“This novel will have you sitting on the edge of your seat!”
Below is the first chapter of Brooke Bassi and the Fire’s of Dahlku. If you want to read more, add your email address to the form below the chapter and you can enjoy another 7 chapters free. Plus, you’ll be eligible to get a copy of the first, limited edition printing, and I’ll throw in a 50% discount as a thank you for being an early adopter.
Brooke Bassi and the Fire’s of Dahlku publishes Earth Day, April 22, 2017.
Brooke Bassi Publishing Countdown
Brooke Bassi and the Fire’s of Dahlku
by Paul McGowan
2027 had already been one hell of a year for Laina Williams. Three days after her twenty-eighth birthday she was awarded a PhD without a fight. She was still pissed and hardly a week had passed. It wasn’t the damned title that had interested her. Professor Brooke Bassi, Laina’s mysterious sponsor, knew that—yet ramrodded without discussion her three year course of study and acceptance by the thesis committee without so much as a question or a snivel. Laina had relished defending her climate change model. Not the AI based computer program she had written, snatched instantly by NOAA, but the radical new concept the program and thesis were built upon. Then she learned there would be no defense of it. No fight. Her PhD handed to her like a plate of food at the cafeteria. What the fuck? She didn’t even have an interest in climate change. She had chosen that particular puzzle because it provided an exceptionally complicated data and variable set to integrate, analyze, and eventually pick a fight with those unable to grasp its mathematical beauty. But this! To be awarded her degree in computer science with only the whimper of a couple of signatures felt an insult. No fireworks. No looks of defeat on her challenger’s faces. And that wasn’t the worst of it. There were promises the elusive Bassi had made that weren’t kept; work on cybersecurity and encryption applications; on paleontology and climatology modeling; on astrophysics problems; human evolution; fusion containment. She had turned down offers from Google and Microsoft for a climate change model and a rubber stamp title?
Antarctica’s Wilkins Transit Center was quiet, Laina its only occupant. How the hell did I wind up here? It wouldn’t be long before the mysterious Bassi landed on the same small ice covered strip she had been deposited onto not more than 24 hours ago. She struggled into the massive outerwear and clunky mukluks before pulling her blond, curly locks into a ponytail. The black face mask covered her rosy freckled cheeks. Her blue nordic eyes peered through its tiny slits. Cinched tight the parka’s hood completed her image of a convenience store holdup bandit. Within seconds of the door’s closing “click” the little warmth from inside had disappeared and the mucus in her nose had flash frozen. Her throat burned with every inhale. Mentally she was still in California.
Before her were a few buildings painted bright apricot—simple rectangular structures of corrugated steel. A totem pole of yellow signs posted directions and mileages to different points around the globe. Behind her, brightly colored shipping containers; orange, red, and yellow, were stacked like cordwood. In the other direction was the heavy equipment used to keep the runway clear. Beyond the man-made was nothing but limitless white land. The sky was deep purple with streaks of red near the full moon, which cast its blue light over the barren landscape. It was exceptionally bright in the southern sky, and its naked light cut through a cloud of frozen fog, forming a rainbow halo so big it nearly touched the mountains.
There was a small rise within walking distance affording her an overview of the airfield, the outpost, and a bit of Vincennes Bay to the north. The moonlit ice was now powder blue. The distant bay shone black. A blinking red light marked the landing strip where her chartered jet had touched down and where soon this mystery woman; benefactor; sponsor; maddening thorn in her side; Professor Brooklyn Laura Bassi would soon be landing. Maybe then she could get some answers.
Antarctica had been a complete surprise. Bassi’s email had warned the field work that Laina was about to do would be more stimulating than she could imagine, and more challenging than most humans could comprehend were they to know the full details of her upcoming research project. Were they to know the full details…hell! Laina didn’t even know the subject of her research project, let alone details. When she questioned the clerks who filed the research proposal she was told the records were sealed and can only be unsealed by mutual agreement between Bassi, the UC system chancellor, and an alumni who happens to be a major donor. Why all the mystery? Bassi’s note had insisted Laina take the summer “off,” and use it to “shut down” her life. All of her possessions should fit in a field bag, a duffle, and one trunk. No storage units allowed. No stashing goodies with friends or family.
