include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Project Thunder by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


PROJECT THUNDER


Clinton Smith


Copyright 2011 Clinton Smith

The author asserts his moral rights in the work.


This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient.

If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy.

Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author

First published by Buzzword Books 2011

Second impression 2018

This edition published by Buzzword Books at Smashwords 2018


Buzzword Books: P.O. Box 7, Cammeray 2062 Australia

Website: buzzwordbooks.com

ISBN: 978-0-9923662-2-3


Other thrillers by Clinton Smith:

The Game

The Fourth Eye

Exit Alpha

Deep Six

Contents


1 Storm

2.Emma

4. Sell-out

5. Firefight

6. Score7.

7 Drift

8. Mayday

9. Wreck

10. The Rock11.

11 Castaways

12. Visit

13. Take-Off

14. Blockhouse

15. Decision

16. Raft

17. Sighting

18. Derelict

19. Contact

20. Hot Water

21. Last Rites

22. Shandong

23. Foreign Expert

24. Spook

25. Transfer

26. Limbo

27. Sydney

28. Reunion

29. Game Plan

30. Roadshow

31. Snatch

32. Boot Camp

33. Attack

34. Emma

35. Voyage

36. Boarding Party

37. Ground Zero

38. Damocles

Epilogue

Glossary






1. STORM



Doone holds up the edge cutters. 'So we grill him then kill him. Right?'

I say, 'Copy that.' Because Doone's my squad leader and war's the workplace.

The waves are on the starboard quarter. The ship shudders as they hit. As each liquid mountain surges past, we pitch into the next trough.

He hands me the cuffs and the soldering iron. 'Plug that in. Canna have him bleeding to death before he sings. And the shite'll be packing something so we play good buddies up front.'

We're on a research bucket called the Arundel. British registered. Three thousand tonnes. Crammed with meteorologists and steaming north in the Norwegian Sea.

A ship on a weather survey. Innocent enough.

Except for the strange arrays on the superstructure.

Except for the attitude of the crew.

Except for the no-go sections near the engine room.

Except that it's hired our armed squad.

And we know it's about to be attacked.

Our makeshift armoury's below waterline on C deck. Down here near the machinery spaces the engine throb comes through our boots and the hull-frames groan as the Atlantic tries to stave in the plates.

Doone pulls a 9mm Glock from his battle jacket and parks it out of sight on a top rack next to the box of cell phones. Before we sailed, to preserve security, we made everyone hand in their mobiles.

The metal door opens, lets in the stink of diesel oil—and the Russian. A thick-set type called Yuri—low furrowed brow, moon-crater skin. First time he's been in here. Thinks he's getting the grand tour.

He beams at the weapons and ammo. 'Chrise. Got enough heat.' He opens a long case and lifts out an M3. It's a steel liner, basically, for launching HE to frag. He drops to his left knee and fits his shoulder behind the pad as if he's more used to fiddling with his dick than anti-tank. He squints through the sight at Doone.

'Don't point the bugger at me.' Doone's cartoon eyebrows dance.

The guy shoves the thing back in its foam moulding, tucks in the blast goggles, re-clips the lid. He eyes the tripod of a .50 cal. machine gun, touches the flash guard of an RPG. 'Got the lot.'

'Aye.' Doone grins. 'Should give 'em the trots right enough.'

The man's eyes flicker, showing what he really thinks.

The ship creaks into the next roll. Somewhere a bulkhead door slams.

Doone grabs the top rack as if steadying himself. Then the Glock's in his hairy mitt and aimed at the Russian's belly. 'Spread.'

The guy bares his teeth like an animal, then does a curious thing. He grabs the lanyard around his neck and kisses the large jewelled crucifix attached.

I don't like it. Something doesn't square.

Next, his right hand strays to his neck.

'Arms out,' Doone roars, 'or you lose a knee.'

He does it. I kick his legs wider, frisk him. Find the knife in the scabbard down his back. And a dinky 9mm Norinco in a plastic ankle holster. As I shove them out of range.

Doone's aim droops to the guy's balls. 'Back up.'

The Russian knows he's out of options. Because Doone's ex-special forces with a heart that pumps radiator coolant. And he's a man-mountain, which makes his nickname, Lorna, droll. I'm big, too, and don't go down fast.

He slowly backs into the rack.

I plasticuff his arms around an upright and kick away his legs.

As he bumps onto the deck, his arms, snared by the bottom shelf, are jerked high behind him—forcing his head down toward his crotch in the excruciating position favoured by the Cong.

Doone pulls off the guy's boots and socks, releasing a puff of antifungal talc.

The man's eyes flash hatred. 'Why you do this?'

'Because we found your fooking transmitter.' He holds up the edge-cutters. 'Party time, shite. Who'd you tip off?'

'You crazy. I talk to family.'

'With an underwater multi-channel? Like your family lives in a sub? What's the code for the WT?' He clamps the guy's foot against his massive thigh, then positions the cutter's jaws around the base of the bugger's little toe.

In fifteen years as a mercenary I've seen plenty of shit go down. And losing a pinky's a fleabite compared to what a bullet's shockwave does. And I think, screw the bastard. Because he's sold us out. He's a mole. And his tip-off to God knows who could take out everyone on board.

'No. No. I tell,' he whines.

'Five seconds. Five. Four. Three...'

'I tell... you are... fucking bastard.'

The cutters click through bone.

The deadshit bellows and there's blood for blocks.

'Who you working for? Spetsnaz?'

He raves in Russian.

Doone cauterises the stump with the soldering iron. It reminds me of Afghanistan. The reek of cooking flesh.

Doone, face friendly as a chain saw, moves the cutters to the first joint of the next toe. 'We can take this slowly. And when did you tell them to attack?'

The Russian swears, fighting the cuffs.

'Speak English, shite. More you fuck with us, longer it hurts. After your tootsies it's fing-fings, ears, nose, dick. We're not mooking around. I want the code. Five. Four. Three...'

'I tell nozzing.'

The top of the next toe hits the deck.

The man thrashes like a bullock caught in a barbed-wire fence.

There's blood on my fatigues. Not that they're new to it.

'The code!' Doone fries the wound.

The man raves, writhes. Then his noise chokes to a gurgle and he slumps.

Doone says, 'Fuck! Get him back.'

I feel his neck. 'Checked out.'

' Bluidy hell!' He looks puzzled.

