Divine extinction, p.5
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       Divine Extinction, p.5

           Hylton Smith
 
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  The reply was almost beyond the comprehension of Moya and Angel. “The challenge is more important than the prize. I’ve always wanted to do what others considered impossible, or something the best had tried to achieve and failed. However, in this case there is something else. I need to ask Stepanov one more question if and when you are satisfied.” Mohammed asked a servant to show the Russians back into the meeting room. He issued a challenge to Stepanov. “You have not indicated any references to data inside the second sun area of impact. You don’t even state whether any geological profiling has been carried out. If it has, then it must have been negative otherwise we would not be having this discussion today. Would you care to elucidate?”

  Stepanov looked at his associate, who squirmed and then suggested he would like a private moment with Alexei. After much gesticulating and shrugging of the shoulders they returned and Stepanov nervously began to explain. “There have been only a handful of attempts to excavate in a location which has no official recognition of being part of the Tunguska event. Most of those were at the time of the calamity. There have been two in recent times. The first was unproductive, and carried out by myself and friends. The more recent foray was simply a follow up of something I had observed on the first occasion. I had seen my compass go crazy then return to normal within seconds. I checked this out a few times again and it only recurred once in several days. I felt my co-workers would think me to be suffering from delusional obsession if I told them and couldn’t prove it was happening. I was afraid they would desert me. When I returned with my friend here a year later, we patiently searched for the phenomenon and on the eighth day we saw it again. Being able to monitor it continually we saw a pattern. Having returned home to try to decipher this anomaly, we became frustrated, but worse still we felt strangely nauseous. Checks showed we had been exposed to radiation. We have been following our health signs closely since then, and we believe we have somewhere between two and five years to live. This is not simply a calculation based on theoretical data, but on the death of three friends from the first excavation. We have discussed this prognosis many times already between us and we don’t want to share this, for fear of the project being hijacked. We both want to see it through, and we have already expensed safe working protection for anyone who will be invited to join us. We want our names to be associated with whatever we discover.”

  This revelation stunned the audience, even Moya and Angel perked up their interest. Mohammed resumed the dialogue. “So you don’t have more information on what may be down there, but you know where it is and that it is a magnetic anomaly which is emitting radiation.” Before they could reply Zara asked what they had made of the data they had tried to interpret.

  Stepanov said, “Only that it was a repetitive pattern with irregular intervals. There was apparently no pattern with the intervals themselves, but when the spikes occurred they were similar if not identical in magnetic aberration.” Zara finally got to his own question, which had been partly answered by them knowing exactly where they had to look.

  “How remote is this location, and how would we ensure we do not receive visitors?”

  The smiles returned to the faces of the Russians, as Stepanov joked, “No one other than the insane would venture there. During the short window of acceptable weather for survival, the place is awash with flying insects, including some of the largest mosquitos I’ve ever seen. With respect to anyone following us, we believe we need our own helicopter to ferry in rations and supplies as required. Unless that is, you have a better idea. I would add that my friend has considerable official veto over people even wandering through this region. This edict is still underpinned by disagreement over the nature of the falling body itself. A comet would be expected to completely vaporise, leaving no traces. This theory suggests it would not have reached the lower atmosphere. In 2001 Farinella and Foschini proposed the object had curved from the direction of the asteroid belt. If however, it wasn’t a comet, why was there no crater? In the last decade of the millennium, scientists found resin in the trees in the impact area, which was impregnated with materials found in asteroids but not in comets. But then a later study in 2005 suggests that Comet 2005NB5C bounced off our atmosphere, and left a detached chunk heading Earthwards, while the rest went back into orbit around the sun. It’s anticipated that this comet will pass close to Earth again in 2045. It would contain evidence which would rule it in or out, but I’m afraid we won’t be here to see it.”

  Zara was happy to tell them he would finance the hire of a helicopter in Russia for the duration of the project, the livery would be left to them. “Please choose something that will not attract attention, a second-hand, reconditioned one, rented as locally as possible would make sense. Gentlemen, we have an agreement. Please return and begin the planning, but only for myself and Doctor Mohammed from our side. This is my private number – memorise it and erase it. Send me a secure bank account to which I can transfer funds to get us started. I’ll have the rest available in currency by the time you are ready with the timescales.” The meeting ended with this accord, yet Stepanov and his friend didn’t quite understand why Zara was so casual about such a weighty investment.

