Plagues of Eden
By Sharon Linnéa & B.K. Sherer
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2007, 6:38 P.M. TEL EL-BALAMUN, EGYPT
DR. SAMUEL GOLDING SQUINTED, trying in vain to focus on the mud-yellow brick from the porch of the ancient temple he was unearthing. The young archeologist had spent the last three hours on his knees, painstakingly brushing silt and dirt from the object. With a sigh, he leaned back to squat on his heels and survey the dig site. The temple was much older even than the third century library sitting above it, and he no longer had enough light to continue working. Another day was now over on this, the strangest dig he’d ever worked. Sam was the Assistant Project Leader for the British Museum excavation at Tel el-Balamun and the de facto project head, since the team leader was not available due to the unusual timing of this off-cycle dig. This project in the Central Nile Delta of Egypt would not unearth the type of tourist-frenzied structure like Luxor or Giza—which suited him just fine. The team’s work on these ancient Egyptian temples could progress with little outside interference. He started packing up his tools for the day. The porch would wait until tomorrow. It wasn’t going anywhere. “’Night, Boss,” said his assistant, Ibrahim. “Going into town tonight?” “Don’t think so,” Sam replied. He brushed the dust off his signature Sandhurst t-shirt and shook out his cargo pants.
It wasn’t simply that he was tired. He wanted time to mull. Odd things had been happening on this dig, and he wanted some peace and quiet to think. He sat down on a canvas camp chair and poured himself a glass of Chardonnay from a bottle he kept in his cooler. Some- times, these bricks seemed to him to be miniature time machines. When he touched one, it was as if he were propelled back, hearing the voices and conversations of those who had stood in this place many centuries ago. He envisioned what they were wearing, heard the sounds of the city around them, smelled the odors of animals and incense. But now there was a discordant note. He had found several objects in this dig that, while ancient, were not from this place or time period. In fact, not even close. How to report these? He didn’t want to do anything that would call the validity of the whole dig into question. And yet…the pieces didn’t fit. It was the time of evening the military called EENT, or early evening nautical twilight. The horizon was becoming indistinct and stars were just beginning to twinkle. It looked like there would be little haze this evening, and the clear Egyptian night would provide a nice backdrop for the heavens in all their glory. Maybe he should have been an astronomer instead of an archeologist. No, scratch that. He could enjoy the night sky without knowing how far away the stars were or what made them shine. But he could not pass by a mound of earth without wondering what ancient treasure might be hidden beneath. Sam sipped his wine and looked to the northwest just in time to spot a falling star. Wow, what a nice tail on that one… But it didn’t fade. Instead, it seemed to grow brighter, larger. What? He stood and stared, unmoving, as the fireball plummeted, hitting the ground with a loud explosion a half mile to his east. In one fluid move he dropped his glass and dove behind the nearest dirt pile, his mind flashing back to bombs exploding when he was a young officer in Northern Ireland. Heads began popping out of tents, just in time to see another “falling star” close in and burn up just before hitting the ground a quarter of a mile to the west. Within moments, the camp was in pandemonium, everyone running back and forth, searching for cover. Ibrahim and one of the local diggers, who were heading into town, were caught between the tents and the dig’s rattletrap car. They both made a run for the extra protection of the vehicle. It was a rusty old station wagon that had survived twenty years as transport for the team. Sam watched as they each dove in a door and rolled up the windows. He wondered if he would be safer joining them than lying sprawled behind a dirt pile. What was going on? And then there were more. It was like a hailstorm—if the hail was made of fire. A much larger piece headed straight for Sam’s hiding place, then split in two at the last minute. One part burned up before reaching the ground, the other impacted the car where his fellow workers had taken cover. The largest part had crashed through the roof of the car; other parts had shorn off and hit the doors of the vehicle. One had apparently ruptured the gas line. From where he was, Sam now smelled gasoline mingling with the burning sulfur from space. “Get out!” he screamed, standing and rushing for the station wagon. But it was too late. Fire continued to rain down, and some landed, still burning, close enough to the vehicle that the fumes, then the spilled gasoline on the ground, and finally the remainder of the tank, ignited. Sam threw himself down and covered his head but he felt the ground shake as the car exploded. He stayed flattened against the sand, fully expecting to be hit by debris from the explosion or the sky, fully expecting the next second to be his last on Earth.