Then I figure it. There's a hole in the middle of the crucifix, as if the setting's lost a stone. I show it to Doone. 'Check-out pill. Must've stashed it in his cheek when he pretended to kiss the thing.'

Doone roars, 'Bluidy Ivans! All this shite for sweet fuck all.'

I cut the body loose, jam the boots back on, yank out the plug of the iron. 'So where do we file him? Cool room?'

'No bluidy way. Haul him topside. Fish food. What are you looking for?'

'Something to weight him.'

'Dinna fash yerself. Lots of North Sea.'

To confirm it, the ship rolls almost on its beam-ends. We grab for handholds. Its ribs groan.

When the deck decides it's not a wall, Doone smears up the worst of the blood with the socks and stuffs them in the man's jacket with the cutters. I add the Chinese popgun and knife.

He shoulders the carcass in a fireman's lift. With luck, we'll get to the weather-deck unseen.

I padlock the armoury door behind us. The air in the alleyway stinks of cabbage.

Doone sways ahead to the companionway, his huge frame filling the space. The non-slip's damp from wet boots and the metal walls sweat. As the sea slams the hull plates again, he braces against the railing.

On the next deck up a second engineer edges past us. He takes in the Russian's fixed doll-eyes and the blood on our fatigues.

'Nice night for it,' I say.

His deadpan face doesn't flicker. He hates having hardarse grunts on his vessel. Doesn't want to know.

We step out into a howling gale that's blowing straight off Greenland. The sleet stings my eyes and giant waves fling spume against the hull. I come from a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains. And these ball-freezing latitudes aren't my idea of a good time.

Doone waits till a trough exposes the red lead of the hull and dumps the carcass over the rail.

Drenched and frozen, we struggle back inside.

Doone says, 'Hot shower. Change of gear. Then hair of dog and de-brief in my cabin in fifteen.'


The showers on this bucket run hot seawater. Lathering up sandpapers your skin. By the time I get to Doone's berth, he's outside his first Scotch.

He pours me one. 'Bluidy business. Fook the shite.'

I gulp the liquor to blur the last hour. 'Could Sparks make any sense of the transmitter?'

'Nah. Looks a scaled down Russian knock-off of a French TUUM. And if you got in without the code it'd probably take your face off.'

'Well if the bastard was FSB there could be a Russian sub around.'

'Nah. We'd be sunk by now. Unless they're after something on board.'

'Someone you mean?'

'Good point. Anyway they can't play pirates in this chop. Which leaves us with our eyes peeping out our arseholes. Because we know they'll come. But not how, who, when or how many.' The cabin tilts again. 'That's if we don't sink first.'

I brace my arm against the bulkhead. Doone mightn't like the weather but I don't get seasick and enjoy things that bump around. 'Sea's on the beam again.'

'Because they bluidy keep changing the heading. What the hell are they up to now?'

He knows as well as I do.

They're trying to reach the centre of the storm.

A ship that chases abnormal weather.

It's the clue.

And the reason I'm here.

I don't tell him about the probe. Don't tell anyone about that. For a start, they'd never believe me and I can hardly believe it myself. My father's dream and my obsession. The thing we saw half a lifetime ago. A thing from space, my father thought. A thing that controls the weather. The thing I've been researching, hunting, tracking ever since.

Doone pours himself another slug and squints at me. 'So how come you signed for this?'

I trot out my careful story. It's half true, which is safest. 'I booked on a freighter from Algeria to Morocco. Cargo stops in Israel, Egypt Italy, Tunisia... Slow boat to nowhere.'

'Bluidy cranes rattling all night. Not my idea of fun. Why Morocco?'

'My dad's dead but one of his old flames has this luxury pad in Marrakech. She's got things of his I wanted to see.' That was true at least.

'So what cocked up?'

'Ship did a thrust bearing, stuffing box or something. Then I was told about this job. Of course, the moment I signed with you lot, the first ship was cleared to sail.'

'Bit sus.'

'Yes. Bit too convenient. Don't suppose you can shed light?'

'News to me, laddie. But speaking as a man with long experience in the tactics of Special Forces, I'd say someone wanted you real bad.'

It confirms my suspicions. 'Thanks a lot.' I gulp the last of the Scotch.

'One thing's bluidy sure. Nothing here stacks up.' He scratches his arse for emphasis. 'They hire the toughest mongrels in the racket—then welsh on the steel plates. Dozy boogers.'

Before we sailed, we advised the captain to weld steel plates over the areas unwelcome boarders target—the wheelhouse doors and the hatches to the engine room. He wouldn't do it. Odd. As if he was scared to stack the cards too much one way.

Doone shakes his head. 'So either we're lions led by donkeys or Yuri isn't the only two-timer on this caper.'

'Imagine the worst and you'll never be ambushed. So do we clue the skipper on our man overboard?'

'That slimy git? No way. We leave headcounts till after the attack. One more MIA won't be noticed. Meanwhile, trust no one and keep a weather eye out. Right?'

'Copy that.' As he seems to have accepted me as his wing-man, the least I can do is play up to it.

The ship rolls and creaks again. Everything rattles and slides.

He clings to the bunk-head with disgust. 'Could use some shut-eye. You?'

'Yup. Thanks for the sedative.' I leave his cabin and head for the main deck.

I doubt Doone's a plant because he seems as puzzled and wary as I am. But what do I know? I wouldn't have picked the Russian as a mole.

Suspicions. Suspicions.

Sufficient unto the day.

I climb the main steps to the saloon, hoping Emma will be there.



2. EMMA


Eight bells.

The graveyard watch.

The saloon's shaded lamps are no match for the turmoil outside. The bolted-down armchairs are deserted. Spray sluices across the windows and, behind the closed bar, a bottle rolls.

The research area's the next space aft—a section we call the dweeb shack. It's jammed with electronics that stutter, beep and glow. There are four in there on the night shift—two women and two men.

I spot Lin, the foxy Chinese bird. And the big-titted Fran. But no Emma.

I cross to the coffee machine, timing it to avoid walking up-hill. I don't like coffee but can stand hot water. I get the plastic mug to a chair and sit facing a mirrored wall. It's cracked and the silver backing's spotted. The man scowling back at me is heavy-boned, hard-muscled—someone not to meet on a dark night.

'Admiring yourself?' She's come up the stairs behind me.

