Rachel Sexton had been flying due north for over an hour. Other than a fleeting glimpse of Newfoundland, she had seen nothing but water beneath the F‑14 for the entire journey.
Why did it have to be water? she thought, grimacing. Rachel had plunged through the ice on a frozen pond while ice‑skating when she was seven. Trapped beneath the surface, she was certain she would die. It had been her mothers powerful grasp that finally yanked Rachels waterlogged body to safety. Ever since that harrowing ordeal, Rachel had battled a persistent case of hydrophobia‑a distinct wariness of open water, especially cold water. Today, with nothing but the North Atlantic as far as Rachel could see, her old fears had come creeping back.
Not until the pilot checked his bearings with Thule airbase in northern Greenland did Rachel realize how far they had traveled. Im above the Arctic Circle? The revelation intensified her uneasiness. Where are they taking me? What has NASA found? Soon the blue‑gray expanse below her became speckled with thousands of stark white dots.
Rachel had seen icebergs only once before in her life, six years ago when her mother persuaded Rachel to join her on an Alaskan mother‑daughter cruise. Rachel had suggested a number of alternative land‑based vacations, but her mother was insistent. Rachel, honey, her mother had said, two thirds of this planet is covered with water, and sooner or later, youve got to learn to deal with it. Mrs. Sexton was a resilient New Englander intent on raising a strong daughter.
The cruise had been the last trip Rachel and her mother ever took.
Katherine Wentworth Sexton. Rachel felt a distant pang of loneliness. Like the howling wind outside the plane, the memories came tearing back, pulling at her the way they always did. Their final conversation had been by phone. Thanksgiving morning.
Im so sorry, Mom, Rachel said, phoning home from a snowbound OHare airport. I know our family has never spent Thanksgiving Day apart. It looks like today will be our first.
Rachels mom sounded crushed. I was so looking forward to seeing you.
Me too, Mom. Think of me eating airport food while you and Dad feast on turkey.
There was a pause on the line. Rachel, I wasnt going to tell you until you got here, but your father says he has too much work to make it home this year. Hell be staying at his D.C. suite for the long weekend.
What! Rachels surprise gave way immediately to anger. But, its Thanksgiving. The Senate isnt in session! Hes less than two hours away. He should be with you!
I know. He says hes exhausted‑far too tired to drive. Hes decided he needs to spend this weekend curled up with his backlog of work.
Work? Rachel was skeptical. A more likely guess was that Senator Sexton would be curled up with another woman. His infidelities, though discreet, had been going on for years. Mrs. Sexton was no fool, but her husbands affairs were always accompanied by persuasive alibis and pained indignity at the mere suggestion he could be unfaithful. Finally, Mrs. Sexton saw no alternative but to bury her pain by turning a blind eye. Although Rachel had urged her mother to consider divorce, Katherine Wentworth Sexton was a woman of her word. Till death do us part, she told Rachel. Your father blessed me with you‑a beautiful daughter‑and for that I thank him. He will have to answer for his actions to a higher power someday.
Now, standing in the airport, Rachels anger was simmering. But, this means youll be alone for Thanksgiving! She felt sick to her stomach. The senator deserting his family on Thanksgiving Day was a new low, even for him.
Well . . . . . Mrs. Sexton said, her voice disappointed but decisive. I obviously cant let all this food go to waste. Ill drive it up to Aunt Anns. Shes always invited us up for Thanksgiving. Ill give her a call right now.
Rachel felt only marginally less guilty. Okay. Ill be home as soon as I can. I love you, Mom.
Safe flight, sweetheart.
It was 10:30 that night when Rachels taxi finally pulled up the winding driveway of the Sextons luxurious estate. Rachel immediately knew something was wrong. Three police cars sat in the driveway. Several news vans too. All the house lights were on. Rachel dashed in, her heart racing.
A Virginia State policeman met her at the doorway. His face was grim. He didnt have to say a word. Rachel knew. There had been an accident.
Route Twenty‑five was slick with freezing rain, the officer said. Your mother went off the road into a wooded ravine. Im sorry. She died on impact.
Rachels body went numb. Her father, having returned immediately when he got the news, was now in the living room holding a small press conference, stoically announcing to the world that his wife had passed away in a crash on her way back from Thanksgiving dinner with family.
Rachel stood in the wings, sobbing through the entire event.
I only wish, her father told the media, his eyes tearful, that I had been home for her this weekend. This never would have happened.
You should have thought of that years ago, Rachel cried, her loathing for her father deepening with every passing instant.
From that moment on, Rachel divorced herself from her father in the way Mrs. Sexton never had. The senator barely seemed to notice. He suddenly had gotten very busy using his late wifes fortunes to begin courting his partys nomination for president. The sympathy vote didnt hurt either.
