Flickering lights in an unmanned airplane were never a good thing, especially when accompanied by a wave of turbulence, which sent shivers through the airframe. The drunken cheers of the two hundred party-goers spilled into the corridor, along with the smell of booze.
In the stewards’ galley of charter flight LH 782, Special Agent Anna Berg quickly steadied herself against a bulkhead, her eyes locked on the control panel full of touch screens whose images thankfully returned to normal.
She entered the Ritz-inspired ballroom. The soles of her soft, black shoes squeaked ever so slightly when they touched the marbled linoleum of the party area. It was hard to believe that she was standing inside a giant passenger aircraft for the super-rich, flying at an altitude of fifteen kilometers above the ground. Scents of Dolce, Gucci and Armani blended with roasts and ludicrously expensive wines. And since this carnival celebration was no high-society gathering and more akin to a Mardi Gras she had attended in France years ago, it was very possible that in a few hours the whole place would reek of alcohol and vomit. She was counting on being outside that flying coffin before things got too excessive. She never enjoyed flying, but that was not the reason she’d rather be someplace else. Two more days. That’s what he had said to her.
She ran her hand through her blond hair, remembering that even a pixie hair style needed more than just hair-wax, no matter how crazy politics or her new boss were getting. She tapped on her ear to activate the nano audio-visual comm unit nestled in it. “Gunnar, any info on what caused that flickering?” She closed her jacket against the cold air filtering through the ventilation system, as she waited for the reply. The black fabric pressed against her second service Glock tucked to her back.
“Nothing yet, Chief,” a young voice in her ear replied, his image showing in her field of view through her comm lens. “Heinze and Carrasco are investigating.”
“Who’re they gonna ask?” Berg countered with a smirk. “Nobody’s flying this thing.”
Gunnar chuckled at her comment. “Air traffic control is analyzing the data now.”
“Ask for info on clear air turbulences on our trajectory as well. Signing out for five.”
Berg clicked off her comm and checked her watch. Another seven hours to go, at least. I need a vacation. She inhaled deeply and blinked several times, her eyes burning from the dry air and the throbbing, colorful lights.
Berg entered the hubbub of celebration, stealthily mingling with grinning, cheering and dancing masses in tuxedos and gala gowns, almost all wearing their carnival masks of all shapes, colors and sizes. At the same time the rapid thud-thud of German disco-fox music sent the reveler’s inebriated bodies into hyperdrive. She reached the golden railing of the open balcony and observed the two-hundred guests on the dance-floor below. Berg’s eyes stuck to a dancing couple that was expertly choreographing steps, turns and twists to the contagious beats, as she headed towards the stairs. It had been a while since she had last worn her dance shoes.
She came up behind a guest wearing a dark blue uniform with stripes on his epaulettes. And the only guest in the room not wearing a mask.
“Director Grothe,” she said, looking up at the broad-shouldered and no-nonsense Head of the Germany police force. He turned around, an air of benign arrogance before he recognized Berg and his expression softened. Director Grothe was only in his early fifties, but his strong face was now wrinkled like that of someone in his sixties. Not surprisingly, he’d lost weight, too, although next to him she still felt tiny.
Grothe picked up a flute from a tray held by a tall, neutral-faced waiter.
“Didn’t expect seeing you here,” Berg shouted over the pounding music.
As the waiter rearranged the flutes on his tray, Berg noticed the torn cuff and examined him briefly. The waiter’s athletic physique strained against the fabric of his shirt and jacket and suggested that he was a man who spent quite some time pushing weights.
Although the waiter’s appearance was immaculate, Berg sniffed the mix of sweat and burnt rubber the waiter had brought along with him. He offered her champagne but she shook her head politely, locking eyes with him for a split second, surprised by the intensity of his laser blue stare.
The waiter withdrew.
Berg looked after him. Although she didn’t know why, something in the back of her mind sparked into life.
“Not my call,” Grothe replied, his expression stoic and somewhat pained. “But good ol’ Doc said I’m good to go, so here I am.”