I lurch up, pleased to see her. 'Get you a coffee?'

'No, thanks. I already can't sleep with all this banging.' She subsides into a chair with catwalk class. She's wearing a tracksuit and scuffs but her rangy body and thick blond hair would lend elegance to a boiler suit.

She says, 'Do you think this ship's going to make it?'

'She's not built for this weather. She's a creaky old girl and too small.'

'Yes, it's getting pretty frightening. I just hope the engines hold out.'

So do I. I imagine the helmsman fighting the swells and wishing that scientists would find a safer way to chase North Atlantic storms.

She shrugs. 'So! Where were we last time?'

'You were telling me about your work. Rising sea levels. Global warming.' I retreat to the bolted down chair. 'And how the tail of a comet always points away from the sun.'

'Solar windsocks. Yes, I'm terrible. Scientists should be gagged.' She could be forty but enthusiasts don't age. 'By the way, your country's the worst per capita emitter. You're the largest coal exporter, have the largest aluminium smelters. Yet you've got all that sunlight. Where are your sustainable technologies?'

I sip the hot water. 'I don't buy climate change. Our emissions are nothing compared with CO from methane and the rest.'

She shakes her head at me sadly.

'Sorry but I don't buy it. Carbon trading's a money grab. The bottom line's world taxation.'

'I admit we're not completely sure about warming.' She brushes a hair from her face. 'It's a theory, like most things in science, All we have are projections.'

'That they're turning into an industry. And it's not the basic problem.'

'Which is?'

'Overpopulation. Wrecking the planet. Pollution. Species extinction. Deforestation…'

'Right! And nature's hitting back. For instance, we're now in the Gulf Stream, which usually keeps the fiords from freezing. But it's slowing down. And we've just discovered there are fewer salt-water streams forming cooler water that...' As she leans forward her full breasts strain against the material of her top and outline the impression of her nipples. 'Sorry. I'm raving on again. Met's enormously complex because there are so many variables. The point is, as far as we know, this latitude's going to freeze.'

'Uh-huh.' She's noticed my glance to her body so I switch my eyes above her neck. 'Got kids?'

'No. I'm not the maternal type. You?'

'Unattached. Just a simple soldier. Chicken strangler. Ex-Aussie SAS.'

'You don't talk like a simple soldier.'

I make a note to keep in character. 'So you boffins enjoy hurricanes?'

'No. But field work can't always be in sunlight.'

Another wave tries to stave in the starboard plates and pushes us more points off course. The vessel vibrates with the shock before its bow staggers back against the surge.

I cock a thumb at the dweeb shack. 'Just four there tonight.'

'A lot of us are sea-sick.' She frowns as a roll presses her against the arm of her chair. 'So, have you ever had to... kill people?'

'Sure.'

She looks at me through her fingers.

I wait for the inevitable question about how can I live with myself. But she says, 'And what does it feel like? To kill?'

'You're trained to do it fast. The light's turned off. That's all. Or seems to be. What's surprising is how ordinary it is.'

'Hideous! Anyway, I'm glad you're here because it seems to be open season on Meteorologists. Mysterious deaths. Disappearances. But you must know that.'

'We were briefed.'

'Someone's targeting us. God knows why.' She nervously touches her neck. 'For instance, a colleague of mine was kidnapped in broad daylight in Essex. He was just back from six week's drilling ice cores in Greenland. Just walking to the shops with his wife and this van stopped and two men dragged him in. No one's seen him since. That's just one example. There are at least fifteen, if you count the so-called accidents.'

'Any idea what's going down?'

'Not a clue. Wish I had. So who's funding your squad? Because it's not us.'

'We were hired by a PMO—Private Military Org. They don't advertise the money trail.'

'They get away with that?'

'Their stock-in-trade. For instance, if a government needs a dirty trick but thinks their own special forces could be traceable, they hire a PMO.'

She stifles a yawn. 'God! Sorry. Asleep on my feet. I better hit the sack and try again.'

I rise with her and watch her disappear down the companionway. Before her head vanishes, she gives a slight wave and I nod. The look in her eye shows she feels the chemistry between us. And it bothers her.

And me.

One bad marriage and several so-so relationships later, I've gone sour on love because it seems to go sour on me. They say that planes, boats and sexual partners should never be acquired—only hired. Some are lucky in love. I'm not. In war, perhaps. But that's it.

The howling wind dies slightly as we wallow in a trough.

And, for the second time tonight, I sense something's wrong.

Because the ship's sluggish, slow to rise—as if less buoyant.

Why?

I need to know.

I lob the mug and head for the bridge.



3. BRIDGE


As I pass the master's cabin and radio shack the roll becomes unnerving.

If they want filthy weather, they've found it.

I cling to the rails of the last ladder to the bridge, listening to the whistle from the shrouds and the rattle of hail on the scuttles.

The Arundel's no bluff-bowed, slab-sided merchantman. Its raked bow and pretty lines were designed for the Met, not the north forties. So the bow's a concern because it has less reserve buoyancy forward. And the low poop, separated from the main deckhouse by a semi-enclosed well, could be dangerous in a following sea.

The door to the bridge is locked, as instructed. I press the buzzer and get my ear to the intercom.

'Who's there?' The growl of Edwards, our man on watch.

'Black.'

He lets me in.

He's a stocky type with scrubbing-brush hair and wary fed-up eyes. An SA80 hangs from his shoulder behind his right forearm, one of three standard ways to sling it.

I say, 'You look green around the gills.'

'I'm set to chuck. Why the fuck do they have to chase storms? What's wrong with sat imaging or radar?'

'Search me.'

'Cruddy boat. Can shove it up their arse, stern first.'

There are three others in the wheelhouse. Sharp, the skipper plus the helmsman, and the shifty-eyed second officer. There's no one on the wings because you wouldn't send a penguin out there.

My eyes adjust to the gloom—to the reading light on the chart table, the glow from the binnacle, the control-panels, computer plotter, radars. They have SatNav, GPS, radar weather display, weatherfax, echo sounder. And a GPS linked autopilot, which is off.

The sloping windows run like rivers but the deck and riding lights allow me to pick out the forward hatch and the fo'c'sle-head's dark rampart.

As the bow punches another white-peaked wall, the shock vibrates the hull. Phosphorescent sea slops across the gunwale of the well deck.

She's sluggish because we're shipping tons of water. The scuppers stream.

