Detonation in twelve hours
With a crystal-shattering shriek, the bit of the power drill bored deep into the Arctic ice. Gray-white slush churned out of the hole, sluiced across the crusted snow, and refroze in seconds. The flared auger was out of sight, and most of the long steel shank also had disappeared into the four-inch-diameter shaft.
Watching the drill, Harry Carpenter had a curious premonition of imminent disaster. A faint flicker of alarm. Like a bird shadow fluttering across a bright landscape. Even inside his heavily insulated clothing, he shivered.
As a scientist, Harry respected the tools of logic, method, and reason, but he had learned never to discount a hunch–especially on the ice, where strange things could happen. He was unable to identify the source of his sudden uneasiness, though occasional dark forebodings were to be expected on a job involving high explosives. The chance of one of the charges detonating prematurely, killing them all, was slim to nil. Nevertheless . .
Peter Johnson, the electronics engineer who doubled as the team's demolitions expert, switched off the drill and stepped back from it. In his white Gore-Tex/Thermolite storm suit, fur-lined parka, and fur-lined hood, Pete resembled a polar bear–except for his dark brown face.
Claude Jobert shut down the portable generator that supplied power to the drill. The resultant hush had an eerie quality of expectancy so intense that Harry glanced behind himself and then up into the sky, half convinced that something was rushing or falling toward him.
If Death kissed anyone today, it was more likely to riseup from below than to descend upon them. As the bleak afternoon began, the three men were preparing to lower the last hundred-pound explosive charge deep into the ice. It was the sixtieth demolitions package that they had handled since the previous morning, and they were all uneasily conscious of standing upon enough high-yield plastic explosives to destroy them in an apocalyptic flash.
No fertile imagination was required to picture themselves dying in these hostile climes: The icecap was a perfect graveyard, utterly lifeless, and it encouraged thoughts of mortality. Ghostly bluish-white plains led off in all directions, somber and moody during that long season of nearly constant darkness, brief twilight, and perpetual overcast. At the moment, visibility was fair because the day had drawn down to that time when a vague, cloud-filtered crescent of sunlight painted the horizon. However, the sun had little to illuminate in the stark landscape. The only points of elevation were the jagged pressure ridges and hundreds of slabs of ice–some only as large as a man, others bigger than houses–that had popped from the field and stood on end like gigantic tombstones.
Pete Johnson, joining Harry and Claude at a pair of snowmobiles that had been specially rebuilt for the rigors of the pole, told them, "The shaft's twenty-eight yards deep. One more extension for the bit, and the job's done."
"Thank God!" Claude Jobert shivered as if his thermal suit provided no protection whatsoever. In spite of the transparent film of petroleum jelly that protected the exposed portions of his face from frostbite, he was pale and drawn. "We'll make it back to base camp tonight. Think of that! I haven't been warm one minute since we left."
Ordinarily, Claude didn't complain. He was a jovial, energetic little man. At a glance, he seemed fragile, but that was not the case. At five seven and a hundred thirty pounds, he was lean, wiry, hard. He had a mane of white hair now tucked under his hood, a face weathered and made leathery by a lifetime in extreme climates, and bring blue eyes as clear as those of a child. Harry had never seen hatred or anger in those eyes. Until yesterday, he had never seen self-pity in them, either, not even three years ago, when Claude lost his wife, Colette, in a sudden, senseless act of violence; he had been consumed by grief but had never wallowed in self-pity.
Since they had left the comfort of Edgeway Station, however, Claude had been neither jovial nor energetic, and he had complained frequently about the cold. At fifty-nine, he was the oldest member of the expedition, eighteen years older than Harry Carpenter, which was the outer limit for anyone working in those brutal latitudes.
Although he was a fine arctic geologist specializing in the dynamics of ice formation and movement, the current expedition would be his last trip to either pole. Henceforth, his research would be done in laboratories and at computers, for from the severe conditions of the icecap.
Harry wondered if Jobert was bothered less by the bitter cold than by the knowledge that the work he loved had grown too demanding for him. One day Harry would have to face the same truth, and he wasn't sure that he would be able to exit with grace. The great chaste spaces of the Arctic and Antarctic enthralled him: the power of the extreme weather, the mystery that cloaked the white geometric landscapes and pooled in the purple shadows of every seemingly unplumbable crevasse, the spectacle on clear night when the aurora borealis splashed the sky with shimmering streamers of light in jewellike colors, and the vast fields of stars when the curtains of the aurora drew back to reveal them.
In some ways he was still the kid who had grown up on a quiet farm in Indiana, without brothers or sisters or playmates: the lonely boy who'd felt stifled by the life into which he'd been born, who'd daydreamed of traveling to far places and seeing all the exotic marvels of the world, who'd wanted never to be tied down to one plot of earth, and who'd yearned for adventure. He was a grown man now, and he knew that adventure was hard work. Yet, from time to time, the boy within him was abruptly overcome by wonder, stopped whatever he was doing, slowly turned in a circle to look at the dazzlingly white world around him, and thought:Holy jumping catfish, I'm really here, all the way from Indiana to the end of the earth, the top of the world!
