Frozen Solid: A Novel, страница 1
Frozen Solid is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by James M. Tabor
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
BALLANTINE and colophon are registered
trademarks of Random House, Inc.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Tabor, James M.
Frozen solid : a novel / James M. Tabor.
1. Women scientists—Fiction. 2. Bioterrorism—Fiction.
3. Overpopulation—Fiction. I. Title.
Title-page photograph: © iStockphoto
Jacket design: Carlos Beltrán
Jacket photographs: © Calee Allen
Part One: Continent of Pain
Part Two: Ice on Fire
Part Three: Homecomings
Other Books by This Author
About the Author
Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.
We must shift our efforts from treatment of the symptoms to the cutting out of the cancer. The operation will demand many apparent brutal and heartless decisions. The pain may be intense.
—DR. PAUL EHRLICH,
Bing Professor of Population Studies,
SETTING UP ITS FINAL APPROACH, THE C-130 PITCHED NOSE DOWN and snapped into a thirty-degree bank, giving Hallie Leland a sudden view of what lay below. It was the second Monday in February at the South Pole, just past noon and dark. Two streaks of light, thin and red as fresh incisions, defined the runway. Half a mile distant, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station appeared to float in a glowing pool. The air here was clear as polished glass, red and white and gold lights sparkling jewel-sharp a full mile below.
“Pilot having a bad day?” Hallie yelled at the loadmaster, the only other passenger. Glum and silent, he had spent the flight reading an old issue of People magazine. The peace had been unexpected and much appreciated. She’d been traveling for four straight days and nights, and her need for sleep was like a desperate thirst. But the aircraft was designed for cargo, not comfort. Her seat was nylon webbing that hung, hammock-like, along the entire length of the fuselage, and four roaring engines made seeking sleep like trying to doze behind a waterfall. So for most of the flight’s three hours she’d alternately revisited the bad parting from Wil Bowman at Dulles and tried to visualize diving a subglacial lake with twenty-two-degree water—her primary reason for coming here.
“Just a little fun.” A bit more cheer in the loadmaster’s voice. “It gets boring, flying McMurdo to Pole and back. Plus, if he goes in, there’s just them up front and us two back here. Know what I mean?”
She wasn’t sure she did. But she was watching, down on the ice, a clump of white light break into jittering pinpoints. “What’s that?”
“There’s a Polie saying: ‘Two best days of your life are the one you fly in and the one you fly out.’ Lot of happy flyouts down there.” He peered at her. “We don’t usually get incomers this late. You a winterover?”
“Looks like you’ll be full heading back to McMurdo.”
“Tell me about it.”
“You don’t sound happy.”
“Most’ll be drunk before they get on. Always a lot of throwing up and fistfights and such.”
“Drunk? It’s noon.”
He looked at her. “First time down here?”
The cowboy up front could fly, Hallie gave him that. She barely felt the Herc’s steel skis kiss the ice, no easy trick with sixty tons in the scant air of thirteen thousand feet. The plane taxied, stopped, lowered its cargo ramp. She paused at the top to don a face mask and pull up her fur-trimmed hood.
“I wouldn’t linger, ma’am. They’ll run you right over.” Beside her, the loadmaster gestured toward the mob down on the ice.
“Sorry. You don’t see that every day, though,” she said, looking up at the southern lights, unfurling like green and purple pennants across the black sky.
He frowned, hunched his shoulders. “Not supposed to look that way at noon.”
On the ice, a wall of bodies in black parkas blocked her way, faces hidden behind fur ruffs, headlamps on top, fog of liquor breath. The pack shuffled and stamped like horses at her family’s farm in Charlottesville.
“Coming through, please,” Hallie called.
“… come through you,” somebody slurred, and a few people laughed, but nobody moved. She walked around them. The loadmaster yelled, “Board!” and jumped aside like a man dodging traffic. Eventually, he dragged her two orange duffel bags down onto the ice.
“Welcome to hell froze over, ma’am. Enjoy your stay!” the loadmaster exclaimed. It was the first time she had heard anything resembling good cheer in his voice.
“How come you’re happy now?” she yelled.
“Ma’am, ’cause I’m flying outta here.”
She watched the plane claw its way back into the thin air, turn toward McMurdo, and then she was alone on the ice. She had never been in a place that looked and felt so hard. The sky shone like a dome of polished onyx etched with the white f
A digital thermometer hanging from one zipper pull read sixty-eight degrees below zero. The windchill dropped that to about one hundred below. She had heard firefighters describe fire as a living, hungry thing. This cold was like that, seeping through her seven layers of clothing, attacking seams and zipper tracks and spots of thin insulation. The exposed skin on her face felt as if it had been touched with lit cigarettes.
