Rocketlab Launch Complex Mahia, New Zealand. Source: rocketlabusa.com

The Mask is Lifted

Part 3 (Final Part) of “A Poke in the Fifth Eye

Copyright © 2018 Simon Roberts

Bret slid the air force issue, white cotton sheet back and traced a line down the centre of Andy’s smooth chest from neck to naval and back again. He stirred and opened his eyes, looking up through the mass of blonde hair that cascaded down from her head to cover half his face.

“Not planning on sleeping are you, Sir Pilot?” she purred before gently biting his earlobe.

“N…no,” Andy replied. He was still half expecting to wake up and find this amazing afternoon had all been a dream.

“Good!” she said as she sprung up lithely to slide across his hips, leaning forward to shower his face with kisses. Her hair tumbled everywhere, almost making him sneeze. “So…when can I see your helicopter? You didn’t get me here under false pretences with that pilot story I hope?” she teased.

“No, I really am a pilot. It’s just that with the higher security level at the moment, no visitors are allowed on the base. I could be court-martialled just for this.”

“Well then since you’re already in trouble, what’s there to lose?” she said with a laugh and a toss of her hair. “Except me, of course,” she added.

“OK, fine but we’ll need to wait an hour or so until it’s dark, OK?”

“I’m sure we can find something to fill in the time,” Bret whispered in his ear before sliding down under the bedding.

*

Robert McGregor opened his satellite communications console and slowly keyed in the numbers +1 600 757 3143. It rang for what seemed like an eternity and, just as he was about to end the call, a crisp female voice answered. “Brigadier General Singleton.”

“Hi Dani…it’s Rob.”

“R…Rob…um hi! This is unexpected. Are you in Canada?”

“No, still in Fiji. Sorry to call your satellite phone but it’s kind of urgent. I need to call in that favour.” Rob replied.

“Sure, I’ll help if I can. What do you need?” Dani asked, gathering her composure. It was over 20 years since their engagement ended abruptly but he still had a place deep in her emotions.

“I’m guessing you’ve been following what’s going on in New Zealand?”

There’s nothing else being talked about in Five Eyes at the moment or any intelligence service for that matter,” she answered. “Got any ideas?”

“Yep. I think this is a hit on Five Eyes but we haven’t seen the main event yet.”

“Christ, dirty bombs and incinerating two spy bases isn’t the main event?” Danielle exclaimed.

“No. I think it’s a classic chess gambit. They are setting up a fool’s checkmate where everyone is so fixated on the attacks, they don’t see the checkmate move until it’s too late.”

Danielle took in a big breath, held it, then exhaled. “What do you need?”

“I need to know all about a Dutch woman, probably late twenties to early thirties. Attended Oxford in 2008. Also, her social media links, friends, connections etc. My guys could do this but, in this case, your networks might be faster. Her name is Brittany Maarten – she goes by the name of Bret.”

“OK. I’ll get onto it straight away.” Dani hesitated, as though about to say something else, then signed off the call.

Rob strolled out of his bure and lit a cigarette.

*

Andy keyed in the security code on the hangar door and motioned Bret to slip inside. After a furtive scan of the outside area, he slipped inside and closed the door behind him. Twisting the end of his maglite torch revealed the shapes of several NH90 and A109 helicopters looming eerily before them in the cavernous space.

“Wow!” Bret exclaimed. “This is so cool. Which one is yours?”

“I fly the smaller ones, the Agusta Westland A109,” Andy replied a bit self-consciously. I’m still doing conversion training on the NH90s.”

“Well size isn’t everything, is it, Mr Simmonds?” Bret quipped accompanied by a quick kiss on the cheek. “Can I sit inside one?”

“Sure. Over here,” Andy offered.

“How on earth do you get those huge hangar doors open?” Bret inquired as they walked to the front aircraft.

“Them? Oh, that’s easy. There’s a panel over there with open and close buttons.” Andy replied, pointing to the front right corner of the hangar as he opened the door of the nearest AW109 and helped her climb in.

“Wow, this is really cool. Can you tell me what all these switches do?” Bret asked coyly.

*

Danielle Singleton’s message appeared on his console within an hour. Robert read and re-read it.

