Black Star - Season 1 - Jesper Ersgård - E-Book

Black Star - Season 1 E-Book

Jesper Ersgård

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Beschreibung

On the way from LA to Stockholm, a Boeing 777 carrying over 200 passengers disappears without a trace. No impact location is found. It is believed to a terrorist attack. Thana "Monty" Montgomery is one of the experts called in to investigate, together with ex-agent Henry Jäger and an expert from NASA, Dr. Hyman. How could they know that they would be investigating on another planet? Now they must not only stay alive, but also find a way back to earth to warn humanity of the most evil enemy the universe has encountered.

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www.storytel.com

Copyright © Storytel Original 2021

Copyright © Jesper Ersgård, Joakim Ersgård 2021

Publisher: Storytel Original

Editor: Kate Jones

Translation: Neil Betteridge

Cover design: Cover Kitchen Company Limited

ISBN 978-91-7991-578-0

The Bridge

Tuesday 8:46 pm

Captain Annica Horn glanced in amusement at Thomas, her first officer. He was sleeping heavily in the adjacent seat with his chin on his chest and his head lolling in what must have been an uncomfortable position. A drop of saliva had formed at the corner of his mouth and Annica was just waiting for it to detach itself, dribble down his chin and moisten his white shirt.

Let him sleep, thought Annica. She turned to face the black night sky outside the cockpit of the huge aircraft. There was still some time to go before the descent into Arlanda airport. It was not unusual for pilots to nap during flights and even if she’d never done so, she fully empathized with those who lost the fight against sleep for a few minutes on these long transatlantic routes. A few years ago, the tabloids blared out scaremongering headlines about how many pilots had ever slept during a flight. There was a public outcry, but Annica thought the ensuing debate was over the top. Large airplanes as this Boeing 777, effectively flew themselves nowadays. As long as the pilots were awake during take-off and landing, and at least one remained awake for the remainder of the flight to keep an eye on the instruments, what harm could it do if the other pilot took an unscheduled power nap? Annica was forever battling fatigue and was constantly jet-lagged. The worst times were when she returned to her family. You’re always tired, her daughter had muttered disappointedly the other day, and she was right – she was always tired.

Annica was actually glad that Thomas had dozed off. It was a chance for her to be alone with her thoughts in the clear, dark, night sky. The stars seemed to shine especially bright that night. As if they were enthusiastically looking down onto Earth, full of expectation. Annica met their gaze and for a moment imagined that she was looking out over eternity. Which, in a way, is what I’m doing, she thought. After all, the sky goes on and on forever.

She remembered when she was little and her parents insisted on dragging her along to the Missionary Society’s gatherings to listen to the pastor’s words of warnings and advice. Annica would sit squeezed in between her siblings longing for air and freedom. It made her feel guilty, especially when the pastor said that God sees and hears everything up in his heaven. She pictured God actually sitting up there with his angels frowning down upon her and all the other people He’d created. On the way home from the church, she always yearned to be indoors again, shielded from God’s scrutiny.

And then one day everything changed: the day she flew for the first time. On a charter trip to Crete. She was seven years old and terrified. Once up in the clear blue sky she looked out of the window and exclaimed, But there’s nothing here!

Annica’s father had chuckled, laid an arm around her shoulders and tried to explain that God had created the sky and the whole universe even though she couldn’t see him. It was the first time she didn’t believe her father. It was the first time she doubted the existence of God. There were no angels, Annica had reasoned. There’s no God. There’s nothing. But the thought didn’t alarm her. Instead, for the first time in her young life, she felt truly free.

Since that time she had, of course, spent much of her life in the air, and flying never failed to give her a sensory rush of liberation and exultation. Her non-conformist upbringing kept her going to church, but she could no longer really believe in the God of whom the pastor claimed to be the appointed voice. To be sure, it hadn’t taken long for her to figure out that all talk of heaven and angels was to be taken metaphorically – God’s heaven wasn’t our sky – but even so, she never again experienced that fear of God she’d felt before that first flight in the charter plane to Crete.

“What the hell’s going on?” yelled Thomas suddenly.

Her train of thought derailed, Annica shot a glance at the newly awake co-pilot as he frantically wiped the saliva from his chin.

“We’re losing altitude!” he shrieked.

Annica shook her head in bafflement. The aircraft was still and stable. If they’d dropped, she would’ve noticed it straight away. Everything was in order. Thomas pointed anxiously at the altimeter. It did actually look like they were losing altitude, and quickly too. The instruments were indicating a literal nosedive.

“Impossible,” said Annica, under her breath.

“What the fuck’s wrong?”

Thomas checked the displays but found all other gauges showing normal.

“We’re stable, you can feel that, right?” said Annica in a reassuring voice that she hoped belied how worried she actually was.

“So why’s it gone haywire?” said Thomas nervously. “Shit, it looks like we’re going down.”

At that moment an alarm went off, the red light flashing ominously in the dark cockpit. The altimeter, the gyro horizon and the radio altimeter all showed that they were plunging towards the ground. This is crazy, thought Annica. The plane was calm and stable. Still, it was as if the ground was rushing up to meet them, not the other way round. But that was impossible. The instruments shouldn’t be able to give these kinds of readings. For the first time since earning her pilot’s license almost twenty years ago, Annica felt a stab of unease shoot through her body.

