Fire Cult

Chapter One

Chris ‘Fang’ Mitchell felt restless as he flew across the Papua New Guinea border into Indonesian airspace. Somehow, it all seemed too easy.

The emerald jungles of West Irian province slipped beneath the wings of his twin-engined Invader. Built during World War Two as a formidable attack plane, Fang had modified the old wreck to a swift armoured gun-runner. Though heavy with fuel and illicit weapons, the rugged Invader droned on.

He landed his fourth delivery of munitions at a remote grass airstrip alongside the Mamberamo River. Only two years to the new millennium, yet development had not reached this primitive backwater. Most villagers here still lived in the stone age, the local separatist rebels strongly allied with sympathisers across the eastern border. They called themselves ‘West Papuans’.

A bedraggled rebel dressed in filthy shirt, shorts and shabby jungle boots emerged warily from the jungle. He slung his machine-gun and helped Fang drag out the first box. Ripping off the lid, he tossed a few M16 automatic rifles aside and selected one at random. As the rest of the rebels arrived, he slammed in a clip and fired a burst into the sky. The guerilla leader stormed over, stabbed his finger to the north and cursed the negotiator for the disturbance.

Both desperate men argued in their own dialect. Fang reasoned that either would turn their weapons on him with as much remorse as stepping on a bug. He lit a cigarette and brushed his elbow against the butt of his Colt automatic for reassurance. The rebels carried the thirty boxes of M16 and Kalishnakov automatic rifles away quickly, vanishing into the jungle. Fang only wanted his money and a quick escape. He followed the gun-laden rebels to their canoes hidden at the riverbank.

Fang felt relieved as the nervous negotiator grudgingly thrust a grubby bundle of notes into his hand. They smelled as if they had been unearthed from the floor of a native hut. It would be a deadly mistake to tell them this was the last delivery. Continuity of supply and his pistol were his only insurance.

The transaction was far too hasty. Something intangible seemed to agitate the rebels. Fang quickly counted the mixed Australian and American dollars. Good thing he looked an imposing figure with his big build and broken nose. Untidy sandy hair and a close-cropped beard framed his battered face and gave him a rough appearance.

Gunshots and shouts erupted from the direction of the airstrip. The rebels scattered frantically and paddled their gunladen canoes downstream. Fang drew his pistol and moved furtively into the sanctuary of the jungle fringe. He crept ever closer to his Invader, always on the alert. A disturbance just ahead obstructed his escape.

He glanced through the foliage. The body of one of the rebels lay in a spreading pool of blood. Nearby, three other rebels kneeled on the ground, hands tied. An Indonesian officer in camouflaged fatigues stood behind them waving a pistol. He questioned the terrified rebels and shouted abuse as his soldiers threatened them with rifles.

The officer quickly lost his temper. He raised his pistol and shot two of his captives in the back of their heads. Swirls of gun smoke mingled with the sinister red mist as both bodies flopped grotesquely forward onto the dusty ground.

The last rebel babbled frantically. He pleaded with the officer and pointed down the airstrip to where Fang’s Invader lay partly hidden.

Fang swore and slipped away, heading for the Invader as inconspicuously as possible. It appeared unguarded. He studied the surrounding bush for a moment, then crouched and waited on ground baked hard from the harsh dry season. The Invader’s hot exhaust crackled through the fragile silence, disturbing a nervous tree kangaroo in a nearby raintree. The kangaroo licked its arms in some primeval ritual. The hot desiccating wind would evaporate its saliva to ease its body heat.

As an experienced bushman, Fang recognised its agitation. Its ears twitched and rotated like miniature radar scanners searching for an approaching predator. Another distant gunshot panicked the kangaroo and it scampered up the tree, seeking sanctuary.

Fang, too, sensed an almost imperceptible drone. He carefully scanned the dusty sky. Only low cloud scudded beneath a towering thunderhead. Amber edges highlighted the anvil cloud and it glared indistinctly in the dust-laden haze. The jungled foreground was reduced to a tangle of featureless silhouettes.

Fang could wait no longer. He glanced at the oil dripping from the Invader’s hot radial engines. The large pool beneath the right engine concerned him. It was hard to keep the old engines maintained with the scarcity of antique spares but there was no time to investigate. He sneaked across to the plane, settled his muscular frame into the cockpit and started the left engine. While taxiing, he lowered the clear overhead canopy. A second cloud of smoke puffed rearward as he cranked the other engine into a rough staccato snarl.

