Episode Nine: Destruction at High Noon!
Like dominoes, the chain reaction of events were just catching up. The Legion's candle-caper had been snuffed for the time being, but a much larger problem loomed too close to home.
While engineer Dominic Nicolosi had passed Poggio and was chugging into the higher elevated, rugged climes of the Apennine foothills, his radioman Pietro Ciappi struggled with the reality and embarrassment of revealing to Nicolosi and to someone in the Vatican that not all of the coffins had been loaded.
Adding to the plight was the fact that Pietro, mainly a switchman and not a man accustomed to details, had not paid particular attention to the dire danger these coffins posed when Cardinal Gregory Zachmunn had confided the contents to Nicolosi and the others. The original bill of laden of shipping had shown 148 caskets on it, so the error had not been noticed until well after the confusion created by Collier's stupid action of shouting 'Fire!' Those who had abandoned their cargo had fled back around toward the Nervi Hall, while those clear of the gates had returned to complete their task. Both Pietro and Luigi Rosmini had signed off and signaled Dominic that all was ready for departure. It had not been until the trains pulled out that a few volunteers told Pietro about the coffins still in the tunnel area.
Over an hour and a half had gone by before Pietro was able to summon the courage to divulge the gaffe. He decided he had to leave his radio post and notify someone. With the funeral Mass underway, Ciappi had circled around to the back entrance to the Nervi Hall, the very same area Stephen had used to access his temporary office quarters off the press room. Pietro needed to find out how many coffins had been abandoned. Perhaps he could get to them through the Nervi Hall entrance to the tunnel and raise the gate. He, nor few others, realized Jordan Collier was trapped inside the tunnel.
Collier himself was not aware of the potent explosives lining the 28 caskets as he paced the tunnel, calling out periodically. But the sounds from the Basilica over the loudspeakers drowned out any plea for help.
Dateline: Vatican City - Nervi Hall - November 6, 11:10 a.m.
Stephen had just left enroute to meet Corrie. Yet, still standing sentinel in the Nervi were two loyal guards. One of them spotted Pietro heading toward the corridor leading to the tunnel.
"Halt!" commanded Lieutenant Alexis Geraud. "What authority do you have here?"
Ciappi stopped in his steps, sheepishly turning around. "Scusi, Signore. Sono qui per affari. Sono Pietro Ciappi da Vaticano Stazione. Noi abbiamo problemo."
"What do you mean, problem?" Geraud shot back, now on guard that something might be afoot.
"The caskets. They still in tunnel."
"No, Monsieur," relaxed the Swiss Guard. "They were all loaded on the train."
"No," Pietro replied, "not all. The gate was closed. Only 120 caskets were shipped out."
The realization hit Alexis squarely between the eyes. "Mon Dieu! That means 28 coffins are still in the tunnel." Immediately he retrieved his cell phone and dialed.
Within three minutes Captain Royce Schuster and two other guards accompanying him had descended the sloping ramp and arrived at the western end of the tunnel. He held the key as Alexis, Pietro and the rest swiftly headed for the entrance to the tunnel where a huge metal door blocked entrance to the wide underground shaft from the east.
Royce inserted the key in the wall and the whir of hydraulics prompted the heavy door up. From a distance he could hear abrasive profanity coming nearer.
"About time you assholes got here," Jordan Collier ranted. "Y'all spooked me out with these dead - -"
"Guards," Captain Schuster commanded after getting a closer look at the man in the somewhat rumpled, sweat-soaked Armani suit. "Place that man under house arrest for sabotage."
The brash reporter's coat was slung over his shoulder with one hand, his shirt and trousers full of dust and grime, the polished Gucci's all scuffed up. The Swiss Guard had recognized Collier immediately as the same one who had given Cardinal Zachmunn a hard time in the Vatican when Royce and His Eminence had switched coffins, stealing away the explosive Papal Bier and replacing it with Riage Benziger's coffin.
Two Swiss Guards advanced toward Collier, who was caught unaware. "Hey, hold on here, guys. I got trapped in here. Y'all gotta lighten up on --"
"Sir," Royce interrupted curtly, "your actions have jeopardized tens of thousands of souls." Turning to Alexis, he commanded, "Lieutenant Geraud, have your men place him in detention in the dungeon hold beneath the Governor's Palace until we can sort all this out."
Saluting his commanding officer, Alexis turned and the other two guards were already complying as they saluted back.
"I want to see my lawyer. Dammit!," blared Collier. "I demand to see my lawyer. I demand to see the American Embassy."
