New to Quest Five?
The stories are best enjoyed when read in order beginning with May 1, 2009.

Welcome To Quest Five
Allison Beaumont is having trouble finding a job after college until one day the wealthy and powerful Joseph Candle offers her a job at his rather unusual corporation, where mistakes can lead to bare bottomed spankings. Adopting the alias of Virginia West, she joins four highly skilled colleagues, racing around the globe in search of mysterious treasures, but wherever she goes, trouble is sure to follow.
Note: Some stories contain scenes of a sexual nature, corporal punishment, non-consensual corporal punishment, and strong language which some reader's may find offensive. If you feel this material might be inappropriate for you please move on to another blog by clicking the next blog link at the top of the page.

October 31, 2009

This Night Only

"Rebecca," He said, his voice quiet like a whisper, but devoid of the warmth with which he customarily addressed her.

His hand grasped her wrist, forcing her to stop walking away. Her breath caught in her throat when she found the firmness of his hold prevented her from simply pulling free. She turned to face him, raising her free hand to slap him for his audacity, but he was waiting and grabbed her other wrist before her effort approached anything akin to success. The smile on her lips fell flat.

Untwisting his arms, he spun her around and pulled her back into his body where he could hold her pinned to his chest with a single arm wrapped around her. Far from accepting his superior strength as superiority, she struggled against his hold until he turned her loose with a push toward the wall. Wobbling on her stilettos, feet scrambling as if the tile had turned to ice, Rebecca steadied herself against the wall and glared up at him. With the index finger and thumb of his right hand he pulled a neatly folded, white handkerchief from his jacket pocket and held it out in the air between them. She looked from it to his eyes and when their eyes met, he opened his fingers allowing the cloth to fall freely to the floor.

"Pick it up," He ordered.

Happy Halloween,
Ashley J

October 28, 2009

Thawing Out: Blowing In The Wind

"The shelf will hold," Dr. Kingston said, her voice obscured slightly by the static over the radio.

After dropping down to the ice shelf we had split up, Dr. Kingston needed to verify the integrity of the ice in our immediate vicinity and Dr. Michaels and I needed to verify the drakkar was authentic or at least not an obvious fake. I could hardly fathom someone going to the trouble of making a detailed replica just to lure us into the middle of the Arctic, but I guess if you were going to all the trouble in the first place you would probably do a better than cursory job.

It was breathtaking on first sight. The ice and snow distorted the details to an extent but even through it all, it was easy enough to recognize for what it was, a ship out of place and quite probably, time. There were no signs of the Vikings who must have accompanied the vessel on its journey. The sails and oars had been stowed and whatever cargo had been carried was long since gone. Dr. Michaels noticed every detail and more but none of it had yet convinced him the drakkar was the authentic relic we hoped it was.

"Excellent," I replied into the radio in my hand. "We're still examining the ship, but might as well get your teams working since we are short on time."

"Will do," She replied.

A few feet away from me, Dr Michaels was climbing on the ice, attempting to get a better view of the interior of the vessel and doing a lot of slipping, sliding and grunting in the process. With his back to me I decided it was safe to smile, enjoying the somewhat humorous view as I reattached the radio to my belt. As soon as I had it hooked, not so easy with the bulky parka, thick gloves and unfamiliar equipment, the damn thing squawked again.

"V?" Kyra called.

"Yeah?" I said, pulling the radio free again.

"That storm is picking up speed and intensity," She said.

"How long?" I asked.

"Four hours, maybe less if the wind speed keeps increasing," She said.

"Keep me informed," I said.

"Yes, ma'am."

I rolled my eyes, but decided not to say anything about her new way of addressing me. I clipped the radio back onto my belt and went to join Dr. Michaels. I was sure I could do nothing to help authenticate our find, but maybe I could help him do it faster and at the very least I would appear to be doing something to anyone watching us. I'm not paranoid or anything but I figured between Kyra and the Captain of the Healy, there was a better than average chance a satellite was providing a nice overhead view of everything happening around me and being intently watched by those who had nothing better to do.

"So, what do you think?" I asked.

Dr. Michaels glanced at me for only a moment before returning his focus to the icy treasure beneath him.

"It's either the real thing or the worst fake ever made," He said.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"It has similarities to drakkar previously discovered however," Dr. Michaels said. "It has some striking variances in its construction."

"Most of the vessels you are comparing to it were built in the 11th century or earlier, right?" I asked.

"Correct," He replied.

"And this one is 12th or 13th century," I said. "It seems logical there would be changes in that period of time."

"Perhaps," Dr. Michaels said. "But the materials available to the Norse should not have significantly changed."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"A ship this far from Europe would have likely been constructed in Greenland or Iceland using wood from either north eastern Canada or north eastern America," Dr. Michaels said.

Dr. Michaels looked at me, apparently wanting a visual clue I was still with him. I nodded my head, although I was far from understanding the complexities behind his explanation.

"This would typically mean one of the local varieties of Oak or Ash would be used," He said.

"And this isn't?" I asked.

"I'll need a lab to verify," He said. "But the color is wrong."

"Maybe the act of freezing changed it," I suggested.

"It's possible but I've seen boats this coloring before," Dr. Michaels said. "Only they were built in Central and South America."

