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Authors: Clinton Smith

Exit Alpha

BOOK: Exit Alpha
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EXIT
ALPHA

CLINTON SMITH

Contents

1
   CREVASSE

2
   SCREAMS AT MIDNIGHT

3
   PALACE OF THE PATRIARCH

4
   REQUISITION FOR TWO DEATHS

5
   BIRD FARM

6
   SUBVERSION

7
   NUDE WITH MIRROR

8
   THETA

9
   DEBRIEF

10
   BLOW-UP

11
   BULLET ENTRÉE

12
   ATTACK IN BLACK

13
   LAST HURRAH

14
   CATS BENEATH THE MOON

15
   FALLOUT

16
   ALPHA

17
   CULT

18
   TEETH AND BONE

19
   ENCOUNTER AT 3000m

20
   BETA

21
   ON ACTIVE SERVICE

22
   DREAM OF FAIR WOMEN

23
   TEMPTATION AND BENT TIME

24
   HOUSE OF DOLLS

25
   SAUNA AND LATER

26
   COALS OF FIRE

27
   AMBUSH

28
   MORTAR

29
   LIMBO

30
   EXPOSURE

31
   PRELATES PULL PLUG

32
   BETA

33
   CANCER CURE

34
   RECALL

35
   ALPHA

36
   BODY LANGUAGE

37
   ACID DROP

38
   JOHN

39
   TRIPLE CROSS

40
   MAYDAY

41
   HELL ON ICE

42
   SURVIVAL

43
   WASTELAND

44
   SLOT

45
   TRAVERSE

46
   ALPHA

47
   FUN TIME

48
   MOP-UP

49
   TOWERING CONUNDRUM

50
   BABY

51
   FIREFIGHT

52
   STORM WARNING

53
   DEAD WEIGHT

54
   SNARE

55
   HIGH DIVE

56
   LANDFALL

57
   EXPECTED GUESTS

EPILOGUE

Glossary

Author’s Note

Acknowledgments

An interview with Clinton Smith

About the Author

CREVASSE
ANTARCTIC PLATEAU, 1973

T
he thermometer on his parka read minus 40 degrees centigrade. Whiteout and wind chill made the glacier a featureless hell. Since the split had appeared in his boot-top he’d tried everything to patch it. If they kept on like this, he’d lose his toes.

One thing was certain in Antarctica. Everything was ten times harder and more dangerous. The ‘A’ factor, they called it. The smallest mistake could kill.

Chafed by his harness, anxious about his foot, cursing the man ahead of him, Cain struggled on. They were on powder snow now, had cleared the sastrugi, thank God. But there could be crevasses here.

Zuiden, far ahead all morning, was now a speck at the end of his sledge tracks, his more powerful body better at hauling 200 pounds. He’d stopped at the top of a rise to probe with the spike of his ice axe.

Cain plodded towards him, straining to see through his goggles. In this undefined, unrelieved whiteness it was hard to spot slumps. The danger wasn’t the centre of a snow bridge. You had to watch for the fault line at the edge. Plumes blew from ridges. The wind was rising fast.

Last night in the snapping tent he’d hunched beside the Primus, shaken frost from between his double layer of socks, checked his foot. Two toes — spongy, painful.

‘Amputation time,’ Zuiden said through salami and peas.

‘You’d like that, wouldn’t you?’

‘Another Paki cripple. So what? You black bastards are a dime a dozen.’

Why the fixation on skin colour? He wasn’t even that dark. He’d been told his mother had been Caucasian, his father Pakistani. Zuiden’s parents were Dutch students. So bloody what? They’d never known their parents. Why did deadshits like Zuiden make such comments?

They were manhauling far south of Alpha with a rendezvous point but no backup. EXIT cadets sank or swam. They were both twenty-four years old. Training continued seventeen hours a day and seven days a week for twenty years — special forces techniques and streaming for specific operations. For Cain, that included a liberal education that Zuiden ridiculed, probably from envy.

He slogged on through squeaking snow, beard frozen, eyelids encrusted. They were nearing the crest where the ice flow would change direction. The second hour was up. His turn to lead.

He drew level with the Dutchman. ‘Time to rope up.’

‘Got to crap.’ Zuiden’s overmitts hung from their harness. He struggled with zips.

Cain unhitched himself from the sledge and pulled the coiled safety-rope from under the strapping. It was secured to the eyelet at the rear and he’d tied the prusiks last night when they’d pitched camp. He tossed the coil on the snow, removed his mitts, tied a figure-eight in the shorter end and snapped it into his harness karabiner.

