Rachel Sexton’s thoughts were lost in the morning’s bizarre developments as her PaveHawk transport tore across the morning sky, and it was not until the helicopter rocketed out across Chesapeake Bay that she realized they were heading in entirely the wrong direction. The initial flash of confusion instantly gave way to trepidation.
“Hey!” she yelled to the pilot. “What are you doing?” Her voice was barely audible over the rotors. “You’re supposed to be taking me to the White House!”
The pilot shook his head. “Sorry, ma’am. The President is not at the White House this morning.”
Rachel tried to remember if Pickering had specifically mentioned the White House or whether she had simply assumed. “So where is the President?”
“Your meeting with him is elsewhere.”
No shit. “Where elsewhere?”
“Not far now.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“Sixteen more miles.”
Rachel scowled at him. This guy should be a politician. “Do you dodge bullets as well as you dodge questions?”
The pilot did not answer.
It took less than seven minutes for the chopper to cross the Chesapeake. When land was in sight again, the pilot banked north and skirted a narrow peninsula, where Rachel saw a series of runways and military-looking buildings. The pilot dropped down toward them, and Rachel then realized what this place was. The six launchpads and charred rocket towers were a good clue, but if that was not enough, the roof of one of the buildings had been painted with two enormous words: WALLOPS ISLAND.
Wallops Island was one of NASA’s oldest launch sites. Still used today for satellite launches and testing of experimental aircraft, Wallops was NASA’s base away from the spotlight.
The President is at Wallops Island? It made no sense.
The chopper pilot aligned his trajectory with a series of three runways that ran the length of the narrow peninsula. They seemed to be heading for the far end of the center runway.
The pilot began to slow. “You will be meeting the President in his office.”
Rachel turned, wondering if the guy was joking. “The President of the United States has an office on Wallops Island?”
The pilot looked dead serious. “The President of the United States has an office wherever he likes, ma’am.”
He pointed toward the end of the runway. Rachel saw the mammoth shape glistening in the distance, and her heart almost stopped. Even at three hundred yards, she recognized the light blue hull of the modified 747.
“I’m meeting him aboard the… ”
“Yes, ma’am. His home away from home.”
Rachel stared out at the massive aircraft. The military’s cryptic designation for this prestigious plane was VC-25-A, although the rest of the world knew it by another name: Air Force One.
“Looks like you’re in the new one this morning,” the pilot said, motioning to the numbers on the plane’s tail fin.
Rachel nodded blankly. Few Americans knew that there were actually two Air Force Ones in service – a pair of identical, specially configured 747-200-Bs, one with the tail number 28000 and the other 29000. Both planes had cruising speeds of 600 mph and had been modified for in-flight refueling, giving them virtually unlimited range.
As the PaveHawk settled onto the runway beside the President’s plane, Rachel now understood the references to Air Force One being the commander-in-chief’s “portable home court advantage.” The machine was an intimidating sight.
When the President flew to other countries to meet heads of state, he often requested – for security purposes – that the meeting take place on the runway aboard his jet. Although some of the motives were security, certainly another incentive was to gain a negotiating edge through raw intimidation. A visit to Air Force One was far more intimidating than any trip to the White House. The six-foot-high letters along the fuselage trumpeted “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” A female English cabinet member had once accused President Nixon of “waving his manhood in her face” when he asked her to join him aboard Air Force One. Later the crew jokingly nicknamed the plane “Big Dick.”
“Ms. Sexton?” A blazer-clad Secret Serviceman materialized outside the chopper and opened the door for her. “The President is waiting for you.”
Rachel got out of the chopper and gazed up the steep gangway at the bulging hull. Into the flying phallus. She had once heard the flying “Oval Office” had over four thousand square feet of interior floor space, including four separate private sleeping quarters, berths for a twenty-six-member flight crew, and two galleys capable of providing food for fifty people.
Climbing the stairway, Rachel felt the Secret Serviceman on her heels, urging her upward. High above, the cabin door stood open like a tiny puncture wound on the side of a gargantuan silver whale. She moved toward the darkened entryway and felt her confidence starting to ebb.
