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SECONDS




 

The screen in front of her flickered suddenly, and a blurry image of the White House seal materialized on‑screen. After a moment, the image dissolved into the face of President Herney.

Hello, Rachel, he said, a mischievous glint in his eye. I trust youve had an interesting afternoon?

 

 

 

The office of Senator Sedgewick Sexton was located in the Philip A. Hart Senate Office Building on C Street to the northeast of the Capitol. The building was a neo‑modern grid of white rectangles that critics claimed looked more like a prison than an office building. Many who worked there felt the same.

On the third floor, Gabrielle Ashes long legs paced briskly back and forth in front of her computer terminal. On the screen was a new e‑mail message. She was not sure what to make of it.

The first two lines read:

SEDGEWICK WAS IMPRESSIVE ON CNN.

 

I HAVE MORE INFORMATION FOR YOU.

Gabrielle had been receiving messages like this for the last couple of weeks. The return address was bogus, although shed been able to track it to a whitehouse.gov domain. It seemed her mysterious informant was a White House insider, and whoever it was had become Gabrielles source for all kinds of valuable political information recently, including the news of a covert meeting between the NASA administrator and the President.

Gabrielle had been leery of the e‑mails at first, but when she checked out the tips, she was amazed to find the information consistently accurate and helpful‑classified information on NASA overexpenditures, costly upcoming missions, data showing that NASAs search for extraterrestrial life was grossly overfunded and pathetically unproductive, even internal opinion polls warning that NASA was the issue turning voters away from the President.

To enhance her perceived value to the senator, Gabrielle had not informed him she was receiving unsolicited e‑mail help from inside the White House. Instead, she simply passed the information to him as coming from one of her sources. Sexton was always appreciative and seemed to know better than to ask who her source was. She could tell he suspected Gabrielle was doing sexual favors. Troublingly, it didnt seem to bother him in the least.



Gabrielle stopped pacing and looked again at the newly arrived message. The connotations of all the e‑mails were clear: Someone inside the White House wanted Senator Sexton to win this election and was helping him do it by aiding his attack against NASA.

But who? And why?

A rat from a sinking ship, Gabrielle decided. In Washington it was not at all uncommon for a White House employee, fearing his President was about to be ousted from office, to offer quiet favors to the apparent successor in hopes of securing power or another position after the changeover. It seemed someone smelled Sexton victory and was buying stock early.

The message currently on Gabrielles screen made her nervous. It was like none other she had ever received. The first two lines didnt bother her so much. It was the last two:

EAST APPOINTMENT GATE, 4:30 P.M.

 

COME ALONE.

Her informant had never before asked to meet in person. Even so, Gabrielle would have expected a more subtle location for a face‑to‑face meeting. East Appointment Gate? Only one East Appointment Gate existed in Washington, as far as she knew. Outside the White House? Is this some kind of joke?



Gabrielle knew she could not respond via e‑mail; her messages were always bounced back as undeliverable. Her correspondents account was anonymous. Not surprising.

Should I consult Sexton? She quickly decided against it. He was in a meeting. Besides, if she told him about this e‑mail, shed have to tell him about the others. She decided her informants offer to meet in public in broad daylight must be to make Gabrielle feel safe. After all, this person had done nothing but help her for the last two weeks. He or she was obviously a friend.

Reading the e‑mail one last time, Gabrielle checked the clock. She had an hour.

 

 

 

The NASA administrator was feeling less edgy now that the meteorite was successfully out of the ice. Everything is falling into place, he told himself as he headed across the dome to the work area of Michael Tolland. Nothing can stop us now.

Hows it coming? Ekstrom asked, striding up behind the television scientist.

Tolland glanced up from his computer, looking tired but enthusiastic. Editing is almost done. Im just overlaying some of the extraction footage your people shot. Should be done momentarily.

Good. The President had asked Ekstrom to upload Tollands documentary to the White House as soon as possible.

Although Ekstrom had been cynical about the Presidents desire to use Michael Tolland on this project, seeing the rough cuts of Tollands documentary had changed Ekstroms mind. The television stars spirited narrative, combined with his interviews of the civilian scientists, had been brilliantly fused into a thrilling and comprehensible fifteen minutes of scientific programming. Tolland had achieved effortlessly what NASA so often failed to do‑describe a scientific discovery at the level of the average American intellect without being patronizing.