"Are you saying this isn't a Viking drakkar at all?" I asked.

"No, it's clearly of Viking design and there is little doubt it's been frozen in place for several hundred years," He said. "The runes on the mast might help explain things, but the wood suggests this vessel's origins might change everything we think we know about the territory explored by the Vikings."

"Then is it safe to say we need to preserve this vessel?" I asked.

"Most definitely. It will undoubtedly require years of study before it is accepted as authentic. I am, however, reasonably confident based on the probable age as determined by the encasing ice," Dr. Michaels said.

I nodded, having come to the same conclusion myself. Perhaps those years of study will reveal something interesting about the origins of the drakkar, such as it was built someplace where Vikings are not supposed to have been or maybe some Mayans or Aztecs built a drakkar of their own and went exploring, but none of that made the find any less valuable, if anything, it made it infinitely more valuable. I pulled the radio free from my belt again.

"We're a go," I said. "Let's get this thing out of here."

"I'm sending the divers in to deploy the platform and then we can start cutting," Dr. Kingston said.

"Keep me informed," I said. "That storm has picked up the pace so this is going to be close."

The crews had their job to do and with any luck they would get it done in time. Dr. Michaels and I had another job though, just in case we did not succeed in saving the relic. We set up equipment to take detail photographs of the ship. It would be devastating to lose the drakkar but if we at least had the ability to create a model of it in one of Kyra's simulations we would at least have something left to study and possibly find answers. The ice was the biggest obstacle, while much of it was surprisingly clear, there were large patches where dirt and thickness obscured the details frozen deep inside.

We used the time we had to relocate and take as many pictures as we could from as many angles as we could. At the final set, the winds had picked up and I could feel the occasional droplet of rain on my face. I unhooked my radio, thinking we had to be running out of time.

"Kyra," I called. "How's our storm doing?"

"The main body of it is still at least an hour out but you should be feeling the leading edge now," She replied.

"Right," I said. "Dr. Kingston, how much longer?"

There was a long pause of static and I started to wonder if she had not heard me, but then the radio crackled to life.

"We're on the last section now. Twenty minutes, maybe less." Dr. Kingston said.

"Let's push on the less if we can," I said. "Dr. Michaels and I will be joining you shortly we just need to pack up our equipment first."

"That would be good. You'll want to be on this side of the cut once we're through." Dr. Kingston said.

"Understood," I said.

It took us a few minutes to pack up the cameras and the various other tools Dr. Michaels had employed to ensure the accuracy of our recording. The wind grew stronger with each passing minute and by the time we had joined the others it was getting hard to stay standing and harder still not to slip on the ice when walking.

The cutters were almost finished with their work. As they had progressed on the job, they had already taken the time to secure the platform to the ice. All that remained was to evacuate people and equipment and tow our makeshift iceberg out to sea and away from the destructive storm headed our way.

In order to maximize efficiency, one of the helicopters had been designated for towing duty and equipment transport and the other, personnel transport. The personnel transport would return to assist in the towing after dropping everyone but its flight crew aboard the Healy. Everything was going about as close to plan as could possibly be expected.

Overhead the equipment helicopter was hovering in place and lowering it's cable with a basket to assist in pulling up the equipment. Dr. Kingston and her people were packing all the salvageable equipment into crates. Dr. Michaels and I already had our stuff ready for the lift. Three loads later, and all the equipment was secured aboard the helicopter and it moved itself into position to begin towing the platform and its cargo out to sea.

The second helicopter moved into position to starting picking up the people when my radio crackled to life again. I took a few steps away from the others and the hovering helicopter in order that I would be able to hear or hopefully hear whatever message was coming through. I pulled the radio from my belt and turned the volume up to its maximum.

"Say again," I said. "I didn't catch your last."

"The storm is going to be on top of you in minutes and it's gotten worse," Kyra said.

"We're evacuating the personnel here now and they've just started to tow the ship," I said.

"The sooner you're out of there, the better," Kyra said. "I'm reading severe wind turbulence and indications of cyclones forming on the water."

"Is the ship going to make it clear in time?" I asked.

"If the storm stays on course it should be fine, but with these winds I can't be certain it will," She replied.

"We'll just have to keep our fingers crossed then," I said.

I watched the first two people slowly being pulled up and into the helicopter. The wind had them waving all over the place on the cable, but although the ride looked rough, they made it safely inside. What was probably the most amazing was the helicopter itself was holding its position without wild swings as the wind continued to increase. Hooking the radio back to my belt I rejoined those waiting for a ride.

In the distance the storm roared its arrival at the shelf. We all turned to look as the first edges of the ice were ripped away by a twin pair of dancing cyclones. If the ice landed in the water or melted in the air, it was impossible to tell because with the spirals of wind and rain came with dark clouds that blacked out the sun and all its comforting light. I realized we weren't going to make it out ahead of the storm with a half dozen of us still waiting to be picked up.

"Tell me that wire can take four of us at a time!" I said, over the roar.

Growing closer and closer by the second was a spiderweb of cracking ice and flying debris. Everyone was watching it in horror instead of focusing on getting out. Even my own instinct was to stand still and watch the destruction, as frozen in place as the ice beneath my feet. I snapped myself out of it though and forced myself to turn my back to the scene.