Easy, Rachel. It’s just a plane.
On the landing, the Secret Serviceman politely took her arm and guided her into a surprisingly narrow corridor. They turned right, walked a short distance, and emerged into a luxurious and spacious cabin. Rachel immediately recognized it from photographs.
“Wait here,” the serviceman said, and he disappeared.
Rachel stood alone in Air Force One’s famous wood-paneled fore cabin. This was the room used for meetings, entertaining dignitaries, and, apparently, for scaring the hell out of first-time passengers. The room spanned the entire width of the plane, as did its thick tan carpeting. The furnishings were impeccable – cordovan leather armchairs around a bird’s-eye maple meeting table, burnished brass floor lamps beside a continental sofa, and hand-etched crystal glassware on a mahogany wet bar.
Supposedly, Boeing designers had carefully laid out this fore cabin to provide passengers with “a sense of order mixed with tranquility.” Tranquility, however, was the last thing Rachel Sexton was feeling at the moment. The only thing she could think of was the number of world leaders who had sat in this very room and made decisions that shaped the world.
Everything about this room said power, from the faint aroma of fine pipe tobacco to the ubiquitous presidential seal. The eagle clasping the arrows and olive branches was embroidered on throw pillows, carved into the ice bucket, and even printed on the cork coasters on the bar. Rachel picked up a coaster and examined it.
“Stealing souvenirs already?” a deep voice asked behind her.
Startled, Rachel wheeled, dropping the coaster on the floor. She knelt awkwardly to retrieve it. As she grasped the coaster, she turned to see the President of the United States gazing down at her with an amused grin.
“I’m not royalty, Ms. Sexton. There’s really no need to kneel.”
Senator Sedgewick Sexton savored the privacy of his Lincoln stretch limousine as it snaked through Washington’s morning traffic toward his office. Across from him, Gabrielle Ashe, his twenty-four-year-old personal assistant, read him his daily schedule. Sexton was barely listening.
I love Washington, he thought, admiring the assistant’s perfect shape beneath her cashmere sweater. Power is the greatest aphrodisiac of all… and it brings women like this to D.C. in droves.
Gabrielle was a New York Ivy Leaguer with dreams of being a senator herself one day. She’ll make it too, Sexton thought. She was incredible-looking and sharp as a whip. Above all, she understood the rules of the game.
Gabrielle Ashe was black, but her tawny coloring was more of a deep cinnamon or mahogany, the kind of comfortable in-between that Sexton knew bleeding heart “whites” could endorse without feeling like they were giving away the farm. Sexton described Gabrielle to his cronies as Halle Berry’s looks with Hillary Clinton’s brains and ambition, although sometimes he thought even that was an understatement.
Gabrielle had been a tremendous asset to his campaign since he’d promoted her to his personal campaign assistant three months ago. And to top it all off, she was working for free. Her compensation for a sixteen-hour workday was learning the ropes in the trenches with a seasoned politician.
Of course, Sexton gloated, I’ve persuaded her to do a bit more than just work. After promoting Gabrielle, Sexton had invited her to a late night “orientation session” in his private office. As expected, his young assistant arrived starstruck and eager to please. With a slow-moving patience mastered over decades, Sexton worked his magic… building up Gabrielle’s trust, carefully stripping away her inhibitions, exhibiting tantalizing control, and finally seducing her right there in his office.
Sexton had little doubt the encounter had been one of the most sexually gratifying experiences of the young woman’s life, and yet, in the light of the day, Gabrielle clearly regretted the indiscretion. Embarrassed, she offered to resign. Sexton refused. Gabrielle stayed on, but she made her intentions very clear. The relationship had been strictly business ever since.
Gabrielle’s pouty lips were still moving. “… don’t want you to be lackadaisical going into this CNN debate this afternoon. We still don’t know who the White House is sending as opposition. You’ll want to peruse these notes I typed.” She handed him a folder.
