding. “If this data is accurate,” Gabrielle challenged, “which I strongly doubt it is, why haven’t you gone public?”

“Why do you think?”

“Because it was gathered illegally.”

“How we got it makes no difference.”

“Of course it makes a difference. It’s inadmissible in a hearing.”

“What hearing? We’d simply leak this to a newspaper, and they’d run it as a ‘credible-source’ story with photos and documentation. Sexton would be guilty until proven innocent. His vocal anti-NASA stance would be virtual proof that he is taking bribes.”

Gabrielle knew it was true. “Fine,” she challenged, “then why haven’t you leaked the information?”

“Because it’s a negative. The President promised not to go negative in the campaign and he wants to stick to that promise as long as he can.”

Yeah, right! “You’re telling me the President is so upstanding that he refuses to go public with this because people might consider it a negative?”

“It’s a negative for the country. It implicates dozens of private companies, many of which are made up of honest people. It besmirches the office of the U.S. Senate and is bad for the country’s morale. Dishonest politicians hurt all politicians. Americans need to trust their leaders. This would be an ugly investigation and would most likely send a U.S. senator and numerous prominent aerospace executives to jail.”

Although Tench’s logic did make sense, Gabrielle still doubted the allegations. “What does any of this have to do with me?”

“Simply put, Ms. Ashe, if we release these documents, your candidate will be indicted for illegal campaign financing, lose his Senate seat, and most likely do prison time.” Tench paused. “Unless… ”

Gabrielle saw a snakelike glint in the senior adviser’s eyes. “Unless what?”

Tench took a long drag on her cigarette. “Unless you decide to help us avoid all that.”

A murky silence settled over the room.

Tench coughed roughly. “Gabrielle, listen, I decided to share this unfortunate information with you for three reasons. First, to show you Zach Herney is a decent man who considers the government’s well-being before his personal gain. Second, to inform you that your candidate is not as trustworthy as you might think. And third, to persuade you to accept the offer I am about to make.”

“That offer being?”

“I’d like to offer you a chance to do the right thing. The patriotic thing. Whether you know it or not, you’re in a unique position to spare Washington all kinds of unpleasant scandal. If you can do what I am about to ask, perhaps you could even earn yourself a place on the President’s team.”

A place on the President’s team? Gabrielle couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Ms. Tench, whatever you have in mind, I do not appreciate being black-mailed, coerced, or talked down to. I work for the senator’s campaign because I believe in his politics. And if this is any indication of the way Zach Herney exerts political influence, I have no interest in being associated with him! If you’ve got something on Senator Sexton, then I suggest you leak it to the press. Frankly, I think this whole thing’s a sham.”

Tench gave a dreary sigh. “Gabrielle, your candidate’s illegal funding is a fact. I’m sorry. I know you trust him.” She lowered her voice. “Look, here’s the point. The President and I will go public with the funding issue if we must, but it will get ugly on a grand scale. This scandal involves several major U.S. corporations breaking the law. A lot of innocent people will pay the price.” She took a long drag and exhaled. “What the President and I are hoping for here… is some other way to discredit the senator’s ethics. A way that is more contained… one in which no innocent parties get hurt.” Tench set down her cigarette and folded her hands. “Simply put, we would like you to publicly admit that you had an affair with the senator.”

Gabrielle’s entire body went rigid. Tench sounded utterly certain of herself. Impossible, Gabrielle knew. There was no proof. The sex had happened only once, behind locked doors in Sexton’s senatorial office. Tench has nothing. She’s fishing. Gabrielle fought to retain her steady tone. “You assume a lot, Ms. Tench.”

“Which? That you had an affair? Or that you would abandon your candidate?”

“Both.”

Tench gave a curt smile and stood up. “Well, let’s put one of those facts to rest right now, shall we?” She walked to her wall safe again and returned with a red manila folder. It was stamped with the White House seal. She unhooked the clasp, tipped the envelope over, and dumped the contents out on the desk in front of Gabrielle.

As dozens of color photographs spilled out onto the desk, Gabrielle saw her entire career come crashing down before her.

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