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EAST APPOINTMENT GATE, 4:30 P.M. COME ALONE. 4 ñòðàíèöà
Norah now understood. The saltwater in the shaft! She fell to her knees in the snow beside the flare. She could barely breathe. Still clutching the paper in her hands, she began trembling.
My God . . . it didn’t even occur to me.
Then, with a sudden eruption of rage, she spun her head in the direction of the NASA habisphere. “You bastards!” she screamed, her voice trailing off in the wind. “You goddamned bastards!”
In the darkness, only fifty yards away, Delta‑One held his CrypTalk device to his mouth and spoke only two words to his controller. “They know.”
Norah Mangor was still kneeling on the ice when the bewildered Michael Tolland pulled the Ground Penetrating Radar’s printout from her trembling hands. Shaken from seeing the floating body of Ming, Tolland tried to gather his thoughts and decipher the image before him.
He saw the cross section of the meteorite shaft descending from the surface down to two hundred feet into the ice. He saw Ming’s body floating in the shaft. Tolland’s eyes drifted lower now, and he sensed something was amiss. Directly beneath the extraction shaft, a dark column of sea ice extended downward to the open ocean below. The vertical pillar of saltwater ice was massive‑the same diameter as the shaft.
“My God!” Rachel yelled, looking over Tolland’s shoulder. “It looks like the meteorite shaft continues all the way through the ice shelf into the ocean!”
Tolland stood transfixed, his brain unable to accept what he knew to be the only logical explanation. Corky looked equally alarmed.
Norah shouted, “Someone drilled up under the shelf!” Her eyes were wild with rage. “Someone intentionally inserted that rock from underneath the ice!”
Although the idealist in Tolland wanted to reject Norah’s words, the scientist in him knew she could easily be right. The Milne Ice Shelf was floating over the ocean with plenty of clearance for a submersible. Because everything weighed significantly less underwater, even a small submersible not much bigger than Tolland’s one‑man research Triton easily could have transported the meteorite in its payload arms. The sub could have approached from the ocean, submerged beneath the ice shelf, and drilled upward into the ice. Then, it could have used an extending payload arm or inflatable balloons to push the meteorite up into the shaft. Once the meteorite was in place, the ocean water that had risen into the shaft behind the meteorite would begin to freeze. As soon as the shaft closed enough to hold the meteorite in place, the sub could retract its arm and disappear, leaving Mother Nature to seal the remainder of the tunnel and erase all traces of the deception.
“But why?” Rachel demanded, taking the printout from Tolland and studying it. “Why would someone do that? Are you sure your GPR is working?”
“Of course, I’m sure! And the printout perfectly explains the presence of phosphorescent bacteria in the water!”
Tolland had to admit, Norah’s logic was chillingly sound. Phosphorescent dinoflagellates would have followed instinct and swum upward into the meteorite shaft, becoming trapped just beneath the meteorite and freezing into the ice. Later, when Norah heated the meteorite, the ice directly beneath would have melted, releasing the plankton. Again, they would swim upward, this time reaching the surface inside the habisphere, where they would eventually die for lack of saltwater.
“This is crazy!” Corky yelled. “NASA has a meteorite with extraterrestrial fossils in it. Why would they care where it’s found? Why would they go to the trouble to bury it under an ice shelf?”
“Who the hell knows,” Norah fired back, “but GPR printouts don’t lie. We were tricked. That meteorite isn’t part of the Jungersol Fall. It was inserted in the ice recently. Within the last year, or the plankton would be dead!” She was already packing up her GPR gear on the sled and fastening it down. “We’ve to get back and tell someone! The President is about to go public with all the wrong data! NASA tricked him!”
“Wait a minute!” Rachel yelled. “We should at least run another scan to make sure. None of this makes sense. Who will believe it?”
“Everyone,” Norah said, preparing her sled. “When I march into the habisphere and drill another core sample out of the bottom of the meteorite shaft and it comes up as saltwater ice, I guarantee you everyone will believe this!”
Norah disengaged the brakes on the equipment sled, redirected it toward the habisphere, and started back up the slope, digging her crampons into the ice and pulling the sled behind her with surprising ease. She was a woman on a mission.
“Let’s go!” Norah shouted, pulling the tethered group along as she headed toward the perimeter of the illuminated circle. “I don’t know what NASA’s up to here, but I sure as hell don’t appreciate being used as a pawn for their‑”
Norah Mangor’s neck snapped back as if she’d been rammed in the forehead by some invisible force. She let out a guttural gasp of pain, wavered, and collapsed backward onto the ice. Almost instantly, Corky let out a cry and spun around as if his shoulder had been propelled backward. He fell to the ice, writhing in pain.
Rachel immediately forgot all about the printout in her hand, Ming, the meteorite, and the bizarre tunnel beneath the ice. She had just felt a small projectile graze her ear, barely missing her temple. Instinctively, she dropped to her knees, yanking Tolland down with her.