Sexton took the folder, savoring the scent of her perfume mixed with the plush leather seats.
“You aren’t listening,” she said.
“Certainly am.” He grinned. “Forget about this CNN debate. Worst case scenario, the White House snubs me by sending some low-level campaign intern. Best case scenario, they send a bigwig, and I eat him for lunch.”
Gabrielle frowned. “Fine. I’ve included a list of the most probable hostile topics in your notes.”
“The usual suspects no doubt.”
“With one new entry. I think you might face some hostile backlash from the gay community for your comments last night on Larry King.”
Sexton shrugged, barely listening. “Right. The same-sex marriage thing.”
Gabrielle gave him a disapproving look. “You did come out against it pretty strongly.”
Same-sex marriages, Sexton thought in disgust. If it were up to me, the faggots wouldn’t even have the right to vote. “Okay, I’ll turn it down a notch.”
“Good. You’ve been pushing the envelope a bit on some of these hot topics lately. Don’t get cocky. The public can turn in an instant. You’re gaining now, and you have momentum. Just ride it out. There’s no need to hit the ball out of the park today. Just keep it in play.”
“Any news from the White House?”
Gabrielle looked pleasantly baffled. “Continued silence. It’s official; your opponent has become the ‘Invisible Man.'”
Sexton could barely believe his good fortune lately. For months, the President had been working hard on the campaign trail. Then suddenly, a week ago, he had locked himself in the Oval Office, and nobody had seen or heard from him since. It was as if the President simply could not face Sexton’s groundswell of voter support.
Gabrielle ran a hand through her straightened black hair. “I hear the White House campaign staff is as confused as we are. The President is offering no explanation for his vanishing act, and everyone over there is furious.”
“Any theories?” Sexton asked.
Gabrielle gazed at him over her scholarly glasses. “As it turns out, I got some interesting data this morning from a contact of mine in the White House.”
Sexton recognized the look in her eyes. Gabrielle Ashe had scored some insider information again. Sexton wondered if she were giving some presidential aide backseat blow jobs in exchange for campaign secrets. Sexton didn’t care… so long as the information kept coming.
“Rumor has it,” his assistant said, lowering her voice, “the President’s strange behavior all started last week after an emergency private briefing with the administrator of NASA. Apparently the President emerged from the meeting looking dazed. He immediately cleared his schedule, and he’s been in close contact with NASA ever since.”
Sexton certainly liked the sound of that. “You think maybe NASA delivered some more bad news?”
“Seems a logical explanation,” she said hopefully. “Although it would have to be pretty critical to make the President drop everything.”
Sexton considered it. Obviously, whatever was going on with NASA had to be bad news. Otherwise the President would throw it in my face. Sexton had been pounding the President pretty hard on NASA funding lately. The space agency’s recent string of failed missions and gargantuan budget overruns had earned NASA the dubious honor of becoming Sexton’s unofficial poster child against big government overspending and inefficiency. Admittedly, attacking NASA – one of the most prominent symbols of American pride – was not the way most politicians would think of winning votes, but Sexton had a weapon few other politicians had – Gabrielle Ashe. And her impeccable instincts.
The savvy young woman had come to Sexton’s attention several months ago when she was working as a coordinator in Sexton’s Washington campaign office. With Sexton trailing badly in the primary polls and his message of government overspending falling on deaf ears, Gabrielle Ashe wrote him a note suggesting a radical new campaign angle. She told the senator he should attack NASA’s huge budget overruns and continued White House bailouts as the quintessential example of President Herney’s careless overspending.
“NASA is costing Americans a fortune,” Gabrielle wrote, including a list of financial figures, failures, and bailouts. “Voters have no idea. They would be horrified. I think you should make NASA a political issue.”
Sexton groaned at her naivete. “Yeah, and while I’m at it, I’ll rail against singing the national anthem at baseball games.”
In the weeks that followed, Gabrielle continued to send information about NASA across the senator’s desk. The more Sexton read, the more he realized this young Gabrielle Ashe had a point. Even by government agency standards, NASA was an astounding money pit – expensive, inefficient, and, in recent years, grossly incompetent.
