Authors: Larry Johns
Tags: #Adventure, #Thriller
He shrugged. “My orders were,
, to bring you out if at all possible. That’s the trouble with these efforts; no-one explains what really needs explaining.”
I had sympathy for him. “How would you define
if at all possible?”
Again he shrugged. “I’m not sure whose welfare they were referring to when they said that. Yours, or ours. But I have the feeling that
“Not to me, you’re not. Let’s work on the assumption that
of us is expendable, and take it from there, eh?”
He nodded. “Sounds fair, colonel. Just tell me what you want.”
The copilot cut in. “Mbandaka coming up, sir.”
The river up ahead was still a highway of mist and we’d left the cloud cover well behind us. The landscape was trees as far as the eye could see, undulating gently away into nothingness. Of the town there was nothing yet to be seen, though the islands stood out clearly in midstream. Mahindru said, “Ranjid?”
“Sir,” came the reply from the other chopper.
“Come up to a hundred knots and keep close in. Let’s get our feet wet. We’ll take the starboard channel.”
The reply was a groan. I gripped the seats tighter. I guessed that when a man like Mahindru talked about getting feet wet, he meant just that. We sank down until the mist seemed to be brushing our wheels. The gap between island and shore loomed up.
Mbandaka came and went without incident, other than a personally tightened sphincter. I looked at my watch. It was six-fifteen and we had been in the air for forty minutes. “What’s the ETA,Kinshasa, pilot?”
“We could make it by eleven hundred.”
“Right. I’d like to talk to my sergeant, if I may.”
“Unless he got left behind.”
Mahindru nodded. “Hold on.” He pressed a button on the control column. “Baker-Two!”
“Go ahead, Baker-One.”
“You have an NCO with you.”
“He’s up front now. Shall I put him on?”
“Yes.” Mahindru turned to me and indicated the air-to-air transmit button. I pressed it. “Brook?”
“Right. Tactics. Arrange two sections. Blue-One and Blue-Two. Blue-One to take the west wing. Blue-Two to take out any aircraft on the strip. Do you remember the sketch?”
“Good. The communications tower should be visible from the air as we come in. That’s your priority. Half a dozen grenades should take it out if the belly cannon doesn’t. Try it both ways, but that mast has got to come down before you do anything else. Got it?”
“Yes, sir. Same alternate as before?”
“Right. Put down on the roof if the lawn isn’t a lawn any more. You were Red-One in the original scheme, weren’t you?”
“Yes, sir. The blockhouse. Blue-One now, I suppose.”
“Who’ll you assign to Blue-Two?”
“Corporal Chinde is with me, sir. I’ll give it to him. I’ve also got Swafi. I’ll keep him with me since he knows the layout.”
“Fine. We’ve got until eleven-hundred to put it together. Get the weapons clean and dry, and sort out the heavy artillery.”
“We’ve got two B.A.R.s, sir. I’ve already assigned teams, and I’ve put a man on the belly cannon.”
“Good man. Keep the sections tight, but the plan loose. At least over and above the priorities. We’re doing it in full daylight now, which is good and bad. It’s good because we’ll be able to see the layout, especially the radio mast, as we come in. It’s bad because they’ll be able to see us. The name of the game is keep low until the last possible moment. I don’t think we’ll draw that much attention until we hit Malebo. After that it’s improvise. Okay?”
“Right as rain. sir.”
“Okay. Go for it.” I turned to Mahindru. “We’re heading into airfield country shortly, pilot. You’d better get your radar warmed up. I’m going back to talk to my men.”
Dawn came sedately to the Luana Reserve.
The sun had not yet risen but a delicate glistening of dew could be seen in the slowly gathering light. Also it was very quiet. Gradually, the trees became trees, the bushes became bushes, and the tall grass became tall grass. From somewhere far off a hyena barked. It was a stark, lonely sound, in keeping with the surroundings. Then there was silence again as the sky took on a pale yellow translucency that was quite breathtaking. The brochures of the Inkisi Springs Hotel, situated on the western fringe of the Luana Reserve, described Kinshasa dawns in just that way: “...breathtaking...from black and star-studded, to a deep azure, changing quickly, yet imperceptibly, to an incandescent yellow, the like of which can be seen nowhere else in the world...The sublime majesty of the sun, bursting over the distant horizon, a triumphant fiery orb, must be seen to be believed...”
The sad truth was that very few of the tourists tempted to the Inkisi Springs Hotel by that description actually witness “...from your bedroom window...” all of the phenomenon they paid good money to see. The sky, in all its moods, they do see. The sublime majesty of the sun bursting over the horizon, a triumphant fiery orb, they do not. This, for the very simple reason that standing - now - atop the slopes to the east of the Inkisi Springs Hotel, in exactly the wrong place, is a large airplane hanger, and by the time the sun rises above
horizon, it is nothing but the sun rising above an airplane hanger. Those few extra degrees of height having effectively robbed the moment of its promised glory.
