"My God," she whispered. What is this place?
The CNN production facility outside of Washington, D.C., is one of 212 studios worldwide that link via satellite to the global headquarters of Turner Broadcasting System in Atlanta.
It was 1:45 P.M. when Senator Sedgewick Sexton's limousine pulled into the parking lot. Sexton was feeling smug as he got out and strode toward the entrance. He and Gabrielle were greeted inside by a pot-bellied CNN producer who wore an effusive smile.
"Senator Sexton," the producer said. "Welcome. Great news. We just found out who the White House sent as a sparring partner for you." The producer gave a foreboding grin. "I hope you brought your game face." He motioned through the production glass out into the studio.
Sexton looked through the glass and almost fell over. Staring back at him, through the smoky haze of her cigarette, was the ugliest face in politics.
"Marjorie Tench?" Gabrielle blurted. "What the hell is she doing here?"
Sexton had no idea, but whatever the reason, her presence here was fantastic news-a clear sign that the President was in desperation mode. Why else would he send his senior adviser to the front lines? President Zach Herney was rolling out the big guns, and Sexton welcomed the opportunity.
The bigger the foe, the harder they fall.
The senator had no doubt that Tench would be a sly opponent, but gazing now at the woman, Sexton could not help but think that the President had made a serious error in judgment. Marjorie Tench was hideous looking. At the moment, she sat slouched in her chair, smoking a cigarette, her right arm moving in languid rhythm back and forth to her thin lips like a giant praying mantis feeding.
Jesus, Sexton thought, if there was ever a face that should stick to radio.
The few times Sedgewick Sexton had seen the White House senior adviser's jaundiced mug in a magazine, he could not believe he was looking at one of the most powerful faces in Washington.
"I don't like this," Gabrielle whispered.
Sexton barely heard her. The more he considered the opportunity, the more he liked it. Even more fortuitous than Tench's media-unfriendly face was Tench's reputation on one key issue: Marjorie Tench was extremely vocal that America's leadership role in the future could only be secured through technological superiority. She was an avid supporter of high-tech government R D programs, and, most important-NASA. Many believed it was Tench's behind-the-scenes pressure that kept the President positioned so staunchly behind the failing space agency.
Sexton wondered if perhaps the President was now punishing Tench for all the bad advice about supporting NASA. Is he throwing his senior adviser to the wolves?
Gabrielle Ashe gazed through the glass at Marjorie Tench and felt a growing uneasiness. This woman was smart as hell and she was an unexpected twist. Those two facts had her instincts tingling. Considering the woman's stance on NASA, the President sending her to face-off against Senator Sexton seemed ill-advised. But the President was certainly no fool. Something told Gabrielle this interview was bad news.
Gabrielle already sensed the senator salivating over his odds, which did little to curb her concern. Sexton had a habit of going overboard when he got cocky. The NASA issue had been a welcome boost in the polls, but Sexton had been pushing very hard lately, she thought. Plenty of campaigns had been lost by candidates who went for the knockout when all they needed was to finish the round.
The producer looked eager for the impending blood match. "Let's get you set up, senator."
As Sexton headed for the studio, Gabrielle caught his sleeve. "I know what you're thinking," she whispered. "But just be smart. Don't go overboard."
"Overboard? Me?" Sexton grinned.
"Remember this woman is very good at what she does."
Sexton gave her a suggestive smirk. "So am I."
The cavernous main chamber of NASA's habisphere would have been a strange sight anywhere on earth, but the fact that it existed on an Arctic ice shelf made it that much more difficult for Rachel Sexton to assimilate.
Staring upward into a futuristic dome crafted of white interlocking triangular pads, Rachel felt like she had entered a colossal sanatorium. The walls sloped downward to a floor of solid ice, where an army of halogen lamps stood like sentinels around the perimeter, casting stark light skyward and giving the whole chamber an ephemeral luminosity.
Snaking across the ice floor, black foam carpetrunners wound like boardwalks through a maze of portable scientific work stations. Amid the electronics, thirty or forty white-clad NASA personnel were hard at work, conferring happily and talking in excited tones. Rachel immediately recognized the electricity in the room.
It was the thrill of new discovery.
As Rachel and the administrator circled the outer edge of the dome, she noted the surprised looks of displeasure from those who recognized her. Their whispers carried clearly in the reverberant space.
Isn't that Senator Sexton's daughter?
What the hell is SHE doing here?
I can't believe the administrator is even speaking to her!
Rachel half expected to see voodoo dolls of her father dangling everywhere. The animosity around her, though, was not the only emotion in the air; Rachel also sensed a distinct smugness-as if NASA clearly knew who would be having the last laugh.
The administrator led Rachel toward a series of tables where a lone man sat at a computer work station. He was dressed in a black turtleneck, wide-wale corduroys, and heavy boat shoes, rather than the matching NASA weather gear everyone else seemed to be wearing. He had his back to them.
The administrator asked Rachel to wait as he went over and spoke to the stranger. After a moment, the man in the turtleneck gave him a congenial nod and started shutting down his computer. The administrator returned.
"Mr. Tolland will take it from here," he said. "He's another one of the President's recruits, so you two should get along fine. I'll join you later."
"I assume you've heard of Michael Tolland?"
Rachel shrugged, her brain still taking in the incredible surroundings. "Name doesn't ring a bell."
The man in the turtleneck arrived, grinning. "Doesn't ring a bell?" His voice was resonant and friendly. "Best news I've heard all day. Seems I never get a chance to make a first impression anymore."
When Rachel glanced up at the newcomer, her feet froze in place. She knew the man's handsome face in an instant. Everyone in America did.
"Oh," she said, blushing as the man shook her hand. "You're that Michael Tolland."
When the President had told Rachel he had recruited top-notch civilian scientists to authenticate NASA's discovery, Rachel had imagined a group of wizened nerds with monogrammed calculators. Michael Tolland was the antithesis. One of the best known "science celebrities" in America today, Tolland hosted a weekly documentary called Amazing Seas, during which he brought viewers face-to-face with spellbinding oceanic phenomena-underwater volcanoes, ten-foot sea worms, killer tidal waves. The media hailed Tolland as a cross between Jacques Cousteau and Carl Sagan, crediting his knowledge, unpretentious enthusiasm, and lust for adventure as the formula that had rocketed Amazing Seas to the top of the ratings. Of course, most critics admitted, Tolland's rugged good looks and self-effacing charisma probably didn't hurt his popularity with the female audience.
"Mr. Tolland...," Rachel said, fumbling the words a bit. "I'm Rachel Sexton."
Tolland smiled a pleasant, crooked smile. "Hi, Rachel. Call me Mike."