They ignored his rants as Lt. Geraud turned back to Royce, "Captain, what do we do about the caskets?"
"That is a real problem," Captain Schuster replied nervously. "Where is Sergeant Gervase?"
"Most probably in the office by the Portone di Bronzo," responded Lt. Geraud.
"Have him bring the case he found in the German nun's room after the fracas on the third floor today. I have a gut feeling it holds the key."
"Yes, Captain," complied Alexis.
"I must notify Cardinals Zachmunn and Mendoza immediately," Royce winced.
"But the Mass is still going on," Geraud objected.
"I know, that is a problem, Alexis. A big problem."
Dateline: Rome - Leonine Wall - November 6, 11:15 a.m.
Pat had reached the area in the ancient passageway over the Via Ombrelliani, when a light in the distance coming towards him caused him to freeze. As the person approached, Gallagher doused the candle and pushed himself to the side of the damp wall. Had the Legion discovered the tunnel? Who was this person? How many others were there? Only where the open slots in the wall allowed the light to pour in was it bright enough to see. Pat crouched down, concealed in the darkness as the figure came into the fused light.
He was of medium build, holding a heavy case in his other hand as he probed the darkness ahead. Pat focused on the face. It was familiar. It was friendly. He sprung to the center a foot in front of the flashlight, scaring the bejeebers out of Dr. Giuseppe Ghislieri.
"Didn't mean to scare ya', Doc, I just had to be sure you weren't with the- -"
"Legion?" the Vatican physician stammered, still trying to catch his breath from fright.
"Yeah, can't be too careful," Pat apologized again.
"I would just like, Signore, to be alive to help His Holiness." Ghislieri expressed.
"And that you will. That's great. He's had some Demerol and is resting now. I'm headin' back to get some stuff. I'll be back later."
"For one flat on his back on IV less than 24 hours ago, you are quite robust, no?" the Doctor marveled.
"Thanks to you, Doc."
"And the good Lord, my son," reminded Giuseppe.
"Yeah, definitely Him, too," agreed Gallagher.
"How much farther, my friend?" the doctor requested.
"You're about at the half-way point. It's a trek, Doc. There's a tricky step about 500 yards up the way or so, where the whole tunnel elevates a bit."
"I will be careful, Grazie. Buon giorno."
As Ghislieri started on his journey eastward, something told Pat the good doctor needed help. The medical bag he was carrying seemed heavy and the flashlight was failing. Compassion and charity flooded Gallagher's sentiments. "Listen, Doc. I'm young, lemme carry that for you and we can make better time. By now, I know this place like the back of my hand."
The dedicated Italian was grateful for both the company and the help. Besides, it would afford Pat the opportunity to fill the Vatican physician in on how bad things had deteriorated. He might lose half an hour at the most by returning to the turret, but if the Pope wasn't conscious, what good would stationery do?
Dateline: Vatican City - St. Peter's Basilica - November 6, 11:19 a.m.
The choir was in full throttle with the Agnus Dei when Royce located Cardinal Zachmunn. The urgency in his look left no questions on the St. Louis Archbishop's mind. Something was wrong. Immediately he genuflected on both knees, out of reverence for the True Presence of Christ on the altar, and quickly exited through the Sacrestia with Captain Schuster. Once clear of the main Basilica and out of ear range of the direct resonance of the Gregorian music, Gregory stopped Captain Schuster near the door way which led to the corridor near the Nervi Hall.
"What's wrong," Zachmunn asked, bracing for the worst considering all the alternatives.
"Not all the coffins made it on the train, your Eminence."
"What? How? Why?" Questions flooded Gregory's psyche.
"The railroad operator notified Lt. Geraud," answered Royce. "The rude Texan sabotaged the operation, closing the gate of the tunnel. From reports just provided we have 28 caskets remaining underneath both St. Martha's and St. Charles Palaces."
"Good God, man. That is a problem," sighed Zachmunn as they continued on to the Pauline Hall, where they found Alexis and Sergeant Rene Gervase with the case.
"Your Eminence, this was found in Grabe's room on the third floor," Lieutenant Geraud informed.
"Have you opened it yet?" Captain Schuster asked.
"No, Captain," Alexis replied. "We wanted to wait for you in case... in case we should not have."
"I applaud you for your discretion," Gregory assured the Swiss Guards. "But I'm afraid under the circumstances we have to find out what it is. So let's do it."
With Zachmunn's go-ahead they carefully set the case on the table and opened it cautiously. Click, click. Slowly Sergeant Gervase lifted the top. Nothing.
