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The hovercraft raced across the ice plain.
It was painted white, which was unusual. Most Antarctic vehicles are painted bright orange, for ease of visibility. And it sped across the vast expanse of snow with a surprising urgency. Nobody is ever in a hurry in Antarctica.
Inside the speeding white hovercraft, Lieutenant Shane Schofield peered out through reinforced fiberglass windows. About a hundred yards off his starboard bow he could see a second hovercraftalso whitewhipping across the flat, icy landscape.
At thirty-two, Schofield was young to be in command of a Recon Unit. But he had experience that belied his age. At five-ten, he was lean and muscular, with a handsome creased face and closely cropped black hair. At the moment, his black hair was covered by a camouflaged Kevlar helmet. A gray turtleneck collar protruded from beneath his shoulder plates, covering his neck. Fitted inside the folds of the turtleneck collar was a lightweight Kevlar plate. Sniper protection.
It was rumored that Shane Schofield had deep blue eyes, but this was a rumor that had never been confirmed. In fact, it was folklore at Parris Islandthe legendary training camp for the United States Marine Corpsthat no one below the rank of General had ever actually seen Schofield's eyes. He always kept them hidden behind a pair of reflective silver antiflash glasses.
His call sign added to the mystery, since it was common knowledge that it had been Brigadier General Norman W. McLean himself who had given Schofield hisoperational nicknamea nickname that many assumed had something to do with the young Lieutenant's hidden eyes.
"Whistler One, do you copy?"
Schofield picked up his radio. "Whistler Two, this is Whistler One. What is it?"
"Sir" The deep voice of Staff Sergeant Buck "Book" Riley was suddenly cut off by a wash of static. Over the past twenty-four hours, ionospheric conditions over continental Antarctica had rapidly deteriorated. The full force of a solar flare had kicked in, disrupting the entire electromagnetic spectrum and limiting radio contact to short-range UHF transmissions. Contact between hovercrafts one hundred yards apart was difficult. Contact with Wilkes Ice Stationtheir destinationwas impossible.
The static faded and Riley's voice came over the speaker again. "Sir, do you remember that moving contact we picked up about an hour ago?"
"Uh-huh," Schofield said.
For the past hour, Whistler Two had been picking up emissions from the electronic equipment on board a moving vehicle heading in the opposite direction, back down the coast toward the French research station, Dumont d'Urville.
"What about it?"
"Sir, I can't find it anymore."
Schofield looked down at the radio. "Are you sure?"
"We have no reading on our scopes. Either they shut down or they just disappeared."
Schofield frowned in thought; then he looked back at the cramped personnel compartment behind him. Seated there, two to each side, were four Marines, all dressed in snow fatigues. White-gray Kevlar helmets sat in their laps. White-gray body armor covered their chests. White-gray automatic rifles sat by their sides.
It had been two days since the distress signal from Wilkes Ice Station had been picked up by the U.S. Navy landing ship, Shreveport, while it had been in port in Sydney. As luck would have it, only a week earlier it had been decided that the Shreveporta rapid deployment vessel used to transport Marine Force Reconnaissance Unitswould stay in Sydney for some urgent repairs while the rest of her group returned to Pearl Harbor. That being the case, within an hour of the receipt of Abby Sinclair's distress signal, the Shreveportnow up and ready to gowas at sea, carrying a squad of Marines due south, heading toward the Ross Sea.
Now Schofield and his unit were approaching Wilkes Ice Station from McMurdo Station, another, larger, U.S., research facility about nine hundred miles from Wilkes. McMurdo was situated on the edge of the Ross Sea and was manned by a standing staff of 104 all year round. Despite the lasting stigma associated with the U.S. Navy's disastrous nuclear power experiment there in 1972, it remained the U.S. gateway to the South Pole.
Wilkes, on the other hand, was as remote a station as one would find in Antarctica. Six hundred miles from its nearest neighbor, it was a small American outpost, situated right on top of the coastal ice shelf not far from the Dalton Iceberg Tongue. It was bounded on the landward side by a hundred miles of barren, windswept ice plains and to seaward by towering three-hundred-foot cliffs that were pounded all year round by mountainous sixty-foot waves.
Access by air had been out of the question. It was early winter, and a minus-thirty-degree blizzard had been assailing the camp for three weeks now. It was expected to last another four. In such weather, exposed helicopter rotors and jet engines were known to freeze in midair.
And access by sea meant taking on the cliffs. The U.S. Navy had a word for such a mission: suicide.
Which left access by land. By hovercraft. The twelve-man Marine Recon Unit would make the eleven-hour trip from McMurdo to Wilkes in two enclosed-fan military hovercrafts.
Schofield thought about the moving signal again. On a map, McMurdo, d'Urville, and Wilkes stations formed something like an isosceles triangle. D'Urville and Wilkes on the coast, forming the base of the triangle. McMurdofarther inland, on the edge of the enormous bay formed by the Ross Seathe point.