Thomas radioed Air Traffic Control. Stay calm, thought Annica as she switched on the “fasten seatbelts” sign. But the plane felt stable. It was just the instruments playing up. According to the altimeter they were now just a few hundred meters above the ground and seconds away from a crash, but outside the cockpit the stars were twinkling gently in the sky and beneath them was only a thick blanket of cloud. Everything’s OK thought Annica. Then all hell broke loose around her.

Just as Thomas finally made contact with ATC there was a deafening bang, louder than any sound Annica could ever have imagined. It was as if someone had fired a gun right next to her head. Thomas screamed and pressed his hands to his ears. Annica thought she saw blood seeping between his fingers.

Something shimmered in front of them in the night and the collision alarm sounded. The massive passenger jet was tossed about in sudden air currents like a paper kite in a storm. Annica frantically clasped the yoke and almost blacked out when the aircraft now did lose attitude plunging several hundred metres into a sudden air pocket. Annica heard distant screams from the petrified passengers as she struggled to bring the huge machine back onto an even keel. We’re going to break up, she thought before eventually managing to stop the descent and straighten the aircraft up.

“What the fuck was that?” screamed Thomas in terror. “The collision avoidance alarm went off but I didn’t see anything. What was it? A missile?”

Annica shook her head stupefied. It was no missile or aircraft that had approached them from a distance, the instruments would have registered it and Air Traffic Control would surely have picked it up on its radar. If there had been anything out there in the dark that they almost collided with, the object seemed to have suddenly materialized in front of them. Something created from nothing. Impossible, she thought again.

Thomas tried in a panic to contact ATC but all radio contact was broken. He swore loudly but then abruptly stopped and vacantly stared out through the cockpit’s windshield. He collapsed into his seat. As if he’d given up.

Ahead of them in the night sky a red light shot forward, leaving some kind of wake in the air behind it. As if it were a living being, a mystical sea monster whipping up an otherwise tranquil sea.

A ring was formed in the night by the light, a ring that rapidly expanded and seemed to hurtle towards them like an enormous red tunnel of air. Before Annica had time to think, they were engulfed and the world around them exploded in a flash of blinding white light.

It was as if they had crashed into a sea of whiteness to become one with eternity and infinity, irrevocably lost to the world. She pressed her hands against her eyes as tears started to fall. Thomas was screaming in the seat beside her. A despairing, terrified scream full of panic and mortal dread. Annica didn’t scream. Instead, she racked her brains, in vain, to remember how to pray to the god that only a few minutes ago she did not believe existed.

Tuesday 9:24 pm

Just my luck for this to happen now, thought Paula Pettersson as she stepped into the FRA control room. Pettersson had only been the director general of the FRA – the National Defense Radio Establishment – for six months and it had not been easy to lead a beleaguered civil authority with explicit instructions to safeguard national security.

Relations with SÄPO and Defense Staff were everything but straightforward and it was hard to navigate between all the new integrity laws. The new terror threat was the focus of everyone’s attention, but the FRA’s job was more complex than that. They also cooperated with other national intelligence agencies – if, indeed, it could be called “cooperation”. The Americans in particular preferred the flow of information to go in one direction only; as if the FRA was merely a supplier to the CIA, NSA, NASA and the rest of the US authorities.

Every day brought a fresh problem that she had to manage, which is why it was extremely worrying that this had come up. A missing airliner. This wasn’t actually any of the FRA’s concern, but she had received a request for assistance from the MSB – the Civil Contingencies Agency. Before any rescue mission could commence, the airplane had to be located, which they hadn’t managed to do. The MSB were also afraid of terrorism. The worst case scenario was some crazy terrorist sitting there firing off surface-to-air missiles somewhere in the middle of Dalarna. I don’t deserve this, she thought. I deserve some peace and quiet after everything I’ve been through.

Paula Pettersson sighed and looked around the control room. This room at the FRA always reminded her of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise in the Star Trek movies that her brother had insisted on watching when they were little. She could ask for pretty much anything and get the information instantly from the wall-mounted screens. She had her own staff at her disposal, all sitting at their computers awaiting her commands.

Paula Pettersson suddenly felt that as usual she’d eaten too little during the day and drunk too much coffee. Her stomach grumbled and she promised herself, again, to change her eating habits. She ran a hand gently over her belly and straightened her skirt as she beckoned to one of the young analysts on duty.

“OK, what have we got?”

“Not much, I’m afraid,” said the young man. “A passenger jet’s gone missing over Dalarna. Eight minutes ago. Two hundred on board…”

“Crashed?”

The analyst gave a dubious shake of his head.

“Unconfirmed. There’s also a whole bunch of conflicting data.”

“In what way?”

“It’s hard to draw any conclusions,” he said vaguely.

Pettersson sighed again and waved him away. She turned to the twelve FRA analysts sitting at their computers.

“Listen up, everyone! Let’s shed a little light on what’s happened. What’re the Air Traffic Control people saying about it?”

A woman at the back of the room cleared her throat anxiously.

“Not much. They suddenly lost contact with the plane without warning. The pilots hadn’t reported any problems. Clear skies, perfect flying weather, all systems normal. The plane simply dropped off the radar.”

Pettersson nodded pensively.