She hated it, but had to admit the mystery had her intrigued. A jigsaw puzzle played in the last place on Earth she could imagine herself spending the summer. Off in the distance, a snowmobile headed her way, white clouds billowing in its wake. Her warden, Ernie Wild.
As Laina pushed back her parka’s hood, Wild’s tall wiry frame escaped the overstuffed parka and pants—goggles pulled from his bony face—and walked straight into a small kitchenette at the end of the 10-meter long room, where he poured a cup of hot water into a mug. The inside of the transportation center was sparsely furnished. Rows of lockers and a single sleeping cot surrounded one side, two long tables in the middle, a sink, stove, coffee apparatus, and microwave sat on a counter at the far end, away from the entrance door.
“Tea?” he asked.
“That would be great. Thank you.”
He filled another mug, plunked a tea bag into each, then sat across the table from her. She checked her watch. Less than an hour before Bassi’s plane would land.
“How’d you wind up here?” asked Laina.
Ernie shrugged his shoulders.
“Where’d you live before?”
“Why’d you leave?”
“Climate. I had my own business flying photographers and hunters into the backcountry. Alaska’s been warming fast. Permafrost’s melting, the glaciers are breaking apart. Most of my photographers want to shoot polar bears. I was forced to fly farther and farther north to keep my customers happy, and the distance became a real problem for my small plane.”
“You know this Brooke Bassi I am waiting to meet?” she asked.
“Brooke?” he laughed. “Sure. She’s run Aurora Camp for years. Ice core drilling operation about two hours south of here. There’s a crew of pretty gruff researchers reporting to her. She’s alright.
“Never met her?”
“No, and I’ve not been able to find much about her either.” Laina pulled from her coat pocket a dog eared fold of papers. “She 38, graduated Summa Cum Laude from Berkeley, taught for a few years then seems to have disappeared from the academic records.” She fumbled through a few pages. “Brooklyn Laura Bassi, January 7, 1989…”
“Don’t call her Brooklyn,” said Ernie. “The last researcher to do that got his ass reamed big time. She hates that name. Just call her Brooke or Professor Bassi.”
The radio crackled something unintelligible and Ernie answered back.
The tiny building shook from the jet’s roar as it braked and taxied back to the Transit Center.
Laina had expected frumpy. As Bassi’s layers of parka, pants and boots peeled off, Laina did a double take. Bassi was slender and taller than her own 5’4” by a good six inches—attractive too. She guessed athletic from Bassi’s handshake and was certain of intensity from her unblinking brown eyes. Long lengths of black silken hair peppered with a hint of untended gray spoke volumes to Laina. Bassi’s Laser-like focus and attention to detail had not been missed by every person she interviewed. She had so many questions yet Bassi appeared to be in a hurry and Ernie was gathering his outerwear.
The shock of cold hit her again as Ernie detached the De Havilland Twin Otter from its steel cable moorings. She hoisted her duffel bag onto her shoulder and closed the door behind her. A cold gust of frigid wind bit deep into her face and she put the bag down to cinch her hood tighter.
She waited under the wing of the red and white aircraft, just behind the port engine, as Ernie checked the plane’s three white skis and removed the long electric cord that had preheated the engine block. To her surprise, the two black and white striped propellers did not budge even though the plane seemed to shake in the sudden gust of wind that nearly knocked her over. He opened the cabin door and lowered a small, red ladder with two steps, closing it after Bassi had joined them.
