The technician sitting at the oscillator screen in the sonar room was one of the best in the world. His mind was a dictionary of sounds and waveforms. He could distinguish between the sounds of several dozen Russian submarine propellers, hundreds of marine animals, and even pinpoint underwater volcanoes as far away as Japan.
At the moment, however, he was listening to a dull, repetitive echo. The sound, although easily distinguishable, was most unexpected.
"You aren't going to believe what's coming through my listening cans," he said to his catalog assistant, handing over the headphones.
His assistant donned the headphones, an incredulous look crossing his face. "My God. It's clear as day. What do we do?"
The sonar man was already on the phone to the captain.
When the submarine's captain arrived in the sonar room, the technician piped a live sonar feed over a small set of speakers.
The captain listened, expressionless.
THUD. THUD. THUD.
THUD... THUD... THUD...
THUD. THUD. THUD.
Slower. Slower. The pattern was becoming looser. More and more faint.
"What are the coordinates?" the captain demanded.
The technician cleared his throat. "Actually, sir, it's coming from the surface, about three miles to our starboard."
In the darkened hallway outside Senator Sexton's den, Gabrielle Ashe's legs were trembling. Not so much out of exhaustion from standing motionless, but from disillusionment over what she was listening to. The meeting in the next room was still going, but Gabrielle didn't have to hear another word. The truth seemed painfully obvious.
Senator Sexton is taking bribes from private space agencies. Marjorie Tench had been telling the truth.
The revulsion Gabrielle felt spreading through her now was one of betrayal. She had believed in Sexton. She'd fought for him. How can he do this? Gabrielle had seen the senator lie publicly from time to time to protect his private life, but that was politics. This was breaking the law.
He's not even elected yet, and he's already selling out the White House!
Gabrielle knew she could no longer support the senator. Promising to deliver the NASA privatization bill could be done only with a contemptuous disregard for both the law and the democratic system. Even if the senator believed it would be in everyone's best interest, to sell that decision flat out, in advance, slammed the door on the checks and balances of government, ignoring potentially persuasive arguments from Congress, advisers, voters, and lobbyists. Most important, guaranteeing the privatization of NASA, Sexton had paved the way for endless abuses of that advanced knowledge-insider trading the most common-blatantly favoring the wealthy, inside cadre at the expense of honest public investors.
Feeling sick to her stomach, Gabrielle wondered what she should do.
A telephone rang sharply behind her, shattering the silence of the hallway. Startled, Gabrielle turned. The sound was coming from the closet in the foyer-a cellphone in the pocket of one of the visitors' coats.
"'Scuse me, friends," a Texas drawl said in the den. "That's me."
Gabrielle could hear the man get up. He's coming this way! Wheeling, she dashed back up the carpet the way she'd come. Halfway up the hall, she cut left, ducking into the darkened kitchen just as the Texan exited the den and turned up the hall. Gabrielle froze, motionless in the shadows.
The Texan strode by without noticing.
Over the sound of her pounding heart, Gabrielle could hear him rustling in the closet. Finally, he answered the ringing phone.
"Yeah?... When?... Really? We'll switch it on. Thanks." The man hung up and headed back toward the den, calling out as he went. "Hey! Turn on the television. Sounds like Zach Herney's giving an urgent press conference tonight. Eight o'clock. All channels. Either we're declaring war on China, or the International Space Station just fell into the ocean."
"Now wouldn't that be something to toast!" someone called out.
Gabrielle felt the kitchen spinning around her now. An eight P.M. press conference? Tench, it seemed, had not been bluffing after all. She had given Gabrielle until 8:00 P.M. to give her an affidavit admitting the affair. Distance yourself from the senator before it's too late, Tench had told her. Gabrielle had assumed the deadline was so the White House could leak the information to tomorrow's papers, but now it seemed the White House intended to go public with the allegations themselves.
An urgent press conference? The more Gabrielle considered it, though, the stranger it seemed. Herney is going live with this mess? Personally?
The television came on in the den. Blaring. The news announcer's voice was bursting with excitement. "The White House has offered no clues as to the topic of tonight's surprise presidential address, and speculation abounds. Some political analysts now think that following the President's recent absence on the campaign trail, Zach Herney may be preparing to announce he will not be running for a second term."
A hopeful cheer arose in the den.
Absurd, Gabrielle thought. With all the dirt the White House had on Sexton right now, there was no way in hell the President was throwing in the towel tonight. This press conference is about something else. Gabrielle had a sinking feeling she'd already been warned what it was.
With rising urgency, she checked her watch. Less than an hour. She had a decision to make, and she knew exactly to whom she needed to talk. Clutching the envelope of photos under her arm, she quietly exited the apartment.
In the hallway, the bodyguard looked relieved. "I heard some cheering inside. Sounds like you were a hit."
She smiled curtly and headed for the elevator.
Outside in the street, the settling night felt unusually bitter. Flagging a cab, she climbed in and tried to reassure herself she knew exactly what she was doing.
"ABC television studios," she told the driver. "And hurry."
As Michael Tolland lay on his side on the ice, he rested his head on an outstretched arm, which he could no longer feel. Although his eyelids felt heavy, he fought to keep them open. From this odd vantage point, Tolland took in the final images of his world-now just sea and ice-in a strange sideways tilt. It seemed a fitting end to a day in which nothing had been what it seemed.
An eerie calm had begun to settle over the floating raft of ice. Rachel and Corky had both fallen silent, and the pounding had stopped. The farther from the glacier they floated, the calmer the wind became. Tolland heard his own body getting quieter too. With the tight skullcap over his ears, he could hear his own breathing amplified in his head. It was getting slower... shallower. His body was no longer able to fight off the compressing sensation that accompanied his own blood racing from his extremities like a crew abandoning ship, flowing instinctively to his vital organs in a last-ditch effort to keep him conscious.
A losing battle, he knew.
Strangely, there was no pain anymore. He had passed through that stage. The sensation now was that of having been inflated. Numbness. Floating. As the first of his reflexive operations-blinking-began to shut down, Tolland's vision blurred. The aqueous humor that circulated between his cornea and lens was freezing repeatedly. Tolland gazed back toward the blur of the Milne Ice Shelf, now only a faint white form in the hazy moonlight.
He felt his soul admitting defeat. Teetering on the brink between presence and absence, he stared out at the ocean waves in the distance. The wind howled all around him.
It was then that Tolland began hallucinating. Strangely, in the final seconds before unconsciousness, he did not hallucinate rescue. He did not hallucinate warm and comforting thoughts. His final delusion was a terrifying one.