“Bring up the radar transmission on monitor one.”

The radar sequence from the aircraft’s disappearance appeared on one of the enormous wall screens. Pettersson fixed her attention on the recording of the 777 as it proceeded across the screen and disappeared. She frowned. Something was definitely wrong.

“Run it again,” she barked uneasily.

The radar sequence was shown again and this time she could clearly see a shadow pass the aircraft the moment before it disappeared.

“What’s that?” she asked, nodding at the shadow on the monitor.

“We don’t know,” one of the analysts replied behind her. “We thought it was a missile and that it had hit the plane, but whatever it is, it just passes it. The 777 vanishes after the shadow has passed.”

Pettersson snorted in exasperation.

“Maybe it’s not a missile, but I bet it’s got something to do with the crash. Where’d it come from?”

“Well the strange thing is, it doesn’t register on any instrument until it shows up on the radar,” explained the analyst. Pettersson glared at the agent.

“And you think that’s funny?”

“Not ha-ha funny, but weird funny. It shouldn’t be possible. It’s as if the object just appears out of thin air.”

“What do the satellite images say?” asked Pettersson.

The other monitor flashed on and showed a satellite transmission of Dalarna.

“And that’s weird too,” said the young analyst. “We’ve got a theoretical crash site and we’ve even expanded the area as much as we can, but we can’t find any signs of the plane. No fire, no smoke, nothing.”

Pettersson stroked her belly again and cursed to herself.

“If a 777 crashes it causes one hell of a fireball. Have you got the right satellite?”

“I’ve double-checked everything. We’ve got images from US satellites. They’re the right images from the right place and the right time, but there’s no airplane.”

“So what are you saying happened?”

The young man flung out his arms.

“I’ve got no idea. All I can say is that going by all the data we’ve got, the plane didn’t crash, it just vanished.”

Pettersson stared wearily at the analyst.

“Vanished? Now that sounds like a really professional analysis. Is that what you think I should tell SÄPO? Shall I tell them that the FRA’s analysis of the event is that the plane didn’t crash but just vanished into thin air? Is that what you want me to say?”

The analyst shrugged anxiously.

“Based on the data we’ve got, it’s...”

“Then get more data!” Pettersson snapped.

She was about to run her hand over her belly again but stopped herself and turned to her personnel instead.

“A 777 can’t just disappear, OK? I want answers. If we’re lacking data, then we gather some more. You work at the FRA for Christ’s sake. Prove it!”

The control room burst into feverish activity as they put the FRA’s resources in motion. They’ll get answers all right, thought Pettersson, but what if they weren’t the ones they wanted hear? The woman at the back of the room hurried over to Pettersson with a printout in her hand. She opened her mouth to speak, but then decided to just show it to her boss instead. Pettersson grabbed the sheet and skimmed through it.

“It doesn’t make sense,” she said in a calm voice. “This can’t be right.”

“I’ve checked the computer data three times. It’s right.”

A dizzying feeling of anguish seized Paula Pettersson and she glowered at the analyst.

“If the numbers add up then it’s no plane crash we’re dealing with.”

“I know,” the woman said, her voice trembling.

Pettersson nodded slowly to herself.

“OK, OK,” she said calmly. “We need to call people. Right now.”

“Who?”

Pettersson flung her palms up.

“Everyone. SÄPO, the CCA, the Defense Staff, Counterterrorism. Call international agencies too, and not just intel but also NASA and ESA.”

“Contact with NASA and ESA is handled by the National Space Board.”

Pettersson let out an irritated sigh.

“Then bring them on board too, for God’s sake.”

She slowly turned her back on the analyst and left the control room with a deep feeling of unease. If the data was right it would change everything.

Absolutely everything.

Tuesday 9:30 pm

Monty pulled off her high-heeled shoes and dropped to her knees in front of the toilet bowl in the Escalier’s restaurant’s ladies room. She’d drunk a whole bottle of champagne in under an hour and the world was spinning in front of her eyes. She retched over the toilet in a vain attempt to bring up the alcohol. How did it get like this? she thought mournfully. It should have been a night to remember with pride and joy, but instead she was prostrate on a cold, white-tiled, floor trying to make herself throw up. Why had she drunk all that champagne herself?

Three days ago, Thana “Monty” Montgomery had landed a dream job at the National Space Board and was due to start the following week. She would be in direct contact with NASA and its European counterpart, the ESA. Her name would suddenly be on documents dealing with everything from the latest research to national security. At the age of twenty-nine she’d already completed one of the country’s most advanced education programs and had been hand-picked by the board. She was already earning more than her parents had ever done and was prophesied a brilliant career. Her life would change radically and that was naturally something to celebrate. Long before she’d got the job, she’d decided that when she’d reached her goal she would enjoy a luxury dinner with champagne. And now that time had come. Her dreams had come true.

But.

There was always a “but”. The reason she had drunk an entire bottle herself was that she had no one to share it with. Alone. Single and without close friends she was left to her own devices. She had a mum, a step-dad and two half-siblings, but they kept to themselves.

