By Frank H Jordan
The glow from the well-lit highway illuminated the burnt-out shell of the black Chrysler 300 stretch limo. It lay smouldering on its roof in a ditch, impuissant, like an upturned beetle. On the nearby south-eastern arterial highway connecting the capital city, Auckland, to the rest of New Zealand’s North Island, traffic was light. In the distance the last of the Emergency Services vehicles, an ambulance, trundled off having retrieved what was left of the limo driver.
Luke Jackson watched it go and checked the time.
Skirting around the wreck, he paused every now and then to squat on his haunches and study the ground.
‘Pick up any tracks, Spook?’ Barry Pritchard’s voice came from the other side of the wrecked vehicle.
Spooky straightened. ‘As expected, there’re footprints all over the place, Bugs. Those Emergency Services guys have no respect for forensics.’
‘There’s a set of tracks heading east across the flats for about two hundred metres. They stop at the highway. I’m guessing Patel caught a ride from there.’
Bugs made his way around the limo, pushing through patches of tall grass that left damp marks on the legs of his dark-coloured cargo pants. He shivered in the brisk air. The sun wouldn’t be up for another two hours.
‘Looks like he dragged himself three quarters of the way,’ Spooky went on as Bugs joined him. ‘Then two guys came down off the shoulder there,’ and he pointed to the road, ‘to carry him back up to the highway. From the wayward direction of the tracks, I’m guessing he must’ve been hurt pretty bad in the crash.’
‘He was lucky to’ve even survived it if y’ask me,’ Bugs said drily.
* * *
In the waning glow of late evening, a US Air Force C17 Globemaster appeared on the eastern horizon on approach to Woomera military facility, five hundred kilometres north-east of Adelaide. The largest land-based test facility in the southern hemisphere, Woomera encompasses over a hundred and twenty-two thousand square kilometres of South Australia’s Great Victoria Desert.
The airborne leviathan’s landing lights blazed on as twelve huge wheels lowered from its main undercarriage. They took the brunt of the cargo plane’s massive weight as it touched down and taxied to a stop. Ground crew scurried to secure the aircraft, whose rear cargo ramp was already being lowered. A short time later an eight-wheeled military vehicle nosed its way down the ramp and was escorted inside the facility’s main hangar.
At o-six hundred the following morning Philip Morris and two defence force technicians drove the vehicle, an all-terrain Oshkosh truck, out of the hangar and exited the compound. After travelling for two hours they came to a stop near a rocky outcrop in the middle of the desert. It offered commanding views of the surrounding landscape, where hectares of low spinifex grass and acacia bushes, the only vegetation capable of surviving the harsh environment, stretched for kilometres.
The three men weren’t there to take in the views. Stretching as they exited the transport, they eyed the bulky turret mounted on the vehicle’s roof. The Oshkosh was the ideal mobile platform to test the joint military project’s latest and most powerful acquisition, a three hundred and forty kilowatt multiple-fibre pulse laser.
When Morris and his team had finished making the final adjustments to the high-energy weapon, they climbed down from the truck’s roof to pile into the cabin, where Morris turned on the targeting computer. The centre console-mounted touch screen blinked into life with the Department of Defence’s logo, followed by a glowing green radar screen. Its indicator arm passed over the circle’s radius in continual sweeps as the words Acquiring target in bold text appeared in the centre. Using the on-screen menu, Morris switched the targeting option to Manual, and the display changed to a real-time image of the range, projected from the camera also mounted on the truck’s roof.
He zoomed in on the target, located ten kilometres to the north-west of their location. The M113AS1 personnel carrier sat forlornly in front of a low ridge that stretched for kilometres either side of it. A relic of the Vietnam war, the broken-down armour-plated transport looked more like a tank. Too badly damaged to warrant repairs and the upgrades necessary to meet the current S4 standard, it sat lopsided, missing one of its tracks. Inside, two forty-four gallon drums of black powder were its only cargo.
Morris glanced down at the screen and watched the laser’s power bar rise incrementally as he guided the crosshairs onto the target. When they flashed green, he tapped on the comms unit in his left ear. ‘Woomera Base, this is FR3. We are good to go.’
A reply came back immediately. ‘Roger, FR3. Airspace has been closed. Taipan One, report.’
There was a crackle over the comms, and a moment later the pilot of the MRH90 helicopter hovering at five thousand feet above and to the left behind the Oshkosh announced, ‘This is Taipan One. Confirm range and airspace are clear.’
‘Roger, Taipan One. FR3, this is Woomera Base. You are OK to go. Fire when ready.’
‘Roger, Woomera Base.’
Woop, woop, woop! As the audible warning alarm issued from the comms, Morris gave the two techs a cursory glance. At their nods, he tapped his index finger on the FIRE button icon.
Inside the truck’s cabin, the only sound came from the air-conditioning unit as it pumped artificially cooled air over its occupants. They sat with eyes fixed on the touch screen’s display, hardly breathing. While there was no tangible indication that anything had happened, on the screen a mushroom cloud formed where the personnel carrier had been. Twenty-nine seconds later they heard a faint boom in the distance as the blast wave buffeted the Oshkosh.
Returning to base later that day, Morris and the technicians collected the video recordings and data taken from the remote camera feeds and sensors set up to monitor the test. They hurried to the lab to view the recordings, and watched a white-hot glow appear on the front of the target a split second before the laser beam melted through the quarter-inch armour plating, igniting the black powder which disintegrated the vehicle.