Brittany Anne (Bret) Maarten

Dutch National born 28 November 1987 // Atheist // Bachelor of Arts (incomplete) // Served in Royal Netherlands Air Force 2009-2011. Completed basic flight training. Terminated just prior to end of rotary wing conversion for disciplinary reasons relating to an assault on a superior officer. // Last known work as a pilot and parachute instructor at various civilian tourist drop zones in Caribbean // Member of several environmental groups including Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund and Sea Shepherd // Significant social networks // No convictions but on a watchlist due to membership of ‘PeaceForce’ due to its advocacy for violent direct action // Currently in the Bahamas according to Interpol.

Definitely not in the Bahamas, Robert thought. He typed a reply; Tell me more about the social networks.

The reply from Danielle was swift. Robert’s eyebrows raised as he closed his eyes and focussed on the apparently chaotic pattern of Bret’s ‘friends.’ The names and networks swirled around in his mind before settling like the wheels on a poker machine. Suddenly, it came to him and he opened his eyes and began typing furiously: Dani, tell the Americans to get a warrant for FitBit’s database and pull in all Bret Maarten’s exercise ‘friends’ around the world. It’s a simple book code. They’re communicating with each other by sharing exercise and dietary data. One of them will hopefully reveal what the book is that they use to decode. In the meantime, I’ll talk with the Kiwis.

Robert picked up the satellite phone and punched in a sequence starting +1 64. The duty operator beneath the Beehive in New Zealand answered almost immediately. “Operations Room.”

“This is Robert McGregor. Put me on speaker in the main conference area.”

“Sir, the chiefs are in a meeting.”

This was true. The entire air base at Whenuapai, north of Auckland had been struck with some sort of water-borne illness similar to that which wracked the small NZ town of Havelock North a couple of years earlier.

“In any case, I have no idea who you are,” the signaller replied tersely.

“Then put your Duty Officer on the line and hurry up!” Robert demanded.

“Can’t do that sir, she is also busy elsewhere. Can I take a message?” The young Navy AB was enjoying the power of the moment.

“Sure, tell the Prime Minister and CDF I called. Tell them to secure Ohakea and Whenuapai air bases from an attack of up to 30 assailants attempting to steal an aircraft. They will not find any bodies in the yacht or Cessna wreckage. The original attackers are still at large and have help. Then tell them to sack your incompetent smart-alec arse! And I know this call is recorded,” Rob declared in frustration then slammed the handset down while reaching for his cigarettes with the other hand.

*

Suddenly, the hangar lit up as huge quartz halogen lights in the roof came on.

An authoritative voice bellowed, “You two, in the helicopter – climb down and lay on the floor with your hands behind your head.”

“Oh crap,” Andy exclaimed. “Security Force Police. They must have cameras or motion sensors somewhere. Just do as they say. They’re armed.”

Bret nodded meekly and bit her lip as the pair climbed out either side of the aircraft and laid face down on the cold concrete floor as instructed. One of the pair of guards had circled round the helicopter and was standing over Bret with Glock pistol drawn. The first airman approached Andy cautiously, his pistol also drawn. “Identify yourself!”

“I…I’m Flying Officer Andrew Simmonds, Service number F104674. I’m a pilot on 3 Squadron. My ID card is in my right pants pocket.”

The SECFOR airman reached inside Andy’s pants cautiously, while keeping the pistol trained on his back. He read the card and then said, “Ok Sir. Who’s she?” pointing his pistol toward Bret.

“Just a friend. I was showing her the helo.”

The LAC, who was obviously in charge, let out a snort of derision then called to his partner, “Get her up and bring her over here, Jack. He pressed the transmit button on his vest and spoke into the boom microphone. “Zero Alpha this is Sierra Foxtrot One, over.”

The response was immediate, crisp and clear. “Zero Alpha, over.”

“I’m bringing two in. Best call the Duty Officer. One of them is an officer. The other’s a civvy, over.”

“Wilco, over.”

“Sierra Foxtrot One, out.”

He then turned to his partner and said, “Jack, search them both.”

His search was quick but thorough and found nothing untoward. “Right you two, stand up. You can put your arms down now. Outside the both of you.” Pointing to the twin-cab patrol vehicle, the commander said, “OK, Sir. In the front with me. Jack, you go in the back with her.”

“Done,” Jack replied as they both returned their pistols to thigh holsters.