It was as if she was just a bitter reminder of her mother’s first failed attempt to start a family. She could see it in her step-father’s sheepish smiles. She could see it in her half-siblings’ pointed distancing. Above all, she could see it in her mother’s baleful eyes, eyes that seemed to be forever blaming her for her own existence. She’d always felt alone in life. Maybe because she was different. She’d sensed it back in junior school, when she found herself effortlessly able to solve the most complex mathematical problems the teachers assigned her. For some reason, she saw the world in numbers. Mathematical structures and patterns stood out around her and governed her way of perceiving reality. It was what made her different to everyone else.

In her later school years, her math teacher had dropped a box of staples onto the floor and she’d seen at a glance that there were 63 of them. Impressed, the teacher had called her “Rain Man”. She’d been proud of that until she saw the film, in which Dustin Hoffman’s character could count toothpicks with as much ease as she’d counted staples. But he was autistic, unable to interact with others. Was that how her math teacher saw her? As some kind of freak?

Monty collapsed onto the floor and leant against the door. Dejectedly massaging her bare feet she looked daggers at her high-heels lying beside the toilet bowl. She was only trying to be like everyone else this evening. She’d just wanted to celebrate her new job and had dressed up in a new dress and new shoes. She drank champagne, the de rigueur celebratory drink, but couldn’t even manage to do that properly. The familiar feeling of inadequacy came over her. Maybe the job at the Space Board was too hard for her after all? Maybe she was an impostor? She’d left the Royal Institute of Technology with a first-class degree but could that have been merely thanks to her Rain Man-like ability to see numbers and patterns? Maybe she didn’t deserve top grades; maybe she didn’t even deserve her new job.

Her reverie was broken by a knock on the cubicle door. How long had she been in there? She heaved herself up and flushed. She felt perhaps a little better, but still far from well. She adjusted her dress, opened the door and stepped out of the cubicle. A beautiful woman in a tight red dress smiled at her and said something that sounded like “don’t forget to charge the phone”. Monty’s brow furrowed.

“Why should I charge my phone?” she asked, baffled. The woman regarded her with surprise.

“I’m sorry, ‘charge your phone?’”

“You told me to charge my phone,” said Monty, her voice unsteady. The woman shook her head in amusement.

“I just asked how you were doing.”

Monty hiccuped.

“You said nothing about my mobile?”

The women sniggered lightly, shook her head again and disappeared into the cubicle, closing the door behind her. Monty staggered over to the basin and turned on the tap. Oddly, she realized that it was the third time that evening she’d heard someone tell her to charge her phone when in fact they’d said something completely different. First, the taxi driver, then the waiter and now the woman in the restaurant. Monty filled her cupped hands with water and rinsed her face, took a quick look in the mirror and sighed. She looked wan and tired. Her mother had often told her that she could be quite pretty if only she made an effort. What did that actually mean? Make an effort to look pretty? She had thick, shoulder-length raven-black hair that although usually tied up she’d let down for the evening. Her complexion was uncommonly pale and in stark contrast to her dark hair, which, in combination with her large blue eyes gave her a striking appearance. A strange look for a strange person, she thought.

Monty took a deep breath. The worst of her wooziness had subsided, but she was definitely done drinking for the night. She felt as if she never wanted to drink champagne again. She walked as steadily as she could from the ladies’ room and carefully navigated the crowded bar. Everyone seemed to be having fun. Everyone seemed to belong. Was she really the only one unable to fit in? She paused for a moment in the throng, struck with an unpleasant sensation of having become frozen in the middle of her life. Of being left behind. Forgotten.

Monty tried to shake off the gloomy thoughts and made her way to the blackjack table. She wasn’t a gambler, but she always found a sense of security in the local world of playing cards and numbers. Two middle-aged women and a good-looking young man were standing around the table, chancing their luck. The man was all in black and seemed at home there. He was wearing an air of self-assured calm. In Monty’s champagne-fogged eyes he looked very attractive. The cards were dealt and straight away the patterns and numbers revealed themselves clearly to her, despite the champagne. The man had been dealt a seven and a five and appeared unable to make his mind up. But the 312 cards in the six packs stood out conspicuously in Monty’s head. Spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs were symbols that seemed to speak to her in a secret language. Monty glanced at the baize. There were those who could count cards, but her talent was different. She saw the cards and calculated the odds, but then somehow just knew what was coming. Maybe it was intuition. Maybe it was merely chance or luck. She turned to the young man in black, who was still deliberating whether or not to ask for another card.

“Stick. Don’t take any more cards. The chances of getting a nine or lower aren’t good. Even though they might seem so.”

Some people around the table laughed and the young man looked questioningly at her.

“Just a tip,” said Monty. “You’ll win if you don’t take another card.”

Monty smiled, but instead of smiling back, the man demonstratively asked for another card. Queen of hearts. He lost. Monty sighed and patted the man sympathetically on the shoulder.

“Why didn’t you do as I said?”

Several people around the table laughed out loud and the young man glared at her. A woman turned to Monty.

“What about me? Should I take a card?”

After a quick glance at the cards she was certain that she could.

“Definitely,” said Monty, smiling.

The woman asked for a new card and squealed in joy when she scored 21 and won.

“Brilliant! Let’s do it again,” she said.

Monty remained at the card table and led the woman to a string of wins. The group of people clustered around the table grew and were soon applauding merrily as Monty guided the woman to victory again and again. For once, Monty felt proud and appreciated. The people around the table were looking at her with admiration and respect. With the exception of the young man. He, who had ignored her advice, looked increasingly angry with every win Monty secured for the woman. She was feeling strong. As if she’d actually deserved her success.

