Authors: Peter Tonkin
The toe of his boot pushes the last kitbag across the deck towards them and they fall upon it silently, unzipping its top and pulling out an assortment of weapons. No more is said. They split into four teams with oft-rehearsed ease and vanish forward, past the low wings of the stubby bridge house. The leader, with his own team, lingers longest. He gestures at the other men who pack the bags and boxes out of sight. Then they too pick up their weapons and run forward.
At the starboard bulkhead door which opens into the bridge's A-Deck corridor, they pause. The leader consults his laptop, and then punches a long, complicated number into the security lock. The door swings wide open. All in all, it has taken the men less than an hour to get aboard, equip themselves and break into the unmanned vessel.
s soon as the bulkhead door to
's A Deck swung wide open, a light on top of the receiver equipment in Heritage House started flashing red. The team keeping an eye on this new equipment went into a routine as carefully rehearsed as that of the men on board their vessel on the far side of the world. This was probably a security drill; the latest of many, but on the other hand â¦
It was seven p.m. London time and Richard and Robin Mariner were dressed and ready to attend the Old Vic Theatre for the premier of Kevin Spacey's revival of Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece
Long Day's Journey into Night
. Heritage Mariner was one of the theatre's sponsors. The Mariners were to be seated with other VIPs in the dress circle and were attired appropriately. The instant the red light flashed, however, Richard's cellphone started ringing. He put his brand-new Galaxy to his ear and a robot voice alerted him. âIt's
,' he said to Robin. âRed alert.'
âAnother security check?' she demanded from in front of the long mirror, settling her cocktail dress on her hips.
âIt was last time. But of course, you can never tell â¦'
When in London, Richard and Robin always stayed in the company flat which shared the top floor of Heritage House with the offices where the computers were located â just beneath the mass of communications equipment on the roof. Richard strode into the huge, computer-filled room minutes later, with Robin at his side.
âThat's it,' Robin said, grimly, looking at the flashing red alarm. âAgain.'
âYup,' Richard agreed. âCode Red as ever was. Someone unauthorized has gone aboard. What do the remote control team at NIPEX say, Indira?'
The computer operator glanced across at the monitor that linked to the NIPEX facility in Japan. âThey're locked out,' she said. âIt happened the instant the red alarm went up, before we were even sure what was going on. They can't communicate with the on-board systems let alone override them. They've lost control of
. Same as the last drill.'
âLooks like we'll have to send apologies to Mr Spacey and get a team of our own aboard,' Richard said grimly. âIndira, can you get some visuals on this? It'd be good to have some idea what we're up against.'
âVisuals just coming, Richard,' promised the young computer expert, her fingers busy. She glanced up at her tall employer almost shyly. She had seen Richard and Robin under a wide range of circumstances during her time here, but never in full evening dress. Richard towered behind her now, his slim-hipped, deep-chested frame clad in black braided trousers and evening jacket with satin lapels. His waffle-patterned shirt front was held closed by onyx studs and he favoured the current fashion for Continental cross-over ties which sat neatly beneath the snowy wings of his collar.
It looked to Indira's fashion-conscious eyes as though he had taken a holiday from his usual tailor at Gieves and Hawkes. His evening dress had Alexander McQueen written all over it. A shock of his black hair fell over his forehead as he leaned forward, rapt. His lean face was angled down, the blue of his gaze fastened on the screen. The scar along his cheekbone was a straight white line against his tanned cheek â like a Prussian aristocrat's duelling trophy. Robin had told her long ago it was the result of a broken retaining clip lashing back during a typhoon in the China Sea. Which, to be fair, seemed excitingly piratical and just as romantic as a duelling scar.
