"Obviously, this is devastating for the senator," the analyst was saying. "The President and NASA have claimed an incalculable triumph with this discovery. News like this would revitalize the President's campaign regardless of Sexton's position on NASA, but with Sexton's admission today that he would go so far as to abolish NASA funding outright if need be... well, this presidential announcement is a one-two punch from which the senator will not recover."
I was tricked, Sexton said. The White House fucking set me up.
The analyst was smiling now. "All of the credibility NASA has lost with Americans recently has just been restored in spades. There's a real feeling of national pride out there on the streets right now."
"As there should be. They love Zach Herney, and they were losing faith. You've got to admit, the President was lying down and took some pretty big hits recently, but he's come out of it smelling like a rose."
Sexton thought of the CNN debate that afternoon and hung his head, thinking he might be sick to his stomach. All of the NASA inertia he had so carefully built up over the last months had not only come to a screeching halt, but it had become an anchor around his neck. He looked like a fool. He'd been brazenly played by the White House. He was already dreading all the cartoons in tomorrow's paper. His name would be the punch line to every joke in the country. Obviously, there would be no more quiet SFF campaign funding. Everything had changed. All of the men who had been in his apartment had just seen their dreams go down the toilet. The privatization of space had just struck a brick wall.
Taking another hit of cognac, the senator stood up and walked unevenly to his desk. He gazed down at the unhooked phone receiver. Knowing it was an act of masochistic self-flagellation, he slowly replaced the phone receiver in its cradle and began counting the seconds.
One... two... The phone rang. He let the machine pick up.
"Senator Sexton, Judy Oliver from CNN. I'd like to give you an opportunity to react to the NASA discovery this evening. Please call me." She hung up.
Sexton started counting again. One... The phone started ringing. He ignored it, letting the machine get it. Another reporter.
Holding his bottle of Courvoisier, Sexton wandered toward the sliding door of his balcony. He pulled it aside and stepped out into the cool air. Leaning against the railing, he gazed out across town to the illuminated facade of the White House in the distance. The lights seemed to twinkle gleefully in the wind.
Bastards, he thought. For centuries we've been looking for proof of life in the heavens. Now we find it in the same fucking year as my election? This wasn't propitious, this was goddamned clairvoyant. Every apartment window for as far as Sexton could see had a television on. Sexton wondered where Gabrielle Ashe was tonight. This was all her fault. She'd fed him NASA failure after NASA failure.
He raised the bottle to take another swig.
Goddamned Gabrielle... she's the reason I'm in this so deep.
Across town, standing amid the chaos of the ABC production room, Gabrielle Ashe felt numb. The President's announcement had come out of left field, leaving her suspended in a semicatatonic haze. She stood, lock-kneed in the center of the production room floor, staring up at one of the television monitors while pandemonium raged around her.
The initial seconds of the announcement had brought dead silence to the newsroom floor. It had lasted only moments before the place erupted into a deafening carnival of scrambling reporters. These people were professionals. They had no time for personal reflection. There would be time for that after the work was done. At the moment, the world wanted to know more, and ABC had to provide it. This story had everything-science, history, political drama-an emotional mother lode. Nobody in the media was sleeping tonight.
"Gabs?" Yolanda's voice was sympathetic. "Let's get you back into my office before someone realizes who you are and starts grilling you on what this means for Sexton's campaign."
Gabrielle felt herself guided through a haze into Yolanda's glass-walled office. Yolanda sat her down and handed her a glass of water. She tried to force a smile. "Look on the bright side, Gabs. Your candidate's campaign is fucked, but at least you're not."
Yolanda's tone turned serious. "Gabrielle, I know you feel like shit. Your candidate just got hit by a Mack truck, and if you ask me, he's not getting up. At least not in time to turn this thing around. But at least nobody's splashing your picture all over the television. Seriously. This is good news. Herney won't need a sex scandal now. He's looking far too presidential right now to talk sex."
It seemed a small consolation to Gabrielle.
"As for Tench's allegations of Sexton's illegal campaign finance... " Yolanda shook her head. "I have my doubts. Granted, Herney is serious about no negative campaigning. And granted, a bribery investigation would be bad for the country. But is Herney really so patriotic that he would forgo a chance to crush his opposition, simply to protect national morale? My guess is Tench stretched the truth about Sexton's finances in an effort to scare. She gambled, hoping you'd jump ship and give the President a free sex scandal. And you've got to admit, Gabs, tonight would have been a hell of a night for Sexton's morals to come into question!"
Gabrielle nodded vaguely. A sex scandal would have been a one-two punch from which Sexton's career never would have recovered... ever.
"You outlasted her, Gabs. Marjorie Tench went fishing, but you didn't bite. You're home free. There'll be other elections."
Gabrielle nodded vaguely, unsure what to believe anymore.
"You've got to admit," Yolanda said, "the White House played Sexton brilliantly-luring him down the NASA path, getting him to commit, coaxing him to put all his eggs in the NASA basket."
Totally my fault, Gabrielle thought.
"And this announcement we just watched, my God, it was genius! The importance of the discovery entirely aside, the production values were brilliant. Live feeds from the Arctic? A Michael Tolland documentary? Good God, how can you compete? Zach Herney nailed it tonight. There's a reason the guy is President."
And will be for another four years...
"I've got to get back to work, Gabs," Yolanda said. "You sit right there as long as you want. Get your feet under you." Yolanda headed out the door. "Hon, I'll check back in a few minutes."
Alone now, Gabrielle sipped her water, but it tasted foul. Everything did. It's all my fault, she thought, trying to ease her conscience by reminding herself of all the glum NASA press conferences of the past year-the space station setbacks, the postponement of the X-33, all the failed Mars probes, continuous budget bailouts. Gabrielle wondered what she could have done differently.
Nothing, she told herself. You did everything right.
It had simply backfired.
The thundering navy SeaHawk chopper had been scrambled under a covert operation status out of Thule Air Force Base in northern Greenland. It stayed low, out of radar range, as it shot through the gale winds across seventy miles of open sea. Then, executing the bizarre orders they had been given, the pilots fought the wind and brought the craft to a hover above a pre-ordained set of coordinates on the empty ocean.
"Where's the rendezvous?" the copilot yelled, confused. They had been told to bring a chopper with a rescue winch, so he anticipated a search-and-retrieve operation. "You sure these are the right coordinates?" He scanned the choppy seas with a searchlight, but there was nothing below them except-