One afternoon Sexton was doing an on-air interview about education. The host was pressing Sexton about where he would find funding for his promised overhaul of public schools. In response, Sexton decided to test Gabrielle’s NASA theory with a half-joking response. “Money for education?” he said. “Well, maybe I’ll cut the space program in half. I figure if NASA can spend fifteen billion a year in space, I should be able to spend seven and a half billion on the kids here on earth.”
In the transmission booth, Sexton’s campaign managers gasped in horror at the careless remark. After all, entire campaigns had been sunk by far less than taking a potshot at NASA. Instantly, the phone lines at the radio station lit up. Sexton’s campaign managers cringed; the space patriots were circling for the kill.
Then something unexpected happened.
“Fifteen billion a year?” the first caller said, sounding shocked. “With a B? Are you telling me that my son’s math class is overcrowded because schools can’t afford enough teachers, and NASA is spending fifteen billion dollars a year taking pictures of space dust?”
“Um… that’s right,” Sexton said warily.
“Absurd! Does the President have the power to do something about that?”
“Absolutely,” Sexton replied, gaining confidence. “A President can veto the budget request of any agency he or she deems overfunded.”
“Then you have my vote, Senator Sexton. Fifteen billion for space research, and our kids don’t have teachers. It’s outrageous! Good luck, sir. I hope you go all the way.”
The next caller came on the line. “Senator, I just read that NASA’s International Space Station is way overbudget and the President is thinking of giving NASA emergency funding to keep the project going. Is that true?”
Sexton jumped at this one. “True!” He explained that the space station was originally proposed as a joint venture, with twelve countries sharing the costs. But after construction began, the station’s budget spiraled wildly out of control, and many countries dropped out in disgust. Rather than scrapping the project, the President decided to cover everyone’s expenses. “Our cost for the ISS project,” Sexton announced, “has risen from the proposed eight billion to a staggering one hundred billion dollars!”
The caller sounded furious. “Why the hell doesn’t the President pull the plug!”
Sexton could have kissed the guy. “Damn good question. Unfortunately, one third of the building supplies are already in orbit, and the President spent your tax dollars putting them there, so pulling the plug would be admitting he made a multibillion-dollar blunder with your money.”
The calls kept coming. For the first time, it seemed Americans were waking up to the idea that NASA was an option – not a national fixture.
When the show was over, with the exception of a few NASA diehards calling in with poignant overtures about man’s eternal quest for knowledge, the consensus was in: Sexton’s campaign had stumbled onto the holy grail of campaigning – a new “hot button” – a yet untapped controversial issue that struck a nerve with voters.
In the weeks that followed, Sexton trounced his opponents in five crucial primaries. He announced Gabrielle Ashe as his new personal campaign assistant, praising her for her work in bringing the NASA issue to the voters. With the wave of a hand, Sexton had made a young African-American woman a rising political star, and the issue of his racist and sexist voting record disappeared overnight.
Now, as they sat together in the limousine, Sexton knew Gabrielle had yet again proven her worth. Her new information about last week’s secret meeting between the NASA administrator and the President certainly suggested more NASA troubles were brewing – perhaps another country pulling funding from the space station.
As the limousine passed the Washington Monument, Senator Sexton could not help but feel he had been anointed by destiny.
Despite having ascended to the most powerful political office in the world, President Zachary Herney was average in height, with a slender build and narrow shoulders. He had a freckled face, bifocals, and thinning black hair. His unimposing physique, however, stood in stark contrast to the almost princely love the man commanded from those who knew him. It was said that if you met Zach Herney once, you would walk to the ends of the earth for him.
“So glad you could make it,” President Herney said, reaching out to shake Rachel’s hand. His grasp was warm and sincere.
Rachel fought the frog in her throat. “Of… course, Mr. President. An honor to meet you.”