“What’s going on!” Tolland screamed.
A hailstorm was all Rachel could imagine‑balls of ice blowing down off the glacier‑and yet from the force with which Corky and Norah had just been hit, Rachel knew the hailstones would have to be moving at hundreds of miles an hour. Eerily, the sudden barrage of marble‑sized objects seemed now to focus on Rachel and Tolland, pelting all around them, sending up plumes of exploding ice. Rachel rolled onto her stomach, dug her crampon’s toe spikes into the ice, and launched toward the only cover available. The sled. Tolland arrived a moment later, scrambling and hunkering down beside her.
Tolland looked out at Norah and Corky unprotected on the ice. “Pull them in with the tether!” he yelled, grabbing the rope and trying to pull.
But the tether was wrapped around the sled.
Rachel stuffed the printout in the Velcro pocket of her Mark IX suit, and scrambled on all fours toward the sled, trying to untangle the rope from the sled runners. Tolland was right behind her.
The hailstones suddenly rained down in a barrage against the sled, as if Mother Nature had abandoned Corky and Norah and was taking direct aim at Rachel and Tolland. One of the projectiles slammed into the top of the sled tarp, partially embedding itself, and then bounced over, landing on the sleeve of Rachel’s coat.
When Rachel saw it, she froze. In an instant, the bewilderment she had been feeling turned to terror. These “hailstones” were man‑made. The ball of ice on her sleeve was a flawlessly shaped spheroid the size of a large cherry. The surface was polished and smooth, marred only by a linear seam around the circumference, like an old‑fashioned lead musket ball, machined in a press. The globular pellets were, without a doubt, man‑made.
Ice bullets . . .
As someone with military clearance, Rachel was well acquainted with the new experimental “IM” weaponry‑Improvised Munitions‑snow rifles that compacted snow into ice pellets, desert rifles that melted sand into glass projectiles, water‑based firearms that shot pulses of liquid water with such force that they could break bones. Improvised Munitions weaponry had an enormous advantage over conventional weapons because IM weapons used available resources and literally manufactured munitions on the spot, providing soldiers unlimited rounds without their having to carry heavy conventional bullets. The ice balls being fired at them now, Rachel knew, were being compressed “on demand” from snow fed into the butt of the rifle.
As was often the case in the intelligence world, the more one knew, the more frightening a scenario became. This moment was no exception. Rachel would have preferred blissful ignorance, but her knowledge of IM weaponry instantly led her to a sole chilling conclusion: They were being attacked by some kind of U.S. Special Ops force, the only forces in the country currently cleared to use these experimental IM weapons in the field.
The presence of a military covert operations unit brought with it a second, even more terrifying realization: The probability of surviving this attack was close to zero.
The morbid thought was terminated as one of the ice pellets found an opening and came screaming through the wall of gear on the sled, colliding with her stomach. Even in her padded Mark IX suit, Rachel felt like an invisible prizefighter had just gut‑punched her. Stars began to dance around the periphery of her vision, and she teetered backward, grabbing gear on the sled for balance. Michael Tolland dropped Norah’s tether and lunged to support Rachel, but he arrived too late. Rachel fell backward, pulling a pile of equipment with her. She and Tolland tumbled to the ice in a pile of electronic apparatus.
“They’re . . . bullets . . . . .” she gasped, the air momentarily crushed from her lungs. “Run!”
The Washington MetroRail subway now leaving Federal Triangle station could not speed away from the White House fast enough for Gabrielle Ashe. She sat rigid in a deserted corner of the train as darkened shapes tore past outside in a blur. Marjorie Tench’s big red envelope lay in Gabrielle’s lap, pressing down like a ten‑ton weight.
I’ve got to talk to Sexton! she thought, the train accelerating now in the direction of Sexton’s office building. Immediately!
Now, in the dim, shifting light of the train, Gabrielle felt like she was enduring some kind of hallucinogenic drug trip. Muted lights whipped by overhead like slow‑motion discotheque strobes. The ponderous tunnel rose on all sides like a deepening canyon.
Tell me this is not happening.
She gazed down at the envelope on her lap. Unclasping the flap, she reached inside and pulled out one of the photos. The internal lights of the train flickered for a moment, the harsh glare illuminating a shocking image‑Sedgewick Sexton lying naked in his office, his gratified face turned perfectly toward the camera while Gabrielle’s dark form lay nude beside him.
She shivered, rammed the photo back inside, and fumbled to reclasp the envelope.
As soon as the train exited the tunnel and climbed onto the aboveground tracks near L’Enfant Plaza, Gabrielle dug out her cellphone and called the senator’s private cellular number. His voice mail answered. Puzzled, she phoned the senator’s office. The secretary answered.
“It’s Gabrielle. Is he in?”
The secretary sounded peeved. “Where have you been? He was looking for you.”