Suddenly she felt a light tap on her shoulder. She turned. Standing there was the beautiful woman from the ladies’ room. She was holding Monty’s high-heeled shoes.

“I think you left these behind,” she said.

Monty stared down at her bare feet and smiled awkwardly. She grabbed the shoes and tried to put them on. As she reached out a hand for support, she involuntarily took hold of the young man’s arm. He snatched it away and Monty toppled over drunkenly, falling heavily to the floor. She was helped up by some grinning men. She decided in her embarrassment that it was time to go home, alone. Her night celebrating her new job was definitely over.

*

Back home in her single-bedroom apartment, Monty prepared a pot of strong coffee and swallowed two ibuprofen tablets. She still felt quite drunk and as she waited for the coffee to brew, her gaze fell, as so many times before, onto the one and only piece of artwork she had in her flat. It was only a cheap Van Gogh reproduction of a night sky filled with shining stars, between which were large whirls that gave the scene a sense of motion that the night sky otherwise lacked.

Since the stars had been painted with thick layers of oil paint they were formless and irregular as if somehow elusive to both eye and mind. Some were larger, some smaller; some were white, others yellow or reddish. The only thing they had in common was that they all felt alive, as if they were knowingly and amusedly regarding her just as intently as she was regarding them. As if they had a secret. Her mom had given her the painting when she was little and she had loved it ever since. She did not know exactly why she loved it, but there was something about the painting that entranced her and she could not help but muse on it every time it caught her eye. The painting contained none of the logic and predictability that mathematics possessed. Its world was a mysterious universe of unknown rules. She felt enticed by the painting’s promises of something wonderful beyond imagination, but at the same time, she felt frustratingly excluded. False promises? She didn’t know. And perhaps it was this very inconstancy that left her so beguiled by the painting.

Monty forced herself to look away, and her mind was filled with images from the restaurant that evening. She resolved to try to forget about tonight as quickly as she could. Forget the champagne, the nausea, the blackjack incident, forget everything. Forget that she had to charge her mobile.

She frowned. Why had she thought about her mobile again? It was as if the thought constantly of it infiltrated her consciousness. The coffee was still not ready, so she picked up her mobile and was surprised when she glanced at the screen. Five missed calls. All from the same number. All from her new job. Why had they called her now? Tonight? What should she do? Was it too late to call? No, the latest call had come just fourteen minutes ago. She cleared her throat and tested her voice. She’d have to make an effort not to sound drunk, she thought. She dialled; aman answered and told her that she was expected at a crisis meeting at the FRA, where she was to take care of and assist a NASA expert who was flying in from Berlin. Monty closed her eyes and tried to focus. She really wasn’t due to start until next week, but the man from the Space Board said that her predecessor had already quit and that she had to come in earlier.

“Er...OK, when did you say the meeting was?”

“Now,” snapped the man. “The meeting is being held in the FRA crisis room now.”

Monty grimaced. She tried to gather her thoughts.

“Now? Do you mean now-now, or like ‘as soon as you get here?”

“Now, of course! Haven’t you seen the news?”

“What, yes...sure I have,” she lied, stumbling into her living room to turn on the TV.

“So then you know what it’s all about. We’ve sent a car to pick you up. It’ll be with you in seven minutes.”

Monty closed her eyes and put her fingers to her temples. She was starting to feel sick again.

“The thing is, I’m not feeling well.”

“Then take a fucking painkiller. You can’t be sick now. Everyone’s waiting for you.”

“Who is?”

“Everyone.”

The man hung up. Monty turned to the TV, where a special news bulletin was reporting on a missing passenger jet. What did that have to do with her? A car was coming to pick her up. She hadn’t even started her job, for God’s sake, what were they expecting her to do? She was to be in charge of liaising with NASA, but she hadn’t even settled in at her desk yet. In fact she knew very little about her new job. It was really unfair of them to ask this of her now. This would never work, she would fail. Her gaze was drawn again to Van Gogh’s starry sky. The stars seemed to be silently watching her.

No, she had to get dressed, sober up and focus. She ran a hand through her hair, unsure of where to start. Cursing out loud, she went into the bathroom and rammed two fingers down her throat.

Tuesday 11:55 pm

Axel Gripe, head of MUST – the Swedish Military Intelligence and Security Service – tried to digest what he had just heard. It was bad enough that a packed Boeing 777 had vanished somewhere over Sweden, but what Paula Pettersson from the FRA was now telling him was nothing short of incredible. For the first time in many, many years, Gripe was afraid. The feeling was unfamiliar and unwelcome. He looked around the crisis room where Pettersson had gathered everyone: the Government’s Crisis Management Centre, the police, SÄPO, the Defense Staff, the MSB, the National Counter Terrorism Centre and the Minister for Home Affairs.

The ‘crisis room’ was a typical Swedish government room. At one end of the table stood Pettersson with a sheaf of papers in her hands, maintaining, Gripe thought, an exemplary air of calm.

“We can’t say with any certainty since we still don’t have a clear picture of events,” said Pettersson. “All we can go public with at this stage is that a Boeing 777 from Los Angeles has disappeared over Dalarna.”

“But you’re saying it hasn’t crashed?” said Gripe.

