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EAST APPOINTMENT GATE, 4:30 P.M. COME ALONE. 5




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  1. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 1
  2. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 10
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 11
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 12
  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 13
  6. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 14
  7. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 15
  8. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 16
  9. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 2
  10. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 3

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.

She entered.

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 worlds 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.

Full penetration.

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 Sextons 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.

Survival.

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.

Yet.

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 cant unhook us! he yelled. Theres 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.

Now!

On Tollands 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 . . .

Rachels 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.

Shit!

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.

The ax.

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 axs 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.

Were 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 berms.

The wall of white loomed only an instant before they were on it. The blow to Rachels 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 Rachels 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 captors chains.

Suddenly, like a gunshot in the night, a sudden snap echoed overhead. The frayed rope gave way, and the tattered end recoiled in Rachels 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 didnt know you were stopping by tonight.

Im 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 werent‑

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 senators 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 Sextons 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. Its a P.E. night. He doesnt want to be disturbed.

The guard nodded emphatically. He gave me very strict orders that no visitors‑

Its an emergency.

The guard physically blocked the doorway. Hes in a private meeting.

Really? Gabrielle pulled the red envelope from under her arm. She flashed the White House seal in the mans face. I was just in the Oval Office. I need to give the senator this information. Whatever old pals hes 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.

Dont make me open this, Gabrielle thought.

Leave the folder, he said. Ill take it into him.

The hell you will. I have direct orders from the White House to hand‑deliver this. If I dont 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 Im 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 Sextons den down the hall‑mens voices. Tonights P.E. was obviously not the private meeting implied by Sextons earlier call.

As Gabrielle moved down the hall toward the den, she passed an open closet where a half dozen expensive mens 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:

 


: 2015-09-14; : 6;







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