A brief glimpse showed a clear run down the jungle-edged strip. Two insect-like shapes grew larger in the northern sky. A Jetranger helicopter materialised and charged straight at him.

Another Indonesian military chopper diverted east in an attempt to hinder his take-off. The distant ground troops found his position and began shooting.

‘That’s it, I’m outa here like shit off a shovel!’ Fang shouted to himself. He knew he shouldn’t have made this last trip. He should have listened to Dave Stark’s warning of rumours concerning special efforts being made by the Indonesian authorities to trap gun-runners. That’s what partners were for; to watch your back. Sweat ran down his face as he thrust the throttles wide. He had no intention of stopping until he reached Port Moresby. The 1100 kilometre flight would be easy meat for the Invader.

A fusillade of gunfire caught Fang by surprise. Jackhammer sounds of impacting bullets tore through the trembling airframe.

Fang accelerated past the first helicopter and assessed the Invader’s instruments for indication of damage. The second helicopter turned, almost on a collision course. They clearly intended to obstruct his take-off. He’d left his take-off rotation too late to clear the towering rainforest beyond the airstrip.

Except for jetliners and the occasional ‘biz-jet’, the Invader was one of the fastest civilian flying machines in the South Pacific Islands. He wrenched the plane off the strip, turned sharply right, with flaps up and the control column back on his stomach. The straining engines bellowed. The huge props clawed at the humid air. Fang termed the drastic manoeuvre a ‘split-arse turn’. The wings were near vertical as the right wing-tip grazed the ground.

A vortex trail of dust curled up off the clearing as he made for the low jungle. The thundering Invader levelled a little and shallowclimbed away from the intercepting chopper.

The second Indonesian helicopter looked far too slow to follow. Fang levelled out, then winced as more bullets tore through the rear of the cabin. He accelerated through the thin top branches of the rainforest canopy. The whirling props mutilated the foliage, which erupted skyward as he rapidly pulled away.

Lake Rombebai lay dead ahead; twenty kilometres of smooth placid water. He dived the Invader dangerously low. The downwash from the powerful props blasted a long turbulent trail across the mirror surface. The choppers rapidly dropped out of range, the last random bullets lifting silent geysers of water.

It was risky flying. The modified Invader accelerated beyond five hundred kilometres an hour. Height perception above the glassy surface was deceptive, the altimeter useless under such
circumstances. Fang’s hands had a vice-like grip on the control column. The slightest push and the aircraft would fly into the lake and disintegrate. Fang gave a fiendish chuckle as he climbed
away from the lake. He was well out of the range of the radar at Sentani military base. His adrenalin surged. The choppers didn’t have a chance.

He set his course for the PNG border, flying across the tallest island in the world. Below, an unbroken spinal range stretched for 2,000 kilometres. He levelled out at 17,000’ to clear the rugged snow-capped mountains of the Indonesian province. Puncak Jaya towered five kilometres above the eastern horizon, the tallest peak between the Himalayas and the Andes.

Fang tuned in on the air bands. He could not understand the Bahasa chatter so switched the radio off. Half an hour to the border and safety.

New Guinea is the only tropical island with glaciers. They sparkled below him like rivers of powder blue opal. Smooth snowbound slopes almost hid the rocky reality beneath. Gradually the southeastern face of the ranges appeared. Jagged inclined edges pointed obliquely skyward revealing prehistoric evidence of titanic rupture. The varying colours of the earth’s rocky stratum were exposed. Pale veins of limestone streaked the tawny sedimentary crust. The granite slopes were dappled with veneers of dark volcanic waste.

The white snowbound contours reminded him of Bianca, his blonde Danish girlfriend back in Port Moresby. Her beauty, creamy skin and platinum hair had captivated him from the first moment he saw her. Their relationship was as stormy as it was erotic. She had expensive tastes and in turn catered to his erotic desires. This last run would set them up comfortably for a long time.

Fang snapped out of his daydream and checked his watch. He slid a hidden lever fully forward. There was no performance change, no attitude change. On the rear fuselage, two plates with the registration letters KJN slid less than a handspan. The K uncovered a 2, the N covered a C. What was previously an Indonesian-registered aircraft PKJNC, took on a new identity.

