Strange events under the Antarctic ice plunge earth’s nations into a predicament. And the world's superpowers are clueless about what they face. Ensuing events cause Russian leaders to seek out a grieving widow who spends her days caring for houseplants; they ask her to save Mother Russia from destruction. British and German officials are stumped by strange messages sent to average citizens, unsure what to do next. On the other side of the Atlantic, American naval commanders implore a potato chip loving civilian to pull off the impossible. As the crisis grows, the human ability to communicate is found lacking and society's capacity for compromise is tried. The dilemma causes ordinary people to become vital specialists and the ordeal tests limits they were unaware they had. These once average individuals are now asked to unite the globe's diverse cultures and confront an unknown foe, or modern civilization will come to an end.
Airspace Over McMurdo Research Station, Antarctica
Inna Kuznetsov failed to notice the air turbulence. She anticipated a rough ride in the small single prop plane and was buckled in tight. Besides, she was preoccupied with some newly received test data. The information absorbed her and revealed a confusing chemical analysis from ice cores recently extracted by the U.S. researchers. No air pocket would dare interrupt her work and she slowly but steadily worked thrhough all of the reports. Plus, a rough flight was a small inconvenience to find out what the Yanks were up to out on the Ross Ice Shelf.
The only other passenger on board groaned, then threw up into a government-issued barf bag. He wiped his face clean with a white handkerchief and said, “I hate this place so much. Cold enough to freeze a man’s gonads solid. And you don’t fly here. You ride the world’s most extreme roller coaster at ten thousand feet.” On cue, the plane pitched to left and he dropped the full bag on the floor as he grabbed for the armrest.
The pilot contorted his body aware of the mess just made behind him. “Son of a…Not again! You know the deal about getting puke all over my floor.”
Inna did not look up from her papers, her face was void of emotion. “This is the most fascinating place on the planet. You’ve been in Moscow too long.”
“I wish I was in Mother Russia right now!” Daniil inspected the mess at his feet.
“That’s your problem, Daniil. You’re not in the present.” She finally checked his shoes. “At least we’re almost there. Now, get yourself together. You need to put on your best face for the Americans.”
“I am always at my best. But why bother? To watch you prattle on about ice? It’s just frozen water.”
Inna chuckled then said, “My dear Daniil. Water is a miracle. It is at the center of everything on our world, a wonder molecule. And the ice here in Antarctica holds secrets frozen in time. It is a historical treasure trove. The work we are doing here can change our understanding of world history. It may even change the way we live.”
Daniil groaned. “See. That is what I'm talking about. It’s just ice. At least it has nothing to do with politics or international relations. It makes my job easy. I guess.”
“Yes. The Americans are our friends here and we don’t speak to each other in code here. I know that’s hard to for you to understand. But remember there are so few people on this continent. We must help one another. Besides, we’re all just scientists with no political or military interests. None. We just want to be left alone and conduct our research.”
“I know you tell the truth. But we are still Russians. And we must be sure to follow the mandates as given to us by our superiors. It’s our duty.” Daniil stared off into some imaginary distance as he spoke.
Inna could not keep the smile suppressed. “You do your job. I’ll do mine. But you'll not have much to do. We’re meeting Bubba and Liz. You know both of them, and they know you. This will be a quick visit and you’ll be back home drinking vodka before you know it.”
McMurdo Air Field, Antarctica
The waiting U.S. research team respected Inna’s talents. They had invited her to help with some recently discovered anomalies. Bubba Schwartz headed the United States ice surveys accompanied by Liz Chatham. The two U.S. scientists sported their own distinguished credentials, much like Inna. Also like her, they spent the bulk of their time outside in the bitter cold.
Bubba looked every part of an Antarctic researcher. Thick like a well-insulated seal and he had an overgrown shaggy brown beard with bushy hair only a few gray hairs.
In stark contrast, Liz was fair skinned, dainty, and thin with short red hair. It was a wonder to the McMurdo staff that she survived in the frigid air that commonly plunged to temperatures like minus fifty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. But Bubba knew the truth about Liz. She was sturdier than most and loved being on the ice, communing with the wildlife.
