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The LC-130 Hercules turboprop plane jumped and dropped as the turbulence buffeted it about the sky. Annja Creed, dressed in extreme-cold-weather gear issued to her by the U.S. military, clutched at the armrests on her seat. She felt as if her stomach were on a roller-coaster ride and had forgotten to inform her.
She swallowed the rising bile in her throat and felt the plane lurch again. "This is getting ridiculous," she said. She unclasped her seat belt and tried to stand, bumping her head against the interior bulkhead in the process.
If the plane was going to crash, she at least wanted to see it coming rather than sit trapped in her seat. Annja clawed her way forward toward the cockpit.
She passed one of the crew on her way. "Is it always like this?"
He grinned. "Yup. This time of year, it's always stormy down in these parts. You get used to it after a few trips."
"Wonderful," she said, not feeling any better about the turbulence.
She made her way to the flight deck. "Hi."
The pilot turned. "You're supposed to be strapped in, Miss Creed. It's not exactly safe for you to be roaming around."
Annja smiled. "I got the distinct impression that it wasn't safe sitting in my seat, either."
"We're totally fine," the pilot said. "This is run-of-the-mill updrafts, turbulence and assorted atmospheric anomalies."
"Anomalies?" Annja asked.
He shrugged. "We don't really know what to call them. But they come with the territory of flying near the bottom of the world."
The copilot glanced at her. "You're in no danger."
Annja smirked. "Guess I figured if the end was coming, I wanted to see it rather than hide from it."
The pilot nodded. "Understandable sentiment. I'd be the same way. If you want to, you can stay as we make our approach."
"How much longer?" she asked.
"Maybe fifteen minutes. We come in low and fast, so make sure you hold on to something when we hit."
"Hit? You guys sure do have a great way of putting things."
"Well, we don't so much land as we skip and slide to an eventual stop. Those skis underneath our wheels are there for a reason," the copilot said.
Annja nodded. When they'd taken off from the Air National Guard base in New York, she'd noticed the long skis on the underside of the plane. Without the benefit of a proper runway, aircraft going to Antarctica sometimes had to land on skis.
It was the first time Annja had ever done this and she wasn't quite sure what to expect.
The flight to New Zealand had been a long one with three in-flight aerial refuelings supplied by KC-130 supertankers. Annja had watched the experienced crew guide the plane to within a quarter mile of the flying gas station, take on a full tank of gas and then continue on its way.
She looked out of the cockpit glass and could see snow falling. The pilot pointed to the instrument console. "Wipers, please."
"Wipers." The copilot switched them on and they flicked the flakes from the glass.
The plane felt as if it was starting to descend. Annja could hear flaps grinding in the cold blasts of air outside. The pilot kept the throttle up. Suddenly, Annja felt very much out of place.
Best just to let these guys get done what they need to get done, she thought. She turned and headed back to her seat.
She passed more crew members. One of them was drinking a tumbler of coffee. "Can I get you some?" he asked.
Annja shook her head. "No, thanks. Not sure my stomach will let it settle right now."
He grinned. "We'll be down in about ten minutes. You can have all you want then."
Annja sat down and secured her seat belt. As she glanced around the dimly lit interior of the plane, she thought back to the letter she'd received in her mailbox shortly after returning from her latest dig. The letter had been sent from a colleague she'd once worked with: Zachary Guilfoyle. Zach had always been obsessed with prehistory on the planet, and his quest for the strange had made him something of an untouchable among other members of the more conservative scientific community.
But Annja had loved hanging out with him. Zach, while a sucker for any bit of the mythical, was also a mean card shark and could spin a tale that often left you wondering what was truth and what was fantasy.
His letter had asked Annja to come down to the research station in Antarctica. He was currently there, studying something that he would only describe as "very interesting."
Annja had put the letter away intrigued but with no real thought toward going. She had reports to file for Chasing History's Monsters, after all. And she had some very overdue bills to pay.