"It doesn't seem deep enough," observed Royce.
"Si, you are right, Captain," responded Lt. Geraud as he carefully reached in and felt the edges. "Si, there is something else." He slowly lifted out a black case that seemed to vibrate in his hands. Setting it down on the table, he unfastened the clip suppressing the handle. Gently he raised the lid to discover an LCD screen - a computer screen.
All sighed in both relief and anticipation of what it meant, what was programmed on it.
"Corporal," Captain Schuster motioned, calling forth one of the Swiss Guards standing behind them. Corporal Romuald Menthauen, a relatively new Swiss recruit, had been in the Guard for less than a year. This young chiseled soldier had impressed many with his mastery of computers and become quite an expert in overriding viruses in the Vatican's server since the Holy See was a prime target of hackers.
Menthauen hit a few keys and a clock in white letters against a black background flashed on the screen. The numbers to the right were descending rapidly. 38:42:07 and then it was 38:41:34 and then 38:40:16. It was a countdown clock. It was a detonator.
All knew the consequences. Romuald positioned himself in the chair. "I will try to break the code."
"How long will that take," a nervous Cardinal Zachmunn asked.
"In all honesty, your Eminence, I do not know. It is a system I am not totally familiar with."
"In the meantime," Gregory solemnly announced, "we have maybe a half hour to evacuate everyone. It would seem the detonation is set for high noon. Pietro, get back to the station and let Dominic know he's got to unload the boxcars before noon. Captain Schuster and Lieutenant Geraud, muster your men and pass the word to clear the Square as soon as possible. I'll get to Cardinal Mendoza right now. As much as I don't want to, we have got to expedite the Mass so we can get everyone out of the Basilica in as calm a manner as possible. God be with us."
All moved with a swiftness of urgency as Menthauen methodically continued to try to break in and defuse the trigger. He had always handled challenges with verve. Now he was being handed the assignment of all assignments. Deprogram a massive weapon of mass destruction.
Dateline: Rome - Steps of the Vittorio Emmanuel - November 6, 11:23 a.m.
Corrie recognized Monsignor Navarro immediately as he approached the stairs. Throwing caution to the winds she raced down the steps to him. Stephen didn't hesitate as he motioned her towards his car.
"Get in. It's safer in the car."
In a matter of seconds she was in his car and they began to circle the Piazza Venezia. Corrie fought tears of both joy and fear. "Oh, Father, I can't believe what's been happening. It is so good to see someone I can trust."
"I can appreciate how you feel, Miss Morelli."
"Please, call me Corrie."
Stephen consoled, "We, too, have had our share, Corrie, of tragedies. Tell me about Vic."
"It was horrible," Corrie stammered. "This monster--"
"The Basilisk," Stephen anticipated what she was talking about.
"Yes, Father, it's real."
"I know, Corrie, I know. It almost got me earlier and Pat the other night."
"How is he? Where is he?"
"I'm taking you to him, Corrie. Luckily, I have a pass for the back way away from most of the traffic. But we must be careful, very careful."
"You don't have to tell me, Father." Corrie pulled from her waist a small envelope. "Oh, Vic instructed me a day before he died to give you or Cardinal Zachmunn this envelope."
"I'll read it as soon as we get where it's safe."
They would quickly cross the Tiber and up the Borgo Angelico where he turned left on the Porta Angelica and then to the right through St. Anne's Gate, winding his Audi behind the Apostolic Palace.
Dateline: Vatican City - St. Peter's - November 6, 11:29 a.m.
Communion had just begun as Gregory re-entered the Basilica through the Sacrestia. In all haste he approached Cardinal Mendoza who was distributing the Holy Eucharist to a select line of cardinals before all others would receive. "Julies, a moment, please."
The celebrant stepped back a few feet, turning his back to the waiting communicants while holding the ciborium close to his vestments. Here he huddled with his confrere from St. Louis.
"What is it now, Gregory?" He seemed edgy. Who wouldn't considering the scope of the danger?
"They didn't get all the coffins. Still 28 left under the halls. We found the trigger. It is set to go off at noon." Both looked at their watches. "Half an hour to go, Julies. We've got to get the people out of here as soon as possible. You've got to let everyone know."
"I will. Five minutes to finish the Mass and then we'll evacuate," asserted Mendoza as he turned and mounted the stairs to the pulpit.