Pete Johnson said, "It's snowing."
Even as Pete spoke, Harry saw the lazily spiraling flakes descending in a silent ballet. The day was windless, though the calm might not endure much longer.
Claude Jobert frowned. "We weren't due for this storm until this evening."
The trip out from Edgeway Station–which lay four air miles to the northeast of their temporary camp, six miles by snowmobile past ridges and deep chasms–had not been difficult. Nevertheless, a bad storm might make the return journey impossible. Visibility could quickly deteriorate to zero, and they could easily get lost because of compass distortion. And if their snowmobiles ran out of fuel, they would freeze to death, for even their thermal suits would be insufficient protection against prolonged exposure to the more murderous cold that would ride in on the back of a blizzard.
Deep snows were not as common on the Greenland cap as might have been expected, in part because of the extreme lows to which the air temperature could sink.. At some point in virtually every blizzard, the snowflakes metamorphosed into spicules of ice, but even then visibility was poor.
Studying the sky, Harry said, "Maybe it's a local squall."
"Yes, that's just what Online Weather said last week aboutthatstorm," Claude reminded him. "We were to have only local squalls on the periphery of the main event. Then we had so much snow and ice it would've kept Père Noël home on Christmas Eve."
"So we'd better finish this job quickly."
"Yesterday would be good."
As if to confirm the need for haste, a wind sprang up from the west, as crisp and odorless as a wind could be only if it was coming off hundreds of miles of barren ice. The snowflakes shrank and began to descend at an angle, no longer spiraling prettily like flakes in a crystal bibelot.
Pete freed the drill from the shank of the buried bit and lifted it out of its supportive frame, handling it as if it weighed a tenth of its actual eighty-five pounds.
A decade ago he had been a football star at Penn State, turning down offers from several NFL teams. He hadn't wanted to play out the role that society dictated for every six-foot-four-inch, two-hundred-pound black football hero. Instead, he had won scholarships, earned two degrees, and taken a well-paid position with a computer-industry think tank.
Now he was vital to Harry's expedition. He maintained the electronic data-gathering equipment at Edgeway, and having designed the explosive devices, he was the only one who could deal with them in full confidence if something went wrong. Furthermore, his tremendous strength was an asset out there on the inhospitable top of the world.
As Pete swung the drill out of the way, Harry and Claude lifted a three-foot bit extension from one of the cargo trailers that were coupled to the snowmobiles. They screwed it onto the thread shank, which was still buried in the ice.
Claude started the generator again.
Pete slammed the drill in place, turned the keyless chuck to clamp the jaws tight around the shank, and finished boring the twenty-nine-yard-deep shaft, at the bottom of which they would plant a tubular charge of explosives.
While the machine roared, Harry gazed at the heavens. Within the past few minutes, the weather had deteriorated alarmingly. Most of the ashen light had faded from behind the oppressive overcast. So much snow was falling that the sky no longer was mottled with grays and black; nothing whatsoever of the actual cloud cover could be seen through the crystalline torrents. Above them was only a deep, whirling whiteness. Already shrinking and becoming grainlike, the flakes lightly pricked his greased face. The wind escalated to perhaps twenty miles an hour, and its song was a mournful drone.
Harry still sensed oncoming disaster. The feeling was formless, vague, but unshakable.
As a boy on the farm, he had never realized that adventure was hard work, although hehadunderstood that it was dangerous. To a kid, danger had been part of the appeal. In the process of growing up, however, as he'd lost both parents to illness and learned the violent ways of the world, he had ceased to be able to see anything romantic about death. Nevertheless, he admitted to a certain perverse nostalgia for the innocence that had once made it possible to find a pleasurable thrill in the taking of mortal risks.
Claude Jobert leaned close and shouted above the noise from the wind and the grinding auger: "Don't worry, Harry. We'll be back at Edgeway soon. Good brandy, a game of chess, Benny Goodman on the CD player, all the comforts."
Harry Carpenter nodded. He continued to study the sky.
In the telecommunications shack at Edgeway Station, Gunvald Larsson stood at the single small window, chewing nervously on the stem of his unlit pipe and peering out at the rapidly escalating storm. Relentless tides of snow churned through the camp, like ghost waves from an ancient sea that had evaporated millennia ago. Half an hour earlier, he'd scraped the ice off the outside of the triple-pane window, but already feathery new patterns of crystals were regrowing along the perimeter of the glass. In an hour, another blinding cataract would have formed.
