A freighter carrying top-secret computers of unparalleled capability disappears in the Western Pacific. While searching for a lost treasure that once belonged to the famous Chinese pirate queen, Ching Shih, Kurt Austin and Joe Zavala are redirected to look for the missing vessel.
Discovering that the sinking of the ship is just part of an intricate web of deception, they find themselves in the middle of a cyber-war between rival groups of hackers, both of whom want to control the flow of data around the world.
With no allies except a group of pirates who operate under their own crude laws, Kurt and Joe must rescue a colleague held hostage—while keeping the computers out of Russian or Chinese hands and the world’s digital information safe from the hackers.
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About the Author
Clive Cussler was the author of more than eighty books in five bestselling series, including Dirk Pitt®, NUMA Files®, Oregon Files®, Isaac Bell®, and Sam and Remi Fargo®. His life nearly paralleled that of his hero Dirk Pitt. Whether searching for lost aircraft or leading expeditions to find famous shipwrecks, he and his NUMA crew of volunteers discovered and surveyed more than seventy-five lost ships of historic significance, including the long-lost Civil War submarine Hunley, which was raised in 2000 with much publicity. Like Pitt, Cussler collected classic automobiles. His collection featured more than one hundred examples of custom coachwork. Cussler passed away in February 2020.
Graham Brown is the author of Black Rain and Black Sun, and the coauthor with Cussler of Devil's Gate, The Storm, Zero Hour, Ghost Ship, The Pharaoh's Secret, Nighthawk, The Rising Sea, Sea of Greed, Journey of the Pharoes, and Fast Ice. He is a pilot and an attorney.
Read an Excerpt
One hundred miles northeast of Taiwan
The Canberra Swift sailed through the night, heading north from Taiwan. She was a midsized cargo vessel, with a high beltline and an aerodynamic shell covering the front half of the ship. Her bridge emerged from this shell near the middle of the ship, while twin funnels, raked sharply backward, extended aft.
A leading nautical magazine described her as unattractive in nautical terms, suggesting a Japanese bullet train and seagoing ferry had borne a child together. But the strange shape had a purpose.
The ship had been designed to carry oversize cargo in a roll on/roll off configuration, much like a ferry. Freight and equipment were loaded on the ship at the stern, using a ramp wide enough to accommodate six lanes of traffic. It would be parked or stored inside, in a vast, unbroken cargo hold that ran the length of the main deck from bow to stern. Upon reaching its destination, the cargo was simply driven forward and off the ship on another ramp at the front.
Because of her size, shape and speed, the Swift had been used to transport everything from the fuselage sections of large aircraft, to rocket parts, and even nuclear waste, which traveled in sealed, lead-lined containers. If a war ever broke out, she was already committed by an option contract to be pressed into service carrying oversize military equipment to bases near whatever combat zone arose.
Jobs like these fell to the Swift, not only because she'd been designed to carry unique cargoes but also because—as the name implied—the Swift was one of the fastest cargo ships ever built. She could make forty knots in a sprint and travel at thirty-five all day long. She could cross the Pacific in seven days, a third of the time required for the average containership.
Standing on the bridge, the Swift's captain studied the radar. There were no vessels near enough to be a bother. "All ahead full," he ordered. "There's a storm heading down the Canadian coast from Alaska and I'd very much like to beat it to San Francisco Bay."
The helmsman acknowledged the order and, using the computer panel in front of him, ordered the gas turbine engines to maximum output.
With the engine room answering, the captain was satisfied. He turned to the first officer. "The ship is yours. I'll be in my quarters if you need me."
The first officer nodded as the captain left the bridge. Expecting a peaceful night, he took a seat in the command chair as the Swift put on more speed.
Clinging to the outside of the ship with magnetic hand and knee pads, Teng Kung-lu, known to his men as Lucas, did not appreciate the additional speed in quite the same way. The electromagnetic force holding him in place was substantial, but every additional bit of velocity increased the gusting slipstream that threatened to break the magnets' grip.
He pulled himself close to the hull, doing all he could to prevent the air from getting between him and the ship. Turning his face away from the wind, he looked to the side and down. The eight men of his team were doing as he was, clinging to the ship like barnacles. Each of them dressed in black, their submachine guns held tight under Velcro flaps.
He could see the strain in their arms and the tension in their faces, as this part of the heist had gone on far longer than intended.
Looking up, he counted the seconds until finally the main lights of the ship went dark. Third watch had begun. Using his thumb, he triggered a pinpoint light in the magnetic pad under his left hand. Three dots constituted an order to begin climbing again. They needed to get up and inside before the wind blew them off the hull.
With his right thumb, he pressed down on a button connected to the gauntlet wrapped around his right arm. It disabled the power on that magnet, allowing him to pull it from the hull and move it upward. Stretching as far as he could, he released the button.
The electromagnet switched on instantly and his arm was pulled back to the steel plate, where it locked into position. Pressing a second button, he was able to move his right leg upward. He then repeated the procedure on the left side, slowly but surely crawling toward an awaiting hatch.