Tapping on the microphone, he managed to quiet the choir, already into the "Libera me". "My friends, these are indeed dangerous times. That is why we are here today. I have been notified that we need to finish up the Mass quickly and, out of precaution, everyone to evacuate Vatican City as soon as possible. I apologize to those who did not receive Holy Communion. Hopefully all will live to receive another day. Canonically we have completed the Mass. I ask the Choir to join those in exiting the Basilica. I now give you the final blessing, Requiescant in pace. Amen. Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus, Pater, et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus."
"Amen" rang out from many startled voices, as those within the Basilica became agitated, eyes darting everywhere as near-panic began to feed their imaginations and fears.
"Go now, go quickly," Cardinal Mendoza urged, "and may God be with you."
Deacon Kabwela responded immediately, "Ite Missa est" from the microphone on the main altar where he had been preparing the additional Sacred Hosts for distribution to the clergy and laity inside the Basilica.
Fortunately Julies' order of distribution had been followed where all distributors of Holy Communion would wait until every Cardinal had received before the rest would receive. Cardinal Mendoza had wisely decided distribution of the Holy Eucharist would be limited to those only within the immediate Basilica and not in the Square. His decision was based primarily on past abuses when Eucharistic Ministers would get lost in the flood of people causing Hosts to be desecrated, stepped on and spilled, as so much ordinary cookies or crackers and not given the proper adoration and care the True Presence must be afforded.
The wave of awareness slowly began to take form in the exodus of men and women. The Swiss Guards had already encountered resistance, but their insistence spurred many to realize it was not a hoax or a drill. This was the real thing.
Seeing the slow, incredulous reaction of many, Colin Rembert decided to take matters into his own hands from his perch above the nave. Drastic measures were called for in drastic times and this was indeed just that. With his Penultimate he patched into Sydney to notify and receive permission to override all channels. Once in place other networks trying to explain the sudden exodus were pre-empted by Colin Rembert.
"Ladies and gentlemen. All must vacate the premises and Vatican City itself. Please listen carefully to our instructions as you walk out with haste, but in an orderly fashion. Please. I repeat, this is not a drill. Those on the north side of the Square, please file out mannerly through the columns and down the side streets as far as you can. Those on the south side of the Square, please exit through the columns and down the Borgo Santo Spiritu, all the way to the river if needs be, mates. But please, move. Please leave the center of the Square open so those inside can exit orderly and continue on down Via de Concilliazione as far as possible. Again, this is not a drill. Thank you again, ladies and gentlemen, for your cooperation. I will repeat..."
Few realized how Colin's quick thinking would save so many lives. Never mind that competitors were furious that GlobalNetSat had commandeered their airways; lives were at stake here. Tempers would eventually reside, but right now reason and action had to take precedence over hard feelings. After the tragedy of November 1st, ingenuity and a take charge calmness was necessary for the sake of all. Today, time was of the essence as the clock on the facade of St. Peter's struck 11:45. Half of the Square was already emptying. The bells rang out.
Would they be the clarion of fate?
As the midday sun stretched its warming rays to encompass the whole of Rome against the beaten-back November norther, three helicopters approached from the east toward the bend in the Tiber. From the pilot's viewpoint, the exodus from the Vatican below resembled ants scurrying in all directions away from an unknown danger, a definite deadly peril.
Just as the wax melted within the wings of the mythical Icarus when he fluttered too close to the sun, so also the deadly explosives, imbedded in the wax candles inside the Basilica, were a harbinger of the potential for destruction. Unbeknownst to most, more deadly candles were stored in the crypt and the storage room of the Nervi Hall...all omens of impending doom. Like the solar rays that brought Daedalus' son crashing into the turbulent waves below, the heat of the blast from the coffins beneath the modern St. Martha's Palace and St. Charles' Palace and the charges within the candles could bring those buildings, along with connecting edifices like the Nervi Hall, St. Peter's, the Sistine Chapel, the Apostolic Palace and the Bernini Colonnade to dust. All hoped no human would be trapped in the fiery ruin as the evacuation of Vatican City continued. It was conducted in as orderly a fashion as possible, under the circumstances.
In New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Tokyo and all major metropolitan media capitals of the world consternation, confusion and anger was reaching a fever pitch as the powerful Global NetSat satellite continued to scramble all signals in being the lone voice out of Rome. There would be hell to pay, they threatened, for this commandeering monopoly of the televised medium. In truth, Rembert would become known as a pioneer of emergency broadcasting since radio had always provided for such instances, but television rarely. Most likely Colin Rembert realized this when he made the split decision to take action, but now he had less fear of world powers for he had understood a far, far more devastating power and only by aligning with the resisters could he help weaken that enormous energy of evil.