The signal that Whistler Two had picked up heading back along the coast toward Dement d'Urville had been maintaining a steady speed of about forty miles an hour. At that speed, it was probably a conventional hovercraft. Maybe the French had had people at d'Urville who'd picked up the distress signal from Wilkes, sent help, and were now on their way back....
Schofield keyed his radio again. "Book, when was the last time you held that signal?"
The radio crackled. "Signal last held eight minutes ago. Range finder contact. Identical to previously held electronic signature. Heading consistent with previous vector. It was the same signal, sir, and as of eight minutes ago it was right where it should have been."
In this weatherhowling eighty-knot winds that hurled snow so fast that it fell horizontallyregular radar scanning was hopeless. Just as the solar flare in the ionosphere put paid to radio communications, the low-pressure system on the ground caused havoc with their radar.
Prepared for such an eventuality, each hovercraft was equipped with roof-mounted units called range finders. Mounted on a revolving turret, each range finder swung back and forth in a slow 180-degree arc, emitting a constant highpowered focal beam known as a "needle." Unlike radar, whose straight-line reach has always been limited by the curvature of the Earth, needles can hug the Earth's surface and bend over the horizon for at least another fifty miles. As soon as any "live" objectany object with chemical, animal, or electronic propertiescrosses the path of a needle, it is recorded. Or, as the unit's range finder operator, Private José "Santa" Cruz, liked to put it, "if it boils, breathes, or beeps, the range finder'll nail the fucker."
Schofield keyed his radio. "Book, the point where the signal disappeared. How far away is it?"
"About ninety miles from here, sir," Riley's voice answered.
Schofield stared out over the seamless expanse of white that stretched all the way to the horizon.
At last he said, "All right. Check it out."
"Roger that," Riley responded immediately. Schofield had a lot of time for Book Riley. The two men had been friends for several years. Solid and fit, Riley had a boxer's facea flat nose that had been broken too many times, sunken eyes, and thick black eyebrows. He was popular in the unitserious when he had to be, but relaxed and funny when the pressure was off. He had been the Staff Sergeant responsible for Schofield when Schofield had been a young and stupid Second Lieutenant. Then, when Schofield had been given command of a Recon Unit, Bookthen a forty-year-old, highly respected Staff Sergeant who could have had his choice of assignment within the Marine Corps establishmenthad stayed with him.
"We'll continue on to Wilkes," Schofield said. "You find out what happened to that signal, and then you meet us at the station."
"Follow-up time is two hours. Don't be late. And set your range finder arc from your tail. If there's anybody out there behind us, I want to know."
"Oh, and, Book, one more thing," Schofield said.
"You play nice with the other kids, you hear."
"One, out," Schofield said.
"Whistler Two, out."
And with that, the second hovercraft peeled away to the right and sped off into the snowstorm.
An hour later, the coastline came into view, and through a set of high-powered field glasses Schofield saw Wilkes Ice Station for the first time.
From the surface, it hardly looked like a "station" at allmore like a motley collection of squat, domelike structures, half-buried in the snow.
In the middle of the complex stood the main building. It was little more than an enormous round dome mounted on a wide square base. Above the surface, the whole structure was about a hundred feet across, but it couldn't have been more than ten feet high.
On top of one of the smaller buildings gathered around the main dome stood the remains of a radio antenna. The upper half of the antenna was folded downward, a couple of taut cables the only things holding it to the upright lower half. Ice crusts hung off everything. The only light, a soft white glow burning from within the main dome.
Schofield ordered the hovercraft to a halt half a mile from the station. No sooner had it stopped than the port-side door slid open, and the six Marines leaped down from the hovercraft's inflated skirt and landed with muffled whumps on the hard-packed snow.
As they ran across the snow-covered ground, they could hear, above the roar of the wind, the crashing of the waves against the cliffs on the far side of the station.
"Gentlemen, you know what to do," was all Schofield said into his helmet mike as he ran.
Wrapped in the blanket of the blizzard, the white-clad squad fanned out, making its way toward the station complex.
Buck Riley saw the hole in the ice before he saw the battered hovercraft in it.
The crevasse looked like a scar on the icescapea deep crescent-shaped gash about forty meters wide.
Riley's hovercraft came to rest a hundred yards from the rim of the enormous chasm. The six Marines climbed out, lowered themselves gently to the ground, and cautiously made their way across the snow, toward the edge of the crevasse.
PFC Robert "Rebound" Simmons was their climber, so they harnessed him up first. A small man, Rebound was as nimble as a cat and weighed about the same. He was young, too, just twenty-three, and like most men his age, he responded to praise. He had beamed with pride when he'd overheard his lieutenant once say to another platoon commander that his climber was so good, he could scale the inside of the Capitol Building without a rope. His nickname was another story, a good-natured jibe bestowed upon him by his unit in reference to his less than impressive success rate with women.