They spotted a small plane with the Russians as it approached the airstrip plowed into the ice and snow a half-mile outside of McMurdo. As the pair of U.S. researchers watched, the small ski plane wildly twitched in the intense wind. Bubba blurted out, “I hope that’s their usual pilot, this is no day for a new stick jockey to be landing here.”
Liz nodded, “I think the wind is getting worse.”
The craft continued its jerky descent till finally its wheels touched snow and ice. It slowed to a safe speed then taxied over to the small welcome party. The pilot cut his engines and the single propeller began to slow.
When it was safe, the door popped open and Daniil and Inna could be seen waiting to inside as the pilot secured the door and airstairs.
Bubba waved at them, “Privet! Welcome. We weren’t sure you would make it through these storms.”
Inna looked at the skies and yelled back. “This isn’t that bad. It’s Antarctica. What else would you expect?”
The pilot flicked his head at the exit to let the two passengers know it was safe to exit. Daniil followed Inna down the short set of stairs and he slinked off to one side, but Bubba spotted him and said, “Whoa, what happened to those boots, buddy. Was the ride that bumpy?”
Inna scowled. “Was that a joke or are you being rude?”
Liz waved off Bubba with one hand. “He doesn’t know how to be polite. He just spits out whatever runs through his pea sized brain. Ignore him. We’re glad you’re here. I know you came a long way to work with us. So, we should keep the formalities short and get going.” She then pointed to an idling transport.
Inna nodded in agreement. “Good idea. I am dying to see where you found it.”
So, the odd team of two Russians and two Americans loaded up into a large track vehicle waiting nearby. Bubba fired up the rig and drove off in the falling snow.
Their trip across the Ross Ice Shelf ended after about thirty minutes. They stopped at a coring site designated by a large drill rig and several generators.
The four climbed from the track vehicle and Bubba inspected the site like it was his mansion. “We’ve been coring here for a week because the ice is so thin. And we keep finding even thinner spots.”
Inna perked up. “How thin?”
Liz replied, “Two hundred feet.”
Inna pinched her eyebrows. “But this time of year, it should be one or two thousand feet thick.”
Bubba snorted. “Of course. We all know that. It’s why we became interested in the spot. But then…then we found the trace chemicals. We sent you an analysis. The stuff we found shouldn’t be on the bottom of this ice.”
Inna nodded. “I read the report. It was unusual and the thin nature of this spot is highly unusual. I expected to see some sort of indications on the surface, but there are no visible signs of anything different here.”
Bubba pumped up his chest just a little. “We thought the same thing, too. So, we put flags out to delineate the thin spot. To see if there is a pattern. But the area entailed is kind of big and the flags are hard to see. I can walk you around if you like. It’s sort of like a huge cigar shape.” He paused for a moment while staring into Inna’s deep blue eyes.
At forty-four, Inna stayed fit with the demands of her work on the ice. She had a natural beauty, pretty by most standards, keeping her long blonde curls tucked under a hood while working outdoors. Most women opted for short hair while working on the hardy Antarctic ice and snow. But cutting her long locks was never an option in her mind. She knew what she liked and apologized to no one for it.
Bubba realized he had stopped speaking, and continued, “There really isn’t a pattern or indication from the shape that tells us what is going on. I studied it a hundred times and got it all stored up here.” Bubba tapped the side of his head. He sounded like a teenager bragging about his winning play for the high school’s football team.
At the ridiculous sight of Bubba transforming into a slobbering puppy, Liz rolled her eyes, sighed, then said, “Bubba, don’t you think we should get the core rig started?”
He jerked to her words. “Um, yeah, … Of course, you’re right. We don’t have a lot of daylight left. Where should we drill next? I have a spot picked out. But I want to make sure it is okay with you, too, Inna.”
Inna shrugged and showed the palms of her mittens. “You know this area better than me. Let’s core the spot you like. I just want to witness a fresh core being extracted that I can test using my own procedures.”
Bubba, Inna, and Liz then expertly fired up the rig and began coring. Daniil watched.
