"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."
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?"
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.