It took a moment after the explosion for the ringing in his ears to stop, and for him to regain enough equilibrium to discern which way was up. Then he raised his head, saw the burning vehicle, and launched himself toward it. He disregarded the continuing rain of fiery meteors as he tried desperately to get to his friends. He circled the car, looking for an opening, but the fire was so hot he couldn’t get close enough to open a door. He looked through the flames for some hint of movement within, but saw and heard nothing. Several others had seen what had happened and also ignored personal safety to try to help. There was nothing to be done. The car was obliterated. Another five minutes of chaos, and then darkness, and silence. As suddenly as the firestorm had begun, it was over. Team members began emerging from tents, moving slowly and carefully in case the danger wasn’t over. Grabbing flashlights, they looked for anyone who might require assistance. What they found was Dr. Sam Golding standing motionless in front of a burning station wagon, wondering how the ancients would have responded to the gods showing their anger by sending a mighty firestorm to annihilate whatever and whoever was below. For this was an act of destruction, one whose consequences would reverberate for years to come. Why had it come into their dig? Their lives? Why had it taken two of their own? Strands of horror, hurt, anger, and loss wove together inside of Sam, a feeling as primal as had been felt in this very spot, millennia before. He dropped to his knees, screaming from his gut, until he could scream no more.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2007, 6:48 P.M. ANDRIA, ITALY
TEN YEARS. That’s how long Savino Latorre, together with the mysterious business mogul Shanlei—Mountain Thunder—had been working to prepare this world-shaking modern display of the plagues visited on ancient Egypt by the God of the Israelites. And, as last time, the plagues were meant to send a message. To bring certain world governments and policy makers to their knees. Well, that was Shanlei’s motive. Savino was in business with Shanlei, of course. But there was another group whose attention he sought to arrest, and a specific person whose affections he meant to secure. This part of his plan had been in the works not for ten years, but for fifty. Since the dawn of time, men have made grand gestures to impress the women they love. Nebuchadnezzar the Second is said to have built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for Queen Amyitis. Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for Mumtaz Majal (granted, after his favorite wife was dead), and Richard Burton bought a 69.2-carat diamond for his Elizabeth. To his mind, Savino Latorre had created something that outshone them all. It was, coincidentally, about the size of a seventy-carat gem; in hue, something between midnight blue and deep purple. It was a grape, yielding wine whose exquisite flavor was as yet unknown in the Terris world. This grape was named the Analucia, after Savino’s love, and when it blended in correct proportions with the Negroamaro grape, grown only in the region of Puglia, Italy, it produced a full-bodied, smooth wine that was an unparalleled taste of paradise. Savino removed his coal grey Armani jacket and carefully folded it over his arm. He stood at his full six feet four and took a final look at his vineyards for the day. Beyond the intertwined, centuries-old olive trees, they stretched, nearly as far as the eye could see, wave after wave of curving grape vines, fanning out from the river. He had not yet released the Analucia wines for public consumption. He would do that with Ana beside him, once she walked freely on the Earth. Which led him to the work still at hand. Shanlei should be happy. If all had gone well, it should have happened by now: plague three, Burning Hail from the Sky. And very soon, the murder of the man responsible for the greatest of his woes. A man known simply as Sword 23.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2007, 6:14 P.M. TIME ZONE 1
IT HAD ALL COME DOWN TO THESE THREE DAYS. Within the space of seventy-two hours, the world would change. Twelve key government and industry players would be brought to their knees, and would capitulate power. Every continent would be represented. These dozen could not imagine how their bright square of fabric would weave into the large quilt that would lead to a tipping point of resource redistribution. Shanlei understood the importance of story, of weaving together the narrative that would cause these mini-pharaohs to yield. Shanlei didn’t remember who had first come up with the idea of recreating the ten plagues that the Western God had visited upon the Pharaoh of ancient Egypt—whether it was Savino Latorre himself, or one of his psychotic geniuses. But the triggers for each plague were in place. And for those who refused to yield? The countdown to the final plague: Death of the Firstborn. The countdown clock had started now on the homepage of WheelofPlagues.com. The firstborn had seventy-two hours to live. Perhaps the parents would each acquiesce in time. Shanlei secretly hoped not. Tuesday would be a celebration, in any case. Had the Western God felt this smug satisfaction, knowing that Pharaoh was going to refuse Moses’ demands, making it open season? It didn’t matter. In less than three days, those players—in fact, the world—would be convinced.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2007, 12:22 P.M. CADET CHAPEL, UNITED STATES MILITARY ACADEMY WEST POINT, NEW YORK
IS THIS KID ASLEEP OR DRUNK? Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Jaime Richards almost tripped over a body at the bottom of the spiral cement staircase. Her heels were no help as she leaned down to get a better look at a handsome young man sprawled on the bottom steps and had her answer. He smelled like a brewery. Seriously? Jaime shook his shoulder. As she did, she could see he had one golden bar on each shoulder of his army dress blues. A “Butter-Bar.” It figured. Leave it to a brand new 2nd lieutenant to come drunk to the basement of Cadet Chapel, the most identifiable site on the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She shook him harder, and he started to rouse. “Lieutenant! What are you doing here?” “Wha…Wassup? What time is it?” Frantically he looked at his watch and tried to stand, almost falling over. Jaime grabbed his arm. Fortunately, he was in the front end of the basement, which included a sitting area, and she half walked, half dragged him to a nearby couch. He was half a foot taller than she was, and it took all her strength to keep him from falling. They reached the couch and she let go. He swayed for a moment and fell back onto the cushions.
