WHATEVER THE COST: A Mark Cole Thriller

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J.T. Brannan









Copyright © 2014 J.T. Brannan









Justyna, Jakub and Mia









‘I kill only when they attack me.’

- Achilles







The sun seared an orange fire
ball across the darkening crimson sky, hovering close to the horizon as it spread the last of its rays across the Strait of Malacca.

Yang Yaobang leaned forward to peer out of the bridge’s wrap-around windows, watching the sun dropping low ahead of his ship, the Fu Yu Shan. He had to stare past the three gigantic cranes which were lined up across the bow, but he could still make out the huge orange disk, and the wonderful effect it had on the sky. Sunsets, he reflected, were truly glorious in this exotic area, and he doubted that he would ever tire of them.

Unable to remain in the enclosed bridge while nature was performing its dance across the skies, he left
his Officer of the Watch in charge, and stepped outside.

Even at this hour, the heat hit him hard after the air-conditioned comfort of the bridge, but the sensation was pleasant, a faint breeze cooling the heat on his skin.

He breathed in the air, filling his lungs with the scents hanging on the sea breeze. Even over the diesel fumes of the vessel’s huge engines, Yang swore that he could smell sweet jasmine and delicate orchid, competing with the stench of fish and rice, spices and cigarette smoke.

He looked to the shores on either side of
him, the Strait so narrow that both sides could be seen, and observed what looked like a fishing village to starboard. He put his binoculars to his eyes and looked again, this time making out the details.

A small village, boats tied up at a rickety wooden jetty, dilapidated houses crowding the shoreline, children bathing in the warm waters before dinner, women washing clothes while old men sat in wicker chairs and chatted about who knew what.

Perhaps they were chatting about the future,
Yang thought, as up ahead he could already see the urban conurbation of Si Rusa and Kampung Siginting, their commercial ports and luxury beach resorts linking up with others up and down the southern Malaysian coastline, threatening to eat up villages like this in their relentless path.

sighed as he stared at the village, wondering what it was called. He would probably never know. That was progress, he supposed.

He had come from a fishing village just like this one, a quiet village which had eventually been caught up in the vast sprawl of Shanghai. He shook his head sadly, putting the binoculars down.

Yes. That was progress.

ll, this little piece of Southeast Asia still managed to retain some of its exotic charm, the whole of the Indonesian archipelago still somewhere that one could get lost in, a vast area of thousands upon thousands of islands and islets, vast stretches of mysterious and unexplored coastline.

But the Strait of Malacca was
n’t just beautiful and exotic; it was also inordinately dangerous, and he had to remind himself that he was approaching the most treacherous part of his voyage.

The Fu Yu Shan
was a huge container vessel sailing out of Guangzhou, China. She had left the port of Tianjin a week ago, ready for a two week voyage through the South China Sea, across the Bay of Bengal, round the southern tip of India and up the coast to the port of Karachi in Pakistan. The vessel was a key contributor to Asian and Middle Eastern trade, its thirteen and a half thousand tons carrying seven thousand more tons of cargo to the ports of the Arabian Sea. There was a growing consumer market in the Middle East which China was more than willing to exploit, and over sixty thousand vessels ploughed through the Malacca Strait every year, many of them carrying Chinese consumer goods to India, Pakistan, and further up through the Gulf of Oman. Oil came back to Asia from the Gulf nations in the same way, and it was said that a quarter of the world’s traded goods passed through this area. Yang knew this to be true; perhaps even an understatement.

The Fu Yu Shan’s first stop had been the port of
Dalian, right on the north eastern tip of the Chinese coast, where she had taken on extra cargo, as well as two extra crew members. Yang frowned as he thought of these men, replacements for two of his regular crew who had become inexplicably ill just before the Fu Yu Shan was due to set sail.

Their papers said they were Chinese, and they appeared to know what they were doing, but
Yang had his doubts about them. They were incredibly taciturn and grim-faced; not characteristics entirely unknown among sailors, but strange nevertheless. And the way they had been ready and waiting, at a loose end and looking for work just when Yang was in need of two extra men was perhaps just a little

Yang had decided, one should never look a gift horse in the mouth; a delightful phrase that he had picked up from Tommy Yu, one of the three Chinese-American sailors he had working aboard the Fu Yu Shan. He had therefore taken the two extra men on at Dalian, despite his misgivings.

But now they were entering the pirate-infested waters of the Malacca Strait, his doubts began to resurface.

The Strait was so well travelled by marine traffic because it offered direct passage between the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal without having to round the Indonesian island of Sumatra and cross the deeper waters of the Indian Ocean.  But the result was a choke point, a narrow stretch of busy water in which it was very difficult to escape being boarded if attacked. And the thousands of islets, along with the multitude of rivers which snaked away inland, provided innumerable hiding places for the pirate gangs.

Piracy in the Strait stretched back to the fourteenth century, reaching its heyday in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the arrival of European
colonizers and their wealthy trade vessels.

Things weren’t as bad anymore,
Yang reflected, and yet piracy had never really been stamped out – there were still hundreds of attacks every year, from amateurish attempts by opportunistic criminals, to more sophisticated attacks by professional gangs and terrorist groups. The governments of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore had all committed forces to patrolling the Strait, although the Indian Navy also had to help out due to the ineffectualness of Indonesia’s maritime forces.