I grabbed Dr. Kingston and turned her away from the destruction as well, shaking her to get her attention focused on me. She trembled under my hands but looking toward the cable seemed to steady her nerves and bring her back to the moment instead of the moment to come.

"It's rated for for a maximum weight but it's got a safety factor built in just in case," She said. "I think we can risk four but no more."

"Get your people hooked on. Dr. Michaels and I will take the next lift." I ordered.

I took hold of Dr. Michaels arm and turned him away from the storm and the others so we could speak without being overheard.

"We can't wait here for the next lift or that storm will be on us before they can even start to pull us up," I said.

"We can't out run a storm," Dr. Michaels said.

"No, but we can buy ourselves a few seconds," I said.

"The helicopter needs to hover in order to lower and raise the cable, if we move it will take time to reengage its hovering mode and likely we will lose any time we might otherwise have gained." Dr. Michaels explained.

I had not realized the technical details of what we were doing. Whether I wanted to accept it or not, Dr. Michaels was right about moving, it was pointless. The only hope we had was that the cable was down in time for us to hook on before the storm threw us into the air and quite likely, the freezing ocean beyond. We turned in time to watch the four others begin their journey upward, swaying back and forth in the wind.

The temptation to watch the storm coming was almost too strong to resist, but I knew if I allowed it to capture my attention again, any chance I had of escaping would be gone. Dr. Michaels seemed to understand the same thing and we both kept watching the ascent and the helicopter.

My radio crackled on my belt. I fumbled with it for a moment before pulling it free. My stomach churned with apprehension even though I could not have known the message waiting to be relayed on the other end. Something told me, it was not going to be good news.

"Miss West?" A male voice asked.

"Here," I replied.

"The autopilot has failed, I'm attempting to hold position manually but you'll need to stand clear of the cable zone until it's down and then hook on as quickly as you can because I won't be able to hold it long in these winds," He said.

"Understood," I replied.

What I wanted to say was better left unsaid, but I muttered it in the wind as the next best thing, "Can anything else go wrong?"

If Dr. Michaels heard me, he gave no sign. He grabbed my arm and guided me back away from the zone the pilot was attempting to put the cable down in. I should not have looked, but I glanced out toward the storm only to realize it was already practically on top of us. The cyclones had split apart since the last time I had looked but while they had left us in the space between them, they were on either side of us and clearly making it next to impossible for the helicopter to hold its position. If not for the ice breaking like a fractured mirror all around us I would have told the pilot to come back for us after the leading edge of the storm had passed us by. Of course it was hard to tell if things would be any better then and there was a fair chance they would actually be worse.

The ice around our feet began to crack. I could feel the ground beginning to shift beneath me and I had to hold on to Dr. Michaels to avoid falling down. How he braced himself and kept me up as well, I do not know. We both looked up at the cable, no doubt entertaining versions of the same thought; The ice was not going to hold much longer. The cable was no more than halfway down and with the wind curling it in the air it actually looked worse. The helicopter was moving back and forth as well, clearly struggling to hold its position against the multi-directional winds.

The helicopter dropped like a cartoon character who suddenly realized the ground had run out beneath his feet and gravity resumed its control. Like a whip, the cable lashed downward toward us and even as the helicopter stabilized itself a few feet above the ice, the cable slashed into the ice and would have cut right through Dr. Michaels and I if he had not shoved us apart at the last second.

I rolled on the ice feeling it giving way in places beneath my body and sharp edges cutting into my winter gear. The cable smashed itself in to the ice and cut a divide nearly as neat as the carefully sliced one we had made to free the drakkar. The part of ice I was laying on dropped a few feet and water splashed up on the edges and the ice started to tip as my weight had the ice unbalanced. I scrambled to a sitting position, shifting my weight to counteract the movement and after a delicate moment, stabilized my icy raft.

Looking up I discovered Dr. Michaels standing at the edge of the other side of the divide created between us. Behind him, the helicopter and regained some of its altitude but it remained lower than it had been. One of the cyclones had changed directions again and appeared to be heading straight for the helicopter. Dr. Michaels was looking for someway to get down to me or possibly to direct me to get up to him, but without some tools it was clearly going to be impossible.

"Hook yourself on and get out of here!" I yelled, pointing at the cable behind him and hoping he could understand enough of what I was saying.

Dr. Michaels turned around, possibly to look where I was pointing or maybe to see what was happening. He grabbed the cable and hook himself on and then gave a signal with his hands to the helicopter. I expected they would pull him up and if I was very lucky they'd be back to find me, freezing but alive, after the storm had passed. Dr. Michaels had other plans.

He took a few steps away from the edge and I could no longer see him. I thought I was alone and I was almost ready to admit to myself I was scared and then he came flying off the edge and diving straight down for me. I barely had time to blink before his arms were wrapped around me and we were both ripped up into the air as the helicopter altered it course and dragged us through chasm of splintering ice while its winch worked overtime trying to pull us aboard.

When my brain finally started working again, I tried to hook my harness to the cable but found it an impossible task while flying through the air. If anything my efforts were only making it harder for Dr. Michaels to hold on to me.