She was all set to send Zach an e-mail telling him she couldn't go when a pair of men in dark suits, bad haircuts and disposable sunglasses had shown up outside her loft one afternoon as she returned from a jog.
"Are you Annja Creed?" one of the strangers asked.
She glanced at them, knowing immediately they were with the government. "You're telling me that with all the technology you guys have at your disposal these days, you really have to ask if I'm who you're looking for? What is that, some sort of leftover ritual you still follow from the Cold War?" she said.
It got a smirk out of one of them. "Well, you were out jogging."
"Ah, so it's more a comment on how crappy I look right now. Well, as long as I know," she said, wondering what she was in trouble for now.
Annja started up the steps. "What can I do for you?"
The Fed leaned against the railing. "You got a letter recently from a Mr. Guilfoyle."
"Are you asking me or telling me?" Annja said.
He looked over the top of his glasses at her. Annja smiled. "Right, of course. Yes, I got the letter from Zach. So what?"
"He's requested your presence at the research center in Antarctica."
Annja sighed. "If you already know about the letter, I'm assuming you know all about the contents of the letter. So how about we don't waste any more of each other's time me being the sweaty, stinky creature in need of a shower and you guys tell me exactly what it is you want and then go back to scaring little kids with those costumes. Okay?"
"We need you to go to Antarctica," the man said.
"Why?" Annja asked.
"Because Guilfoyle needs your help. He says you're the only one he can trust. The only one he'll work with."
Annja felt the sweat rolling down her back. It tickled a bit whenever it did that and she really wanted that shower. "What's the big deal in Antarctica?" she asked.
"Of course. All that snow and ice. No wonder you guys want to keep a lid on it."
The Feds said nothing, but just looked at her.
Annja cleared her throat. "You guys aren't leaving until I agree to gois that what I'm seeing here?"
"Something like that."
"Right." Annja took a breath and sighed. "All right. I'll need a day or so to get my things in order and let my boss know that I won't be in to do that work on the reports I'm supposed to be filing," Annja said, stalling for time to figure out what was going on.
"That's already been taken care of," one of the men said.
Annja frowned. "Excuse me?"
"Your boss. He's already been called. He knows not to expect you for about ten days."
One of the Feds shrugged. "Well, it's not like they run daily flights into the research station. Especially this time of year. Weather's a lot worse than usual."
"We need to get you to New Zealand, Miss Creed."
"And then on to Antarctica."
Annja nodded. "Did you guys already take a shower for me, as well?"
Annja started up the steps. "Good. In that case, I'm going to soak my tired muscles. I'd invite you guys up, but I know what habitual snoops you are. There's no telling what kind of trouble you'd get into up there."
The lead Fed grinned. "That's okay. We've already seen the place."
Annja started to laugh, but something about the way he said it told her he wasn't joking. The slimy bastards had been into her place.
She stalked into the building and slammed the door shut behind her. What the hell had Guilfoyle gotten himself mixed up with this time?
The plane jerked again and seemed to turn slightly. Annja felt as if she'd just been jarred awake.
They must be starting to come in now, she realized.
One of the crew members moved past her. "Won't be long now. Sit tight. We'll be on the ground shortly."
"Thanks," she said.
He moved off and Annja closed her eyes. The propellers seemed to be groaning now. She could hear them straining against the Antarctic gales. It sounded like frozen pellets of snow pummeling the plane outside.
She could imagine the pilot and copilot going through their loading routine. They'd lower the flaps, decrease the throttle and line up the nose of the plane with the point on the ground where they'd be landing the plane.
Did they have runway lights strung out down here? Annja didn't know what to expect. All she knew was that two days ago she'd been standing on her front stoop back in Brooklyn sweating profusely while two Feds spoke to her. She'd gone upstairs, showered, tossed a few items into a bag and then been whisked off to the 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard based outside Sche-nectady. From there, she'd been hustled aboard a big military plane and then flown across the world to Christchurch, New Zealand.
In Christchurch, the weather was seventy degrees and pleasant. She could have lounged there in jeans and a T-shirt. Instead, the flight crew made her clamber into thermal underwear and extreme-cold-weather survival gear.
