The waves caressed the boulders on the way before dancing to the shore. The yellow ball of fire scorched the ground beneath its feet. The May heat and Covid restrictions had conspired to confine most of the human population in the coastal town of Balasore inside their homes.
The four souls outside congregated in the Chandipur beach in the call of duty. As part of the Missile Control Crew in the Defence Research and Development Organisation, they were guarding Prachand, India’s first Hypersonic Glide Vehicle, before its test launch from the Integrated Test Range 4 at Abdul Kalam Island.
Raghav, the commanding officer of the four-member MCC team, gritted his teeth. He and his team were waiting for the green light from the DRDO HQ to launch the 17m HGV into the atmosphere.
“What the hell is taking it so long?” Raghav barked to his lieutenants, hating to be out in the heat for long. The anger on his oval face was visible through the layer of the N95 mask and face shield he wore as he wiped beads of perspiration from his forehead.
The four missileers were amongst the select handful privy to one of the most guarded secrets in the Military History of India. Now that Prachand was out in the open, it was important for it to go in the air before the rest of the world discovered India’s homegrown capabilities in hypersonic weapons space.
“Do you think Uncle Sam has found out?” Sharad, the missileer closest to the commander, asked Raghav.
“Bullshit.” Raghav lowered the shield and mask to spat the chewing gum out of his mouth before taking another out of his front pocket. “We cocked a snook at them with Pokhran once; we will do it again with Chandipur.”
There was a pause while Raghav put back the face covers. “In fact, they should be happy if they have found us out. Unlike China and Russia, we will be their ally in the club.” The two, along with the USA, were the only known nations with capabilities of hypersonic weapons- missiles capable of travelling faster than the speed of sound at 3800 miles per hour.
If test-fired successfully, no target on Earth would be unreachable for India’s military after Prachand’s induction. It would be a significant deterrent against India’s hostile nuclear-powered neighbours.
Raghav’s phone buzzed.
Jai Ho. The message notification flashed on the screen.
“Boys, take your positions,” he bellowed.
The missileers quickly wore their earmuffs and spread into four different directions, as fast as their legs could carry them. On the way, Raghav took out a remote from his pocket and pressed the green button at its centre.
A deafening sound ricocheted in the air as Prachand soared vertically into the atmosphere, leaving a trail of dust behind. Raghav took out his long-range binoculars in time to see the HGV separate from the rocket booster propelling it. Soon Prachand vanished out of sight.
“Mission successful, boys,” Raghav shouted.
Chants of Bharat Mata ki Jai reverberated in the air.
They were still celebrating when Raghav’s phone rang.
“Yes, Sir,” he said. His face soon turned into a frown.
“But how is that possible?” he cried out, raising his hand to indicate the other MCCs to mellow down. “I am coming to the headquarters right away.”
“What happened, Sir?” Sharad asked after Raghav disconnected the phone.
A string of expletives flew from Raghav’s mouth before he uttered, “The monitors at DRDO showed some peculiar cylinder-like device appear in the exosphere from nowhere. The damn object intercepted Prachand and changed its trajectory. Prachand did not follow our commands and missed its target.”
He was running towards his vehicle even as he spoke.
“So Uncle Sam found out after all,” Sharad said. The five years of zealously guarding the secret had gone in vain.
“Seems unlikely,” Raghav said.
“Because Prachand grazed the Statue of Liberty before drowning itself in the Atlantic Ocean. The lady has lost her torch, and Uncle Sam is furious.”
A hush descended in the group. No further words were required to express that India was in a major diplomatic soup.
Inside a conference room at 7 Race Course Road, the Cabinet Committee of Security of the Government of India was huddled with the Chief of Defence Staff when the hotline buzzed.
“POTUS on the line, Sir,” the announcer said.
The Prime Minister looked at the others before saying, “Patch him in.”
“You think you can bring the Statue of Liberty down and get away with it,” the caller at the other end fumed, without any preambles. “Et Tu? Not something that we expected from a close ally like you. You will also see now that we answer fire by fire.”
“Calm down, my friend,” the PM said. “I fully understand how you feel. India regrets this incident. We have no hand in it. Would my CDS have called your Secretary of Defense within a minute of this mishap and informed him about our missile gone rogue if this were an act of commission? Think about it.”