Robin, too, was dressed in McQueen and her little black number complemented his outfit perfectly. It also set off her figure as it sat just on the voluptuous side of fashionably slim. The midnight velvet seemed to add sparkle to the gold curls of her hair and depth to the still, calm grey of her eyes â and was simply made to go with the Chanel No. 5 she was also wearing. She had taken off her jewellery before coming through but Indira knew she had been wearing a long rope of black pearls, a Rolex dress watch in a silver case and bracelet earlier. Richard, as always, stuck to his steel-cased Oyster Perpetual. Individually, they were arresting enough. Together, they were simply dazzling.
Indira turned her attention back to her work, her mind ranging rapidly over the basics of what she would have to deal with.
had several discreet computer systems on board, all of them serving different functions, controlled in different manners and accessed in different ways. There was a system controlling propulsion and ship-handling â basically, the engines and the rudders. That system in turn was overseen by a higher system, fed with information by the ship's management systems and by the satellite systems, including GPS, all of which were programmed to assess how the ship was progressing and allow the ship-handling systems to vary their control of such matters as speed and heading to make sure the hull stayed at its programmed point on its course in spite of such variables as wind, weather and current. Zip files containing information from these systems were broadcast to Heritage Mariner and the other interested parties on an hourly basis. As well as these, the vessel had an automatic tracking device onboard like an airliner's black box flight recorder, which also recorded and broadcast the ship's position and heading on a protected channel on a regular basis. Beyond these, there were the ship's security systems designed to keep the bridge house and all other access points secure unless emergency override codes were punched into them. If that was done while the vessel was at sea, alarms were triggered and a secondary security system was also switched on, giving access to on-board cameras capable of recording what they videoed in every spectrum, from ultra-violet to infra-red. Within seconds of this occurring, unless counter-codes were entered by whoever went aboard, control of the ship was automatically passed to the remote control section at the NIPEX facility, where a twenty-four seven command and control team was ready to take over.
The computer screen abruptly cleared and Indira's attention switched back to it. âGet me the video feed closest to the alarm that just sounded,' ordered Richard, the quiet rumble of his voice making his words sound more like a reasonable request than the orders of a tense commander.
âI have four alarms sounding,' warned Indira. âBoth port and starboard bulkhead doors of the A-Deck corridor and both aft access doors to the cargo areas forward of the bridge. That's something we've never seen before. It's quite an escalation, in fact. They seem to have all the emergency override codes needed for the drill and counter-command control codes, or some sort of malware that simply prevents us accessing the ship's command control programmes, though the monitoring programmes still seem to be online. That's why the boys at NIPEX are shut out. In fact, they've definitely got the codes: there's no sign of forced entry.'
âThey have good intelligence, then,' nodded Richard thoughtfully. âIf they have access to the counter-command control codes that keep the NIPEX team out, that's worrying, though they had that access on the last drill too, if my memory serves me correctly.' He swept the hair back off his forehead thoughtlessly, frowning as his mind raced.
âWhat do you want me to do?' asked Indira.
âGo with any of them,' said Richard decisively.
âGoing with A-Deck main corridor starboard side video feed one,' she answered briskly.
âThat's just inside the A-Deck starboard door,' said Robin, sharing her husband's tension.
The screen filled with blackness. A distant glimmer of movement. A rustling whisper of sound. The squeak of a footfall, fading.
âNext one's in,' he rapped. Blackness on blackness. The merest hint of motion. Again, the whisper. Indira hit the volume and picked up steady breathing.
âInfra-red,' he snapped. Signals whipped at the speed of light from earth to a series of satellites across distances comparable to those between the earth and the moon, and back again, showing what the cameras could see at the infra-red end of the light spectrum. The picture changed as the camera adjusted its visual spectrum further. Figures moved across the screen in a range of fluorescent orange shades. Beams of strange brightness shone out of headlights ahead of them. The bodies moving purposefully forward were partially obscured by the coldness of what they were wearing and what they were carrying. They looked alien, almost robotic; different to any of the other teams that had tested the security systems in the past. More in number. More focused and purposeful. Seemingly better armed.
âBridge?' asked Richard.
