Outside the habisphere, the katabatic wind roaring down off the glacier was nothing like the ocean winds Tolland was accustomed to. On the ocean, wind was a function of tides and pressure fronts and came in gusting ebbs and flows. The katabatic, however, was a slave to simple physics‑heavy cold air rushing down a glacial incline like a tidal wave. It was the most resolute gale force Tolland had ever experienced. Had it been coming at twenty knots, the katabatic would have been a sailors dream, but at its current eighty knots it could quickly become a nightmare even for those on solid ground. Tolland found that if he paused and leaned backward, the stalwart squall could easily prop him up.
Making the raging river of air even more unnerving to Tolland was the slight downwind grade of the ice shelf. The ice was sloped ever so slightly toward the ocean, two miles away. Despite the sharp spikes on the Pitbull Rapido crampons attached to his boots, Tolland had the uneasy feeling that any misstep might leave him caught up in a gale and sliding down the endless icy slope. Norah Mangors two‑minute course in glacier safety now seemed dangerously inadequate.
Piranha Ice ax, Norah had said, fastening a lightweight T‑shaped tool to each of their belts as they suited up in the habisphere. Standard blade, banana blade, semitubular blade, hammer, and adze. All you need to remember is, if anyone slips or gets caught up in a gust, grab your ax with one hand on the head and one on the shaft, ram the banana blade into the ice, and fall on it, planting your crampons.
With those words of assurance, Norah Mangor had affixed YAK belay harnesses to each of them. They all donned goggles, and headed out into the afternoon darkness.
Now, the four figures made their way down the glacier in a straight line with ten yards of belay rope separating each of them. Norah was in the lead position, followed by Corky, then Rachel, and Tolland as anchor.
As they moved farther away from the habisphere, Tolland felt a growing uneasiness. In his inflated suit, although warm, he felt like some kind of uncoordinated space traveler trekking across a distant planet. The moon had disappeared behind thick, billowing storm clouds, plunging the ice sheet into an impenetrable blackness. The katabatic wind seemed to be getting stronger by the minute, applying a constant pressure to Tollands back. As his eyes strained through his goggles to make out the expansive emptiness around them, he began to perceive a true danger in this place. Redundant NASA safety precautions or not, Tolland was surprised the administrator had been willing to risk four lives out here instead of two. Especially when the additional two lives were that of a senators daughter and a famous astrophysicist. Tolland was not surprised to feel a protective concern for Rachel and Corky. As someone who had captained a ship, he was used to feeling responsible for those around him.
Stay behind me, Norah shouted, her voice swallowed by the wind. Let the sled lead the way.
The aluminum sled on which Norah was transporting her testing gear resembled an oversized Flexible Flyer. The craft was prepacked with diagnostic gear and safety accessories shed been using on the glacier over the past few days. All of her gear‑including a battery pack, safety flares, and a powerful front‑mounted spotlight‑was bound under a secured, plastic tarp. Despite the heavy load, the sled glided effortlessly on long, straight runners. Even on the almost imperceptible incline, the sled moved downhill on its own accord, and Norah applied a gentle restraint, almost as if allowing the sled to lead the way.
Sensing the distance growing between the group and the habisphere, Tolland looked over his shoulder. Only fifty yards away, the pale curvature of the dome had all but disappeared in the blustery blackness.
You at all worried about finding our way back? Tolland yelled. The habisphere is almost invisi‑ His words were cut short by the loud hiss of a flare igniting in Norahs hand. The sudden red‑white glow illuminated the ice shelf in a ten‑yard radius all around them. Norah used her heel to dig a small impression in the surface snow, piling up a protective ridge on the upwind side of the hole. Then she rammed the flare into the indentation.
High‑tech bread crumbs, Norah shouted.
Bread crumbs? Rachel asked, shielding her eyes from the sudden light.
Hansel and Gretel, Norah shouted. These flares will last an hour‑plenty of time to find our way back.
With that, Norah headed out again, leading them down the glacier‑into the darkness once again.