Fight or flight.
As a biologist, Tolland knew that vast physiological changes occurred when an organism sensed danger. Adrenaline flooded the cerebral cortex, jolting the heart rate and commanding the brain to make the oldest and most intuitive of all biological decisions-whether to do battle or flee.
Tolland’s instinct told him to flee, and yet reason reminded him he was still tethered to Norah Mangor. There was nowhere to flee anyway. The only cover for miles was the habisphere, and the attackers, whoever the hell they were, had positioned themselves high on the glacier and cut off that option. Behind him, the wide open sheet of ice fanned out into a two-mile-long plain that terminated in a sheer drop to a frigid sea. Flight in that direction meant death by exposure. The practical barriers to fleeing notwithstanding, Tolland knew he could not possibly leave the others. Norah and Corky were still out in the open, tethered to Rachel and Tolland.
Tolland stayed down near Rachel as the ice pellets continued to slam into the side of the toppled equipment sled. He pillaged the strewn contents, searching for a weapon, a flare gun, a radio… anything.
“Run!” Rachel yelled, her breathing still strained.
Then, oddly, the hailstorm of ice bullets abruptly stopped. Even in the pounding wind, the night felt suddenly calm… as if a storm had let up unexpectedly.
It was then, peering cautiously around the sled, that Tolland witnessed one of the most chilling sights he had ever seen.
Gliding effortlessly out of the darkened perimeter into the light, three ghostly figures emerged, coasting silently in on skis. The figures wore full white weather suits. They carried no ski poles but rather large rifles that looked like no guns Tolland had ever seen. Their skis were bizarre as well, futuristic and short, more like elongated Rollerblades than skis.
Calmly, as if knowing they had already won this battle, the figures coasted to a stop beside their closest victim-the unconscious Norah Mangor. Tolland rose shakily to his knees and peered over the sled at the attackers. The visitors stared back at him through eerie electronic goggles. They were apparently uninterested.
At least for the moment.
Delta-One felt no remorse as he stared down at the woman lying unconscious on the ice before him. He had been trained to carry out orders, not to question motives.
The woman was wearing a thick, black, thermal suit and had a welt on the side of her face. Her breathing was short and labored. One of the IM ice rifles had found its mark and knocked her unconscious.
Now it was time to finish the job.
As Delta-One knelt down beside the oblivious woman, his teammates trained their rifles on the other targets-one on the small, unconscious man lying on the ice nearby, and one on the overturned sled where the two other victims were hiding. Although his men easily could have moved in to finish the job, the remaining three victims were unarmed and had nowhere to run. Rushing to finish them all off at once was careless. Never disperse your focus unless absolutely necessary. Face one adversary at a time. Exactly as they had been trained, the Delta Force would kill these people one at a time. The magic, however, was that they would leave no trace to suggest how they had died.
Crouched beside the unconscious woman, Delta-One removed his thermal gloves and scooped up a handful of snow. Packing the snow, he opened the woman’s mouth and began stuffing it down her throat. He filled her entire mouth, ramming the snow as deep as he could down her windpipe. She would be dead within three minutes.
This technique, invented by the Russian mafia, was called the byelaya smert-white death. This victim would suffocate long before the snow in her throat melted. Once dead, however, her body would stay warm long enough to dissolve the blockage. Even if foul play were suspected, no murder weapon or evidence of violence would be apparent immediately. Eventually someone might figure it out, but it would buy them time. The ice bullets would fade into the environment, buried in the snow, and the welt on this woman’s head would look like she’d taken a nasty spill on the ice-not surprising in these gale force winds.
The other three people would be incapacitated and killed in much the same way. Then Delta-One would load all of them on the sled, drag them several hundred yards off course, reattached their belay lines and arrange the bodies. Hours from now, the four of them would be found frozen in the snow, apparent victims of overexposure and hypothermia. Those who discovered them would be puzzled what they were doing off course, but nobody would be surprised that they were dead. After all, their flares had burned out, the weather was perilous, and getting lost on the Milne Ice Shelf could bring death in a hurry.
