The deafening grating of ice against ice assaulted Rachel’s ears as the massive slab slid down the face of the Milne Ice Shelf, sending towering plumes of spray into the air. As the slab splashed downward, it slowed, and Rachel’s previously weightless body crashed down onto the top of the ice. Tolland and Corky landed hard nearby.
As the block’s downward momentum plunged it deeper into the sea, Rachel could see the foaming surface of the ocean racing upward with a kind of taunting deceleration, like the ground beneath a bungee-jumper whose cord was a few feet too long. Rising… rising… and then it was there. Her childhood nightmare was back. The ice… the water… the darkness. The dread was almost primal.
The top of the slab slipped below the waterline, and the frigid Arctic Ocean poured over the edges in a torrent. As the ocean rushed in all around her, Rachel felt herself sucked under. The bare skin on her face tightened and burned as the saltwater hit. The flooring of ice disappeared beneath her, and Rachel fought her way back to the surface, buoyed by the gel in her suit. She took in a mouthful of saltwater, sputtering to the surface. She could see the others floundering nearby, all of them tangled in tethers. Just as Rachel righted herself, Tolland yelled out.
“It’s coming back up!”
As his words echoed above the tumult, Rachel felt an eerie upwelling in the water beneath her. Like a massive locomotive straining to reverse direction, the slab of ice had groaned to a stop underwater and was now beginning its ascent directly beneath them. Fathoms below, a sickening low frequency rumble resonated upward through the water as the gigantic submerged sheet began scraping its way back up the face of the glacier.
The slab rose fast, accelerating as it came, swooping up from the darkness. Rachel felt herself rising. The ocean roiled all around as the ice met her body. She scrambled in vain, trying to find her balance as the ice propelled her skyward along with millions of gallons of seawater. Buoying upward, the giant sheet bobbed above the surface, heaving and teetering, looking for its center of gravity. Rachel found herself scrambling in waist-deep water across the enormous, flat expanse. As the water began pouring off the surface, the current swallowed Rachel and dragged her toward the edge. Sliding, splayed flat on her stomach, Rachel could see the edge looming fast.
Hold on! Rachel’s mother’s voice was calling the same way it had when Rachel was just a child floundering beneath the icy pond. Hold on! Don’t go under!
The wrenching yank on her harness expelled what little air Rachel had left in her lungs. She jerked to a dead stop only yards from the edge. The motion spun her in place. Ten yards away, she could see Corky’s limp body, still tethered to her, also jolting to a stop. They had been flowing off the sheet in opposite directions and his momentum had stopped her. As the water ran off and grew more shallow, another dark form appeared over near Corky. He was on his hands and knees, grasping Corky’s tether and vomiting saltwater.
As the last of the wake drained past her and flowed off the iceberg, Rachel lay in terrified silence, listening to the sounds of the ocean. Then, feeling the onset of deadly cold, she dragged herself onto her hands and knees. The ‘berg was still bobbing back and forth, like a giant ice cube. Delirious and in pain, she crawled back toward the others.
High above on the glacier, Delta-One peered through his night-vision goggles at the water churning around the Arctic Ocean’s newest tabular iceberg. Although he saw no bodies in the water, he was not surprised. The ocean was dark, and his quarry’s weather suits and skullcaps were black.
As he passed his gaze across the surface of the enormous floating sheet of ice, he had a hard time keeping it in focus. It was receding quickly, already heading out to sea in the strong offshore currents. He was about to turn his gaze back to the sea when he saw something unexpected. Three specks of black on the ice. Are those bodies? Delta-One tried to bring them into focus.
“See something?” Delta-Two asked.
Delta-One said nothing, focusing in with his magnifier. In the pale tint of the iceberg, he was stunned to see three human forms huddled motionless on the island of ice. Whether they were alive or dead, Delta-One had no idea. It hardly mattered. If they were alive, even in weather suits, they’d be dead within the hour; they were wet, a storm was coming in, and they were drifting seaward into one of the most deadly oceans on the planet. Their bodies would never be found.
