Read an Excerpt
Something was moving across the sky above the clouds, something that glowed brightly enough to be seen faintly even through the gray overcast.
A new American plane, perhaps, testing the borders? There had been rumors for years of a craft the Americans called "Aurora" that could evade every Russian defensebut that was supposed to be invisible from the ground, flying too high and too fast to be seen.
The glow was brightening steadily, descending through the clouds and moving nearer at a fantastic speed.
It had to be Aurora, Taro thought; what else could move so fast? He had seen Russian planes many times, on patrol, on maneuvers, bringing in the men and equipment for the pipeline and the drilling sites and the pumping stations all along the Assyma section of the Yamal oil fields, and none of them had ever moved anywhere near so fast as this.
And then the thing burst out of the clouds in a ball of brilliant orange flame, washing the pale landscape in vivid color. It roared overhead before Taro could see it clearly; the air itself rippled visibly with the ferocity of the thing's passage.
It was huge, and made a sound louder than anything Taro had ever before heard, far louder than the howl of the worst storm he could remember. In its wake the air seemed warmerbut what sort of craft could warm the Siberian winter itself? That had to be an illusion, Taro told himself.
And then the thing crashed, with a boom that made the roar of its passage seem a mere whisper.
Taro turned and stared after it.
The horizon glowed orange, and again he thought he could feel heat, as if from an immense fire.
That had been unmistakably a crash, not a mere landing. If that had been the American Aurora spy plane, then it was down, and the authorities in Moscow would want to knowthe long Cold War might be over, but that didn't mean the Russian authorities would pass up a chance to get a good close look at some top-secret American technology. The Russian government wouldn't mind a chance to score a few moral points against the Americans, eithera polite complaint about Americans spying on peace-loving post-Communist Russia might coax a few face-saving trade concessions out of somebody.
There might even be survivors, and a heroic rescue could be very good not just for Russia, but for Taro. He might be famous, might be taken to Moscow and given a medal or something. While he was reasonably content as a reindeer herder, he wouldn't mind a taste of city life, or at least a chance to pick up a few modern comforts.
If he headed back to the village and the radio there was working, he could contact the army squad stationed at the Assyma pumping station, and they could send out a truck or helicopterbut that would take three hours back, and at least an hour for the truck or copter to find the crash site.
If he headed for the site directly, though, he judged that he could reach it in an hour and a half to two hours. If there were injured survivors that extra hour or two might be crucial. If there were valuables to be salvaged, he wouldn't mind getting to them first rather than merely guiding in a bunch of soldiers.
He set out across the ice, walking straight toward the orange glow and abandoning his hunt. His lost reindeer would keep.
In the Siberian cold anything would keep.
After he had been walking for a little over an hour Taro began to notice the warmth more than ever. At first he still told himself it was his imagination, that he was dreaming that cookfire heat; after all, the glow had faded away, and he was steering now by more ordinary landmarks. He couldn't really be feeling any heat from the downed aircraft, not when he was still, so far as he could judge, about two kilometers away, and when the craft had been down for so long.
Ten minutes later, though, he could no longer deny it; he was sweating in his heavy furs. He threw back his hood, and meltwater dripped down his brow.
He blinked it away and stopped in his tracks.
He was still a kilometer or so from the long, crooked ravine that cut across the icy plain, but he could see it ahead. That wasn't what troubled him; he had known the ravine was there. No, he stopped because the ice between himself and the ravine didn't look right; it glistened, not with the hard crystalline glitter it ought to have, but with a slick wet gleam.
Taro frowned, took several steps, then carefully knelt down. He put a gloved finger to the ground, then picked it up and looked at it.
The tanned leather of his glove had darkened with moisture. The ice was wet.
He wasn't dreaming the heat. It was real.
He didn't like that at all. A thaw in the Siberian winter? Something melting the permafrost? Even the American Aurora superplane surely couldn't generate that much heat!
The rifle he carried on his back was rarely used. He had it not because he really needed it, but as a mark of status among his people, a reminder that his grandfather had fought the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War. There were few predators to defend against out here on the ice, either human or beast; the stories of wolves prowling the vicinity dated mostly from his grandfather's time and might just be the lies of old men who wanted to reaffirm their own claims to manhood when they could no longer act as men.
Taro had on occasion fired the rifle in celebration, he had fired it several times in target practice, and twice to put injured reindeer out of their suffering, but he had never used it in self-defense. He had never had any need to defend himself with anything more than words or fists.
Now, though, he pulled the weapon from its fur-lined sheath and checked it over carefully. It seemed to be, as always, in perfect condition.
With the rifle ready in his arms, he advanced cautiously toward the ravine, careful of his footing on the melt-slicked ice.
The thing that had fallen from the sky in a fireball had landed inside the ravine ahead, he realized. He frowned. He knew that crevasse; he had lost a yearling there once. It was a long, narrow, rocky canyon; in the summer thaws it carried a trickle of meltwater north to the sea. In winter it was as dry and frozen as anywhere else, but too wide and deep for the snow to bury it completely.
The edges of the canyon were treacherousdrifted snow and built-up ice would extend out beyond the supporting rock, and a man or reindeer who got too close might well tumble in and be unable to climb back up the icy sides.
If the fallen object was down there, any investigation would be difficult. Taro frowned and slowed his pace.
Something flickered, just at the edge of his vision. He turned, startled, and brought the rifle to bear...
On nothing. There was nothing there, just the empty plain of ice.
Taro blinked and thought he saw a shimmer in the air somewhere to one side. He jerked the rifle over a few centimeters, thinking he must have caught a reflection on the icebut a reflection of what?
Then a light sparkled, three moving dots of red that skittered across the ice almost too fast to follow, then skimmed up his body and settled onto his forehead, the three of them wavering about until they settled into a tidy little triangle. Taro could feel them as tiny spots of warmth, could see the red beams, but he could not make out where they were coming from, could not think what they could be. They seemed to be coming from a patch of empty air.
Then something flared blue-white, lighting the snow on all sides, and Taro knew no more.