The cabin was as cold as outside and Laina kept her gloves and parka on as Ernie strapped himself into the white fur lined pilot’s seat, Bassi sat next to him, she in the back. He reached overhead and flicked two switches, his breath white in the frigid cabin. A whirring sound came from each engine, and she could feel the cabin vibrating, then the engines burst to life, a puff of blue smoke out the back of each and the propellers began turning, slowly at first, then a blur as the whirring became a roar. He checked the gauges, finished his preflight checks, turned the cabin heaters on high and pushed the throttle forward. The plane moved ahead on its skis, gently bumping over the icy terrain as they accelerated. He pulled back on the yoke and they lifted off the two thousand foot long ice runway into a blue so deep it was almost black.
“Sorry we had to make this so quick, Laina.” said Bassi over the engine’s roar.
“After the last few days not much surprises me!” she answered back. “Where are we going?”
“Aurora Camp,” shouted Bassi. “It’s a two hour flight. Might as well catch a couple of Z’s if you’re tired. We’ll be running fast as soon as we land.”
“Doing what, exactly?” she asked.
“There’s been a discovery at the site. It’s too loud in here to get into details. I’ll fill you both in when we land.”
“But I don’t even know why I am here or what’s expected of me.”
Bassi unstrapped herself from the front seat and kneeled closer to Laina.
“I know. Believe me, I wish this could have been different. I don’t yet know all that’s going on either. I need your computer skills and intellect on my side. Just follow my lead. You’ll get it.”
I’ll get it? thought Laina.
Through the plane’s windshield Laina could see the makeshift runway of Aurora Camp, a long stretch of ice marked by flags on either side. To the north a bright red snowcat, its door opened and an orange suited person waved at them as he hopped down from the cab.
“There’s Hap Nielsen,” said Ernie, waving back.
“Hap’s my second in command,” yelled Bassi. “You can trust him.”
Ernie passed overhead, looped the plane around and came in low for a landing. He lifted the protective cover of the switch near the door, and it opened, stairs lowering to the ice below. Once in the cat, introductions made, its tractor treads began turning, crunching ice as it jerked forward.
“What the hell is going on?” asked Bassi.
“How much do you already know?” asked Hap.
“Start from the beginning. We’ve got time to kill before reaching camp and Laina doesn’t have a clue what we even do here.” said Bassi. “I need her and Wild brought up to speed.”
Hap’s bright blue eyes were accented by a deep tan, his short cropped hair reminded Laina of a military cut, though offset with a scraggly beard. “We’re ice core drillers. Trapped deep in the ice is ancient air, from as far back as a million years ago. The deeper we drill, the older the air we can extract.”
“Who cares about old air?” asked Laina.
“We do,” interjected Bassi. “Climatologists want to know how different the air today is from what humans were breathing that long ago. Tells us plenty about what’s changed. It’s like a time machine.”
“The ice shelf in Aurora Basin is one of the thickest in Antarctica—as much as four thousand meters,” said Hap. “The ice that far down is nearly a million years old. But we had only gotten to about a thousand meters when it happened.”
“What happened?” asked Ernie.
“We were in an area we’d never drilled before. Got down to 1,000 meters and the current shot up. Drill seized. Bobby shut it down immediately. Backed it out to try again.
“Once we restarted, the drill made only two revolutions and seized again; the power meter pegged into the red as if it had been stopped cold. We’d didn’t want to risk losing the drill and its casing. So we pulled the sections up, one by one, until we got to the bit.”
“…and?” asked Bassi.
The cat slowed as it crested a sharp rise in the snow between two black protrusions of rock that were separated by one hundred meters. The edge of the peak was a deep, shiny blue of solid ice, and Hap gently coaxed the tractor up and over–the cat teetering on its knife edge before plunging down its lower half, twisting to the left as it hit snow again. He steered the tractor straight and Laina released her grip on the chair’s armrest.
“When we cleaned the drill sections, we found an odd material attached to the end: black shards that looked like they’d been carved out of whatever we’d hit.”
“Bedrock?” asked Bassi.
“Not a chance,” said Hap. “This was something unusual. Tougher than rock. Plastic-like. We called ICE and they retrieved the material for analysis. As soon as I found the results I called you.