It only took a few minutes to travel from the hangar to the guardhouse where they were ushered unceremoniously inside. “Andy! What’s going on?” The Duty Officer, Flight Lieutenant Dan Donaldson, was also a pilot on 3 Squadron.

“These two were in an aircraft in a hangar during a RingFence Orange security state. They are in it deep,” the SECFOR Corporal in charge of the shift stated with smug satisfaction.

“Ooh!” Bret let out an alarming cry then collapsed, hitting the floor heavily and lying still.

The SECFOR airman closest to her rushed over and knelt down to check her vital signs. As he did so, Bret came suddenly to life and swept his legs out from under him, causing the man to crash to the floor. In the blink of an eye, she removed his Glock pistol from its thigh holster, cocked the action and stood with the unfortunate airman’s hair firmly in her grasp – in total command of the room.

“Weapons on the ground – NOW!” she commanded.

“B…Bret…what’s going on?” Andy asked feebly. The rest of the security force was, at the same time, placing their pistols on the floor.

“Pick up all the weapons and bring them over here, lover boy,” she told Andy cruelly. “Then give me your maglite.”

Andy complied meekly, stunned by the sudden, ferocious change in Bret.

“Now plasti-cuff them all – wrists behind the back first then attach them to something solid,” she commanded.

Andy did as he was told. When all the security detail was cuffed to radiators and furniture around the room, she took another set of plasti-cuffs from the shelf and secured Andy to the inner cell door bars. Then, she went outside to the front of the guard hut  and signalled a sequence of lights, with Andy’s maglite torch, into the darkness beyond the camp entrance. Within seconds, two plain white vans appeared at the barrier, disgorging their contents of armed personnel who quickly established a perimeter around the main entrance to the air force base.

A tall, athletically built man in close-fitting black commando clothing strode directly to the guard house. He stopped briefly in front of Bret before embracing her and kissing deeply. “Well done, babe,” he said with a strong Australian accent. The pair then stepped inside.

“Who’s in charge here?” the man said commandingly.

“I guess I am,” the Duty Officer said.

Without another word, the man in black drew a silenced pistol and shot Dan Donaldson once in the head. His lifeless body slumped halfway to the ground, held only by the plasti-cuffs attached to the radiator.

“Whose next in command?” the man asked of the four remaining SECFOR section members.

“I am,” the Corporal replied defiantly.

“OK. Here’s how it works. You cooperate and you live. Don’t give me what I want and I will start executing your men. Got it?”

The Corporal nodded nervously.

“You have an armoury in this building, correct?”

The Corporal nodded again.

“Where is it and where are the keys?”

“The keys are number 11 on the key press on the wall there. The armoury is at the end of the cell block.”

“Where is the main camp armoury and ammunition?”

“Building number 27 on the wall map there. The ammunition bunkers are building 101-105. Key tags 12 -18.”

“Where is your RAS token generator?”

The Corporal looked surprised that he knew about the randomly generated PIN numbers for the high security buildings. His hesitation cost one young airman his life.

“I…in my vest. Lower right pouch,” he stuttered.

The man in black reached into the pouch, took the code generator then strode to the key press and took out key 11 to 18. He returned to the door and signalled to two of his associates who were standing sentry outside. Handing them the keys and code generator, he said “Get what we need, as planned. Make sure you get one pintle-mounted MAG 58.”

The men nodded then walked into the guardhouse, past the cells where Andy was standing cuffed to the bars and down to the small armoury that serviced the base SECFOR patrols. They quickly returned with arms laden with MARS-L rifles and Glock pistols, carried them out to the van and drove off.

Without another word, the man in black raised his pistol and shot the remaining three guardsmen in the head with a single shot each. Then he walked down the corridor to the cellblock and Andy.

“Enjoy screwing Bret?” he said in a sinister tone.

“P…please. I didn’t know…” Andy begged.

The first shot was through Andy’s knee. He screamed and slumped, held up by the plasti-cuffs. After a few seconds, the silenced pistol sent another round into his groin causing an agonising wail.

“Get it over with,” Bret called dispassionately from the end of the corridor. “We need to get going.”

The pistol came up under Andy’s ear and fired one last time.

About an hour later, Airways Corporation staff at Ohakea Control were trying to raise the helicopter that had taken off to the north east without a flight plan or active transponder when a series of explosions wracked the base. All down the hangar line, the incendiary charges placed by Bret’s long-departed colleagues created a wave of destruction. The fires would take days to put out.