From a bird's-eye view of the scene below, while masses of humanity moved slowly in an undulating ribbon away from the Vatican, on the other side of the Apostolic Palace, sheltered by four stories of mortar, marble and stone, a vehicle had glided to a stop behind the building. A man and woman had exited the car and disappeared into the building. Stephen and Corrie were totally unaware of the evacuation in the Square as he led her towards the Papal Quarters. In the dark corridor of the Leonine Wall, Dr. Ghislieri and his American guide picked up their step still quite a distance from the ailing Pontiff and Fr. Niki Andriopoulos.
On the far west side of St. Peter's, from the radio room in the Vatican Railway Station, Pietro Ciappi had reached Dominic Nicolosi and updated him on the danger and time. Nicolosi had reached the ravine where the grade curved up. Three of the railroad workers had jumped off, switching the rails as Nicolosi had continued to chug upward, steeper and steeper until he had reached a level portion of the incline. Within five minutes the few men left on the train would uncouple the two box cars. All they would need was the signal from the switchmen below and they would be ready to roll. With Pietro's duties completed, he had already hastened out of the station and had scurried up Via del Seminario Eliopico towards the far west end of the Vatican grounds where he could take shelter in the higher regions of the Lourdes Gardens.
Inside St. Peter's, immediately after abruptly concluding the Funeral Mass, Cardinal Mendoza had instantaneously assigned tasks to those he could trust right there in the sanctuary. Cardinals Zachmunn, Kabwela, Strovinksy, Bondi, and Wetherby had been willing and competent generals. Cardinals Clemente Gregorio Bondi and Thomas Wetherby had marshaled 12 acolytes, 80 priests and bishops, and 60 members of the Sistine Choir to gather up six candles each from their holders flanking each coffin, and follow the other Cardinals out. Eighteen of the Cardinals did the same, each person carrying six candles in their arms. They all followed swiftly through the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.
While the candles were being collected, Gregory had sent two guards with flashlights to retrieve the crates of candles the fallen Legion guards had deposited in the crypt last night. Shortly, they had returned with the cartons, following the rest toward the far end of the courtyard.
While all, who were fleeing this ancient and venerable house of God, had feared for their lives, the deacon Cardinal Mbuta Celestin Kabwela, along with Polish Prince of the Church Cardinal Kazimierz Strovinsky and the Australian prelate Cardinal Malachi Chester Lewiston did all they could to preserve the Bread of Life. With the help of more priests and bishops, each had gathered up the undistributed consecrated Hosts in the various ciboriums, and, with the rest of the hierarchy and helpers, had exited through the Blessed Sacrament Chapel under the Scalia Regia and into the Borgia Courtyard, then through a portal that led to the Belvedere Courtyard where the entire College of Cardinals and entourage, carting the candles, had continued northward toward the Pigna Courtyard that fronted the Egyptian Museum on the northwest end of Vatican City and hopefully out of harm's way.
Colin Rembert had kept in constant touch with his band of reporters with their hand-held Penultimate cameras at strategic locations to televise the emergency evacuation in order to aid those present as well as keeping the world in touch through Global NetSat. With the removal of all congregants going well, Rembert had remained in the Basilica - a trooper to the end. He was more concerned for the welfare of the Cardinals and those few still fleeing the premises. He had been an immense help to the evacuation process, offering Cardinal Zachmunn whatever help he could provide.
Captain Schuster had returned with six more guards to carry Riage Benziger's coffin out. Once this had been assured, Cardinal Mendoza, who like the noble captain of a ship, had remained until all were out, was still in full vestment. Assuring that all had vacated the Basilica, the Spanish prelate had accompanied the pall bearers and Colin Rembert out through the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and towards the Belvedere Courtyard with Riage's body in tow inside the Papal Bier.
Just prior to Mendoza's departure, Cardinal Zachmunn had made one final sweep to make sure all candles had been removed and all had vacated the premises. Twelve minutes and counting. They had to get out now!
Gregory had realized Sister Bridie, and possibly Stephen, were still in the Papal Quarters. To make sure they were safe he took the sturdy flashlight from the guards once they had recovered all the cartons of deadly candles below and, as they headed toward the courtyard with their deadly cargo, Gregory and his noble escort Captain Royce Schuster had taken off toward the same tunnel the Archbishop, Stephen and Sister Bridie had traveled last night from the crypt to the Papal Sacristy. They still had ten minutes. This time Gregory had his nitroglycerine pills with him as they had passed the NO ENTRATA sign and had cast out into the deep beneath the abandoned Basilica. Cardinal Zachmunn hoped and prayed that he and this loyal Swiss Guard could make it in time to save them and all other living beings before the seat of Rome came crashing down.
