United States Air Force Colonel Emily Rollins ducked out of the chartered helicopter and walked briskly to the police car parked across both lanes of Route One. The air was cool, and the sun hung low in a clear blue sky. She handed her credentials to the red-cheeked, blond officer standing in front of the car. The man made a show of inspecting her ID and then handed it back to her. “Over there,” the man said, in crisp English. His nametag read STEFÁNSSON. “He’s waiting for you.”
Rollins looked in the direction Officer Stefánsson had pointed. There was nothing but a field of black volcanic rock dotted with dull green lichen—the sort of landscape you could see anywhere in Iceland. She’d been to this country once before, on vacation. The whole country was like an alien planet. In the distance arose a mountain of white: the largest glacier in the country, called Vatnajökull. Her hastily conducted research on the plane from Andrews Air Force Base had revealed that the name meant “water glacier.” Some things were better left untranslated.
Walking a few steps into the lava field, she still saw no sign of the man she was supposed to be meeting. A black Audi was parked on the side of the road, just past the police car. Her contact had to be around here somewhere. She turned to ask Officer Stefánsson for better instructions, but he was busy pointing an angry French tourist in a rented Toyota back toward Reykjavik. She sympathized: Reykjavik was a five-hour drive, and this was the only road into Vatnajökull National Park. It would be closed for the foreseeable future.
Rollins picked her way carefully among the rocks, eventually spotting a brown-haired man in a drab tweed jacket standing about a hundred yards away. She hadn’t seen him before because he’d been crouched over something in the field. He waved to Rollins, and she waved back. He hunched over again, almost disappearing among the lichen-covered rocks. That was Major Alan Hume of the Royal Air Force, her British counterpart. Rollins made her way toward him.
“Come here often?” Rollins said as she approached the man. It was a dumb joke, but it was part of the routine they went through every time they met at a field site.
Hume stood up and smiled at her. “We’re supposed to be keeping a low profile, you know.”
“You can have low profile or you can have fast,” Rollins said. “I know you Brits don’t like to make a spectacle of yourselves, but we Americans have places to be.”
Hume chuckled good-naturedly and shook Rollins’s hand. “Good flight?”
“I hate helicopters,” Rollins said. “They’re unnatural. Speaking of which, nice work on the cover story.”
“What, the bit about the snowmobile helmet?”
“I meant the Russian Cosmonaut stuff.”
“Oh, that! Well, yes. Had to do some thinking on my feet.”
“And they bought it?”
“The folks at the newspaper? Hook, line and sinker. The snowmobile helmet thing was their idea. The only thing media people like more than getting a scoop is making up a bullshit cover story. Did most of the work themselves. They’ve got everybody convinced this bloke was a scam artist, trying to make a name for himself. You know, one of these flat Earth, ancient astronauts types.”
“What happened to him? The guy who found it.”
“Oh, we took care of him.”
“Took care of…?”
“Christ, Emily. We don’t do that anymore. We found him a nice place in the Virgin Islands.”
“He’s not going to talk?”
“Unlikely. We’ve a plan in place to thoroughly discredit him if he does.”
“And no one else knows?”
“Just the newspaper people. And I’ve got them scared shitless they’re going to start an international incident if they make a peep. Icelanders aren’t keen on being in the middle of a new Cold War.”
“What exactly did you tell them?”
“Experimental Soviet spy plane was shot down by the Americans over the North Sea in seventy-eight. Soviets denied it was their plane, Americans denied they shot it down. The usual bollocks. I told them Putin himself was in charge of the program. Nobody wants it brought up now, what with the Yanks and the Russians about to go at it in Ukraine. Old wounds, sleeping dogs, et cetera.”
“You’re a little too good at this, Alan.”
“Don’t I know it. Would have been a used car salesman if I were a bit more honest.”
“Where is it?”
“In the boot of my car.”
“Is that safe?”
“Safer than lying out here in a field.”
Emily nodded. “Have you found anything else?”
“Not yet. A field team is flying in tonight.”
“Then what are you doing out here?”
“Can I see it?”
They started walking across the field back to the Audi.
“How long will the road be closed?” Rollins asked.
“As long as it takes. We’re in talks with the Icelandic government about rerouting the road to the south.”
“If this site turns out to be as big a deal as we suspect, yes.”
“You’ve found a single artifact.”
“We’ve found an artifact in Iceland, Emily. What are the odds they took the trouble to set up a decoy site in Iceland? Who would even think to look there in the first place?”
“You’re sticking with the decoy theory then?”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense. They were trying to hide the location of their actual base of operations.”
“Okay, but why would they set up their base in Iceland of all places? Sparse population, remote, resource-poor, high latitude….”
“Hell of a place to hide a space program, eh?”
“It makes a perverse sort of sense, I suppose. Pick the worst possible site because no one will look there.”
“Not only that, but this whole area was covered by ice until about twenty years ago. The rest of the facility might still be under the glacier.”
“Hold on. You’re saying….”
“I think they knew, Emily. I think they knew the glacier was going to advance, covering their tracks.”
“That’s one possibility.”
“For heaven’s sake, Alan. Not the time travel thing again.”
“It explains everything. The advanced technology, how they knew about the glacier, the lack of—”
“The tech isn’t that advanced.”
“For the tenth century it is.”
“You’ve dated it?”
“Not yet, but I assume it’s of roughly the same vintage as the other pieces.”
They’d reached the car. Hume pulled the key fob from his pocket and opened the trunk. Inside, lying on a layer of newspapers, was a roughly spherical object a little larger than a basketball. Under a layer of mineral deposits, a yellow-white shell of hard material was visible. On one side was a shaded, translucent visor. The headline of one of the newspapers beneath the object read: American hiker finnur ‘fornu rými hjálm.’ Below it was a picture of a grinning man holding the round object in front of his chest.
Emily pointed to the headline. “I’m assuming that says…?”
“American hiker finds ‘ancient space helmet.’”
“The story is less committal. Anyway, the correction went out this morning. Well-executed hoax, nothing to see here.”
After glancing at Officer Stefánsson to make sure he was otherwise occupied, she reached into the trunk and picked up the artifact. It was surprisingly light.
“Do you ever wonder if this is worth the trouble?” she asked, turning the thing over in her hands.
“Looking for the artifacts?”
“I meant the elaborate secrecy. Who are we hiding this stuff from anyway?”
Hume shrugged. “It started during the war. We wanted to keep it away from the Germans and the Soviets. Now, who knows. Force of habit, I suppose. So what do you think?”
Emily peered through the visor, trying to imagine a face looking back at her. Had it ever been worn? By whom?
“I think,” she said, “this is a thousand-year-old space helmet.”
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Length: 500 pages