In her fear, she had entirely forgotten the ice ax attached to the rip cord on her belt. The lightweight aluminum tool was bouncing along beside her leg. She looked up at the payload cable on the balloon. Thick, heavy-duty braided nylon. Reaching down, she fumbled for the bouncing ax. She grasped the handle and pulled it toward her, stretching the elastic rip cord. Still on her side, Rachel struggled to raise her arms over her head, placing the ax's serrated edge against the thick cord. Awkwardly, she began sawing the taut cable.
"Yes!" Tolland yelled, fumbling now for his own ax.
Sliding on her side, Rachel was stretched out, her arms above her, sawing at the taut cable. The line was strong, and the individual nylon strands were fraying slowly. Tolland gripped his own ax, twisted, raised his arms over his head, and tried to saw from underneath in the same spot. Their banana blades clicked together as they worked in tandem like lumberjacks. The rope began fraying on both sides now.
We're going to do it, Rachel thought. This thing is going to break!
Suddenly, the silver bubble of Mylar before them swooped upward as if it had hit an updraft. Rachel realized to her horror that it was simply following the contour of the land.
They had arrived.
The wall of white loomed only an instant before they were on it. The blow to Rachel's side as they hit the incline drove the wind from her lungs and wrenched the ax from her hand. Like a tangled water-skier being dragged up over a jump, Rachel felt her body dragged up the face of the berm and launched. She and Tolland were suddenly catapulted in a dizzying upward snarl. The trough between the berms spread out far beneath them, but the frayed payload cable held fast, lifting their accelerated bodies upward, carrying them clear out over the first trough. For an instant, she glimpsed what lay ahead. Two more berms-a short plateau-and then the drop-off to the sea.
As if to give a voice to Rachel's own dumbstruck terror, the high-pitched scream of Corky Marlinson cut through the air. Somewhere behind them, he sailed up over the first berm. All three of them went airborne, the balloon clawing upward like a wild animal trying to break its captor's chains.
Suddenly, like a gunshot in the night, a sudden snap echoed overhead. The frayed rope gave way, and the tattered end recoiled in Rachel's face. Instantly, they were falling. Somewhere overhead the Mylar balloon billowed out of control... spiraling out to sea.
Tangled in carabiners and harnesses, Rachel and Tolland tumbled back toward earth. As the white mound of the second berm rose up toward them, Rachel braced for impact. Barely clearing the top of the second berm, they crashed down the far side, the blow partially cushioned by their suits and the descending contour of the berm. As the world around her turned into a blur of arms and legs and ice, Rachel felt herself rocketing down the incline out onto the central ice trough. Instinctively she spread her arms and legs, trying to slow down before they hit the next berm. She felt them slowing, but only slightly, and it seemed only seconds before she and Tolland were sliding back up an incline. At the top, there was another instant of weightlessness as they cleared the crest. Then, filled with terror, Rachel felt them begin their dead slide down the other side and out onto the final plateau... the last eighty feet of the Milne Glacier.
As they skidded toward the cliff, Rachel could feel the drag of Corky on the tether, and she knew they were all slowing down. She knew it was too little too late. The end of the glacier raced toward them, and Rachel let out a helpless scream.
Then it happened.
The edge of the ice slid out from underneath them. The last thing Rachel remembered was falling.
The Westbrooke Place Apartments are located at 2201 N Street NW and promote themselves as one of the few unquestionably correct addresses in Washington. Gabrielle hurried through the gilded revolving door into the marble lobby, where a deafening waterfall reverberated.
The doorman at the front desk looked surprised to see her. "Ms. Ashe? I didn't know you were stopping by tonight."
"I'm running late." Gabrielle quickly signed in. The clock overhead read 6:22 P.M.
The doorman scratched his head. "The senator gave me a list, but you weren't-"
"They always forget the people who help them most." She gave a harried smile and strode past him toward the elevator.
Now the doorman looked uneasy. "I better call up."
"Thanks," Gabrielle said, as she boarded the elevator and headed up. The senator's phone is off the hook.
Riding the elevator to the ninth floor, Gabrielle exited and made her way down the elegant hallway. At the end, outside Sexton's doorway, she could see one of his bulky personal safety escorts-glorified bodyguards-sitting in the hall. He looked bored. Gabrielle was surprised to see security on duty, although apparently not as surprised as the guard was to see her. He jumped to his feet as she approached.
"I know," Gabrielle called out, still halfway down the hall. "It's a P.E. night. He doesn't want to be disturbed."
The guard nodded emphatically. "He gave me very strict orders that no visitors-"
"It's an emergency."
The guard physically blocked the doorway. "He's in a private meeting."
"Really?" Gabrielle pulled the red envelope from under her arm. She flashed the White House seal in the man's face. "I was just in the Oval Office. I need to give the senator this information. Whatever old pals he's schmoozing tonight are going to have to do without him for a few minutes. Now, let me in."
The guard withered slightly at the sight of the White House seal on the envelope.
Don't make me open this, Gabrielle thought.
"Leave the folder," he said. "I'll take it into him."
"The hell you will. I have direct orders from the White House to hand-deliver this. If I don't talk to him immediately, we can all start looking for jobs tomorrow morning. Do you understand?"
The guard looked deeply conflicted, and Gabrielle sensed the senator had indeed been unusually adamant tonight about having no visitors. She moved in for the kill. Holding the White House envelope directly in his face, Gabrielle lowered her voice to a whisper and uttered the six words all Washington security personnel feared most.
"You do not understand the situation."
Security personnel for politicians never understood the situation, and they hated that fact. They were hired guns, kept in the dark, never sure whether to stand firm in their orders or risk losing their jobs by mule-headedly ignoring some obvious crisis.
The guard swallowed hard, eyeing the White House envelope again. "Okay, but I'm telling the senator you demanded to be let in."
He unlocked the door, and Gabrielle pushed past him before he changed his mind. She entered the apartment and quietly closed the door behind her, relocking it.
Now inside the foyer, Gabrielle could hear muffled voices in Sexton's den down the hall-men's voices. Tonight's P.E. was obviously not the private meeting implied by Sexton's earlier call.
As Gabrielle moved down the hall toward the den, she passed an open closet where a half dozen expensive men's coats hung inside-distinctive wool and tweed. Several briefcases sat on the floor. Apparently work stayed in the hall tonight. Gabrielle would have walked right past the cases except that one of the briefcases caught her eye. The nameplate bore a distinctive company logo. A bright red rocket.
She paused, kneeling down to read it:
SPACE AMERICA, INC.
Puzzled, she examined the other briefcases.
BEAL AEROSPACE. MICROCOSM, INC. ROTARY ROCKET COMPANY. KISTLER AEROSPACE.