Page 9 of Deception Point

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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.

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