“Well, we haven’t localized any crash site yet, at least. All we know is that the plane’s gone missing. The news reporting has been swift but we’ve not been able to confirm or deny any of the rumors that are circulating, for the simple reason that we don’t know where the plane is or what’s actually happened to it. We’ve got help and information from other countries. Russia, the US, China, the EU – they are all willing to help. NASA’s got an expert currently visiting Berlin who’s being flown over. All communication is being coordinated by the Space Board’s communications liaison officer, Thana Montgomery.”

“NASA? How are they going to help us find a missing airplane?” wondered Gripe. Pettersson threw him a serious look before continuing.

“An object has been observed near the plane in connection with its disappearance.”

Gripe sighed audibly.

“A missile.”

“No, not a missile,” said Pettersson. “It was a circular object with a diameter of roughly ten meters and a thickness of twenty, which doesn’t match the description of any missile we know of. It passed the plane at a distance of 51 meters. The most remarkable thing, however, was its speed. Approximately 60,800 km/h, according to the FRA estimate.”

There was total silence around the table, and all eyes were on Paula Pettersson. The silence was broken by a chuckle from the Defense Staff’s Göran Eriksson.

“Looks like you need to recalibrate the FRA’s instruments, Pettersson. Nothing can fly at that speed.”

Several heads around the table nodded in agreement.

“The Yanks got their AHW missile up to just short of 27,000 km/h. And that’s a record. Are you trying to tell us that the object flew more than twice that speed? It’s impossible.”

Pettersson nodded impatiently.

“That’s precisely why I don’t think it was a missile. And anyway, it flew past the plane. There was never any collision. And it didn’t explode. If it was a missile then it was one without a warhead. There was no explosion registered at all, nothing.”

“So where did it come from?” wondered Gripe.

Pettersson nodded, as if she’d been expecting that very question.

“That’s what’s so strange. We’ve tried to analyze the object’s trajectory but haven’t been able to link it to any known launch sites inside or outside Sweden. There’s nothing to suggest that the object was fired at the plane from the ground, but what’s really got us baffled is…”

There was a light knock on the door and Pettersson stopped mid-sentence. Everyone turned to face the door, which swung almost apologetically open.

A young woman stood in the doorway hugging a pile of papers and a laptop. She looked oddly out of place in the crisis room. She was pale and chewing nervously on a wad of gum.

“Er...my name’s Thana Montgomery and I’m the Space Board liaison officer. I’ve been sent here because there might be some confusion about certain space-related matters.”

Gripe smiled and drew out the empty chair on his left.

“Take a seat, Thana.”

Monty sat down beside Gripe, who could detect the unmistakable smell of alcohol, lingering behind a faint fog of mint chewing gum. Monty smiled wanly at the ten people around the table.

“It’s my first day. Or first night, perhaps I should say.”

No one returned her smile. Monty straightened her back and Gripe could clearly see that she was struggling to keep her voice steady.

“I just want to stress that I’m just the board’s liaison officer with NASA, who are flying in an expert from Berlin. Dr Hyman. He’s expected to land in just under an hour, but until he does I’m in constant contact with him,” she explained tensely.

Pettersson nodded.

“Have you been briefed?”

Monty quickly opened her laptop on the table in front of her.

“Yes, of course. Er...a 777 has crashed …”

Pettersson interrupted her impatiently.

“Not crashed. Disappeared.”

Monty raised her eyebrows in surprise.

“Really? OK. I see. And apparently some form of projectile has been observed close to the airplane. Correct?”

Pettersson smiled humorlessly.

“Correct. Which is why you’re here. We want to know what it could be. Our analyses rule out any kind of military surface-to-air missile. So what could it be? What do NASA say?”

Monty’s eyes darted around the table. Everyone in the room was waiting in silence for her reply. Monty nervously opened a communications program on her laptop. Gripe drummed the table top with his fingers.. A window appeared on her computer screen but it was empty apart from a cursor with a blinking hourglass symbol. Monty quickly pressed the keyboard and a login window appeared. She gave Pettersson an uncertain look.

“I think I need some kind of login. Or something. Maybe a username? Because you have WiFi here, don’t you? Yes, of course you do, I mean, it’s the FRA... isn’t it.”

Monty tried out her civic registration number in the login window but received only an error message.

“I’ll just reboot.”

Silence returned to the room. Pettersson seemed to want to wait for Monty to restart her computer, but it was obvious to Gripe that she didn’t have anything to add. He sighed..

“Pettersson,” he began. “What do you know about where the object came from?” “Hell knows. It just appeared” Pettersson replied.

The minister sighed heavily. “Come on, what do you mean?”

“I mean that there was nothing to suggest that it came from Earth, but nor is there anything to indicate that it came from space. We can’t see the object’s entrance into the atmosphere. It just suddenly appeared beside the aircraft. Out of thin air.”

“That thing materializes and the aircraft vanishes?” Gripe interjected.

Pettersson nodded.

“Pretty much simultaneously.”

The minister was becoming more impatient.

“What the hell does that mean? What’s happened? You don’t actually know anything at all, do you? All you have is a mid-air incident.”

“With no wreckage,” said Pettersson.

“Have you been able to monitor the projectile’s movements?” said Gripe thoughtfully.