Delta-One had now finished packing snow down the woman’s throat. Before turning his attention to the others, Delta-One unhooked the woman’s belay harness. He could reconnect it later, but at the moment, he did not want the two people behind the sled getting ideas about pulling his victim to safety.
Michael Tolland had just witnessed a murderous act more bizarre than his darkest mind could imagine. Having cut Norah Mangor free, the three attackers were turning their attention to Corky.
I’ve got to do something!
Corky had come to and was moaning, trying to sit up, but one of the soldiers pushed him back down on his back, straddled him, and pinned Corky’s arms to the ice by kneeling on them. Corky let out a cry of pain that was instantly swallowed up by the raging wind.
In a kind of demented terror, Tolland tore through the scattered contents of the overturned sled. There must be something here! A weapon! Something! All he saw was diagnostic ice gear, most of it smashed beyond recognition by the ice pellets. Beside him, Rachel groggily tried to sit up, using her ice ax to prop herself up. “Run… Mike… ”
Tolland eyed the ax that was strapped to Rachel’s wrist. It could be a weapon. Sort of. Tolland wondered what his chances were attacking three armed men with a tiny ax.
As Rachel rolled and sat up, Tolland spied something behind her. A bulky vinyl bag. Praying against fate that it contained a flare gun or radio, he clambered past her and grabbed the bag. Inside he found a large, neatly folded sheet of Mylar fabric. Worthless. Tolland had something similar on his research ship. It was a small weather balloon, designed to carry payloads of observational weather gear not much heavier than a personal computer. Norah’s balloon would be no help here, particularly without a helium tank.
With the growing sounds of Corky’s struggle, Tolland felt a helpless sensation he had not felt in years. Total despair. Total loss. Like the cliche of one’s life passing before one’s eyes before death, Tolland’s mind flashed unexpectedly through long forgotten childhood images. For an instant he was sailing in San Pedro, learning the age-old sailor’s pastime of spinnaker-flying-hanging on a knotted rope, suspended over the ocean, plunging laughing into the water, rising and falling like a kid hanging on a belfry rope, his fate determined by a billowing spinnaker sail and the whim of the ocean breeze.
Tolland’s eyes instantly snapped back to the Mylar balloon in his hand, realizing that his mind had not been surrendering, but rather it had been trying to remind him of a solution! Spinnaker flying.
Corky was still struggling against his captor as Tolland yanked open the protective bag around the balloon. Tolland had no illusions that this plan was anything other than a long shot, but he knew remaining here was certain death for all of them. He clutched the folded mass of Mylar. The payload clip warned: CAUTION: NOT FOR USE IN WINDS OVER 10 KNOTS.
The hell with that! Gripping it hard to keep it from unfurling, Tolland clambered over to Rachel, who was propped on her side. He could see the confusion in her eyes as he nestled close, yelling, “Hold this!”
Tolland handed Rachel the folded pad of fabric and then used his free hands to slip the balloon’s payload clasp through one of the carabiners on his harness. Then, rolling on his side, he slipped the clasp through one of Rachel’s carabiners as well.
Tolland and Rachel were now one.
Joined at the hip.
From between them, the loose tether trailed off across the snow to the struggling Corky… and ten yards farther to the empty clip beside Norah Mangor.
Norah is already gone, Tolland told himself. Nothing you can do.
The attackers were crouched over Corky’s writhing body now, packing a handful of snow, and preparing to stuff it down Corky’s throat. Tolland knew they were almost out of time.
Tolland grabbed the folded balloon from Rachel. The fabric was as light as tissue paper-and virtually indestructible. Here goes nothing. “Hold on!”
“Mike?” Rachel said. “What-”
Tolland hurled the pad of wadded Mylar into the air over their heads. The howling wind snatched it up and spread it out like a parachute in a hurricane. The sheath filled instantly, billowing open with a loud snap.