  *

  The space programme continued to throw up diverging views on when and how to proceed. Orient had become the real driving force for a launch to Mars in 2033, when the planets were closest. Losing this window of opportunity was unthinkable for them. Iberia was not only dragging its heels on economic grounds, but was falling behind in technology terms. This was rather ludicrous, as they had kick-started Orient’s appetite just a few years ago by technology licences. It illustrated once again that it can sometimes be easier to take bigger steps when there is less redundant industry to mothball; it can be leap-frogged. President Sanchez and his Orient counterpart, Din Chow Zen could see their hard work to bring trust and cooperation between their nations being eroded. They got directly involved in trying to bridge some of the areas of incompatibility. President Sanchez was to appear on all of the Republic’s TV channels to outline a new initiative on the Mars project. It was one of those speeches which could end up affecting everyone on the planet, and the anticipated audience was staggering. It was scheduled for the best compromise time for citizens of both regimes. Ricardo Pierze and Nelson Ortega, the President’s chief aide, clashed over the security issue. Ortega claimed that the Presidential residence was not technically equipped or big enough to accommodate the number of international journalists who had applied for attendance. Pierze insisted that the TV studios in Madrid were much more vulnerable to all kinds of incursion. Ortega played the political high card – claiming that the entire population of the world was waiting in judgement. They couldn’t afford to compromise the opportunity by selecting who could attend and who could not. The President deferred to Ortega. As he took his position in the TV studio, with the countdown to going live, Nelson Ortega was refreshing his ‘cheat sheet’ to allow him flexibility, whenever a leading question could not be addressed sufficiently by the pre-prepared autocue.

  *

  In a multi-storey car park in Madrid, two individuals were busy painting new layout lines on the sixth floor. This floor had been declared closed by multiple signs. It was a sensible decision as most people were expected to watch the broadcast. The two workmen had crates for their spraying equipment and paint supplies. When darkness crept over the city, they retrieved further equipment from the crates, amongst which were black, hooded sweaters and rocket launchers. They settled in the cover of early evening blackness, in position to strike the TV studio fifth floor. They had been given inside information on exactly where in the building the broadcast was to be made. From opposite ends of the car park floor they released their grenades, which flew through the windows of the studio floor. The carnage began. Twisted steel supports buckled under the now uneven weight and the structure lurched toward total collapse. Panic erupted throughout the building as flames licked out of broken windows to parts of the exterior, search
ing for oxygen to propagate combustion. With seemingly foolhardy arrogance, the two men reloaded and despatched a second round of grenades into the ground floor, presumably to disrupt rescue services getting immediate access. By this time, the employee sitting at the exit toll of the car park had run out into the street, and having seen the second round of rocket fire, rushed back to the camera video output. He saw the two hooded men strolling past the sixth floor camera, completely unconcerned. He contacted the police immediately and was told to get out of there – now. The hooded figures sprinted down to floor 5 and climbed into the stolen red off-road vehicle. Within thirty seconds they had crashed through the exit barrier and sped away into the darkness. Several witnesses were almost mown down by their erratic driving, and some got the plate number.

  Inside the burgeoning inferno, the President’s security contingent had been seriously reduced in number, particularly by the second blast at the entrance. In the broadcast studio there were many injuries due to the direct explosive force, but even more with shards of flying metal and glass. The President had a gaping neck wound which was going to need emergency hospital attention. His remaining bodyguards formed a protective ring around his prostrate form until first aid staff got him on to a stretcher. The elevators were seen as an additional risk. Nelson Ortega was in contact with Pierze and his security forces remaining on the ground floor, and instructed them to get paramedics up to the fifth floor immediately. The evacuation process of the building was not going well and the chief paramedic, after having staunched and clipped the President’s wound, called for a helicopter rescue and Sanchez was taken up two floors to the roof. As the chopper approached, a figure crouched at the top of the rooftop fire escape, was suddenly illuminated by its powerful lights. The man had climbed up from the ground after the first grenade strike and appeared to be trying to settle his laser sight on Sanchez, but the melee of people fussing around the President made his decision very difficult. He knew he would only get one shot. He was not exactly a back-up man, the perpetrators knew that the rockets may not get Sanchez, but he did have the back-up plan. He seemed to make an instant choice. He threw his sniper rifle to the floor and held his hands in the air. Two of Sanchez’ personal guards motioned him to one side. Nelson Ortega yelled at them to take him alive, as they needed to extract information from him with respect to any cell which may be responsible for this operation. “Pierze is on his way up here; get this man into his custody, now.” The man took advantage of this slender lapse in concentration Ortega’s command had created, and sprinted towards the stretchered target. Ortega reacted by blocking his route, and this intervention was critical, as the man pressed the micro-detonator in his coat lapel. The suicide bomb blew many people clean off the roof. Amongst them was Ortega, but he was now in so many pieces it would be difficult to account for each fragment. He had however, saved Sanchez, even though the stricken President took additional trauma to his legs.