Berg gave him a frown, then turned again towards the crowd. If there was one thing Grothe hated more than big, noisy parties, it was being forced to join one. He tended to get fidgety even at close family gatherings that had a far smaller attendance than this celebration. He was a street cop, a do-gooder who never recognized his boundaries - professional and physical – and, as a desk jockey forced out of active service by his recent heart attack, he earned plenty of hatred from politicians for trying to do the right thing instead of the politically right thing.
But as a servant of the state it wasn’t like he had much of a choice. And his wife, Nicole, was probably the one who had forced him to get into this plane. She was convinced he needed to see other people, after having spent the past three months more in the company of doctors and nurses. A heart attack will give you a new perspective on life, but it’s not necessarily going to last forever.
“Shouldn’t you be working, protecting your boss?” Grothe deadpanned.
“I am,” Berg replied, her mind flashing to the waiter. And the scent of burnt rubber that had accompanied him.
The waiter was now twenty meters away, cautiously maneuvering amidst the dancing and drinking crowd. His straight gait clearly belonged to that of a first-class waiter. Chin high and a hint of arrogance. But there was something else. He didn’t seem as light-footed as the other waiters. Despite his build, he looked like he was carrying an extra fifty pounds somewhere. And he showed little interest in serving the hundreds of guests. This wasn’t that unusual in a waiter but, unlike his colleagues, his focus looked like it was directed elsewhere.
Berg tapped her ear and activated her comm unit. “Thomas, get me the list of waiters on duty today.”
“Anything specific you’re looking for?”
“Just send me names and pictures to my comm unit, please.”
“Give me a few minutes.”
“That guy?” Grothe asked, following her gaze.
Berg kept her stare on the waiter, her heart beginning to pound, infused by a gut feeling that something was off. “Just being thorough.”
Grothe nodded towards the waiter. “Muscular build, too stiff, good with the tray, yes, but not a smile on his face.”
“You are a street cop.”
“Or maybe just paranoid. But I’m not just a pretty face, you know.”
She flashed a thin smile then descended the plush, velvet-covered stairs.
“Let me know if I can help,” Grothe said after her.
Berg continued across the grand hall, past giant buffet tables that overflowed with every canapé and hors-d’oeuvre imaginable. An atrocity of wasted money that could have funded school lunch programs all over the country.
Berg’s comm unit clicked in her ear. “Heinze reported back from the cargo hold.” Gunnar said.
“What is it?” Berg asked, crossing the path of two junior cooks bringing in new buffet chaffers filled with what looked like Bulgarian goulash and pork ribs. She whiffed the delicious scents that triggered a rebellion in her empty stomach, and continued straight ahead.
“Something seems to have gone off in the luggage compartment. No shrapnel or heat signatures.”
“Any idea what caused that?”
“Not yet. Luggage jostled out of its restraints and put a serious dent in one of those neat Ferraris.”
“Tell them to keep looking and to get back to me directly. And get me the weather report from Air traffic control.”
Across the hall, her sole purpose for being on this waste-of-money-plane and in the middle of this obscene party was the young and ambitious politician who stood at the far end of the dance hall, surrounded by dignitaries and VIPs. Chancellor Oliver Baumann. His handsome figure moved with ease amid the thick crowd, as he elegantly balanced a champagne flute, exchanged a handshake with a sweaty dignitary, and air kissed the cheeks of the visiting French Secretary of Tourism, one of several international guests being hosted for the first time aboard the Chancellor’s plane.
Berg’s years of long nights and even longer weekends with the federal police had paid off with this job. She had landed the position as the Chancellor’s security chief much to the dismay of her parents, who had voted for the other political party years earlier. Her father still could not believe why she would voluntarily get shot at for the wrong guy.
Baumann smiled, surrounded by his security detail, but there really was little reason for Baumann to be concerned, today. The people loved him. Young, ambitious, always doing something to please the populace and always making a good impression. Some claimed to have seen him riding the S-Bahn to work rather than in a convoy of black SUVs like the other big names in German politics. He was a decent man, but there was nothing noble about what Baumann did. He was no military hero nor did he have any altruistic goals for mankind as a Chancellor. To him, politics was just a career. He did good things not because they were good or served a greater purpose, but because those kept him wealthy and in power. She had overheard enough conversations to make her wonder why he was still the leading man in the country instead of occupying a two-by-two cell in a federal prison.
