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Gabrielle Ashe felt a precarious uncertainty as she sat in the heavy air of Marjorie Tench’s office. What could this woman possibly want with me? Behind the room’s sole desk, Tench leaned back in her chair, her hard features seeming to radiate pleasure with Gabrielle’s discomfort.

“Does the smoke bother you?” Tench asked, tapping a fresh cigarette from her pack.

“No,” Gabrielle lied.

Tench was already lighting up anyway. “You and your candidate have taken quite an interest in NASA during this campaign.”

“True,” Gabrielle snapped, making no effort to hide her anger, “thanks to some creative encouragement. I’d like an explanation.”

Tench gave an innocent pout. “You want to know why I’ve been sending you e‑mail fodder for your attack on NASA?”

“The information you sent me hurt your President.”

“In the short run, yes.”

The ominous tone in Tench’s voice made Gabrielle uneasy. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Relax, Gabrielle. My e‑mails didn’t change things much. Senator Sexton was NASA‑bashing long before I stepped in. I simply helped him clarify his message. Solidify his position.”

“Solidify his position?”

“Exactly.” Tench smiled, revealing stained teeth. “Which, I must say, he did quite effectively this afternoon on CNN.”

Gabrielle recalled the senator’s reaction to Tench’s fence‑buster question. Yes, I would act to abolish NASA. Sexton had gotten himself cornered, but he’d played out of the rough with a strong drive. It was the right move. Wasn’t it? From Tench’s contented look, Gabrielle sensed there was information missing.

Tench stood suddenly, her lanky frame dominating the cramped space. With the cigarette dangling from her lips, she walked over to a wall safe, removed a thick manila envelope, returned to the desk, and sat back down.

Gabrielle eyed the burgeoning envelope.

Tench smiled, cradling the envelope in her lap like a poker player holding a royal flush. Her yellowed fingertips flicked at the corner, making an annoying repetitive scratch, as if savoring the anticipation.

Gabrielle knew it was just her own guilty conscience, but her first fears were that the envelope contained some kind of proof of her sexual indiscretion with the senator. Ridiculous, she thought. The encounter had occurred after hours in Sexton’s locked senatorial office. Not to mention, if the White House actually had any evidence, they would have gone public with it already.

They may be suspicious, Gabrielle thought, but they don’t have proof.

Tench crushed out her cigarette. “Ms. Ashe, whether or not you are aware, you are caught in the middle of a battle that has been raging behind the scenes in Washington since 1996.”

This opening gambit was not at all what Gabrielle expected. “I beg your pardon?”

Tench lit another cigarette. Her spindly lips curled around it, and the tip glowed red. “What do you know about a bill called the Space Commercialization Promotions Act?”

Gabrielle had never heard of it. She shrugged, lost.

“Really?” Tench said. “That surprises me. Considering your candidate’s platform. The Space Commercialization Promotions Act was proposed back in 1996 by Senator Walker. The bill, in essence, cites the failure of NASA to do anything worthwhile since putting a man on the moon. It calls for the privatization of NASA by immediately selling off NASA assets to private aerospace companies and allowing the free‑market system to explore space more efficiently, thus relieving the burden NASA now places on taxpayers.”

Gabrielle had heard NASA critics suggest privatization as a solution to NASA’s woes, but she was not aware the idea had actually taken the form of an official bill.

“This commercialization bill,” Tench said, “has been presented to Congress four times now. It is similar to bills that have successfully privatized government industries like uranium production. Congress has passed the space commercialization bill all four times it has seen it. Thankfully, the White House vetoed it on all occasions. Zachary Herney has had to veto it twice.”

“Your point?”

“My point is that this bill is one Senator Sexton will certainly support if he becomes President. I have reason to believe Sexton will have no qualms about selling off NASA assets to commercial bidders the first chance he gets. In short, your candidate would support privatization over having American tax dollars fund space exploration.”

“To my knowledge, the senator has never commented publicly about his stance on any Space Commercialization Promotions Act.”