It was now P2KJN, registered in Papua New Guinea. There were four Invaders registered around the Pacific. In reality, only two existed. The reasons for this anomaly were various and dubious but typical of activities in regions far from the eyes of bureaucrats.

With the mountains behind him, Fang relaxed in the noisy cockpit. He felt justified in what he was doing and sincerely believed in the rebel cause. If he could make some money out of it, all the better. Bianca threatened to leave if he did not stop his mysterious clandestine flights. He wanted to tell her he was not running drugs but did not want her involved. He switched on the radio again: more frantic and unintelligible chatter. The big radial engines droned on, in twenty minutes he would be safely beyond the Indonesian border near the Star Mountains. He still held course for Telefomin in Papua New Guinea and noticed storm clouds building up ahead. He hoped this wouldn’t force him to make a diversion.

Fang recognised the jumbled terrain below. It looked an incredible sight. Acute ragged walls of stained limestone leaned beyond the perpendicular. The summits were capped with tufted tangles of emerald jungle. A misty primary shelf lunged even higher, vanishing into the cloudbase. Four brilliant waterfalls fell unhindered thousands of feet into the mist-shrouded bowels of the verdant forest. The International border was a farce, an imaginary line through dense uninhabited jungle. These people were Melanesian, the length of the island: a proud race artificially divided by politics.

A sudden burst of machine guns shattered Fang’s thoughts of safety. He stared, incredulous, as an Indonesian Air Force F16 jet fighter pulled alongside. This was the most feared and advanced attack aircraft in operation. The helmeted pilot indicated for him to turn back. If ever an aircraft looked like a shark, it was this sleek, needle-nosed fighter. Even the large intake resembled a famished, gaping mouth. Fang felt puny in the face of this new and powerful threat, like a drowning swimmer being circled by a White Pointer. He cursed as he realised the helicopters had radioed ahead. The lethal fighter had quickly picked him up on radar.

Without hesitation, Fang pulled the throttles then lowered his landing gear and flaps, causing the jet fighter to overshoot. Fang raised two fingers contemptuously, tossed the Invader on its back and dived almost vertically for the scattered cloud. His modified ‘pocket rocket’ could reach speeds approaching 600 kilometres an hour. He often jested that to catch him, they would need a fire up their arse. His sarcastic reference to jet power had turned into a nightmare. Fifteen tons of high technology and death, capable of twice the speed of sound dived on his tail.

He could hear cannon shots as he powered for the shroud of the cumulo-nimbus ahead. Fang clenched his teeth, expecting the deadly impact of a Sidewinder missile. Another thirty seconds and he would reach the sanctuary of the cloud. He could then fly safely back to Port Moresby and Bianca. He pulled carefully on the control column, attempting to drag the Invader out of the dive. Just as he was about to enter the cloud, the aircraft shuddered violently. Cannon fire raked the left engine and it suddenly lost power.

Chapter Two

Dave Stark lowered his tall wiry frame into a folding chair near his tent and opened a beer. He was now manager of Aviation and Marine salvage. Originally specialising in marine salvage and insurance, Stark had bought Avmar, a successful aircraft charter company servicing Papua New Guinea and expanded it into the South Pacific.

The salvage site was in the Trobriands, a remote island group in the Solomon Sea off Papua New Guinea’s east coast. A light aircraft landed and Dave waited for the arrival of Jake Porowefu. Jake was a stocky New Guinea highlander, his best onsite foreman. His versatility and loyalty were unmatched.

Despite their different nationalities and background, they shared a mutual respect. Dave glanced at the progress of repairs to the crash damaged Fokker F28 jetliner, then turned on the radio to listen to the headlines.

‘… The earthquake was most devastating along the north coast.

The Madang province has been declared a disaster area, with volcanic eruptions and tidal waves reported on Manam Island. Karkar Island volcano is still venting lava after previous eruptions. Two vulcanologists monitoring eruptions are reported missing, feared dead.’

Dave had felt the quake. It had been bad even here at Kiriwina in the Trobriand Islands, seven hundred kilometres from the epicentre.

Jake arrived, threw down his pack and shook hands. ‘What’s going on, Dave? We got plenty of work. Why salvage this heap?’