After forty-five minutes, the core drill made it through the bottom of the ice. And that was the precise moment the massive ice sheet heaved without warning, rising a couple of feet into the air then dropping back into place, hard. The event happened fast and it was violent. All four of the team members were knocked to the ground and the incident was even strong enough to topple the coring rig.
Once things were again still, Daniil popped up from the ground and snapped at Inna. “What did you do?”
Inna knew this part of the world better than anyone. But lying on her back, she threw her mitten-covered hands into the air and replied. “We did nothing. The drill hit something hard, like metal. Then whatever it was that we hit moved, seemingly at high speed.”
“Get up!” The political officer grabbed her elbow as she tried to stand and he dragged Inna off to one side for some privacy. He spoke to her in hushed, hurried Russian. “Submerged sub?”
“Not likely. Subs never remain stationary that close to the ice, particularly under a thin spot that surrounds them in thicker ice. Submarine captains hate ice, it’s dangerous. And I don’t know of a sub that can accelerate like a rocket or lift ice this massive.”
“Maybe it’s new technology?”
Inna paused a few seconds to think. “This thing was at most a few feet from the bottom of the ice. The drill went from ice to metal. You know we always stop when the core bit breaks out into water or soil. There’s little doubt the object was almost touching the ice. If some country was trying out a new high-tech toy, the last place they would take a shiny new piece of equipment is just under a thin spot in the ice. It would be too risky. A natural event, like an underwater eruption or explosion, is a more likely explanation for lifting the ice shelf. But what was the object we hit? Some sort of gas pocket? But we didn’t hear an explosion and why did it seem like we hit metal?.”
Daniil pinched his lips to think, then said, “We should return to Vostok.”
Inna nodded in agreement and turned to start gathering up her gear that was now scattered all over the ice. “Give me a...” A six-inch-wide crack grabbed her full attention. It went straight, far as she could see in the glare of the sun and snow. “Now that’s unusual, and it wasn’t there when the drill started.”
Daniil also stared at the fissure. “What would have the ability to crack ice this thick, in a straight line?”
Inna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Bubba approached and broke up the Russian’s private discussion. “We have no idea what that was. And that fissure? It goes in a direct line towards the open Ross Sea. You have any thoughts, Inna?”
She studied the breach in the ice and replied without looking away from the anomaly. “I was just debating that very same thing with my colleague here, and we conclude the same. We don’t have a clue.”
The uniformed soldier held up his hand like a traffic cop signaling stop. “Comrade, careful, this may be a sensitive matter.”
Inna chuckled. “Easy, Daniil. Between the US, Russia, and our allies, who else would have this kind of technology? So, if our two countries don’t know, I'm sure it’s not the military or a matter that you would label as sensitive. Remember that time when we detected a U.S. sub? Bubba’s response wasn’t we have no idea.”
Bubba whined, “What are you trying to say? Are you insulting my ability to be diplomatic?”
“No, my fellow ice warrior, just the opposite. In that case, you simply said you couldn’t comment. So, you obviously knew, but you were polite with your answer. Very diplomatic. This time, you said you don’t know, and I believe you.” Inna learned to be tactful when necessary, and in this instance, she decided she might need more intelligence or data from the Americans.
Bubba’s cheeks blushed. “You know I always tell you what I can, and today, Liz and I have no earthly idea what that was.”
Inna finally took her eyes off the crack to make eye contact with Bubba. “We should take some pictures and make measurements.” She pointed at the core rig laying on its side. “We also need to retrieve that core sample. Then we must return to Vostok.”
Bubba shot back. “No, why don’t you come back to McMurdo and stay a while. We could use your input and we could analyze the core together.” He underlined his plea with a big grin.
She liked the idea of learning all that the Americans knew. So, Inna spun to glance at Daniil. “Is that OK with you?”
Daniil nodded to her. “It is if they have hot coffee. This place is soooo cold. And maybe some whiskey to spice it up.” His gaze fell back on the bizarre crack in the ice and his face fell long. “Don’t take too long to snap those pics, I don’t want to stay out here any longer than I have to.”