Yang hadn’t got to his position by relying on others, and he made sure that the Fu Yu Shan was properly equipped to deal with a boarding, should pirates ever decide to attack her.  There were no sound guns or any of the other specialist, high-end – and therefore prohibitively expensive, for his shipping line at least – equipment that some vessels had, but Yang believed in the basics. He therefore had barbed wire and electric fences, as well as several water cannon and – most importantly – several trained men with Chinese QBZ-03 assault rifles and FHJ-84 62mm rocket launchers, as used by the PLA’s special operations units.

surveyed the calm waters of the Strait once more, breathing in the sweet air as the sun finally slipped away beyond the horizon, leaving the world a suddenly darker place.

sighed. The beauty was gone now.

All that remained was the danger.


‘So what’ve you got?’
asked James Dorrell, Director of Central Intelligence.

Samuel Trenter coughed and adjusted his tie before he repli
ed. You didn’t just answer the director with the first thing that came into your head, especially if you wanted to keep your job.

also knew that Dorrell had plenty of other things on his plate. The Russian Federation, one of the signatories of the tripartite Mutual Defense Treaty, had just ousted its previous president, Vasilev Danko, and installed the much more expansionist and imperialist-minded Mikhail Emelienenko in his place. His opinion on the treaty was widely reported to be less than positive, and US intelligence was working overtime to draw up a reliable profile on the man and his possible intentions.

The problems in Russia
also tied in with a disturbing rise of nationalism and right-wing politics which was gaining ground throughout Europe, threatening the very stability of the EU. France was only one step away from electing a National Front government, and several other countries were not far behind.

But Trenter’s area of expertise wasn’t Europe, and he wasn’t paid to second-guess the director’s priorities. He
had been at the CIA for ten years now, working out of different desks within the Directorate of Intelligence, but right now he was posted to the Office of Asian Pacific, Latin American and African Analysis, where he specialized in the Korean peninsula.

And w
hereas in the past, the majority of trouble in that area had stemmed from North Korea’s desire to reunify – violently if necessary – with the South, nowadays South Korea also had plenty of problems with Islamic terrorism.

It had all started when the South Korean military
helped with the capture of Abu Haq Maliki, a leading al-Qaeda leader who had been travelling through the country for covert arms talks. There had subsequently been a public demonstration by South Korean Muslims, asking for Maliki’s release and denouncing the South Korean government as pawns of the United States.

The demonstration had got out of hand – nobody quite knew how – and soldiers had fired shots at the crowd. What followed was a bloodbath, with a dozen protestors killed in what the press deemed ‘
a display of unbridled savagery’.

South Korea had been the target of terrorism ever since – attacks to both exact vengeance, and to improve Muslim rights in the country – and the CIA had been keeping an ever closer eye on the area, fearful that it could presage a new spread of terrorism throughout the Asian continent.

Trenter saw Director James Dorrell’s expectant face across the desk from him, and knew he had to give an answer to the man’s question. It
important enough, he told himself.

‘There’s been a lot of traffic sir, a notable increase in communications that suggests something big’s about to happen, perhaps a major attack of some sort.’

‘What sort?’

Trenter readjusted his tie again. ‘I’m afraid we don’t know that yet sir. Communications are scrambled, the NSA is still trying to decode it all, but there’
s been a three hundred percent increase in message traffic between known terrorist groups in the Arabian Peninsula and cells we believe are operating within South Korea.’

Trenter swallowed hard. Traditionally, part of an intelligence officer’s job was to be cautious – if you constantly blew the whistle, exhaustion and even disbelief would soon set in. It was like the boy who cried wolf – you couldn’t set alarm bells ringing too often, or else people would simply stop listening to the alarm. And nobody wanted to be proved wrong.

But Dorrell was different, and he’d spelled out to his colleagues many times that he had an open door policy – if they thought something was happening, he wanted their
opinion as well as mere reportage. And Trenter respected Dorrell immensely for this. He had been one of the few political appointees who had kept their jobs after the assassination attempt on President Ellen Abrams eighteen months ago, and her belief in him was a measure of his strengths as an important leader within the US intelligence community.

What Trenter
had was thin, and not something he would have approached Dorrell’s predecessor with; but it was
, and his gut instinct told him that a major terrorist operation was about to occur within Korea.

‘Possible ramifications for the United States?’
Dorrell asked.

‘It depends on what exactly happens, sir. Obviously, South Korea is a major ally of ours; we denounced that attack on the demonstrators of course, but we’re very much in bed with them. They expect our protection, and if such an attack goes ahead, the entire world will expect us to
help the South Korean government to respond.’

Dorrell nodded his head, deep in thought. And Trenter knew what he was thinking; helping the South Korean government to respond could involve a number of things, not the least of which would be military action. And with US forces already spread thinly on the ground, this wasn’t something the administration would want.

‘Okay Sam,’ Dorrell said at last, ‘obviously we can’t let this attack go ahead. You have authorization to pick another six officers to work on this with you – full time, round the clock. I’ll speak to the chief at NCTC,’ Dorrell continued, ‘and get them to assist. I want answers, and I want solutions.’

Trenter nodded in agreement. ‘Yes sir,’ he said, standing up. ‘Thank you.’

Dorrell acknowledged him with a wave of the hand. ‘Let’s just hope it’s a waste of time, son. For all our sakes.’

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