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The Arctic Circle, February 26, 1:00 p.m.
"Anybody see them?" Karen Turner murmured, scanning the glacier-filled valley below while she squinted against the blinding expanse of white.
Her teammates, the other five members of the Medusas—the first all-female Special Forces team in the United States military—muttered grim negatives as well.
Somewhere out there was a Norwegian Special Forces team charged with tracking down the Medusas and treating them like hostiles if caught. Translation: if the Norwegians caught them, they'd beat the living crap out of them in the name of teaching the Medusas a lesson about daring to play with the boys.
Karen sighed. Their supervisor, Col. Jack Scatalone, had warned them this wouldn't be easy. He'd said that foreign Special Forces teams would take grave offense at women trying to do the same job as men. American women soldiers had been allowed into combat in the 1990s and American soldiers had had a decade of getting used to the idea under their belts already. Not so in most other parts of the world.
Problem was, for the Medusas to be effective in the long term, they had to be able to work seamlessly with their foreign counterparts when crises arose around the globe. In today's world, Special Forces teams had to pool their resources and work together because almost all security threats crossed international borders.
That meant the Medusas must overcome foreign teams' reluctance to work with women. And that meant training with them, or more to the point, sucking up whatever crap teams like this one handed out to the Medusas until they earned the foreign soldiers' respect.
If the Medusas couldn't win over their foreign counterparts, they stood no chance of being combat effective. It was that simple.
Which was why the Medusas had been hiking around out here for twenty-four hours straight. Only about five of it had been in actual daylight and all of it had been in bitter cold. Welcome to February in the Arctic.
The Norwegian team had been on their tails relentlessly the entire time. The bastards had actually laughed during the mission briefing when they'd found out their job would be to track down and capture the Medusas. They'd even offered to give the women a couple hours extra head start.
Of course, the Medusas had declined. It hadn't been until after she and her teammates said no that the Norwegians casually mentioned four of the six men on their team had been Olympic medalists in biathlon—combined cross-country skiing and target shooting. Great.
Her boss, Major Vanessa Blake, asked over the throat mike and earpiece setup they used, "How much longer can you break trail for us before you give out, Python?"
All of the Medusas had a snake nickname and Python was Karen's field handle. She consideredVanessa's question. She was getting dehydrated, and between trying to stay warm and outpace a bunch of damned Olympians, she was way down on calories. It took six thousand a day out here to function. Fortunately, her creeping panic at watching these guys inexorably eat up the gap between themselves and the Medusas could be used for fuel, too.
She replied, "Another hour, I suppose. Two if we don't have to climb any mountains."
The terrain was slashed by steep valleys and deadly crevasses in the permanent snowcap. Someone had to go first and break the crust of snow, generally sinking about waist-deep in the process. They'd each taken their turns at it, but because of her size and strength, she'd been taking double shifts on point.
By her reckoning, they'd covered about twenty miles. She glanced at the sun skating low across the horizon. It would duck down out of sight soon, even though it was barely afternoon.
"Hey, Viper," Karen said. "Did Scat hint at what these guys are planning to do after they catch us and rough us up?"
Major Vanessa Blake, the Medusas' commander, snorted. "He didn't tell me squat. Besides," she added with a hint of laughter in her voice, "we had better things to do than worry about upcoming training."
With Vanessa and Jack both active in Special Operations, he in Detachment Delta and she in the Medusas, their personal relationship had to squeeze in between their missions and training. What her boss saw in Col. Scatalone, Karen couldn't fathom. But then, she had never really forgiven him for calling her oversized and mannish in her initial training. Oh, she knew he'd only been trying to mess with her mind. Nothing personal. Head games were part and parcel of any military training. Still, he'd nailed her Achilles' heel, and the memory of it stung.
"Gee, you mean you don't sit around and talk shop when the two of you manage to get a moment alone?" Karen quipped.
The other women chuckled, although the sound was strained. Everyone was worried these Norwegians would make short work of the Medusas. If that happened, the Medusas stood no chance at all of earning the men's respect. And they all knew what rode on that outcome.
She pulled herself a few more inches forward on her elbows and in the maneuver scooped more snow into the neck of her white thermal windbreaker. It melted slowly, dribbling down the front of her shirt. A blast of wind hit her cheeks above her scarf as she peeked out from behind a rock outcropping. It sprayed her with needle-sharp crystals of snow and made her misery complete. What bad guy in his right mind would operate in an environment like this? It was hard to fathom when in their work the Medusas would ever have need of the ability to work in such a frigid wasteland.
"I smell a rat. Jack's messing with us. There's more to this exercise than a simple chase to the North Pole."
Vanessa laughed. "You're always suspicious of him."
"Yeah, and I'm usually right, too," Karen retorted. "We'd better get moving. For some reason, I'm happy to delay the moment when these Norwegians catch us."
Karen nodded and shouldered her pitifully small pack of supplies. Jack hadn't let them bring out more than a bare minimum of food or fuel—to use if and when they ever got around to stopping and resting. She headed down the slope, plowing through the waist-deep powder. She hoped the Norwegians were enjoying strolling along the trail she'd made for them.