  In the meantime the two men in the red vehicle pulled up in a back alley less than quarter of a mile from the carnage. They levered off a manhole cover, threw the hooded garments into the sewer and replaced the metal cover, changed into smart suits from the car, left the keys in the vehicle and strolled back to the blazing studio. As they arrived, police were acting on instructions from agents of Pierze in ushering the crowd away from the immediate area. The two men reluctantly complied after taking photos with their communicators.

  Ricardo Pierze was contacted by Duarte as soon as the breaking news bulletin interrupted all programmes to reveal the assassination attempt. He was asked to come to the scene. Pierze realised immediately that he would be inextricably bound to this event and its fallout for an indefinite period. “Duarte, I want you to contact Manuel and get him over here. Both of you should begin a period of observance for anything which could be connected to Sidonia.”

  Duarte frowned. “You mean you don’t think this is?” Pierze shook his head.

  “No, this is not his style, and anyway the one thing they did get right in pursuing their objective last time, was to start from the bottom of the pyramid. Taking down the head first would be an announcement which would complicate further proliferation. This is either a distraction, or nothing to do with them. Please do as I ask – in case it is a distraction.”

  Duarte did not really buy into this assessment but respected the fact that Pierze would indeed be deluged by media attention during every waking hour until he had identified the source of the attack. In addition, nobody knew if Sanchez would survive, or even want to return to office. There could be a vacuum, and with Ortega’s demise Pierze would be grilled on the advice he gave about the folly of using the studio. He would be seen by the public, in Orient as well as Iberia, as someone who should be part of the interim decision-making team in the absence of Sanchez.

  Chapter 5

  The inquisition was underway. Pierze was continually on TV, deflecting questions to which he did not yet have answers. The ripples of the incident had washed over Orient too, causing intensification of security around Din Chow Zen. The sparse intervals which Pierze had, to actually study incoming evidence, only seemed to yield support for his gut feeling. The two individuals responsible for firing the grenades had left the weapons at the scene, along with the paint and the crates. The rocket launchers were just over a metre long and bore the insignia – ‘Compact 39DZ’ in Iberian and Oriental script. The manufacturers name ‘Sukahara’ was also evident, but the serial information had been filed off. Fragments of the grenade casings found in the studio confirmed that the system had been produced in Orient. Pierze had pictured these two men abandoning the weapons, flaunting their presence in front of the sixth floor camera, ensuring that bystanders got the number of the truck, and left it where it would be found quickly. He was mulling over the possibilities; it was either a blatantly obvious message from Oriental dissidents or it was intended to look like that. When forensic results began to filter in, he wasn’t surprised that no fingerprints were found on the weapons, paint equipment or the truck. Elimination of the DNA of the legitimate owner of the vehicle and his friends and family, left none to be accounted for. The rifle of the suicide bomber was also clean and it was proving very difficult to isolate and match DNA of those who were blown apart. Identification was laborious, as there was no exact way of knowing who all of the peripheral people were on the rooftop, because of the panic. Added to this, there was the small matter that many who were ‘alleged’ to be there, were not on the DNA database. There were still people unaccounted for, and they could still be trapped in rubble as well as being blown off the rooftop. This may well have included the perpetrator. When Pierze had time to share this data with Duarte and Manuel, he confessed his concern that he would be unable to re-join them on the Sidonia case for several months. He urged them to be extremely vigilant. Manuel agreed with Duarte that the previous Sidonia campaign had been orchestrated to cause Iberia to fall from within. “Although killing the President would constitute a clear alert, it could in itself, ignite a more subtle unravelling of the Republic, especially as the finger is pointing at Orient. We should not rule out the objective of the distraction being global conflict.”