The President gave her a comforting grin, and Rachel sensed firsthand the legendary Herney affability. The man possessed an easygoing countenance political cartoonists loved because no matter how skewed a rendition they drew, no one ever mistook the man’s effortless warmth and amiable smile. His eyes mirrored sincerity and dignity at all times.
“If you follow me,” he said in a cheery voice, “I’ve got a cup of coffee with your name on it.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The President pressed the intercom and called for some coffee in his office.
As Rachel followed the President through the plane, she could not help but notice that he looked extremely happy and well-rested for a man who was down in the polls. He was also very casually dressed – blue jeans, a polo shirt, and L.L. Bean hiking boots.
Rachel tried to make conversation. “Doing… some hiking, Mr. President?”
“Not at all. My campaign advisers have decided this should be my new look. What do you think?”
Rachel hoped for his sake that he wasn’t serious. “It’s very… um… manly, sir.”
Herney was deadpan. “Good. We’re thinking it will help me win back some of the women’s vote from your father.” After a beat, the President broke into a broad smile. “Ms. Sexton, that was a joke. I think we both know I’ll need more than a polo shirt and blue jeans to win this election.”
The President’s openness and good humor were quickly evaporating any tension Rachel felt about being there. What this President lacked in physical brawn, he more than made up for in diplomatic rapport. Diplomacy was about people skills, and Zach Herney had the gift.
Rachel followed the President toward the back of the plane. The deeper they went, the less the interior resembled a plane – curved hallways, wallpapered walls, even an exercise room complete with StairMaster and rowing machine. Oddly, the plane seemed almost entirely deserted.
“Traveling alone, Mr. President?”
He shook his head. “Just landed, actually.”
Rachel was surprised. Landed from where? Her intel briefs this week had included nothing about presidential travel plans. Apparently he was using Wallops Island to travel quietly.
“My staff deplaned right before you arrived,” the President said. “I’m headed back to the White House shortly to meet them, but I wanted to meet you here instead of my office.”
“Trying to intimidate me?”
“On the contrary. Trying to respect you, Ms. Sexton. The White House is anything but private, and news of a meeting between the two of us would put you in an awkward position with your father.”
“I appreciate that, sir.”
“It seems you’re managing a delicate balancing act quite gracefully, and I see no reason to disrupt that.”
Rachel flashed on her breakfast meeting with her father and doubted that it qualified as “graceful.” Nonetheless, Zach Herney was going out of his way to be decent, and he certainly didn’t have to.
“May I call you Rachel?” Herney asked.
“Of course.” May I call you Zach?
“My office,” the President said, ushering her through a carved maple door.
The office aboard Air Force One certainly was cozier than its White House counterpart, but its furnishings still carried an air of austerity. The desk was mounded with papers, and behind it hung an imposing oil painting of a classic, three-masted schooner under full sail trying to outrun a raging storm. It seemed a perfect metaphor for Zach Herney’s presidency at the moment.
The President offered Rachel one of the three executive chairs facing his desk. She sat. Rachel expected him to sit behind his desk, but instead he pulled one of the chairs up and sat next to her.
Equal footing, she realized. The master of rapport.
“Well, Rachel,” Herney said, sighing tiredly as he settled into his chair. “I imagine you’ve got to be pretty damned confused to be sitting here right now, am I right?”
Whatever was left of Rachel’s guard crumbled away with the candor in the man’s voice. “Actually, sir, I’m baffled.”
Herney laughed out loud. “Terrific. It’s not every day I can baffle someone from the NRO.”
“It’s not every day someone from the NRO is invited aboard Air Force One by a President in hiking boots.”
The President laughed again.
A quiet rap on the office door announced the arrival of coffee. One of the flight crew entered with a steaming pewter pot and two pewter mugs on a tray. At the President’s bidding, she laid the tray on the desk and disappeared.
“Cream and sugar?” the President asked, standing up to pour.
“Cream, please.” Rachel savored the rich aroma. The President of the United States is personally serving me coffee?