“Just shadows,” Delta-One said, turning from the cliff. “Let’s get back to base.”
Senator Sedgewick Sexton set his snifter of Courvoisier on the mantelpiece of his Westbrook apartment and stoked the fire for several moments, gathering his thoughts. The six men in the den with him sat in silence now… waiting. The small talk was over. It was time for Senator Sexton to make his pitch. They knew it. He knew it.
Politics was sales.
Establish trust. Let them know you understand their problems.
“As you may know,” Sexton said, turning toward them, “over the past months, I have met with many men in your same position.” He smiled and sat down, joining them on their level. “You are the only ones I have ever brought into my home. You are extraordinary men, and I am honored to meet you.”
Sexton folded his hands and let his eyes circle the room, making personal contact with each of his guests. Then he focused in on his first mark-the heavyset man in the cowboy hat.
“Space Industries of Houston,” Sexton said. “I’m glad you came.”
The Texan grunted. “I hate this town.”
“I don’t blame you. Washington has been unfair to you.”
The Texan stared out from beneath the rim of his hat but said nothing.
“Twelve years back,” Sexton began, “you made an offer to the U.S. government. You proposed to build them a U.S. space station for a mere five billion dollars.”
“Yeah, I did. I still have the blueprints.”
“And yet NASA convinced the government that a U.S. space station should be a NASA project.”
“Right. NASA started building almost a decade ago.”
“A decade. And not only is the NASA space station not yet fully operational, but the project so far has cost twenty times your bid. As an American taxpayer, I am sickened.”
A grumble of agreement circled the room. Sexton let his eyes move, reconnecting with the group.
“I am well aware,” the senator said, addressing everyone now, “that several of your companies have offered to launch private space shuttles for as little as fifty million dollars per flight.”
“And yet NASA undercuts you by charging only thirty-eight million dollars per flight… even though their actual per flight cost is over one hundred and fifty million dollars!”
“It’s how they keep us out of space,” one of the men said. “The private sector cannot possibly compete with a company that can afford to run shuttle flights at a four hundred percent loss and still stay in business.”
“Nor should you have to,” Sexton said.
Nods all around.
Sexton turned now to the austere entrepreneur beside him, a man whose file Sexton had read with interest. Like many of the entrepreneurs funding Sexton’s campaign, this man was a former military engineer who had become disillusioned with low wages and government bureaucracy and had abandoned his military post to seek his fortune in aerospace.
“Kistler Aerospace,” Sexton said, shaking his head in despair. “Your company has designed and manufactured a rocket that can launch payloads for as little as two thousand dollars per pound compared to NASA’s costs of ten thousand dollars per pound.” Sexton paused for effect. “And yet you have no clients.”
“Why would I have any clients?” the man replied. “Last week NASA undercut us by charging Motorola only eight hundred and twelve dollars per pound to launch a telecomm satellite. The government launched that satellite at a nine hundred percent loss!”
Sexton nodded. Taxpayers were unwittingly subsidizing an agency that was ten times less efficient than its competition. “It has become painfully clear,” he said, his voice darkening, “that NASA is working very hard to stifle competition in space. They crowd out private aerospace businesses by pricing services below market value.”
“It’s the Wal-Marting of space,” the Texan said.
Damn good analogy, Sexton thought. I’ll have to remember that. Wal-Mart was notorious for moving into a new territory, selling products below market value, and driving all local competition out of business.
“I’m goddamned sick and tired,” the Texan said, “of having to pay millions in business taxes so Uncle Sam can use that money to steal my clients!”
“I hear you,” Sexton said. “I understand.”
“It’s the lack of corporate sponsorships that’s killing Rotary Rocket,” a sharply dressed man said. “The laws against sponsorship are criminal!”
“I couldn’t agree more.” Sexton had been shocked to learn that another way NASA entrenched its monopoly of space was by passing federal mandates banning advertisements on space vehicles. Instead of allowing private companies to secure funding through corporate sponsorships and advertising logos-the way, for example, professional race car drivers did-space vehicles could only display the words USA and the company name. In a country that spent $185 billion a year on advertising, not one advertising dollar ever found its way into the coffers of private space companies.