When youre done editing, Ekstrom said, bring the finished product over to the press area. Ill have someone upload a digital copy to the White House.

Yes, sir. Tolland went back to work.

Ekstrom moved on. When he arrived at the north wall, he was encouraged to find the habispheres press area had come together nicely. A large blue carpet had been rolled out on the ice. Centered on the rug sat a long symposium table with several microphones, a NASA drape, and an enormous American flag as a backdrop. To complete the visual drama, the meteorite had been transported on a palette sled to its position of honor, directly in front of the symposium table.

Ekstrom was pleased to see the mood in the press area was one of celebration. Much of his staff was now crowded around the meteorite, holding their hands out over its still‑warm mass like campers around a campfire.

Ekstrom decided that this was the moment. He walked over to several cardboard boxes sitting on the ice behind the press area. Hed had the boxes flown in from Greenland this morning.

Drinks are on me! he yelled, handing out cans of beer to his cavorting staff.

Hey, boss! someone yelled. Thanks! Its even cold!

Ekstrom gave a rare smile. Ive been keeping it on ice.

Everyone laughed.

Wait a minute! someone else yelled, scowling good‑naturedly at his can. This stuffs Canadian! Wheres your patriotism?

Were on a budget, here, folks. Cheapest stuff I could find.

More laughter.

Attention shoppers, one of the NASA television crew yelled into a megaphone. Were about to switch to media lighting. You may experience temporary blindness.

And no kissing in the dark, someone yelled. This is a family program!

Ekstrom chuckled, enjoying the raillery as his crew made final adjustments to the spotlights and accent lighting.

Switching to media lighting in five, four, three, two . . .

The domes interior dimmed rapidly as the halogen lamps shut down. Within seconds, all the lights were off. An impenetrable darkness engulfed the dome.

Someone let out a mock scream.

Who pinched my ass? someone yelled, laughing.

The blackness lasted only a moment before it was pierced by the intense glare of media spotlights. Everyone squinted. The transformation was now complete; the north quadrant of the NASA habisphere had become a television studio. The remainder of the dome now looked like a gaping barn at night. The only light in the other sections was the muted reflection of the media lights reflecting off the arched ceiling and throwing long shadows across the now deserted work stations.

Ekstrom stepped back into the shadows, gratified to see his team carousing around the illuminated meteorite. He felt like a father at Christmas, watching his kids enjoy themselves around the tree.

God knows they deserve it, Ekstrom thought, never suspecting what calamity lay ahead.

 

 

 

The weather was changing.

Like a mournful harbinger of impending conflict, the katabatic wind let out a plaintive howl and gusted hard against the Delta Forces shelter. Delta‑One finished battening down the storm coverings and went back inside to his two partners. Theyd been through this before. It would soon pass.

Delta‑Two was staring at the live video feed from the microbot. You better look at this, he said.

Delta‑One came over. The inside of the habisphere was in total darkness except for the bright lighting on the north side of the dome near the stage. The remainder of the habisphere appeared only as a dim outline. Its nothing, he said. Theyre just testing their television lighting for tonight.

The lightings not the problem. Delta‑Two pointed to the dark blob in the middle of the ice‑the water‑filled hole from which the meteorite had been extracted. Thats the problem.

Delta‑One looked at the hole. It was still surrounded by pylons, and the surface of the water appeared calm. I dont see anything.

Look again. He maneuvered the joystick, spiraling the microbot down toward the surface of the hole.

As Delta‑One studied the darkened pool of melted water more closely, he saw something that caused him to recoil in shock. What the . . . ?

Delta‑Three came over and looked. He too looked stunned. My God. Is that the extraction pit? Is the water supposed to be doing that?

No, Delta‑One said. It sure as hell isnt.

 

 

 

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.

Sir?

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.

Until now.

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?

But

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?

 

 

 

Enjoying the darkness, paleontologist Wailee Ming sat alone in quiet reflection at his private work area. His senses were alive with anticipation for tonights event. Soon I will be the most famous paleontologist in the world. He hoped Michael Tolland had been generous and featured Mings comments in the documentary.