Zach Herney handed her a heavy pewter mug. “Authentic Paul Revere,” he said. “One of the little luxuries.”
Rachel sipped the coffee. It was the best she had ever tasted.
“Anyhow,” the President said, pouring himself a cup and sitting back down, “I’ve got limited time here, so let’s get to business.” The President plopped a sugar cube in his coffee and gazed up at her. “I imagine Bill Pickering warned you that the only reason I would want to see you would be to use you to my political advantage?”
“Actually, sir, that’s exactly what he said.”
The President chuckled. “Always the cynic.”
“So he’s wrong?”
“Are you kidding?” the President laughed. “Bill Pickering is never wrong. He’s dead-on as usual.”
Gabrielle Ashe gazed absently out the window of Senator Sexton’s limousine as it moved through the morning traffic toward Sexton’s office building. She wondered how the hell she had arrived at this point in her life. Personal assistant to Senator Sedgewick Sexton. This was exactly what she had wanted, wasn’t it?
I’m sitting in a limousine with the next President of the United States.
Gabrielle stared across the car’s plush interior at the senator, who seemed to be far away in his own thoughts. She admired his handsome features and perfect attire. He looked presidential.
Gabrielle had first seen Sexton speak when she was a poli-sci major at Cornell University three years ago. She would never forget how his eyes probed the audience, as if sending a message directly to her-trust me. After Sexton’s speech, Gabrielle waited in line to meet him.
“Gabrielle Ashe,” the senator said, reading her name tag. “A lovely name for a lovely young woman.” His eyes were reassuring.
“Thank you, sir,” Gabrielle replied, feeling the man’s strength as she shook his hand. “I was really impressed by your message.”
“Glad to hear it!” Sexton thrust a business card into her hand. “I’m always looking for bright young minds who share my vision. When you get out of school, track me down. My people may have a job for you.”
Gabrielle opened her mouth to thank him, but the senator was already on to the next person in line. Nonetheless, in the months that followed, Gabrielle found herself following Sexton’s career on television. She watched with admiration as he spoke out against big government spending – spearheading budget cuts, streamlining the IRS to work more effectively, trimming fat at the DEA, and even abolishing redundant civil service programs. Then, when the senator’s wife died suddenly in a car crash, Gabrielle watched in awe as Sexton somehow turned the negative into a positive. Sexton rose above his personal pain and declared to the world that he would be running for the presidency and dedicating the remainder of his public service to his wife’s memory. Gabrielle decided right then and there that she wanted to work closely with Senator Sexton’s presidential campaign.
Now she had gotten as close as anyone could get.
Gabrielle recalled the night she had spent with Sexton in his plush office, and she cringed, trying to block out the embarrassing images in her mind. What was I thinking? She knew she should have resisted, but somehow she’d found herself unable. Sedgewick Sexton had been an idol of hers for so long… and to think he wanted her.
The limousine hit a bump, jarring her thoughts back to the present.
“You okay?” Sexton was watching her now.
Gabrielle flashed a hurried smile. “Fine.”
“You aren’t still thinking about that drudge, are you?”
She shrugged. “I’m still a little worried, yeah.”
“Forget it. The drudge was the best thing that ever happened to my campaign.”
A drudge, Gabrielle had learned the hard way, was the political equivalent of leaking information that your rival used a penis enlarger or subscribed to Stud Muffin magazine. Drudging wasn’t a glamorous tactic, but when it paid off, it paid off big.
Of course, when it backfired…
And backfire, it had. For the White House. About a month ago, the President’s campaign staff, unsettled by the slipping polls, had decided to get aggressive and leak a story they suspected to be true – that Senator Sexton had engaged in an affair with his personal assistant, Gabrielle Ashe. Unfortunately for the White House, there was no hard evidence. Senator Sexton, a firm believer in the best defense is a strong offense, seized the moment for attack. He called a national press conference to proclaim his innocence and outrage. I cannot believe, he said, gazing into the cameras with pain in his eyes, that the President would dishonor my wife’s memory with these malicious lies.
