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Infernal Gates

By Michael Jack Webb

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Chapter 1


Less than ten minutes before we’re dead, thought Ethan Freeman, and there’s nothing I can do!
The stricken A320 Airbus--originally bound for St. Thomas and now limping back to Charlotte, North Carolina—shuddered like a bird suffering a mortal wound, then shook violently. Shouting and screaming from the rear of the plane drowned out the prayer of the older couple seated in front of them, “Our Father, Who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy kingdom come—”
Lisa, Ethan’s wife, sobbed beside him. Across the aisle his eighteen-year-old son, Josh, yelled, “Dad--are we going to crash?”
“No, son,” he lied. “We-are-not-going-to-crash.”
Megan, his sixteen-year-old daughter, seated next to her brother, screamed, “The engine is on FIRE!”
Lisa clung to the seat arms so hard her fingers turned white and whimpered, “We’re going to die—like Greg,” then moaned, “I don’t want to die—”
Ethan reached for his wife’s hand as a thunderous explosion shook the plane and slammed him against the window, knocking breath out of him. He cried out in agony as a jagged metal clasp sticking up on the armrest between him and Lisa sliced open the palm of his right hand. Blood gushed out of the ugly-looking wound and splattered the back of the seat in front of him.
The plane banked hard to the right and the nose suddenly pointed toward the ground, six miles below, as if the commercial airliner was being plucked from the cloudless, crystal blue heavens by a giant unseen hand. Ethan glanced toward the rear of the plane. A gaping hole replaced the emergency exit. Loose debris disappeared violently out of the plane—and there were two rows of seats missing!
Swinging his gaze back to the First-Class Cabin, Ethan noticed that ice crystals now clung to the windows. His ears popped as oxygen masks dropped from overhead. Shivering, he reached for the oxygen mask dangling in front of him like a puppet on a string and struggled to place it over his mouth and nose. He took several deep breaths, ignoring his bleeding hand, then yelled out to his family, “Put your masks on!”
In the next instant, he was pressed so hard into his seat it seemed as if he weighed four to five times his normal weight. Black spots danced before his eyes and he fought for breath.
All he could think about was that he had failed his family—that he couldn’t save them. He cried out in desperation, “GOD HELP US—”
Moments later, a flash of blinding white light enveloped him as a blast of fiery heat washed over him.
Then everything went black.
Sam Weaver, lying on a towel in the hot sand, thirty feet from the edge of the blue-green ocean, daydreamed about what it might be like to lead a normal life, when her pager buzzed.
She opened her eyes and fought rising resentment.
It was her first vacation in over eighteen months. Her boss, E. “Mac” Macready--the Chief of the Major Investigations Division of the National Transportation Safety Board, or the AS-10 in Board nomenclature, had promised he’d page her only if it was necessary.
She stared at her bright pink beach bag, one that matched her swimsuit, for several
seconds, tempted to ignore the pager. Then she remembered that when she’d signed up to be an investigator for the NTSB, she’d literally signed the rights to her life away. She sat up, brushed several errant strands of thick black hair off her face, and reached inside the bag.
Her heart beat rapidly as she read the text: Call Mac at once. Major accident involving Quest Airways A320 your neck of the woods. Go Team notified.
No matter how frustrated she got with the government bureaucracy, her pulse always quickened whenever she received a message like this. Her friends back in DC found her reaction gruesome, but her dad understood. “The thrill of figuring out complex problems others find too challenging, or too painful, is in your blood, Sam,” he’d told her more than once. “You can’t help yourself. You love Gordian knots.”
She found her cell phone. When she reached Mac he said, “Sorry to interrupt your vacation. I know I promised not to call, but this one is big—and bad.”
“Tell me—”
He did, and finished by saying, “I’ve spoken with Ted, Marissa, Tony—and Frank. All of them but Frank are on their way to Hanger Six at Reagan International.”
Ted Anson was the human performance specialist, while Marissa Chen was highly regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on cockpit and flight data recorders. Tony North was a top-notch metallurgist. Frank Bacon had two Ph.D.’s and was the NTSB’s expert on the A320.
Sam knew that Frank obsessed about planes manufactured by the French consortium. He blamed Airbus for the downsizing that cost him his high-paying job at Boeing. It was widely known he’d compiled a detailed and extensive computerized list of all suspicious incidents resulting in the crash of planes manufactured by Boeing’s chief competitor. When it came to fatal crashes involving Airbus, Frank was like a detective tracking a serial killer he’d pursued for years in his spare time.
“Frank is in Dallas,” continued Mac. “He’ll meet you and the rest of the Team at the Command Center later this afternoon. You need to call him and let him know where that will be.”
“Me?” Was it finally time?
“Yeah—you.”
“But—but,” she stammered.
“Well, well, well. I’ve always wondered what it might take for the unflappable Sam Weaver to be at a loss for words.”
“I want it official—on the record.”
“Okay. You’re the Investigator-in-Charge. After five years of working with you, I know you don’t care about the title, or need the pay raise. You want to be in control of your own investigations. I know the feeling.”
Sam took two deep breaths and pulled a notepad out of her bag. “Who’s the Regional on the ground in Georgia?”
“Ed Landers. He’s the senior IIC out of Atlanta, but he’ll answer to you. He’s a first-rate investigator, has a calm head on him, and if he has any agenda, I’ve never heard about it.”
“Which translates, he’s smart, soft-spoken, and doesn’t play politics.”
“Not everyone in government service subscribes to the ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality, Sam.”
“You could have fooled me.”
Mac snorted and continued. “Ed is on his way. He’ll set up a perimeter, set up security, and get the investigation started. He’ll also coordinate with local authorities, including police and firefighters, and inform the media the investigation is under our jurisdiction.”
Sam scribbled on her notepad as Mac talked. “Am I flying on one of the Board’s planes? Or going commercial?”
“The Citation is in Fort Lauderdale. The pilot can land at Patrick in an hour.”
“I’ll be ready.”
“One more thing, Sam. Watch your back. Frank’s been looking for an excuse to make life miserable for you—”
“I can handle Frank,” she retorted. Her male counterparts at the safety board behaved with the macho air of men in a locker room. Frank was one of the biggest proponents of the pervasive mentality.
“I know you can, Sam. Frank has more time with the Board, but you have the moxie, and the people skills, it takes to handle all the egos involved. You’ve worked hard for this slot—you deserve it.”
Mac was in rare form. He’d given her both a promotion and a compliment within two minutes. “What about the ‘flyaway’?” She referred to one of two large standby suitcases used by the Board for investigations. Each contained a video camera and tape, a laptop computer, a printer, a variety of charging devices, film, administrative supplies, and several copies of the ubiquitous investigator’s manual. Both of the flyaways also had programmable combination locks.
“You’ll have everything you need by nine a.m. tomorrow.” He gave her the combination.
“Thanks, Mac. For everything--” she said as she stood, grabbed her towel and her bag, then headed at a run for her car.

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