"Just hold on to me," He said. "I'm not letting you go."

I nodded and smiled at him as I wrapped my arms as tightly around him as I could. His face was turning red with the effort and his eyes were focused on some distant sight, probably an end only visible in his imagination, but no matter how much the wind tossed us around and how heavy I had to seem, he held tight. Even once we were safely aboard the helicopter he held on for a few more moments. Right then, he could have held me forever and I would never have complained.

Back about the Healy we waited out the storm by spending hours reviewing the data we had collected on the drakkar. Kyra was easily able to build a computer model and strip away the ice from the recordings and measurements Dr. Michaels had made. While I was waiting for the model and some news on whether our plan had ultimately succeeded or failed, I penned a letter commending the work crews, scientists, and pilots who had risked their lives on the venture. I had no way of knowing if it would ever be seen by anyone that mattered but I handed it to the Captain in a sealed envelope. There was little I could say about Dr. Michaels that would do any good in that forum, but I mentioned his heroics anyway and who knows maybe someday it will matter. For the moment all I could do was thank him and somehow that felt insufficient to the cause.

"Miss West," Dr. Michaels said, as soon as I entered the computer lab. "You have to see this."

I walked over to the computer station he was sharing with Kyra and peered over their shoulders. They were looking at a set of carvings which were undoubtedly some ancient form of writing, but it might as well have been Greek to me, or Norse I believe.

"What am I looking at?" I asked.

"The central pole of the longship," Kyra said.

That much was obvious. If my eyes did not sufficiently express the thought to Kyra, nothing ever would.

"It's usually called a mast," Dr. Michaels corrected. "In Norse though, it was called a lag."

"And the point is?" I asked.

"Norse captains often had their journey carved into the lag, hence some historians believe this to be the origin of the captain's log, although many linguists disagree. All of that is irrelevant," Dr. Michaels said. "This 'pole' has a carving of what is clearly a map and that is what I wanted to show you."

Dr. Michaels clicked his mouse to zoom in on the area of detail he was describing. The image filled the screen and I had to suppress a shudder. My mouth hung open in the air as I tried to find a reason to explain what was clearly impossible and yet equally and unquestionably real.

"Recognize it?" Dr. Michaels asked.

"The crystal," I said.

Dr. Michaels nodded and said, "It's nearly identical. Maybe the crystal was older than we thought."

"Or maybe there is more going on here than what's on the surface," I said. "Have you translated the text?"

"I'm working on it," Dr. Michaels said.

"Let me know when you have it," I said. "I'll be back in a bit."

I left the computer lab, intent on finding Dr. Kingston. There was something she had said in the conference room before we had left to rescue the drakkar which was now ringing in my head. I found her with the Captain sitting in the conference room and neither of them seemed surprised to find me looking for them. I sat down with them at the Captain's invitation.

"Storms aren't supposed to break up ice shelves," I said.

"Ordinarily, no." Dr. Kingston said.

"You weren't up here studying global warming, you were here to figure out who did this, why and possibly how," I said.

Dr. Kingston swallowed hard and looked to the Captain. He simply leaned back in his chair and smiled at me. I guess it took me longer to put together than he expected but I had other things on my mind before. The pieces of the puzzle were coming together but instead of giving me an idea of what the bigger picture was, all I had figured out was the puzzle was even bigger than I thought.

"Go ahead," The Captain said. "Tell her."

I looked from the Captain to Dr. Kingston wondering what they knew that I should have known.

"We don't really know all that much. Someone or something has been causing events to occur well ahead of when they should. We first suspected something when the Larsen Ice Shelf B collapsed in 2002. All indications were it should have lasted several more years but its actual collapse happened almost spontaneously," Dr. Kingston said.

"I thought that was explained as a misunderstanding of the thermal dynamics at work?" I said.

"A convenient explanation, but you don't really believe the best scientists from all over the world would have all got it that wrong do you?" The Captain said.

I looked between them again, wondering if they were pulling my leg but the longer I stared the more obvious it became, they were dead serious.

"Understand," Dr. Kingston said. "We aren't telling you global warming is a hoax, it's not. What we're saying, is someone is taking advantage of it and doing a damn good job of making every expert on the planet look like a fool no matter how conservative or liberal their estimates."

"Who would do that and more importantly, why?" I asked.

"That is the million dollar question, Miss West," The Captain said. "Did your Dr. Michaels find anything of interest with the drakkar?"

Obviously, there was the map and the fact it matched the one on the crystal found in Fu Xi's vault was definitely of interest. How could Fu Xi, the Norse, a map of an island, and global warming be connected? They would not know any more than I did if I shared the details and something told me the less people who knew about the maps, the better. I kept it to myself.

"Nothing so far," I said, as a random thought crossed my mind. "Dr. Kingston, is the sea level today significantly higher than it was say around the 13th century?"

"No, actually it's lower than it was then," She replied.

At my questioning glance she explained further, "The world entered into the Little Ice Age somewhere between the early 14th century and the mid 16th century. You can see evidence of the drop in sea level all through Europe where cities with once thriving ports were forced to locks and channels to continue have access to the sea and the trade it brought."

I nodded, suddenly understanding exactly why the computer models had failed to find a match for the shoreline on the map.