“Graphene?” asked Laina, “What the hell is graphene?”
“It’s a crystalline allotrope of carbon that’s stronger than any naturally found substance on earth,” said Bassi. “It can conduct heat and electricity. It’s pure carbon in the form of a thin sheet just one atom thick. If you layer it, you can create a block of the hardest materials we’ve ever known. It was discovered in 2003, and Geim and Novoselov won the Nobel Prize in Physics for its discovery.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” chimed Ernie. “Whatever you found at that depth has to be at least half a million years old.”
“Exactly,” said Bassi. “That’s why we’re here.”
“Holy shit,” said Laina.
“Now you start to get it,” said Bassi. “Just stay by my side, keep your eyes open for anything weird.”
Weird? Thought Laina. This whole thing is weird!
As they approached two marker flags, Hap steered between them, their tattered red fabric limp in a windless calm that belied Antarctica’s temperament, where temperatures can drop to –70°F or lower, and hurricane-force blizzards can cut visibility to mere inches. The engines strained under heavy load as they climbed a small rise. Near the horizon, in a deep and narrow valley, a tightly packed cluster of buildings broke the white sea, illuminated by the sun skimming the horizon. The vehicle crested the rise and chugged down toward Aurora Camp. A long plume of gray smoke from its round central building was all that broke the endless white beyond.
“There’s more…” said Hap.
Bassi’s eyes met his own.
“After we contacted ICE they sent in their own team to image whatever the drill ran into. They’ve taken over the camp. The main guy’s a real asshole. His name’s Avram.”
“What’s ICE?” asked Laina.
Bassi seemed deep in thought and did not answer.
“Institute for Climate Education,” said Hap. “They fund our research group.”
As they pulled up to Aurora Basin Camp, 2,500 miles from the Pole, Laina peered ahead. The tiny outpost’s tents, power station, fuel depot, and central yurt didn’t look like much—just a desolate community at the edge of nowhere.
The chugging diesel of the PistenBully put on idle, Hap pointed out the window.
“Here’s all the new gear they’ve brought in. They’re first going to image what’s below using some state of the art ground penetrating radar, then drill an access tunnel. ”
Laina could see a large derrick with a string of thick black cables from its top, running over the ice into another, smaller tent. Four men tended to the machine, two standing next to a cache of stacked hollow aluminum tubes, like irrigation pipes, and two more tending the controls. From behind the tent where the cables went, a lone figure marched toward them. Hap got up and shrugged on his parka.
“That’s Avram heading our way.” He opened the cab door, and the cold hammered her in the face.
“Dr. Bassi? Hasin Avram. ICE.” Avram extended his gloved hand, waited, then pulled it back after what looked to Laina as a staring contest.
“What the hell’s going on here?” she demanded.
“I am sure Nielsen’s filled you in on what they’ve found,” said Avram, his hulk dwarfing Bassi’s, his scowling pock marked face displaying no emotions. “ICE sent my crew to image and access whatever’s below.”
“This is my camp. My operation,” said Bassi with folded arms. “I’ve got a team of the best drillers in the Antarctic right here.”
“Ever use GPR?” asked Avram, waiting for the answer Laina suspected he must already have known. “I thought not. These military scanners can penetrate to a depth of a thousand meters and give us a clear image of whatever’s down there. My crew’s trained in their use. Once we’re done your team’s more than welcome to take over the drilling. Deal?”
The layout they’d set up looked simple enough to Laina. Avram pointed out five GPR modules, each the size of a folding chair. The four outer units formed a large rectangle; at the center, a fifth covered the original drill hole. Thick black power and data cables ran in bundles along the ice, connecting each module to the central terminal in the control tent.
The group of four drillers from ICE, along with the others, stood under blue sky and bright sun to hear Avram’s growl—his voice, like gravel—rumbled from deep within his barrel chest. “This morning,” he began, “we’re going to fire up the ground-penetrating radar and take our first look under the ice. GPR works a lot like radar guns measuring speed—we can produce highly detailed three-dimensional images of objects below the ground. We should be able to determine the height, width, shape, and relative density of anything buried as deep as a thousand meters.”
