THUD. THUD. THUD.
THUD... THUD... THUD...
THUD. THUD. THUD.
"There's... no time... " Tolland said.
It's not... about us, she thought. It's about the information in my pocket. Rachel pictured the incriminating GPR printout inside the Velcro pocket of her Mark IX suit. I need to get the GPR printout into the hands of the NRO... and soon.
Even in her delirious state, Rachel was certain her message would be received. In the mid-eighties, the NRO had replaced the SAA with an array thirty times as powerful. Total global coverage: Classic Wizard, the NRO's $12 million ear to the ocean floor. In the next few hours the Cray supercomputers at the NRO/NSA listening post in Menwith Hill, England, would flag an anomalous sequence in one of the Arctic's hydrophones, decipher the pounding as an SOS, triangulate the coordinates, and dispatch a rescue plane from Thule Air Force Base in Greenland. The plane would find three bodies on an iceberg. Frozen. Dead. One would be an NRO employee... and she would be carrying a strange piece of thermal paper in her pocket.
A GPR printout.
Norah Mangor's final legacy.
When the rescuers studied the printout, the mysterious insertion tunnel beneath the meteorite would be revealed. From there, Rachel had no idea what would happen, but at least the secret would not die with them here on the ice.
Every president's transition into the White House involves a private tour of three heavily guarded warehouses containing priceless collections of past White House furniture: desks, silverware, bureaus, beds, and other items used by past presidents as far back as George Washington. During the tour, the transitioning president is invited to select any heirlooms he likes and use them as furnishings inside the White House during his term. Only the bed in the Lincoln Bedroom is a permanent White House fixture. Ironically, Lincoln never slept in it.
The desk at which Zach Herney was currently sitting inside the Oval Office had once belonged to his idol, Harry Truman. The desk, though small by modern standards, served as a daily reminder to Zach Herney that the "buck" did indeed stop here, and that Herney was ultimately responsible for any shortcomings of his administration. Herney accepted the responsibility as an honor and did his best to instill in his staff the motivations to do whatever it took to get the job done.
"Mr. President?" his secretary called out, peering into the office. "Your call just went through."
Herney waved. "Thank you."
He reached for his phone. He would have preferred some privacy for this call, but he sure as hell was not going to get any of that right now. Two makeup specialists hovered like gnats, poking and primping at his face and hair. Directly in front of his desk, a television crew was setting up, and an endless swarm of advisers and PR people scurried around the office, excitedly discussing strategy.
T minus one hour...
Herney pressed the illuminated button on his private phone. "Lawrence? You there?"
"I'm here." The NASA administrator's voice sounded consumed, distant.
"Everything okay up there?"
"Storm's still moving in, but my people tell me the satellite link will not be affected. We're good to go. One hour and counting."
"Excellent. Spirits high, I hope."
"Very high. My staff's excited. In fact, we just shared some beers."
Herney laughed. "Glad to hear it. Look, I wanted to call and thank you before we do this thing. Tonight's going to be one hell of a night."
The administrator paused, sounding uncharacteristically uncertain. "That it will, sir. We've been waiting a long time for this."
Herney hesitated. "You sound exhausted."
"I need some sunlight and a real bed."
"One more hour. Smile for the cameras, enjoy the moment, and then we'll get a plane up there to bring you back to D.C."
"Looking forward to it." The man fell silent again.
As a skilled negotiator, Herney was trained to listen, to hear what was being said between the lines. Something in the administrator's voice sounded off somehow. "You sure everything's okay up there?"
"Absolutely. All systems go." The administrator seemed eager to change the subject. "Did you see the final cut of Michael Tolland's documentary?"
"Just watched it," Herney said. "He did a fantastic job."
"Yes. You made a good call bringing him in."
"Still mad at me for involving civilians?"
"Hell, yes." The administrator growled good-naturedly, his voice with the usual strength to it.
It made Herney feel better. Ekstrom's fine, Herney thought. Just a little tired. "Okay, I'll see you in an hour via satellite. We'll give 'em something to talk about."
"Hey, Lawrence?" Herney's voice grew low and solemn now. "You've done a hell of a thing up there. I won't ever forget it."
Outside the habisphere, buffeted by wind, Delta-Three struggled to right and repack Norah Mangor's toppled equipment sled. Once all the equipment was back onboard, he battened down the vinyl top and draped Mangor's dead body across the top, tying her down. As he was preparing to drag the sled off course, his two partners came skimming up the glacier toward him.
"Change of plans," Delta-One called out above the wind. "The other three went over the edge."
Delta-Three was not surprised. He also knew what it meant. The Delta Force's plan to stage an accident by arranging four dead bodies on the ice shelf was no longer a viable option. Leaving a lone body would pose more questions than answers. "Sweep?" he asked.
Delta-One nodded. "I'll recover the flares and you two get rid of the sled."
While Delta-One carefully retraced the scientists' path, collecting every last clue that anyone had been there at all, Delta-Three and his partner moved down the glacier with the laden equipment sled. After struggling over the berms, they finally reached the precipice at the end of the Milne Ice Shelf. They gave a push, and Norah Mangor and her sled slipped silently over the edge, plummeting into the Arctic Ocean.
Clean sweep, Delta-Three thought.
As they headed back to base, he was pleased to see the wind obliterating the tracks made by their skis.
The nuclear submarine Charlotte had been stationed in the Arctic Ocean for five days now. Its presence here was highly classified.
A Los Angeles-class sub, the Charlotte was designed to "listen and not be heard." Its forty-two tons of turbine engines were suspended on springs to dampen any vibration they might cause. Despite its requirement for stealth, the LA-class sub had one of the largest footprints of any reconnaissance sub in the water. Stretching more than 360 feet from nose to stern, the hull, if placed on an NFL football field, would crush both goalposts and then some. Seven times the length of the U.S. Navy's first Holland-class submarine, the Charlotte displaced 6,927 tons of water when fully submerged and could cruise at an astounding thirty-five knots.
The vessel's normal cruising depth was just below the thermocline, a natural temperature gradient that distorted sonar reflections from above and made the sub invisible to surface radar. With a crew of 148 and max dive depth of over fifteen hundred feet, the vessel represented the state-of-the-art submersible and was the oceanic workhorse of the United States Navy. Its evaporative electrolysis oxygenation system, two nuclear reactors, and engineered provisions gave it the ability to circumnavigate the globe twenty-one times without surfacing. Human waste from the crew, as on most cruise ships, was compressed into sixty-pound blocks and ejected into the ocean-the huge bricks of feces jokingly referred to as "whale turds."