Page 47 of Deception Point

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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 world's 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 Sexton's 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.


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.


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 can't unhook us!" he yelled. "There's 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.


On Tolland's 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... "

Rachel's 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.


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.

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