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 President's 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.
"Here's the situation." Rachel's 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 o'clock. The find was made by a group of hardworking Americans who have endured a string of tough luck lately and deserve a break. I'm 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 I'm 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.
"We've 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 one's 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 one's eyes was so innately ingrained, that despite Ming's brain telling him that any sudden movements risked his balance, he recoiled. It was a jolting reaction more out of surprise than pain. Ming's 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.
Ming's 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.
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.