October 25, 2009

Thawing Out: The Ice Trap

The trip was pleasantly uneventful, a brief conversation with my companions followed by a long almost restful nap until we landed in Alert. I had hoped to settle something with Kyra in route, but my attempt ended in utter failure. Is it my fault she refuses to talk to me or is the real problem her in the first place? Jack might not like the answer I am thinking and to tell the truth, I don't really like it either.

"You're not happy with me," I said, taking the seat directly across from her and donning my best concerned, friendly coworker expression.

The flicker in her eyes was all the confirmation I needed. She hid it well enough though behind the half-hearted smile and faked innocence demonstrated by the slightly raised eyebrows as she brushed her hair away from her face to make sure I could see them. Her restless hands unfolded themselves and took firm grasps on the sidearms of her chair. I would bet they were sweating as well.

"What makes you say that?" She asked.

I wanted to smile or laugh or anything to let her know just how ridiculous she sounded. In college I would have done exactly that, but I guess my short time with Quondam has at least taught me a few new things, one of which being restraint. I swallowed my annoyance and frustration and pressed onward.

"A lot of things, really. The way you ignore me whenever you think you can get away with it," I said. "The way you talk to me. The way you talk to others about me. Take your pick, they're all valid."

"I'm an equal opportunity ignorer," Kyra replied with a shrug. "Don't take it so personally. I say what I think, when I think it and that's just me. I'm sorry if you think I'm attacking you personally, but it's just not like that."

"There is more to it than that. I'm not easily bothered and truth is I don't really care if you like me or hate me, but Jack seems to think your attitude toward me is going to cause bigger problems at some point. For the sake of the team he wants us to work out the problems," I said.

Kyra tilted her head toward me and let out a little laugh directed at me while tossing her hair over her should again. I could have taken it all as a flippant gesture, but I started to understand it was more of a nervous tick than a personal affront. She was sizing me up, of course, but there was more, she was afraid of something and whatever that something was, I was at the center of it.

"If Jack thought it was my attitude causing the problem he would have talked to me directly. Obviously he thinks the problem is more you than me and he's hoping talking to me will fix it," Kyra said. "Don't feel bad, Jack's sneaky like that."

I had considered the idea, although I bet Kyra would have been surprised by the news. It was true enough that I had my own attitude issues in dealing with my new job, but I was far from directing any of it at the actual member of the Q5 team. I was actually having a more difficult time keeping it out of my personal life and relationships than out of work.

"That's definitely one possibility," I said. "If it's the right one, tell me what I'm doing wrong."

"I don't know," Kyra said, shaking her head. "I honestly don't pay that much attention to you."

"You must have some idea. Why else would Jack send me to talk to you?" I said.

Kyra merely shrugged in response. Sitting there, I realized I was getting nowhere with her and if I pushed too hard I was more likely to make things worse than better. I returned the shrug and put on a happy face, hoping it was more convincing than it felt.

"I guess I'll just have to think about it some more," I said.

I pushed myself up of the chair and moved on to my own private space. My smile faded away as took my own seat and wondered how I was going to break through to Kyra. There were obvious difficulties which created something of a paradox if I was truly expected to resolve the situation on my own. She did not trust me and without trust she was never going to open up and share what was on her mind with me.

Dr. Michaels sat down next to me, nearly making me jump up. He smiled noticing he had startled me from my far too deep thoughts. It seemed a little out of his character to seek me out, but then my initial impressions of everyone involved with Q5 have been severely lacking. All things considered, I am wondering if Mr. Candle is right about my ability to read people at all or if like everything else he has said, it is just a convenient cover for truth he doesn't deem me ready to hear.

"I didn't mean to startle you," Dr. Michaels said.

"It's alright, I was just thinking," I said.

"If you are worried it's all in your head, it's not," He said.

I knew he was referring to Kyra so why did I think for a moment he might be referring to something else? I shook my head, both to confirm I was not questioning myself and to shake loose the cobwebs that seemed to be cluttering up my thoughts.

"She's not ready to talk about whatever it is, but I wish she would just get over it. The whole things feels childish," I said.

"I can try talking to her if you think it would help?" Dr. Michaels said.

"No, that's alright. I'll figure it out," I said. "Was there something you wanted?"

He shook his head and said, "Only to help if I could."

I smiled at him and then remembered the look that had passed between Olivia and him. The thought of it alone was enough to make me shudder and even though I knew there was a story that would make it all make sense I couldn't escape the quiet voice in the back of my head telling me not to take anything at face value, including presumed innocence.

"You know Olivia," I said.

Dr. Michaels did not even bother to feign surprise. He simply nodded his head although there was a touch of shame in the slouch of his shoulders and the faint color spreading into his cheeks. I had suspected it was a more intimate relationship and there in his eyes I knew it for certain.

"I did," Dr. Michaels admitted, not quite looking me in the eye. "I thought she was simply a student of archeology, impressed by my books and adventures."

"Were you the leak?" I asked.

