The relentless howl of the wind was audible even above the powerful hum of the snow-cat’s turbines.
Joe 90, WIN’s Most Special Agent, checked the position of the homing beacon on his navigation console. The signal was coming from 5 miles ahead, not far to go.
He had already been travelling for several hours. Even with the brain pattern of a renowned South Pole explorer, fatigue was starting to set in.
The terrain ahead was more or less level, so he set the automatic steering control and poured a hot cup of cocoa from one of the flasks on a nearby rack. As he sipped the warm and comforting brew, he thought about what he was likely to find when he reached his destination.
The L3G-Orion Spy Drone was one of the most impressive pieces of automated intelligence-gathering equipment ever built. In speed and stealth alone it eclipsed anything developed by enemy nations, giving the World Intelligence Network a solid edge in their covert operations.
But something had gone wrong during the cold weather tests. The drone began rapidly losing height and crashed only a couple of hundred miles from an enemy base.
Officially the base was a ‘research establishment’, but WIN knew better. If the drone were to fall into enemy hands, it wouldn’t take them long to reverse-engineer the principles of the Orion and build a version of their own.
At all costs, Joe must retrieve the vital telemetry circuitry and destroy the drone before it could be discovered.
There was a high-toned bleep from the instrument bank and Joe swivelled his control chair to face forward. At first he could see little as the glare from the sun bouncing off the snow was intense, but with the aid of his darkened snow-goggles, he was able to make out a faint outline ahead. He could see gleaming straight edges sticking out of a large snow drift.
Joe brought the snow-cat to a halt and donned his equipment pack. Then he moved to the auto-lock and exited the machine.
The icy blast of frozen air hit Joe like a fist. If it hadn’t been for the protective gear covering his face, he felt as though a single breath would have been enough to freeze his lungs.
He staggered forward, fighting the wind and swirling snow that whipped up all around him.
Twenty paces to go. Ten. Five.
There it was. The Orion was about the size of a single-seat fighter jet, and about half of it was buried in the snow. Joe knew that the precious circuit he was seeking would be located near the nose of the craft. He was going to have to dig his way to it.
With an inward sigh, he slung the equipment pack off his shoulder and selected a folding snow-shovel from inside.
As he began the laborious task, it crossed his mind that it might be better to wait in the snow-cat for a break in the weather. He dismissed the thought almost at once. With every moment came the increasing possibility that a search party from the enemy base might locate the drone and his mission would have been for nothing.
It was true that they did not have the secret coded frequency of the locator beacon to track, as Joe had done, but they would have been able to get a rough fix from one of their monitoring posts. Stealthy as it was, the Orion’s impact with the ice would have been enough to register on the enemy scanners.
Twenty minutes passed.
Joe felt his muscles ache with every movement, but he dared not stop.
Then finally he uncovered the small hatch, approximately where a cockpit might have been if the vehicle had been manned.
Joe flexed his gloved fingers and drew a security key from the equipment pouch. Sam Loover had given it to him less than twelve hours earlier, when he had received his briefing at WIN’s London HQ.
“Remember Joe,” Sam had warned, “That telemetry circuit is vital. You’ve got to recover it at all costs. This key unlocks the unit housing the circuit, but it also fits the remote destruct transmitter, which you’ll need after you’ve got the circuit. Whatever you do, don’t lose the key.”
Joe closed the hatch and was just about to clamber off the drone when it happened.
There was a terrific splintering series of cracks like several explosions and then a dark jagged crevasse started to appear near Joe’s feet.
The ice shelf was breaking apart! Joe knew he had just seconds to get clear.
He lunged for the snow-cat, but the ground gave way beneath his feet and he fell forward.
Then the solid snow around him seemed to collapse and the drone, Joe, and a mountain of ice and snow tumbled down to nothingness.
TO BE CONTINUED…