1 Discovery Minus Six Minutes
LIEUTENANT COMMANDER TERRANCE DRAKE of the U.S. Naval Support Force, Antarctica, paced behind a snow dune as he waited for the icy gale to pass. He badly needed to take a leak. But that would mean breaking international law.
Drake shivered as a blast of polar air swept swirling sheets of snow across the stark, forsaken wasteland that seemed to stretch forever. Fantastic snow dunes called sastrugi rose into the darkness, casting shadows that looked like craters on an alien moonscape. Earth’s “last wilderness” was a cold and forbidding netherworld, he thought, a world man was never meant to inhabit.
Drake moved briskly to keep himself warm. He felt the pressure building in his bladder. The Antarctic Treaty had stringent environmental protection protocols, summed up in the rule: “Nothing is put into the environment.” That included pissing on the ice. He had been warned by the nature geeks at the National Science Foundation that the nitrogen shock to the environment could last for thousands of years. Instead he was expected to tear open his food rations and use a bag as a urinal. Unfortunately, he didn’t pack rations for reconn patrols.
Drake glanced over his shoulder at several white-domed fiberglass huts in the distance. Officially, the mission of the American “research team” was to investigate unusual seismic activity deep beneath the ice pack. Three weeks earlier the vibes from one of those subglacial temblors had sliced an iceberg the size of Rhode Island off the coast of East Antarctica. Floating off on ocean currents at about three miles a day, it would take ten years to drift into warmer waters and melt.
Ten years, thought Drake. That’s how far away he was from nowhere. Which meant anything could happen out here and nobody would hear him scream. He pushed the thought out of his mind.
When Drake first signed up for duty in Antarctica back at Port Hueneme, California, an old one-armed civilian cook who slopped on the mystery meat in the officers’ mess hall had suggested he read biographies of men like Ernest Shackleton, James Cook, John Franklin and Robert Falcon Scott—Victorian and Edwardian explorers who had trekked to the South Pole for British glory. The cook told him to view this job as a test of endurance, a rite of passage into true manhood. He said a tour in Antarctica would be a love affair—exotic and intoxicating—and that Drake would be changed in some fundamental, almost spiritual way. And just when this hostile paradise had seduced him, he was going to have to leave and hate doing so.
Like hell he would.
From day one he couldn’t wait to get off this ice cube. Especially after learning upon his arrival from his subordinates that it was in Antarctica that the old man back in Port Hueneme had lost his arm to frostbite. Everyone in his unit had been duped by the stupid cook.
Now it was too late for Drake to turn back. He couldn’t even return to Port Hueneme if he wanted to. The navy had closed its Antarctica training center there shortly after he arrived in this frozen hell. As for the one-armed cook, he was probably spending his government-funded retirement on the beach, whistling at girls in bikinis. Drake, on the other hand, often woke up with blinding headaches and a dry mouth. Night after night the desertlike air sucked the moisture from his body. Each morning he awoke with all the baggage of a heavy night of binge drinking without the benefits of actually having been drunk.
Drake shoved a bulky glove into his pocket and felt the frozen rabbit’s foot his fiancée, Loretta, had given him. Soon it would dangle from the rearview mirror of the red Ford Mustang convertible he was going to buy them for their honeymoon, courtesy of his furloughed pay. He was piling it up down here. There simply was no place to blow it. McMurdo Station, the main U.S. outpost in Antarctica, was 1,500 miles away and offered its two hundred winter denizens an ATM, a coffeehouse, two bars, and a male-female ratio of ten-to-one. Real civilization was 2,500 miles away at “Cheech”—Christchurch, New Zealand. It might as well be Mars.
So who on earth was going to see him paint the snow?
Drake paused. The gale had blown over. At the moment, the katabatic winds were dead calm, the silence awesome. But without warning the winds could come up again and gust to a deafening 200 mph. Such was the unpredictable nature of Antarctica’s interior snow deserts.
Now was his chance.
Drake unzipped his freezer suit and relieved himself. The nip of the cold stung like an electric socket. Temperatures threatened to plunge to 130° below tonight, at which point exposed flesh would freeze in less than thirty seconds.