It was a question without the accusation it could have otherwise implied. Olivia was young and attractive enough, I had no difficulty in understanding a man falling for her if she so set her sights on him. What she would gleam from the intimacy would be bits and pieces of what she wanted even if it arrived in the form of unanswered questions. Dr. Michaels, in some way such as that, might have leaked secrets he would never have told, but because of who she was and what she knew, the leak would be effective enough, although another source might be needed as well.

"The relationship was brief. It lasted only a couple of weeks before you were hired and broke off a few days before you went to Bad Land. I suppose I should have suspected something, but I did not," He said.

"It's understandable. I'm just trying to put the pieces together, but there are a lot still missing," I said.

"I was not a complete fool," Dr. Michaels said. "I had her checked by security before the relationship went anywhere. She was clean or supposed to be at least."

"Tom, I assume?" I said.

"No, I went around him, he has a way of making me feel guilty about pursuing personal relationships," Dr. Michaels said.

I nodded, recalling my own conversation with Tom in regards to Mark. Tom was apparently a nay sayer for relationships for everyone, not just me. It put his concerns about Mark into a whole new light which was suddenly much more comfortable.

"Who then?" I asked.

It occurred to me I might be able to make use of someone else to investigate Mark and either confirm or deny my worst fears. Then I realized the odds were that the investigation would leave me with no real information at considering Dr. Michaels had ended up literally sleeping with the enemy and not even knowing it.

"A friend in security," Dr. Michaels said. "I realize this conversation is important, but I would prefer if we could save the rest of it for when Jack and Tom can be present as well."

"Sure," I said. "I appreciate your candor with me."

Dr. Michaels nodded briefly and then got up to leave me alone.

"No doubt we should both get some rest while we can," He said.

Several hours later we arrived in Alert. No, not a state of panic, that's just what they call the small town with an serviceable airstrip at the northern most latitude on the planet. Dr. Michaels, having apparently vacationed in Alert previously, informed me the entire town had little more than a half dozen permanent residents, but their numbers were slightly bolstered by temporary military personnel and a handful of scientists. The scientist wanted to be there, the military personnel wanted to be anywhere else and the half dozen residents were probably split between the two attitudes.

We entered the building that called itself an airport, other than the sign I don't think anyone would have called it that, but that's not really important. Someone had brewed coffee for our arrival, although by the looks of it they started the pot a couple hours before we took off. We had a short wait though before our ride to the Healy was due to arrive and given the fact I was struggling to keep from yawning I decided to be adventurous. The sludge was as thick as pudding and as gritty as mud but the taste was vaguely reminiscent of coffee and if I closed my eyes I could almost pretend I was back home in my kitchen. The coughs caused by the grit going down interrupted the fantasy but it was nice while it lasted.

I had barely gotten to the point, I could no longer swallow another dollop of my coffee when our ride finally arrived. Two cocky pilots walked in and someone had even let them bring a real helicopter with them, thankfully, the helicopter waited outside. Both of the men quickly filled their thermoses half with the coffee and half with water. A little vigorous shaking and presto, they had drinkable coffee. Now why hadn't I thought of that? Probably has something to do with the fact I can normally visit a coffee shop whenever my own experimental coffee takes a turn for the worse.

"Y'all ready?" One of the pilots asked.

"Depends," I said. "You drinking that sludge or is it fuel for the flight?"

He laughed and extended his hand toward me. I grasped it and he gracefully leaned down and kissed the top of my hand. I was tempted to check my head for a funny looking hat but I'm pretty sure the Church has yet to evolve to a stage it would select a woman for Pope anyway.

"Lieutenant James Everett, at your service ma'am. I'll be your tour guide back to the Healy," He said. "The old man over there will be the pilot but don't you worry, if he up and croaks I know just what to do."

The "old man" grunted in our direction before heading back outside. He was probably still under 30 but the man talking to me was barely out of diapers and considering the crap spewing out his mouth, maybe he shouldn't be quite yet. Given a choice I would have grabbed a paddle and jumped in a canoe to get to where we going, but that didn't seem to be on the travel brochures for the day, so it looked like we were taking a flight with the old man and diaper boy.

"That's very comforting. Hopefully none of the rest of us will up and croak on the way as well," I said.

"There's a first time for everything," He said. "We better get y'all aboard. The old man don't like to wait."

He turned and headed out the door without waiting to see if we were following. I turned to look at Dr. Michaels who merely shrugged at me. Kyra shook her head and picked herself up out of the chair she had found to rest on.

"Do you think he realized he implied he's never made a trip without a passenger dying?" I asked.

"Probably not and I wouldn't mention it to him," Dr. Michaels said. "The thought might actually confuse the poor boy and God forbid he might need to push a button or something afterward."

The flight was relatively short and fortunately uneventful. The landing was another story. I think we might have all faired better to have jumped, but I kept that opinion to myself even after we were on the pad. To say the touch down jarred every bone in body would not do justice to the stomach wrenching effect nor the nauseating maneuvering of the helicopter in the last moments of flight.

We were greeted on the pad by a small woman almost completely consumed by the vibrantly orange parka she was wearing. There was no doubt she and Dr. Michaels knew each other because from the start her facing was beaming with happiness and the enthusiastic waving was the sort of thing you reserve for only your most loved friends and family. Dr. Michaels practically ran to her and then scooped her up in his arms for a bear hug. It was probably a good thing too because judging by the height difference I think a straight on hug might have looked a bit obscene and way too friendly for a public reunion.