Bassi volunteered Laina to monitor the control console. Avram begrudgingly agreed.
The radio next to Laina crackled. “Start the scan.” She clicked the start button on the screen. A progress bar showed thirty minute. Halfway through the scan Bassi plunked down in the chair next to Laina.
“Nothing in what these guys are doing smells right. I want you to keep your eyes open for anything out of the ordinary,” Bassi said.
“Who are these guys?” asked Laina.
“I don’t know,” said Bassi. “ICE has pretty much left us alone up until now. Then the discovery and they’re over us like white on rice. This guy Avram has me worried.”
“Look, Dr, Bassi…”
Bassi raised her right eyebrow. “Cut the Dr. crap. Titles mean nothing here. I am just Brooke.”
“Yeah, ok…Brooke. But I haven’t a clue what’s going on so finding something out of the ordinary…”
“Laina, I didn’t sponsor you by accident. You were chosen by me for a reason. You’re smart. Observant. If something wonky’s going on you’ll know it. Just keep your head low, your eyes and ears peeled. And download everything on Avram’s laptop,” she said, tapping the device in front of Laina. “This guy’s up to something and we need to know what. Hack it. Figure out what’s on it. Report back to me.”
The progress bar had turned green. An image slowly appeared, loading from top to bottom. Four fuzzy shapes began to take clearer form. As the image sharpened, Laina’s eyes narrowed.
“Oh my God! What the hell . . . ?”
It seemed like the entire camp had crowded in the doorway of the control tent to see what they could on the laptop screen. A massive triangular shape. A pyramid, bathed in the deep blues the computer had assigned it, stood at the center of the screen. Three small, red domes sat near its base. “Christ,” said Laina. “That’s what’s under us?”
Avram pointed to the legend at the bottom of the screen. “Black displays the thickest areas, shifting to blue, then red as the object’s thickness decreases.” He drew on the screen with his index finger. “This dark black background is undoubtedly the bedrock, but look to the sides, where it turns gray and falls away. It appears as if the structures are sitting on a ledge or plateau. This darkest-blue area, here”—he pointed at the pyramid—“is quite dense relative to the smaller objects below it. This light-colored shaft down the center is the drill hole, and here’s where the drill hit . . . whatever this is.”
“Whatever this is,” Brooke said, “it shouldn’t be there. It’s impossible.”
“How big is it?” asked Hap.
Laina zoomed in to the measurement scale. “Looks like 230 meters at the base and 140 meters high,” she whistled. “It’s absolutely massive.”
“That’s gotta be the size of one of the Egyptian pyramids,” said Ernie, “but buried here for…how long?”
“At that depth, gotta be half a million years.” Hap shook his head.
Avram, who had never looked away from the image, handed Laina a small, ordinary-looking USB drive. “This is an encrypted drive. I need you to download the data from the GPR for me.”
Suddenly she and Brooke were alone again.
“You know what to do,” said Brooke, “meet us in the yurt in fifteen minutes.”
Laina had located the yurt, the largest structure in the camp. Its red, thick, polyester fabric was fortified with layers of insulation and lined inside with white canvas. Along its south wall a blue-speckled coffee pot—the old fashioned kind—sat on a hotplate, unattended and boiling, the air rich with its scent. Hap, Ernie and Avram’s crew stood around the propane heater speculating about what they’d seen. Their chatter went silent as Bassi strode through the door, already talking.
“We have witnessed something extraordinary this afternoon. Avram’s GPR system imaged a very large object a thousand meters below where we’re standing. It seems to be sitting on some type of ledge or plateau. The object is larger than the entire camp, and apparently has been buried here for half a million years. It looks like a crafted structure—something built—which would seem to be impossible. 400,000 years ago, there was no one capable of making anything like it. But, we won’t know anything specific without a closer look. Avram’s team has already brought the larger drilling machinery and we can begin boring tomorrow morning.”