Drake counted down from thirty under his foggy breath. At T minus seven seconds he zipped up his pants, said a brief prayer of thanks, and looked up at the heavens. The three belt stars of the Orion constellation twinkled brightly over the barren, icy surface. The “kings of the East,” as he called them, were the only witnesses to his dirty deed. Wise men indeed, he thought with a smile, when suddenly he felt the ice rumble faintly beneath his boots before fading away. Another shaker, he realized. Better get the readings.
Drake turned back toward the white domes of the base, his boots crunching in the snow. The domes should have been a regulation yellow or red or green to attract attention. But attention was not what Uncle Sam wanted. Not when the Antarctic Treaty barred military personnel or equipment on the Peace Continent, except for “research purposes.”
Drake’s unofficial orders were to take a team of NASA scientists deep into the interior of East Antarctica, charted by air but never on foot. They were to follow a course tracking, of all things, the meridian of Orion’s Belt. Upon reaching the epicenter of recent quakes and building the base, the NASA team immediately began taking seismic and echo surveys. Then came the drilling. So the “research” had something to do with the subglacial topography of the ancient landmass two miles beneath the ice.
What NASA hoped to find buried down here Drake couldn’t imagine, and General Yeats hadn’t told him. Nor could he imagine why the team required weapons and regular reconn patrols. The only conceivable threat to the mission was the United Nations Antarctica Commission (UNACOM) team at Vostok Station, a previously abandoned Russian base that had been reactivated a few weeks earlier. But Vostok Station was almost four hundred miles away, ten hours by ground transport. Why NASA should be so concerned about UNACOM was as much a mystery to Drake as what was under the ice.
Whatever was down there had to be at least twelve thousand years old, Drake figured, because he’d read someplace that’s how long ice had covered this frozen hell. And it had to be vital to the national security of the United States of America, or Washington wouldn’t risk the cloak-and-dagger routine and the resulting international brouhaha if this illegal expedition were exposed.
The command center was a prefab fiberglass dome with various satellite dishes and antennae pointed to the stars. As he approached the dome, Drake set off loud cracking pops when he passed between several of dozens of metal poles placed around the base. The bone-dry Antarctic air turned a human being into a highly charged ball of static electricity.
The warmth generated by thermal heaters placed beneath the banks of high-tech equipment welcomed Drake as he stepped inside the command center. He had barely closed the thermal hatch when his radio officer waved him over.
Drake stomped over to the console, shaking off snow. He discharged his fingers on a grounded metal strip along the console edges. The sparks stung for a second, but it was less painful than inadvertently zapping the computers and frying their data. “What have you got?”
“Our radio-echo surveys may have triggered something.” The radio officer tapped his headset. “It’s too regular to be a natural phenomenon.”
Drake frowned. “On speaker.”
The radio officer flicked a switch. A regular, rhythmic rumble filled the room. Drake lowered his parka hood to reveal a tuft of dark hair standing on end. He tapped the console with a thick finger and cocked his ear. The sound was definitely mechanical in nature.
“It’s the UNACOMers,” Drake concluded. “They’re on to us. That’s probably their Hagglunds snow tractors we’re picking up.” Already Drake could picture the impending international flap. Yeats was going to go ballistic. “How far away, Lieutenant?”
“A mile below, sir,” the bewildered radio officer replied.
“Below?” Drake glanced at his lieutenant. The humming grew louder.
One of the overhead lights began to swing. Then rumbling shook the ground beneath their feet, like a distant freight train closing in.
“That’s not coming from the speaker,” Drake yelled. “Lieutenant, raise Washington on the SAT-COM now!”
“I’m trying, sir.” The lieutenant flicked a few switches. “They’re not responding.”
“Try the alternate frequency,” Drake insisted.
Drake heard a crack and looked up. A small chunk of ice from the ceiling was falling. He stepped out of the way. “And the VHF band?”
The lieutenant shook his head. “Radio blackout.”
“Damn!” Drake hurried to the weapons rack, removed an insulated M-16 and moved to the door. “Get those satellite uplinks online!”
Drake opened the hatch and burst outside. The rumbling was deafening. Breathing hard, heaving with each long stride, he ran across the ice to the perimeter of the camp and stopped.
