FEBRUARY 6, 11:58 A.M.
538 KILOMETERS NORTH OF ARCTIC CIRCLE
FORTY FATHOMS UNDER THE POLAR ICE CAP
The USS Polar Sentinel was gliding through the dark ocean. The sub’s twin bronze screws churned silently, propelling the Navy’s newest research submarine under the roof of ice. The warning bells of the proximity alarms echoed down the length of the vessel.
“Sweet mother, what a monster,” the diving officer mumbled from his post, bent over a small video monitor.
Captain Gregory Perry didn’t argue with Commander Bratt’s assessment. He stood atop the control room’s periscope stand. His eyes were fixed to the scope’s optical piece as he studied the ocean beyond the sub’s double hull of titanium and plate-carbon steel. Though it was midday, it was still winter in the Arctic. It had been months since anyone had seen the sun. Around them the waters remained dark. The plane of ice overhead stretched black as far as he could see, interrupted only by occasional blue-green patches of thinner ice, filtering the scant moonlight of the surface world. The average thickness of the polar ice cap was a mere ten feet, but that did not mean the roof of their world was uniform or smooth. All around, jagged pressure ridges jutted like stalactites, some delving down eighty feet.
But none of this compared to the inverted mountain of ice that dropped into the depths of the Arctic Ocean ahead of them, a veritable Everest of ice. The sub slowly circled the peak.
“This baby must extend down a mile,” Commander Bratt continued.
“Actually one-point-four miles,” the chief of the watch reported from his wraparound station of instruments. A finger traced the video monitor of the top-sounding sonar. The high-frequency instrument was used to contour the ice.
Perry continued to observe through the periscope, trusting his own eyes versus the video monitors. He thumbed on the sub’s xenon spotlights, igniting the cliff face. Black walls glowed with hues of cobalt blue and aquamarine. The sub slowly circled its perimeter, close enough for the ice-mapping sonar to protest their proximity.
“Can someone cut those damn bells?” Perry muttered.
Silence settled throughout the vessel. No one spoke. The only sound was the muffled hum of the engines and the soft hiss of the oxygen generator. Like all subs, the small nuclear-powered Polar Sentinel had been designed to run silent. The research vessel was half the size of its bigger brothers. Jokingly referred to as Tadpole-class, the submarine had been miniaturized through some key advances in engineering, allowing for a smaller crew, which in turn allowed for less space needed for living quarters. Additionally, built as a pure research vessel, the submarine was emptied of all armaments to allow more room for scientific equipment and personnel. Still, despite the stripping of the sub, no one was really fooled. The Polar Sentinel was also the test platform for an upcoming generation of attack submarine: smaller, faster, deadlier.
Technically still on its shakedown cruise, the sub had been assigned to the Omega Drift Station, a semipermanent U.S. research facility built atop the polar ice cap, a joint project between various government science agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
The crew had spent the last week surfacing the sub through open leads between ice floes or up through thinly iced-over lakes, called polynyas. Their task was to implant meteorological equipment atop the ice for the scientific base to monitor. But an hour ago, they had come upon this inverted Everest of ice.
“That’s one hell of an iceberg,” Bratt whistled.
A new voice intruded. “The correct term is an ice island.”
Perry glanced from the periscope.
A gray-haired man with a neatly trimmed beard stooped through the hatch to enter the control room from the forward research decks. It was Dr. Oskar Willig, the Swedish oceanographer. He was accompanied by an ensign. The aging but wiry and hard-eyed Swede waved a dismissive hand toward the video monitor and nodded to Captain Perry. “It’s a much more spectacular view from Cyclops. In fact, Dr. Reynolds asked to see if you’d join us there. We’ve discovered something intriguing.”
After a long moment, Perry nodded and folded up the periscope grips. He twisted the hydraulic control ring, and the stainless-steel pole with its optic module descended into the housing below. “Commander Bratt, you have the conn.” He stepped down from the periscope stand to join Dr. Willig.
Commander Bratt raised one bushy eyebrow as he passed by. “You’re going to Cyclops? With all this ice around? You’re a braver man than I am, Captain. True balls of brass.”
“Not brass.” Perry tapped a knuckle on a wall plate. “Titanium.”
This earned a chuckle from his second-in-command.
The Swedish oceanographer’s eyes were bright with excitement as Perry joined him. “In all my years, I’ve never seen such a spectacular example of an ice island.”
Perry ran a hand over the stubble of his red hair, then motioned the older doctor ahead of him.
The doctor nodded, turning, but he continued to speak rapidly, lecturing as if still in his classroom at the University of Stockholm. “These islands are rare. They originate when giant icebergs calve off the mainland glaciers. Then ocean currents drive these floating mountains into the polar ice cap, where they’re frozen in place. Eventually, during the years of thawing and refreezing, they become incorporated into the cap itself.” Dr. Willig glanced back at the captain as he climbed through the forward hatch. “Somewhat like almonds in a chocolate bar, you might say.”
Perry followed, bending his own six-foot frame through the opening. “But what’s so exciting about such a discovery? Why did Dr. Reynolds insist upon us mapping around this embedded almond?”
Dr. Willig bobbed his head, leading the way down the main passage and through the research section of the sub. “Besides the rarity of these ice islands, because they have been calved from glaciers, they contain very old ice and many even hold boulders and sections of terra firma. They’re frozen glimpses of the distant past. Can you just imagine?”
Perry followed, urging the doctor onward.
“We dare not lose this chance. We may never find such an example again. The polar ice cap covers an area twice the size of your United States. And with the cap’s surface worn featureless by winter winds and summer melts, such islands are impossible to discern. Not even NASA satellites could pinpoint such discoveries. Stumbling upon this mountain is a scientific gift from God.”