His men did the same, following him up. A trail of human ants, heading for the sugar inside the ship.
Reaching the hatch, he risked detaching his left hand long enough to pound on the metal plating. Nothing happened. He hammered it harder, using the metal part of the gauntlet to elicit a metallic clang.
This time he heard something, a latch releasing, a wheel-which was sometimes called a dog-spinning inside. Thank god, Lucas thought.
The hatch, large enough to set a gangplank on and load ship's stores, swung inward as it opened. A crewman wearing the shipping line's uniform appeared. He had black hair with an odd white streak down the middle. He made eye contact and offered a gloved hand.
Lucas took it, released the other magnets and was pulled inside.
The crewman moved back into the shadows as Lucas helped his men through the hatch and into the shelter of the small compartment.
All went well until the last man. The man disengaged his magnets a moment too soon. His leg slipped and he dropped.
Lunging forward, Lucas grabbed the strap of the submachine gun. The weapon wedged up under the man's shoulder and held tight, even as Lucas was pulled to the deck and nearly dragged out the hatch.
"Callum!" Lucas shouted. Despite their Chinese ethnicity, the members of the group chose Western names when they joined. Each knew the other by no other name, so that in the event of capture they could not give up any of their comrades.
"Reengage!" Lucas shouted. "Use the couplers."
Realizing that Callum was frozen with fear and concerned that he might be pulled over the edge, Lucas engaged his own magnetic system and locked himself to the deck.
"Climb over me," he shouted.
The man looked up.
"Hurry," Lucas said, "before you pull my arm out of the socket."
With several of the other men now crowding around to assist, Callum pulled himself up using Lucas like a rope ladder. As soon as they could reach him, Callum's comrades grabbed him and hauled him inside.
Lucas relaxed and disengaged the magnets, pushing back from the edge. Callum offered a hand and helped him to his feet.
Rubbing his shoulder and stretching, Lucas moved closer to Callum. "That was foolish," he said, glaring at the man who'd almost fallen. "Get sloppy again and I'll let you die."
The words were harsh, but the men knew better. Lucas was the leader of a band of brothers, pirates who looked after their own. Unlike the famous pirate code of old, Lucas had never left a man behind.
Callum dropped his head and looked away, ashamed. As he stepped back, Lucas turned to the man who'd let them in. "You were late."
"Couldn't be helped," the crewman said. "The captain stayed on watch thirty minutes later than usual. He's gone to bed now."
Lucas nodded. "Anything else we should know?"
The crewman shook his head. "The security systems are disabled. You should have no problem getting into the engine room or the communications suite."
"Good," Lucas said. He sent three men to the engine room and two others to the communications center, where the satellite receivers, multiband radios and controls for the various automatic beacons lay.
Turning to the Swift's crewman, he made a change. "Take one of my men and go to the captain's quarters. Wake the old man up and bring him to me."
"I thought you'd want me to lead you to the bridge," the crewman replied.
"That, we can find on our own."
The various groups left the compartment, heading in opposite directions. Lucas took Callum with him. They went forward toward the nearest stairwell.
Moving calmly, Lucas raised the Velcro flap covering his belly. Without breaking stride, he removed a QCW-05 submachine gun that was strapped diagonally across his chest. He slung it into place and screwed a cylindrical compressor into the barrel.
The Chinese QCW fired a subsonic 5.8mm round made of hardened steel instead of soft lead. It was compact and well suited for close quarters combat. The shell could punch through a quarter-inch steel plate.
Lucas had trained his men to use them to lethal effect, but if things went as planned, they wouldn't have to fire a single shot.
Reaching the bridge, they found the Swift's first officer and a pair of crewmen at the helm. Avoiding the theatrics of bursting into the compartment shouting threats, Lucas stepped quietly over the threshold, clearing his throat to get everyone's attention.
The men on the bridge reacted with glacial speed. Their collective surprise at the appearance of armed men in commando gear was so complete that they froze in confusion.
"Get down on the deck," Lucas said calmly, "if you'd rather not be shot to pieces."
The two crewmen did as ordered. The first officer seemed stuck in his chair. Finally he spoke. "We have cash in the safe," he said, raising his hands, easing out of the seat and dropping to one knee. "It's unlocked."
"Of course it is," Lucas said.
The lack of resistance and an unlocked safe were marks of the modern state of piracy. An unspoken agreement had arisen between the world's various pirates and shipping lines whose vessels plowed the seas.
Pirates came aboard vessels where they could. Usually in tight coastal waters near poor, unstable countries. Instead of fighting them off and risking death and destruction, officers and crew often hid in safe rooms, or castles, that the pirates could not access, but allowing them time to search the ship for cash or valuables. Safes were left open and supplied with a modicum of currency. Just enough to give the pirates an easy score and incentive to get off the ship as fast as possible. At times, cell phones and laptop computers were used to augment the bribe, left out for the taking like cookies for Santa Claus.