“I had a meeting that ran long. I need to talk to him right away.”
“You’ll have to wait till morning. He’s at Westbrooke.”
Westbrooke Place Luxury Apartments was the building where Sexton kept his D.C. residence. “He’s not picking up his private line,” Gabrielle said.
“He blocked off tonight as a P.E . . .” the secretary reminded. “He left early.”
Gabrielle scowled. Personal Event. In all the excitement, she’d forgotten Sexton had scheduled himself a night alone at home. He was very particular about not being disturbed during his P.E. blocks. Bang on my door only if the building is on fire, he would say. Other than that, it can wait until morning. Gabrielle decided Sexton’s building was definitely on fire. “I need you to reach him for me.”
“This is serious, I really‑”
“No, I mean literally impossible. He left his pager on my desk on his way out and told me he was not to be disturbed all night. He was adamant.” She paused. “More so than usual.”
Shit. “Okay, thanks.” Gabrielle hung up.
“L’Enfant Plaza,” a recording announced in the subway car. “Connection all stations.”
Closing her eyes, Gabrielle tried to clear her mind, but devastating images rushed in . . . the lurid photos of herself and the senator . . . the pile of documents alleging Sexton was taking bribes. Gabrielle could still hear Tench’s raspy demands. Do the right thing. Sign the affidavit. Admit the affair.
As the train screeched into the station, Gabrielle forced herself to imagine what the senator would do if the photos hit the presses. The first thing to pop in her mind both shocked and shamed her.
Sexton would lie.
Was this truly her first instinct regarding her candidate?
Yes. He would lie . . . brilliantly.
If these photos hit the media without Gabrielle’s having admitted the affair, the senator would simply claim the photos were a cruel forgery. This was the age of digital photo editing; anyone who had ever been on‑line had seen the flawlessly retouched spoof photographs of celebrities’ heads digitally melded onto other people’s bodies, often those of porn stars engaged in lewd acts. Gabrielle had already witnessed the senator’s ability to look into a television camera and lie convincingly about their affair; she had no doubt he could persuade the world these photos were a lame attempt to derail his career. Sexton would lash out with indignant outrage, perhaps even insinuate that the President himself had ordered the forgery.
No wonder the White House hasn’t gone public. The photos, Gabrielle realized, could backfire just like the initial drudge. As vivid as the pictures seemed, they were totally inconclusive.
Gabrielle felt a sudden surge of hope.
The White House can’t prove any of this is real!
Tench’s powerplay on Gabrielle had been ruthless in its simplicity: Admit your affair or watch Sexton go to jail. Suddenly it made perfect sense. The White House needed Gabrielle to admit the affair, or the photos were worthless. A sudden glimmer of confidence brightened her mood.
As the train sat idling and the doors slid open, another distant door seemed to open in Gabrielle’s mind, revealing an abrupt and heartening possibility.
Maybe everything Tench told me about the bribery was a lie.
After all, what had Gabrielle really seen? Yet again, nothing conclusive‑some Xeroxed bank documents, a grainy photo of Sexton in a garage. All of it potentially counterfeit. Tench cunningly could have showed Gabrielle bogus financial records in the same sitting as the genuine sex photos, hoping Gabrielle would accept the entire package as true. It was called “authentication by association,” and politicians used it all the time to sell dubious concepts.
Sexton is innocent, Gabrielle told herself. The White House was desperate, and they had decided to take a wild gamble on scaring Gabrielle into going public about the affair. They needed Gabrielle to desert Sexton publicly‑scandalously. Get out while you can, Tench had told her. You have until eight o’clock tonight. The ultimate pressure sales job. All of it fits, she thought.
Except one thing . . .
The only confusing piece of the puzzle was that Tench had been sending Gabrielle anti‑NASA e‑mails. This certainly suggested NASA really did want Sexton to solidify his anti‑NASA stance so they could use it against him. Or did it? Gabrielle realized that even the e‑mails had a perfectly logical explanation.
What if the e‑mails were not really from Tench?
It was possible Tench caught a traitor on staff sending Gabrielle data, fired that person, and then stepped in and e‑mailed the final message herself, calling Gabrielle in for a meeting. Tench could have pretended she leaked all the NASA data on purpose‑to set Gabrielle up.
The subway hydraulics hissed now in L’Enfant Plaza, the doors preparing to close.
Gabrielle stared out at the platform, her mind racing. She had no idea if her suspicions were making any sense or if they were just wishful thinking, but whatever the hell was going on, she knew she had to talk to the senator right away‑P.E. night or not.
Clutching the envelope of photographs, Gabrielle hurried off the train just as the doors hissed shut. She had a new destination.
Westbrooke Place Apartments.
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.
Äàòà äîáàâëåíèÿ: 2015-09-14; ïðîñìîòðîâ: 10; Íàðóøåíèå àâòîðñêèõ ïðàâ