From Gunvald's slightly elevated viewpoint, Edgeway Station looked so isolated–and contrasted so boldly with the environment in which it stood–that it might have been humanity's only outpost on an alien planet. It was the only splash of color on the white, silver, and alabaster fields.
The six canary-yellow Nissen huts had been airlifted onto the icecap in prefabricated sections at tremendous effort and expense. Each one-story structure measured twenty by fifteen feet. The walls–layers of sheet metal and lightweight foam insulation–were riveted to hooped girders, and the floor of each hut was countersunk into the ice. As unattractive as slum buildings and hardly less cramped than packing crates, the huts were nonetheless dependable and secure against the wind.
A hundred yards north of the camp, a smaller structure stood by itself. It housed the fuel tanks that fed the generators. Because the tanks held diesel fuel, which could burn but couldn't explode, the danger of fire was minimal. Nevertheless, the thought of being trapped in a flash fire fanned by an arctic gale was so terrifying–especially when there was no water, just useless ice, with which to fight it–that excessive precautions had to be taken for everyone's peace of mind.
Gunvald Larsson's peach of mind had been shattered hours ago, but he was not worried about fire. Earthquakes were what troubled him now. Specifically, suboceanic earthquakes.
The son of a Swedish father and a Danish mother, he had been on the Swedish ski teams at two winter Olympics, had earned one silver medal, and was proud of his heritage; he cultivated the image of an imperturbable Scandinavian and usually possessed an inner calm that matched his cool exterior. His wife said that, like precision calipers, his quick blue eyes continuously measured the world. When he wasn't working outdoors, he usually wore slacks and colorful ski sweaters; at the moment, in fact, he was dressed as though lolling in a mountain lodge after a pleasant day on the slopes rather than sitting in an isolated hut on the winter icecap, waiting for calamity to strike.
During the past several hours, however, he had lost a large measure of his characteristic composure. Chewing on the pipestem, he turned away from the frost-fringed windowpane and scowled at the computers and the data-gathering equipment that lined three walls of the telecommunications shack.
Early the previous afternoon, when Harry and the others had gone south toward the edge of the ice, Gunvald had stayed behind to monitor incoming calls on the radio and to keep a watch over the station. This was not the first time that all but one of the expedition members had left Edgeway to conduct an experiment in the field, but on previous occasions, someone other than Gunvald had remained behind. After weeks of living in a tiny community with eight too-close neighbors, he had been eager for his session of solitude.
By four o'clock the previous day, however, when Edgeway's seismographs registered the first quake, Gunvald had begun to wish that the other members of the team had not ventured so near to the edge of the ice, where the polar cap met the sea. At 4:14, the jolt was confirmed by radio reports from Reykjavik, Iceland, and from Hammerfest, Norway. Severe slippage had occurred in the seabed sixty miles northeast of Raufarhšfn, Iceland. The shock was on the same chain of interlinked faults that had triggered destructive volcanic eruptions on Iceland more than three decades ago. This time there had been no damage on any land bordering the Greenland Sea, although the tremor had registered a solid 6.5 on the Richter scale.
Gunvald's concern arose from the suspicion that the quake had been neither an isolated incident nor the main event. He had good reason to believe that it was a foreshock, precursor to an event of far greater magnitude.
From the outset the team had intended to study, among other things, ocean-bed temblors in the Greenland Sea to learn more about local suboceanic fault lines. They were working in a geologically active part of the earth that could never be trusted until it was better known. If dozens of ships were to be towing colossal icebergs in those waters, they would need to know how often the sea was disturbed by major submarine quakes and by resultant high waves. A tsunami–a titanic wave radiating from the epicenter of a powerful quake–could endanger even a fairly large ship, although less in the open sea than if the vessel was near a shoreline.
He should have been pleased with the opportunity to observe, at such close quarters, the characteristics and patterns of major temblors on the Greenland Sea fault network. But he wasn't pleased at all.
Using a microwave uplink to orbiting communications satellites, Gunvald was able to go on-line and access any computers tied into the worldwide Infonet. Though he was geographically isolated, he had at his disposal virtually all the research databases and software that would have been available in any city.
Yesterday, he had tapped those impressive resources to analyze the seismographic data on the recent quake. What he discovered had made him uneasy.
The enormous energy of the temblor had been released less by lateral seabed movement than by violent upward thrust. That was precisely the type of ground movement that would put the greatest amount of strain on the interlinked faults lying to the east of the one on which the first event had transpired.
Edgeway Station itself was in no imminent danger. If major seabed slippage occurred nearby, a tsunami might roll beneath the icecap and precipitate some changes: Primarily, new chasms and pressure ridges would form. If the quake were related to submarine volcanic activity, in which millions of cubic tons of molten lava gushed out of the ocean floor, perhaps even temporary holes of warm water would open in the icecap. But most of the polar terrain would be unchanged, and the likelihood was slim that the base camp would be either damaged or destroyed.