She scooped up a handful of snow and ate it. The good news was, with her working this hard, eating snow didn't dangerously lower her core body temperature. In fact, it helped keep her from sweating. So what was the crawling sensation along her spine then? It was like beads of sweat rolling up her back and across her shoulders. Not good. She announced reluctantly, "I feel like I'm being watched."
"Check six, team." Vanessa ordered quickly.
The six women dropped flat in the snow, pulled out binoculars, and scanned the valley they'd just crossed.
Katrina Kim, the team's sniper, murmured, "I may have movement at two o'clock, range four hundred yards. Top of that last ridge we crossed."
Four hundred yards? Karen swore under her breath. If the Norwegians were that close, it wouldn't be long until they caught up with the Medusas. She had to admit, these guys were good. They'd picked up the Medusas' trail and closed a gap of several miles in a single day. She moved her field glasses further along the crest of rock. If the Norwegians were on that ridge, they'd fan out to cross it.
For a couple minutes, she saw nothing. But then a faint movement caught her attention. It could've been just a gust of wind stirring up a whorl of snow between those two boulders. Or it could be a soldier in white arctic gear sliding across the wash of snow close to the ground.
Karen reported, "Possible movement. Two hundred feet left of Katrina's siting."
Vanessa ordered under her breath, "Let's put the ridge at our back between us and them. Full stealth mode for crossing the ridgeline. Huddle on the other side."
Karen crawled the last few feet to the top of the ridge and slimed along on her belly, digging through the snow at snail speed. The idea was to tunnel through the snow deeply enough so her profile never rose up above the surface line of the snow. Easier said than done. It involved shoulder-killing shoveling and eating copious quantities of snow. But eventually, Karen panted on the far side of the ridge from their tails.
She surveyed the narrow, rocky valley stretching below her feet while the other women joined her over the course of the next couple minutes.
"Okay, now what?" Misty grunted, grimacing.
Karen felt for her California-born-and-bred teammate, who had to be hating this cold. Nothing sucked quite like frostbiting a good tan. "Take a look down there." She pointed near the bottom of the rift. "See below us where those two long lines of rock outcroppings narrow down like a funnel?"
The others nodded. "What if we set an ambush at the bottom of that? It's not like we're gonna be able to outrun these guys all the way to our meeting point with Jack. So why not turn and fight now at a place of our choosing instead of theirs?"
Vanessa replied, "We've only got an hour or less of daylight and relative warmth left. They'll have to slow down then."
Karen commented, "Yeah, but so will we."
Vanessa nodded. "True. What did you have in mind?"
"What if we make a big, obvious trail through that funnel and out the other side of it, then we back up and spread out in that open area at the bottom of the funnel and bury ourselves in the snow for an ambush?"
"How do we breathe? It's not like we have snorkels out here," Aleesha asked. She was the team's doctor and an avid scuba diver.
Karen thought fast. They'd need long, hollow tubes of some kind. "What about our tent poles? We could stick them up through the snow and breathe through them."
Aleesha frowned. "They're aluminum. We could freeze our lips to the metal. We'd need to hold them with our hands right above our mouths to prevent cold from traveling down the tube to bare flesh."
Vanessa added, "We'd also need to be able to see the hostiles, and to coordinate when to jump them."
Karen pictured their flexible mini-periscopes. "I think our peek-a-boos are narrow enough to fit down a tent pole. We could stick the lens of one up through the snow and have one of us watch for the tangos to walk into the trap. When they're in position, the lookout could call the attack over our radios."
The others nodded. Aleesha added, "I want radio check-ins every two minutes to make sure nobody accidentally smothers. And we can only bury ourselves under a few inches of snow. The heat from our bodies will melt the snow around us and form a shell of ice. That can't be allowed to get so thick and hard we can't break through it. So, every fifteen minutes, I want us to break through to the surface."
Karen nodded along with the others. Aleesha, a trauma surgeon in her pre-Medusa life, was the resident mother hen in charge of looking out for their health and safety. And she did a great job of it, too, even if her methods were occasionally a bit unorthodox.
In short order, Karen waded right down the center of the natural rock funnel while the others followed. Then, carefully, they backtracked to the ambush point, walking backward the whole way so their footprints wouldn't give them away.
Since this shindig was Karen's idea, she was elected to man the periscope, which was just as well. She was a bit prone to claustrophobia, and burying herself alive in snow wasn't her idea of a great time.
Rigging up the breathing tubes and burying the first several Medusas wasn't hard. Karen was fourth. She blew up a plastic storage bag they used to keep equipment dry and put it in front of her face. Fully inflated, it was roughly the size of a basketball. Once Vanessa and Misty had buried her in a relatively comfortable crouch, she breathed the air out of the bag, deflating it, and leaving an open space in front of her face to maneuver her hands and twist the periscope back and forth in its aluminum tube. One tube in her mouth to breathe, another tube near her eye to peer out the periscope. The arrangement was awkward and uncomfortable, but it worked.
Vanessa's muffled voice came from above. "How's the view?" Karen took a look. "Tilt the end of the scope up a little more. All I can see are your mukluks."
After a couple more minor adjustments, she could see the clearing for the ambush and the last hundred feet or so of the approach down the mountainside. She watched Vanessa bury Misty and then pull a plastic sheet pre-piled with snow over herself.