Tolland felt a wrenching yank on his harness, and he knew in an instant he had grossly underestimated the power of the katabatic wind. Within a fraction of a second, he and Rachel were half airborne, being dragged down the glacier. A moment later, Tolland felt a jerk as his tether drew taut on Corky Marlinson. Twenty yards back, his terrified friend was yanked out from under his stunned attackers, sending one of them tumbling backward. Corky let out a blood-curdling scream as he too accelerated across the ice, barely missing the overturned sled, then fishtailing inward. A second rope trailed limp beside Corky… the rope that had been connected to Norah Mangor.
Nothing you can do, Tolland told himself.
Like a tangled mass of human marionettes, the three bodies skimmed down the glacier. Ice pellets went sailing by, but Tolland knew the attackers had missed their chance. Behind him, the white-clad soldiers faded away, shrinking to illuminated specks in the glow of the flares.
Tolland now felt the ice ripping beneath his padded suit with relentless acceleration, and the relief at having escaped faded fast. Less than two miles directly ahead of them, the Milne Ice Shelf came to an abrupt end at a precipitous cliff-and beyond it… a hundred-foot drop to the lethal pounding surf of the Arctic Ocean.
Marjorie Tench was smiling as she made her way downstairs toward the White House Communications Office, the computerized broadcast facility that disseminated press releases formulated upstairs in the Communications Bullpen. The meeting with Gabrielle Ashe had gone well. Whether or not Gabrielle was scared enough to turn over an affidavit admitting the affair was uncertain, but it sure as hell was worth a try.
Gabrielle would be smart to bail out on him, Tench thought. The poor girl had no idea just how hard Sexton was about to fall.
In a few hours, the President’s meteoric press conference was going to cut Sexton down at the knees. That was in the bank. Gabrielle Ashe, if she cooperated, would be the death blow that sent Sexton crawling off in shame. In the morning, Tench could release Gabrielle’s affidavit to the press along with footage of Sexton denying it.
After all, politics was not just about winning the election, it was about winning decisively-having the momentum to carry out one’s vision. Historically, any president who squeaked into office on a narrow margin accomplished much less; he was weakened right out of the gate, and Congress never seemed to let him forget it.
Ideally, the destruction of Senator Sexton’s campaign would be comprehensive-a two-pronged attack sacking both his politics and his ethics. This strategy, known in Washington as the “high-low,” was stolen from the art of military warfare. Force the enemy to battle on two fronts. When a candidate possessed a piece of negative information about his opponent, he often waited until he had a second piece and went public with both simultaneously. A double-edged attack was always more effective than a single shot, particularly when the dual attack incorporated separate aspects of his campaign-the first against his politics, the second against his character. Rebuttal of a political attack took logic, while rebuttal of a character attack took passion; disputing both simultaneously was an almost impossible balancing act.
Tonight, Senator Sexton would find himself scrambling to extract himself from the political nightmare of an astounding NASA triumph, and yet his plight would deepen considerably if he were forced to defend his NASA position while being called a liar by a prominent female member of his staff.
Arriving now at the doorway of the Communications Office, Tench felt alive with the thrill of the fight. Politics was war. She took a deep breath and checked her watch. 6:15 P.M. The first shot was about to be fired.
The Communications Office was small not for lack of room, but for lack of necessity. It was one of the most efficient mass communications stations in the world and employed a staff of only five people. At the moment, all five employees stood over their banks of electronic gear looking like swimmers poised for the starting gun.
They are ready, Tench saw in their eager gazes.
It always amazed her that this tiny office, given only two hours head start, could contact more than one third of the world’s civilized population. With electronic connections to literally tens of thousands of global news sources-from the largest television conglomerates to the smallest hometown newspapers-the White House Communications Office could, at the touch of a few buttons, reach out and touch the world.
Fax-broadcast computers churned press releases into the in-boxes of radio, television, print, and Internet media outlets from Maine to Moscow. Bulk e-mail programs blanketed on-line news wires. Telephone autodialers phoned thousands of media content managers and played recorded voice announcements. A breaking news Web page provided constant updates and preformatted content. The “live-feed-capable” news sources-CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, foreign syndicates-would be assaulted from all angles and promised free, live television feeds. Whatever else these networks were airing would come to a screeching halt for an emergency presidential address.
