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Over the Gulf of Guinea, West Africa
The twenty four megaton Lockheed Martin L-27 Super Hercules II rocked and bobbed silly, like a mere sleeve of paper in a hurricane.
“Shit!” Captain James “Bobby” O’Riley swore under his breath, pulling the stick with all his might, trying to steady the cargo plane. Like the crack of a whip, lightning streaked through the sky, spreading its tendrils before them and illuminating the dark clouds for a moment. Rain, as huge bomblets of icy water, hammered the flying vessel, its rhythmic intensity rising and falling like the mad compositions of a slightly deranged music master. The nose of the plane jerked up and fell, point down, like the ECG reading of a patient in cardiac arrest. And O’Riley held the stick, static, with stretched and strained muscles, like a stroke victim. However, he knew they were now in the hands of the weather. And, oh, how merciless those hands were.
“The electric storm is messing with our instruments, James,” Major Chris “Jay” Fredrick, his co-pilot, said. “The altimeter, the compass, the landing systems, even our clock. It’s all gone to shit.”
James shot his co-pilot a wicked glare which the lanky, black man did not notice, or noticed and chose to ignore, James could not tell. It wasn’t the bad news he had given that angered James; it was the way he had delivered the message: with as flat a voice as the surface of an LCD display screen. How could he be so calm when they were about to be torn to pieces? James returned his gaze to the dark sky that sped past them and remembered the last few bleak words of his flight instructor on the first day of flight school. The grey bearded man, Jabowasky was his name, had picked up a plain sheet of paper and held it up for all to see. This is your plane, the man had said. Then he had crumpled it into a ball and said, that’s what happens when it gets into a storm. A man like Jabowasky didn’t grow to be as old and experienced as he was by flying through lightning storms. And for all their sophistication, the flight instruments were really to prevent flight through a thunder storm. Thunder storms were the dread of the sky. That dread, James thought, was upon them.
Captain James O’Riley wasn’t a spiritual man, and as such, he didn’t know what to make of Christ or Krishna. But if there was a God, he sure needed His help. Like all men everywhere, James feared death. What happened after? he thought, and as his heart beat as fast as the plane hurtled through the clouds, the near presence of death became palpable. He could die at any moment, he realized with a sudden streak of apprehension. Lightning could strike the fuselage and cause cabin decompression, sucking them out into the wild rain. Or it could strike the engines, plummeting them down to the ground. Or it could strike the fuel line, causing a flash of light, a sudden eviscerating pain, and the silence of death. Or it could crumple them just like Jabowasky had so vividly illustrated. To James, this was the worst way to die in the sky. He decided that if he were to die, he would prefer to die quickly and painlessly. But did life give you what you preferred? Or did it give you what you deserved? James had done so many shitty things in his secret government work. Maybe this was payback by the powers that be: Christ or Krishna.
“Sir, do you think we should radio base? Advise them of our current situation?” his flat voiced copilot said beside him.
“No,” James said immediately, mindlessly shaking his head. “We’ve got strict orders, Chris. No radio contact until we land. What we are doing is a breach of international laws. Though no West African country can pick our transmission, the Egyptians might.”
The huge plane rattled vigorously again, and lightning spread before them like fiery, white neural pathways. The thunder that followed drowned the constant beep beep of the flight instruments (the kind that told you you were screwed) and the pelt of the rain, and put the fear of God in Chris for a moment. But it was just a moment, James observed, as the man shook off fright as if it were a speck of dust on his shoulder. This served to vex James even more. Did Chris think he was God? Had he some delusion that he was invincible and therefore couldn’t die in the sky?
Another plane rattling thunder returned his focus to his flying.
James glanced at the flight dashboard. Every spindle was askew, the light blinked erratically—their whole electrical system had been fried, he noticed for the first time. Somehow, they had been hit once by lightning—a minor hit, though. The plane jerked out of control for a while, shooting up like a car running a speed breaker. James fiercely fought the control stick to bring the plane back on course. Though what course they were on, he did not know. All he knew was they were headed for United States AFRICOM base in Djibouti when they had hit a shit storm off the gulf of guinea. The weather people had said there was no storm in these parts at this time; someone had screwed up. If there wasn’t anything James knew, at least he knew that in this line of work, when people screwed up, other people died. Just like he and his co-pilot were about to die.
“If we stay longer in this storm, James, we’re not going to make it,” Chris said with a twinge of frustration in his voice. “We have to land this plane or go higher.”
“Landing is out of it,” James replied, facing his co-pilot briefly. “And we can’t go higher. Our payload is too heavy. The engines won’t support any more altitude.”
“Then dump the cargo,” Chris said, more frustration in his voice.
James O’Riley frowned at the man. The ease with which Chris was willing to give up their cargo was not only troubling, it was also scary. James looked away from the man and kept silent, thinking this was the last he would hear or think about dumping their cargo.
But the idea had been planted, and an idea was like a seed. Once planted or conceived, it grew. And depending on variations in atmospheric and soil conditions, the speed of growth of a seed could be hastened or delayed. In James’s case, it only took two minutes for the idea to germinate and form part of his will; this was majorly because there was a third man in the dark cockpit. His name was death. He was really persuasive.
“We can’t weather this storm, James,” Chris pressed, “sooner or later, we’re going to run into a storm cloud and come out a sphere of tangled metal.”