Bubba smiled and put his arm around Daniil. “I forgot you like Irish coffee so much. As it happens, I just might have some good Kentucky bourbon to share with you, my friend. But first, we need to figure out how to repair our gear and get that core out of the hole.”
McMurdo Research Station, Antarctica
Safely back at the McMurdo research station, Bubba confirmed that the United States’ high-tech monitoring equipment dutifully did its job and recorded an incident under the ice.
But the base engineer, Blake, sat surrounded at a workstation attempting to identify exactly what the state-of-the-art instruments recorded. Five monitors fenced in the flustered engineer to the front, and the four-member team from the ice coring operation enclosed Blake’s rear, peeking over his shoulder. He smacked the side of one monitor as if it would fix a problem. “Our equipment must have malfunctioned or it’s got a virus. A submerged object can’t move that fast. And if there is a sub that big, we might as well call the game right now. We’re all screwed. Nobody could compete with this if that’s a real vehicle. Not Russia, not the U.S.” He hit the monitor again.
Inna shook her head no. “The equipment is fine. We felt the thing move under us and it was indeed fast.”
Blake shot back. “Well, then how do you explain the size? The largest known sub would be a dinghy next to this thing. Our equipment is on the fritz.” He smacked the monitor one more time. Hard enough to injure his hand this time, which he now shook for relief.
Bubba scratched his bearded chin. “It might be a natural phenomenon. Blake, you said diagnostics checked out, but run them again. Inna, can I speak to you in private?”
Inna nodded yes and then left with Bubba to find an empty room.
After folding her arms, Liz tilted her head to one side while watching the pair leave the room. She spoke in a low voice, almost a whisper, to Daniil. “You think we can trust Bubba to be alone with her?”
Daniil chuckled. “He better behave. She’s far tougher than he is.” Both laughed at the truth in his statement.
Bubba and Inna located an empty room. Inside, she found a chair and sat. He closed the entry, pocketed his hands, and leaned on the shut door. “We both have to report our findings up the chain. What the hell do we tell them?”
Inna shrugged. “The truth.”
“No one is going to believe it. I’m pretty sure no one has ever seen anything like this, ever. They’ll think we lost our minds. Both of us will be assigned to counting snowflakes in this desolate place for life!”
“That’s fine by me. I spend too much time away from the ice dealing with bureaucracy in Moscow.”
Bubba smiled. “I forgot. You’re more comfortable on the ice than a penguin. I guess I am too, but I also like getting back the states. I don’t see myself as part of this place like you do.”
She studied him for a few seconds, wondering if he intended the comment as a put-down or praise. “So, as I said, I'm reporting what I saw and heard to Moscow, no matter how strange. What are you going to do?”
Bubba looked at the floor for a second, then scuffed it with the toe of his shoe. “Hell, I’ll do the same. Tell D.C. the truth, even if it’s bizarre. To be honest, I don't have another choice. But I know the brass back in Washington isn’t going to believe something metallic was sitting just under the ice and that it lifted the entire shelf when it moved. Plus, it accelerated so fast our instruments didn’t measure the speed accurately. Oh, and don’t forget, it’s the size of a soccer stadium shaped like a cigar.”
She smiled at him. “For a man that could be the offspring of a walrus, you have a good heart and respect the truth like a true researcher. You could almost be Russian.”
“Well, let’s not start insulting walruses and Russians!” They both laughed and the sight of her smile made Bubba warm inside.
Inna fidgeted, then said, “We should see if Blake found something. Hopefully, we can learn a little more about what happened. And don’t forget the coffee for Daniil. He’ll never let it go if you don’t let him have some of your whiskey bourbon, or whatever it’s called. By the way, you know Liz has a crush on you, don’t you? I can see it in the way she looks at you.”
Bubba threw his hands in the air. “Ouch! You sure know how to kill a friendly conversation.” And with the moment officially gone, he and Inna decided to return and find Liz, Daniil, and Blake.