But she loved him. And his natural way of calling her tough love still made her smile. The itch she regularly felt - or imagined - in her left forearm was evidence that she’d not just done her duty as his chief of security, she had become an accomplice. “This information could destroy our nation,” he had said.
Her hands briefly went cold at the thought of what would happen to her if anyone found out. She had no idea what exactly she was hiding in that implant. But whatever it was contained enough condemning information that it was necessary to keep it away from Baumann himself. And it was the reason why the federal police had never found anything. But it had been her choice. And she had said yes. Right now she didn’t know what was worse, the fact that he had asked her to do it or that she had agreed.
The comm unit clicked in her ear. “Transferring information to you now,” Gunnar said.
Her comm’s projection flicked into her field of view and filled with the faces of aircraft personnel, along with their brief bios. “Thanks, Gunnar.” She quickly scanned every face. The fact that all personnel on board were also wearing their masks didn’t make things easier, but the waiter’s eyes were one of a kind. And that smell.
She tapped her comm. “Heinze, you still in the cargo hold?”
“Any weird smells down there, like burnt rubber?”
The answer came back after a couple of seconds. “Affirmative, as if something scorched one of the bags or something. No trace of flames, though.”
Something was going to happen. Berg didn’t know what or why and the puzzle pieces refused to click into place. In her mind, she raced through the entire security protocol prior to take-off. She had checked everything and everybody not just once or twice. There had been no mistakes. Her police instinct shot stabs of doubt through her mind and her pulse accelerated at the idea of failing to protect the most important man in the country. And in her life.
From a potential enemy who had sneaked into a flying plane!
“Return to the grand hall. We may have a situation here.”
Berg gently descended the stairs, past several guests, then continued across the hall towards Baumann. Amidst the party chaos she spotted the waiter and the empty flutes on his full tray.
“Waiter on my eleven,” she said into her comm.
“What about him?” a male voice replied.
“Tray is full of empty flutes. He’s not going anywhere to get new ones or even empty his tray.”
“Not yet. We have no idea who this is. If he sees activity he might make a move. There are two-hundred people in the plane. Alert ground security via secure channel. We don’t know who’s listening.”
“Move the detail closer to Baumann. Secur…”
Her comm beeped. Incoming call from Grothe. “What is it?”
Berg stopped as she saw Grothe approach the waiter, all smiles. He picked up a flute of champagne from the waiter’s tray then grimaced when he realized it was empty.
Grothe had opened a channel so she could listen. Berg moved past two writhing dancers into a spot with a clear view of the scene, her eyes on the two men.
The Director of Police stared at the waiter for a second too long. “Hey, I think I know you.”
Berg’s hand gently moved towards her sidearm. Grothe was creating a diversion.
The waiter forced a smile. “I hear that all the time.” He turned to move away.
Grothe stopped him. “There are at least twenty agents in this hall, their hands on their weapons.”
The suspect glared at Grothe.
Something was definitely wrong. Berg felt the intoxicating adrenaline surge through her. “Eyes open,” she said into her comm to the other agents, as she drew her SIG 9mm. A dancer stepped on her foot, screaming the lyrics to the pounding song but she pushed him out of her way.
“Whatever you’re trying to accomplish,” Grothe continued. “I suggest you reconsider and join those gentlemen without hesitating.”
“We have a situation. Silent alert. Get Grothe out of there.” Berg looked to her left and glimpsed agents Linda and Sven moving into position behind the waiter, pushing drunken and stumbling dancers out of the way.
The man slowly lowered his tray and locked eyes with Grothe, then glanced briefly at the two agents approaching.
“You’ve gained some weight, Director Grothe.”
Berg’s pulse was at full speed now, predator senses locked onto her target.
“And I have the feeling that you shouldn’t even be standing here,” Grothe said.
Berg scythed through the crowd. That fucker is trapped but he knows what he’s doing. And he was playing with Grothe.
“You’ll need more than twenty of your boy scouts to stop me.”
I’ve already failed. “Attacker! Evacuate Baumann, now!” Berg shouted, as she squeezed past slobbering high-society tourists.
Grothe made the first move and reached behind his back for his gun.
