Tom Clancy’s Op-Center: God of War: New Excerpt
By Jeff RovinJune 29, 2020
Read on for a new excerpt!
35,000 Feet Above the South Indian Ocean
November 11, 12:09 P.M., South African Standard Time
To Dr. Amy Howard, the South African A330-200 Airbus was a long, lovely whisper that forced her to leave her laboratory.
Four times a year, the forty-three-year-old endocrinologist flew from the O’Connell Research Lab at the University of Cape Town to the Australian Endocrine Center at the University of Notre Dame in Perth.
At present, the two scientific research facilities were working on enhanced forms of radioactive iodine for hyperactive thyroid treatments. The pharmaceutical firm EndoXX had not only given them a five-year grant, they insisted on face-to-face meetings to keep key research secure. The firm had two mottos. The official one was “Everything for Wellness.” The unofficial one was “Everything Important Stays Off-line.”
That was fine with Dr. Howard. EndoXX’s security concerns furnished her with something that passed for a social life. Her career, her life, was about finding new ways to heal “that bloody gland.” Thyroid cancer had taken her mother when she was ten.
The flight had departed three hours late, forty-five minutes earlier, and Dr. Howard had done exactly nothing but sit in the plastic bucket seat in the terminal and now on the comfortably padded cushion here. The business-class seating was quite roomy, the aisle to her left was spacious, and the big, balding man to her right was quietly watching a movie on his tablet. There was a lot of red and strobing white lights coming from the screen. A pillow, firmly but casually tucked against the armrest, blocked most of it.
The visual busy-ness did not bother her, much. The man was happy. Every now and then he would talk to the screen. He fidgeted several times with the shade, seeking the precise position to cut down glare without blocking his view of the sea. At this time of year sunlight was full and blazing from before 4:30 A.M. until well after 8:00 P.M. Securing some comfortable darkness was always a challenge.
Once in a while the man snuck a look in her direction, as if to make sure he wasn’t bothering her. He needn’t have worried. As someone who saw fatal cancers every week, she had learned not to let little intrusions bother her. Besides, a seat in a packed aircraft was the price of doing what made her happy. Amy was looking forward to spending time with Dr. Maggie Mui, a Hong Kong expatriate who had become a good friend. Amy was short, thin, and long-divorced. Maggie was tall, athletic, and had a husband and young daughter. Though neither woman acknowledged it, each was doing her own empirical study as to who was the happiest.
Once an analytical medical professional, always an analytical medical professional, she thought.
Beyond the man, outside the now half-shaded window, Amy saw an untextured wall of blue that occasionally glistened with fleeting fireflies of sun. There were also occasional flourishes of distant thunder from somewhere nearer Antarctica. It always astounded her to think that a century ago, explorers used to claw across the surface of the South Pole, freezing and hungry, both nearly to death.
And I’m sitting here with a laptop, an empty bag of peanuts, and a Perrier—
Thinking of the laptop made her feel she should finally be working. Dr. Howard was a few days behind on the latest research and she reached for her carrying case under the seat—
The man in the seat beside Amy coughed suddenly and violently. It was so strong that he doubled over his seat belt and hit his forehead on the seat in front of him. His earbuds went flying and Amy could hear tinny screams coming from the tablet.
She turned to the man as he inflated slowly, like a Thanksgiving parade balloon.
There were other hacking coughs behind her, here and there. She suddenly felt a tickle deep in her chest, like the sudden onset of flu. She cleared her throat. The tickling worsened.
No sooner had Amy’s neighbor started to settle back than a second cough threw him forward again. This time he speckled the seat back with blood.
Amy immediately scooched toward the aisle-side armrest in case there was another spray of blood.
“Sorry—sorry—” the man said in a thick New Zealand accent.
“Don’t worry, I’m a doctor.” She handed him the small bottle of Perrier. “Drink this. I’ll inform the flight attendant. We have to get you back on the ground.”
Dr. Howard leaned into the aisle and looked for a flight attendant. No one was about. She felt a tickle in her throat. Dry, recycled airplane air, she decided.
Unbuckling her belt, she rose—just as the tickle became a burning in her gut. She gripped the back of the seat in front of her as the pain intensified rapidly, hotter and more fiercely unsettled than indigestion. It rose swiftly up her throat and blew toward her mouth, causing a violent contraction of her neck muscles. She coughed, an eruption that brought blood and what felt like phlegm to the back of her mouth.
Her mind raced even as her body struggled.
The peanuts? Contaminated beverages? Toxic air circulation? A Typhoid Mary onboard?
