Fight or flight.
As a biologist, Tolland knew that vast physiological changes occurred when an organism sensed danger. Adrenaline flooded the cerebral cortex, jolting the heart rate and commanding the brain to make the oldest and most intuitive of all biological decisions‑whether to do battle or flee.
Tollands instinct told him to flee, and yet reason reminded him he was still tethered to Norah Mangor. There was nowhere to flee anyway. The only cover for miles was the habisphere, and the attackers, whoever the hell they were, had positioned themselves high on the glacier and cut off that option. Behind him, the wide open sheet of ice fanned out into a two‑mile‑long plain that terminated in a sheer drop to a frigid sea. Flight in that direction meant death by exposure. The practical barriers to fleeing notwithstanding, Tolland knew he could not possibly leave the others. Norah and Corky were still out in the open, tethered to Rachel and Tolland.
Tolland stayed down near Rachel as the ice pellets continued to slam into the side of the toppled equipment sled. He pillaged the strewn contents, searching for a weapon, a flare gun, a radio . . . anything.
Run! Rachel yelled, her breathing still strained.
Then, oddly, the hailstorm of ice bullets abruptly stopped. Even in the pounding wind, the night felt suddenly calm . . . as if a storm had let up unexpectedly.
It was then, peering cautiously around the sled, that Tolland witnessed one of the most chilling sights he had ever seen.
Gliding effortlessly out of the darkened perimeter into the light, three ghostly figures emerged, coasting silently in on skis. The figures wore full white weather suits. They carried no ski poles but rather large rifles that looked like no guns Tolland had ever seen. Their skis were bizarre as well, futuristic and short, more like elongated Rollerblades than skis.
Calmly, as if knowing they had already won this battle, the figures coasted to a stop beside their closest victim‑the unconscious Norah Mangor. Tolland rose shakily to his knees and peered over the sled at the attackers. The visitors stared back at him through eerie electronic goggles. They were apparently uninterested.
At least for the moment.
Delta‑One felt no remorse as he stared down at the woman lying unconscious on the ice before him. He had been trained to carry out orders, not to question motives.
The woman was wearing a thick, black, thermal suit and had a welt on the side of her face. Her breathing was short and labored. One of the IM ice rifles had found its mark and knocked her unconscious.
Now it was time to finish the job.
As Delta‑One knelt down beside the oblivious woman, his teammates trained their rifles on the other targets‑one on the small, unconscious man lying on the ice nearby, and one on the overturned sled where the two other victims were hiding. Although his men easily could have moved in to finish the job, the remaining three victims were unarmed and had nowhere to run. Rushing to finish them all off at once was careless. Never disperse your focus unless absolutely necessary. Face one adversary at a time. Exactly as they had been trained, the Delta Force would kill these people one at a time. The magic, however, was that they would leave no trace to suggest how they had died.
Crouched beside the unconscious woman, Delta‑One removed his thermal gloves and scooped up a handful of snow. Packing the snow, he opened the womans mouth and began stuffing it down her throat. He filled her entire mouth, ramming the snow as deep as he could down her windpipe. She would be dead within three minutes.
This technique, invented by the Russian mafia, was called the byelaya smert‑white death. This victim would suffocate long before the snow in her throat melted. Once dead, however, her body would stay warm long enough to dissolve the blockage. Even if foul play were suspected, no murder weapon or evidence of violence would be apparent immediately. Eventually someone might figure it out, but it would buy them time. The ice bullets would fade into the environment, buried in the snow, and the welt on this womans head would look like shed taken a nasty spill on the ice‑not surprising in these gale force winds.
The other three people would be incapacitated and killed in much the same way. Then Delta‑One would load all of them on the sled, drag them several hundred yards off course, reattached their belay lines and arrange the bodies. Hours from now, the four of them would be found frozen in the snow, apparent victims of overexposure and hypothermia. Those who discovered them would be puzzled what they were doing off course, but nobody would be surprised that they were dead. After all, their flares had burned out, the weather was perilous, and getting lost on the Milne Ice Shelf could bring death in a hurry.
Delta‑One had now finished packing snow down the womans throat. Before turning his attention to the others, Delta‑One unhooked the womans belay harness. He could reconnect it later, but at the moment, he did not want the two people behind the sled getting ideas about pulling his victim to safety.
Michael Tolland had just witnessed a murderous act more bizarre than his darkest mind could imagine. Having cut Norah Mangor free, the three attackers were turning their attention to Corky.
Ive got to do something!
