A thousand horses – the wild – the free – like waves that follow o’er the sea, came thickly thundering on.
“Colonel Freeman?” Ayshea’s tone was hesitant, as she approached him, several prints in her hands.
Alec smiled up at her, and he did not even have to force himself into that, even though by now he was bone tired. No wonder really that Straker looked as grouchy as he habitually did. Working through nights did that for you.
“Yes, Lieutenant? What do you have for me?” he asked, hopeful they might have found a hint at last. However, she pursed her lips for a moment in what he had learned over the years to be a sign of regret. Looking delicious, but nevertheless not the portent of good news.
Wordlessly she spread the prints out in front of him.
“That’s the latest SID gave us,” she said at last. “It’s from several weather satellites, there’s no doubt about it.”
“When will that storm hit them?” Alec stared bleakly at the baleful eye of the low pressure cyclone outlined in cloud cover roiling around its centre just off the Icelandic coast.
“The weather people say it will take days to move to where they are,” Ayshea said. “But SID maintains that it should break across the mountain range tomorrow at the latest. He also has a much higher storm warning out. Temperatures will fall by at least 35 degrees all across Iceland.”
“How cold will it get up there?” he asked.
“10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit,” Ayshea answered, looking openly worried herself now. “Will the commander and Paul be alright?”
Freeman heaved himself upright and stretched the kinks out of his spine.
“Would that I know, would that I know,” he said. “I hope so. At least they’re with locals. Come on, let’s find that blasted UFO, that’s not all you have in printouts from SID, right?”
She shook her head and produced the second stack of papers.
Ford, bringing them two cups of coffee, found them half an hour later, heads close together and oblivious to their surroundings, poring over the satellite photos.
Setting up the tents had been priority A once they had made it to the foot of the steep face that housed the hidden station. Foster had proven to be up to everything on this venture so far, which included such an efficiency at tent building that he was helping the others now, after he and Straker had set up theirs.
Temperatures had fallen considerably, heralding the weather change that Unnur had sensed half a day earlier. Yet, apart from the fact that it had gotten much colder and the wind pressure had picked up, there were no further signs of any imminent storm. Except for that the small band of Icelandic horses had bunched together closely, presenting their sturdy hindquarters to the wind, heads low, sheltered against the mountain face. Straker heard them munching on the oats they had brought along. The water troughs had been filled from the lake, fed by the glacier, which formed the other side of the triangular shelf they were setting their camp up on.
When they arrived there, they had discovered signs of prior visitors. Several torn halters and ropes near the open paddock of narrow steel railings, which now held their horses, showed where the mounts of the agents had torn loose, probably after days of waiting for their owners.
Straker shivered and chafed his hands together, trying to rub some warmth into them, then pushed them under his arms, pressing them against his sides. They were all but numb. The steady, icy wind was leeching body heat from him. He threw his head back to look up the mountain face, where another thin steel railing outlined the narrow steep path leading up to the hub. It had been built long before his time. Suddenly Straker realized, in a very practical manner, for just how long Henderson must have been on to the alien invasion, and preparing to counter it. The man had been battling them for the better part of his life, and not stopped at any difficulty to set up their defenses. Like a secret meshing hub half way up a craggy glacier-covered mountain range on Iceland.
He was unable to make out where the land lines fed into the range, someone had taken great pains to hide them from even the most watchful eyes.
“Here,” Foster held out a pair of fleece lined thick gloves. Straker took them and put them on with a relieved nod.
“Thanks,” he said. “Where’s the chief?”
“They’re starting to cook,” Foster answered. “She doesn’t want us to go up at dusk.”
Straker cast another weary glance at the path leading straight into dense, low cloud cover blown against the range. He could not make out how far up the path ended.
“She’s right,” he nodded. “Too dangerous, even if by now I am sorely tempted.” He motioned at the tracing unit Foster had been unobtrusively using to scan the immediate surrounding area. “Anything?”
“No,” Foster shook his head. “Nothing at all. No radioactivity, no residual energy, no heat source, nothing. Only us and the horses.”
She had been astonished how well Straker and Foster had held up under the stresses of rough travel and rougher yet weather. Unnur glanced across the camp slowly vanishing from sight in the throes of dusk, and a pervasive fog dripping down the mountain and settling on the shelf. A fog she knew was low cloud cover pushed at them by the advancing bad weather front. Within minutes anything farther than a couple of yards would be invisible, and the steady sound from the water surging against the mountain wall masked even the nickers of the horses.