In one fluid motion, the waiter dropped the tray, yanked his arm free, stopped Grothe’s armed hand and twisted it brutally, sending the Police Director to the floor with a solid blow to the face.
A party-goer screamed.
Holy shit, that was way too fast! Berg aimed between a blinding emerald gown and a turquoise suited hippie.
The waiter dove to the floor, pulling out his rail gun in one movement. He opened fire on agents Angela and Hans behind him, splitting both their heads open with surgical precision. Their bodies collapsed against screaming, blood-splattered partygoers.
The dance hall exploded into chaos. The two-hundred guests began dropping to the floor, screaming or lurching drunkenly in panic for the two main exits.
Berg was in hyperdrive and registered everything around her as if in slow motion.
She pushed through the flood of panicking guests.
The attacker moved like a soldier. He shot a few select rounds, took cover between the guests, and then fired again, scoring a hit on an agent every time he fired. He swiftly unsheathed his knife, then raised his knife into combat position, the blue hue of a plasma blade glowing menacingly. He thrust himself to the left in a dive as the agents behind him raised their guns and aimed. He reached the first agent and drove his knife into his thigh.
The man’s blood turned into steam the instant the thousand-degree plasma touched his leg. He collapsed and writhed in agony on the floor.
To Berg’s relief, security agents had surrounded Baumann and were herding him away towards the emergency pod, per evacuation protocol, while the rest of the agents, still fighting the tide of partygoers, who were now fully blocking the exits, attempted to flank and surround the assassin.
Berg dove between the last two stumbling and retching dancers to reach Grothe. He had rolled onto his stomach, and blood was streaming from his nose - it probably would have drowned him if he’d been lying on his back. She grabbed his epaulettes and hauled him two meters behind the cover of the titanium bar.
“What the hell were you doing?”
A crash and an intermittent rain of bullets told Berg that the attacker had found some sort of cover behind an overturned table.
“Not so sure now.” Grothe stared at her, wide-eyed and dazed, through a face full of blood.
New rounds hit furniture and civilians, and filled the room with acrid smell of gunpowder and burnt flesh.
Berg leaned out around the corner of the bar, training her gun. Grothe did the same.
The attacker locked eyes with her and opened fire just as she dove again behind cover.
“Where’s Baumann?” Grothe asked.
“Reaching the rescue pod now. Gone in twenty seconds.”
Berg left her cover and spotted her target sprinting towards her. She opened fire just as the attacker raised his arm and the bullets ricocheted off of it with a metallic crunch.
“Fuck! He’s enhanced. Bionic limbs. Stay clear of him. Evacuate the cabin to lock him inside!” She turned towards Grothe.
Grothe nodded. “Flank right. I’ll take him here.”
She nodded, peeked around the corner and opened fire. Then she sprinted off, dodging more fleeing guests in the now emptying hall. Those partygoers were still jammed at the exits but gradually making their way out. A few bodies cluttered the floor in pools of blood and Berg’s heart twisted.
Three agents converged on the enemy. The attacker bolted to his left in a direct collision course with an agent just as another fired a shot. He snapped his left arm up to protect his head. A second later, the attacker plunged his knife through the agent’s chest.
Berg advanced through the remaining civilians, shoving them out of the way to get a clear shot.
The assassin turned towards his next target and landed a kick against the agent’s ribcage. The bones cracked under the powerful thrust and blood spewed from the man’s mouth before he collapsed to the floor. The attacker fired another volley of shots towards the group of agents, mowing down two civilians in the process. But he was not chasing after Baumann and his escort. He wasn’t even making an attempt. What the fuck is he trying to do?
And then he turned to Berg. Their eyes met as she aimed her weapon. Those ice-blue eyes stared right through her. In that moment, realization struck her.
He’s not after Baumann.
Berg emptied another clip and forced the attacker into cover but he returned to his feet almost immediately. A new hail of bullets rained down on him from one of the remaining agents across the room. He raised his bionic arm to protect his head, several bullets hitting him square in his torso but he still continued. “He’s wearing body armor. How many agents still in the room?!”
“There are still civilians in the hall!” Gunnar shouted into her ear through the comm.