“It’s robbery,” one of the men snapped. “My company hopes to stay in business long enough to launch the country’s first tourist-shuttle prototype next May. We expect enormous press coverage. The Nike Corporation just offered us seven million in sponsorship dollars to paint the Nike swoosh and ‘Just do it!’ on the side of the shuttle. Pepsi offered us twice that for ‘Pepsi: The choice of a new generation.’ But according to federal law, if our shuttle displays advertising, we are prohibited from launching it!”
“That’s right,” Senator Sexton said. “And if elected, I will work to abolish that antisponsorship legislation. That is a promise. Space should be open for advertising the way every square inch of earth is open to advertising.”
Sexton gazed out now at his audience, his eyes locking in, his voice growing solemn. “We all need to be aware, however, that the biggest obstacle to privatization of NASA is not laws, but rather, it is public perception. Most Americans still hold a romanticized view of the American space program. They still believe NASA is a necessary government agency.”
“It’s those goddamned Hollywood movies!” one man said. “How many NASA-saves-the-world-from-a-killer-asteroid movies can Hollywood make, for Christ’s sake? It’s propaganda!”
The plethora of NASA movies coming out of Hollywood, Sexton knew, was simply a matter of economics. Following the wildly popular movie Top Gun-a Tom Cruise jet pilot blockbuster that played like a two-hour advertisement for the U.S. Navy-NASA realized the true potential of Hollywood as a public relations powerhouse. NASA quietly began offering film companies free filming access to all of NASA’s dramatic facilities-launchpads, mission control, training facilities. Producers, who were accustomed to paying enormous on-site licensing fees when they filmed anywhere else, jumped at the opportunity to save millions in budget costs by making NASA thrillers on “free” sets. Of course, Hollywood only got access if NASA approved the script.
“Public brainwashing,” a Hispanic grunted. “The movies aren’t half as bad as the publicity stunts. Sending a senior citizen into space? And now NASA is planning an all-female shuttle crew? All for publicity!”
Sexton sighed, his tone turning tragic. “True, and I know I don’t have to remind you what happened back in the eighties when the Department of Education was bankrupt and cited NASA as wasting millions that could be spent on education. NASA devised a PR stunt to prove NASA was education-friendly. They sent a public school teacher into space.” Sexton paused. “You all remember Christa McAuliffe.”
The room fell silent.
“Gentlemen,” Sexton said, stopping dramatically in front of the fire. “I believe it is time Americans understood the truth, for the good of all of our futures. It’s time Americans understand that NASA is not leading us skyward, but rather is stifling space exploration. Space is no different than any other industry, and keeping the private sector grounded verges on a criminal act. Consider the computer industry, in which we see such an explosion of progress that we can barely keep up from week to week! Why? Because the computer industry is a free-market system: It rewards efficiency and vision with profits. Imagine if the computer industry were government-run? We would still be in the dark ages. We’re stagnating in space. We should put space exploration into the hands of the private sector where it belongs. Americans would be stunned by the growth, jobs, and realized dreams. I believe we should let the free-market system spur us to new heights in space. If elected, I will make it my personal mission to unlock the doors to the final frontier and let them swing wide open.”
Sexton lifted his snifter of cognac.
“My friends, you came here tonight to decide if I am someone worthy of your trust. I hope I am on the way to earning it. In the same way it takes investors to build a company, it takes investors to build a presidency. In the same way corporate stockholders expect returns, you as political investors expect returns. My message to you tonight is simple: Invest in me, and I will never forget you. Ever. Our missions are one and the same.”
Sexton extended his glass toward them in a toast.
“With your help, my friends, soon I will be in the White House… and you will all be launching your dreams.”
Only fifteen feet away, Gabrielle Ashe stood in the shadows, rigid. From the den came the harmonious clink of crystal snifters and the crackle of the fire.
In a panic, the young NASA technician dashed through the habisphere. Something terrible has happened! He found Administrator Ekstrom alone near the press area.