They’d have to mount guards. If Straker didn’t give the order, she would. Something felt askew, and it wouldn’t be the first time that her well-developed sense of imminent danger was the cause of a mission pulled from the brink of failure. Better a few grumbles from those on guard duty than being sneaked upon. And if it was unnecessary, well, that was her prerogative as the chief.
They’d set up their three tents hugging the mountain face and positioned so that they would keep the tethered horses between them and the offside wall. In the far distance, across the lake a wall of water roared down the mountain side in a fall spanning the width of the valley. According to the old files she’d read the access route had been blasted into the sheer rock face ten feet above the water level. An engineering feat which had taken half a decade given how secret the whole enterprise had been kept from the general populace. All they’d have to do was making sure no one followed them up the trail. Still…
Unnur turned. Straker had spoken in low, quiet tones, sipping soup from a cup and casting about in the same direction. Idly she watched tendrils of steam drift over the rim and hug his gloved hands, only to be carried away by the rising wind.
“Ragnar and Eric can do first and second, how about your Foster doing the graveyard shift?”
He nodded. “I’ll tell him.” He finished his the soup and went in search of his second.
Unnur turned around to survey the valley again. Something was wrong. It was subtle, but it still was there. It frustrated her that she couldn’t put a finger on it.
The sound of water, lapping, tossing and roaring was everywhere.
The storm broke just shy of midnight, exactly when the chief had predicted it would. Straker watched Foster from slitted eyes as he closed the tent flap from the outside, fighting with the wind which kept ripping the material from his fumbling hands. Temperatures had sharply dropped with the first squalls rushing down the mountainside and across the lake, and Straker wondered how they’d be able to make it up to the station this morning. Neither Foster, nor he were trained mountaineers. Navigating a railed path, however steep, in good conditions was one thing. Navigating the same covered in sleet and snow was an entirely different matter.
The night had passed quietly enough so far. He hadn’t been able to fall asleep, and contented himself with dozing and resting limbs tired with the strain of riding and walking, envying Foster his guileless deep sleep. The younger man had snored gently until Eric had kicked his foot. Straker could hear both of them talking on and off on the far side of the camp, catching snatches of speech when the gale let up, only to howl with renewed force the next. Hard to keep tabs on what was happening. He shrugged deeper into his sleeping bag, and when the voices ceased entirely he managed to drift off.
Unnur woke with such a sudden urgency that she was out of the sleeping bag and in her parka before she realised what she was doing. It wasn’t the same kind of unrest and despair that had woken her near the river. No, this was straightforward. Something was amiss and she had to see what it was. Hooves moving when or where they shouldn’t maybe; some sound.
When she stepped out of her tent it was into the crunch of a layer of hail and sleet. The gale was still at it, with lesser urgency, and driving a flurry of icy snow across the lake now, but no less of a hazard than before. She swung the beam of her torch towards the horses, but they were all still tethered. The stallion was restless, tossing his head, feet moving and crunching on the ice-covered stone. As she played the beam across his head she saw his flared nostrils and wide open eyes. She wasn’t the only one alerted then.
She slowly turned in a circle, expecting the young colonel to step up to her, but Foster was nowhere in sight. The guards had chosen to set up against a boulder close to where the path merged into the ledge, given that it would break the wind and cover their back. She couldn’t see Foster anywhere near it. The Sig Sauer was in her hands before she had processed that fact, and she made for the boulder trying to be as quiet as possible.
The smell reached her before she saw him, curled against the far side of the rock, in on his belly, his arms wrapped around himself. The beam of her torch showed the stain beneath him to be a dark and dull red. He had bled, was bleeding still, and when she knelt at his side, she saw his eyes were open. He didn’t speak, but his eyes flicked silently out towards the lake. A trail of foot prints was leading towards the lake’s shore in a straight line. And vanished there.
She skirted the track, leaving it alone for further investigation, and walked down to the shore to the right of it. The foot prints lost themselves on the solid rock surface cleared of ice and snow by the constant spray of water. Whoever that had been, he now had wet shoes and legs, but he also had managed to walk away without a hint where to he had gone. She bit the glove off her left hand, stowed it and whistled loud enough to startle the horses.
There had been a lot of blood underneath Foster.