If the airplane hanger in question had belonged to anyone other than Aaron Motanga,
the management of the Inkisi Springs Hotel might well have complained most bitterly to the Kinshasa Trade Association, demanding a compensation that, in all probability, would have been granted. As things were, the Inkisi Springs Hotel management learned to live with the problem. Their description of the Kinshasa dawns was still half right, and thus far none of the guests had complained - they merely wondered privately what all the fuss was about. Some, however, had been unsympathetic enough to suggest that they could see the same thing in Luton!
Another thing the guests of the Inkisi Springs Hotel did not get to see, and which was not described in any brochure, was the airfield on the
side of that hanger; on the eastern slopes of the Luana Reserve. It was a supremely indifferent airfield in any case, certainly no loss to the tourist industry. But it did have several interesting facets and anomalies.
The runway was long enough to accommodate anything but Concorde, yet the control tower was a ramshackle wooden hut with panes of glass missing. The hanger -
large enough to accommodate Concorde, yet it had never garaged anything larger than a FZA MiT helicopter, or Motanga’s own Beechley Sparrow. The runway could only accept daylight traffic (of the larger variety, anyway) since it possessed, as yet, only the most rudimentary of runway lighting systems. Yet the football pitch, set someway back from the northern end of the north-south runway; a football pitch complete with accurately-measured and painted white lines, and the requisite number of goal posts, was blessed with floodlights that any Premier League club would not have sniffed at for very long.
Aaron Motanga had three especial delights in his life; football, flying and being fawned over by high ranking officials of the (other) major world powers. These in no specific order of preference.
The very name - The Luana Reserve - suggested that people could go there to look at the wildlife. But the Luana Reserve was almost completely encircled by a twelve-foot high, barbed-wire-topped fence, and no-one was allowed anywhere near the wildlife, which in
case consisted of only a few mangy hyenas, the rest having long since been moved elsewhere. It was thought that the hyenas, wily to a fault, hid in the trees during the evacuation.
One of the reasons for the fence was that Aaron Motanga, on his days off, liked to wander the lush meadows (avoiding, presumably, the hyena shit) in total seclusion. Another reason had to do with the FZA manouvres that periodically took place there. Also, his command centre, enclosed by a high wall, adjoined the Luana Reserve on its northern perimeter. The main gate to that compound was also the entrance to the Luana Reserve. Stationed at strategic points were armed guards.
Luana Reserve was, in fact, since it was so close to - yet so far away from - Kinshasa, perfect for everything Aaron Motanga liked to do. All of which underlined why the management of the Inkisi Springs Hotel considered the loss of the odd few seconds of the odd sunrise very small potatoes indeed. After all was said and done, in the
season, the sun’s path was more to the north, and it
be seen rising, and over something other than a large airplane hanger.
This dawn, as far as the Luana “airfield” was concerned, was an unusual one, in that the hanger was for once full of airplane - a 707 of the United States Air Force, and that the floodlights of the football pitch had been lit for most of the night illuminating, not a football match, but the modifying of two FZA helicopters into crop sprayers. The necessary appendages having been transported from the USA in the 707.
On the touchlines, watching the fevered activity, as the sun burst sublimely majestic over the distant horizon, a triumphant fiery orb, stood three men. Two were black men in uniform, the other a white man in a safari suit. One of the black men was a very tall man indeed. He seemed to dwarf the others. The topic under discussion was not the fevered activity - they had long since exhausted that subject - it was football.
“Of course,” said Arnold Hewes, “our game of football is very different to yours, sir. It’s closer to Rugby in some ways.”
Motanga raised his yardbrush eyebrows and glowered down at the man. “Rugby! A child’s game!”
“Oh, yes,” agreed the other black man, “A child’s game.”
“Quite so,” said Hewes, “quite so.” He wished he could think of something to add, but could not. His mind was on what was happening out on the pitch, where two hundredweight of MSB2Z was being transferred out of the canisters and into the pressurized spraying gear. It was a delicate procedure that should, by rights, have been performed in a sealed room of a sealed building. Of course, the liquid would only become potent on the addition of the second element - pure water. But it was unnerving just the same. Hewes glanced up at the yellow sky with its fiery orb and the only thing to take
breath away was the fact that there were no rain clouds up there! There were plenty on the northern horizon, but none up
“Now, if you want to see a
, mister Hewes, I suggest you stay over until Sunday.” Motanga turned to the other black man, Nglabi Lutope, his Chief of Staff. “That will be a game of games, will it not, Nglabi?”
The man nodded. “Oh, it will, mister president, it certainly will.” Lutope did not actually like football, whatever the shape of the ball, and he was as concerned about what was going on out on the pitch as was Hewes.
“You see, mister Hewes,” said Motanga, turning, “Sunday is the day of the HQ versus the Houseboy’s team. An annual event. If you are still here, you will witness something you will not witness in your own country - the president receiving shin-kicks from a servant.” He laughed hugely. “Oh, yes, they do that, the little rascals. But it is good fun, and most worthwhile. Eh, Nglabi?”
“They seem to enjoy it, mister president.”