“True. And yet knowing his politics, I assume you would not be surprised if he supported it.”

“Free‑market systems tend to breed efficiency.”

“I’ll take that as a ’yes.’” Tench stared. “Sadly, privatizing NASA is an abominable idea, and there are countless reasons why every White House administration since the bill’s inception has shot it down.”

“I’ve heard the arguments against privatizing space,” Gabrielle said, “and I understand your concerns.”

“Do you?” Tench leaned toward her. “Which arguments have you heard?”

Gabrielle shifted uneasily. “Well, the standard academic fears mostly‑the most common being that if we privatize NASA, our current pursuit of scientific space knowledge would be quickly abandoned in favor of profitable ventures.”

“True. Space science would die in a heartbeat. Instead of spending money to study our universe, private space companies would strip‑mine asteroids, build tourist hotels in space, offer commercial satellite launch services. Why would private companies bother studying the origins of our universe when it would cost them billions and show no financial return?”

“They wouldn’t,” Gabrielle countered. “But certainly a National Endowment for Space Science could be founded to fund academic missions.”

“We already have that system in place. It’s called NASA.”

Gabrielle fell silent.

“The abandonment of science in favor of profits is a side issue,” Tench said. “Hardly relevant compared to the utter chaos that would result by permitting the private sector to run free in space. We would have the wild west all over again. We would see pioneers staking claims on the moon and on asteroids and protecting those claims with force. I’ve heard petitions from companies who want to build neon billboards that blink advertisements in the nighttime sky. I’ve seen petitions from space hotels and tourist attractions whose proposed operations include ejecting their trash into the void of space and creating orbiting trash heaps. In fact, I just read a proposal yesterday from a company that wants to turn space into a mausoleum by launching the deceased into orbit. Can you imagine our telecommunications satellites colliding with dead bodies? Last week, I had a billionaire CEO in my office who was petitioning to launch a mission to a near‑field asteroid, drag it closer to earth, and mine it for precious minerals. I actually had to remind this guy that dragging asteroids into near earth orbit posed potential risks of global catastrophe! Ms. Ashe, I can assure you, if this bill passes, the throngs of entrepreneurs rushing into space will not be rocket scientists. They will be entrepreneurs with deep pockets and shallow minds.”

“Persuasive arguments,” Gabrielle said, “and I’m sure the senator would weigh those issues carefully if he ever found himself in a position to vote on the bill. Might I ask what any of this has to do with me?”

Tench’s gaze narrowed over her cigarette. “A lot of people stand to make a lot of money in space, and the political lobby is mounting to remove all restrictions and open the floodgates. The veto power of the office of the President is the only remaining barrier against privatization . . . against complete anarchy in space.”

“Then I commend Zach Herney for vetoing the bill.”

“My fear is that your candidate would not be so prudent if elected.”

“Again, I assume the senator would carefully weigh all the issues if he were ever in a position to pass judgment on the bill.”

Tench did not look entirely convinced. “Do you know how much Senator Sexton spends on media advertising?”

The question came out of left field. “Those figures are public domain.”

“More than three million a month.”

Gabrielle shrugged. “If you say so.” The figure was close.

“That’s a lot of money to spend.”

“He’s got a lot of money to spend.”

“Yes, he planned well. Or rather, married well.” Tench paused to blow smoke. “It’s sad about his wife, Katherine. Her death hit him hard.” A tragic sigh followed, clearly feigned. “Her death was not all that long ago, was it?”

“Come to your point, or I’m leaving.”

Tench let out a lung‑shaking cough and reached for the burgeoning manila folder. She pulled out a small stack of stapled papers and handed them to Gabrielle. “Sexton’s financial records.”

Gabrielle studied the documents in astonishment. The records went back several years. Although Gabrielle was not privy to the internal workings of Sexton’s finances, she sensed this data was authentic‑banking accounts, credit card accounts, loans, stock assets, real estate assets, debts, capital gains and losses. “This is private data. Where did you get this?”

“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.”