Inside, away from the cold wind and the noises of machinery and sea, Dr. Michaels introduced us to the woman as Dr. Rosalind Kingston, a one time student and longtime friend. A few moments later we were greeted by the Captain and the Operation's officer. Neither of the men appeared too happy to see us and apparently preferred to be addressed solely by their rank. I figured it was an intimidation tactic and shrugged it off. There really isn't any point in making waves when you are already at sea.

Kyra and I were shown to the computer lab where she was able to plug in her laptop and network with the science systems aboard. Although she complained the equipment was inferior to her own setup, the Captain refused to allow us to set up anything more. Obviously some toes had been trampled to get us on board and any opportunity the Captain had to stomp back he was going to take.

After only a few minutes of getting acquainted with the ship's systems we were escorted to the conference room where Dr. Michaels was already waiting along with his friend. We had barely sat down at the table before Dr. Kingston stood up and began pacing the floorspace at the head of the room. I was relieved she had at least gotten rid of the parka so I could see her legs move as the rest of her did as well. It was hard to tell if she was nervous or excited or both, my guess was the last based on the way her hands twitched and the shortness of her breathing.

"The following information is classified and any divulgence of the material discussed within this room to individuals not previously cleared for that information by the United States government will constitute an act of treason," The Captain said, beginning the meeting.

"We've been studying, in cooperation with the Canadians, the Markham Ice Shelf," Dr. Kingston said. "Indications from N.A.S.A. provided satellite images gave us reason to believe the shelf has been melting from beneath, similar to the Larsen Shelf in Antarctica, and could be nearing a break off point. Our study has been focused on an attempt to trace cause from the effect."

"Sound like evidence of Global Warming," Kyra said.

Dr. Kingston swallowed and frowned at Kyra for a moment before continuing her pacing and explaining. Kyra shook her head, but wisely kept any further thoughts to herself.

"Global Warming would be a nice political answer for the events," Dr. Kingston said. "But science is both infinitely more complex and simpler than politics. However, our discoveries in relation to the melting of ice shelves is not the point, but the background to understanding, we were not searching for artifacts and so it was entirely by accident we discovered the drakkar."

I found myself nodding as was Dr. Michaels. Kyra was trying to hide her rolling eyes from the ship's officers and Dr. Kingston but apparently was unconcerned about me seeing them. The lights dimmed and a projection screen hummed its way down at the front of the room. A picture of the ice shelf was projected onto the screen. The drakkar was difficult to see but the projection had it circled in red, barely more than a dirty speck in the field of ice.

"Two days ago a small chunk of the shelf broke off in this region, revealing the ship, preserved and frozen in place," Dr. Kingston said. "Based on initial impressions and logical deductions we are guessing the ship was probably caught in a storm in the mid to late 13th century. This would coincide with certain theories on the beginning of the Little Ice Age, during which ice packs were expanding within the Arctic. We'll know more once we actually get to the ship and break it free."

"No one has been near it yet?" Dr. Michaels asked.

"It was spotted from a chopper survey. The shelf in the immediate region is too delicate for a landing at this point. So no, no one has been close," The Captain said.

"Are you taking the ship in closer for a water landing on the shelf?" Dr. Michaels asked.

The Captain shook his head.

"No, this entire region is on the brink of a major ice disruption the effects of which are somewhat unpredictable. I was in no hurry to bring the Healy in there and the Canadians have requested we keep our distance so as not to quicken the disaster already underway," He said.

"Can I assume you have some sort of a plan to get a research team over to it?" Dr. Michaels asked.

"If it were up to me we would leave it be until after the shelf has finished whatever it's going to do and then recover it without substantial risk," The Captain said.

"Makes sense," I said. "Why not wait?"

Dr. Michaels and Dr. Kingston both turned on the Captain and I as if they were ready to start a mutiny over the very idea of waiting. I fully understood the excitement in finding something so unexpected and so magnificent but the rush to throw caution to the wind and risk life and limb for gaining a piece of knowledge today rather than tomorrow, was beyond me.

"The drakkar is estimated to be the size of the largest Viking warship ever recovered if not slightly larger. We're talking over 30 meters in length. Furthermore, this vessel is fully intact with very little damage, quite possibly making it the most important find in oceanic history," Dr. Kingston said. "To risk losing it to the bottom of the sea in order to avoid a small amount of risk is unacceptable."

"Perhaps I'm missing something, but I thought it was frozen in ice. Doesn't that make it a little unlikely that it will sink?" I asked.

"The ice around it is breaking up in unpredictable patterns. There is a 92% probability the ship will be ripped to pieces along with the edge of the ice shelf it's resting on within the next 72 hours." Dr. Kingston said. "The largest pieces would then likely sink leaving us only fragments to study and those fragments would take months to fish out of the water and ice."

"That is entirely unacceptable when we have the rare opportunity to study an intact warship of the Viking Era," Dr. Michaels said.

"So what do you suggest?" I asked.

My question was posed to the room at large although my eyes were more focused between Dr. Michaels and Dr. Kingston. They shared a look which undoubtedly communicated a volume of information as only those who know each other very well can manage. The Captain was watching them almost as intently as I was which told me he was as much in the dark as I was right at that moment.

