Over the Arabian Sea
Present day, eighteen months ago
"Don't tell anyone," Adam Carlton whispered as he glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one was listening. "I'm not supposed to take you down there."
Lyla Dhawan knew his dramatic gesture was all for show. They were alone in the airplane's palatial rear lounge, with its mahogany tables and Gucci-embossed sofas. Although the double-decker Airbus A380 was gigantic and could carry more than eight hundred passengers when fitted out as an airliner, this plane currently held fewer than one hundred people. Most of them were in the luxurious forward bars, enjoying the free-flowing champagne and snacking on expensive caviar.
Lyla still didn't know why she'd been one of the lucky few invited onto Xavier Carlton's private jet, but she jumped at a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Fending off advances from one of the billionaire's sons almost made her wish she'd reconsidered. However, his offer was intriguing.
"You mean, we can go down and see the cargo hold?" she asked.
Carlton nodded, downed the rest of his hundred-year-old scotch, and leaned in closer, practically purring, in his British accent, "Have you ever seen a Bugatti Chiron?"
The reek of alcohol on his breath almost made Lyla gag. She shook her head.
"Fastest car in the world," Carlton said. "Worth three million dollars even before I added the solid gold trim. I brought it from London to see what it can do on the desert roads. Obviously, I can't take you for a drive, but you can sit in it. The leather is the softest you'll ever feel."
She managed not to roll her eyes. Lyla couldn't care less about cars, and his constant bragging was getting on her nerves. But she didn't know when she would get another opportunity to tour the cargo area of an A380. She was a pilot herself, logging more than six hundred hours in twin-engine prop planes back in San Jose, California, so going down to see the hold was like getting a backstage pass to Disneyland. Her only hesitation was the thought of being alone with this jerk.
"That's quite a tempting offer," Lyla said. "Maybe some of the other guests would like to see it, too."
Not that she couldn't fend him off if he got handsy. He was short and decidedly out of shape, while she was taller than he was and could deadlift two hundred pounds thanks to regular CrossFit classes. The bigger concern was that she would offend him and torpedo any future contracts with his father's company.
Like all of the other passengers on board for this extravagant meet and greet, Lyla was a computer company executive visiting Dubai for the TechNext trade show. As the chief technology officer of Singular Solutions, she was attending the convention to help pitch her firm's groundbreaking pattern recognition software to customers around the world. So far they'd signed contracts for fifty million dollars, but Carlton's massive media corporation, Unlimited News International, could double that figure with the stroke of a pen.
When Lyla suggested they bring others with them, Carlton scowled and sat back.
"If you don't want to see my car, just say so," he huffed.
"No, I really do," Lyla said with a smile. She stood up, smoothing the skirt of her black cocktail dress. "Quick! Before anyone knows I'm getting a private tour."
Carlton grinned and nearly leaped to his feet. "I promise you won't regret it. The Chiron is almost as beautiful as you are."
"Lead the way."
He took her to a tiny elevator, and they both squeezed in, Carlton smiling up at her as they descended.
"Are you from America originally?" he asked.
"California, born and raised. My parents are from New Delhi."
"I've been to India many times. My father has a villa outside of Mumbai."
"I never got to thank him for the invitation to this event."
"Unfortunately, he couldn't be here. He had an urgent matter to attend to in Dubai."
The elevator opened, and Carlton escorted her out into a small storage area before showing her through the door into the main hold. He froze at the sight that met them.
The vast cargo area was completely empty.
Carlton wheezed a couple of times, then yelled, "Where is my car? I saw it loaded onto the plane last night before we took off from England! When I find out who-"
Without warning, the airplane suddenly plunged into a dive, sending both of them soaring toward the ceiling. Floating ten feet above the floor, they flailed for a few moments. Then the jet rapidly reversed course, slamming them down.
Lyla landed on flat metal, but Carlton wasn't so lucky. His head smashed into a bare stanchion that should have been holding down his car.
She got to her feet and rushed over to him. Blood pooled around his head. He was unconscious but breathing.
With a frantic search of the storage area, she found some cloth towels and took them back to the cargo hold. She propped up Carlton's head with two towels before pressing the third against the wound.
Yelling for help was useless. The hold was too isolated for anyone to hear her. She would have to leave him alone so she could get him medical attention.
She ran back to the elevator and had to wait for what seemed like forever for its return. The glacial ascent was agonizing.
When she reached the main deck, she sprinted forward through the rear lounge, past the conference room and into the piano bar, which was eerily silent. She gasped when she saw why.
All of the passengers were seated with emergency oxygen masks over their faces. Each of them was slumped over, their eyes closed.
Lyla approached the nearest woman with dread. She put a finger to the woman's throat and sighed with relief when she felt a pulse. She tried two more passengers. Though comatose, they were all alive.
She nearly panicked, then it occurred to her the situation might have been caused by an explosive decompression, which would explain the plane's sudden dive.
But she quickly dismissed the idea. Not only would she have felt the frigid air from outside even if the tear in the fuselage had occurred on the upper level, she would have also fallen unconscious herself seconds after reaching the main deck.
She checked two more rooms and found the same chilling sight: all of the passengers and crew with masks on and out cold.
Lyla wasn't an expert on large airliners. Flying was just a hobby-her only one-a chance to get away from the stress of her job for a few hours a week where work emails couldn't reach her. Even better, her mother couldn't call to berate her for not having a husband at the advanced age of thirty-one.
She knew everything that could go wrong with a Cessna twin-prop Corsair, but the Airbus was far more complicated. Something might have malfunctioned in the emergency oxygen system, but she had no idea what that could be. A better question was why they were wearing the masks in the first place if the air in the plane was breathable.