James’s only hesitation was their cargo. He didn’t know exactly what it was. The manifest said “Medical Supplies,” but he had decided it was just a cover up. An approval to transfer supplies didn’t need to come from as high up as the office of the president of the United States. Though the package was as small as a briefcase, hand delivered by nondescript men from USAMRIID which was another cause for concern, it was sealed within a 400 ton, steel-reinforced concrete vault that could withstand a mortar shell. Why did medical supplies need to be so protected? Only WMDs were this protected. Still, James could not be sure. And he wasn’t going to risk his life on the off chance that he might be carrying a biological weapon.
“Use the map. Try to triangulate our current position,” James said. “I’m going to drop it in a forest or a lake so our boys can pick it up in the morning.”
Chris found the map and started working, using light from the lightning storm to draw lines and circles on a portion of the paper. They were flying over Nigeria now. That was good, since Nigeria was a developing country and still had miles and miles of forest areas—plenty of land to hide a container sized vault.
James began slowly dropping the plane, releasing the stick little at a time. He did that until he began to make out the minute lines of a city.
“We are currently above Akwa Ibom,” Chris said, peering at his map. “We should be coming up on a small uninhabited forest a little to the west.”
James looked in that direction and made out the tall trees; he angled the plane in that direction.
Thunder struck. This time, it hit the plane.
There was an explosion, then the plane capsized. James struck his head against the side of the plane. Intense pain lighted his senses. He growled and yanked the stick to the side. The plane spun again, right side up. It shook and made to fall out of the sky; somehow, it remained afloat. The number of beep beep in the cockpit quadruped.
“We’ve lost an engine,” Chris roared.
“We can’t dump the cargo from the cockpit,” James replied, his heart steadily striking the walls of his chest. “You have to use the emergency button in the cargo hold. Go now! We only have a one minute window!”
Chris struggled with his seat belt, unhooked it, and scurried out of his chair.
James held the stick tighter, knowing that the life of his co-pilot now depended on the plane staying level.
There was a sharp hiss and a low, long rumble, as the cargo bay doors began to open. Few seconds after that, the nose of the plane pitched upwards slowly as the cargo slid toward the open door. Chris ran into the cockpit and secured himself in his chair. The moment James felt the cargo drop, he pulled hard on the stick. The plane sprung up responsively, shooting higher and higher into the clouds even by the power of one engine. In five minutes, they were beyond the clouds and flying steadily towards Djibouti. They had seen a dim flare of light, and they had felt a weak shock wave, and they had assumed it was lightning.
They had been wrong.
If they had known what the dim flare and weak shock wave meant, they would have chosen to die rather than land their plane on the wet tarmac of Camp Lemonnier, AFRICOM base in Djibouti, two hours later. Less than thirty six hours later, the two pilots would swear under oath before a military tribunal that they had never known they were flying over land, when they had dumped their cargo.
Cargo MH-XZ424G crashed through the sky, ridding the endless waves of the rain. It was twelve feet in all directions and had, when not in use, a hollow, briefcase sized core. Every other part was impenetrable, 400 ton, steel-reinforced concrete built by Vault Technologies™ (VT) to withstand any kind of assault. And as you can imagine, it fell through the sky at a frightening pace.
This particular unit was designed by Mr. Jon Von Neuman and built at a special processing facility in Frankfurt. It was built on the 25th of March, 2013. Its batch class was 2D74, and its processing number was 744/29Z/7XZ.
The truth is VT’s vaults were built to withstand almost anything. But there were two reasons for the failure of vault MH-XZ424G. First, the cohesion enhancing chemical, Bindichem®, was added in a quantity that was less than the threshold quantity. This led to the failure of the chemical and made the vault prone to fracture. The global economic meltdown had hit Germany. The production plant had had to cut the cost of production. This was the only way Mr. Jon Neuman knew how to cut cost. A way that would eventually lead to countless deaths.
Second was the condition that Captain James “Bobby” O’Riley had subjected the vault to, when he had dumped it into a lightning storm. The company’s test team had subjected their vaults to water, fire, wind, explosions, avalanches, and a host of other extreme situations. They had proven the toughness of their product. However, had they conceived that their vaults would be subject to a lightning storm under a whipping rain in the night?
And so, as cargo MH-XZ424G fell through the sky, a tiny fault line developed on its surface. The sky’s rebellion against such monstrosity barreling through its volume was a roar that carried far. The rain pelted the steel cube, giving a machine-gun like rat-a-tat-a-tat. Heat simmered on the vault’s smooth, metal surface due to air friction; the vault trailed a thin line of vapor as it fell. Numerous electrons gathered on the slippery surface just as the cargo cleared the final ceiling of clouds and approached the dark, sleeping city of Uyo. The assembled electrons, teeming on the surface of the metal, called lightning to the vault like the hammer of Thor, god of thunder. Strike after strike, the fault line deepened and spread like the roots of a germinating seed, until the shattered parts of the vault fell away from the exposed briefcase like expended fuel tanks from an ascending space rocket. The exposed briefcase flared up immediately on exposure releasing six pressurized canisters into the air. The briefcase flared up because of the intense heat that clung to the plummeting wreckage. This intense heat affected the canisters which contained U-235 WMD agents.
The canisters exploded with a fire, releasing its content as a fine spray. The wind spread the released content into a blanket that covered the city of Uyo and its outskirt villages. Though the canisters and the vault’s ruins would hit ground long before the thin film would, the descending film of death would reach the city of men as sure as the sun. And when it did, there would be no end to the pain, suffering, and devastation it would cause.
Read the bone chilling chapter that follows: The PLAGUE – Episode 2