As Ming savored his impending fame, a faint vibration shuddered through the ice beneath his feet, causing him to jump up. His earthquake instinct from living in Los Angeles made him hypersensitive to even the faintest palpitations of the ground. At the moment, though, Ming felt foolish to realize the vibration was perfectly normal. Its just ice calving, he reminded himself, exhaling. He still hadnt gotten used to it. Every few hours, a distant explosion rumbled through the night as somewhere along the glacial frontier a huge block of ice cracked off and fell into the sea. Norah Mangor had a nice way of putting it. New icebergs being born . . .

On his feet now, Ming stretched his arms. He looked across the habisphere, and off in the distance beneath the blaze of television spotlights, he could see a celebration was getting underway. Ming was not much for parties and headed in the opposite direction across the habisphere.

The labyrinth of deserted work areas now felt like a ghost town, the entire dome taking on an almost sepulchral feel. A chill seemed to have settled inside, and Ming buttoned up his long, camel‑hair coat.

Up ahead he saw the extraction shaft‑the point from which the most magnificent fossils in all of human history had been taken. The giant metal tripod had now been stowed and the pool sat alone, surrounded by pylons like some kind of shunned pothole on a vast parking lot of ice. Ming wandered over to the pit, standing a safe distance back, peering into the two‑hundred‑foot‑deep pool of frigid water. Soon it would refreeze, erasing all traces that anyone had ever been here.

The pool of water was a beautiful sight, Ming thought. Even in the dark.

Especially in the dark.

Ming hesitated at the thought. Then it registered.

Theres something wrong.

As Ming focused more closely on the water, he felt his previous contentedness give way to a sudden whirlwind of confusion. He blinked his eyes, stared again, and then quickly turned his gaze across the dome . . . fifty yards away toward the mass of people celebrating in the press area. He knew they could not see him way over here in the dark.

I should tell someone about this, shouldnt I?

Ming looked again at the water, wondering what he would tell them. Was he seeing an optical illusion? Some kind of strange reflection?

Uncertain, Ming stepped beyond the pylons and squatted down at the edge of the pit. The water level was four feet below the ice level, and he leaned down to get a better look. Yes, something was definitely strange. It was impossible to miss, and yet it had not become visible until the lights in the dome had gone out.

Ming stood up. Somebody definitely needed to hear about this. He started off at a hurried pace toward the press area. Completing only a few steps, Ming slammed on the brakes. Good God! He spun back toward the hole, his eyes going wide with realization. It had just dawned on him.

Impossible! he blurted aloud.

And yet Ming knew that was the only explanation. Think, carefully, he cautioned. There must be a more reasonable rationale. But the harder Ming thought, the more convinced he was of what he was seeing. There is no other explanation! He could not believe that NASA and Corky Marlinson had somehow missed something this incredible, but Ming wasnt complaining.

This is Wailee Mings discovery now!

Trembling with excitement, Ming ran to a nearby work area and found a beaker. All he needed was a little water sample. Nobody was going to believe this!

 

 

 

As intelligence liaison to the White House, Rachel Sexton was saying, trying to keep her voice from shaking as she addressed the crowd on the screen before her, my duties include traveling to political hot spots around the globe, analyzing volatile situations, and reporting to the President and White House staff.

A bead of sweat formed just below her hairline and Rachel dabbed it away, silently cursing the President for dropping this briefing into her lap with zero warning.

Never before have my travels taken me to quite this exotic a spot. Rachel motioned stiffly to the cramped trailer around her. Believe it or not, I am addressing you right now from above the Arctic Circle on a sheet of ice that is over three hundred feet thick.

Rachel sensed a bewildered anticipation in the faces on the screen before her. They obviously knew they had been packed into the Oval Office for a reason, but certainly none of them imagined it would have anything to do with a development above the Arctic Circle.

The sweat was beading again. Get it together, Rachel. This is what you do. I sit before you tonight with great honor, pride, and . . . above all, excitement.

Blank looks.