Encouraged by the silence at the other end, he continued, “We are guilty of not informing you about our Hypersonic Glided Vehicle test. You would not have let us go ahead otherwise. But someone seems to have found out. We have all the images to prove it to you. Pentagon should work jointly with DRDO, IB and RAW to find out the origin of this mysterious vehicle that changed our HGV’s trajectory to target you. We need your help. I am sure you will also like to find the perpetrator of this act.”
Everyone waited for POTUS’s response with bated breath. This was the thin line between war and peace.
“Fine,” POTUS finally said. There were audible sighs of relief even as a faint prayer could be heard in the room. “I will ask my Pentagon Chief to connect with your CDS. We will need access to all documents, including the photos and technical specifications of this Prachand of yours. Though it beats me as to why did you test fire a weapon that wasn’t doing your bidding in the first place.”
The line went dead.
The PM turned to the Defence Minister.
“Tell DRDO that they have 24 hours to provide me with the report of this fiasco. Else they can prepare to shut their doors forever.”
The Command-and-Control room in a secret location at Lutyens Delhi was a humdrum of agitated activities.
All the twenty chairs of the conference room were occupied by the top echelons of RAW, IB, Army, Navy and Airforce. The logo of the Pentagon prominently flashed on the video screen in the centre of the room where Ted Hanks, the Pentagon chief, sat with his team. The eyes of those on the ground and screen were on the sole chair positioned on the horizontal end of the vertical table, occupied by Raghav, the sole representative authorised by DRDO for the meeting.
“Young man, the floor is all yours,” the CDS said. “Please start from Prachand’s beginning and stop with what occurred in the heavens earlier today.”
The scowl on Raghav’s face showed that he did not like being called young. He nodded curtly and cleared his throat. “Mission Gladiator was conceived five years ago. As a nation, we are surrounded by two nuclear-powered and hostile neighbours. The counter was inducting a hypersonic glide vehicle in our armoury, capable of hitting any target in these two countries. Your country,” he looked at Ted, “while being a close defence partner and co-signatory of the Missile Control Technology Regime, would not have helped us. So the technology had to be developed indigenously. We worked all days and most of the nights in the last five years to be able to induct an HGV in our military arsenal by the end of this decade.
“Only a handful of people in DRDO knew about this mission. I was commanding the elite Missile Control Corps assigned for the test launch of Prachand. To cut a long story short, we were successful. Or at least thought so till last night when my team and I transported Prachand under the veil of the dark to the Integrated Testing Range 4 at the Chandipur beach. We were to wait for a final signal from the DRDO director today morning before readying Prachand for take-off.”
“So, what happened today?” Ted asked.
“I received the go-ahead at 11 am. Everything went fine on the ground. It would be better for you to see the strange encounter in the sky. Can I project my screen?”
The CDS nodded as Raghav punched some keys on his laptop. After what seemed like ages, the screen came alive with the image of Prachand.
It was 11.02 am as the rocket boosters separated from the silos on the ground. At an altitude of 62 miles- as seen on the screen- a long elongated cylindrical tube separated from the booster and went higher up the atmosphere. Within the next minute, the HGV traversed 100 miles to reach an altitude of 25 miles. Everything seemed to be going smoothly as Prachand started to circle the globe through low-orbit space in preparation to hit its target.
At 11.04 am, a tiny dot to Prachand’s north appeared on the screen. The irregular, rough-coated cylinder snowballed as it moved diagonally towards the HGV. Its odd shape and texture seemed somehow familiar but out of place and time – a toppled, branchless tree trunk floating by on some invisible current; its bark rough and ashen from a charring fire. As it neared, a small area of blue light glowed atop the shape just past its midpoint. In the blackness of space, its spreading aft was framed by halos of yellow light.
The object appeared to be on a collision course with the HGV before slowing down within touching distance of Prachand. The blue light separated from the cylinder and attached itself to Prachand’s rear, and the HGV changed its direction to the Atlantic Ocean from the Indian Ocean. The strange cylinder retreated to the direction it came from.
The Statue of Liberty came into view as Prachand re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. The HGV appeared to bump more than bang into the hand of the lady holding the torch. The lady loosened her grip on the torch as it fell to the ground.
Prachand crossed the statue and moved dangerously close to the skyscrapers of New York before immersing itself in a blaze of glory into the Atlantic Ocean.
“Same object, similar pattern,” someone from Ted’s team exclaimed.