On hearing the news, the Chief of Defence Force ordered the Commander Joint Forces to deploy the 1st Battalion and Queen Alexandra’s Mounted Rifles from their base at Linton, south of Palmerston North, to Ohakea air force base. In the background, a nervous Navy signaller was whispering to the Duty Officer.

*

“George. It’s Robert McGregor.”

“Bloody hell, mate! It’s been a while. You still doing the Robinson Crusoe thing?”

“Yep. Hey George, this is serious and urgent. You still the Commanding Officer of the 5th/7th Battalion?” Robert inquired.

“I sure am,” Lieutenant Colonel George McIntosh replied.

“Great. Take a seat and grab a pen and paper. This is one night that the Reserve Forces are going to talk about for a long time.”

“Sounds intriguing. I’m ready and waiting.”

“First up, how many troops have you got living at or near Mahia Peninsula?”

“Funny you should ask. I’ve got a junior officer there who’s an engineer in civvy life and works for Rocket Lab. There’s also as a section commander and three privates reasonably close. What’s with Mahia?”

“Rocket Lab is. I believe a group of terrorists are going to use one of their rockets as an ICBM, potentially with a dirty payload. But they’re not going to be able to do it because your guys are going to destroy the rocket that’s currently sitting on the launch platform.”

“You’re kidding!” George exclaimed.

“Deadly serious mate.” Robert replied.

“Why aren’t the regular force doing it?”

“They’re guarding a burning air base or in bed with vomiting and diarrhoea, amongst other reasons. Everyone in the bunker is buying the distraction. Trust me, George. Call your troops in, arm them and secure that launch complex. Expect opposition. I’ll call the bunker and try again to get through to the decision makers. Regardless of whether you get authority or not, you must destroy that rocket.”

“Jeez, I hope you know what you’re doing, Rob. This could end my career.”

“What career? You’re a reservist!” Robert said with a laugh and hung up.

His next call was to the operations room below the Beehive. This time, he was transferred immediately to the main conference room line.

*

The former Soviet ‘Bravo-class’ submarine now known as ‘Atlas’ surfaced a mile off the southern tip of the Mahia Peninsula, at midnight, as scheduled. The Skipper and Executive Officer both raised binoculars and surveyed the landward horizon. The lights of Wairoa and the smaller town of Nuhaka stood out in the darkness. They heard the sound of the rotors first then the ‘woosh’ as the A109 passed along their starboard side at 500 feet, a head craning out the open door. The helicopter banked sharply and passed back overhead at much lower altitude, the observer in the door waving to the sub’s officers.

The Skipper raised a handset to his mouth and, in a thick Eastern European accent, ordered offloads to the bridge. By this time, the helicopter had come to the hover about 100 feet above the bridge, buffeting the sailors standing there with its rotor wash. Two aluminium boxes were passed up the ladder and secured to the Agusta’s winch cable, which had been lowered in the meantime. These disappeared up into the night sky without delay.

The cable came down a second time with a harness attached. One of the sub’s crew disconnected the harness and fitted it to a small, bespectacled man who had appeared, looking very nervous, on the bridge. Once on, it was reconnected to the winch. “Good luck, Doctor,” the XO said as he flashed his torch three times up toward the machine hovering above. Before he could reply, the doctor was whisked upward on the winch and taken inside the aircraft. After a minute or so, the helicopter banked and set direction for Mahia and Launch Complex 1.

*

Lieutenant Emma Tamatea was still in shock from her CO’s phone call as she pulled up at Corporal Tane Eruera’s house just outside Nuhaka. She knocked on the door which was opened by a surprised-looking, muscular young man of about 30 seeing his platoon commander on the doorstep, late on a Sunday night, in uniform with vest webbing. “Hello Ma’am…what’s up?”

“I’ll explain on the way. Get into MCUs quick as you can. Bring all your FSMO. This is a NODUFF Op,” Emma replied curtly.

“On my way,” Tane replied as he dived into his bedroom. While she waited, Emma returned to her 4WD and made several more calls.

*

The mood was tense but buzzing with excitement as the rapidly assembled group of reserve force soldiers gathered for orders under the pine trees near the old YMCA camp at Opoutama.