“Lieutenant…” she looked at the name tag on his uniform, “… Pellman, why are you here?” She thought quickly as she waited for him to answer. There were no concerts that afternoon, only three weddings, one of which was in full swing above them. “Are you here for a wedding?” The young man tried valiantly to focus his gaze on Jaime. He nodded his head with vigor. “Attend a bit of a wild bachelor party last night?” He had a very solemn look and shook his head no. At first Jaime was confused, then she began to put the pieces together. “Wait. Are you here for your wedding?” Very slowly, with a pained look, he nodded his head yes. Oh boy, now what? “Is it at fourteen-hundred?” Another nod. Now he just looked sad. Jaime looked at her watch, did a quick calculation about how much time she had, and sat down on the couch next to the obviously miserable young officer. His eyes were focusing more as his head seemed to clear. “So, what’s wrong?” “I don’t know if this is going to work.” His words were slightly slurred, but understandable. “I really love Melissa, a lot, I mean, well, maybe too much.” He rubbed his hands hard across his face and shook his head. “We’ve been planning this wedding since we were Cows. It all seemed perfect! Graduate in June, attend our officer basic courses, then get married.” He counted off each step on his fingers as he spoke. “But at basic she decided to specialize in EOD.” “So your fiancée is going into explosive ordnance disposal. That sounds pretty exciting. But I take it you don’t think so.” “I know that any job in the Army can be dangerous, and I thought I could handle it if Melissa had to go to combat. But this really hit me. I think of her heading up an EOD team and I just can’t take it! It just gives me the willies.” Jaime nodded, conjuring up images of the dangers of bomb defusal.
“And then,” he started, rallying, “then I asked her, ‘What kind of a job would that be when you get pregnant?’ And she just looked at me and said, ‘Pregnant? I’m not getting pregnant! At least not any time soon.’” The young officer looked down to inspect his fingernails, trying to hide the tears welling up in his eyes. “I want to have children, and now I’m not sure when, or if, we will.” “Have you told her this? Talked about how you feel?” “I hinted at it. I mean, when she told me she wasn’t getting pregnant any time soon she had to know that I wasn’t happy about it!” “You hinted? So now she’s expected to be a mind reader?” He looked chagrined. “Well, I guess…” Jaime shook her head. “Okay, here’s the deal. Do you love her?” “Yes!” He sounded almost offended. “Has this issue made you love her any less?” “No! I really, really, really love her, that’s why this EOD thing scares me. I couldn’t stand to lose her.” Jaime grabbed his head, one hand on each side of his face, so she could look straight into his eyes. “Then tell her how you feel. Don’t hold this in. Especially don’t go off drinking on your own. That won’t solve anything.” “But should I still get married today?” “Oh, don’t suck me into that one! I’m not making that decision for you.” Jaime quickly stood and almost tripped over the hem of her dress. She straightened up and smoothed a few wrinkles from her skirt. “The only advice I will give you is: don’t think you have to get married today just because the wedding is planned, and don’t think you shouldn’t get married just because you have had one disagreement. You’re looking at the rest of your lives together, and this is just the first of many challenges you’ll have together as a married couple.” Jaime reached out her hand and squeezed his shoulder. Just as she was about to suggest he get a cup of coffee, another young man in dress uniform—this one a cadet from one of West Point’s international partners—came racing down the circular stairs. He gave a loud sigh of relief when he saw Lieutenant Pellman. “There you are!” he said. “I’ve been looking everywhere! When you asked me to be best man, I didn’t realize it would be so much of a challenge.” “So you’re his best man?” Jaime asked. “You do have a challenge here, Cadet Bak. He has an hour.” “An hour, fourteen minutes,” said the newly-arrived cadet, with a nervous smile. “He’s all yours,” Jaime said. “And he’s gonna owe you.” The first notes of the organ recessional reverberated from the ceremony a floor above them. “Oh, cripes!” Jaime looked distressed. Lieutenant Pellman and Cadet Bak stared at her. It finally registered to them both that she was wearing a floor-length ivory sheath. Confused, Cadet Bak said, “Hey, are you getting…?” “Yes,” she cut him off quickly as she began to run down the hall. “He’s the two o’clock wedding; I’m the one o’clock. I’ll say a prayer you make the right decision!”