An hour later, they stood before the icy rubble at the Fear glacier’s front face. The freezing rain had stopped, and a weak sun struggled to pierce the gunmetal clouds. Marshall rubbed his arms briskly, trying to warm himself. He looked around at their little group. Sully had returned, bringing with him Ang Chen, the team’s graduate student. Except for Penny Barbour, their computer scientist, the entire expedition was now assembled at the terminal moraine.
The cave lay directly ahead, its mouth black against the clear blue of the glacial ice. To Marshall, it looked like the barrel of a monstrous gun. Sully stared into it, chewing distractedly on his lower lip.
“Almost a perfect cylinder,” he said.
“It’s undoubtedly a branch pipe,” Faraday said. “Mount Fear’s riddled with them.”
“The base is,” Marshall replied. “But it’s very unusual to see one at this altitude.”
Abruptly, another section of ice front calved off the glacier, collapsing in house-sized blue chunks at its base and throwing up a cloud of ice shards. Chen started violently, and Faraday covered his ears against the roar. Marshall grimaced as he felt the mountain shudder beneath his feet.
It took several minutes for the echoes to die away. At last, Sully grunted. He glanced from the ice face, to the mouth of the cave, to Chen. “Got the video camera?”
Chen nodded and patted the equipment bag slung over one shoulder.
“You’re not planning on going in, are you?” Faraday said.
Instead of answering, Sully straightened to his full five feet six inches, sucking in his paunch and adjusting the hood of his parka, readying himself for the camera lens.
“It’s not a good idea,” Faraday went on. “You know how brittle the lava formations are.”
“That’s not all,” Marshall said. “Didn’t you see what just happened? More ice could calve off and bury the entrance at any minute.”
Sully looked back at the cave indecisively. “They’d want us to.”
‘They’ referred to Terra Prime, the cable channel devoted to science and nature that was underwriting the expedition.
Sully rubbed one gloved hand against his chin. “Evan, Wright, you can stay out here. Ang will follow me in with the camera. If anything happens, get the army guys to chop us out.”
“The hell with that,” Marshall said immediately. “If you discover buried treasure, I want a cut.”
“You said it yourself. It’s not safe.”
“All the more reason you need another hand,” Marshall replied.
Sully’s lower lip protruded truculently, and Marshall readied himself for a fight. Then the climatologist relented. “Okay. Wright, we’ll be as quick as we can.”
Faraday blinked his watery blue eyes but remained silent.
Sully brushed stray flakes of snow from his parka, cleared his throat. He glanced up a little gingerly at the ice front. Then he positioned himself before the camera. “We’re standing at the face of the glacier,” he said in a hushed, melodramatic voice. “The retreating ice has exposed a cave, nestled in the flank of the mountain. We’re preparing to explore it now.” He paused dramatically, then signaled for Chen to stop recording.
“Did you really say ‘nestled’ just now?” Marshall asked.
Sully ignored this. “Let’s go.” He pulled a large flashlight out of his parka pocket. “Ang, train the camera on me as we go inside.”
He started forward, the gangly Chen obediently following in his wake. After a moment, Marshall pulled out his own flashlight and swung in behind them.
They picked their way slowly and carefully through the debris field. A few of the blocks of ice were the size of a fist; others, the size of a dormitory. In the weak sunlight, they glowed the pale blue of an October sky. Runnels of meltwater trickled past. As the three continued, the shadow of the glacier fell over them. Marshall looked up apprehensively at the vast wall of ice but said nothing.
Close up, the cave mouth looked even blacker. It exhaled a chill breath that pinched at Marshall’s half-frozen nose. As Sully had said, it was quite round: the typical secondary vent of a dead volcano. The glacier had smoothed the surrounding rock face to almost a mirror finish. Sully poked at the blackness with his flashlight. Then he turned toward Chen. “Turn that off a moment.”
“Okay.” The student lowered the camera.
Sully paused, then glanced at Marshall. “Faraday wasn’t joking. This whole mountain is one big pile of fractured lava. Keep on the lookout for any fractures. If the tube seems at all unstable, we turn back immediately.”
He looked back at Chen, nodded for him to start filming again. “We’re going in,” he intoned for the camera’s benefit. Then he turned and stepped into the cave.
The roof wasn’t especially low—at least ten feet—yet Marshall ducked instinctively as he followed Chen inside. The cave bored straight into the mountain, descending at a gentle grade. They proceeded cautiously, flashlight beams playing over the lava walls. It was even colder in here than out on the ice field, and Marshall snugged the hood of his parka tightly around his face.
“Hold up,” he said. The beam of his flashlight had caught a hairline fracture in the braids of lava. He let his light travel along its length, then pressed at it gingerly with one hand.
“Then let’s proceed,” Sully replied. “Carefully.”
“It’s amazing this tunnel hasn’t collapsed under the weight of the glacier,” said Chen.
They moved deeper into the cave, treading cautiously. When they spoke, it was in low tones, almost whispers.
“There’s a coating of ice beneath the snow here,” Sully said after a minute. “Spans the entire floor. Remarkably even.”
“And it’s getting deeper the farther we go,” replied Marshall. “At some point, this branch pipe must have been filled with water.”
“Well, it must have frozen with remarkable speed,” Sully said, “because—” But at that moment the climatologist’s feet slid out from under him and he fell heavily on the ice with a whinny of astonishment.
Marshall cringed, heart in mouth, waiting for the ceiling to come crashing down around them. But when nothing happened, and he saw Sully was uninjured, his alarm turned to bemusement. “You got that on film, right, Ang?”
The graduate student grinned through his sudden pallor. “Sure did.”
Sully rose laboriously to his feet, frowning and wiping snow from his knees. He had a cat’s ingrained displeasure of losing dignity. “This is a serious moment, Evan. Please remember that.”
They continued even more slowly now. It was intensely quiet, the only sound the crunch of their feet on the dusting of snow underfoot. The ancient lava walls to either side were dark. Sully led the way gingerly, brushing the snow away with his boots, passing his flashlight beam back and forth over the path ahead.
Chen peered into the gloom ahead. “Looks like the cave opens up ahead.”
“That’s good,” Sully replied, “because the ice sheet’s getting deeper, and—”
Suddenly he fell again. But this was no clumsy repetition: Marshall immediately grasped that this time the scientist had fallen out of sheer surprise. Sully was frantically wiping away the snow underfoot and probing his light into the ice beneath. Chen dropped to his knees beside him, camera temporarily forgotten. Marshall came quickly forward, peering down into the ice. And with a chill unrelated to the cave’s air he saw two eyes—yellow, with black pupils large as billiard balls—stare implacably back up at him.
TERMINAL FREEZE is copyright © 2008 by Lincoln Child.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this text, or any portion thereof, in any form.
TERMINAL FREEZE is available from Doubleday Books, http://www.randomhouse.com