Amy leaned her chest against the seat back, swallowing and trying to rally. In the dim light of the cabin she saw that she was the only one standing. As she sought to move into the aisle, the plane suddenly shuddered and dipped forward slightly. She fell against and slightly over the seat back. Below her, a young man was coughing hard into his hand.
“Christ!” he cried as he drew bloody fingers from his mouth.
Beside him, a woman was hacking up blood.
The plane righted itself and the intercom came on. There was no message, only coughing and an aborted attempt by a flight attendant to advise the fastening of seat belts.
Almost at once the plane nosed down again, steeper than before and this time without recovering. There were screams now, interspersed with the coughs. Amy barely heard them as another fire rose in her esophagus. She could feel the inside flesh burning, blistering—dissolving? Was that even possible?
The woman’s knees folded. She fell to the floor between her seat and the one in front of it, landing scrunched in a fetal position. Her head flopped back as she coughed up blood in waves. It plumed up then came down on her face, spilled down her chin. Looking straight up, she saw the big man beside her bent over the armrest, retching.
In the glow of his tablet she saw that it wasn’t dinner her companion was spewing. It was him. His insides. His eyes were globes, and if the man’s airway had been cleared he might have screamed. So would she, but the heat rose again, bringing more than fire. Her throat and nasal passages were both clogged with a substance, thicker than blood and more metallic-tasting. She tried to turn over so her head would face down, so the stuff might drain, but the downward tilt of the aircraft and its screaming descent pressed her into the under-seat storage. She couldn’t scream, she couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t clear the liquid mass that filled her solidly from the stomach to her sinuses.
Then she heaved and hacked and the blockage surged forcefully from her mouth and nose. Her neighbor’s blood and tissue did the same, and everywhere around her she heard the gagging and retching and moans of the passengers.
She could no longer breathe. Tauntingly, an air mask dangled in the air above her. Her insides cooled somewhat and her body was chilled and trembling on the outside.
Rapid . . . onset . . . pneumonia . . . Ebola . . .
That wasn’t medically possible.
Sarin gas . . . she thought . . . terrorism?
Whatever this might be, it was quickly lethal. In her final moments of consciousness, the doctor thought to try and get her phone to record what was happening. Her right cheek was pressed against her bag. She struggled to snake her hand inside—
She retched dry heat, nothing more. At the same time, blood began to cloud her vision and clog her ears. She could now hear her own rapid, erratic heartbeat thudding in her blood-clogged ears.
Her fingers were shaking as she pushed them forward. She tried wheezingly to draw breath but her chest felt hollow, as though her lungs had been removed.
That was what her neighbor had regurgitated? Liquefied organs?
Amy Hunter died without thinking any more about that possibility, without reaching her phone. She died without feeling the impact as the jetliner nosedived into the rocky shoreline of the barren southern coast of Marion Island. The power-dive collision caused a three-hundred-foot-high fireball that melted the permafrost and obliterated overgrown storage shacks near the crash site. Rolling outward, the blast killed the seabirds nesting on the rough coastline along Crawford Bay.
Marion Island, South Africa
November 11, 1:33 P.M., South Africa Standard Time
The population of Marion Island consisted of three South African seamen, thousands of birds, and tens of thousands of mice, all of whom were shocked from sleep by a ground-shaking concussion. Occasionally, there were research teams in residence at the science station at Crawford Bay. But not now.
Officially named Point Dunkel but referred to as “Point Dung Hill,” the large cinderblock bunker rattled for several seconds, cups falling from counters and pictures tilting on walls. Dressed in uniforms with thick thermal linings, the men raced from their windowless, prison-sized rooms to the one door and two north-south–facing windows of the blockhouse.
“Fire to the east!” fifty-nine-year-old Commander Eugène van Tonder alerted the others from the open door.
Shivering, the team’s helicopter pilot, forty-year-old Lieutenant Tito Mabuza, joined him at the frost-coated entrance. The localized flames were at least a mile away but the men felt wisps of heat. The driving wind was so swift and forceful that the heat barely had time to dissipate.
“Volcanic, sir?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” van Tonder answered, sniffing. “I mean, it’s unlikely without any warning, yeah?”
“We had that notification this morning,” said twenty-year-old Ensign Michael Sisula. “The faint glow, likely outgassing.”
“We had that notification this morning,” said twenty-year-old Ensign Michael Sisula. “The faint glow, likely outgassing.”
“On Prince Edward, not here.” Van Tonder shook his head. “Anyway, that’s jet fuel burning.”