Realizing the inherent priorities, Colin had used his wiles and pull to marshal three helicopters. One was a local news chopper, another a tourist copter and the other a U.N. military Osprey. The latter two had just alighted in an open area of the Pigna courtyard where the dangerous candles had been loaded quickly onto the Osprey, while those carrying the Blessed Sacrament had boarded the tourist chopper with their precious treasure of the Body of Christ.
The news chopper had landed in a small area between the Colonnade and the Nervi Hall.
Dateline: Vatican City - Nervi Hall - November 6, 11:51 a.m.
Corporal Menthauen had tried every code and method he could to override the timer. Nothing was working. Beads of sweat dripped off his brow. Frustration coursed through his veins as he slammed his fist down on the table.
"Romuald," a nervous Sergeant Gervase reprimanded him, "we are running out of time."
"Do you not think I know that, Rene. I have tried everything."
"Then perhaps we need to admit there is nothing we can do."
"I cannot abandon my duty. Never."
"Mon frere, I believe you have no choice," Lieutenant Geraud exclaimed as he re-entered the room. "We have a helicopter waiting just outside. We have got to get this detonator away from here. Perhaps that will stop the devastation. N'est pas?"
"We have no other choice, Lieutenant?" the corporal asked, tears flooding his eyes.
"I am sorry," Alexis consoled him, "we must move now!"
Menthauen closed the case and tucked it under his arm, following Gervase and Geraud to the chopper where the three Swiss Guards boarded and lifted skyward, between the Colonnade and the Pauline Hall, stirring up dust that swirled below. Soon they were away, heading for the coast, as Romuald reopened the case, trying desperately to crack the code.
Dateline: Vatican City - Pigna Courtyard - November 6, 11:55 a.m.
With the last of the deadly combustible crates safely on board the idling Osprey, the pilot got the thumbs up sign from one of the guards. Time to go. It lifted skyward and roared toward the west with the swiftness of a falcon beaming in on its prey. It had less than five minutes to reach the coast and dump the deadly cargo of wax explosives in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Seconds were more precious than bonuses at this point as it sped on the wisp of metallic blades whirring at breakneck speed, a blur as it passed above traffic and midday merchants on the outer regions of western Rome.
Two minutes later those bearing the Blessed Sacrament in the dozens of ciboriums were safely aboard the tourist chopper as its blades revved to full throttle and the epilimmion effect of the swirling wind sent several still on the ground sprawling to the grassy turf as the helicopter hoisted straight up and banked southeastward toward the Lateran Basilica. The ciboriums would be safely deposited in the tabernacle of this most sublime and historic church with its origins dating back to the time of the great Emperor Constantine. It had long been the official church for the Pope of Rome even though most, since the 14th century, had customarily resided on Vatican Hill.
The cardinals and clerics on board the chopper could see, from their vantage point, that the massive flood of humanity was now inching closer to the Tiber. Every street was clogged, but St. Peter's Square was almost emptied. Cars had been abandoned as man, woman and child ran for their life away from the place they had all come to with such heavy heart. Who were these monsters who would destroy the most sacred seat of God?
Dateline: North of Rome in the steep foothills of the Apennines - November 6, 11:56 a.m.
The brakemen had been having a devil of a time trying to unhitch the box cars. The handle wouldn't turn, no matter how hard they pulled on it. The hydraulic suction between the engine and cars was locked tight. Dominic disembarked from the engine room, loping on a limp with a massive wrench in his gnarled fist as he came rumbling to the side where the two brakemen were enmeshed in a frantic blame-game as tension and tempers were reaching the boiling point.
"Fermatevi!" bellowed Nicolosi. "Abbastanza!"
Both men shrunk in shame as he parted the two with the heavy wrench, which he clamped onto the fittings with a heavy thud and started twisting. Just a few minutes left and he was sweating profusely. In the distance below he could hear the frantic shouts of "Fretta! Presto!"
The rust and dirt parted. One could see threads as he continued to twist frenetically with the two brakemen adding no support as they continued to grumble and pace. Finally the rusted bolt came loose and Dominic, dripping like a rag reached down and yanked it, along with the lever. The sound of escaping air signaled success. Time was of the essence as Nicolosi waved for the other two to push. The three men braced their heels on the wooden tie and leaned into the iron-sided back of the cars pushing with every ounce of their being. Slowly a few inches, then a foot and then it was rolling on its own, reaching the crest, like a runaway roller-coaster it hurtled downward on the tracks that had been switched so it would roll right off the rails into the deep ravine below with seconds to spare, if that. The switchmen at the bottom of the hill dove for cover as it raced pell-mell towards them.
