Harder was still a quarter of a mile away when the converted DC-3 took off.
He didn't stop running forward. Running was purely reflex now, and behind the reflex was the grim fact that Hardens life depended on reaching the plane before the jato take-off bottles sent it racing forward across the snow on its runners and up into the cold Antarctic sky.
Harder staggered to where the plane had been. He could smell the jato in the cold air, and at once he was engulfed by a swirling backlash of Antarctic snow as dry as confetti. For a while as Harder had covered the last few hundred yards, it had looked as if circumstances, for once, were on his side. He had come on foot across twenty miles of Antarctic wilderness to the U. S. Geophysical Year base where the last converted DC-3 of the expedition waited. He had no notion how long it had taken: time ceased to exist in a world of terrible cold, fierce winds and blinding flurries of ground-snow. Then, at last, he had seen the DC-3. Mather, he knew, would be the pilot, the last pilot of the last plane before Antarctica became snowy wilderness once more, waiting changelessly for the next expedition. And the plane seemed to stand still, as if it were going to wait for Harder. But the propellers were spinning and the jato bottles emitted exhaust plumes. For one long moment the DC-3's runners were stuck fast in the snow; then in a blinding, explosive roar, all the remaining jato bottles were fired simultaneously, the two-engined plane shuddered like a stricken animal, the runners broke free and the plane roared forward swiftly and was airborne in a few seconds. It streaked out of sight.
Harder waved frantically although he knew it was useless. They would never see him in the swirling backlash of snow.
He was marooned at the bottom of the world.
He stopped waving when the plane was a small dot against the immensity of Antarctic sky. With surprising objectivity he wondered how long he could survive alone. Cold, of course, would be his problem, for although the insulated Quonsot huts hadn't been disassembled, there probably was no oil for the heaters. There was plenty of food which had been left, as it always was, for the next expedition. And water was no problem with five million square miles of snow all around him. But the next expedition wasn't coming for two years - and, Harder thought with a wry smile, by then he would be quite dead and as perfectly preserved in the cold dry air as the sides of beef which had been left behind.
At least if I knew why, Harder thought, walking toward the nearest of the Quonsots. The door wasn't locked: there were no marauders to lock out in Antarctica. Harder went inside but did not remove his insulated parka. The dim interior of the Quonsot - Harder saw that it was Major Mather's flight head quarters - was deceptively warm. But it was warm only by comparison with the minus fifty degrees outside. A thermometer on the inside wall, the line of mercury pale in the dim light, gave Harder his death sentence. The mercury stood at five degrees above zero, and it was going down.