Like a general inspecting her troops, Tench strode in silence over to the copy desk and picked up the printout of the “flash release” that now sat loaded in all the transmission machines like cartridges in a shotgun.
When Tench read it, she had to laugh quietly to herself. By usual standards, the release loaded for broadcast was heavy-handed-more of an advertisement than an announcement-but the President had ordered the Communications Office to pull out all the stops. And that they had. This text was perfect-keyword-rich and content light. A deadly combination. Even the news wires that used automated “keyword-sniffer” programs to sort their incoming mail would see multiple flags on this one:
From: White House Communications Office
Subject: Urgent Presidential Address
The President of the United States will be holding an urgent press conference tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time from the White House briefing room. The topic of his announcement is currently classified. Live A/V feeds will be available via customary outlets.
Laying the paper back down on the desk, Marjorie Tench looked around the Communications Office and gave the staff an impressed nod. They looked eager.
Lighting a cigarette, she puffed a moment, letting the anticipation build. Finally, she grinned. “Ladies and gentlemen. Start your engines.”
All logical reasoning had evaporated from Rachel Sexton’s mind. She held no thoughts for the meteorite, the mysterious GPR printout in her pocket, Ming, the horrific attack on the ice sheet. There was one matter at hand.
The ice skimmed by in a blur beneath her like an endless, sleek highway. Whether her body was numb with fear or simply cocooned by her protective suit, Rachel did not know, but she felt no pain. She felt nothing.
Lying on her side, attached to Tolland at the waist, Rachel lay face-to-face with him in an awkward embrace. Somewhere ahead of them, the balloon billowed, fat with wind, like a parachute on the back of a dragster. Corky trailed behind, swerving wildly like a tractor trailer out of control. The flare marking the spot where they had been attacked had all but disappeared in the distance.
The hissing of their nylon Mark IX suits on the ice grew higher and higher in pitch as they continued to accelerate. She had no idea how fast they were going now, but the wind was at least sixty miles an hour, and the frictionless runway beneath them seemed to be racing by faster and faster with every passing second. The impervious Mylar balloon apparently had no intentions of tearing or relinquishing its hold.
We need to release, she thought. They were racing away from one deadly force-directly toward another. The ocean is probably less than a mile ahead now! The thought of icy water brought back terrifying memories.
The wind gusted harder, and their speed increased. Somewhere behind them Corky let out a scream of terror. At this speed, Rachel knew they had only a few minutes before they were dragged out over the cliff into the frigid ocean.
Tolland was apparently having similar thoughts because he was now fighting with the payload clasp attached to their bodies.
“I can’t unhook us!” he yelled. “There’s too much tension!”
Rachel hoped a momentary lull in the wind might give Tolland some slack, but the katabatic pulled on with relentless uniformity. Trying to help, Rachel twisted her body and rammed the toe cleat of one of her crampons into the ice, sending a rooster tail of ice shards into the air. Their velocity slowed ever so slightly.
“Now!” she yelled, lifting her foot.
For an instant the payload line on the balloon slackened slightly. Tolland yanked down, trying to take advantage of the loose line to maneuver the payload clip out of their carabiners. Not even close.
“Again!” he yelled.
This time they both twisted against one another and rammed their toe prongs into the ice, sending a double plume of ice into the air. This slowed the contraption more perceptibly.
On Tolland’s cue, they both let up. As the balloon surged forward again, Tolland rammed his thumb into the carabiner latch and twisted the hook, trying to release the clasp. Although closer this time, he still needed more slack. The carabiners, Norah had bragged, were first-rate, Joker safety clips, specifically crafted with an extra loop in the metal so they would never release if there were any tension on them at all.
Killed by safety clips, Rachel thought, not finding the irony the least bit amusing.
“One more time!” Tolland yelled.
Mustering all her energy and hope, Rachel twisted as far as she could and rammed both of her toes into the ice. Arching her back, she tried to lift all her weight onto her toes. Tolland followed her lead until they were both angled roughly on their stomachs, the connection at their belt straining their harnesses. Tolland rammed his toes down and Rachel arched farther. The vibrations sent shock waves up her legs. She felt like her ankles were going to break.
