Finally, Rachel spotted the hazy outline of land. But it was not what she had expected. Looming out of the ocean before the plane was an enormous snowcapped mountain range.
"Mountains?" Rachel asked, confused. "There are mountains north of Greenland?"
"Apparently," the pilot said, sounding equally surprised.
As the nose of the F-14 tipped downward, Rachel felt an eerie weightlessness. Through the ringing in her ears she could hear a repeated electronic ping in the cockpit. The pilot had apparently locked on to some kind of directional beacon and was following it in.
As they passed below three thousand feet, Rachel stared out at the dramatic moonlit terrain beneath them. At the base of the mountains, an expansive, snowy plain swept wide. The plateau spread gracefully seaward about ten miles until it ended abruptly at a sheer cliff of solid ice that dropped vertically into the ocean.
It was then that Rachel saw it. A sight like nothing she had ever seen anywhere on earth. At first she thought the moonlight must be playing tricks on her. She squinted down at the snowfields, unable to comprehend what she was looking at. The lower the plane descended, the clearer the image became.
What in the name of God?
The plateau beneath them was striped... as if someone had painted the snow with three huge striations of silver paint. The glistening strips ran parallel to the coastal cliff. Not until the plane dropped past five hundred feet did the optical illusion reveal itself. The three silver stripes were deep troughs, each one over thirty yards wide. The troughs had filled with water and frozen into broad, silvery channels that stretched in parallel across the plateau. The white berms between them were mounded dikes of snow.
As they dropped toward the plateau, the plane started bucking and bouncing in heavy turbulence. Rachel heard the landing gear engage with a heavy clunk, but she still saw no landing strip. As the pilot struggled to keep the plane under control, Rachel peered out and spotted two lines of blinking strobes straddling the outermost ice trough. She realized to her horror what the pilot was about to do.
"We're landing on ice?" she demanded.
The pilot did not respond. He was concentrating on the buffeting wind. Rachel felt a drag in her gut as the craft decelerated and dropped toward the ice channel. High snow berms rose on either side of the aircraft, and Rachel held her breath, knowing the slightest miscalculation in the narrow channel would mean certain death. The wavering plane dropped lower between the berms, and the turbulence suddenly disappeared. Sheltered there from the wind, the plane touched down perfectly on the ice.
The Tomcat's rear thrusters roared, slowing the plane. Rachel exhaled. The jet taxied about a hundred yards farther and rolled to a stop at a red line spray-painted boldly across the ice.
The view to the right was nothing but a wall of snow in the moonlight-the side of an ice berm. The view on the left was identical. Only through the windshield ahead of them did Rachel have any visibility... an endless expanse of ice. She felt like she had landed on a dead planet. Aside from the line on the ice, there were no signs of life.
Then Rachel heard it. In the distance, another engine was approaching. Higher pitched. The sound grew louder until a machine came into view. It was a large, multitreaded snow tractor churning toward them up the ice trough. Tall and spindly, it looked like a towering futuristic insect grinding toward them on voracious spinning feet. Mounted high on the chassis was an enclosed Plexiglas cabin with a rack of floodlights illuminating its way.
The machine shuddered to a halt directly beside the F-14. The door on the Plexiglas cabin opened, and a figure climbed down a ladder onto the ice. He was bundled from head to foot in a puffy white jumpsuit that gave the impression he had been inflated.
Mad Max meets the Pillsbury Dough Boy, Rachel thought, relieved at least to see this strange planet was inhabited.
The man signaled for the F-14 pilot to pop the hatch.
The pilot obeyed.
When the cockpit opened, the gust of air that tore through Rachel's body chilled her instantly to the core.
Close the damn lid!
"Ms. Sexton?" the figure called up to her. His accent was American. "On behalf of NASA, I welcome you."
Rachel was shivering. Thanks a million.
"Please unhook your flight harness, leave your helmet in the craft, and deplane by using the fuselage toe-holds. Do you have any questions?"
"Yes," Rachel shouted back. "Where the hell am I?"
Marjorie Tench-senior adviser to the President-was a loping skeleton of a creature. Her gaunt six-foot frame resembled an Erector Set construction of joints and limbs. Overhanging her precarious body was a jaundiced face whose skin resembled a sheet of parchment paper punctured by two emotionless eyes. At fifty-one, she looked seventy.
Tench was revered in Washington as a goddess in the political arena. She was said to possess analytical skills that bordered on the clairvoyant. Her decade running the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research had helped hone a lethally sharp, critical mind. Unfortunately, accompanying Tench's political savvy came an icy temperament that few could endure for more than a few minutes. Marjorie Tench had been blessed with all the brains of a supercomputer-and the warmth of one, too. Nonetheless, President Zach Herney had little trouble tolerating the woman's idiosyncrasies; her intellect and hard work were almost single-handedly responsible for putting Herney in office in the first place.
"Marjorie," the President said, standing to welcome her into the Oval Office. "What can I do for you?" He did not offer her a seat. The typical social graces did not apply to women like Marjorie Tench. If Tench wanted a seat, she would damn well take one.
"I see you set the staff briefing for four o'clock this afternoon." Her voice was raspy from cigarettes. "Excellent."
Tench paced a moment, and Herney sensed the intricate cogs of her mind turning over and over. He was grateful. Marjorie Tench was one of the select few on the President's staff who was fully aware of the NASA discovery, and her political savvy was helping the President plan his strategy.
"This CNN debate today at one o'clock," Tench said, coughing. "Who are we sending to spar with Sexton?"
Herney smiled. "A junior campaign spokesperson." The political tactic of frustrating the "hunter" by never sending him any big game was as old as debates themselves.
"I have a better idea," Tench said, her barren eyes finding his. "Let me take the spot myself."
Zach Herney's head shot up. "You?" What the hell is she thinking? "Marjorie, you don't do media spots. Besides, it's a midday cable show. If I send my senior adviser, what kind of message does that send? It makes us look like we're panicking."
Herney studied her. Whatever convoluted scheme Tench was hatching, there was no way in hell Herney would permit her to appear on CNN. Anyone who had ever laid eyes on Marjorie Tench knew there was a reason she worked behind the scenes. Tench was a frightful-looking woman-not the kind of face a President wanted delivering the White House message.
"I am taking this CNN debate," she repeated. This time she was not asking.
"Marjorie," the President maneuvered, feeling uneasy now, "Sexton's campaign will obviously claim your presence on CNN is proof the White House is running scared. Sending out our big guns early makes us look desperate."
The woman gave a quiet nod and lit a cigarette. "The more desperate we look, the better."