Once the rope was secured to his harness, Simmons lay down on his stomach and began to shimmy his way forward, through the snow, toward the edge of the scar.
He reached the edge and peered out over the rim, down into the crevasse.
Ten meters behind him, Buck Riley spoke into his helmet mike. "What's the story, Rebound?"
"They're here, sir." Simmons's voice was almost resigned. "Conventional craft. Got somethin' in French written on the side. Thin ice scattered all about underneath it. Looks like they tried to cross a snow bridge that didn't hold."
He turned to face Riley, his face grim, his voice tinny over the short-range radio frequency. "And, sir, they's pretty fucked up."
The hovercraft lay forty feet below the surface, its rounded nose crumpled inward by the downward impact, every one of its windows either shattered or cracked into distorted spiderwebs. A thin layer of snow had already embarked upon the task of erasing the battered vehicle from history.
Two of the hovercraft's occupants had been catapulted by the impact right through the forward windshield. Both lay against the forward wall of the crevasse, their necks bent backward at obscene angles, their bodies resting in pools of their own frozen blood.
Rebound Simmons stared at the grisly scene.
There were other bodies inside the hovercraft. He could see their shadows inside it and could see star-shaped splatters of blood on the cracked windows of the hovercraft.
"Rebound?" Riley's voice came in over his helmet intercom. "Anybody alive down there?"
"Don't look like it, sir," Rebound said.
"Do an infrared," Riley instructed. "We got twenty minutes before we gotta hit the road, and I wouldn't want to leave and find out later that there were some survivors down there."
Rebound snapped his infrared visor into place. It hung down from the brow of his helmet, covering both of his eyes like a fighter pilot's visor.
Now he saw the crashed hovercraft through a wash of electronic blue imagery. The cold had taken effect quickly. The whole crash site was depicted as a blue-on-black outline. Not even the engine glowed yellow, the color of objects with minimal heat intensity.
More important, however, there were no blobs of orange or yellow within the image of the vehicle. Any bodies that were still inside the hovercraft were ice cold. Everyone on board was most certainly dead.
Rebound said, "Sir, infrared reading is nega"
The ground gave way beneath him.
There was no warning. No preemptive cracking of the ice. No sense of it weakening.
Rebound Simmons dropped like a stone into the crevasse.
It happened so fast that Buck Riley almost missed it. One second, he was watching Rebound as he peered out over the edge of the crevasse. The next second, Rebound simply dropped out of sight.
The black rope slithered out over the edge after the young private, uncoiling at a rapid rate, shooting out over the rim.
"Hold fast!" Riley yelled to the two Marines anchoring the rope. They held the rope tightly, taking the strain, waiting for the jolt.
The rope continued to splay out over the edge until whack!, it went instantly taut.
Riley stepped cautiously over to the right, away from the edge of the crevasse, but close enough so that he could peer down into it.
He saw the wrecked hovercraft down at the bottom of the hole and the two bloodied and broken bodies pressed up against the ice wail in front of it. And he saw Rebound, hanging from his rope, two feet above the hovercraft's banged-open starboard door.
"You OK?" Riley said into his helmet mike.
"Never doubted you for a second, sir."
"Just hold on. We'll have you up in a minute."
Down in the crevasse, Rebound swung stupidly above the destroyed hovercraft. From where he hung he could see in through the open starboard door of the hovercraft.
"Oh, Jesus ...," he breathed.
Schofield knocked loudly on the big wooden door.
The door was set into the square-shaped base structure that supported the main dome of Wilkes Ice Station. It lay at the bottom of a narrow ramp that descended about eight feet into the ice.
Schofield banged his fist on the door again.
He was lying flat on the parapet of the base structure, reaching down from above the door to knock on it.
Ten yards away, lying on his belly in the snow at the top of the ramp with his legs splayed wide, was Gunnery Sergeant Scott "Snake" Kaplan. His M-16E assault rifle was trained on the unopened door.
There came a sudden creak, and Schofield held his breath as a sliver of light stretched out onto the snow beneath him and the door to the station slowly began to open.
A figure stepped out onto the snow ramp beneath him. It was a man. Wrapped in about seven layers of clothing. Unarmed.
Suddenly the man tensed, presumably as he saw Snake lying in the snow in front of him, with his M-16 pointed right at the bridge of the man's nose.
"Hold it right there," Schofield said from above and behind the man. "United States Marines."
The man remained frozen.
"Unit Two is in. Secure," a woman's voice whispered over Schofield's earpiece.
"Unit Three. In and secure."
"All right. We're coming in through the front door."
Schofield slid down from his perch and landed next to the man on the snow ramp and began to pat him down.
Snake strode clown the ramp toward them, his rifle up, pointed at the man.
Schofield said to the man, "You American? What's your name?"
The man spoke.
"Non. Je suis Français."
And then in English, "My name is Luc."