“Get them out, Grothe! He’s not after Baumann. Gunnar, Walter, on me, now!”
Just as Berg came out from her cover, the man leapt and slammed into her. Still tightly grabbing her, he turned with her and fired twice, hitting Gunnar and Walter in the head.
Berg pushed herself away, raised her weapon and fired several rounds almost at point blank range. The man still had her in his grip, forcing Berg’s aim off, and the shots only clipped the man’s ear.
The attacker grabbed her firing hand and twisted her wrist brutally, breaking it. She screamed in pain. Her free fist came up and made contact with his face, but the man took the solid punch without flinching and the loud crack and blinding pain told her that she’d broken a finger. He threw her gun away, grabbed her by the throat and turned her around as a human shield, pressing his rail gun against her temple.
“Hold your fire!” Grothe shouted, his gun aimed at the enemy.
The approaching agents stopped but kept their weapons aimed.
The chaos of the attack ebbed into silence as the standoff began. Only the droning of the engines and the groans of the wounded cut through the smoke lingering above the dead agents and civilians.
“You’re not getting outta here alive,” Berg said, panting, through gritted teeth. She could barely breathe through the grip on her throat and couldn’t free her right arm enough to reach for her second weapon.
“Stay frosty, everybody,” Grothe urged, trying to stay in control. He kept his eyes on the attacker. The police director was an aging warrior, but craftier than hell and probably the only person who could buy her out of this.
“I don’t care how you got in here, but I can assure you that if you don’t lower your weapon, there is only one way out.”
“By the time you’re done playing around, Baumann will long be gone,” Berg croaked, going along with the idea that the guy was after Baumann.
“Well, that’s too bad,” the assassin said, his voice crisp but surprisingly calm. “But as much as I’d love to place a bullet between his eyes, today is not his day. And I think you know what I want.” He tightened his grip around her throat.
Grothe tapped his ear. “Everybody stay put. That’s an order.”
Several civilians groaned and cried from the dance hall floor. Security personnel pulled a few behind cover.
Berg thought fast. “I have no idea…” The words died as her attacker shoved the gun into her neck.
“Easy,” Grothe said, alarmed. “Let’s just stay calm.”
“You have seen what I can do with a plasma knife. Remove the chip from your arm, now.”
How on Earth does he know about it?
The remaining agents were closing a tight ring around the two of them, but they wouldn’t be able to help her.
“You’ll never get out of here.”
“Believe me, there is more than one way for me to leave. You don’t have to go down with him.” He let go of Berg’s throat, then reached behind his back and slapped a pressure injector against her chest a second later, gun still aimed at her neck. “Take it and extract the chip.”
Berg gripped the injector, hesitating. She needed time to find a way out. She would not escape that monster alone, but the combined bullets from thirty-four agents had not been able to stop him either.
His arm was now wrapped around her waist, weapon now on her temple. “Stop thinking about a way out. There is none. Extract the chip and I’m gone. Or I’ll make sure everyone on this plane goes to hell with me.”
As soon as the chip left her body, she would be lost. And Baumann as well. Gone all those years of work, the technicians who had to die to hide it, and everything she had done to protect him, putting everything on the line.
Berg took a deep breath and placed the injector on her forearm, her broken fingers and wrist blasting with hot pain, then flicked a switch for extraction mode and squeezed the trigger. With a hiss and a slight tug, the microscopic chip left her body and shot into the vial of the injector.
“How does it feel to no longer carry that filth with you?” the man whispered in her ear, almost sympathetically, quickly grabbing the injector. He deftly separated the vial and let the injector drop to the floor.
Berg wanted to vomit. There was no way anyone could’ve known. In his bloodstained hands was everything she was and everything she had been fighting for. That tiny chip, in the wrong hands, would destroy her and her country. If she survived this, she would spend the rest of her life in prison. Her family would never recover from that disgrace.
But now he needed his hand to put away the vial.
Grothe approached, the other agents forming a tight ring around Berg and the attacker. “You have what you wanted. Now step away and let’s talk.”
The attacker chuckled, as he moved his hand towards his back. His grip shifted, giving her a few centimeters to move. Instead of the vial, he was now holding a device the size and shape of a motorcycle grip. Lights blinked on the tiny display. “Thank you, Director Grothe. Perhaps some other day.”