He glanced at Zuiden — freezing his arse off, squatting behind the windbreak of his sledge. Turds, in this place, remained preserved for ever. You were supposed to shit in the tent just before you took it down but the bastard hadn’t managed it this morning.

‘Wind’s getting up.’ Cain’s fingers were already numb and he wanted to keep moving to stop heat draining from his limbs. He hitched up to the sledge again, replaced his hands in the clumsy gauntlets and walked an idle step forward to probe the drift with the spike of his axe.

The bridge must have been a mere crust.

Like an unlocked trapdoor, it dropped.

He fell in a cloud of snow, arms out, feet kicking air, expecting the sledge to smash down on top of him, expecting a 100 foot fall.

Then he jerked, stopped, dangled against a glacial-blue ice wall. Below him, the fissure widened to a bottomless blue-black void.

The cascading snow stopped. He hung in tomb-like silence, blood pounding in his ears. What had snagged him? He pushed back his frosted hood, peered up.

The lip was 15 feet above. The fibreglass sledge was jammed 8 feet down the slot on an irregular projection of ice. He was hanging from the sledge poles. If the sledge slipped, he died.

He yelled up.

No answer.

Jesus.

He yelled again, disoriented, shocked.

In this limbo-land, half the effort was psychological. He had to pull himself together, think.

The safety-rope hung slack beside him. If the main coil was still above the lip Zuiden could belay it. Perhaps he was doing it now. But the crap would have cost him — like everything on this continent cost you. His hands wouldn’t be warm for half an hour.

He yelled, ‘Zuiden.’

He’d lost his ice axe. The strap had come off his wrist. He checked for damage. Nothing seemed broken. The harness cut into his thighs but he wore no crampons so had no forward spikes to kick into the undercut wall.

One prusik hung near his side — a small diameter loop of rope tied to the main one with a sliding hitch that jammed under load. The other was attached to his harness. In theory, you used the loops to inch your way up the rope. In practice it was hard. Although he was strong, Antarctic gear was heavy. You really needed other men above, using an improvised pulley system.

And if he yanked the safety-rope, he’d jerk the coil into the crevasse.

Sweet Jesus, Brahma and Allah. Zuiden had to belay him or he was dead.

‘Zuiden!’ He shrieked it.

Nothing.

He hung, helpless, chilled by the smooth walls. It was hard to look up. Ice on his face mask had stuck to his hood halfway around. Zuiden would need to anchor himself off, then take up the slack and belay.

At last a masked, goggled and hood-shrouded head appeared above the lip.

Cain yelled, ‘Belay the rope.’

The shape went. Cain waited, losing sensation in his limbs, inertia pooling warmth in his core. Soon he’d shake with cold and his hands would be senseless meat.

A jerk.

Ice particles pattered on his hood.

The sledge had slipped and he’d dropped 3 inches down the face.

He dangled from the poles, scared to breathe.

Zuiden’s hood again, a dark triangle, snow building on one side. ‘Okay. You’re anchored off.’

Cain pulled on the rope. ‘You could have taken up the slack.’

‘You do it.’

‘Bastard. You’re supposed to winch me up.’

‘Suck arse.’ The hood disappeared.

Cain cursed and raved. The deadshit didn’t care if he fell.

He pulled on the live rope. Still slack. Each time he pulled, he had to slide the prusiks higher — the one attached to his harness, and the other longer loop for his foot.

Was it anchored off at all? Or had Zuiden just decided to leave him? He wouldn’t put it past the bastard. Although his jammed sledge held much of the food, Zuiden’s had the vital tent and stove.

Yes, the black-hearted swine would enjoy arriving at the rendezvous alone. They’d question him but have nothing to go on. All evidence would be in the glacier. Entombed.

He kept pulling until the rope hung like a lift cable loop far below. Perhaps the shit hadn’t anchored off at all. He mightn’t even be up there — could have left.

Cursing, heart pounding, he dragged on the rope.

A jerk as it took up.

He gasped with relief.

He worked a foot into the long loop and slowly added weight, saw the knot jam and kink the rope. As he stood in the stirrup-like loop the cutting pressure of the harness eased. Next problem — the sledge poles. They held him down. But if he unbuckled from the sledge, he’d rely entirely on the rope.

He slipped off his gauntlets and fumbled around his hips. He could barely feel his fingers and needed his hands or he was dead. There was no sensation through the gloves he still wore, the silk inner and thick, thermal outer. After a long fiddle, the poles and flexible links hung free.

BOOK: Exit Alpha
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