“What object and pattern?” Raghav demanded.
“Gentlemen,” Ted addressed the entire Indian contingent, “It would interest you to know that we have spotted this UFO before. It is most likely from Mars, though we cannot be sure.”
The Indian team was too flabbergasted to react immediately as Ted went on, “Your video cleared my suspicions. Our space surveillance system has picked this object in at least four other recent instances where a nation has tested a hypersonic weapon.”
“Sounds outrageous,” the CDS said. “What makes you think the object came from Mars?”
“NASA’s scientists monitoring the Curiosity rover have found the same type of carbon in Mars’ rock samples associated with biological processes on Earth. While this is not conclusive evidence of life on Mars, no such evidence has emerged from anywhere else in the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, leaving Mars as the only source by elimination. Further, the UFO always comes from the direction of the red planet.”
Everyone digested this piece of information. The Pentagon chief resumed after a few seconds, “When we tested our hypersonic missile last year, the NASA screens witnessed scenes similar to what we saw here today. Our missile stopped short of hitting South Africa at that time. China tested its hypersonic missile just before us; the vehicle landed somewhere in the UK. This UFO was again the culprit for Russia’s missile landing somewhere in the Indian Ocean and North Korea’s hypersonic missile veering off to Brazil.
Not a single nation that has tested a hypersonic weapon can be sure of hitting its target accurately, and yet we all claim to be successful. Welcome to the club,” Ted concluded.
“Has this UFO been sighted only during the launch fire of hypersonic weapons?” the CDS asked.
“So far, yes.”
“Don’t you all not see the coincidence?” Raghav interrupted, his eyes bright and lips pursed. Everyone looked at him.
“What coincidence?” the CDS asked.
“A new Covid variant was discovered in each nation where the misguided missiles landed,” Raghav replied, “followed by a Covid explosion.”
Cries and sighs echoed across the room.
“Just examine the dates. China’s missile landed in the UK in September 2020, the same month that the Alpha variant was discovered, and later overwhelmed the country. North Korea tested its missile in Nov 2020, Brazil got seized with the Gamma variant in the same month. We got besieged with the Delta variant in Feb 2021, the same month that the Russian missile landed in the Indian Ocean. Omicron exploded in South Africa in Dec 2021, when your missile landed there.”
Everyone would have heard the sound if a pin had dropped in the room at the moment.
“Impossible.” Ted spluttered.
“You better alert your health authorities about the imminent new Covid variant and the inevitable spiral,” Raghav went on, ignoring him. “You may also test the water in your Atlantic Ocean for its composition. The results will prove this theory.
“Further, as the world’s superpower, you need to take the lead to convince other nations to drop their plans for testing hypersonic weapons. Else this pattern will recur, and new Covid variants will continue to originate in some or the other corner of our planet.”
“POTUS will never agree,” Ted said, more to himself than the audience.
“The pandemic will never end in that case,” Raghav said and turned his attention to the CDS. “You have to advise the same to our PM as well.”
“That’s inconceivable. We need to strengthen our defences against our neighbours.”
“Someone needs to take the initiative to end this arms race. Otherwise, in a few years, there will be nothing left to strengthen the defences for. We all know that the impact of a new Covid variant is not confined to the nation of its origin. No one is safe till everyone is safe.”
Raghav got up from his chair. He had seen, heard and said enough.
55 million kilometres away from Earth, fifteen blue creatures with oversized spherical stomachs and single eyes on their elliptical face sat in a huddle over the clouds around a revolving star. But for the celestial light, not one of the blue creatures would have been able to see their neighbour’s face.
Two long wire-like laces stood firm on the heads of each of the creatures. These laces caught the signals from Earth and transmitted the same as images on their planet.
“The humans seem to have caught us in our game,” one of them uttered through his bug-eye. “For the past fifty earth years or so, not satisfied with the abundance of their planet, those greedy creatures have been invading our planet.
“We captured Earth’s flu viruses and augmented them with countless spikes before dispatching them to various ocean bodies via the hypersonic weapons, the only arsenal to come close to the line of sight of our planet. This coronavirus was supposed to eliminate the vulnerable humans from the Earth while keeping the living confined to their homes for decades to come. But they came up with the vaccines in record time. Now they have become wiser about us introducing new mutants through hypersonic weapons. What do we do if they invade our planet tomorrow?”