It occurred to her that she could die right here where she had deplaned, with the station in plain sight. She decided that all the sages were wrong about hell. It would not be fire. It would be like this. Cold, dark, dead. She rotated 360 degrees, saw nothing but the station. In this pristine air it looked closer than a half mile, but she knew the distance from maps at McMurdo. She kicked the ice, scarred and dusted with chips like a hockey rink after a game. Her head felt light and airy; silver sparks danced in her vision. Her ears were ringing, she was nauseated and short of breath, and her heart was pounding. Altitude, Antarctic cold, exhaustion—and she had just arrived.
She had brought her own dive gear, and each duffel weighed forty pounds. At this temperature, the ice was like frozen sand. Dragging the bags was going to hurt. She had made this trip on short notice—no notice, really, for such was the life of a BARDA/CDC field investigator. But it was still bad form, she thought, letting a guest freeze to death out here.
“Let’s go, then,” she said. Inside four layers of gloves and mittens, her hands were numbing already. She managed to grab the bags’ end straps and headed for the station, hauling one with each arm. It was like trudging through deep mud—at altitude. After thirty steps she stopped, lungs heaving, muscles burning, body cursing brain for making it do this mule work. The station seemed to have receded, as if she were drifting away from it on an ice floe in black water, like Victor Frankenstein’s pathetic monster.
She looked up and saw a light detach from the distant glow and dance toward her. Several minutes later, the snowmobile slewed to an ice-spraying stop. Its operator was about the diameter of a barrel and not much taller. He was all in black, right down to his boots. She kept her headlamp trained on his chest to avoid blinding him.
“It was getting cold out here. I didn’t expect a marching band, but—”
“Honey, you ain’t seen cold.” Hoarse, but definitely not a him. Woman with an Australian accent. “Graeter said you were supposed to come tomorrow. Lucky for you, the pilot radioed about an incoming.”
“Station manager. Think you can grab maybe one bag?” Hallie heard condescension, irritation, or a combination. She dumped both duffels onto the orange cargo sled.
“So why are you here? Nobody ever comes early for winterover,” the woman said. She sounded angry, though Hallie was hard-pressed to understand why. Chronic ire of the short? But then, going from cozy station to one hundred below for some clueless stranger could do it, too. A coughing fit left the woman gasping. She straightened, breathed in gingerly.
“That sounded bad,” Hallie said. “Bronchitis?”
“Pole cold. Don’t worry, you’ll get it. So are you a winterover?”
The woman got on the snowmobile and motioned for Hallie to sit behind her. The wind had picked up. “Does it always blow like this?” Hallie asked.
“What I meant, it’s usually stronger.”
Before she gunned the engine, the woman peered over her shoulder at Hallie. “I got it. You’re replacing that Beaker who died, right? What’s-her-name.”
“Her name was Emily Durant,” Hallie said.
“WELCOME TO ARSE,” THE BARREL-SHAPED WOMAN ANNOUNCED. “STANDS FOR—”
“I got it. ASRS. Amundsen-Scott Research Station.” Hallie had regained her breath. “It looks like a Motel 6 on stilts.”
They were standing beside the parked snowmo at the bottom of the yellow stairs that rose to the station’s main entrance.
“Wind blows underneath, stops snow buildup. Otherwise, five years, we’re buried. Just like Old Pole.”
“Everything happens here? Living, research, all of it?”
“Now it does. Summer people are gone. Beakers are finishing up projects. And there’s a skeleton crew of Draggers.”
“Pole slang. Scientists are Beakers. Support workers are Draggers like me. As in ‘knuckle draggers.’ ”
Inside, they shoved Hallie’s bags against a wall, peeled off outer layers. The other woman was five inches shorter and a good bit heavier than Hallie, who stood five-ten and weighed 135. She wore her brown hair in a crew cut. Her cheeks were pitted with old acne scars, and she had a kicked dog’s wary look. She peered at Hallie, took in the short, almost white-blond hair, high cheekbones, large, turquoise-blue eyes, and whistled softly. “Gonna have your hands full with boy Polies. And some of the girls. So you know.”
“What’s your name?” Hallie asked.
“As in Rochelle. What’s yours?”
“Hallie Leland.” She was peering, nose wrinkled, down a long, dim corridor. “Clean, well-lighted place you have here.”