"In case we go down, you have to be clothed already in survival gear," the loadmaster told her matter-of-factly.
"You ever go down?" Annja asked nervously.
He grinned. "Once we pass the boomerang, we either land or crash."
"The point at which we can't come back here." He zipped up her parka. "But I wouldn't worry about it. It's only bad if we have a whiteout landing."
"I don't think I want to know about that," Annja said. By that point, the two Feds who'd flown down with her from New York City had maneuvered her onto the plane and then waved goodbye to her. They'd never told her why she was heading to Antarctica and she'd given up asking.
"I hardly even got to know you guys," Annja said.
"And that's how it should be," one said. Then they were gone. Back to the shadow world they lived in. Annja shook her head and focused on trying to keep herself in the moment.
Her ears popped as the plane descended. It banked again and then leveled off.
The propellers strained further and the entire cabin filled with a kind of metal grinding noise. Annja hoped the skin wasn't about to tear itself free from the framework.
"Stand by!" One of the crew shouted over the din, and Annja clutched the armrests of her chair, willing herself to breathe normally while her heart did its best imitation of a jackhammer.
She could almost hear the wind.
She could almost feel the cold.
And somewhere below her, Zach Guilfoyle and his desperate need for her assistance waited.
The plane touched down with a bump and then a skip, followed by another bump and then it was nose down into a screaming, skidding slide that seemed to last utterly forever while Annja kept her eyes closed and her mind focused on her breathing.
And then, everything was still.
Annja opened her eyes and saw the crewman with the coffee tumbler standing over her.
Annja released her hand rests. "Yeah. I think so."
He nodded. "Great. Well, we're here."
"Yep. Welcome to Antarctica, Miss Creed."
As Annja stepped off the plane, she took in the vast scene before her. She saw snow and ice everywhere, but also the look of an entire town some distance away.
"That's McMurdo," the pilot said. "Most of the folks who come down here stop by there first. Last chance at a decent watering hole, too."
"It's big," Annja said. "Much larger than I expected any of the outposts down here to be."
"During the Antarctic summer, there are between eleven hundred and fifteen hundred people at the station. With over one hundred and fifty buildings, they've pretty much got something for everyone," he said.
"What about now?"
The pilot pointed overhead, where a distinct lack of sun sent howling winds across the barren ice runway. "When it gets dark like this? Maybe two hundred altogether."
"Cozy," Annja said.
The pilot laughed over a gale. "We don't usually fly this time of year."
"How come you did this time?"
He looked at her. "Orders, Miss Creed. Our orders were to get you down here whatever the risk."
Annja frowned. "I appreciate the chance you and your crew took on me. I don't know what the big deal is, but I'll try not to let you guys down."
He shook her hand and then headed off to oversee the refueling procedure. Annja knew that once the plane's tanks were topped off, they'd be flying back to New Zealand.
She felt remarkably warm despite the frigid temperatures outside. The extreme-cold-weather gear she wore had certainly proved itself capable of keeping the harsh conditions at bay, but she wondered how long it might last in a survival situation. She shuddered at the thought of freezing to death out here, but her thoughts were broken by the sound of a vehicle approaching.
Across the ice, she spotted what looked like a Sno-Cat. The tracked vehicle slowly chewed its way through the snow and ice. A flashing red light atop the cab helped mark its position while the bright red paint made it stand out in contrast to its surroundings.
Annja hefted her duffel bag and stood on the leeward side of the plane, trying to shield herself from the wind as much as possible. At last, the Sno-Cat trundled to a halt almost right in front of her and the cab door opened.
"Climb on inweather's getting worse. I want to get you back to town before it gets any nastier out here."
Annja hustled over to the Sno-Cat and heaved her duffel bag into the open door before climbing up on part of the tracks and sliding into the passenger compartment herself.
As soon as she did, she felt a bellows of heat pumping up between her legs. The interior windows were coated with condensation. The driver next to her held out his hand.