Dateline: Coastline of Rome - November 6, 11:59 a.m.
Both the Osprey carrying the deadly wax explosives and the news chopper carrying the Swiss Guards Lt. Alexis Geraud, Sergeant Rene Gervase and Corporal Romuald Menthauen had reached the coastline and were heading out towards sea a quarter mile apart. Menthauen had tried everything. Nothing had detoured the appointed clock as it reached 30 seconds and counting.
At the same time the Osprey had unloaded most of the candles with everyone on board making sure all wax sticks were accounted for. A lone fishing boat below posed a problem. With seconds to spare the pilot banked south away from the trawler before dropping the last shipment.
"Dump it now, Corporal," blistered Lt. Geraud. "That's an order."
Romuald wanted to object, to find that last, unknown equation that would stop the clock with just a few seconds to go just like so many movies had portrayed, taking the viewer to the brink. But this was no movie. This was very real and they were at the brink. Menthauen slumped his shoulders as he slammed the case shut and Gervase heaved it out into the air.
Dateline: Vatican City - November 6, 12:00 p.m.
Like a Ghost town out of the old west, one could almost hear the whistling and the prairie winds across the empty Square until the Angelus bells rang out, an innocent clarion of the tymphony of terror. Grabe's clock was ten seconds off but it didn't really matter. The deed was done as the detonator's fail-safe mechanism, now plunging deeper into the depths of the Tyrrhenian, still signaled doom. It began in the depths of the tunnel as the explosives took hold. One could not hear the distant roar over the bells but one could feel the ground shake. In another instant the blast lifted upward and out, shattering everything in its path as rock, marble and steel hurled into the air accompanied by a massive ball of fire as the Nervi Hall crumbled along with St. Charles Palace and the Domus Sanctae Marthae. Huge pieces of marble and rock, steel and iron crashed against the side of St. Peter's venerated basilica, glass shattered everywhere as the Sacrestia took the brunt of the blows. The columns closest to the Nervi began to crumble and part of the roof of the great Bernini Colonnade tumbled to earth, statues of saints from better times collided with the pavement and rubble, brought to ruin by this unearthly beast who planned this dastardly abomination. Three minutes and the dust began to settle. Through the debris flames roiled up from the depths of the Nervi and the two places of accommodations above the tunnel. Glass continued to shatter in St. Peter's and the Vatican Station, which had been bombarded on the side with flying remnants of mortar. Debris had reached the other side of the Square, but the Colonnade and obelisk still held. For that matter, the mighty, majestic Basilica, had taken all the Devil could hurl at it and, despite the damage, was still standing tall. Satan had not been able to bring the old institution to its knees. Though the Master had tried. Oh, how he had tried.
The two box-cars were still hurtling over the cliff into the ravine when the explosion rocked the region. It had thrown Nicolosi and his two brakemen to the side, scuffed, but still kicking. His switchmen at the base of the hill had been safe in their natural fox-holes except for the turf and dirt flying over them by the force of the blast. It would take a few minutes to compose their nerves before resetting the tracks to allow Dominic to back down and turn around.
The last shipment from the Osprey was in mid-air when detonation occurred. The chopper swayed, almost losing its power in the draft of the explosion but was able to gain altitude out of the searing heat that rose up as the contents plunged into the sea, whose waves were already heaving in a manifold coil of tsunami-like force from the eruption of the candles sinking toward the depths. The repercussions, besides disturbing nature, capsized the fishing trawler a quarter of mile away. Operatives aboard the Osprey had already radioed the coast patrol. It would take some time, but the fishermen would be rescued.
Back in Rome, fire trucks had been at the ready at the top of Via Aurelia, surveying the whole disaster from a distance. Once the stand-by units saw that the explosions had subsided, they moved in to douse the fires and search for survivors, if any were still trapped within or under the searing coals of molten mortar.
The explosions could be felt as far away as the Pantheon where those entering the white limo had been taken aback, not suspecting Grabe's decision to take matters in her own hands. The detonation was not to have taken place until Vendhem had been firmly ensconced. Anger, obscenities, and invectives filled the air.
The Tiber had rippled with the reverberations of the blast and its temblor repercussions felt in the turret of Castel Sant'Angelo where Niki had been aware of some disturbance from the shouts of the throngs racing toward the Tiber, It had thrown him back against the stone wall and awakened the slumbering Clement XV who had been shocked out of the Demerol stage.