After another day of scouring mountains of data, photographs, and core samples, they learned nothing new. Blake ran the equipment diagnostics five then six times and found nothing wrong. Bubba and Inna tested the new core, and found the same trace chemicals as identified in the earlier reports. So, with nothing more to do, Inna and Daniil thanked their hosts and eventually returned to Vostok.
Office of Naval Intelligence (“ONI”), Suitland, Maryland
Ozzy Harper stuffed a handful of chips into his mouth, then scratched the bald spot on his head. All the while, he watched information stream across multiple screens. He also listened to an audio feed buzzing in a headset. Large amounts of data were necessary to track Russian submarines, especially the ones their government wanted to keep secret.
He resumed studying the ever-changing data. To his surprise, it now indicated multiple classified nuclear Russian submarines were on the move. The reason for this eluded his best efforts. But the most recent development was even more curious. It was bold, even for the Russians.
He adjusted the headset microphone and dialed Admiral Zach Grant, a freshly appointed member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The phone only rang once before the admiral answered, “Grant!”
Ozzy’s voice had a sheepish tone to it. “It’s me. Something occurred you should know about.”
“How in the blazes did you get through to my secure phone? You know what, I don’t want to know right now, I’m busy. But remember, you got knocked down to tracking subs for ONI because of your extracurricular use of intelligence. Don’t push your luck, Ozzy. You can’t just play around with Naval intelligence and classified information.”
“First, my demotion happened because I took some necessary, albeit aggressive, actions to prevent a terrorist attack. You know that. And second, I didn’t break any rules to call you. I just exploited weaknesses in our phone system to relay vital intelligence ASAP to the right person — you. No red tape.”
“Well, smartass, I want a report on my desk by Monday morning identifying these supposed communication weaknesses in a way that our comm techs can start fixing them. So, what it is now? Is Frito-Lay on strike and you need time off?” The Admiral liked Ozzy and admired him. It was Harper’s talent to decipher data into meaningful information that helped him become a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Grant appreciated the actionable intelligence, but sometimes Harper’s tactics wandered too far into the gray area.
Ozzy sighed. “No, sir. I was trying to be resourceful and do the right thing. I knew you’d want to know the Lipsov left Russian waters. And there’s another thing. The Russians have all their Yasen class subs on the move. Something is going on.”
“I will bust you down to dusting monitors if you don’t get serious. The Lipsov is brand new and it’s still in the test phase. It wasn’t scheduled for duty for another six months. You better be sure about this. If you’re right, our intelligence guys really blew this one.”
“I’m sure. It’s why I called you directly.”
“When did they leave?”
Ozzy let out a deep breath. “They left the Bering Sea a few hours ago. And why? Well, I don’t know yet and I’ve been working on that. It’s why I didn’t call you sooner. It could have been a training mission, but I’ve ruled that out now. Even without knowing what she left to do, it’s obvious, the Russians are very concerned about something and put the Lipsov into play. I didn’t want to wait any longer to make sure you knew. My update is already in the system but I was guessing that it wouldn’t get to you fast enough.”
“The Lipsov could be a game changer, so I want you to keep close tabs on her. But you better figure out why the Lipsov has been pushed into service ahead of schedule, and pronto. And when you do, don’t call me on this phone. It is a major breach of protocol.”
“Yes, sir. Anything else?”
“Yeah. They tell me that there’s some weird data bouncing around on earth’s satellites. It’s got everyone riled up. I want you to take a look at that, too. The space nerds think it’s a code. You’re unusually good with codes, so see what you can do.”
“Sorry I asked.”
“You got work to do. And so do I. Now get off what is supposed to be highly secure phone line and get to it.” The admiral’s phone clicked off.
Ozzy hung up and started looking for something related to the coded data that the Admiral mentioned. He knew Grant would have someone send him the information ASAP. A soft beep let him know that it arrived in his secure inbox. So, he promptly opened and read it while chowing down on some corn chips.
The message revealed that the NASA boys were busy scrambling to figure out how a large packet of data got into their satellite communications system. He snorted, then put the bag of chips down and stared at the message. He spoke to the screen as he finished crunching on his snack, “Getting into that system would be a million times harder than hacking the Navy’s secure phone lines. What the heck is going on today?”