Berg heard a high pitched whine and the lights in the cabin flickered again. She had no idea what it was but if that was a bomb, she needed to take him out now. Still too close to him, she struggled several centimeters out of his grip and turned, whipping her Glock out from behind her back and raising it towards the man’s face while shoving away from him for a better shot.
She felt his body tighten in reaction and she squeezed the trigger in mid-move. The bullet ripped through the man’s cheek, spraying blood and shreds of skin.
The whine increased until it nearly split her eardrums. Her vision turned blinding white and in a split second her whole body felt consumed by fire.
* * *
The bright light faded. Instead of the airplane’s interior, open sky glared above her and ice-cold winds tore at her clothes and hair. Her ears rang from the close-range gunshot. She was plummeting uncontrollably toward the distant earth below her.
“Oh my God!” She released her weapon and briefly spotted the giant airplane above her, before she turned again and lost sight of it, plunging through moist clouds.
Unconscious from the shot, her attacker loosely clasped her. But how the hell did I get here?!
Ignoring the powerful winds on her face, she made a quick estimation. Weight. Speed. Altitude. They had about two minutes before they would hit the ground.
She held onto him, feeling his strong build under his shirt. She gripped his collar and felt the rubbery fabric underneath: A nano combat suit. And this meant there was a chance that he was equipped with a miniature parachute. She ripped open his shirt and began searching his body, her hands stiff with cold, trying to ignore the pain caused by her broken fingers.
They turned in the air as she moved, tumbling in all directions, losing orientation. She clung to his back and gripped him harder, gritting her teeth, her arms and thighs aching with exertion. “Whatever you did, you fuck, you’re not going anywhere without me.”
The air slapped and jostled them like rag dolls as they plummeted. She clutched the man closer and stole a glimpse at the ground below as they cleared the clouds. Less than a minute.
The attacker woke up, his face swollen from Berg’s shot, part of his jawbone and muscles visible where the bullet had exited. His eyes locked onto Berg and she felt his body begin to resist as he moved to pull himself away.
She pressed her thumb into his wound. “Get us outta here!”
The attacker screamed in pain and flailed with his arms, trying to grasp her.
Berg pressed even harder into his wound and wrapped her legs tighter around him, when she suddenly felt her chest constrict and the muscles in her limbs stiffen. Her throat tightened and her skin began to burn in multiple places. “Help me,” she gasped, trying to move her hands. Every nerve and muscle burst into fire and refused to obey.
Barely conscious, the man tapped on his comm audio. “Need a destination point,” he mumbled, his mouth swollen and filled with blood. “Wormhole…opening!”
Berg’s vision flashed to white again and taut with muscles spasms and the burning sensation of being cooked alive, she felt weightless and realized after a moment that she was now falling skyward. In the distance, the blackness of a starry night sky combined with a dimly discernible horizon of waves that faintly reflected the heavens. The wind howled in her ears, but she felt herself decelerating. Her convulsions intensified, devouring her from the inside, her muscles cracking her ribs.
Berg was unable to hold on any longer. The man slowly turned around and his powerful eyes locked onto her. He pushed himself free of her grasp and separately they shot through the sky.
The distance between them increased. Berg feebly tried to grasp his arm, fighting for air, for her muscles to obey her commands. Her heart pummeled in her chest, sheer terror firing into every corner of her body. If she didn’t get hold of him, she was lost.
She heard the same whine she had heard on the plane. “Nothing personal,” the unknown attacker yelled before disappearing in a swirl of atoms.
Berg was left alone. Tears swelled in her eyes and were torn instantly by the razor-sharp winds. Her mind filled with images of her father visiting Karl’s Strawberry Farm outside Berlin with her when she was seven. The sticky moist ketchup touching her nose as she bit into her favorite grilled sausage sandwich during lunch. His calloused hands wrapping around hers as they ambled past the petting zoo.
“Daddy…,” she murmured.
More spasms exploded inside her and she gargled as her lungs filled with blood, before gravity brought her momentum back to zero and pulled her back down toward the sea. She accelerated again and plummeted into the endless South Pacific Ocean.