‘Too good a deal to miss, Jake.’

In reality, Dave also needed to get away from his tedious business schedule in Port Moresby. The primitive challenge of field repair work away from bureaucracy was like an elixir.
Jake studied the damaged New Guinea Airways jetliner. ‘What happened?’

‘Flew into a hailstorm. As you can see, it’s hammered in the wing leading edges and destroyed the nose radar. The windscreens were so bad they could only just see out.’

‘Why didn’t they fly on to Port Moresby?’ Jake asked, eager to practise his new skills with English. After paying for Jake’s education with profits from a recent venture, Dave paused in admiration. His English was now excellent. ‘The hail almost snuffed out the jet engines and this was the only landing strip in the area. The crew were nearly flying blind, but did a great job of force landing in torrential rain. Saved the lives of seventy passengers.’

‘They must have known it was too short for the big airliner?’

Dave glanced at the Fokker jetliner. With the nose on the ground and the four huge main wheels bogged to the axles, the tail was thrust unusually high. It towered over the nearby coconut palms. ‘No choice, Jake. Over-ran the strip, through the native garden, then the nose collapsed in that patch of bamboo.’

‘Where’s Fang? We could do with his help,’ Jake suggested.

Dave knew exactly what Fang was up to. ‘Said he was too busy.’

He wished he had his assistance, despite their frequent clashes.

Jake thought the jetliner looked destined to become a very expensive chicken coop at the end of Kiriwina’s airstrip. He also knew of Dave’s legendary persistence and tenacity in the face of adversity. ‘This one looks impossible,’ he quipped, almost as a challenge.

‘Nothing’s impossible, Jake, subject to three parameters: cost, time and logistics.’
Jake pushed his point. ‘Is it worth it? They reckon it’s the oldest plane in the fleet.’
‘I know. The aircrews hate it. New Guinea Airways were eager to write it off as an inaccessible crash site. I was just as quick to scoop up the salvage rights.’

‘They think you’re crazy in Port Moresby.’

‘We’ll make a good profit on the wreck, if I can get it flown out.’ A radio call interrupted further comment.

Jake took the call. ‘It’s Jan. She wants to talk to you.’

Her voice was indistinct with static. ‘Dave, there’s two Japanese men here who want to charter a plane for two weeks. They want to discuss some arrangement with Fang.’

‘Why Fang?’

‘They seem to think he’s the boss.’

‘Two weeks. Great. If Fang’s back, get him to ferry them around in the Beechcraft.’

‘No, they want to fly themselves. One’s endorsed to fly in PNG.

They want to charter a high wing aircraft. Fang has some dubious friends but these guys are strange. The older one is slim and athletic.

The other is a brute of a man. Quite muscular for a Japanese, a nasty looking character.’

Dave hesitated. A request for a high wing aircraft could only mean they wanted unobstructed vision for a ground search. ‘No problems, Jan. Let them have the old Cessna 207. No one else wants to charter the Lead Sled anyway.’

It was a good choice. The underpowered Cessna was unpopular with pilots. Its nickname resulted from a comment that the only reason it could take off was due to the curvature of the earth.

‘Yes, that should do them. Only have backpacks with them, and said they want your help at a later stage,’ Jan added.

Dave pondered the strange request then dismissed the thought. ‘Right, I’ll leave it to you to organise. Remind them not to overfly the Madang province. It’s been declared a disaster area and only aircraft involved in disaster relief are allowed in. Anyway, how are you coping?’

‘Okay, business is going well,’ Jan paused. ‘I’m missing you.’

‘It didn’t seem that way when I left.’

‘I still can’t understand your death wish attitude. With the money and power you have you should be thinking of a more comfortable lifestyle. Instead you’re an adrenalin freak, always looking for your next hit.’

‘Only one who has cheated death can truly appreciate the wonders of life,’ said Dave simply.

‘That’s corny, Dave, and you know it. You take it too far. It’s almost a pathological obsession with you and Fang.’

‘Next you’ll tell me you have no psychological problem,’ Dave taunted.

Jan hesitated a moment. ‘I just wonder where our relationship is going sometimes, Dave.’

Dave noticed that four tractors had now arrived at the crash site. ‘Jan, I gotta go. We’re at an important stage now, almost ready to drag the jet out. I’ll see you in Moresby in a few days.’

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