Screw it, she thought, angrily wiping the sweat away. I didnt sign up for this. Rachel knew what her mother would say if she were here now: When in doubt, just spit it out! The old Yankee proverb embodied one of her moms basic beliefs‑that all challenges can be overcome by speaking the truth, no matter how it comes out.

Taking a deep breath, Rachel sat up tall and looked straight into the camera. Sorry, folks, if youre wondering how I could be sweating my butt off above the Arctic Circle . . . Im a little nervous.

The faces before her seemed to jolt back a moment. Some uneasy laughter.

In addition, Rachel said, your boss gave me about ten seconds warning before telling me I would be facing his entire staff. This baptism by fire is not exactly what I had in mind for my first visit to the Oval Office.

More laughter this time.

And, she said, glancing down at the bottom of the screen, I had certainly not imagined I would be sitting at the Presidents desk . . . much less on it!

This brought a hearty laugh and some broad smiles. Rachel felt her muscles starting to relax. Just give it to them straight.

Heres the situation. Rachels voice now sounded like her own. Easy and clear. President Herney has been absent from the media spotlight this past week not because of his lack of interest in his campaign, but rather because he has been engrossed in another matter. One he felt was far more important.

Rachel paused, her eyes making contact now with her audience.

There has been a scientific discovery made in a location called the Milne Ice Shelf in the high Arctic. The President will be informing the world about it in a press conference tonight at eight oclock. The find was made by a group of hardworking Americans who have endured a string of tough luck lately and deserve a break. Im talking about NASA. You can be proud to know that your President, with apparent clairvoyant confidence, has made a point of standing beside NASA lately through thick and thin. Now, it appears his loyalty is going to be rewarded.

It was not until that very instant that Rachel realized how historically momentous this was. A tightness rose in her throat, and she fought it off, plowing onward.

As an intelligence officer who specializes in the analysis and verification of data, I am one of several people the President has called upon to examine the NASA data. I have examined it personally as well as conferring with several specialists‑both government and civilian‑men and women whose credentials are beyond reproach and whose stature is beyond political influence. It is my professional opinion that the data I am about to present to you is factual in its origins and unbiased in its presentation. Moreover, it is my personal opinion that the President, in good faith to his office and the American people, has shown admirable care and restraint in delaying an announcement I know he would have loved to have made last week.

Rachel watched the crowd before her exchanging puzzled looks. They all returned their gaze to her, and she knew she had their undivided attention.

Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to hear what Im sure you will agree is one of the most exciting pieces of information ever revealed in this office.

 

 

 

The aerial view currently being transmitted to the Delta Force by the microbot circling inside the habisphere looked like something that would win an avant‑garde film contest‑the dim lighting, the glistening extraction hole, and the well‑dressed Asian lying on the ice, his camel‑hair coat splayed around him like enormous wings. He was obviously trying to extract a water sample.

Weve got to stop him, said Delta‑Three.

Delta‑One agreed. The Milne Ice Shelf held secrets his team was authorized to protect with force.

How do we stop him? Delta‑Two challenged, still gripping the joystick. These microbots are not equipped.

Delta‑One scowled. The microbot currently hovering inside the habisphere was a recon model, stripped down for longer flight. It was about as lethal as a housefly.

We should call the controller, Delta‑Three stated.

Delta‑One stared intently at the image of the solitary Wailee Ming, perched precariously on the rim of the extraction pit. Nobody was anywhere near him‑and ice cold water had a way of muffling ones ability to scream. Give me the controls.

What are you doing? the soldier on the joystick demanded.

What we were trained to do, Delta‑One snapped, taking over. Improvise.

 

 

 

Wailee Ming lay on his stomach beside the extraction hole, his right arm extended over the rim trying to extract a water sample. His eyes were definitely not playing tricks on him; his face, now only a yard or so from the water, could see everything perfectly.

This is incredible!

Straining harder, Ming maneuvered the beaker in his fingers, trying to reach down to the surface of the water. All he needed was another few inches.

Unable to extend his arm any farther, Ming repositioned himself closer to the hole. He pressed the toes of his boots against the ice and firmly replanted his left hand on the rim. Again, he extended his right arm as far as he could. Almost. He shifted a little closer. Yes! The edge of the beaker broke the surface of the water. As the liquid flowed into the container, Ming stared in disbelief.