Corky had come to and was moaning, trying to sit up, but one of the soldiers pushed him back down on his back, straddled him, and pinned Corkys arms to the ice by kneeling on them. Corky let out a cry of pain that was instantly swallowed up by the raging wind.
In a kind of demented terror, Tolland tore through the scattered contents of the overturned sled. There must be something here! A weapon! Something! All he saw was diagnostic ice gear, most of it smashed beyond recognition by the ice pellets. Beside him, Rachel groggily tried to sit up, using her ice ax to prop herself up. Run . . . Mike . . .
Tolland eyed the ax that was strapped to Rachels wrist. It could be a weapon. Sort of. Tolland wondered what his chances were attacking three armed men with a tiny ax.
As Rachel rolled and sat up, Tolland spied something behind her. A bulky vinyl bag. Praying against fate that it contained a flare gun or radio, he clambered past her and grabbed the bag. Inside he found a large, neatly folded sheet of Mylar fabric. Worthless. Tolland had something similar on his research ship. It was a small weather balloon, designed to carry payloads of observational weather gear not much heavier than a personal computer. Norahs balloon would be no help here, particularly without a helium tank.
With the growing sounds of Corkys struggle, Tolland felt a helpless sensation he had not felt in years. Total despair. Total loss. Like the cliche of ones life passing before ones eyes before death, Tollands mind flashed unexpectedly through long forgotten childhood images. For an instant he was sailing in San Pedro, learning the age‑old sailors pastime of spinnaker‑flying‑hanging on a knotted rope, suspended over the ocean, plunging laughing into the water, rising and falling like a kid hanging on a belfry rope, his fate determined by a billowing spinnaker sail and the whim of the ocean breeze.
Tollands eyes instantly snapped back to the Mylar balloon in his hand, realizing that his mind had not been surrendering, but rather it had been trying to remind him of a solution! Spinnaker flying.
Corky was still struggling against his captor as Tolland yanked open the protective bag around the balloon. Tolland had no illusions that this plan was anything other than a long shot, but he knew remaining here was certain death for all of them. He clutched the folded mass of Mylar. The payload clip warned: CAUTION: NOT FOR USE IN WINDS OVER 10 KNOTS.
The hell with that! Gripping it hard to keep it from unfurling, Tolland clambered over to Rachel, who was propped on her side. He could see the confusion in her eyes as he nestled close, yelling, Hold this!
Tolland handed Rachel the folded pad of fabric and then used his free hands to slip the balloons payload clasp through one of the carabiners on his harness. Then, rolling on his side, he slipped the clasp through one of Rachels carabiners as well.
Tolland and Rachel were now one.
Joined at the hip.
From between them, the loose tether trailed off across the snow to the struggling Corky . . . and ten yards farther to the empty clip beside Norah Mangor.
Norah is already gone, Tolland told himself. Nothing you can do.
The attackers were crouched over Corkys writhing body now, packing a handful of snow, and preparing to stuff it down Corkys throat. Tolland knew they were almost out of time.
Tolland grabbed the folded balloon from Rachel. The fabric was as light as tissue paper‑and virtually indestructible. Here goes nothing. Hold on!
Mike? Rachel said. What‑
Tolland hurled the pad of wadded Mylar into the air over their heads. The howling wind snatched it up and spread it out like a parachute in a hurricane. The sheath filled instantly, billowing open with a loud snap.
Tolland felt a wrenching yank on his harness, and he knew in an instant he had grossly underestimated the power of the katabatic wind. Within a fraction of a second, he and Rachel were half airborne, being dragged down the glacier. A moment later, Tolland felt a jerk as his tether drew taut on Corky Marlinson. Twenty yards back, his terrified friend was yanked out from under his stunned attackers, sending one of them tumbling backward. Corky let out a blood‑curdling scream as he too accelerated across the ice, barely missing the overturned sled, then fishtailing inward. A second rope trailed limp beside Corky . . . the rope that had been connected to Norah Mangor.
Nothing you can do, Tolland told himself.
Like a tangled mass of human marionettes, the three bodies skimmed down the glacier. Ice pellets went sailing by, but Tolland knew the attackers had missed their chance. Behind him, the white‑clad soldiers faded away, shrinking to illuminated specks in the glow of the flares.
Tolland now felt the ice ripping beneath his padded suit with relentless acceleration, and the relief at having escaped faded fast. Less than two miles directly ahead of them, the Milne Ice Shelf came to an abrupt end at a precipitous cliff‑and beyond it . . . a hundred‑foot drop to the lethal pounding surf of the Arctic Ocean.