“The ICE team will now report to Dr. Bassi’s team for the drilling operations,” bellowed Avram. “Let’s all get some sleep and we’ll meet here at 0600.”
Laina and Brooke headed to their tent. The night sky was clear, velvet black, without hint of the moon. It was cold, the thermometer outside the yurt registering -40˚f and weather reports suggested it would fall even further. Brooke had told her the winds would pick up tonight.
An ocean of white stars and galaxies lit their path and Laina stared in wonder. The Milky Way cut a blazing swath across the night sky. She had never seen so many stars, their light reflecting off the white of the frozen terrain. She could see the camp lay in a deep, narrow valley flanked on each side by an ice-covered ridge of sharp rocks. It was hard for her to get her bearings; hard to imagine she was at the southern pivot point of the Earth. The fiery cold that burned with every inhale was so jarring she couldn’t wait for the warmth of the tent—and yet, there was a beauty here she hadn’t anticipated.
“That cot’s yours,” said Brooke. “When you need to do your business, just pull the privacy curtain and do it in here.” She pointed at a series of containers.
“There aren’t any toilets?” asked Laina.
“Ha! Maybe at McMurdo. Not here. We piss in jars and collect the waste in barrels.”
“Jesus,” said Laina.
“You’ll get used to it. You snagged everything off Avram’s computer, right?”
Laina smiled as she stared up at the tent’s interior.
It had been tough night. Laina hardly slept as the winds roared through the camp like a locomotive. Afraid the tent would take off like a kite in the wind, she gripped the cot for dear life, while jealous of Brooke’s rhythmic breathing between gusts.
Brooke’s cot was empty when she awoke. Shit! Late for the meeting. The harsh light outside the tent blinded her without eye protection. It was bitter cold, again, 40 below, but the wind had quieted. The drifts behind the row of tents were high enough to make the shelters look as if they’d been dug into the side of a giant igloo as she stumbled into the yurt in search of coffee.
“Just in time, Laina. Coffee’s over there.”
Brooke moved away from the furnace and removed her gloves and hat. “We all are excited to find what lies deep below the ice. This is going to be tough because we’re working somewhat blind. We have the decoded GPR scans to help guide us,” she touched the laptop screen, “but tunneling to the exact spot is going to be a challenge.
“We’ll drill a series of vertical shafts just to the north of where the original core sample drill hit the side of the object, here.” Brooke traced the screen with her finger. “It’ll be tricky and when we get to depth we’ll have to be careful. The pyramid’s constructed from graphene, a material hard enough to mangle the drill bit if we hit it too hard—and we don’t have extra bits. Bobby, you’re the most experienced drill operator we have. It’ll be important to monitor the current at all times.”
“Got it,” said the bear of a man. “Piece of cake.”
“Once the vertical boreholes are in place, we’re going to need to do something none of us has ever tried,” said Brooke. “A series of angled bores that intersects the first shafts we drilled.”
“Yeah, right?” she said. “But these big fracking rigs Avram brought are designed for angled bores.”
“But we’ve no experience,” said Hap.
“None at all,” said Brooke. “None at all.” She looked back at the screen. “The angled bores need to hit right at the pyramid’s base to form a relatively flat opening so the robot’s treads…”
“Whoa!” said Ernie. “Robot?”
“Seeger,” said Avram. “He’s a modified ordinance disposal bot we brought with us.”
“Right,” said Brooke. “We’ll pump as much antifreeze as we have to keep this tunnel open and clear the ice clinging to the pyramid. It’s risky. Too much and we’ll make a hole too deep for the robot to reach the pyramid. And we’re working blind, a thousand meters down.”
Andrews whistled again, his meaty, freckled arms folded across his massive chest. “If you ask me, the chances of all this working are close to zero. How the hell are we going to know where to place the drills? The angle to drill at?”