Then, without warning, something utterly inexplicable occurred. Out of the darkness, like a bullet from a gun, flew a tiny speck of metal. Ming only saw it for a fraction of a second before it smashed into his right eye.

The human instinct to protect ones eyes was so innately ingrained, that despite Mings brain telling him that any sudden movements risked his balance, he recoiled. It was a jolting reaction more out of surprise than pain. Mings left hand, closest to his face, shot up reflexively to protect the assaulted eyeball. Even as his hand was in motion, Ming knew he had made a mistake. With all of his weight leaning forward, and his only means of support suddenly gone, Wailee Ming teetered. He recovered too late. Dropping the beaker and trying to grab on to the slick ice to stop his fall, he slipped‑plummeting forward into the darkened hole.

The fall was only four feet, and yet as Ming hit the icy water head first he felt like his face had hit pavement at fifty miles an hour. The liquid that engulfed his face was so cold it felt like burning acid. It brought an instantaneous spike of panic.

Upside down and in the darkness, Ming was momentarily disoriented, not knowing which way to turn toward the surface. His heavy camel‑hair coat kept the icy blast from his body‑but only for a second or two. Finally righting himself, Ming came sputtering up for air, just as the water found its way to his back and chest, engulfing his body in a lung‑crushing vise of cold.

Hee . . . lp, he gasped, but Ming could barely pull in enough air to let out a whimper. He felt like the wind had been knocked out of him.

Heee . . . lp! His cries were inaudible even to himself. Ming clambered toward the side of the extraction pit and tried to pull himself out. The wall before him was vertical ice. Nothing to grab. Underwater, his boots kicked the side of the wall, searching for a foothold. Nothing. He strained upward, reaching for the rim. It was only a foot out of reach.

Mings muscles were already having trouble responding. He kicked his legs harder, trying to propel himself high enough up the wall to grab the rim. His body felt like lead, and his lungs seemed to have shrunk to nothing, as if they were being crushed by a python. His water‑laden coat was getting heavier by the second, pulling him downward. Ming tried to pull it off his body, but the heavy fabric stuck.

Help . . . me!

The fear came on in torrents now.

Drowning, Ming had once read, was the most horrific death imaginable. He had never dreamed he would find himself on the verge of experiencing it. His muscles refused to cooperate with his mind, and already he was fighting just to keep his head above water. His soggy clothing pulled him downward as his numb fingers scratched the sides of the pit.

His screams were only in his mind now.

And then it happened.

Ming went under. The sheer terror of being conscious of his own impending death was something he never imagined he would experience. And yet here he was . . . sinking slowly down the sheer ice wall of a two‑hundred‑foot‑deep hole in the ice. Multitudes of thoughts flashed before his eyes. Moments from his childhood. His career. He wondered if anyone would find him down here. Or would he simply sink to the bottom and freeze there . . . entombed in the glacier for all time.

Mings lungs were screaming for oxygen. He held his breath, still trying to kick toward the surface. Breathe! He fought the reflex, clamping his insensate lips together. Breathe! He tried in vain to swim upward. Breathe! At that instant, in a deadly battle of human reflex against reason, Mings breathing instinct overcame his ability to keep his mouth closed.

Wailee Ming inhaled.

The water crashing into his lungs felt like scalding oil on his sensitive pulmonary tissue. He felt like he was burning from the inside out. Cruelly, water does not kill immediately. Ming spent seven horrifying seconds inhaling in the icy water, each breath more painful than the last, each inhalation offering none of what his body so desperately craved.

Finally, as Ming slid downward into the icy darkness, he felt himself going unconscious. He welcomed the escape. All around him in the water Ming saw tiny glowing specks of light. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

 

 

 

The East Appointment Gate of the White House is located on East Executive Avenue between the Treasury Department and the East Lawn. The reinforced perimeter fence and cement bollards installed after the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut give this entry an air that is anything but welcoming.

Outside the gate, Gabrielle Ashe checked her watch, feeling a growing nervousness. It was 4:45 P.M . . . and still nobody had made contact.

 


: 2015-09-14; : 6;







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