“Sir,” the technician gasped, running up. “There’s been an accident!”
Ekstrom turned, looking distant, as if his thoughts were already deeply troubled with other matters. “What did you say? An accident? Where?”
“In the extraction pit. A body just floated up. Dr. Wailee Ming.”
Ekstrom’s face was blank. “Dr. Ming? But… ”
“We pulled him out, but it was too late. He’s dead.”
“For Christ’s sake. How long has he been in there?”
“We think about an hour. It looks like he fell in, sank to the bottom, but when his body bloated, he floated up again.”
Ekstrom’s reddish skin turned crimson. “Goddamn it! Who else knows about this?”
“Nobody, sir. Only two of us. We fished him out, but we thought we better tell you before-”
“You did the right thing.” Ekstrom exhaled a weighty sigh. “Stow Dr. Ming’s body immediately. Say nothing.”
The technician felt perplexed. “But, sir, I-”
Ekstrom put a large hand on the man’s shoulder. “Listen to me carefully. This is a tragic accident, one I deeply regret. Of course I will deal with it appropriately when the time comes. Now, however, is not the time.”
“You want me to hide his body?”
Ekstrom’s cold Nordic eyes bore down. “Think about it. We could tell everyone, but what would that accomplish? We’re about an hour off from this press conference. Announcing that we’ve had a fatal accident would overshadow the discovery and have a devastating effect on morale. Dr. Ming made a careless mistake; I have no intention of making NASA pay for it. These civilian scientists have taken enough of the spotlight without my letting one of their slipshod errors cast a shadow over our public moment of glory. Dr. Ming’s accident remains a secret until after the press conference. Do you understand?”
The man nodded, pale. “I’ll stow his body.”
Michael Tolland had been at sea enough times to know the ocean took victims without remorse or hesitation. As he lay in exhaustion on the expansive sheet of ice, he could just make out the ghostly outline of the towering Milne Ice Shelf receding in the distance. He knew the powerful Arctic current flowing off the Elizabethan Islands spiraled in an enormous loop around the polar ice cap and would eventually skirt land in northern Russia. Not that it mattered. That would be months from now.
We’ve got maybe thirty minutes… forty-five at the most.
Without the protective insulation of their gel-filled suits, Tolland knew they would be dead already. Thankfully, the Mark IXs had kept them dry-the most critical aspect of surviving cold weather. The thermal gel around their bodies had not only cushioned their fall, but it was now helping their bodies retain what little heat they had left.
Soon hypothermia would set in. It would start with a vague numbness in limbs as the blood retreated to the body’s core to protect the critical internal organs. Delirious hallucinations would come next, as the pulse and respiration slowed, cheating the brain of oxygen. Then, the body would make a final effort to conserve its remaining heat by shutting down all operations except the heart and respiration. Unconsciousness would follow. In the end, heart and respiration centers in the brain would stop functioning altogether.
Tolland turned his gaze toward Rachel, wishing he could do something to save her.
The numbness spreading through Rachel Sexton’s body was less painful than she would have imagined. Almost a welcome anesthetic. Nature’s morphine. She had lost her goggles in the collapse, and she could barely open her eyes against the cold.
She could see Tolland and Corky on the ice nearby. Tolland was looking at her, eyes filled with regret. Corky was moving but obviously in pain. His right cheekbone was smashed and bloody.
Rachel’s body trembled wildly as her mind searched for answers. Who? Why? Her thoughts were muddled by a growing heaviness inside her. Nothing was making sense. She felt like her body was slowly shutting down, lulled by an invisible force pulling her to sleep. She fought it. A fiery anger ignited within her now, and she tried to fan the flames.
They tried to kill us! She peered out at the threatening sea and sensed their attackers had succeeded. We’re already dead. Even now, knowing she would probably not live to learn the whole truth about the deadly game being played out on the Milne Ice Shelf, Rachel suspected she already knew who to blame.