The other expedition members, however, couldn't be as certain of their safety as Gunvald was of his own. In addition to creating pressure ridges and chasms, a hot tsunami was likely to snap off sections of the ice at the edge of the winter field. Harry and the others might find the cap falling out from under them while the sea rushed up dark, cold, and deadly.
At nine o'clock last night, five hours after the first tremor, the second quake–5.8 on the Richter scale–had hit the fault chain. The seabed had shifted violently one hundred five miles north-northeast of Raufarhöfn. The epicenter had been thirty-five miles nearer Edgeway than that of the initial shaker.
Gunvald took no comfort from the fact that the second quake had been less powerful than the first. The diminution in force was not absolute proof that the more recent temblor had been an aftershock to the first. Both might have been foreshocks, with the main event still to come.
During the Cold War, the United States had planted a series of extremely sensitive sonic monitors on the floor of the Greenland Sea, as well as in many other strategic areas of the world's oceans, to detect the nearly silent passage of nuclear-armed enemy submarines. Subsequent to the collapse of the Soviet Union, some of those sophisticated devices had begun doing double duty, both monitoring submarines and providing data for scientific purposes. Since the second quake, most of the deep-ocean listening stations in the Greenland Sea had been transmitting a faint but almost continuous low-frequency grumble: the ominous sound of growing elastic stress in the crust of the earth.
A slow-motion domino reaction might have begun. And the dominoes might be falling toward Edgeway Station.
During the past sixteen hours, Gunvald had spent less time smoking his pipe than chewing nervously on the stem of it.
At nine-thirty the previous night, when the radio confirmed the location and force of the second shock, Gunvald had put through a call to the temporary camp six miles to the southwest. He told Harry about the quakes and explained the risks that they were taking by remaining on the perimeter of the polar ice.
"We've got a job to do," Harry had said. "Forty-six packages are in place, armed, and ticking. Getting them out of the ice again before they all detonate would be harder than getting a politician's hand out of your pocket. And if we don't place the other fourteen tomorrow, without all sixty synchronized charges, we likely won't break off the size berg we need. In effect, we'll be aborting the mission, which is out of the question."
"I think we should consider it."
"No, no. The project's too damned expensive to chuck it all just because theremightbe a seismic risk. Money's tight. We might not get another chance if we screw up this one."
"I suppose you're right," Gunvald acknowledged, "but I don't like it."
The open frequency crackled with static as Harry said, "Can't say I'm doing cartwheels, either. Do you have any projection about how long it might take major slippage to pass through an entire fault chain like this one?"
"You know that's anybody's guess, Harry. Days, maybe weeks, even months."
"You see? We have more than enough time. Hell, it can even take longer."
"Or it can happen much faster. In hours."
"Not this time. The second tremor was less violent than the first, wasn't it?" Harry asked.
"And you know perfectly well that doesn't mean the reaction will just play itself out. The third might be smaller or larger than the first two."
"At any rate," Harry said, "the ice is seven hundred feet thick where we are. It won't just splinter apart like the first coat on a winter pond."
"Nevertheless, I strongly suggest you wrap things up quickly tomorrow."
"No need to worry about that. Living out here in these damned inflatable igloos makes any lousy shack at Edgeway seem like a suite at the Ritz-Carlton."
After that conversation, Gunvald Larsson had gone to bed. He hadn't slept well. In his nightmares, the world crumbled apart, dropped away from him in enormous chunks, and he fell into a cold, bottomless void.
At seven-thirty in the morning, while Gunvald had been shaving, with the bad dreams still fresh in his mind, the seismograph had recorded a third tremor: Richter 5.2.
His breakfast had consisted of a single cup of black coffee. No appetite.
At eleven o'clock the fourth quake had struck only two hundred miles due south: 4.4 on the Richter scale.
He had not been cheered to see that each event was less powerful than the one that preceded it. Perhaps the earth was conserving its energy for a single gigantic blow.
The fifth tremor had hit at 11:50. The epicenter was approximately one hundred ten miles due south. Much closer than any previous tremor, essentially on their doorstep. Richter 4.2.
He'd called the temporary camp, and Rita Carpenter had assured him that the expedition would leave the edge of the icecap by two o'clock.
"The weather will be a problem," Gunvald worried.
"It's snowing here, but we thought it was a local squall."
"I'm afraid not. The storm is shifting course and picking up speed. We'll have heavy snow this afternoon."
"We'll surely be back at Edgeway by four o'clock," she'd said. "Maybe sooner."
At twelve minutes past noon another slippage had occurred in the subsea crust, one hundred miles south: 4.5 on the Richter scale.
Now, at twelve-thirty, when Harry and the others were probably planting the final package of explosives, Gunvald Larsson was biting so hard on his pipe that, with only the slightest additional pressure, he could have snapped the stem in two.
From the Paperback edition.