Pettersson smiled for the first time.

“We have, actually, despite the difficulties of calculating the trajectory of an object with no apparent starting point.”

“So where did it go?” asked Gripe.

“We’ve just had a confirmed impact on Mount Städjan in Dalarna. No explosion has been registered but there was definitely an impact.”

Eriksson shifted in the uncomfortable chair.

“You said there was no explosion. Then what happened on impact?”

Pettersson’s smile faded.

“We have some rather vague data on that but it seems, initially, as if the object penetrated the mountain without causing any kind of devastation. Which, naturally, is impossible. If an object hit the ground at the estimated speed of 60,000 km/h, there’d be an enormous collision that would generate considerable heat. It would feel like an earthquake, to say the least. But the seismologists haven’t registered anything, neither has anyone else for that matter.”

Gripe stared in bewilderment at Pettersson.

“But you say you’ve registered an impact?”

Pettersson studied her papers.

“Yes, there was an impact but there was no actual effect of an impact. I know it sounds strange but that’s what we know at present.”

The minister sighed theatrically.

“So what you’re saying is you know nothing. Right? How do you even know that something’s crashed? As you say, there was no effect of the impact. Maybe you’ve simply misread the data. You have an object that you think came down in Dalarna but without causing any damage. And that’s it.”

Annoyed, Pettersson started to lay out all the unique circumstances surrounding the event again, emphasizing that something did actually land on Swedish territory, which in itself could mean that the country was under attack.

Gripe’s mobile buzzed. He’d set it on silent and it was now vibrating stubbornly in his inside pocket. He looked at the display and frowned. It was Henry Jaeger. What was he doing calling Gripe now in the middle of the night. Henry was Gripe’s top agent in the field. Or rather had been until three weeks ago, when his wife died in a car crash. It was a tragic accident in which an intoxicated truck driver had ended up on the wrong side of the road and collided head-on with Anna Jaeger.

Henry had just returned home from a mission in Syria and was flown straight to Karolinska Hospital in Solna. Gripe had visited Henry shortly afterwards to give him his condolences and hardly recognized his former top agent. Henry looked completely lost. Gripe had figured that nothing would break Henry, but like everyone else, he clearly had a weak spot.

Gripe sent the call to voicemail. He didn’t have time to talk to him right now. Instead, he returned his attention to Pettersson, who was still arguing with the interior minister.

“What the hell is it then?” he shouted in frustration.

“Extraterrestrial,” said Monty quietly.

Pettersson turned slowly towards her.

“Montgomery, if the object had come from outer space, don’t you think we would’ve picked it up long before it reached Earth? The closest solar system is light years away. If, against all odds, there was life there and that they, for some reason, wanted to visit us, don’t you think we’d have got some kind of forewarning? Nothing can suddenly show up from outer space, even I know that.”

Monty furrowed her brow. She found the question so intrinsically fascinating that she completely forgot her nerves.

“It’s a little like a probe. When we found an Earth-like exoplanet in the closest neighboring system, Alfa Centauri, in 2012, there was an immediate proposal to send a probe there. Maybe it’s them who’ve sent one to us?”

Pettersson smiled patiently but hardly amicably.

“So you wanted to send a probe to this Alfa planet?”

“Not us at the Space Board, NASA did. Nothing came of it, unfortunately.”

“No? And why not, if I may ask?”

Monty smiled.

“They calculated it’d take 40,000 years for it to arrive, given today’s technology.”

“40,000 years?”

“With today’s technology, yes,” said Monty. “Other civilizations might have more advanced technologies.”

Now Pettersson emitted a loud sigh.

“Thank you for that rather imaginative contribution, Montgomery. But it can’t have been a probe from planet Alfa since the object appeared inside our atmosphere, not outside.”

Gripe’s mobile buzzed again. This time there was a voice message. For Henry Jaeger to leave a message at all was almost unprecedented. Gripe examined the display and froze. The call had come from Jaeger’s satellite phone, which he only used when out on a mission. But that phone he’d had to return when he went on a leave of absence after the crash. Was it someone else calling from Jaeger’s satellite phone? If so, why? And who could it be?

A man who had been sitting in silence now took the floor and introduced himself as the airline’s spokesperson. He wanted to know what the airline should say to the press and to families waiting for confirmation that a crash had occurred. Gripe took this opportunity to listen to the message. He sat motionless, fighting a growing sense of unease. The message was without doubt from Henry Jaeger but it was totally rambling. And a woman could be heard speaking in the background. As Gripe replayed the message, his gaze fell on Thana Montgomery sitting beside him.

There was something worrying about the voicemail. Very worrying. Did it have something to do with the missing airplane? Gripe listened to it a third time. He still couldn’t make any sense of it. It had to have been faked somehow. There was no way it could be genuine. No way.

Gripe leaned towards Monty and whispered to her.

“What was your name again?”

Monty turned to him in surprise. The airline spokesman was still going on about the rules they had to comply with in the event of various disaster scenarios.

“Thana Montgomery,” she whispered back to Gripe.

Gripe nodded.

“And are you also called ‘Monty?”

“How did you know?” she asked in surprise.

Gripe frowned.

“I need to talk to you in private. Now.”

He got up from his seat and excused himself before grabbing hold of Monty’s arm and giving her a friendly yet determined shove towards the door, his phone still clutched tightly in his other hand.