Senator Sexton’s performance on TV was so convincing that Gabrielle herself practically believed they had not slept together. Seeing how effortlessly he lied, Gabrielle realized that Senator Sexton was indeed a dangerous man.
Lately, although Gabrielle was certain she was backing the strongest horse in this presidential race, she had begun to question whether she was backing the best horse. Working closely with Sexton had been an eye-opening experience – akin to a behind-the-scenes tour of Universal Studios, where one’s childlike awe over the movies is sullied by the realization that Hollywood isn’t magic after all.
Although Gabrielle’s faith in Sexton’s message remained intact, she was beginning to question the messenger.
“What I am about to tell you, Rachel,” the President said, “is classified ‘UMBRA.’ Well beyond your current security clearance.”
Rachel felt the walls of Air Force One closing in around her. The President had flown her to Wallops Island, invited her onboard his plane, poured her coffee, told her flat out that he intended to use her to political advantage against her own father, and now he was announcing he intended to give her classified information illegally. However affable Zach Herney appeared on the surface, Rachel Sexton had just learned something important about him. This man took control in a hurry.
“Two weeks ago,” the President said, locking eyes with her, “NASA made a discovery.”
The words hung a moment in the air before Rachel could process them. A NASA discovery? Recent intelligence updates had suggested nothing out of the ordinary going on with the space agency. Of course, these days a “NASA discovery” usually meant realizing they’d grossly under budgeted some new project.
“Before we talk further,” the President said, “I’d like to know if you share your father’s cynicism over space exploration.”
Rachel resented the comment. “I certainly hope you didn’t call me here to ask me to control my father’s rants against NASA.”
He laughed. “Hell, no. I’ve been around the Senate long enough to know that nobody controls Sedgewick Sexton.”
“My father is an opportunist, sir. Most successful politicians are. And unfortunately NASA has made itself an opportunity.” The recent string of NASA errors had been so unbearable that one either had to laugh or cry – satellites that disintegrated in orbit, space probes that never called home, the International Space Station budget rising tenfold and member countries bailing out like rats from a sinking ship. Billions were being lost, and Senator Sexton was riding it like a wave – a wave that seemed destined to carry him to the shores of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I will admit,” the President continued, “NASA has been a walking disaster area lately. Every time I turn around, they give me yet another reason to slash their funding.”
Rachel saw her opening for a foothold and took it. “And yet, sir, didn’t I just read that you bailed them out last week with another three million in emergency funding to keep them solvent?”
The President chuckled. “Your father was pleased with that one, wasn’t he?”
“Nothing like sending ammunition to your executioner.”
“Did you hear him on Nightline? ‘Zach Herney is a space addict, and the taxpayers are funding his habit.'”
“But you keep proving him right, sir.”
Herney nodded. “I make it no secret that I’m an enormous fan of NASA. I always have been. I was a child of the space race – Sputnik, John Glenn, Apollo 11 – and I have never hesitated to express my feelings of admiration and national pride for our space program. In my mind, the men and women of NASA are history’s modern pioneers. They attempt the impossible, accept failure, and then go back to the drawing board while the rest of us stand back and criticize.”
Rachel remained silent, sensing that just below the President’s calm exterior was an indignant rage over her father’s endless anti-NASA rhetoric. Rachel found herself wondering what the hell NASA had found. The President was certainly taking his time coming to the point.
“Today,” Herney said, his voice intensifying, “I intend to change your entire opinion of NASA.”
Rachel eyed him with uncertainty. “You have my vote already, sir. You may want to concentrate on the rest of the country.”
“I intend to.” He took a sip of coffee and smiled. “And I’m going to ask you to help me.” Pausing, he leaned toward her. “In a most unusual way.”
Rachel could now feel Zach Herney scrutinizing her every move, like a hunter trying to gauge if his prey intended to run or fight. Unfortunately, Rachel saw nowhere to run.
“I assume,” the President said, pouring them both more coffee, “that you’re aware of a NASA project called EOS?”
