Although Rachel Sexton was currently sitting inside a large metal box situated three thousand miles from Washington, D.C . . . she felt the same pressure as if shed been summoned to the White House. The videophone monitor before her displayed a crystal clear image of President Zach Herney seated in the White House communications room before the presidential seal. The digital audio connection was flawless, and with the exception of an almost imperceptible delay, the man could have been in the next room.
Their conversation was upbeat and direct. The President seemed pleased, though not at all surprised, by Rachels favorable assessment of NASAs find and of his choice to use Michael Tollands captivating persona as a spokesman. The Presidents mood was good‑natured and jocular.
As Im sure you will agree, Herney said, his voice growing more serious now, in a perfect world, the ramifications of this discovery would be purely scientific in nature. He paused, leaning forward, his face filling the screen. Unfortunately, we dont live in a perfect world, and this NASA triumph is going to be a political football the moment I announce it.
Considering the conclusive proof and who youve recruited for endorsements, I cant imagine how the public or any of your opposition will be able to do anything other than accept this discovery as confirmed fact.
Herney gave an almost sad chuckle. My political opponents will believe what they see, Rachel. My concerns are that they wont like what they see.
Rachel noted how careful the President was being not to mention her father. He spoke only in terms of the opposition or political opponents. And you think your opposition will cry conspiracy simply for political reasons? she asked.
That is the nature of the game. All anyone needs to do is cast a faint doubt, saying that this discovery is some kind of political fraud concocted by NASA and the White House, and all of a sudden, Im facing an inquiry. The newspapers forget NASA has found proof of extraterrestrial life, and the media starts focusing on uncovering evidence of a conspiracy. Sadly, any innuendo of conspiracy with respect to this discovery will be bad for science, bad for the White House, bad for NASA, and, quite frankly, bad for the country.
Which is why you postponed announcing until you had full confirmation and some reputable civilian endorsements.
My goal is to present this data in so incontrovertible a way that any cynicism is nipped in the bud. I want this discovery celebrated with the untainted dignity it deserves. NASA merits no less.
Rachels intuition was tingling now. What does he want from me?
Obviously, he continued, youre in a unique position to help me. Your experience as an analyst as well as your obvious ties to my opponent give you enormous credibility with respect to this discovery.
Rachel felt a growing disillusionment. He wants to use me . . . just like Pickering said he would!
That said, Herney continued, I would like to ask that you endorse this discovery personally, for the record, as my White House intelligence liaison . . . and as the daughter of my opponent.
There it was. On the table.
Herney wants me to endorse.
Rachel really had thought Zach Herney was above this kind of spiteful politics. A public endorsement from Rachel would immediately make the meteorite a personal issue for her father, leaving the senator unable to attack the discoverys credibility without attacking the credibility of his own daughter‑a death sentence for a families first candidate.
Frankly, sir, Rachel said, looking into the monitor, Im stunned you would ask me to do that.
The President looked taken aback. I thought you would be excited to help out.
Excited? Sir, my differences with my father aside, this request puts me in an impossible position. I have enough problems with my father without going head‑to‑head with him in some kind of public death match. Despite my admitted dislike of the man, he is my father, and pitting me against him in a public forum frankly seems beneath you.
Hold on! Herney waved his hands in surrender.
Who said anything about a public forum?
Rachel paused. I assume youd like me to join the administrator of NASA on the podium for the eight oclock press conference.
Herneys guffaw boomed in the audio speakers. Rachel, what kind of man do you think I am? Do you really imagine Id ask someone to stab her father in the back on national television?
But, you said‑
And do you think I would make the NASA administrator share the limelight with the daughter of his arch enemy? Not to burst your bubble, Rachel, but this press conference is a scientific presentation. Im not sure your knowledge of meteorites, fossils, or ice structures would lend the event much credibility.
Rachel felt herself flush. But then . . . what endorsement did you have in mind?
One more appropriate to your position.
You are my White House intelligence liaison. You brief my staff on issues of national importance.
You want me to endorse this for your staff?
Herney still looked amused by the misunderstanding. Yes, I do. The skepticism Ill face outside the White House is nothing compared to what Im facing from my staff right now. Were in the midst of a full‑scale mutiny here. My credibility in‑house is shot. My staff has begged me to cut back NASA funding. Ive ignored them, and its been political suicide.