Morris sat back in his seat, still staring at the monitor. ‘Well, that’s it for the laser test on a static target,’ he announced. Lifting his head, he nodded at the techs. ‘Stage two, upgrade the platform and activate the radar targeting system.’
The techs whooped and high-fived, and one of them exclaimed, ‘Celebratory drinks tonight!’ When he didn’t get the expected animated response from Morris he frowned. ‘You’ll be in that won’t ya, Phil?’
Morris didn’t reply.
* * *
Off Fairlie Road near Lake Tekapo in New Zealand’s south island, a black Lada SUV pulled up next to a set of wide, double-padlocked gates. Beyond them a track meandered up the side of a snow-capped mountain toward an abandoned ski field. The two men gazed through the SUV’s windscreen at the old, two storey lodge positioned on a ridge halfway up the mountain. Smoke was just visible, billowing from its two chimneys.
The older of the two men nodded to his comrade as he opened the driver’s door. Freezing air swept into the warm cabin, but neither man gave any indication of being chilled. They set off, trudging along the snow-swathed track, their heavy boots leaving twin muddy ditches in their wake. They passed torn, twisted sections of dual-seat chairlift sticking out of the snow in places. An avalanche some years before had thrown the ski field’s top wheelhouse off the mountain, like a giant shrugging off a biting insect, leaving its shattered remains scattered down the slope below.
On the lodge’s balcony a pair of eyes watched the two men approach. Lowering the binoculars, the guard hurried inside to announce, ‘We’ve got company, boss. Two men walking up the track, Ruskies I reckon. It’ll take ’em about ten minutes to get here.’
When his boss raised his head and frowned, the messenger hastily looked away from the mutilated visage of dreadlocks seared back to the skull, above puckered facial skin covered in raw and weeping pustules. What remained of the man’s left eyelid was blistered and inflamed over an opaque, glazed eye that was once an icy blue.
Rubbing his good eye, the boss opened his laptop and followed their visitors’ progress on the screen, projected there by CCTV cameras positioned along the route.
The two men were ushered into the boss’s office accompanied by three of his goons, all hefty Islanders, who filed in behind them to position themselves, arms folded, against the rear wall. Sitting back in his chair, the boss took in his visitors’ full length, wool-lined leather coats. The front brims of their Cossack-style fur hats were pushed up vertically, both displaying a white hammer and sickle symbol against a red star. Hanks of greasy blonde hair issued from beneath the hat of the taller Russian, whose other most noticeable feature was the concave bridge and flattened tip of his large, spider-veined nose. His comrade was thinner, wiry, with features more Asian than Russian.
The man with the boxer’s nose gave a loud sniff and stepped forward, smirking at the grotesque scarring on the side of the boss man’s face. In a guttural, heavily accented voice he announced, ‘Ze Bratva are not happy … Patel.’
Owen Patel eyed him and sneered through blistered lips, ‘The who?’
The Russian’s expression didn’t change. ‘Ve represent ze brotherhood,’ he continued evenly, ‘and ze brotherhood is not happy vis your progress.’
Glaring daggers at him from his one working eye, Patel snapped, ‘And why should I give a crap what you or your brotherhood thinks?’
The Russian leaned forward to rest meaty hands on the desk, gold rings glinting on each finger. Smirking into Patel’s grotesque face he said in a tone slick with self-assurance, ‘Tell me, do you actually believe you are in control?’
The man’s stale breath and undisguised air of contempt had Patel leaping to his feet. With a roar of, ‘Enough!’ he thumped the desk with a fist. ‘I am Nakahi Pango, the Black Mamba, and you will show me some respect.’
The Russian narrowed his eyes and puffed out his cheeks. He released the air through his thick lips with a pop, and then gave a grunt. Taking this as capitulation, Patel visibly relaxed. The Russian straightened, slipping a hand beneath his jacket as though reaching for a cigarette … only to withdraw it an instant later gripping a Lebedev nine millimetre pistol.
Patel had enough time to suck in a breath and widen his good eye before the Russian levelled the gun and fired. At such close range, the bullet tore through Patel’s right clavicle and into the wall behind him, a spray of crimson accompanying it.
As their boss dropped to the floor with an agonised yell, two of Patel’s goons leapt forward, reaching for their weapons, only to clutch at their throats as blue titanium knives dug deep into each of their larynxes. Gagging, they dropped to their knees and collapsed to the floor. Across the room the shorter of the two Russians came to a spinning stop, both hands empty after completing the throws.
He side-stepped smoothly when the third goon darted forward, pivoting anti-clockwise as he did so and slipping another throwing knife from a scabbard strapped to his right thigh. As the thick-set goon pounded past him, grabbing at air, the light-footed Russian completed his graceful three-sixty degree turn and drove the blade into the back of the Islander’s neck.
With a satisfied grunt, the man with the boxer’s nose moved around the desk to eye Patel, who was lying on the floor propped on one elbow. Breathing heavily, Patel stared up at his attacker in disbelief, one hand pressed to his shoulder to stem the bleeding.
‘I am Vladimir Debeljah,’ the Russian said matter-of-factly, once more aiming the pistol, this time at Patel’s forehead. ‘And zis is for not taking better care of my leettle brother, Sergio.’ He paused to let that sink in, clearly savouring Patel’s open-mouthed look of terror, before slowly squeezing the trigger.