The helmsman puts two spokes down to compensate for yaw. He trys to see beyond the wipers circling the armoured glass. They're driving her into the hurricane as if determined to push her under.

Edwards, now standing beside me, says, 'You can have this for a laugh.'

'So give me a heads-up.'

'Well, radars shot—shows nothing but rainsqualls on the 60 mile range. Shorter ranges are fucked, too. Anti-clutter doesn't help. We had another ship on the port beam around eight-o'clock and about three miles away on a parallel course but couldn't raise it.'

I glance at the engine-room telegraph, set to half-ahead, then look at the compass-card. It sits at North 20 degrees east. A clicking gyro ahead of the binnacle confirms the reading.

Sharp, the captain, looks up from the chart table. He wears a sloppy crew neck and snow boots. 'Checking on us, Mr Black?' The shaded light does nothing for his stubble-shadowed face.

'I hear you had a ghost ship.'

He nods. 'We couldn't see her lights. Not that you would in this.'

'And she wouldn't acknowledge?'

'No. Not good. I can do without a collision in a gale.'

'Run a radio check?'

'Yes. No vessel reported in this sector.'

'Could it be someone who doesn't want to talk? Like a surfaced Russian sub?' I'm thinking of Yuri and his TUUM knock-off.

'Sub? Doubt it. They'd have to be desperate to sit on the roof in this.'

'Uh-huh!' I watch the sweep on the 3600 azimuth polar plot. Rain and hail fuzz it with noise and there's no apparent blip. The colour weather-display beside it looks like a finger-painting.

Sharp's back staring at his chart. As the ship rolls, a parallel rule slides across the paper. He stows it in the chart table drawer and glances at the helmsman. 'Maintain North 20 east and call me if anything changes.'

'North 20 east. Aye, sir.'

He glances at me. 'Have a word?'

I shrug and follow him down to his cabin.

His berth isn't large but comfortable enough. There's an acoustic guitar on the bunk. A desk with framed certificates above it and papers spread across it—surface analysis and sea surface temperature maps.

He points to a chair. 'Grab a pew.'

I sit as instructed.

'Yes, funny about the contact. 'He props in the chair beside the desk. 'In this sea and this weather, the radar's clutter as you saw. All the same, I don't like blips that act dumb, then disappear.'

'False echo?'

'Ambiguity? Unlikely.'

'Nothing on VHF?'

'Couldn't raise it on any frequency. But I wouldn't worry. This isn't the Malacca Straits.'

Why, I wonder, is he talking to me instead of Doone? 'You know, it'd help if you told us what we're really doing here. You hire an expensive team of murderous shits then tie their hands behind their backs. The way it comes across, you're only telling us so much.'

He scowls. 'What makes you think that?'

'The locked compartments on D deck, just forward of the engine room companionway. A kitchen-hand wheels a trolley there from the galley three times a day.'

'Perhaps the CE's eating in the engine room.'

'Not unless he's snacking. The Chief and his number Two and Three mess with us. Then you're carrying the dingles of a warship.'

'Special arrays for weather sensing.'

'And ESM, ECM, SHF, FLIR, E band...'

'We don't have those systems. You've seen the bridge.

'On the bridge, you don't.'

He glares at me. 'Simple. 'This used to be an intelligence vessel. Some superstructure systems weren't dismantled.'

'Globe radomes and planar arrays? Just left up there? Pull the other one.'

'So you're an electronic defence nerd?'

'No.'

'Thought not.' His face tightens. 'I'm done with this subject. All I want from you is a report on the morale of your men.'

'They're fine, thanks.'

'Good.'

He lurches up. 'Then I won't detain you further.'


I go down to my berth.

This whole thing has whiskers on it.

I'm not concerned about the scientists. Clearly, for them, this is a legitimate scientific voyage. But the rest of it doesn't stack up. This isn't a flag-of-convenience vessel owned by a brass plate company in Monrovia. It's a British-registered ship with legal and financial restraints. So what's in the locked compartment downstairs? Some kind of warfare centre?

And why does Sharp want his ship to appear secure—when he's not interested in safety at all?



4. SELL-OUT


This morning, the gale's gusting above force six but the waves are now head-on.

They've changed course.

We no longer ship water. The roll and lurching yaw have eased.

From the forward windows of the saloon I watch the clipper bow slicing the sea. I yarn to a boffin about the weather and he swears it'll blow itself out.

Instead, the storm cloud cracks with thunder then engulfs us in bucketing rain.

Next comes horizontal sleet that bounces ice marbles off the weather decks and builds white mounds against the ventilators and stanchions.

Before my watch, I meet with Doone and relate the spat with Sharp. When he's through cursing, he schedules a squad briefing and tells me to alert the scientists to a new emergency routine.

I go to the purser's office to use the PA, tap the mike. 'Attention all Met personnel. This is a message from security. We have a new fallback plan in the event of an attack. Those not sick or on duty, please muster in the saloon in fifteen minutes.'

The turn-up includes Emma who looks concerned and serious.

I explain that there could be an unidentified ship in the area and that, if they hear the alert, they're to go straight to the pantry—a compartment between the galley and the cool-room that's easy to secure and defend. Then I open the meeting for questions.

Lin, the Chinese woman, says, 'This ship following us. When was first contact?'

'I didn't say it was following. Said there was an unconfirmed radar trace.'

'Was any listed ship in the sector?'

'Not reported.'

Her blank face doesn't alter. According to my cabin mate Tierney, an ex-IRA from County Tyrone who's been chatting her up, she's a metallurgist. Which I don't get at all. They need a metallurgist to study the weather?

As I head up past streaming windows to relieve the man on the bridge, I wonder about Lin—her use of the words 'contact' and 'sector'. Not terms a civilian would use.

On the top deck alley, outside the radio shack, I pass the second officer and a deckhand talking. They shut up as I go by and I feel their eyes boring into my back.

I've seen them together before—on the aft deck the day we sailed. That time they were smoking and leaning against the rail. Unremarkable then. Now it slightly creeps me out.

They say once is accident, twice coincidence, three times, enemy action. Well twice is enough for me.

It was the way they were talking that surprised me.

As if they were equals colluding.

At 2000 hours, I join the squad in the cramped library for Doone's briefing. We're a surly lot because most of us have learned from experience that being the last man standing depends on your enemy's bad aim.