“I’ll contact Simon,” said Sisula.
Simon was Simon’s Town, home of fleet command for the South African Navy.
“Let’s have a look,” van Tonder said to Mabuza, pointing up. “There may be survivors.”
The men rushed back to their rooms, neatly avoiding the half-dozen mousetraps in the corridor. As he pulled on his outer gear, Commander van Tonder was processing what they had seen and heard and felt. Silently, he prayed to God. The crash was likely a passenger flight. Prince Edward and Marion Islands were at the fringes of the commercial airline routes between Southern Africa and Oceania. Research planes typically flew along the Antarctic coast to maximize data gathering, and there was no tactical value for military aircraft to be here. When the South African Air Force tested their Umkhonto short-and medium-range missiles, there was no reason to travel over one thousand miles to the southeast.
Mabuza finished first and ran out to the black Denel AH-2 Rooivalk helicopter. He removed the insulated tarp from the main rotor swashplate and the tail gearbox and stuffed them behind the seats. Then he warmed the aircraft up. The commander followed quickly, pausing to holster his Vektor SP1 semiautomatic with a fifteen-round magazine. He had only used it once on the island, to end the suffering of a sick albatross. Given the nature of their assignment here, Simon’s orders were that both crewmembers should carry firearms during a flight. The pilot’s Milkor BXP submachine gun was in a brace behind his seat along with a shared M1919 Browning machine gun. That powerhouse could also be mounted on the helicopter in the unlikely event of an invasion by pirates or the military. They could destroy a target the better part of a mile away.
Before leaving, van Tonder told Sisula to monitor communications between the chopper and Simon. Depending on where they flew, the mountains could make the direct uplink to Simon spotty. It was strange that, just a score of years before, they would not have been able to communicate at all, not in a straight line. Signals had to go up in space and down so they could talk.
Van Tonder left, buttoning the greatcoat that had been given to him by his sister. A member of the Methodist clergy in Durban, she had been expedition pastor on several South African National Antarctic Expeditions and had said he would need the coat. She was correct. The standard wool-lined flight jacket provided by the military would not have gotten the job done. The winds here were not only constant, they were brutal. Albatrosses were smart birds, and van Tonder could not understand why so many of them chose to live here.
Perhaps it’s their laziness, he had thought, watching them when there was nothing else to do. If you’re a bird with a wingspan of up to twelve feet, you want to live where there’s constant and substantial lift.
The helicopter was parked on a large, naturally flat rock fifty yards behind the bunker. There was room for two small helicopters. During warmer months, scientists were ferried here from the mainland. During the late fall and throughout the winter, educated folk stayed away.
The pad was stained with the oil of six decades of helicopters coming and going at the outpost. Because it was set back from the high, rocky coast, the rock wasn’t stained with bird droppings. Walking anywhere to the front or sides of the outpost, a person had to watch their step.
The rotors were just starting to spin as van Tonder made his way toward the bubble cockpit. He was still praying, still asking the Lord to look out for the souls of the dead; there were sure to be many. Squinting into the wind as he looked to the left, he saw the horizon aglow with what looked like a second cloudy sun in the sky, yellow-orange flame mushroom-capped with roiling black smoke. He could smell not just the fuel but the burning plastics, rubber, and flesh—both human and avian, he suspected.
The commander climbed into the three-crewmember cockpit, stepping over the food chest, rescue net, and medical footlocker just inside the door, behind the copilot’s seat. With weather conditions and geography as extreme as they were here, a crew did not leave unless they were sure they could sit out a storm or provide first aid.
The third seat was above and behind the first two. Though van Tonder was not a flier, he wanted to sit beside Mabuza. Sometimes—and this was certainly the case with the pilot—a man’s expressions revealed more than his words. Also, from here, the commander could point and be seen.
Van Tonder donned a headset so he could talk to both the pilot and Sisula. The team was airborne less than five minutes after the crash.
Mabuza ascended to two hundred feet and flicked on both the underbelly spotlight and the cockpit camera before nosing toward the flames. The familiar rocks and their permafrost coating flew by. Van Tonder even knew where the small, slimy, caterpillar-like Ceratophysella denticulata lay their eggs.
He was beginning to think the long periods of calm were not as bad as he had imagined.
The three men were career men of the South African Navy Maritime Forces, Ships and Naval Unit Ready Forces. They had been sent to the long-abandoned British outpost three months earlier to investigate reports of illegal drilling on the protected island. In previous eras, invasive species had wreaked incredible ecological damage, in particular the mice and cats that came with whalers. Balance had been restored by both South Africa and nature. The leaders of the parliamentary republic—both from personal conviction, public fanaticism, and international pressure—insisted that order be maintained.