The words echoed through the gas, dust and billions of stars across the spiral-shaped galaxy.
“Don’t cross the bridge before it comes.” A hush descended over the group at the words of the one whose whigmaleerie of stones, shrubs and dust around the neck made him look different from the rest.
He continued, “No need to worry about the smart knaves who waste their energies fighting each other. Look at their history of wars, battles and diplomatic skirmishes. They invest in making more sophisticated weaponry to kill their own. Why, they even hoarded the vaccines they invented, giving us room and time to introduce new mutants of the coronavirus! These selfish humans, who use too much of their brains and too little of their hearts, can never unite against us. Instead of them invading us, we will invade them someday.”
There was a considerable pause before the speaker resumed, “Keep on developing more lethal mutants of the coronavirus. Let’s continue to keep an eye on them to ascertain when they are sending more hypersonic weapons into the space.”
The creatures turned their bug eyes back to the revolving star.
“Humbug, Ted,” the White House incumbent remarked as the Pentagon chief briefed him on the meeting with India. “They fed you balderdash, and you fell for it hook line and sinker. Coronavirus has nothing to do with Mars. I am certainly not speaking to other nations on this.”
Ted started to say something when the emergency hotline at the Oval Office buzzed.
POTUS put the speaker on. “Yes, what is it?”
“Sir, the Health Secretary is on the line. Samples of a new variant have been detected amongst the Covid positive cases today. Apparently, each spike has three hundred mutations.”
POTUS frowned. “That’s just what I need. Patch him in.”
“This is exactly what I was saying,” Ted exclaimed. POTUS held up his hand.
“Ted, I have more pressing matters now. The torch is back up on the Statue of Liberty, and from what you said, India’s action does not seem to be deliberate. Forget this chapter. Focus on the development of the next generation of hypersonic cruise missiles. The USA should be the first nation on Earth to deploy them.”
“You may leave now, Ted.”
The meeting was over.
“Just because I ask for a report in 24 hours doesn’t mean you feed me gibberish,” the incumbent at 7 Race Course Road remarked to the CDS. “UFO from Mars, aliens responsible for the pandemic on Earth. Indeed!”
“Well, the Pentagon saw some merit in the theory.”
“Did they, now? Then it is but obvious that they found out about our plans of testfiring Prachand. Instead of coercing us to abandon our course, which wouldn’t have worked, they came up with this stealth approach to dissuade us. We need to be more careful about our information security. The one good thing is that I need not worry over the diplomatic ramifications of this incident.”
“The DRDO’s MCC commandant is really sure about this,” the CDS persisted, “and a new Covid variant has indeed been detected in the United States.”
The PM held up his hand. “This is the most important information that you have provided in the last thirty minutes. We need to limit flights from the US and monitor our incoming passengers from that country. I need to speak to the aviation minister.”
“Send that MCC commandant on a long leave. He is responsible for the leak of classified information. You may leave now.” His words had a tone of finality.
The blue waves rode roughshod over the boulders before colliding with the shore. The dark brume in the horizon hid all traces of blue and yellow. The roar of the nebula drowned the sounds of the fauna.
Raghav sat outside Gate 4 of the Integrated Testing Range at Chandipur, looking at the turbulent water. He was inside the same gate the day before. Sometimes, one day can seem like a lifetime.
He had spent seasons and disasters at the DRDO and withstood the loss of his family to Covid for Mission Gladiator. Suddenly, there was nowhere to go and nothing to do.
He spat the chewing gum out of his mouth and gritted his teeth.
After countless deaths, unparalleled economic loss and more than two years of humanity largely being confined to their homes, there was a real chance to end the pandemic quickly and more efficiently. And the men at the top decided to let it go in their wisdom.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. Diplomacy had succumbed to military might once again.
He hurled a stone at the beach.
Those aliens from Mars must be laughing at mankind’s penchant to compete and refusal to cooperate.
He looked up.
Will humanity end up losing the war against the extraterrestrials?
The grey sky stared back at him.
Hypersonic glide vehicles, also called boost-glide systems, are launched by rocket boosters to the upper atmosphere. They separate from the booster at an altitude where Earth’s atmosphere ends and glide to a target at five times the speed of sound. They can manoeuvre in the atmosphere, making them difficult to detect and destroy. All nuclear-powered nations are developing this, and most have test fired the same; however, none of these missiles successfully hit their test target on their return to Earth.
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