Doone calls us to order, gives a heads-up on Yuri, then opens the meeting for comment.

'So we still assume they'll come at night?' Musch, the practical Dutchman, asks.

Doone nods.

'Well, the standard way to handle that is with a floodlit ship. With port and starboard searchlights sweeping the water each few seconds.'

'Aye, I know that well enough. But I don't want to telegraph awareness. Smarter to draw them into an ambush.'

'Some ambush,' the gelled-haired Edwards says. 'If Yuri's sold us out they know the lot.'

Doone nods again. 'Our intel indicates that they're after specific scientists and know precisely who they are.'

'So we're looking for go-fasts?' the Yank, Webster, says. He's across drug and migrant smuggling from his stint in the US Coastguard.

'Anything that moves,' Doone says.

'Then the best deal's a fibreglass craft with a wide-beam, "V" hull and shielded engines.'

'Not out here,' Doone says. 'More like big semi-inflatables you can drive when they're swamped.'

'Whatever. Bottom line is it'll be something that can outrun us. That makes twenty-five knots while we're pushing eighteen.'

Edwards scowls. 'Will a boat like that paint on radar?'

'Or boats,' Doone cuts in. 'You can count on more than one.'

'Won't see them,' Webster says, 'if they're pros. They'll have no exterior metal so they won't show a blip till they're on us. In this chop, you can't see anything small. Not even a yacht with a radar reflector.'

Doone raises a hand for silence. 'Now best boarding locations are bow and stern.'

The Dutchman frowns. 'Then why'd put the machine gun mounts forward of the bridge?'

'So if they come on the beam, we can sink them before they reach us.'

The Dutchman looks unconvinced.

The truth is Doone's requisitioned the heavy shit because he's a weapon-tragic. Musch knows that .50 cals and grenade launchers have been used on gunboats in littoral operations but they're basically land-based weapons. And without a clear sighting, pretty useless.

More questions follow but we're spinning our wheels. There's too much we don't know—or haven't been told. After Doone rearranges watches and hands out a revised roster, he says, 'Okay. That's it. Stand down.' And the meeting breaks up.

In the alley, the sour-eyed Tierney falls in beside me. 'Fucking waste of time.' As we bundle down the companionway, he adds, 'So it's a set-up, you reckon, for sure?'

'Nothing's sure in love or war.'

When we get to our cabin, he parks his boots and gets into his rack. 'They say you hung up the winged dagger? How come?'

'Lots of reasons.'

'Like?'

I'm having to explain myself again. 'Well the ranks know more than officers on three year rotations. And good guys quit rather than go to other postings. And copping heavy machine gun fire and RPGs on an exposed ridge in Afghanistan sucks.'

'Uh-huh!' He seems convinced.

I climb up to the top bunk. 'Hear you worked with Doone in Ireland? How'd you find him?'

'Funny bugger. Short fuse. Cross him and they'll scrape you off the walls.'

I try to sleep but Tierney's past haunts him. He raves through his nightmares like a man in the middle of a firefight. My mind drifts back thirty-one years to a place in the dead heart of Australia—somewhere east of Barrow Creek and about fifty miles off the Stuart Highway...


I was ten then, just a kid, and my sleep was sweet and deep. But I was woken by something, perhaps a movement in the tent—and found myself in the middle of that momentous and magical night.

I sat up and looked out the flap.

My father stood outside, still as a stump, staring across the claypan.

I dragged on my pants and sweater and went out beneath crystal stars.

Far away there were bobbing lights. Headlights, the beams of torches and muffled engine sounds.

'What is it?' I asked him.

'Blowed if I know.'

All the boiling, sun-seared day, there's been nothing but the clank of our drilling rig and the shimmer of the bare flat plain. And now, in the dead of night, hundreds of miles from anywhere—this!

He started walking toward the lights. 'Want to come?'

'Sure.'

'Then let's not advertise ourselves. I don't want them spotting us.'

So we left the silent rig's dark spire and slunk across the bulldust. We must have walked for fifteen minutes, stumbling sometimes in the dark.

There were men in Army uniforms, Land Rovers, two canvas-covered transport Jimmie trucks, a low loader, a heavy-duty crane...

My father squatted and motioned me down.

They kept the lights to a minimum—using the spotlight on the crane. They had a sling around the thing to load it onto a flatbed transporter. And those nearest to it were wearing protective suits.

'What is it?' I asked my father.

'Something they don't know what to do with.'

It was like a huge, half-buried cigar—a long probe, perhaps four metres in diameter, made of gleaming teal-coloured metal. The ends were almost flat and there were no hatches, ports or protrusions.

'Do you think it's a...'

'Shhh! Stay here.' He started crawling across the ground, using his knees and elbows. Soon, I couldn't see him and started to wonder when he'd come back. And whether, in that moonless night, I could find my way back to our camp.

The crane's winch turned, the slings took up but the probe seemed stuck. When it finally moved, it let out a crack.

I'm now convinced it was far less romantic than the UFOs my father believed in.

And far more dangerous.

As they found when they trucked it through Darwin on Christmas day in 1974.

As they found when they stored part of it in Montana in 1988.

It always comes back to the probe—the thing I've hunted half my life. When you're ten and stumble over something conventional knowledge can't explain, you tend to develop into a rock-hard, methodical obsessive.

The upside is, I suppose, that I'm not easily put off.

That's why I quit the SAS.

And that's why I'm here.

I took the job on this bucket purely on the strength of a hunch.


A banging.

I grip my SIG-Sauer. It sleeps by my right side with a round in the breech.

Tierney's at the half-open door, his automatic in his hand. Someone yells, 'Contact to port. Go go go.'

We kit up. Black assault suit, with built-in harness and pouches for mags and grenades, boots, helmet. And MP5 sub-macs.

Tierney, checks the mags strapped to his left thigh. 'Fucking hope Doone's called this right.'

'Soon know.' I get my helmet on with the visor up, check the headset radio battery light's green, clip the SIG into my right leg holster. Six AM by the luminous alarm. The ship's steadier than when we turned in.

Tierney doubles down the alley, heading for the poop.

I pound up the stairs to my primary position—the exterior boat-deck. Its U-shaped gangway runs both sides and athwart the rear of the main deckhouse.

As I open the weather deck door, I'm hit by wind-chill and driving rain.