Exactly. As we discussed this morning, this discoverys timing will seem suspect to political cynics, and nobodys as cynical as my staff is at the moment. Therefore, when they hear this information for the first time, I want it to come from‑
You havent told your staff about the meteorite?
Only a few top advisers. Keeping this discovery a secret has been a top priority.
Rachel was stunned. No wonder hes facing a mutiny. But this is not my usual area. A meteorite could hardly be considered an intelligence‑related gist.
Not in the traditional sense, but it certainly has all the elements of your usual work‑complex data that needs to be distilled, substantial political ramifications‑
I am not a meteorite specialist, sir. Shouldnt your staff be briefed by the administrator of NASA?
Are you kidding? Everyone here hates him. As far as my staff is concerned, Ekstrom is the snake‑oil salesman who has lured me into bad deal after bad deal.
Rachel could see the point. How about Corky Marlinson? The National Medal in Astrophysics? Hes got far more credibility than I do.
My staff is made up of politicians, Rachel, not scientists. Youve met Dr. Marlinson. I think hes terrific, but if I let an astrophysicist loose on my team of left‑brain, think‑inside‑the‑box intellectuals, Ill end up with a herd of deer in the headlights. I need someone accessible. Youre the one, Rachel. My staff knows your work, and considering your family name, youre about as unbiased a spokesperson as my staff could hope to hear from.
Rachel felt herself being pulled in by the Presidents affable style. At least you admit my being the daughter of your opponent has something to do with your request.
The President gave a sheepish chuckle. Of course it does. But, as you can imagine, my staff will be briefed one way or another, no matter what you decide. You are not the cake, Rachel, you are simply the icing. You are the individual most qualified to do this briefing, and you also happen to be a close relative of the man who wants to kick my staff out of the White House next term. Youve got credibility on two accounts.
You should be in sales.
As a matter of fact, I am. As is your father. And to be honest, Id like to close a deal for a change. The President removed his glasses and looked into Rachels eyes. She felt a touch of her fathers power in him. I am asking you as a favor, Rachel, and also because I believe it is part of your job. So which is it? Yes or no? Will you brief my staff on this matter?
Rachel felt trapped inside the tiny PSC trailer. Nothing like the hard sell. Even from three thousand miles away, Rachel could feel the strength of his will pressing through the video screen. She also knew this was a perfectly reasonable request, whether she liked it or not.
Id have conditions, Rachel said.
Herney arched his eyebrows. Being?
I meet your staff in private. No reporters. This is a private briefing, not a public endorsement.
You have my word. Your meeting is already slated for a very private location.
Rachel sighed. All right then.
The President beamed. Excellent.
Rachel checked her watch, surprised to see it was already a little past four oclock. Hold on, she said, puzzled, if youre going live at eight P.M . . . we dont have time. Even in that vile contraption you sent me up here in, I couldnt get back to the White House for another couple of hours at the very fastest. Id have to prepare my remarks and
The President shook his head. Im afraid I didnt make myself clear. Youll be doing the briefing from where you are via video conference.
Oh. Rachel hesitated. What time did you have in mind?
Actually, Herney said, grinning. How about right now? Everyone is already assembled, and theyre staring at a big blank television set. Theyre waiting for you.
Rachels body tensed. Sir, Im totally unprepared. I cant possibly‑
Just tell them the truth. How hard is that?
Rachel, the President said, leaning toward the screen. Remember, you compile and relay data for a living. Its what you do. Just talk about whats going on up there. He reached up to flick a switch on his video transmission gear, but paused. And I think youll be pleased to find Ive set you up in a position of power.
Rachel didnt understand what he meant, but it was too late to ask. The President threw the switch.
The screen in front of Rachel went blank for a moment. When it refreshed, Rachel was staring at one of the most unnerving images she had ever seen. Directly in front of her was the White House Oval Office. It was packed. Standing room only. The entire White House staff appeared to be there. And every one of them was staring at her. Rachel now realized her view was from atop the Presidents desk.
Speaking from a position of power. Rachel was sweating already.
From the looks on the faces of the White House staffers, they were as surprised to see Rachel as she was to see them.
Ms. Sexton? a raspy voice called out.
Rachel searched the sea of faces and found who had spoken. It was a lanky woman just now taking a seat in the front row. Marjorie Tench. The womans distinctive appearance was unmistakable, even in a crowd.
Thank you for joining us, Ms. Sexton, Marjorie Tench said, sounding smug. The President tells us you have some news?