Cruelly now, three years later, even at a distance the senator was making Rachels life lonely. Her fathers run for the White House had put Rachels dreams of meeting a man and starting a family on indefinite hold. For Rachel it had become far easier to take herself completely out of the social game than to deal with the endless stream of power‑hungry Washingtonian suitors hoping to snag a grieving, potential first daughter while she was still in their league.
Outside the F‑14, the daylight had started to fade. It was late winter in the Arctic‑a time of perpetual darkness. Rachel realized she was flying into a land of permanent night.
As the minutes passed, the sun faded entirely, dropping below the horizon. They continued north, and a brilliant three‑quarter moon appeared, hanging white in the crystalline glacial air. Far below, the ocean waves shimmered, the icebergs looking like diamonds sewn into a dark sequin mesh.
Finally, Rachel spotted the hazy outline of land. But it was not what she had expected. Looming out of the ocean before the plane was an enormous snowcapped mountain range.
Mountains? Rachel asked, confused. There are mountains north of Greenland?
Apparently, the pilot said, sounding equally surprised.
As the nose of the F‑14 tipped downward, Rachel felt an eerie weightlessness. Through the ringing in her ears she could hear a repeated electronic ping in the cockpit. The pilot had apparently locked on to some kind of directional beacon and was following it in.
As they passed below three thousand feet, Rachel stared out at the dramatic moonlit terrain beneath them. At the base of the mountains, an expansive, snowy plain swept wide. The plateau spread gracefully seaward about ten miles until it ended abruptly at a sheer cliff of solid ice that dropped vertically into the ocean.
It was then that Rachel saw it. A sight like nothing she had ever seen anywhere on earth. At first she thought the moonlight must be playing tricks on her. She squinted down at the snowfields, unable to comprehend what she was looking at. The lower the plane descended, the clearer the image became.
What in the name of God?
The plateau beneath them was striped . . . as if someone had painted the snow with three huge striations of silver paint. The glistening strips ran parallel to the coastal cliff. Not until the plane dropped past five hundred feet did the optical illusion reveal itself. The three silver stripes were deep troughs, each one over thirty yards wide. The troughs had filled with water and frozen into broad, silvery channels that stretched in parallel across the plateau. The white berms between them were mounded dikes of snow.
As they dropped toward the plateau, the plane started bucking and bouncing in heavy turbulence. Rachel heard the landing gear engage with a heavy clunk, but she still saw no landing strip. As the pilot struggled to keep the plane under control, Rachel peered out and spotted two lines of blinking strobes straddling the outermost ice trough. She realized to her horror what the pilot was about to do.
Were landing on ice? she demanded.
The pilot did not respond. He was concentrating on the buffeting wind. Rachel felt a drag in her gut as the craft decelerated and dropped toward the ice channel. High snow berms rose on either side of the aircraft, and Rachel held her breath, knowing the slightest miscalculation in the narrow channel would mean certain death. The wavering plane dropped lower between the berms, and the turbulence suddenly disappeared. Sheltered there from the wind, the plane touched down perfectly on the ice.
The Tomcats rear thrusters roared, slowing the plane. Rachel exhaled. The jet taxied about a hundred yards farther and rolled to a stop at a red line spray‑painted boldly across the ice.
The view to the right was nothing but a wall of snow in the moonlight‑the side of an ice berm. The view on the left was identical. Only through the windshield ahead of them did Rachel have any visibility . . . an endless expanse of ice. She felt like she had landed on a dead planet. Aside from the line on the ice, there were no signs of life.
Then Rachel heard it. In the distance, another engine was approaching. Higher pitched. The sound grew louder until a machine came into view. It was a large, multitreaded snow tractor churning toward them up the ice trough. Tall and spindly, it looked like a towering futuristic insect grinding toward them on voracious spinning feet. Mounted high on the chassis was an enclosed Plexiglas cabin with a rack of floodlights illuminating its way.
The machine shuddered to a halt directly beside the F‑14. The door on the Plexiglas cabin opened, and a figure climbed down a ladder onto the ice. He was bundled from head to foot in a puffy white jumpsuit that gave the impression he had been inflated.
Mad Max meets the Pillsbury Dough Boy, Rachel thought, relieved at least to see this strange planet was inhabited.
The man signaled for the F‑14 pilot to pop the hatch.
The pilot obeyed.
When the cockpit opened, the gust of air that tore through Rachels body chilled her instantly to the core.
Close the damn lid!
Ms. Sexton? the figure called up to her. His accent was American. On behalf of NASA, I welcome you.
Rachel was shivering. Thanks a million.
Please unhook your flight harness, leave your helmet in the craft, and deplane by using the fuselage toe‑holds. Do you have any questions?
Yes, Rachel shouted back. Where the hell am I?