“Hold it… hold it… ” Tolland contorted himself to release the Joker clip as their speed decreased. “Almost… ”
Rachel’s crampons snapped. The metal cleats tore off of her boots and went tumbling backward into the night, bouncing over Corky. The balloon immediately lurched forward, sending Rachel and Tolland fishtailing to one side. Tolland lost his grasp on the clip.
The Mylar balloon, as if angered at having been momentarily restrained, lurched forward now, pulling even harder, dragging them down the glacier toward the sea. Rachel knew they were closing fast on the cliff, although they faced danger even before the hundred-foot drop into the Arctic Ocean. Three huge snow berms stood in their path. Even protected by the padding in the Mark IX suits, the experience of launching at high speed up and over the snow mounds filled her with terror.
Fighting in desperation with their harnesses, Rachel tried to find a way to release the balloon. It was then that she heard the rhythmic ticking on the ice-the rapid-fire staccato of lightweight metal on the sheet of bare ice.
In her fear, she had entirely forgotten the ice ax attached to the rip cord on her belt. The lightweight aluminum tool was bouncing along beside her leg. She looked up at the payload cable on the balloon. Thick, heavy-duty braided nylon. Reaching down, she fumbled for the bouncing ax. She grasped the handle and pulled it toward her, stretching the elastic rip cord. Still on her side, Rachel struggled to raise her arms over her head, placing the ax’s serrated edge against the thick cord. Awkwardly, she began sawing the taut cable.
“Yes!” Tolland yelled, fumbling now for his own ax.
Sliding on her side, Rachel was stretched out, her arms above her, sawing at the taut cable. The line was strong, and the individual nylon strands were fraying slowly. Tolland gripped his own ax, twisted, raised his arms over his head, and tried to saw from underneath in the same spot. Their banana blades clicked together as they worked in tandem like lumberjacks. The rope began fraying on both sides now.
We’re going to do it, Rachel thought. This thing is going to break!
Suddenly, the silver bubble of Mylar before them swooped upward as if it had hit an updraft. Rachel realized to her horror that it was simply following the contour of the land.
They had arrived.
The wall of white loomed only an instant before they were on it. The blow to Rachel’s side as they hit the incline drove the wind from her lungs and wrenched the ax from her hand. Like a tangled water-skier being dragged up over a jump, Rachel felt her body dragged up the face of the berm and launched. She and Tolland were suddenly catapulted in a dizzying upward snarl. The trough between the berms spread out far beneath them, but the frayed payload cable held fast, lifting their accelerated bodies upward, carrying them clear out over the first trough. For an instant, she glimpsed what lay ahead. Two more berms-a short plateau-and then the drop-off to the sea.
As if to give a voice to Rachel’s own dumbstruck terror, the high-pitched scream of Corky Marlinson cut through the air. Somewhere behind them, he sailed up over the first berm. All three of them went airborne, the balloon clawing upward like a wild animal trying to break its captor’s chains.
Suddenly, like a gunshot in the night, a sudden snap echoed overhead. The frayed rope gave way, and the tattered end recoiled in Rachel’s face. Instantly, they were falling. Somewhere overhead the Mylar balloon billowed out of control… spiraling out to sea.
Tangled in carabiners and harnesses, Rachel and Tolland tumbled back toward earth. As the white mound of the second berm rose up toward them, Rachel braced for impact. Barely clearing the top of the second berm, they crashed down the far side, the blow partially cushioned by their suits and the descending contour of the berm. As the world around her turned into a blur of arms and legs and ice, Rachel felt herself rocketing down the incline out onto the central ice trough. Instinctively she spread her arms and legs, trying to slow down before they hit the next berm. She felt them slowing, but only slightly, and it seemed only seconds before she and Tolland were sliding back up an incline. At the top, there was another instant of weightlessness as they cleared the crest. Then, filled with terror, Rachel felt them begin their dead slide down the other side and out onto the final plateau… the last eighty feet of the Milne Glacier.