"Airlift," Dr. Kingston said.

"Absolutely not," The Captain replied.

"We don't really have a choice," Dr. Kingston said.

Even my amateur eyes could tell we were too far away to reach the region in a reasonable time on a smaller vessel and from what the Captain had said in regards to the relationship with the Canadians, I gathered they wouldn't much approve of a vessel of any size being in the region. An air approach was likely the only real solution but dropping down onto melting ice from a helicopter and hoping the shelf would hold long enough to complete our work, sounded more like a prayer than a chance.

"Before we spend time arguing out the specifics of how to get there, what can we actually do to remedy the situation for the drakkar once we get there?" I asked.

"Ordinarily, we'd employ a variety of tools, from heaters to ice cutters until we were able to secure a section small enough to lift out. Obviously we don't have that kind of time," Dr. Kingston said.

"The best alternative we have is to deploy an inflatable platform beneath the ice shelf and cut a section free to be sustained by the platform," The Captain said.

"Free from the pressure of the larger shelf, the section we cut free should survive a slow thawing process, which will free the drakkar over a period of weeks," Dr. Kingston said.

"So what's the catch?" I asked.

"Increased storm activity," The Operations officer said. "There is a heavy storm headed straight for this section of the shelf and it will be there in less than 8 hours."

"We can't wait it out because the odds are quite high the storm will accelerate the break off of the entire shelf in this region," Dr. Kingston said. "The drakkar will be destroyed."

"Even if we manage to cut the section free and support it with our platform, the storm could easily do as much or worse damage," The Captain said.

"Can we tow it out of the path of the storm?" I asked.

"I believe I already explained, no ships will be allowed into the region," The Captain said.

"What about helicopters?" I asked.

"It's too dangerous with a storm," The Operations officer said. "In order to tow the platform the choppers would have to be attached to it via cables and storm waters can cause unpredictable wave formations. If anything went wrong the choppers could be pulled into the sea before they even knew what happened."

"She's right though," Dr. Kingston said. "There just isn't any other way to pull this off under the circumstances."

"Obviously we are under time constraints here and the worst thing we can do is sit here debating what were going to do unless the intention is to do nothing at all," I said.

"If this our best plan, I suggest Dr. Michaels and I get a lift to that location so we can at least survey the drakkar and determine if it is worth any more risk than that," I said.

"No way am I staying behind," Dr. Kingston said.

"Based on the timeline, we should dispatch a full team or no one at all," The Operations officer said.

The Captain gave a grudging nod to his officer, clearly agreeing with his thoughts while not liking the danger the entire situation was potentially placing upon the people he would be sending. Mostly, I had to agree, the historical significance of the find went far beyond dollar signs, but then again, so does the value of a person's life. It took me a moment, lost in my thoughts, to realize the Captain, the Operations officer, and Dr. Kingston were all staring at me.

"What?" I asked.

"It's your call," The Captain said, shoving a folded piece of paper in front of me.

I looked at the others but no one was saying anything. The paper was rough against my hands as I unfolded it and stared at the message inside. It should have been no surprise to me at all, I have always known Joseph Candle has connections in high places, but having the authority of the President behind me was not something I had ever expected to happen. The message left absolutely no doubt as to who was going to decide what do about the drakkar and everyone in the room was staring at her, except me, I was staring at the paper with my name on it and trying not to look as shocked as I felt.

I looked at Dr. Michaels and wished we had a private moment to talk it all over. I understood all the angles but what was right and what was wrong remained a mystery. There was always the possibility the entire thing was nothing more than a trap and if it was, could I live with endangering all of these people by falling for it? And what if it was real? What if the drakkar was an important piece to a much larger puzzle I was only beginning to perceive? Could the puzzle be solved if I failed to retrieve this clue? I had the questions but none of the answers.

"Assemble the equipment and work crews," I said. "Dr. Kingston you'll accompany Dr. Michaels and myself on the initial drop. We'll determine viability of the plan on site."

"Holding the work crews back here until you determine whether it can be done or not might just change that answer," The operations officer said.

"I didn't say they would wait here," I said. "We all go together but no one else drops down until I give the okay."

The Captain didn't look too pleased with my decision, but I hadn't really expected anything else. It should have been his decision, it was his ship after all and here I was giving orders he had no choice but to obey. I would have been in a sour mood myself had our positions been reversed so I could hardly blame him. Unfortunately, the drakkar did not have the time for me to sympathize.

"Kyra," I said, turning to her in my chair. "I want you monitoring that storm and build a model of the likely effects it will have on the shelf. I'm sure Dr. Kingston can provide you with everything you need."

She nodded at me.

"How often do you want updates?" Kyra asked.

"Every hour until the storms less than two hours out and then I want them every fifteen minutes," I said.

"We'll have both choppers loaded and ready for flight in thirty minutes," The Operations officer said.

I shoved back from the table and stood up. Everyone else did the same a moment later. The room was filled with a variety of emotions but the two tugging at me were excitement and dread. In a perfect world, we would succeed without a hitch, but I've never lived in perfect, and in my world nothing ever goes exactly like it is planned.