Wednesday 12:15 am

Confused, Monty accompanied Gripe out of the crisis room. He was clearly troubled by something but Monty couldn’t see what it had to do with her. After all, she was only there to take care of Dr Hyman, the NASA expert. A task that she hadn’t managed particularly well so far. The giddying effect of the champagne had worn off, but a nasty headache had replaced it and every sudden move sent a bolt of pain through her head. Gripe opened the door to an empty conference room and nodded to her to enter. He shut the door behind them, sat down at the table and placed his mobile in front of him.

“Sit!”

Monty discreetly removed her gum and dropped it into the waste paper basket before cautiously taking her seat opposite him. He stared in silence at her for a few moments before calmly saying:

“Do you know who I am?”

Monty nodded uncertainly.

“Er...yes, I do, actually. You’re Axel Gripe, head of MUST.”

“Do you have my number?”

Monty frowned. What did he mean? His phone number? Why was he wondering that in the middle of a crisis situation? She cleared her throat.

“Your number? Why would I have your number?”

“Do you have my mobile number? My classified mobile number?”

Monty shook her head in confusion.

“No.”

Gripe looked frostily at her.

“No? Do you know who Henry Jaeger is?”

Monty shook her head very carefully. Her headache was getting worse. This was all getting stranger and stranger.

Jaeger? She’d never heard of anyone called Jaeger.

“Henry Jaeger? No. Should I have? Does he work at NASA? I’ve just started at the Space Board, so…”

Gripe held her gaze before interrupting her.

“It’s the name of one of my operatives. One of my top field agents. He just called me and left a message. Just a second ago. And the interesting thing is that you were there with him when he left it.”

Monty visibly blanched. She didn’t know how to react and a furrow appeared between her eyebrows.

“What do you mean? I don’t understand.”

“You and Henry both recorded a message for me. Just a moment ago. And yet you still claim you don’t know him?”

Monty let out an uncertain laugh.

“But that’s wrong. I’ve got no idea who Henry Jaeger is. And how could I have called you when I was sitting beside you at the meeting the whole time? I mean, I can’t be in two places at once, can I?”

Gripe kept his eyes pinned on her as he reached for his mobile. He tapped the screen and enabled the speaker function. There was the hiss of static and the sound of a strangely remote and eerie scream, which sent a shudder through Monty. Then came a dull bang, as if from a distant explosion. Then two voices. One male and one female. They sounded tense and terrified.

“You can’t. You’ll die.”

“There has to be another way, Montgomery.”

“There is no other way.”

“Monty, don’t do it! You’ll die in there.”

“I have to, or else we’ll all die. I’ve got no choice … (brief pause) Henry! The call! That’s the call!”

“She called Gripe! Hello, Gripe?”

And then the call was cut off. It was only 15 seconds long but it was the most spine-chilling thing that Monty had ever heard. She stared in horror at Gripe’s mobile now lying silent on the table. The woman’s voice in the message had been hers. No doubt about it. She hadn’t the slightest memory of having had the conversation she’d just heard but there was no denying it was her voice. Gripe was observing her intently.

“That was you, wasn’t it?”

Monty swallowed hard, hesitated and then nodded.

“Why did you lie to me when I asked you if you knew Henry Jaeger?”

She shook her head hard and found that her headache was gone.

“I wasn’t lying. I’ve never met Henry Jaeger. I’ve never had that conversation! It must’ve been faked somehow. Someone must’ve edited in my voice to…”

Monty fell silent. She realized how crazy it sounded.

“Why would someone do that?” wondered Gripe. “Why would someone fake a message from you? And one that’s incomprehensible? It simply doesn’t make sense.”

Monty shook her head in despair.

“I’ve no idea. I’m a liaison officer. I’m just here to assist Dr Hyman from NASA. I know nothing about this. And right now I’m not feeling so well. I’m feeling a little… sick. Can’t you just call up this Henry person and ask him what’s going on?”

Gripe sat motionless for a moment before snatching up his mobile and calling Jaeger’s satellite phone. He put it on speaker again and Monty waited silently while the connection was made. No one picked up. Gripe regarded her pensively as he tapped in another number with the phone still on speaker mode. This time someone answered straight away. Monty could hear the voice of a young man, keen to be of service. Gripe rattled out an order.

“I want you to do a search for one of our satellite phones. I want to know where it is right now. Field mobile R32, last numbers 989.”

There was silence on the line for 30 seconds before the young man returned.

“The phone is registered to special agent Jaeger. He handed it in three weeks ago.”

“I know that,” snapped Gripe. “I want to know where it is now. Who’s requisitioned it?”

“No one. It’s still here. It’s been here for three weeks, ever since Jaeger brought it back.”

Gripe shook his head indignantly.

“It’s not there. I’ve just received a call from it. Someone must’ve taken it without registering it. I need you to do a GPS track on its whereabouts.”

The young man didn’t reply. His uncertainty was almost audible in the sudden silence.

“No one has checked out the satellite phone. I have it in my hand as we speak. It’s sealed and no call has been made on it for the past three weeks. I don’t know who called you, but it wasn’t from this phone.”

“And yet I received a call from that very phone not ten minutes ago.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

Gripe closed his eyes and thought for a moment.