The deal was simple. Pirates didn't injure or kill the crews, they didn't steal cargoes worth millions or damage the ships and, in return, the shipping lines didn't fortify their vessels with armed guards, ex-special forces members or former Mossad agents.
The system was more akin to bribery or a protection racket, but it worked for the most part. Except when it didn't.
As he stared down the barrel of the gun, the first officer realized this would be one of those times. He studied Lucas and his comrades, studying their clothing and weapons and considering the stealth with which they'd come aboard. "You're not here for cash," he said, "are you?"
Lucas ignored the question. "Call your other officers to the bridge," he instructed. "Make no attempt to alert them to our presence. We know your code words for security threats."
The first officer stood slowly and stepped to the console. Setting the PA system for shipwide, he made the call. "This is First Officer Crawford speaking. All officers report to the bridge for general briefing. We have new orders to review."
As the sound of his voice was relayed over the ship's speakers, Crawford looked at Lucas pleadingly. "I had to give them a reason," he said, justifying his extra words.
Lucas nodded. "At least you didn't lie."
Jonathan Freeman sat at the communications desk of Canberra Shipping & Logistics in the early hours of the Australian morning. He was covering the overnight shift for the third week in a row and the hours had begun to wear on him. Yawning and checking a clipboard, a rather quaint backup for all the computer screens in front of him, he confirmed for the third time in an hour that he'd cleared all the assigned check-ins and had nothing left to do but sit there until six a.m. when his relief would arrive.
He hoped they'd bring breakfast. Steak and mushroom pie with a basket of hot cross buns would be delightful.
"There you go again," he said to himself. "Now you're hungry."
Looking for something to take his mind off breakfast, he glanced down at the monitor that tracked the firm's ships via their AIS, Automatic Identification System, beacons. On different screens he could see them plowing the various oceans of the world, doing just what they should be doing. All of them, he realized, except one.
Tapping the screen, he zoomed in on the western Pacific, where what had been a green line was now flashing amber.
"What have we here?"
Tapping the screen again, he brought up the ship's identifying information.
"Canberra Swift," he said. "Not moving so swift anymore, are you?"
The information on-screen showed the ship slowing from its previous speed of thirty-five knots to less than ten and still dropping. Freeman watched as it dipped down to 9.2 and held steady.
Using both feet to propel his rolling chair, he slid to the right, stopping in front of the satcom station. Essentially a second computer, he tapped this screen to life and dialed up the correct prefix to contact the Swift.
"Canberra Swift, Canberra Swift," he said. "This is Operations, how do you read?"
He spoke into a slim white plastic microphone.
"This is First Officer Crawford," a voice called back over the speakers. "Go ahead, Operations."
"We show you slowing. Plot has you at a speed of 9.2. Is anything wrong?"
"Plot is correct," the voice replied. "We've had an issue with the fuel pressurization system for the gas turbine. We're running on the diesel backup. Engineering is looking into the issue. They inform me the main engine should be back up and running in about an hour."
Freeman was always amazed by the calmness of the various captains and crews. The previous month he'd helped shepherd a vessel through a Force 5 gale, complete with waves that were crashing over the deck and a balky rudder. Judging from the captain's tone, it had sounded more like a minor inconvenience.
"Will note that," Freeman said, writing down the information. "Do you need me to alert San Francisco and amend the expected time of arrival?"
"Negative on that, Operations. We'll make the distance up once we get the problem fixed."
Freeman noted the directive on his clipboard and jotted down the time. "Confirmed," he said. "Give us a shout if things change."
The first officer signed off politely and Freeman rolled his chair back to the main computer console, where he typed in the details of the conversation.
He was still at his desk an hour later when the signal from the Canberra Swift vanished from the screen.
At the same moment, eight thousand miles away, the captain of the South Korean freighter Yeongju was taking a smoke break on the port wing of his ship’s bridge. A world traveler who preferred Indonesian cigarettes for their deep flavor, he smoked slowly and methodically, getting every speck of pleasure out of his chosen addiction and passing as much time as possible.
He took one last drag and flicked the stub over the rail, sending it out into the night. The tip flared orange for an instant with the rush of wind but then vanished like a burned-out flare.
He was about to exhale when a double flash of light lit up the horizon to the north. The flash was soundless and brilliant. It had an odd bluish-white hue.
It neither flickered nor faded. It was simply there one instant and then it was gone.
The captain stared after it for a long time, aware that the flash had been bright enough to leave spots of green on his vision. Feeling a wave of pressure in his chest he realized he’d been holding his breath. He exhaled a cloud of smoke and then stepped back inside.
“Any weather to speak of?” he asked the helmsman.
“No sir,” the crewman replied instantly. “Nothing until tomorrow afternoon.”
Curious, he thought. Perhaps it was heat lightning. At times, the atmosphere played strange tricks. “Make a note in the log,” he said. “Large scale double flash to the north of our position. Range unknown. Origin unknown.”