Norah Mangor was still kneeling on the ice when the bewildered Michael Tolland pulled the Ground Penetrating Radars printout from her trembling hands. Shaken from seeing the floating body of Ming, Tolland tried to gather his thoughts and decipher the image before him.
He saw the cross section of the meteorite shaft descending from the surface down to two hundred feet into the ice. He saw Mings body floating in the shaft. Tollands eyes drifted lower now, and he sensed something was amiss. Directly beneath the extraction shaft, a dark column of sea ice extended downward to the open ocean below. The vertical pillar of saltwater ice was massive‑the same diameter as the shaft.
My God! Rachel yelled, looking over Tollands shoulder. It looks like the meteorite shaft continues all the way through the ice shelf into the ocean!
Tolland stood transfixed, his brain unable to accept what he knew to be the only logical explanation. Corky looked equally alarmed.
Norah shouted, Someone drilled up under the shelf! Her eyes were wild with rage. Someone intentionally inserted that rock from underneath the ice!
Although the idealist in Tolland wanted to reject Norahs words, the scientist in him knew she could easily be right. The Milne Ice Shelf was floating over the ocean with plenty of clearance for a submersible. Because everything weighed significantly less underwater, even a small submersible not much bigger than Tollands one‑man research Triton easily could have transported the meteorite in its payload arms. The sub could have approached from the ocean, submerged beneath the ice shelf, and drilled upward into the ice. Then, it could have used an extending payload arm or inflatable balloons to push the meteorite up into the shaft. Once the meteorite was in place, the ocean water that had risen into the shaft behind the meteorite would begin to freeze. As soon as the shaft closed enough to hold the meteorite in place, the sub could retract its arm and disappear, leaving Mother Nature to seal the remainder of the tunnel and erase all traces of the deception.
But why? Rachel demanded, taking the printout from Tolland and studying it. Why would someone do that? Are you sure your GPR is working?
Of course, Im sure! And the printout perfectly explains the presence of phosphorescent bacteria in the water!
Tolland had to admit, Norahs logic was chillingly sound. Phosphorescent dinoflagellates would have followed instinct and swum upward into the meteorite shaft, becoming trapped just beneath the meteorite and freezing into the ice. Later, when Norah heated the meteorite, the ice directly beneath would have melted, releasing the plankton. Again, they would swim upward, this time reaching the surface inside the habisphere, where they would eventually die for lack of saltwater.
This is crazy! Corky yelled. NASA has a meteorite with extraterrestrial fossils in it. Why would they care where its found? Why would they go to the trouble to bury it under an ice shelf?
Who the hell knows, Norah fired back, but GPR printouts dont lie. We were tricked. That meteorite isnt part of the Jungersol Fall. It was inserted in the ice recently. Within the last year, or the plankton would be dead! She was already packing up her GPR gear on the sled and fastening it down. Weve to get back and tell someone! The President is about to go public with all the wrong data! NASA tricked him!
Wait a minute! Rachel yelled. We should at least run another scan to make sure. None of this makes sense. Who will believe it?
Everyone, Norah said, preparing her sled. When I march into the habisphere and drill another core sample out of the bottom of the meteorite shaft and it comes up as saltwater ice, I guarantee you everyone will believe this!
Norah disengaged the brakes on the equipment sled, redirected it toward the habisphere, and started back up the slope, digging her crampons into the ice and pulling the sled behind her with surprising ease. She was a woman on a mission.
Lets go! Norah shouted, pulling the tethered group along as she headed toward the perimeter of the illuminated circle. I dont know what NASAs up to here, but I sure as hell dont appreciate being used as a pawn for their‑
Norah Mangors neck snapped back as if shed been rammed in the forehead by some invisible force. She let out a guttural gasp of pain, wavered, and collapsed backward onto the ice. Almost instantly, Corky let out a cry and spun around as if his shoulder had been propelled backward. He fell to the ice, writhing in pain.
Rachel immediately forgot all about the printout in her hand, Ming, the meteorite, and the bizarre tunnel beneath the ice. She had just felt a small projectile graze her ear, barely missing her temple. Instinctively, she dropped to her knees, yanking Tolland down with her.
Whats going on! Tolland screamed.
A hailstorm was all Rachel could imagine‑balls of ice blowing down off the glacier‑and yet from the force with which Corky and Norah had just been hit, Rachel knew the hailstones would have to be moving at hundreds of miles an hour. Eerily, the sudden barrage of marble‑sized objects seemed now to focus on Rachel and Tolland, pelting all around them, sending up plumes of exploding ice. Rachel rolled onto her stomach, dug her crampons toe spikes into the ice, and launched toward the only cover available. The sled. Tolland arrived a moment later, scrambling and hunkering down beside her.
Tolland looked out at Norah and Corky unprotected on the ice. Pull them in with the tether! he yelled, grabbing the rope and trying to pull.
But the tether was wrapped around the sled.
Rachel stuffed the printout in the Velcro pocket of her Mark IX suit, and scrambled on all fours toward the sled, trying to untangle the rope from the sled runners. Tolland was right behind her.
The hailstones suddenly rained down in a barrage against the sled, as if Mother Nature had abandoned Corky and Norah and was taking direct aim at Rachel and Tolland. One of the projectiles slammed into the top of the sled tarp, partially embedding itself, and then bounced over, landing on the sleeve of Rachels coat.
When Rachel saw it, she froze. In an instant, the bewilderment she had been feeling turned to terror. These hailstones were man‑made. The ball of ice on her sleeve was a flawlessly shaped spheroid the size of a large cherry. The surface was polished and smooth, marred only by a linear seam around the circumference, like an old‑fashioned lead musket ball, machined in a press. The globular pellets were, without a doubt, man‑made.
Ice bullets . . .
As someone with military clearance, Rachel was well acquainted with the new experimental IM weaponry‑Improvised Munitions‑snow rifles that compacted snow into ice pellets, desert rifles that melted sand into glass projectiles, water‑based firearms that shot pulses of liquid water with such force that they could break bones. Improvised Munitions weaponry had an enormous advantage over conventional weapons because IM weapons used available resources and literally manufactured munitions on the spot, providing soldiers unlimited rounds without their having to carry heavy conventional bullets. The ice balls being fired at them now, Rachel knew, were being compressed on demand from snow fed into the butt of the rifle.
As was often the case in the intelligence world, the more one knew, the more frightening a scenario became. This moment was no exception. Rachel would have preferred blissful ignorance, but her knowledge of IM weaponry instantly led her to a sole chilling conclusion: They were being attacked by some kind of U.S. Special Ops force, the only forces in the country currently cleared to use these experimental IM weapons in the field.
The presence of a military covert operations unit brought with it a second, even more terrifying realization: The probability of surviving this attack was close to zero.
The morbid thought was terminated as one of the ice pellets found an opening and came screaming through the wall of gear on the sled, colliding with her stomach. Even in her padded Mark IX suit, Rachel felt like an invisible prizefighter had just gut‑punched her. Stars began to dance around the periphery of her vision, and she teetered backward, grabbing gear on the sled for balance. Michael Tolland dropped Norahs tether and lunged to support Rachel, but he arrived too late. Rachel fell backward, pulling a pile of equipment with her. She and Tolland tumbled to the ice in a pile of electronic apparatus.
Theyre . . . bullets . . . . . she gasped, the air momentarily crushed from her lungs. Run!