As they skidded toward the cliff, Rachel could feel the drag of Corky on the tether, and she knew they were all slowing down. She knew it was too little too late. The end of the glacier raced toward them, and Rachel let out a helpless scream.
Then it happened.
The edge of the ice slid out from underneath them. The last thing Rachel remembered was falling.
The Westbrooke Place Apartments are located at 2201 N Street NW and promote themselves as one of the few unquestionably correct addresses in Washington. Gabrielle hurried through the gilded revolving door into the marble lobby, where a deafening waterfall reverberated.
The doorman at the front desk looked surprised to see her. “Ms. Ashe? I didn’t know you were stopping by tonight.”
“I’m running late.” Gabrielle quickly signed in. The clock overhead read 6:22 P.M.
The doorman scratched his head. “The senator gave me a list, but you weren’t-”
“They always forget the people who help them most.” She gave a harried smile and strode past him toward the elevator.
Now the doorman looked uneasy. “I better call up.”
“Thanks,” Gabrielle said, as she boarded the elevator and headed up. The senator’s phone is off the hook.
Riding the elevator to the ninth floor, Gabrielle exited and made her way down the elegant hallway. At the end, outside Sexton’s doorway, she could see one of his bulky personal safety escorts-glorified bodyguards-sitting in the hall. He looked bored. Gabrielle was surprised to see security on duty, although apparently not as surprised as the guard was to see her. He jumped to his feet as she approached.
“I know,” Gabrielle called out, still halfway down the hall. “It’s a P.E. night. He doesn’t want to be disturbed.”
The guard nodded emphatically. “He gave me very strict orders that no visitors-”
“It’s an emergency.”
The guard physically blocked the doorway. “He’s in a private meeting.”
“Really?” Gabrielle pulled the red envelope from under her arm. She flashed the White House seal in the man’s face. “I was just in the Oval Office. I need to give the senator this information. Whatever old pals he’s schmoozing tonight are going to have to do without him for a few minutes. Now, let me in.”
The guard withered slightly at the sight of the White House seal on the envelope.
Don’t make me open this, Gabrielle thought.
“Leave the folder,” he said. “I’ll take it into him.”
“The hell you will. I have direct orders from the White House to hand-deliver this. If I don’t talk to him immediately, we can all start looking for jobs tomorrow morning. Do you understand?”
The guard looked deeply conflicted, and Gabrielle sensed the senator had indeed been unusually adamant tonight about having no visitors. She moved in for the kill. Holding the White House envelope directly in his face, Gabrielle lowered her voice to a whisper and uttered the six words all Washington security personnel feared most.
“You do not understand the situation.”
Security personnel for politicians never understood the situation, and they hated that fact. They were hired guns, kept in the dark, never sure whether to stand firm in their orders or risk losing their jobs by mule-headedly ignoring some obvious crisis.
The guard swallowed hard, eyeing the White House envelope again. “Okay, but I’m telling the senator you demanded to be let in.”
He unlocked the door, and Gabrielle pushed past him before he changed his mind. She entered the apartment and quietly closed the door behind her, relocking it.
Now inside the foyer, Gabrielle could hear muffled voices in Sexton’s den down the hall-men’s voices. Tonight’s P.E. was obviously not the private meeting implied by Sexton’s earlier call.
As Gabrielle moved down the hall toward the den, she passed an open closet where a half dozen expensive men’s coats hung inside-distinctive wool and tweed. Several briefcases sat on the floor. Apparently work stayed in the hall tonight. Gabrielle would have walked right past the cases except that one of the briefcases caught her eye. The nameplate bore a distinctive company logo. A bright red rocket.
She paused, kneeling down to read it:
SPACE AMERICA, INC.
Puzzled, she examined the other briefcases.
BEAL AEROSPACE. MICROCOSM, INC. ROTARY ROCKET COMPANY. KISTLER AEROSPACE.
Marjorie Tench’s raspy voice echoed in her mind. Are you aware that Sexton is accepting bribes from private aerospace companies?