Brooke looked straight at Laina who picked up the cue. “Ahh, that’s easy. Math. It’s what I do. These scans are actually quite detailed. In order to create a three dimensional model the scanning computer relies on specific XYZ coordinates that are displayed here.” She circled around the table and Brooke gave up her seat in front of the laptop. A few keystrokes and the screen displayed a flurry of tables and lines of text. “These are all we need. They are the exact coordinates of every surface on the object. Better still, we know the depth and location of any point on the pyramid. It’ll be a snap.”
“I don’t know,” said Andrews.
“You guys worry about making your holes,” said Laina, “I’ll make sure they are in the right place. Trust me.”
By nine that morning the crew was busy erecting the two story drilling tent under Brooke’s direction. Hap and Ernie worked on pulling the drill rig off the sled and drug it into the partially completed tent, positioning it over the original borehole directly above the pyramid, a thousand meters below. Bobby winched metal guy wires tight, securing the tall tent on four sides, while Ernie scurried about, helping Brooke threading cables from the generator. By the afternoon the first borehole had begun, the chip tube spitting out fresh cut shards of ice in a pile just outside the drilling tent.
The fracking drill Avram had brought was state of the art. Nearly two stories tall, the vertical derrick sat on a six wheeled platform with an operator’s perch just behind the drill tower. Connected to the side of the rig was a metal corral holding the long drill sections, which auto-fed the ever lengthening drill shaft as it bore deeper into the ice. When they had reached 900 meters Hap radioed Brooke.
“Careful,” she said, “we gotta watch the current. As we near a thousand meters let’s go really slow. We can’t risk losing a drill bit.”
“I got this covered,” said Bobby.
Laina held open the inner door flap for Seeger the robot to come inside and walked directly to the borehole, Seeger close at her heels, until Laina touched her iPad and the robot’s treads stopped turning.
“That thing’s following you,” laughed Hap.
The drill’s whine suddenly quieted, and the rotating bore slowed to a crawl. Brooke’s outstretched hand patted the air for caution as Bobby gently modulated the drill speed until the current meter shot up.
“That’s it,” said Brooke.
Laina’s calculations of the pyramid’s coordinates had been correct, and a series of wide holes began peppering the inside of the tent. By early evening they had the deep vertical shafts completed. Ernie drove the rig to the far eastern end of camp where Laina and Seeger waited.
“This is it,” said Laina. “Drill here at a 37.2º angle and you’ll run straight into the pyramid. Between the vertical bore and this angled set, we should be able to form a decent sized chamber.”
There was no tent covering this new drilling operation. It was after midnight and Hap took over the drilling rig as Bobby rested. Temperatures had dropped to -80ºF and Hap’s only warmth was the little heat rising above the electric motor beneath his seat. After an hour in the elements he was relieved by Ernie, then Brooke. It was rumored that Antarctic temperatures were low enough to cause fillings in researcher’s teeth to shrink and fall out. No one on the team wanted to test that theory.
Dawn’s warming light crowded the tiny slit of open horizon below the clouds, as the team finished the last of four angled boreholes, breaking through the vertical shafts to form a cavernous room, a thousand meters below the Aurora ice cap.
“We’re done drilling,” said Brooke. “We’ll pump the remaining antifreeze into the vertical bores to melt what we can, then send the robot down for a first look.” The conversation quickened with the coffee. “Laina, Avram, I assume Seeger’s ready to go?”
Laina’s eyes moved from the computer to the group, to Avram. “You bet, he’s charged and ready for action. We’ll be able to view what he sees on the monitor I’ve set up.” She pointed in the drilling tent’s direction.
The robot’s articulating arm and elevated platform had been compacted close to the unit’s low body. A single camera eye protruded the flattened assembly and on each side, a pair of headlamps shone brightly. Laina looked to Avram for the ok, then punched a few buttons on the iPad. Twin tractor treads crunched the ice as it entered the long shaft.
They gathered in the drilling tent and encircled the monitor. The shaky video image displayed the brightly lit white of the tunnel ice, fading to an endless black ahead.