I climb the companionway to the boat-deck, glad of the bulging suit. It's meant to stop rounds, not rain but, for a while, its pockets, pouches, Kevlar and ceramic shields will keep me warm.

I spot Tierney below in the well, ripple-soles sliding on the streaming deck, heading for the stern. He scuttles up the ladder to the poop and squats behind the portside bulwark.

A squawk inside my helmet. 'All units, this is U1. Stand to for radio and position check. Acknowledge, over.' It's Doone.

They respond in numerical order. I wait my turn. 'U1. U6. In position. Roger transmission. Over.' We're all on first position stations and receiving.

Doone will be in the wheelhouse. Musch will cover the storeroom and the gangway to the engine room. There'll be four more in the waist of the foredeck, manning the machine gun and grenade launcher. Another on the aft deck with the M3. A man at the bow and Tierney at the stern. An unpleasant welcoming committee.

The radio crackles. 'All units, U1. Listen up. Echo at ten o'clock. No visible lights. No acknowledgment. Ship locked-down with crew warned off weather decks. Watch for fast boarding craft and grapples. If located, report and fire at will. Repeat, fire at will. Out.'

I'm tasked to cover the rear well, to slot bandits that make it that far and to cover the rear access to the bridge.

I look for the guy with the M3. Can't spot him in this sleet. But the bugger has to be on station. Perhaps directly below.

I spot the dark bulk of Doone on the wing, an NVG fixed to his helmet. He's looking out to sea at eight o'clock as if expecting a stern quarter assault.

The stern well deck is masked by high gunwales with an oval cut protected by railings. I squint along the gunnel, checking for anything unusual.

Something's projecting from the railing on this side. Part of the ship or...

Freezing water trickles down my neck. The visor on the helmet's useless. I have to keep it raised or can't see a thing. Tierney's still hunkered down on the stern.

As I pace to the starboard side of the catwalk in the howling wind, then cross to port again to see if the same projection's there. Not quite. This one's further back.

I frown and lean further out, checking the sea along the hull. Beneath the projection, foam streams.

I cross to the other side and peer down again. It's the same pattern beneath the projection. Then I remember an old technique and realise what I'm looking at.

They've driven two boats ahead of us straddling our course—two boarding craft joined by a line. Our bows have snagged the line and drawn the boats in until they ride snug against both sides of the hull at the least defended, least expected area.

With the low freeboard aft, it wouldn't have taken long to get on board. For all I know, they could have arrived before we deployed.

Then I spot the barrel of a mini-missile launcher is sliding across the deck below. And the heels of a pair of boots.

Someone slotted the guy with the M3.

They're already on board.

I wave at Doone who's wiping rain out of his eyes. I point down, down, with big arm movements.

He gets it.

Then hell breaks loose.


5. FIREFIGHT


I'm crouched now, watching for movement.

Doone calls a general alert.

Then reports come in fast.

A breached door near the main companionway.

'Contact, engine room. Defending.'

Behind the thin, low-bandwidth words, the hammer of automatic fire.

Then, carried on the wind from the forward deck, the pounding chatter of the M2HB. It sounds as if it's mounted on the port side and chopping up the portside boat. Those big rounds could cripple an APC and the craft will be shredded by now.

As for this side... I wrench the top off my grenade pouch, pull out a frag and do the cook-off—pull the pin, release the lever, hold for the two-count. Then I aim where I think the boat is and duck back after the throw.

A muffled whump as if it's exploded in the sea. It's done jack shit.

But no incoming at least.

I lean out again and follow with a burst from the MP5.

'Gun crew, U6,' I report into my throat-mike, 'Boat on starboard side as well.'

'U6, gun crew. Wilco.'

Automatic fire and exploding grenades—still port side judging by the sound.

Suddenly a searchlight from the starboard wing spotlights the raider's boat. It's a big grey semi-inflatable—empty—bilge awash and dragging on its line. A thin nylon ladder dangles above it from a grapple on the ships rail.

Firing comes from below and to my right.

I double back to the stern section of the gangway, crouch against the safety rail and steady the MP5 against a stanchion. Through the gloves, the knurled fore-grip feels comfortable in my hand. Although the weapon is superb, Doone's got the ordinance wrong. In this scrap we need NVGs and laser aimers, not heavy machine guns and grenade launchers. I thumb the selector lever, double-checking it's set on burst. If they try to cross the aft deck now, they're cactus.

Despite the chill and the water running down my back, I feel good—alive. When you're facing a calculated death, as extreme sports enthusiasts know, events become vivid, objective, and discomfort fades. Even my bad leg's forgotten how shot-up it was. I'm soaked to the skin but the thermal singlet helps.

Tierney calling me. 'Bandits. Rear deck, below you. Engaging.'

'U3. U6. Copy. Standing by.'

I make out the smudge of Tierney and the flicker from his flash guard. He's holed up behind the base of the stern derrick.

Bursts of fire.. It sounds as if the bad guys are under the exterior companionway below.

Tierney pulls back as if winged, then flattens, firing on auto. Behind me the machine gun's heavy clatter splits the air. From the starboard side now. They're chopping up the other boat.

Another burst from below.

It stops.

I call Tierney. 'U3. U6. Come in.'

He's prone on the poop, using the edge of the deck for shielding. He doesn't look good but answers. 'U6. U3. Visual on two of them. Repeat. Two.' He's struggling to get it out. 'Positions—main deck, below you and portside. Over.'

'U3. U6. Copy. Out.'

One bandit breaks cover with a crouching run as the second covers him with a burst. The first man props behind a life raft container and covers his unseen partner to let him move up. Standard stuff. You don't fire on the move. You get to the next position, then attack.

It's raining sheets and the aft deck light doesn't help. But the white fibreglass container outlines the guy.

I use the sights and squeeze off a burst of three.

He slumps. Even the instinct to return fire's left him.

I fire again. He collapses against the container, legs splayed, a broken doll.

'U3. U6. One down. Over.'

Tierney yells in the cans. 'U6. Two coming up to get you. Repeat. Two. Over.'

'U3. U6. Copy.' I'm starting to freeze in my sodden gear. 'Got line of sight? Over.'

No reply.

Another burst. I can't tell who's firing.

I work around the starboard corner of the gangway where the side of the deckhouse gives me cover, and give Tierney a last try. 'U3, U6. Acknowledge.'

No response. He's either lost comms or he's cactus.