Dr. Guido Ghislieri had been tossed by the oscillating jolt against the side of the Leonine Wall just short of the turret room. His fall had been cushioned by the bag he carried. Pat, accompanying the good doctor, had reacted instinctively, dropping and rolling until the foundations stopped shaking. Initially he thought sure it had been an earthquake: God's response to the Legion's tactics. Only when he arrived back in the Papal Quarters would he realize what it was and the destruction it had caused.
Those congregating in the courtyards beyond the Sistine had watched the flames soar into the air and had seen the debris flying. The impact had knocked them off their feet, but they were all safe and sound.
If any were to award plaudits, Colin Rembert should have been immediately nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for the thousands, nay, hundreds of thousands of lives saved this day. He, of course, would have begged off, giving credit to Cardinals Mendoza, Cardinal Zachmunn and the rest of the valiant warriors of the resistance. That's how heroes think. That's the essence of true honor. But, in the spirit of the show must go on, the Aussie media magnate had stuck to his guns, continuing to air the full evacuation - strategically leaving Penultimates throughout as cameramen left their positions in the final minutes to escape from danger. Most of the ultra-miniature, high-tech computer cams had been destroyed in the explosion either from direct hit, or the heat, melting them into oblivion. But every shot had been recorded for posterity. Such is the competitive world of journalism. Such is the reality of life as the dust began to settle. Colin Rembert stood out among the rest. The clamor for his head on the block by rival media networks would be met by a deaf public and critics and judges sympathetic to the heroic deeds of this man of action. Down under was on top.
Still down under the Basilica, Cardinal Zachmunn and Captain Schuster had been jarred to the ground. Some plaster and dirt poured through the ceiling, a few beams shifted and bowed as soil and dust sifted through, but the beams didn't break. The sturdy marmoreal floor of St. Peter's had held. Some of the statues in the great church above had been shoved off their fittings, a few hung precariously while other smaller, less anchored ones had smashed against the marble floor. Glass and plaster littered the floors as well as pieces of the cupolas above and even pieces of fresco had been ripped from the great dome, some landing very close to the magnificent Baldacchino over the main altar. There were other damaged areas in St. Peter's, mostly on the south side, but nothing major. Gregory knew innately what had happened. He gave an audible "Deo Gratias" that the subterranean passage he was in was still passable as he and Royce continued, climbing to where they were near the Papal Sacristy; the very spot where he had collapsed the night before. Today he was moving on all cylinders. Despite his age, the Archbishop of St. Louis was now running on pure adrenaline and grace.
Stephen and Corrie had lost their balance just as they had reached the third floor of the Papal Palace at the second of the blast. Corrie had bruised a shin, while Stephen had braced himself and rolled on the smooth marble floor, clutching his VAIO laptop to his chest. After all Corrine Morelli had been through, this was nothing. They would not learn of what actually happened until they reached the Papal Quarters where they would find Sister Bridie. The red-ribboned tape. tautly stretched over the Papal Door, had split, and now hung limply to the side. The symbolism was not lost on those who knew.
As the firefighters sprayed hundreds of gallons of water and foam on the hellish ruins, the fury of hell was raging in the white limo as it slowed to a halt. Traffic and pedestrians blocked its path back to the Vatican at every outlet. Hell hath no fury like the Devil thwarted. Despite the utter destruction of the modern buildings built after Vatican II, those built well before - those that represented the times of the unchangeable, immovable Rock of Peter - still stood. The Legion had botched another attempt to totally destroy. The price for such a costly blunder would be severe and fatal for those who failed the Master.
It would be left to the surviving resisters to rebuild from the ground up. This could only begin once the Church was again firmly grounded in the absolutes of the Faith. Pressed against the stone wall of the turret room, Clement XV was still groggy. The reality of what had happened had not hit home with the Holy Father yet, but it would. When it did, he would, with whatever time he had left, do all he could to undo the damage. Intuitively, he knew what had to be done and done now. It would not be easy One who served Christ and His Church could not shy away from such responsibility. It would, no doubt, take many years, a strong Pope, and a dedicated hierarchy to implement the counter reforms, so ingrained had three generations been from the changes wrought by Vatican II and the barren fruits it had produced.
One axiom stood true this day as the dust began to clear: Rome wasn't built in a day. More importantly, despite everything the Legion of the Basilisk could muster, Rome had not been destroyed in a day, either. Not even close. She had taken the Devil's best shot, and still lived to tell about it. Providence and prayer can indeed overcome all obstacles.
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