Lyla looked out a window and saw nothing but the sun shining through scattered clouds on the calm water below, but they should have stayed over the Saudi Arabian Desert for the duration of the flight. They were out of range for an ordinary mobile phone, and the odds of finding a satellite phone on board were minuscule. She had to get into the cockpit. If the pilots were on the same oxygen system, they might be unconscious as well, but she could radio a Mayday and get help from someone on the ground. She couldn't land this plane, but the controls were so highly automated these days that someone at air traffic control in Dubai should able to talk her through getting them back to the airport safely.
When she got to the cockpit door, it was closed and locked. No one answered her pounding fist. She desperately tried to wrench it open, but it was a secure door. Since 9/11, all aircraft had been built with stronger cockpit doors and locking mechanisms controlled by the pilots to prevent terrorists from gaining access. It also meant that if the pilots were incapacitated, no one could get inside.
Lyla examined the door. She noticed a keypad with a red light beside it and realized there might be a way inside. She remembered reading that there was a code the flight attendants could use to access the cockpit in a medical emergency as long as the pilots hadn't disabled it from inside, as they would during a terrorist event.
They had to keep a code like that nearby so all the flight attendants could find it quickly. She rooted through the food lockers in the front galley and found what she was looking for: a piece of paper taped to the inside of the cabinet door with a six-digit number written on it. The Arabic text above the number was unreadable, but it had to be it.
Lyla punched the number into the keypad, and the light turned green with a beep. She was overjoyed as she flung the door open.
Her happiness vanished when she saw the pilot slumped back in his chair, a small bullet hole in his right temple.
The copilot, however, was very much alive. She flinched and instinctively put up her hands when he turned around and pointed a small pistol at her.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"No . . . no one," she stammered. "Just a passenger. Lyla Dhawan."
"Where did you come from?"
"I was in the hold with Adam Carlton when we hit the turbulence."
"Where is he?"
"He hit his head. He's badly injured."
"How did you get in here?"
"The access code. It was on a piece of paper."
He got up from his seat. "Show me."
He kept the gun on her the whole time as she showed him where it was in the galley. He yanked the paper off the door, crumpled it up, and shoved it into his pocket.
He motioned with his pistol for her to return to the cockpit. After shutting the door behind him, he got back into his chair and told her to sit in the jump seat.
"Belt yourself in," he said while glancing at his watch.
Lyla let out a sob of relief. He wasn't going to kill her. She snapped the seat belt together.
"Now put on the mask." He pointed to the one hanging next to her.
The thought of all the unconscious passengers flashed in her mind. "Why?"
He held up the pistol and pointed it at her head.
She had no choice. The dead pilot was evidence that he wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger.
She fit the mask over her face but tried to keep it as loose as possible.
The copilot looked at his watch again and then at her. "No. Tighter."
Reluctantly, she pulled the straps taut. Within seconds, she started to feel herself get light-headed. There had to be some kind of knockout gas in the emergency oxygen system.
"Why are you doing this?" she shouted through the mask, but the copilot ignored her.
He looked to his right, then shielded his eyes with one hand. A moment later, a blinding flash lit up the cockpit.
Immediately after that, the copilot pushed his control joystick forward. The huge airplane nosed into a steep dive.
Lyla tried to unbuckle herself so she could stop the maniac from killing them all, but her muscles were like jelly. She couldn't feel her fingers, and her mind was a muddled haze. She had the sudden hope that this was all just a nightmare, that none of it was truly happening.
Then she looked through the front windows as they emerged from a cloud bank. No sky was visible. Only ocean.
They were going down, and there was nothing she could do to prevent it. Then, mercifully, she tumbled into darkness.
The present day
Although the main workforce had gone home after sunset, the vast shipbuilding yards of Moretti Navi were still brightly lit. Asad Torkan crouched beside the outer fence in the most remote part of the facility. His reconnaissance during the previous two nights confirmed that there were no cameras observing the perimeter. The few roaming guards kept to a predictable pattern, making it easy for him to time his infiltration.
He threw his duffel bag over his shoulder and easily scaled the fence, protecting himself from the razor wire with a heavy leather welding blanket. When he was over, he took down the blanket and stowed it under one of the stacks of containers along with the black coveralls he'd just taken off. Underneath, he was wearing the uniform of a Moretti Navi construction foreman. He put on a hard hat, hoisted the duffel, and walked toward the docks as if he were heading in for his shift.
When Torkan passed a couple of longshoremen who gave him little more than a brief glance, he knew he'd have no trouble reaching his objective. He'd been trained by Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security as a saboteur, carrying out successful operations in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Pakistan, always escaping undetected.
With brown eyes, dark hair, a strong chin, and a lanky runner's physique, Torkan was often mistaken for a Greek or Italian, which made it easy for him to blend into European cultures. He spoke fluent English, as well as Farsi and Arabic, and was passable in several other languages, but Italian wasn't one of them. Anybody seeing him in the shipyard would assume he was a fellow countryman. If someone tried to speak to him, he would say he was an American contractor here to supervise construction on one of the many ships being built.
The shipyard was so immense that it took twenty minutes before he saw his target in the distance. It was a relatively small freighter just 400 feet in length that was undergoing final outfitting before its maiden voyage scheduled for the next day. It seemed like a normal cargo ship except for two distinguishing features: a large white satellite dish mounted on the deck and four spiral wind turbines that looked like upside-down eggbeaters. The turbines generated auxiliary power when the ship was at sea.
As he got closer, Torkan could see Colossus 5 painted on the bow. The other Colossus ships were already at sea, making them more difficult to reach since their locations were closely guarded secrets, so he had to disable this one before it left port. The ship looked anything but colossal compared to the giant cruise liners and Panamax containerships being built nearby, but the name didn't refer to its size. It referred to the payload inside.