Rachel nodded. “Earth Observation System. I believe my father has mentioned EOS once or twice.”
The weak attempt at sarcasm drew a frown from the President. The truth was that Rachel’s father mentioned the Earth Observation System every chance he got. It was one of NASA’s most controversial big-ticket ventures – a constellation of five satellites designed to look down from space and analyze the planet’s environment: ozone depletion, polar ice melt, global warming, rainforest defoliation. The intent was to provide environmentalists with never before seen macroscopic data so that they could plan better for earth’s future.
Unfortunately, the EOS project had been wrought with failure. Like so many NASA projects of late, it had been plagued with costly overruns right from the start. And Zach Herney was the one taking the heat. He had used the support of the environmental lobby to push the $1.4 billion EOS project through Congress. But rather than delivering the promised contributions to global earth science, EOS had spiraled quickly into a costly nightmare of failed launches, computer malfunctions, and somber NASA press conferences. The only smiling face lately was that of Senator Sexton, who was smugly reminding voters just how much of their money the President had spent on EOS and just how lukewarm the returns had been.
The President dropped a sugar cube into his mug. “As surprising as this may sound, the NASA discovery I’m referring to was made by EOS.”
Now Rachel felt lost. If EOS had enjoyed a recent success, NASA certainly would have announced it, wouldn’t they? Her father had been crucifying EOS in the media, and the space agency could use any good news they could find.
“I’ve heard nothing,” Rachel said, “about any EOS discovery.”
“I know. NASA prefers to keep the good news to themselves for a while.”
Rachel doubted it. “In my experience, sir, when it comes to NASA, no news is generally bad news.” Restraint was not a forte of the NASA public relations department. The standing joke at the NRO was that NASA held a press conference every time one of their scientists so much as farted.
The President frowned. “Ah, yes. I forget I’m talking to one of Pickering’s NRO security disciples. Is he still moaning and groaning about NASA’s loose lips?”
“Security is his business, sir. He takes it very seriously.”
“He damn well better. I just find it hard to believe that two agencies with so much in common constantly find something to fight about.”
Rachel had learned early in her tenure under William Pickering that although both NASA and the NRO were space-related agencies, they had philosophies that were polar opposites. The NRO was a defense agency and kept all of its space activities classified, while NASA was academic and excitedly publicized all of its breakthroughs around the globe – often, William Pickering argued, at the risk of national security. Some of NASA’s finest technologies-high-resolution lenses for satellite telescopes, long-range communications systems, and radio imaging devices – had a nasty habit of appearing in the intelligence arsenal of hostile countries and being used to spy against us. Bill Pickering often grumbled that NASA scientists had big brains… and even bigger mouths.
A more pointed issue between the agencies, however, was the fact that because NASA handled the NRO’s satellite launches, many of NASA’s recent failures directly affected the NRO. No failure had been more dramatic than that of August 12, 1998, when a NASA/Air Force Titan 4 rocket blew up forty seconds into launch and obliterated its payload – a $1.2 billion NRO satellite code-named Vortex 2. Pickering seemed particularly unwilling to forget that one.
“So why hasn’t NASA gone public about this recent success?” Rachel challenged. “They certainly could use some good news right now.”
“NASA is being silent,” the President declared, “because I ordered them to be.”
Rachel wondered if she had heard him correctly. If so, the President was committing some kind of political hara-kiri that she did not understand.
“This discovery,” the President said, “is… shall we say… nothing short of astounding in its ramifications.”
Rachel felt an uneasy chill. In the world of intelligence, “astounding ramifications” seldom meant good news. She now wondered if all the EOS secrecy was on account of the satellite system having spotted some impending environmental disaster. “Is there a problem?”
“No problem at all. What EOS discovered is quite wonderful.”
Rachel fell silent.
“Suppose, Rachel, that I told you NASA has just made a discovery of such scientific importance… such earth-shattering significance… that it validated every dollar Americans have ever spent in space?”
Rachel could not imagine.
The President stood up. “Let’s take a walk, shall we?”