Drake raised his M-16 and scanned the horizon through the nightscope. Nothing, just an eerie green aura highlighted by the swirling polar mist. He kept looking, expecting to soon make out the profile of a dozen UNACOM Hagglunds transports. It felt like a hundred of them. Hell, maybe the Russians were moving in with their monster eighty-ton Kharkovchanka tractors.
The ground shook beneath his feet. He glanced down and saw a jagged shadow slither between his boots. He jumped back with a start. It was a crack in the ice, and it was getting bigger.
He swung his M-16 around and tried to outrun the crack back to the command center. There were shouts all around as the tremors brought panicked soldiers tumbling out of their fiberglass igloos. Then, suddenly, the shouts were silenced by a shriek of wind.
Freezing air rushed overhead like a wind tunnel. The katabatic blast knocked Drake off his feet. He slipped and fell flat onto the ice pack, the back of his head slamming the ground so hard and fast that he instantly lost consciousness.
When Drake came to, the winds had stopped. He lay there for several minutes, then lifted his aching, throbbing head and looked out from beneath his snow-dusted parka hood.
The command center was gone, devoured by a black abyss, a huge crescent chasm about a hundred yards wide. The cold was playing tricks on him, he hoped, because he could swear this abyss stretched out across the ice for almost a mile.
Slowly Drake dragged himself toward the scythelike gorge. He had to find out what happened, who had survived and needed medical attention. In the eerie silence he could hear his freezer suit scrape along the ice, his heart pounding as he reached the edge of the abyss.
Drake peered over and aimed a flashlight into the darkness. The beam bathed the glassy blue-white walls of ice with light and worked its way down.
My God, he thought, this hole has to be at least a mile deep.
Then he saw the bodies and what was left of the base. They were on an ice shelf a few hundred yards down. The navy support personnel in their white freezer suits were hard to distinguish from the broken fiberglass and twisted metal. But he could easily pick out the corpses of the civilian scientists clad in multicolored parkas. One of them was lying on a small ice ledge apart from the others. His head was bent at an obscene angle, framed in a halo of blood.
Drake’s mind swirled as he took in the remnants of his first command. He had to check the other bodies to see if anyone was still breathing. He had to find some equipment and get help. He had to do something.
“Can anybody hear me?” Drake called out, his voice cracking in the dry air.
He listened and thought he heard chimes. But the sound turned out to be the frozen limbs of his radio officer, clinking like glass as they dangled over smashed equipment.
He shouted into the wind. “Can anybody hear me?”
There was no response, only a low howl whistling across the abyss.
Drake looked closer and saw some sort of structure protruding from the ice. It wasn’t fiberglass or metal or anything from the base camp. It was something solid that almost seemed to glow.
What the hell is that? he thought.
An appalling silence fell across the wasteland. Drake knew then with chilling clarity that he was alone.
Desperately he searched for a satellite phone in the debris. If he could just get a message out, let Washington know what had happened. The hope that help was on the way from McMurdo Station or Amundsen-Scott might give him the strength to set up some sort of shelter, to make it through the night.
A sudden gust shrieked. Drake felt the ground give way beneath him, and he gasped as he plunged headlong into the darkness. He landed with a dull thud on his back and heard a sickening snap. He couldn’t move his legs. He tried to call for help but could only hear a hard wheezing from his lungs.
Overhead in the heavens, the three belt stars of Orion hovered in indifferent silence. He noticed a peculiar odor, or rather a change in the quality of the air. Drake could feel his heart pumping in some unfamiliar but regular pattern, like he was losing control of his body. Still, he could move his hands.
His fingers crawled along the ice and grasped his flashlight, which was still on. He scanned the darkness, moving the beam across the translucent wall. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. He couldn’t quite make out what he was looking at. They looked like pieces of coal in the ice. Then he realized they were eyes, the eyes of a little girl staring straight at him out of the icy wall.
He stared back at the face for a moment, a low moan forming at the back of his throat when he finally turned his head away. All around him were hundreds of perfectly preserved human beings, frozen in time, their hands reaching out in desperation across the ages.
Drake opened his mouth to scream, but the rumbling started again and a glistening avalanche of ice shards crashed down upon him.