“Enjoy it? They thrive on it. Last year, mister Hewes, I came off the field with a bruised knee and an extremely painful collar bone. And do you know what? The damned referee never once blew a foul! Never
“I can’t believe it,” said Hewes, watching one of Clyde Lauter’s boffins painstakingly screwing a cap down onto the spraying gear of one of the helicopters.
“It’s true,” enthused Motanga, turning to Nglabi. “Isn’t it true, Nglabi?”
Nglabi opened his mouth to reply, but Hewes cut in, “Ah! I think they’re finished.”
“What?” said Motanga.
Hewes indicated the aircraft, from which the other boffin had detached himself and was loping over the field towards the three men. He pulled up short, breathless.
“All secure, sir,” he puffed, addressing himself to Hewes.
Motanga clapped Hewes on his back in friendly fashion. “Then I think it is time to break our fast, eh?”
Hewes, as he allowed himself to be led to the waiting Land Rover, could not shake off a feeling of unreality. What had seemed a brilliant scheme back in the States had degenerated into something else entirely. God help the world, he thought, if this man ever gets his hands on the big one!
Craig Harding was 36 years old. He was married to a beautiful girl called Frances and the couple had been blessed with two lovely children; Mark, 7, and Wendy, 9. Frances worked part-time in a drugstore in Teacup, Tennessee, where Harding had bought a fine cottage on the banks of Martha Pond Lake. The reason Frances could find time to work was that Harding’s mother - his father had passed on some years before - lived with them in the cottage and was more than happy to take over the children for a spell. Contradictory to the usual run of such arrangements, the system worked. And happily. Frances and “Nan” Harding got on like houses afire. Which was as well, because pressure of his work kept Harding away from home for long periods at a stretch. The last three months, for example, had seen him in Alaska, working on MSB2Z with general Clyde Lauter’s staff.
He sat now in the body of the FZA helicopter studying a large-scale map of Zaire, whose central point was the town of Mbandaka. He noted that the equator near as dammit cut right through the town’s centre, and it did not surprise him. The air down south in Kinshasa had been quite breathable, almost pleasant. But now, as the two aircraft, formated in a loose line abreast, approached the confluence of the Zaire and the Ubangui, he could feel the hot dampness beginning to clog the recirculated atmosphere of the interior of the aircraft, which was - Harding had taken great pains to check - cut off from the outside world. He shuddered to think what it would be like to live down there.
He glanced out the window.
Trees...trees...trees, and more trees. The helicopters were flying at something over a thousand feet and yet all that could be seen in any direction, was trees. To himself, Harding said, “Well, it’s gotta be perfect terrain for it.” He pressed his nose against the vibrating perspex and squinted down. There was the river, laying in the green like a silver serpent. And there, up ahead, was it? Yes! The fork. Like a giant “Y”, the right hand channel stretching away north and disappearing finally in the haze. He returned to the map.
He had calculated, taking the prevailing weather conditions into his accounting, that two sweeps would be necessary, and that the aircraft, set four miles apart from each other, would have to make these sweeps at a height of no less than 450 feet, and no more than 500, and that the two runs would have to join edge to edge, giving preference to the central corridor. This, Harding was certain, and provided a wind did not develop in the meantime, would amply cover the relatively small area Aaron Motanga had marked on the map.
Harding glanced down at the oxygen cylinder with its attached mask, that lay on the floor beside him; one of ten sets they had brought with them from the States. It all looked so damned clinical! And Harding
so damned clinical. He shook off the thought that had been with him ever since Lauter had told him what was expected of him.
Harding knew that MSB2Z, in its gaseous form, was twelve times heavier than even the coldest air. This had been proved in Alaska. And it would in any case be forced earthward by the downdraft of the rotors. All the same, the masks were mandatory, and would have to be worn for at least three hours after the...the what? The attack? The operation? The exercise? What do you call it, Craig? He sighed. Let’s stick with
as Lauter had called them. They were conducting another trial on another uninhabited area, except that, this time, it was not cold outside, it was hotter than Hades and wetter than a Turkish baths.
The Congo Rain Forest Trials.
Nothing wrong with that. There was no-one down there, was there? A few monkeys, maybe. One or two gorillas. Plus the odd ‘gator. But these animals would not be in the slightest inconvenienced. MSB2Z attacked only
cellular structures. Nothing else. And there were no humans down there. Harding had to make himself believe that.
The trouble was he knew differently.
So why did you help invent the damned stuff, Harding? To keep it in a cylinder?
He might have been gratified, relieved - purged? - to learn that the two FZA aircraft with their deadly cargoes had passed within twelve miles of over forty of his intended victims, not an hour before.
The two dull-grey and unmarked helicopters arrowed southwards, hugging the earth, under a blue but hazy sky. The clouds were behind them now, merely an extension of the northern horizon. Now the vast tracts of scrubland stretched out before and to the sides of them. But the feeling of desolation was not the same, for over the horizon to the west lay relative civilization. Lukolela. Mossaka. Gamboma. Bolobo and Bouanga. Whilst to the east lay the townships of Inonga, with its small commercial airport, Kutu and Bali-lboma. Ahead, somewhere, was Mushie. And it was Mushie that the pilot of the lead helicopter was hoping to