“How long’s Seeger been traveling?” asked Brooke.
“Elapsed time, 15 minutes,” answered Laina. “At his current rate of speed I would expect him to reach bottom any time. I don’t…” and suddenly the robot’s progress halted, the picture jerked towards the tunnel’s top. “He’s stuck!” said Laina, punching the controls.
“Stuck?” asked Avram. “Back him out!”
Laina struggled with the iPad, tapping the screen repeatedly.
“He’s not responding.”
“Hang on. Let me try a reboot,” said Avram. “Try again.”
“He’s not responding!” said Laina.
“Give me that,” demanded Avram. Punching his fingers to no avail. “Dammit!”
Laina had commandeered the laptop as Avram flailed on the iPad. “He’s still online, just stuck. I don’t know where he stopped. Can someone take a look down the vertical shaft to see if Seeger’s lights are visible?”
“I think I can see Seeger’s lights,” shouted Bobby. “Try turning them on and off.”
Avram jabbed again at the iPad.
“Yes,” cried out, Bobby. “It’s him.” His voice echoed into the cavernous opening below.
“Laina,” said Brooke. “Seeger’s almost in the bottom shaft. Zoom his camera in.”
The monitor’s image shook as it rotated and zoomed. Seeger appeared to be at the entry of a large opening, white on three sides, black ahead. The camera closed in on the black surface, slowly scanning from left to right. White symbols were etched clearly into the smooth black surface. To the far right side of the chamber a rectangular protrusion jutted out from the polished black sloping wall of the pyramid.
“There,” pointed Brooke, “that must be a door.”
“We’re so close,” said Laina.
“All right,” said Avram. “I am shutting him down to conserve power. We gotta figure something out.”
“We haven’t a lot of time. The ice is constantly shifting,” said Hap. “I’d guess maybe 24 hours or less before the shaft closes up and we have to drill again.”
“I’ll go down and free him,” said Brooke.
“What?” asked Hap. “Rappel down that shaft? Are you out of your mind?”
“You have a better idea?” Brooke stood with hands on her hips.
“Yes! Let’s wait. Get ICE to send us another bot, drill new shafts,” said Ernie.
“And miss the opportunity to see what’s inside?” asked Brooke. “Not a chance. I am going. Let’s get the drill rig back to the vertical shaft. I’ll use it as winch to lower me down.”
“Brooke,” said Laina, “there’s something I need to discuss with you first…”
“Meet me in the tent in five.”
The sliver of the new moon was rising just above the horizon, its ghostly white light adding few details to Aurora Camp. Laina followed her shadow towards their sleeping quarters surrounded by the clouds of starlight spread across the velvet inky black of the night’s sky like a Van Gogh.
Brooke had beat her to the tent. “You found something on Avram’s laptop?”
“There’s a ton of encrypted files I’ve yet to break but what I did find sent a chill up me.”
Brooke peered over her glasses.
“A complete sketch and layout of the pyramid, including where the door is,” said Laina.
“From the GPR scans?”
“Not a chance. The file dates are more than a year old.”
“So, ICE has known about this all along?” said Brooke.
She began pacing the tent floor, then looked at her watch. “I am going down the shaft to see this thing for myself. I need you to decode whatever else is on that laptop.”
Brooke began rummaging through her duffel bag.
“Here!” she pulled out a sat phone. “You and Ernie leave first thing in the morning. When you land at Wilkins activate this encrypted sat phone.”
“Who am I calling?”
“Ian Greene. Tell him everything. Do what he tells you, go where he instructs.”
“But…you’re going down that hole? It’s nearly a mile deep.”
“I know. Just do what I ask. Ernie will help. Decode those files and tell Ian everything. Then get back here as quickly as possible.”
“But…” said Laina.
Brooke put her hand up to end the conversation, then snugged her parka’s hood and covered her eyes with goggles.
“There’s more going on than you can possibly know. Trust me.”