âWe'll take a look â¦' said Indira at once. But when she switched feeds, the screen went blank.
âThey've neutralized the bridge feeds,' observed Robin. âThat was fast.'
âToo fast and too efficient,' decided Richard. âTime for action. Plan A.'
âSo original!' teased Robin, trying to relieve some of the tension. âDid you think that up yourself?
The edges of his wild blue eyes crinkled into a brief smile. âNo. But it'll have to do, original or not. We have to take it all very seriously, security test or not.
if not. You know what to do?'
âOf course,' answered both Robin and Indira together. Robin moved forward and sat beside the young computer operative. She kicked off her shoes â a signal that she was ready for some real work.
âOK,' he said, in motion at once. âUsual routine. I'll hit the road. OK?'
âAye aye, Captain,' said Robin equably as he strode across the office towards the door that led to their flat, his emergency travelling outfit, pre-packed flight bag and the lift to his Bentley Continental in the garage below. âI'll get Audrey on to the airlines. You'll know which one you're on by the time you get to Heathrow.'
âAnd the assembly point for the rest of the team,' he said, pausing in the doorway, sparking with energy, clearly bursting to be off adventuring.
âPlan A says Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. That's Yelizovo airport, with some pick-ups on the way in Domodedovo, Moscow,' said Indira confidently, spectacularly unfazed by either the tension or the byplay â or, come to that, the lack of originality in keeping Richard's âPlan A' label. âFailing that, it'll have to be Yuzhno-Sakhalin, and failing that Sapporo, like last time. We'll have all three timed and factored by the time you get to Heathrow.'
âPetropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Never heard of it,' said Richard cheerfully. âNor of Yelizovo. Therefore I so want to go there! Get Felix Makarov involved, just in case things in Moscow need smoothing. How soon can I be there?'
âThirty-six hours from take-off if Audrey can get you a seat,' said Indira. âAboard
within forty. Flight with BA to Moscow and Transaero internal across Siberia. Expensive, though. Ten thousand pounds, one way. Then there'll be the chopper from Kamchatka â¦'
âMake it so, even so,' said Richard cheerfully, as though he were a captain of the Starship
. âAnd warn the others. Including Felix. But the quicker I'm at Heathrow, the more options we'll have, by the sound of it. Sakhalin or Sapporo will have to do if push comes to shove. I'll be in touch all along the line â on the hour every hour till I get back home.'
He turned to go.
âAnd if you're not?' asked Robin, looking over her shoulder, her tone stopping him in his tracks. âThis lot look like they have tricks up their sleeves.' She nodded towards the computer screen, which was once again black and blank. Sinisterly silent.
âIf things go quiet when we get aboard,' said Richard as he sprang into motion once more and disappeared down the corridor, âthen it's time for
âPlan B?' asked Indira in the slightly echo-like silence after he vanished. âThere's a
âThere is indeed,' said Robin. âWe've never had to use it before, but there's always a first time. Plan B is Harry and the Pitman.' Which left her frowning companion none the wiser.
s British Airways flight 233 from London Heathrow settled on to its short finals over Moscow, Richard glanced out of the window by his side. Russia was shrouded beneath an overcast sky and there was nothing to see. He looked back at his laptop screen. The Airbus A380 was one of the new generation with on-board wifi access: he had been able to use his laptop live instead of just relying on the memory. So he was in Skype contact with Heritage Mariner's head office and aware that Plan A was falling smoothly into place. And he was fizzing with excitement as a result. It was six p.m. on
, six a.m. in London and nine a.m. on the ground below.
According to Robin, his team was assembling at its various points around the Pacific Rim, even though they were only eleven hours into the crisis. During that time, she had changed, returned to her computer, confirmed that
's hourly zip files had stopped coming in, briefed the long-suffering Heritage Mariner executives in various time zones all over the world that their CEO was off adventuring again â and slept. She'd woken a little more than an hour ago, showered and got back online. All while he was starting out on his travels.