And then, foolishly, an aquatic sciences and fisheries survey in 2019 published a paper that mentioned, by the by, that the islands were likely rich in diamond-bearing kimberlite. The wintertime, evening-hours prospecting began. The navy responded with van Tonder, Mabuza, and Sisula.
The soft-plumaged petrels and Kerguelen cabbage must be preserved, von Tender had thought when he received his orders.
The response was only partly cynical. Van Tonder believed in the mission. It was just unfortunate that the military invariably had to clean up preventable messes made by their own nationals at the behest of politicians.
Once each month, the fleet replenishment ship SAS Drakensberg arrived with supplies and fuel. In the event of a medical emergency, an aircraft could land on the flat plain between Johnny’s Hill and Arthur’s Hill, just to the northeast. Except for missing his nieces and nephews, and dating—Lord God, he missed women most of all, and the Internet was only a taunting reminder of just how much—van Tonder had no objection to being here. He liked the quiet and the time to pursue his studies of history and languages. Except for twice-a-day helicopter circuits of the two islands, his time was his own. And those trips were short. This island, Marion, was just 112 square miles. Prince Edward was even smaller, at just 17 square miles.
The tall, slender, white-skinned, tawny-haired man was frankly pleased to be anywhere in the military. A Boer, he had survived the 1994 transition from the apartheid government under Frederik W. de Klerk to the Government of National Unity under Nelson Mandela. He achieved that by being invisible. He was still invisible, only now it was by inhabiting a region where most of the observers had feathers, scales, and occasionally fur.
“We’re not hearing Simon,” Mabuza informed both the commander and Sisula. “It’s a little bit the wind, but mostly the metal particulates in that smoke are interfering. I’ll elevate and go out to sea a little—should clear up the dusting issue.”
“I’ll relay anything important,” Sisula replied. “If it were military we would have heard the chatter.”
“But not a word from SACAA?” van Tonder asked.
He was referring to the South African Civil Aviation Authority, which was as tight-lipped as any similar department worldwide. First they checked with the towers, then they checked with the airlines, then they “revealed” what dozens of social media postings had already announced, often with video or images and the disbelieving commentary of observers: that a commercial airliner had gone down.
“I’m not on their channel, but there’s nothing that I’ve been told,” Sisula said.
“Simon knows we’re on our way, though.”
“Of course, Commander,” Sisula told him. “They said they would relay the information to SACAA.”
“Thank you. Civilian authorities can be stupidly jurisdictional and I want a record of the chain of reporting.”
“Bloody bureaucracy,” Mabuza remarked.
It was lunch hour, granted—well into it, in fact—and those bloody bureaucrats liked their afternoon drinks. But someone from the SACAA should have been in touch with the only personnel who were on site. Though their response could be clogged in military channels. Simon liked to be in charge of its own missions. The military bureaucracy was itself formidable.
Mabuza was not as content to be here as van Tonder. There were two things he longed for. One, he openly and frequently declared, was a yearning for the night life of Port Elizabeth. The other was a desire to do something with his skills—test new aircraft, even fight in a war.
“To fly so it matters,” as he put it.
He loved everything that flew. He designed and built model planes and studied avionics. In terms of his overall desires, the post was a wash. The only females he noticed here had wings. But because they had wings he studied them.
Sisula, the unit’s communications and tech expert, was the most content of the three. He loved anything digital and didn’t care where he was. Van Tonder was grateful for him. If Sisula were any less able, the outfit would lose Internet access on an hourly basis. The dish on the roof rattled in the near-constant wind, but the brilliant ensign had written a program to compensate for the vacillation. He was always creating uplinks and hacks that provided rich global access to one of the most desolate spots on the planet. Just before bed tonight, Mabuza had delighted to the view from the security cameras inside Boogie Heights, a popular nightclub in Hong Kong.
Van Tonder looked out through the glass-bubble nose of the helicopter as they closed in on the crash site. It looked to
him as if the fire was burning across roughly a quarter mile of flat scrub.
Mabuza’s maneuver had worked. The next message was from Simon.
“Dunkel, we have SACAA’s reply that a South African Airbus went off-radar at 1:11:05 local,” the Simon radio operator said. “It left Johannesburg at eleven forty-five—it was one hundred miles northwest of you at the time. What is approximate location of presumed wreckage?”