“Energy conservation. Just enough light for safety. Motion sensors turn them on and off as you move along.”
“I was being ironic,” Hallie said.
“Gathered that. I’ve read the story. Faulkner, right?”
Hallie’s nose kept her from setting Bacon straight about contemporary American fiction. “What is that reek?”
“Eau de Pole,” Bacon chuckled. “Diesel fumes, disinfectant, burned grease, and unwashed bodies. You’re here just for five days?”
“Why is the floor vibrating?”
“So you’re one of those.”
“What kind of those?”
“Who answer questions with questions. It’s irritating.”
“Is it?” Hallie could keep the grin off her face, but not out of her eyes.
“Fungees.” Bacon scowled.
“What’s a fungee?”
“Fucking new guy. Or girl.”
Bacon’s cough had sounded bad outside. It was worse inside, without the face mask and the covering noise of wind. She was flushed, her eyes were bloodshot, and her nose ran.
“Picornavirus heaven,” Hallie said. “Everybody sealed in like lab mice, passing germs back and forth.”
“You a doctor?”
“Microbiologist. Where’s the cafeteria? I need water and coffee.”
The U.S. Navy dug the first South Pole station out of solid virgin ice in 1957. Buried thirty feet deep now, that original facility, called “Old Pole,” still survived. So did some vestiges of naval tradition. Thus the current station’s cafeteria was a galley. By any name, it was like the dining hall in a big high school or penitentiary, one open rectangle redolent of fresh floor wax and old grease, crammed with scarred green tables and chairs, and buzzing at lunchtime. The kitchen and serving line were in back. In a fit of festivity, somebody had once strung multicolored Christmas lights from the ceiling. Most were burned out now, and their wires hung like thick green cobwebs.
“How’s South Pole food?” Hallie was in line with Bacon.
“Ever been in prison?”
Before Hallie could say, “Not yet,” a red-haired woman in a lab coat stood up too quickly, knocking her chair over backward. She was clamping a wad of paper napkins to her face, trying to stanch a bad nosebleed. Blood quickly soaked the makeshift compress, ran down the skin of her hands and pale wrists, and dropped in radish-sized spots onto her white lab coat.
For a few moments, nothing more happened. Then the woman’s eyes bulged and her chest convulsed. She coughed out a thick, red stream. Took a step, stumbled, mout
She fell over backward. Her head hit the floor with a sharp crack. A PA system boomed:
“Code blue in the galley. Code blue in the galley. EMTs to the galley. Repeat, code blue in the galley.”
“Somebody called comms,” Bacon said.
A heavy man in black coveralls knelt beside the woman. He put his face close to feel for breath, shook his head, and began performing chest compressions. Another man knelt by her head with a mask-style ventilator, but there was too much blood flowing to use it.
Two EMTs in blue jumpsuits burst into the galley. They suctioned the woman’s airway, then went to work with a ventilator bag and defibrillator. After ten minutes and four sets of shocks, the instrument’s computerized voice droned, “Victim not responding.”
The EMTs rocked back on their heels. “She’s gone,” one said.
Hallie had seen victims on mountains and in caves badly hurt, drowned, and, several times, killed and disarticulated by long falls, but she had never seen so much blood. The woman lay completely surrounded by an oval, dark red pool. The two men and the EMTs looked like battle casualties.
The big room had been absolutely silent while the EMTs worked. Now it became even louder than before. When she’d entered, Hallie had seen dozens of faces, each one distinct. Now they all looked very much alike, reshaped by horror. Someone—she couldn’t tell whether man or woman—was sobbing softly off to one side.
“What the hell happened here?” Hallie turned to see a tall man dressed in pressed khakis. She was struck by the pallor of his skin and how his clothes hung off his knobby frame. His voice was raspy. Heavy smoker or bad sore throat, she thought. Maybe both.
“I was sitting close.” A woman in the onlooking circle, red-faced, close to tears. One hand was clasping a table edge, the other at the base of her throat. “Harriet stood up all of a sudden. I thought it was Polarrhea. But then she started vomiting blood. I never saw so much blood. Look at it.”
“She wasn’t vomiting,” one of the EMTs said. “No foreign matter there. Just blood.”
“Some kind of hemorrhage,” the other EMT said. He, like everyone else in the room, was still staring at the woman on the floor. Her skin was now almost as white as her lab coat. The smell of her fresh blood overwhelmed the wax and grease and everything else. Hallie’s stomach heaved. With the initial shock wearing off, she felt stunned, sorry for the woman, and, she was honest enough to admit, afraid.