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Sonya Adams froze. The sight of the cougar left her as rigid as the little girl sitting in the snow. For eternal seconds the triangle of animal, child and woman remained unmoving. I don't owe these people anything, Sonya told herself. They kidnapped me to get media attention. They may kill me. Then with no more thought than she'd give to breath itself, Sonya began to inch toward Willow, keeping her eyes on the huge lion, at least seven feet from its reddish nose to the tip of its twitching tail. Its teeth were bared, its ears pinned back.
My God, it's going to spring.
The girl started to sob.
"Willow, it's okay," Sonya said in a deliberately loud voice. "It's just a big old cat. Please don't cry, and I want you to stay really still. Do you know how to play freeze tag?" The whole time she talked, Sonya moved closer to her, saw the girl nodding her answer, and said, "Good. I want you to stay frozen right now. That's really important."
Four more steps and she could stand in front of her. As she eased forward, she slowly slipped off her bearskin coat, then raised it high above her head, making herself look as large as possible.
One more big step and she'd be standing between Willow and the cougar. But that's when her leg post-holed in the snow, all the way to her thigh. She almost toppled over, and felt a stabbing spasm in her lower back when she righted herself.
To her horror, the lion's hind feet pumped, ready to leap.
All over the world, people were riveted to their televisions for another glimpse of kidnapped fashion model Sonya Adams, held captive in what appeared to be a survivalist encampment somewhere in thewilderness of the Pacific Northwest. Passengers for an American Airlines flight from Chicago O'Hare to Miami crowded closer to a screen tilted down toward the departure lounge.
A blue-suited gate attendant announced that boarding was about to begin. "Quiet!" snapped a tall man in a dark overcoat. He and the other passengers had their eyes trained on CNN, which was airing the latest Terra Firma podcast. This one, however, did not feature Sonya.
Only a document stamped Top Secret filled the screen, as the altered voice of the podcast's female narrator-an environmental hero or a lunatic terrorist, depending on one's perspective-announced, "On Christmas day, Terra Firma will post this highly classified CIA report on the Web. It will be our gift to the world. But we are sorry to say that it is far more frightening than any act ever contemplated by any terrorist anywhere. 'Methane: Global Warming and Global Security' was authored by scientists with the highest security clearances in our government."
The podcast showed a close-up of the title. "The report reveals that officials know that massive deposits of methane that had been frozen in the seabed of the Arctic Ocean for millions of years are releasing into the atmosphere in amounts far greater than has ever been recorded-or revealed-publicly."
"Oh, my God," a woman said.
"Methane," the podcast narrator continued, "traps heat at more than twenty times the rate of carbon dioxide. For eons the frozen seabed, like the permafrost on land, has sealed billions of tons of methane under the Arctic Ocean. The methane was stabilized by cold temperatures and the pressure of the water above it.
"But temperatures have increased dangerously in the Arctic, and the methane is now releasing from the seabed over thousands of square miles in what scientists are calling 'methane chimneys.' Huge releases of methane in the past have been linked by renowned scientists to the hothouse conditions that gave rise to dinosaurs. We will give the government till Christmas, just ten days, to publish this report first and explain why it has hidden these terrifying developments from the world's people. We say to the government: break your ties to Big Oil, Big Coal, and big money."
The screen went blank.
People everywhere turned to one another in alarm.
At O'Hare, the crowd stood in stunned silence.
"Dinosaurs?" A young man with an iPod pulled out an earbud. "Did she say 'dinosaurs?'"