“Location forty-six degrees, fifty-four minutes, forty-five seconds south, thirty-seven degrees, forty-four minutes, thirty-seven degrees east,” Sisula replied. “Helicopter en route.”
“Is it patched in?” Simon inquired.
“This is Commander Eugène van Tonder. Lieutenant Tito Mabuza and I are approximately a half mile from the site.” He pulled off a glove and pushed a pulsing circle on the digital display. “Video should be coming through now. Expect interference proximate to the crash site.”
“Un . . . stood . . . ank you, Com . . .”
“Sorry,” Mabuza said to his companion. “That’ll break up the images as well.”
“I’ll see what I can do about that,” Sisula said. “Simon is talking to SACAA now—reporting to us that there was no mayday. They’re looking into any other communication from the cockpit. They want to know what we saw or heard—I’ll tell them and get back to you.”
“Thanks.” Van Tonder turned to his pilot. “So they fell off radar. A sudden descent from thirty-five thousand feet.”
“More than sudden, I think,” Mabuza said. He pointed ahead at the wreckage, its jagged angles and hidden recesses illuminated by its own fires. “The way the fuselage is separated from the nose section—you see the cockpit there?”
Van Tonder saw the conical structure—what was left of it—angled upward from the ground, the cabin broken off behind it around the galley.
“That came down in a power dive,” Mabuza said.
“Powered? Full throttle?”
“Yes, as if someone leaned or fell against the controls,” Mabuza said. “That suggests either willful destruction or complete and sudden incapacitation.”
Sisula cut in. “Sirs, Simon says Johannesburg tower received no communication from the Airbus whatsoever.”
“Then that would seem to rule out pilot suicide or a struggle in the cockpit,” van Tonder said. “Someone would have heard something, the shouts of the flight crew.”
“It also rules out sudden depressurization,” Mabuza said. “The tower would have heard the alarms, even during the descent.” The pilot pointed toward the crash site. “Look—four equal, separate fires.”
“What’s the significance?” van Tonder asked.
“It tells the story of the nose dive,” he said. “The flight deck hit at nearly a ninety-degree angle, and the rest of the plane, still carrying the momentum, crumpled behind it—you see the front of the first-class section? Where the outside looks like an accordion?”
“The structure was compromised there, snapped, and the rest of the plane just crashed down flat. Each of the fuel tanks ruptured at the same time.”
Van Tonder heard another communication from Simon.
“I am sending . . . flight path, Dunkel,” the voice said. “See if . . . seems unusual to you.”
“Thank you, Simon,” Sisula said. “Sir, Simon—”
“We got most of it,” van Tonder said. “Ask them if they’re looking for some kind of sea-based event, like a rocket-propelled grenade.”
Sisula forwarded the message.
“They have requested satellite images from Europe and America to look for just that, yes,” Sisula said. “But I had a thought. Commander, do you remember that call we received this morning?”
“Yes,” Sisula said.
“I included it in the daily briefing. Presumed thermal activity off Ship Rock on Edward.”
“I’m looking at the flight path that just came in from Simon,” Sisula said. “The point where the Airbus disappeared from radar is a latitudinal match with Ship Rock.”
“How many miles away?”
“Let’s see—two hundred and twelve.”
“That’s a slim and pretty distant connection,” van Tonder said.
“True, sir,” Sisula said. “But when you factor in—just a second, removing height differential so the event and the plane are at the same height—when you factor in the speed of the Antarctic easterlies and the westerlies north of it, something happens.”
“What?” van Tonder asked.
“Whatever was above Ship Rock ran smack into the path of the jetliner.”
Copyright © 2020 by Jack Ryan Limited Partnership and S&R Literary, Inc. All rights reserved.
About Tom Clancy’s Op-Center: God of War by Jeff Rovin:
The passengers and crew on an Airbus en route to Australia suddenly begin coughing up blood and hemorrhaging violently as the plane plunges to the ground. There are no survivors.
A luxury yacht in the South Indian Sea blows up, and a lone woman escapes the contagion that has inexplicably killed everyone else on the boat.
A helicopter whose occupants have been stricken by an unknown illness crashes into a bridge in South Africa, killing motorists and pedestrians.
The world is facing a devastating bio-terror event, and a game of brinksmanship gets underway as the major powers jockey for position: China sends a naval flotilla to seek the source of the plague and find a way to weaponize it, while Russia maneuvers quietly on the sidelines to seize the deadly prize in its quest to regain an empire. Back in Washington D.C., Chase Williams and his top-secret Black Wasp special ops team must find out who is behind these deadly attacks before war is unleashed—and millions of innocent lives are lost.