Gabrielle’s pulse began racing as she gazed down the darkened hallway toward the archway that led into the senator’s den. She knew she should speak up, announce her presence, and yet she felt herself inching quietly forward. She moved to within a few feet of the archway and stood soundlessly in the shadows… listening to the conversation beyond.
While Delta-Three stayed behind to collect Norah Mangor’s body and the sled, the other two soldiers accelerated down the glacier after their quarry.
On their feet they wore ElektroTread-powered skis. Modeled after the consumer Fast Trax motorized skis, the classified ElektroTreads were essentially snow skis with miniaturized tank treads affixed-like snowmobiles worn on the feet. Speed was controlled by pushing the tips of the index finger and thumb together, compressing two pressure plates inside the right-hand glove. A powerful gel battery was molded around the foot, doubling as insulation and allowing the skis to run silently. Ingeniously, the kinetic energy generated by gravity and the spinning treads as the wearer glided down a hill was automatically harvested to recharge the batteries for the next incline.
Keeping the wind at his back, Delta-One crouched low, skimming seaward as he surveyed the glacier before him. His night vision system was a far cry from the Patriot model used by the Marines. Delta-One was looking through a hands-free face mount with a 40 x 90 mm six-element lens, three-element Magnification Doubler, and Super Long Range IR. The world outside appeared in a translucent tint of cool blue, rather than the usual green-the color scheme especially designed for highly reflective terrains like the Arctic.
As he approached the first berm, Delta-One’s goggles revealed several bright stripes of freshly disturbed snow, rising up and over the berm like a neon arrow in the night. Apparently the three escapees had either not thought to unhook their makeshift sail or had been unable to. Either way, if they had not released by the final berm, they were now somewhere out in the ocean. Delta-One knew his quarry’s protective clothing would lengthen the usual life expectancy in the water, but the relentless offshore currents would drag them out to sea. Drowning would be inevitable.
Despite his confidence, Delta-One had been trained never to assume. He needed to see bodies. Crouching low, he pressed his fingers together and accelerated up the first incline.
Michael Tolland lay motionless, taking stock of his bruises. He was battered, but he sensed no broken bones. He had little doubt the gel-filled Mark IX had saved him any substantial trauma. As he opened his eyes, his thoughts were slow to focus. Everything seemed softer here… quieter. The wind still howled, but with less ferocity.
We went over the edge-didn’t we?
Focusing, Tolland found he was lying on ice, draped across Rachel Sexton, almost at right angles, their locked carabiners twisted. He could feel her breathing beneath him, but he could not see her face. He rolled off her, his muscles barely responding.
“Rachel…?” Tolland wasn’t sure if his lips were making sound or not.
Tolland recalled the final seconds of their harrowing ride-the upward drag of the balloon, the payload cable snapping, their bodies plummeting down the far side of the berm, sliding up and over the final mound, skimming toward the edge-the ice running out. Tolland and Rachel had fallen, but the fall had been oddly short. Rather than the expected plunge to the sea, they had fallen only ten feet or so before hitting another slab of ice and sliding to a stop with the dead weight of Corky in tow.
Now, raising his head, Tolland looked toward the sea. Not far away, the ice ended in a sheer cliff, beyond which he could hear the sounds of the ocean. Looking back up the glacier, Tolland strained to see into the night. Twenty yards back, his eyes met a high wall of ice, which seemed to hang above them. It was then that he realized what had happened. Somehow they had slid off the main glacier onto a lower terrace of ice. This section was flat, as large as a hockey rink, and had partially collapsed-preparing to cleave off into the ocean at any moment.
Ice calving, Tolland thought, eyeing the precarious platform of ice on which he was now lying. It was a broad square slab that hung off the glacier like a colossal balcony, surrounded on three sides by precipices to the ocean. The sheet of ice was attached to the glacier only at its back, and Tolland could see the connection was anything but permanent. The boundary where the lower terrace clung to the Milne Ice Shelf was marked by a gaping pressure fissure almost four feet across. Gravity was well on its way to winning this battle.
Almost more frightening than seeing the fissure was Tolland’s seeing the motionless body of Corky Marlinson crumpled on the ice. Corky lay ten yards away at the end of a taut tether attached to them.