“Sar’Major – what have we got?” Lt Tamatea asked.

“25 all ranks, Ma’am, plus the local constable,” Warrant Officer Class 2 Jerry Oldham said while pointing at the very nervous-looking young police officer who had only graduated two weeks earlier. “We have enough rifles, 4 C9 LSWs plus the Police M4 and two Glocks. Before I left Gisborne, I got a mate who owns a sports shop to open up and we took every .223 and .308 round he had. The boys have been breaking up belts of drill rounds on the trip and relinking live ammo for the guns. Several have bought their civvy weapons and ammunition as well.”

“Yeah, you want a go with my shotty, Ma’am?” Lance Corporal Hemi Tawhai said with a grin and a raise of the eyebrows while holding up a 12-gauge pump action proudly. Everyone chuckled nervously.

“Maybe later,” Emma replied. “Carry on Sar’ Major.”

“There’s two truckloads of troops, weapons and ammo coming from Napier.”

“Judging by the arrival of that helicopter earlier, I don’t think we can wait. The OP is in position?”

“Two OPs, Ma’am. We have eyes on the target.”

“Two? I only asked for one overlooking the launch complex,” Emma stated firmly.

“Yeah, I know, but I got my cousin and his missus to launch their fishing boat out of Nuhaka to keep an eye on the sea approaches as well,” the CSM responded unapologetically.

Emma decided to let that one go. “OK, everyone move in closer and listen up. First, the ground…” The group shifted or leaned in with full concentration as Emma began her orders group.

*

Single shots, then a series of three round bursts echoed across the still night air.

“Zero Alpha this is One One. Contact – Wait Out.”

Lt Tamatea, with the majority of the troops, was moving into their FUP on the north west side of the launch complex when the call came in from callsign One One, under the command of the CSM on the north eastern side of the pensinsula.

A lull in firing was followed by a sudden, barrage of obviously coordinated fire. WO2 Oldham had moved his gun group onto a knoll to the right of the track where they had initially taken fire before leading the remaining 5 soldiers in a rapid left flanking assault on the site. The suppressing fire from the C9 kept the enemy’s heads down; only ceasing fire as they saw the assaulting troops arrive on the position. It was all over quickly and the gunners moved to reorg on the position before being placed in a sentry position further up the track to the launch site.

“Zero Alpha this is One One. Two enemy KIA. We have one WIA Pri 4. We’ve made him comfortable and leaving him here. Continuing as per orders.” Despite one of her soldiers being wounded, Emma felt reassured by the CSM’s business-like tone.

“Roger,” she replied.

“Ma’am look – the helo,” her signaller shouted grabbing her vest webbing and pointing.

Three people had emerged from the launch control room and were running toward the Agusta, each carrying a rifle. The whine of the turbine was followed by the sound of rotors beginning to turn. It seemed like no time at all before it lifted off and banked before heading north east at a few hundred feet in the direction of the CSM and his team.

The sound of a medium machine gun firing long bursts rent the air.

“Shit! They’ve got a MAG 58 door mounted,” one of her soldiers exclaimed from behind her as she strained to get a look. Emma knew there was little she could do to help callsign One One without risking the entire mission. While she was thinking through her options, Lance Corporal Hemi Tawhai was whispering furiously to another soldier, a tall, rangey looking bushman known as ‘Horse’. In the distance, they could see rounds fired by the CSM’s section ricocheting off the ballistic armour of the helo’s cabin.

Hemi and Horse crawled over to Emma. “Hey Ma’am. Me and Horse can sort the helo. You just need to distract them for a bit.”

“You can’t go out there, Corporal. It’s suicide. Stay here under cover for now,”

“Can’t Ma’am. Have to get the CSM’s team out of there in one piece. Trev owes me ten bucks.” He flashed his trademark ‘chur bro’ grin and the two loped off into the darkness.

