Chapter 5 - Aquarius in Ice.
With the shrill of the alarm clock our honeymoon ended. The harsh reality came back into our life. The weather was still perfect for our mission. Stars filled the sky. This meant that everything could proceed as planned, and it did. Breakfast was already available at the center, when we arrived. The prevailing atmosphere, of course, was strictly routine.
Breakfast was radically different that morning, than it had been in Caracas on the morning after our first night together. Here, nobody knew us in terms of our intimate background. Nobody knew how much closer we had come to each other, although this seemed hardly possible.
People greeted us briefly. They greeted us as though we were part of the center, and then went on to do whatever they normally did. The center was a hall with tables big enough to seat eight people; four on each side. As it was, only three people joined us for breakfast. The Major showed up late. Perhaps she always did. She had a cup of coffee for breakfast, nothing more, and talked about how the reindeer herds were benefited by the station, especially during extreme weather conditions. Then, we were off on our way to the airfield, still chatting as we went. Our scientific team had been busy loading the plane up. They were almost done when we came to the hanger. There were a few other delays, too. The engines needed to be warmed up. Eventually, though, we were on our way.
We flew low this morning. The Major explained that we had to fly as low as we could dare, in order to avoid any possible radar contact. Most of the time we flew just a few meters above the tree tops on a heading towards the faint orange hue on the horizon that signaled the beginning of the new day.
It took us two hours to reach our drop-off point near the satellite station. Flying at near tree top level was slower of course, being more precarious, especially at first while we were still flying in the dark. The airstrip at the satellite station was a frozen lake in the middle of a valley surrounded by forest. By the time we arrived the sun had just come up above the horizon. Everything unfolded as smoothly for us as if we were on a perfect holiday. We knew, of course, that appearances were deceptive. Evidently, it was for this reason that we didn't land in front of the station, but behind a nearby hill to the rear of the station. We landed on a narrow clearing between stands of trees. Everything sparkled in this pristine landscape. The trees projected long shadows across the snow as we came in. The Major said that she hoped that the shadows would obscure our landing tracks sufficiently, so that they wouldn't be seen from space by the surveillance satellites.
By the time the plane came to a stop a new world suddenly opened up, a world of haste driven by the realization that we were in a race against time if our suspicion of a bio-weapon proved to be true. The plane was quickly unloaded. Everything was dumped onto the ground to get the Major airborne again as fast as possible, while we grabbed what we could and hurried for cover.
We had changed into white coveralls in the plane, and put all of our belongings into white bags that would make us undetectable by the satellite spy system that the Major was sure would be monitoring the area. Once our cargo was secured and covered with snow, we were off on our trek that turned out to be an hour's march between trees, across snowdrifts, over a tree covered hill, and for the final mile along a shallow ravine that led to the station. For obvious reasons the Major had chosen not to land any closer. For the same reason we also had to cover our tracks in a manner that would make them look like animal tracks when seen from space.
The satellite station was a giant A-frame building erected on a steel frame basement that served both as a garage and as a storage area. The single communal bedroom of the station was located on the top floor. Below it were the labs and the kitchen. It would have been a grandiose place had we been on a ski holiday.
"Get yourselves ready for two nights of camping out," said the woman of our science team who called herself Leslie. She had told us earlier that she preferred to have an American name. It was customary for someone in her position to hide her real name. She showed us the book that contained the supply lists.
"This is what you need for two days," she said, "and that's where you'll find it." She showed us the map in the book and hurried off to do her own chores. The map covered the entire house. Every part of it was indexed and referred to in the attached lists. "You have 20 minutes," said Leslie, "we have to get the project finished while the weather holds."
The station was equipped with two snow cats, both painted brilliantly white. They weren't just industrial versions of the Skidoo. They were bigger, faster, powered by a large diesel engine. Nor were they riding on tracks. They were riding on eight balloon tires that allowed the giant vehicle to travel faster and ride more smoothly over the terrain. Our first excursion was to collect the cargo we had hidden, which we took back to the A-frame. After that, we were off with both vehicles, Anton in one, I in the other.
The irony was that we had to drive slowly in spite of our haste, so as not to raise too much of a cloud of snow behind us. Only the tire tracks remained a problem. We hoped that they would be shallow enough not to be noticed. If only we had some raking equipment to drag behind us.
In this cautious fashion it took us almost an hour to get to our first planned stop, which the science team called "Check Point One."
The two people of our science team ventured outside in plastic coveralls and changed a filter paper that had been mounted inside the engine's air-intake funnel. The filter was immediately examined in an electron microscope that was built into the vehicles. Afterwards the sample was sealed into a bottle that was labeled with the location and time. Then we were off again.
The same ritual was observed every hour. Later, snow samples were collected as well, and twigs from the surrounding trees, whenever there were any. The team worked with plastic gloves and plastic hoods, and breathed through filtered masks. The scene looked more and more like an episode unfolding from a science fiction movie.
The plastic gloves and masks were discarded after each use, into a container mounted outside the air-cleansing chamber of the snow cats. The team also took samples of dead animals, whenever we came upon any.
We stopped for dinner briefly, that night, right after it became dark again. Up to this point nothing unusual had been detected. The bio team stated that this didn't mean anything since wind dispersal could have cleared away whatever there might have been, or the snow had covered whatever there was.
Driving after dinner in the dark, without headlights, was riskier. We also ran the risk that the heat of the engine exhaust could be detected from space. None of us knew for certain what the limits were of the space watch system. We only knew that we had to take all possible precautions.
We had stopped ten times during this first part of the run. Around midnight, we slept for a few hours in our seats that could be made to lean back in a low angle. After that, long before dawn, the journey continued.
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