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.
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.