The helo continued to make passes of the CSM’s position but were now being more cautious about the fire they were receiving in return. As it swept in from the sea, Emma fired a parachute flare over the launch complex. Then, there was a different sound adding to the noise of battle – three loud booms from an area of undulating ground midway between the two sub-units. The helo banked sharply away as Hemi’s 12 gauge solids smashed into the windshield. While they didn’t seem to penetrate the armoured plexiglass, they certainly gave the pilot a shock and the aircraft headed out to sea. The pause in firing didn’t last long but enough time for the CSM to move his team to better cover. A few minutes later, the helo returned and headed directly for Hemi’s firing position turning its searchlight on as it approached. To Emma’s horror, she saw Hemi stand up in full view in the glare of the light, undo his pants, turn around and flash his bare bum at the approaching machine. Mooning to most cultures but known as whakapohane to Maori – a significant insult.

The helo moved closer, came into the hover and turned to bring the door gun to bear. Before they could complete the manoeuvre another loud bang rang out, this time sounding more like a large bore rifle. The helo shuddered, the turbine whine increasing as the pilot applied more power, then started to turn into an ever-increasing spiral before crashing to the ground and bursting into flames. Hemi and Horse appeared around either side, silhouetted by the flames as they ran back towards Emma and the rest of the team.

High fives everywhere followed before Emma decided to settle everything down. “Horse, what’s that weapon you’re holding?”

Horse flashed a toothless grin. “Net gun for live deer capture, Ma’am. Cut down Mk4 .303. Usually fire them from the chopper not at it but it did the biz. Just had to get them to slow down enough to take the shot. Got the tail rotor first time.”

“Certainly did the biz, all right Horse. Well done you two. Now let’s get on with the main event. Cover in place. Sapper Rogers get ready to do your thing with the fence.” Emma checked her watch as she issued her orders. Picking up the handset she called the CSM “One One this is Zero Alpha. Ready to breach.”

The reply came back immediately. “This is One One – ready.”

“Roger. L-Hour in 60 seconds.”

“One One – Roger.”

A minute later heavy firing began as the CSM’s detachment commenced their diversionary op on the other side of the compound. Three armed individuals ran from the launch building toward the sound of the firing taking up positions behind the smaller structures, oblivious to what was going on behind them and out of view.

Sapper Rogers made quick work of the fence, isolating the surveillance components, shorting out the electrical source and cutting the wire. The troops piled through and moved straight to the side of the main building. Emma held up her hand then counted down by folding one finger in at a time. On five, a burly infantryman swung a large sledgehammer at the door which flew open on first strike. The troops poured in through the breach. Two armed guards raised their weapons and were despatched instantly with double taps to the chest by the first soldiers inside. The only other person in the launch room was a small, bespectacled man who was crouching in the corner with his hands raised in surrender.

“Let me guess,” Emma said to him. “You’re the rocket scientist, right?”

“Please. They have my family,” he answered with a British accent.

“Has the payload been altered?”

“No, we didn’t have the opportunity once the shooting started,” he replied.

Just then, the CSM and his detachment appeared at the door. He had one hand on the scruff of the neck of a black-suited commando who was plasti-cuffed. “Two dead enemy, this one the only POW. I’ve sent a couple of the boys back to pick up our WIA and take him to Wairoa for treatment. Corporal Eruera is establishing perimeter security,” he reported. “Well done Ma’am.”

“Thanks. It’s not over yet. Our mission is to destroy that rocket,” Emma responded.

“Is that necessary now?” the CSM asked.

“Yep. Don’t know what they’ve rigged up so far or whether there’s other elements around. The rocket has a self-destruct function in case it goes rogue in flight. I’m going to liven the system up and activate that remotely but we all need to be well gone before she blows. Bring the vehicles down here, police up the contacts and I’ll let you know when it’s time to go.”

“Yes ma’am,” the CSM replied – impressed with the knowledge and growing confidence of this young officer.

*

The CO and most of the 5/7 Battalion HQ plus forty armed soldiers from the Napier area arrived in the Assembly Area at Opoutama in time to watch the rocket blow itself to bits on the launch gantry. Emma lowered her binoculars and turned to greet her boss.

“Colonel George, sorry to drag you all this way for nothing,” Emma said with a smile.

“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world, Emma. Tell me all about your night,” the CO replied.

*

The submarine’s XO lowered his binoculars and turned to the skipper. “I don’t think our passengers are coming, Sir. Sun’s up soon.”

The Skipper nodded. “Prepare to dive.”

“Prepare to dive. Aye, Sir.”

*

Read Part 1 of ‘A Poke in the Fifth Eye’

Read Bret’s Gambit – Part 2 of ‘A Poke in the Fifth Eye’