Making the raging river of air even more unnerving to Tolland was the slight downwind grade of the ice shelf. The ice was sloped ever so slightly toward the ocean, two miles away. Despite the sharp spikes on the Pitbull Rapido crampons attached to his boots, Tolland had the uneasy feeling that any misstep might leave him caught up in a gale and sliding down the endless icy slope. Norah Mangor's two-minute course in glacier safety now seemed dangerously inadequate.
Piranha Ice ax, Norah had said, fastening a lightweight T-shaped tool to each of their belts as they suited up in the habisphere. Standard blade, banana blade, semitubular blade, hammer, and adze. All you need to remember is, if anyone slips or gets caught up in a gust, grab your ax with one hand on the head and one on the shaft, ram the banana blade into the ice, and fall on it, planting your crampons.
With those words of assurance, Norah Mangor had affixed YAK belay harnesses to each of them. They all donned goggles, and headed out into the afternoon darkness.
Now, the four figures made their way down the glacier in a straight line with ten yards of belay rope separating each of them. Norah was in the lead position, followed by Corky, then Rachel, and Tolland as anchor.
As they moved farther away from the habisphere, Tolland felt a growing uneasiness. In his inflated suit, although warm, he felt like some kind of uncoordinated space traveler trekking across a distant planet. The moon had disappeared behind thick, billowing storm clouds, plunging the ice sheet into an impenetrable blackness. The katabatic wind seemed to be getting stronger by the minute, applying a constant pressure to Tolland's back. As his eyes strained through his goggles to make out the expansive emptiness around them, he began to perceive a true danger in this place. Redundant NASA safety precautions or not, Tolland was surprised the administrator had been willing to risk four lives out here instead of two. Especially when the additional two lives were that of a senator's daughter and a famous astrophysicist. Tolland was not surprised to feel a protective concern for Rachel and Corky. As someone who had captained a ship, he was used to feeling responsible for those around him.
"Stay behind me," Norah shouted, her voice swallowed by the wind. "Let the sled lead the way."
The aluminum sled on which Norah was transporting her testing gear resembled an oversized Flexible Flyer. The craft was prepacked with diagnostic gear and safety accessories she'd been using on the glacier over the past few days. All of her gear-including a battery pack, safety flares, and a powerful front-mounted spotlight-was bound under a secured, plastic tarp. Despite the heavy load, the sled glided effortlessly on long, straight runners. Even on the almost imperceptible incline, the sled moved downhill on its own accord, and Norah applied a gentle restraint, almost as if allowing the sled to lead the way.
Sensing the distance growing between the group and the habisphere, Tolland looked over his shoulder. Only fifty yards away, the pale curvature of the dome had all but disappeared in the blustery blackness.
"You at all worried about finding our way back?" Tolland yelled. "The habisphere is almost invisi-" His words were cut short by the loud hiss of a flare igniting in Norah's hand. The sudden red-white glow illuminated the ice shelf in a ten-yard radius all around them. Norah used her heel to dig a small impression in the surface snow, piling up a protective ridge on the upwind side of the hole. Then she rammed the flare into the indentation.
"High-tech bread crumbs," Norah shouted.
"Bread crumbs?" Rachel asked, shielding her eyes from the sudden light.
"Hansel and Gretel," Norah shouted. "These flares will last an hour-plenty of time to find our way back."
With that, Norah headed out again, leading them down the glacier-into the darkness once again.
Gabrielle Ashe stormed out of Marjorie Tench's office and practically knocked over a secretary in doing so. Mortified, all Gabrielle could see were the photographs-images-arms and legs intertwined. Faces filled with ecstasy.
Gabrielle had no idea how the photos had been taken, but she knew damn well they were real. They had been taken in Senator Sexton's office and seemed to have been shot from above as if by hidden camera. God help me. One of the photos showed Gabrielle and Sexton having sex directly on top of the senator's desk, their bodies sprawled across a scatter of official-looking documents.
Marjorie Tench caught up with Gabrielle outside the Map Room. Tench was carrying the red envelope of photos. "I assume from your reaction that you believe these photos are authentic?" The President's senior adviser actually looked like she was having a good time. "I'm hoping they persuade you that our other data is accurate as well. They came from the same source."
Gabrielle felt her entire body flushing as she marched down the hall. Where the hell is the exit?
Tench's gangly legs had no trouble keeping up. "Senator Sexton swore to the world that you two are platonic associates. His televised statement was actually quite convincing." Tench motioned smugly over her shoulder. "In fact, I have a tape in my office if you'd like to refresh your memory?"
Gabrielle needed no refresher. She remembered the press conference all too well. Sexton's denial was as adamant as it was heartfelt.
"It's unfortunate," Tench said, sounding not at all disappointed, "but Senator Sexton looked the American people in the eye and told a bald-faced lie. The public has a right to know. And they will know. I'll see to it personally. The only question now is how the public finds out. We believe it's best coming from you."
Gabrielle was stunned. "You really think I'm going to help lynch my own candidate?"
Tench's face hardened. "I am trying to take the high ground here, Gabrielle. I'm giving you a chance to save everyone a lot of embarrassment by holding your head high and telling the truth. All I need is a signed statement admitting your affair."
Gabrielle stopped short. "What!"
"Of course. A signed statement gives us the leverage we need to deal with the senator quietly, sparing the country this ugly mess. My offer is simple: Sign a statement for me, and these photos never need to see the light of day."
"You want a statement?"
"Technically, I would need an affidavit, but we have a notary here in the building who could-"
"You're crazy." Gabrielle was walking again.
Tench stayed at her side, sounding more angry now. "Senator Sexton is going down one way or another, Gabrielle, and I'm offering you a chance to get out of this without seeing your own naked ass in the morning paper! The President is a decent man and doesn't want these photos publicized. If you just give me an affidavit and confess to the affair on your own terms, then all of us can retain a little dignity."
"I'm not for sale."
"Well, your candidate certainly is. He's a dangerous man, and he's breaking the law."
"He's breaking the law? You're the ones breaking into offices and taking illegal surveillance pictures! Ever heard of Watergate?"
"We had nothing to do with gathering this dirt. These photos came from the same source as the SFF campaign-funding information. Someone's been watching you two very closely."
Gabrielle tore past the security desk where she had gotten her security badge. She ripped off the badge and tossed it to the wide-eyed guard. Tench was still on her tail.
"You'll need to decide fast, Ms. Ashe," Tench said as they neared the exit. "Either bring me an affidavit admitting you slept with the senator, or at eight o'clock tonight, the president will be forced to go public with everything-Sexton's financial dealings, the photos of you, the works. And believe me, when the public sees that you stood idly by and let Sexton lie about your relationship, you'll go down in flames right beside him."