Tolland tried to stand up, but he was still attached to Rachel. Repositioning himself, he began detaching their interlocking carabiners.
Rachel looked weak as she tried to sit up. “We didn’t… go over?” Her voice was bewildered.
“We fell onto a lower block of ice,” Tolland said, finally unfastening himself from her. “I’ve got to help Corky.”
Painfully, Tolland attempted to stand, but his legs felt feeble. He grabbed the tether and heaved. Corky began sliding toward them across the ice. After a dozen or so pulls, Corky was lying on the ice a few feet away.
Corky Marlinson looked beaten. He’d lost his goggles, suffered a bad cut on his cheek, and his nose was bleeding. Tolland’s worries that Corky might be dead were quickly allayed when Corky rolled over and looked at Tolland with an angry glare.
“Jesus,” he stammered. “What the hell was that little trick!”
Tolland felt a wave of relief.
Rachel sat up now, wincing. She looked around. “We need to… get off of here. This block of ice looks like it’s about to fall.”
Tolland couldn’t have agreed more. The only question was how.
They had no time to consider a solution. A familiar high-pitched whir became audible above them on the glacier. Tolland’s gaze shot up to see two white-clad figures ski effortlessly up onto the edge and stop in unison. The two men stood there a moment, peering down at their battered prey like chess masters savoring checkmate before the final kill.
Delta-One was surprised to see the three escapees alive. He knew, however, this was a temporary condition. They had fallen onto a section of the glacier that had already begun its inevitable plunge to the sea. This quarry could be disabled and killed in the same manner as the other woman, but a far cleaner solution had just presented itself. A way in which no bodies would ever be found.
Gazing downward over the lip, Delta-One focused on the gaping crevasse that had begun to spread like a wedge between the ice shelf and the clinging block of ice. The section of ice on which the three fugitives sat was dangerously perched… ready to break away and fall into the ocean any day now.
Why not today…
Here on the ice shelf, the night was rocked every few hours by deafening booms-the sound of ice cracking off parts of the glacier and plummeting into the ocean. Who would take notice?
Feeling the familiar warm rush of adrenaline that accompanied the preparation for a kill, Delta-One reached in his supply pack and pulled out a heavy, lemon-shaped object. Standard issue for military assault teams, the object was called a flash-bang-a “nonlethal” concussion grenade that temporarily disoriented an enemy by generating a blinding flash and deafening concussion wave. Tonight, however, Delta-One knew this flash-bang would most certainly be lethal.
He positioned himself near the edge and wondered how far the crevasse descended before tapering to a close. Twenty feet? Fifty feet? He knew it didn’t matter. His plan would be effective regardless.
With calm bred from the performance of countless executions, Delta-One dialed a ten-second delay into the grenade’s screw-dial, slid out the pin, and threw the grenade down into the chasm. The bomb plummeted into the darkness and disappeared.
Then Delta-One and his partner cleared back up onto the top of the berm and waited. This would be a sight to behold.
Even in her delirious state of mind, Rachel Sexton had a very good idea what the attackers had just dropped into the crevasse. Whether Michael Tolland also knew or whether he was reading the fear in her eyes was unclear, but she saw him go pale, shooting a horrified glance down at the mammoth slab of ice on which they were stranded, clearly realizing the inevitable.
Like a storm cloud lit by an internal flash of lightning, the ice beneath Rachel illuminated from within. The eerie white translucence shot out in all directions. For a hundred yards around them, the glacier flashed white. The concussion came next. Not a rumble like an earthquake, but a deafening shock wave of gut-churning force. Rachel felt the impact tearing up through the ice into her body.
Instantly, as if a wedge had been driven between the ice shelf and the block of ice supporting them, the cliff began to shear off with a sickening crack. Rachel’s eyes locked with Tolland’s in a freeze-frame of terror. Corky let out a scream nearby.
The bottom dropped out.
Rachel felt weightless for an instant, hovering over the multimillion-pound block of ice. Then they were riding the iceberg down-plummeting into the frigid sea.