The two know my position and they're hunting me. And if I engage them on the stairs, I'll face two angles of fire. Bad odds.

I peer behind me. The only cover is a stack of small floats with rope handholds. I get to it, crouch behind it, switch to full auto and wait.

Then I realise they may not come this side at all and I'll have to stalk them. I give them thirty seconds to show—count it off. One thousand and one, one thousand and two...

Despite the cold and discomfort, I feel fine. Full attention on the job. Aware enough, now, to get the drift without working it out. Their boats are fucked so they'll need our lifeboats to take the boffins off. Unless their game plan is to take the bloody ship.

One thousand and thirty. That's it. If they were coming this way, they'd be here.

I break cover, reach the corner of the housing, hold the gun around and hose the walkway. Then lunge into the line of fire and fetch up against the rail.

No one on the stern section of the walkway or the stairs. They're waiting on the other side. I take cover, thumb the release to eject the emptied mag, reverse it to slot in the full one taped to it, then get to the port corner.

Showtime!

I hit the deck and roll out, gun over my head. If you keep rolling and fire, there's a fair chance you'll survive.

The first man's flattened against the deckhouse wall, ready to squint around the corner and aim.

Before he can react to the twirling black log at his feet, he takes a head shot through the base of his jaw. Risky, but the fastest shutdown.

His skull explodes and his burst goes high. A dying man's finger constricts on a trigger. If I'd gone for his gut, he could have slumped forward and slotted me.

His fall exposes the man behind him—crouched on one knee near the rear door of the bridge. The red dot of his laser's on my jacket.

As I reverse roll behind the corner his burst chews the nonslip where I was. I stand, gun high above my head, hold it around the corner—spray, crouch, peer.

The walkway's empty, the wheelhouse door's still unbreached. Doone, no longer on the wing, must have problems of his own.

From behind the nearest pulpit of the lifeboat comes a flicker of fire. Ricochets whine off the plating. One clips the top of my helmet.

I'm pinned behind the deckhouse corner.

The second bastard's in the boat? Be fun to launch him. Except I'd be Swiss cheese halfway to the winch. Of course, a grenade would solve it. But the Maritime Safety Authority wouldn't approve.

Then I remember the ladder to the deckhouse roof—which is as high as one can get on this bucket without climbing the mast.

I reach the ladder and crawl up. The roof has a sloping edge with no safety rail and the ship's now rolling in wide arcs as if we're degrees off course. I crawl forward, slipping on streaming metal, blinded by wind and stinging rain, and clutch at the mount of a whip aerial to avoid being pitched into the sea. I feel the burn through my gloves. But it's either be micro waved or flung overboard. I crawl through the jungle of domes, sat dishes, radar sweeps.

I reach the rolling tackle that guys the funnel and work out I should be level with the lifeboat. I get to the edge, link my arm around a braided wire and brace one foot against the turnbuckle that connects it to the roof. Timing the roll, I lean forward and stare down.

My flanking manoeuvre hasn't helped because it's still too bloody dark to see.

The lifeboat's the half-enclosed type with the waist section open except for two wire struts for supporting a removable canvas cover. He'll be in one of the fibreglass housings. Even if he's crouching in the waist, there's no way to see him. No lights up here at all. And the inside of the boat is as black as the pitch-black night.

I wipe my eyes. Simple to post a grenade. But chopping up a lifeboat still feels a bad idea.

Inside the gunnels are two lighter strips that have to be stowed oars. Something black moves against their paleness.

I squeeze off a burst. It'll hole the boat a bit but the thing has built-in buoyancy and pumps.

Above the howl of the wind and the rattling of struts, a cry of pain.

A figure topples out and falls to the heavy swell below.

Soaked and freezing my balls off, I thread back through the maze of hardware, reverse down the ladder, reach the walkway again and stare aft.

Tierney still lies like a starfish on the poop.

I try one last call. 'U3, U6. Three bandits down. Acknowledge.'

Nothing. If he can hear he'll be pleased but, by the look of him, he's checked out.

Doone in the cans. 'U6, U1. Over.'

'U6 receiving. Over.'

'Back-up needed on deck D. Can you deal?'

'U1, U6. Wilco.'

Another chance to be slotted. But it's more interesting than a desk job. I double down the ladders to the main deck, heading for the rear bulkhead door.

A yellow light widens, then narrows in the aftercastle. A door opens. The man who's just come out is working his way forward.

It's a sailor in orange fire-resistant overalls.

The colour saves his life.

I yell at him, 'Get below, idiot,' and pound down companionways to the lower decks, ready to blast any movement to hell. We aren't taught to be maniacs, but adrenaline's part of the toolkit.

It's a different war down here—a well-lit, cream-painted killing ground of abrupt corners and cabin doors. I reach the fetid air and galley smells of D deck.

The bandit steps from the T-section of the alley before I can react.

His burst takes me in the chest and shoulder.

I'm falling into a pleasant dream. Falling slowly. Insulated. No particular pain.

I'm glad it's a warm place to die.



6. SCORE


Every breath is agony. The bandage around my chest doesn't help.

Kevlar can save you from pistol rounds. But high velocity's not simple. I've seen training videos of what a rifle bullet does to a vest. Depending on the number of layers, it stops a round of a reasonable calibre—after distorting the inside into a projecting cone deep enough to break your ribs. And that cone is an instant kick—not a slow-mo deformation. In my case, several kicks. But at least the ceramic shield on my shoulder deflected a hit and saved the joint.

The pitching ship doesn't add to comfort. I know I'll be sore for weeks but I've managed to get some sleep.

And they've put me in the bottom bunk. Which tells me Tierney was slotted.

Doone comes in, gripping the top bunk to keep his footing. 'How're you tracking?'

'Like I've got pleurisy. What's the score?'

'Twelve. Got the lot. The shites.'

'Not bad.'

'Considering they had the jump.' He looks dourly pleased and should be. Commanding men in combat's a tough call and he's done well. In a conventional war, he'd get a gong. I make the effort to shake his hand, although the motion half kills me.

'We scraped up your road kill,' he says. The compliment's delivered with Aberdeen restraint.

'Damage report?'

'Three of ours KIA, plus the CE, the first mate and two eggheads. Freezer's full. If more check out, we'll be salting them down.'

