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Annja sighed. "Yep. It's a helicopter."
Annja watched as the ma.s.sive cargo helicopter came flying in, its rotors beating the ground in a giant swell of ice and snow. As the helicopter flared, the side doors opened and a voice blared out over a speaker.
"Stand where you are! If you move, you will be shot!"
Don looked at Annja. "I don't think these guys are playing around."
"Doesn't look like it. We'd better be cool."
She saw four ropes drop down and then four men in black shimmied down out of the helicopter. They spun and trained automatic weapons on Annja and Don.
"Drop your weapons!" someone shouted.
Don eyed Annja. "Do we do as they say?"
Annja frowned. "They'll shoot us before we can move an inch. We'd better play it their way."
Don dropped his gun. Annja closed her eyes and willed the sword away from Zach's body. She dropped her gun.
"Think they'll kill us?" Don asked.
Annja shrugged. "No idea."
The speaker called out again. "Move back away from the tracked vehicles. Do it now or you will be shot."
Annja and Don walked about forty feet away from the scene of battle. The wind kicked up a little bit and Annja saw the helicopter spin a bit in the updraft. It's got to be h.e.l.lish trying to keep that bird steady, she thought. Whoever these guys are, they are really good.
The four men moved in on the vehicles. As soon as they reached the tow hitch, they waved the chopper closer. As it came in, a new set of ropes came down and Annja could see they were much thicker.
"They're not interested in us," she said to Don.
"What do you mean? Those guns certainly look interested enough."
"They want the generator. Not us."
"We can't let them get it," Don said. "Not after all of this."
But Annja didn't sense any imminent danger. And she didn't feel as if they had to do anything just now.
"Wait," she said. Something strange was happening. Again.
"Don, just follow my lead here, okay?" she said.
"Fine," he agreed reluctantly.
Three of the men worked feverishly, securing the new ropes to the sides of the crate that housed the nuclear generator. They employed a series of special locks and cables to make sure everything was tight and unable to move in the wind.
Finally, the men stood back and waved the crate up.
The helicopter strained and then lifted up slightly. The crate moved slowly and then cleared the trailer, aloft about ten feet in the air. Each of the men then attached himself to the rope he'd come down on. As Annja watched, the ropes were drawn back up into the helicopter by a winch.
As quickly as they'd come down, the men were back in the helicopter.
The chopper strained and then lifted higher into the air, taking the nuclear generator with it.
Next to her, Don sighed. "Well, so much for that recovery mission."
"We did the best we could," she said.
"Yeah. But now we have no idea where it's going. That thing could end up in Sierra Leone for all we know."
Annja watched the chopper hover and then turn back toward them. "I hope this isn't the part where they machine-gun us," she said.
Annja saw the pilot's window open a crack. His hand appeared and dropped something to the ground. It was too light to be a grenade.
As she watched, the chopper turned and sailed back the way it had come. In seconds, even the sound of its rotors beating the Antarctic air was a fading memory.
"What was that they threw down?" Don asked.
Annja shook her head. "I don't know."
She ran over to the small package and picked it up. It was a wooden box sealed with tape. She unsealed it, slid it open, and inside there was a piece of paper. Annja took it out and unfolded it.
Annja-my apologies for making you go through this charade. Zach wasn't the only one skilled at creating a living lie. The generator is, in my opinion, far too potent to be allowed on the black market. There's no telling the destruction it could bring about if it were allowed into the wrong hands. Therefore, I have done the responsible thing and taken possession of it myself. I will arrange for the U.S. government to buy it back from me at a modest profit for my time and troubles. I'm sure I can find a good use for the money. And hopefully, they will learn a vital lesson in the process. Someday, I'll explain how this all went down. Perhaps over a nice bottle of wine. By the time you read this, I'll have left McMurdo. Don't waste your time trying to track me down. You know we'll b.u.mp into each other again. It's inevitable. When you get back to McMurdo, think you'll find that there's an airplane inbound to extract the soldiers and yourself. Get some sun when you get home.Fondly, Major Braden Annja laughed. "Unbelievable!" she shouted.
Don took the note from her and read it. When he finished, he looked at her. "What does this mean? Major Braden was a traitor? He set this whole thing up?"
Annja shrugged. "I think Major Braden is a concerned patriot who is keen on keeping that technology away from people who shouldn't have it. And when he figured out that Zach intended to steal it, he took steps to make sure that didn't happen."
"It's too weird. We'll have to show this to the higher-ups when we get back to McMurdo," Don said.
Annja held out her hand and Don gave her the note. Annja ripped it into small pieces. "I don't think that will be necessary. Major Braden will be in touch with them soon enough, anyway."
Don frowned. "Are you sure?"
"Absolutely." She looked back at the battle scene. "Help me collect Tony and Hawk. We'll take them back with us."
"What about Mitch and Zach?" Don asked.
Annja frowned. "Part of me thinks they ought to be left here. But I suppose that wouldn't be right. They deserve a proper burial if nothing else."
"We've got the room if we tie them on the trailer."
"And the gas?"
Don shrugged. "We can salvage enough from the other vehicles to get us home. I'm sure of it."
"All right." She took a moment to kneel down next to Zach's body. I wish it could have been different, she thought. But you made your choice. And I made mine.
"Annja, I need some help," Don said.
She walked over to where Don was already strapping Hawk's body on the trailer. As the wind picked up, Annja looked out over the Antarctic horizon.
"It really is strangely beautiful here," she said.
"And cold as all get-out," Don added.
Annja smiled. "I don't know. After a while, you kind of almost get used to it."
Don regarded her. "I don't know you all that well, but I have to say, your life seems pretty d.a.m.ned crazy. This kind of thing would put other people into therapy for life. And you're standing here enjoying the scenery."
Annja nodded at the other bodies. "Let's get the others strapped down and get going. I want a window seat on the plane ride out of here."
"Yeah, that sounds good."
Annja tucked her hood in a bit tighter. Her life was crazy. No doubt about it.
But at least it was her own.
Annja took a deep breath. Somehow, the frozen Antarctic air didn't seem quite so cold anymore. How Garin had arranged for the freighter to be one of his own, Annja had no clue. Perhaps he'd set the entire thing up when he'd heard about the dig through his network of spies. Garin had plenty of resources he could call upon, and finding moles working for him in the government wasn't nearly as surprising as it once might have been.
Perhaps, he'd wanted the generator himself all along with the intent of holding it for ransom.
Either way, she thought, he's proved himself a far more cunning man than I've given him credit for being. I'll have to remember that in the future. Someday, he just might fool me long enough to steal the sword.
She didn't think there was any way the sword would work for him. But the thought of his trying to wile it out of her didn't repel her quite as much as she once might have thought.
A smile played across her face. This one goes to you, Garin, she thought.
But the next time?
That's up for grabs.