  Pierze reflected on this analysis. “You may be right Manuel, and certainly Boniek is arrogant enough to try and pull something like this off, but his life-blood is order and control, and this current mess will create chaos. I’m still of the opinion that this is a different threat, and maybe even more dangerous. Keep me informed.”

  *

  Zara had watched this unfolding drama with great interest. He studied every interview with Pierze, trying to read between the lines of what he had to divulge and what he may be trying to protect. He was also curious as to whether his adversary would be bold enough to make the first telling move on the chessboard of this new campaign. Would Pierze remind the world of Sidonia, Boniek, Martinez and the whisker by which the world was delivered from the threat of Armageddon? Or would he steer classification of this assassination
attempt toward overt terrorism? He was beginning to believe the technical delay could actually turn out to be a fortuitous advantage. He asked Moya to chase up Stepanov and add a little pressure, by explaining that the President’s uncertain life expectancy could assist their cover in Tunguska. He wanted to disappear while the soap opera played itself out. Sanchez was still on the critical list, and his condition was not stable.

  Stepanov had good news and better news. The influence of his associate had helped to recruit the necessary Russian personnel for the excavation. The real breakthrough was in the transport search; he still had a little haggling to do, but he had secured a decommissioned forestry helicopter with their livery, so it could operate without attracting any attention. “I believe we can start in one month, maybe three weeks, it depends on finding a suitable pilot.”

  Moya called him back after briefing Zara. “We don’t want to compromise, take your time and get the best pilot – and that means discretion as well as local knowledge. We’ll plan on four weeks.”

  *

  Events took a turn for the worse for Pierze. Sanchez had developed a serious infection in his throat wound and it had spread very rapidly through his bloodstream. Backstage preparations were being discussed, as the medical prognosis wasn’t good. If he succumbed there would have to be an election, but in the interim an emergency structure would be required while the date was decided. The deputy President didn’t have total governing power beyond three months, and the constitution of the Republic didn’t allow automatic, full term succession. Pierze was resigned to taking even more responsibility, especially as Ortega was gone. He settled for becoming temporary special adviser to the deputy President, for the three month period, if that became necessary.

  *

  The situation in Orient was almost as tense. The people were angered by finger-pointing from the Iberian media, who kept on alleging a link between the origin of the rocket launcher and the assassins. They rightly maintained that there were a number of ways in which the weapons could have found their way to Madrid. The government was beginning to pass the buck upwards, and Din Chow Zen found himself under serious pressure to challenge such Iberian arrogance. He knew of Sanchez’ condition and decided to contact Pierze, who had impressed him at the summit meeting between the two nations, which had been crucial in neutralising the original Sidonia plot. Pierze reacted positively to discussing the situation, primarily because it would afford him an opportunity to speak directly to Sukahara technicians about the weapon markings. His more difficult task would be to persuade the deputy President not to accompany him. He asked Zen to officially request his presence to discuss security input because of unrest at the border. The deputy President wasn’t happy at this rather disrespectful bypass, and Pierze feigned agreement, but also pointed out the overall predicament within the homeland. “Sir, although I don’t like broaching the subject, we both know the chances of President Sanchez are not good. This means there is a high probability of an election sometime soon. I’m overstretched myself, and would dearly like to decline Zen’s request. You however would be meeting him on rather an uneven playing field. I’m not only talking about rank here, it is perhaps more about you being a front running candidate for the honour in a full time capacity. As we don’t know his precise agenda, it may be prudent for you to avail of the option of having someone who doesn’t carry the seal of Iberian government in the first session. It could constitute a risk with respect to your election campaign if we engage in unpopular dialogue so soon after the assassination attempt, especially if Sanchez doesn’t pull through. I know it could be claimed that I’m advising you in my new capacity, but this is purely a personal concern I have. Any diminishing electoral support at this highly charged emotional time could benefit the far right – they are already showing gains due to Ortega’s error of judgement over the broadcast location.”

 
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