The deaths in our squad are expected. The contract states that their families will get a hundred thousand each on the condition that questions aren't asked—an unusually generous deal because some PMOs don't cover you at all. And because the links of private armies to governments or corporations are obscured, slotted mercs are unsung. Because the media doesn't give a toss. Mostly, they don't even know.

'Who were the bad guys?' I ask. 'Any positive ID?'

'They had Kiparis and Kovrovs, so looks like Ivans. If one was still breathing we'd know more.'

I try to sit but it hurts like hell. 'Did they slot any boffins?'

'Two. Your lassie's okay.' A dour grin.

The foot of the bunk falls out under me as we pitch into another trough. A ride on a bull would be kinder. I prop myself up again and wince. 'What's the forecast?'

'Glass still falling. We're fronting a nor-westerly and, according to the experts, it's a secondary depression forming on the edge of the primary. If they combine, we're in for another bluidy hurricane.'

'And where are we right now?'

'Somewhere off Norway's North Cape.'

'Heading for where? Spitsbergen?

'God knows. In the last twelve hours, we've changed course three times.'

'They're still chasing the weather?'

'Or trying to hit a berg. Or after a sunny excursion in the Barents Sea. Daft buggers. Way we're going we'll end up on the bottom or in naval detention in Murmansk.'

'So how are the scientists taking it?'

'Those who aren't tossing up their guts are scared witless and want to head back to Portsmouth. In fact, they put it to the skipper.'

'And..?'

'Won't have a bar of it.'

'Why?'

'Says that running for home in these conditions puts the seas on the stern. And the ship's so small and underpowered, it could be pooped.'

The door opened by a scared-looking steward moving like a drunk in a comic ballet. Under the metal plate cover of the tray in his mitts I smell steak-and kidney pie.

I thank him and, when he leaves, say, 'You mean we can't turn around? That's mad.'

Doone nods. 'Thought that, too. So I chatted up the second mate. He said they've got two probs. The first's to do with rudder efficiency and torque. If they try to turn her and she doesn't make it in time they could roll her bulwarks under. And even if she makes it around, she's still not safe.'

'How come?'

'Because, in a following sea this big, if you happen to match the wave speed, a crest could stave in the stern. He said they discussed slowing up and trying to surf back. But Sharp wouldn't have it. Said it could neutralise the effect of the rudder and make the ship broach to.'

'So we're in deep shit?'

'I'd say.' He points to the tray. 'Right with that?'

'Thanks. I'm set.'

To spite me, the cabin lurches again and I almost end up wearing the food.

He opens the door, 'Get your head down. But sleep fast. 'Cause I need you back on deck. I've got two more down wi' leg and arm wounds and we'll soon be on twenty-four hour watch.'

As the door closes behind him I settle back in the bunk.

So they were Russians?

Why?

Because Russia wants intel about the probe? Because they're working on a similar device?

Then I think about this weather. Violent and unusual. Like the downpour that came a day after they trucked the thing away—rain that turned the red soil to mudholes and made the track an impassable bog.

I remember the destruction of Darwin after they freighted the thing to the wharf. And the drought in the mid west and south of the USA when they stored part of it in Montana. The thing affects the weather. Causes weather like this.

Which makes it an object of enormous strategic significance.

We rise on another crest and the engine-throb sounds uneven. I visualise the prop half-clearing the water and racing.

Is the probe now somewhere near us? Perhaps on the ghost ship that didn't reply?

And why, for God's sake, are we standing off the coast of Norway in this blow when the only safety in a gale is sea room?

That's not the only thing that bothers me. With the chief and first mate gone, we're at the mercy of the second engineer, the devious captain and his shifty second mate.

I know, despite the pain, that I need to get back on deck fast.


7. DRIFT


The storm's worse.

I've made it into the alley but find it difficult to walk. As I hang onto rails for stability it sends daggers through my chest.

The saloon's a shambles. Broken glasses on the floor. A descant of creaks and crashing objects punctuates the roar of the gale.

I glance through the forward windows into the gothic twilight of mid afternoon. On the freezing deluge of the foredeck, four crewmen struggle to rig some kind of warp. They wear oilskins and harnesses linked to a lifeline by running snap-shackles. The next wave hits and a wall of water sweeps them off their feet.

Our squad's down to four able men. Five if you count me. And because Doone knows I'm next to useless he's told me to keep an eye on the scientists.

I stagger into the dweeb shack where seven pale distracted specialists are trying to secure their equipment. Although the larger stuff is bolted to the benches, some now lies smashed on the floor. Two men are chasing the sliding debris with a dustpan and brooms. Emma's watching them, looking worried. The Chinese woman, Lin, stands beside her, face impassive but a muscle flickers in her lower lid.

Emma spots me, looks relieved. 'They said you were shot.'

'I was.'

'But you're all right?'

'Body armour helps. If you can stand the cracked ribs.'

A thin looking man with a walrus moustache, his eyes red from lack of sleep, braces himself against a bench. He says, 'We told them to turn back. But the tossers won't listen.'

Emma plucks at my jacket. 'Can I talk to you a moment?'

I follow her to the aft bulkhead.

It's hard to hear in this racket so she practically has to shout. 'Did they tell you what they found on the men who came on board? They had descriptions—photos. They were apparently after three of us. One was me, can you believe it? I'm still shaking.'

'Did they talk to you? What did they tell you?'

'Nothing really. Only one of them spoke English. They cuffed us.' She pulls the sleeves back from her wrists and shows me the welts. 'They were taking us to the boats when your men shot them.'

'So they didn't say who they were or...'

'Nothing.' Strain lines around her mouth and eyes. 'Your squad saved most of us, thank God.'

'What we're here for.'

'But why would they...? I mean, why me?'

'No idea. Sorry.' I'd like to confide in her but can't do it without telling her more than I want her to know.

The dweeb shack is abaft the bridge house, at the rear of the central accommodation, and, through its rectangular windows we see swells creaming along the stern. There's no one on the weather deck. The rigging vibrates like plucked strings.

She gawks at the waves and shivers. 'Do you believe this?'

'You wanted storms.'

'I suppose we're safe while we stay bow-on.'

'You know about boats?'

'A bit. My father had an old gaff-rigged cutter. He berthed it at Falmouth, at St Mawes and I crewed for him in my teens. He was divorced then. An excuse to get together.'

'So you can sail?'

'Second nature. But I don't know much about ships.'


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-51 show above.)