Administrator Ekstrom had the most to gain. He was the one who sent them out on the ice. He had ties to the Pentagon and Special Ops. But what did Ekstrom have to gain by inserting the meteorite beneath the ice? What did anyone have to gain?
Rachel flashed on Zach Herney, wondering if the President was a coconspirator or an unknowing pawn? Herney knows nothing. He’s innocent. The President obviously had been duped by NASA. Now Herney was only about an hour away from making NASA’s announcement. And he would do so armed with a video documentary containing endorsements from four civilian scientists.
Four dead civilian scientists.
Rachel could do nothing to stop the press conference now, but she vowed that whoever was responsible for this attack would not get away with it.
Summoning her strength, Rachel tried to sit up. Her limbs felt like granite, all her joints screaming in pain as she bent her legs and arms. Slowly, she pulled herself to her knees, steadying herself on the flat ice. Her head spun. All around her the ocean churned. Tolland lay nearby, gazing up at her with inquisitive eyes. Rachel sensed he probably thought she was kneeling in prayer. She was not, of course, although prayer probably had as good a chance of saving them as what she was about to attempt.
Rachel’s right hand fumbled across her waist and found the ice ax still bungeed to her belt. Her stiff fingers gripped the handle. She inverted the ax, positioning it like an upside down T. Then, with all her energy, she drove the butt downward into the ice. Thud. Again. Thud. The blood felt like cold molasses in her veins. Thud. Tolland looked on in obvious confusion. Rachel drove the ax down again. Thud.
Tolland tried to lift himself onto his elbow. “Ra… chel?”
She did not answer. She needed all her energy. Thud. Thud.
“I don’t think…,” Tolland said, “this far north… that the SAA… could hear… ”
Rachel turned, surprised. She had forgotten Tolland was an oceanographer and might have some idea what she was up to. Right idea… but I’m not calling the SAA.
She kept pounding.
The SAA stood for a Suboceanic Acoustic Array, a relic of the Cold War now used by oceanographers worldwide to listen for whales. Because underwater sounds carried for hundreds of miles, the SAA network of fifty-nine underwater microphones around the world could listen to a surprisingly large percentage of the planet’s oceans. Unfortunately, this remote section of the Arctic was not part of that percentage, but Rachel knew there were others out there listening to the ocean floor-others that few on earth knew existed. She kept pounding. Her message was simple and clear.
THUD. THUD. THUD.
THUD… THUD… THUD…
THUD. THUD. THUD.
Rachel had no delusions that her actions would save their lives; she could already feel a frosty tightness gripping her body. She doubted she had a half hour of life left in her. Rescue was beyond the realm of possibility now. But this was not about rescue.
THUD. THUD. THUD.
THUD… THUD… THUD…
THUD. THUD. THUD.
“There’s… no time… ” Tolland said.
It’s not… about us, she thought. It’s about the information in my pocket. Rachel pictured the incriminating GPR printout inside the Velcro pocket of her Mark IX suit. I need to get the GPR printout into the hands of the NRO… and soon.
Even in her delirious state, Rachel was certain her message would be received. In the mid-eighties, the NRO had replaced the SAA with an array thirty times as powerful. Total global coverage: Classic Wizard, the NRO’s $12 million ear to the ocean floor. In the next few hours the Cray supercomputers at the NRO/NSA listening post in Menwith Hill, England, would flag an anomalous sequence in one of the Arctic’s hydrophones, decipher the pounding as an SOS, triangulate the coordinates, and dispatch a rescue plane from Thule Air Force Base in Greenland. The plane would find three bodies on an iceberg. Frozen. Dead. One would be an NRO employee… and she would be carrying a strange piece of thermal paper in her pocket.
A GPR printout.
Norah Mangor’s final legacy.
When the rescuers studied the printout, the mysterious insertion tunnel beneath the meteorite would be revealed. From there, Rachel had no idea what would happen, but at least the secret would not die with them here on the ice.
Every president’s transition into the White House involves a private tour of three heavily guarded warehouses containing priceless collections of past White House furniture: desks, silverware, bureaus, beds, and other items used by past presidents as far back as George Washington. During the tour, the transitioning president is invited to select any heirlooms he likes and use them as furnishings inside the White House during his term. Only the bed in the Lincoln Bedroom is a permanent White House fixture. Ironically, Lincoln never slept in it.
The desk at which Zach Herney was currently sitting inside the Oval Office had once belonged to his idol, Harry Truman. The desk, though small by modern standards, served as a daily reminder to Zach Herney that the “buck” did indeed stop here, and that Herney was ultimately responsible for any shortcomings of his administration. Herney accepted the responsibility as an honor and did his best to instill in his staff the motivations to do whatever it took to get the job done.
“Mr. President?” his secretary called out, peering into the office. “Your call just went through.”
Herney waved. “Thank you.”
He reached for his phone. He would have preferred some privacy for this call, but he sure as hell was not going to get any of that right now. Two makeup specialists hovered like gnats, poking and primping at his face and hair. Directly in front of his desk, a television crew was setting up, and an endless swarm of advisers and PR people scurried around the office, excitedly discussing strategy.
T minus one hour…
Herney pressed the illuminated button on his private phone. “Lawrence? You there?”
“I’m here.” The NASA administrator’s voice sounded consumed, distant.
“Everything okay up there?”
“Storm’s still moving in, but my people tell me the satellite link will not be affected. We’re good to go. One hour and counting.”
“Excellent. Spirits high, I hope.”
“Very high. My staff’s excited. In fact, we just shared some beers.”
Herney laughed. “Glad to hear it. Look, I wanted to call and thank you before we do this thing. Tonight’s going to be one hell of a night.”
The administrator paused, sounding uncharacteristically uncertain. “That it will, sir. We’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
Herney hesitated. “You sound exhausted.”
“I need some sunlight and a real bed.”
“One more hour. Smile for the cameras, enjoy the moment, and then we’ll get a plane up there to bring you back to D.C.”
“Looking forward to it.” The man fell silent again.
As a skilled negotiator, Herney was trained to listen, to hear what was being said between the lines. Something in the administrator’s voice sounded off somehow. “You sure everything’s okay up there?”
“Absolutely. All systems go.” The administrator seemed eager to change the subject. “Did you see the final cut of Michael Tolland’s documentary?”
“Just watched it,” Herney said. “He did a fantastic job.”
“Yes. You made a good call bringing him in.”
“Still mad at me for involving civilians?”
“Hell, yes.” The administrator growled good-naturedly, his voice with the usual strength to it.
It made Herney feel better. Ekstrom’s fine, Herney thought. Just a little tired. “Okay, I’ll see you in an hour via satellite. We’ll give ’em something to talk about.”
“Hey, Lawrence?” Herney’s voice grew low and solemn now. “You’ve done a hell of a thing up there. I won’t ever forget it.”
Outside the habisphere, buffeted by wind, Delta-Three struggled to right and repack Norah Mangor’s toppled equipment sled. Once all the equipment was back onboard, he battened down the vinyl top and draped Mangor’s dead body across the top, tying her down. As he was preparing to drag the sled off course, his two partners came skimming up the glacier toward him.
“Change of plans,” Delta-One called out above the wind. “The other three went over the edge.”
Delta-Three was not surprised. He also knew what it meant. The Delta Force’s plan to stage an accident by arranging four dead bodies on the ice shelf was no longer a viable option. Leaving a lone body would pose more questions than answers. “Sweep?” he asked.
Delta-One nodded. “I’ll recover the flares and you two get rid of the sled.”
While Delta-One carefully retraced the scientists’ path, collecting every last clue that anyone had been there at all, Delta-Three and his partner moved down the glacier with the laden equipment sled. After struggling over the berms, they finally reached the precipice at the end of the Milne Ice Shelf. They gave a push, and Norah Mangor and her sled slipped silently over the edge, plummeting into the Arctic Ocean.
Clean sweep, Delta-Three thought.
As they headed back to base, he was pleased to see the wind obliterating the tracks made by their skis.