Chapter 1

This novel is dedicated to .com (PD) the best writer the blogosphere has ever seen. No one wrote a rant like .com. I fear we will not see his like again.


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Sea of Fire

"If the U.S. imperialists ignite flames of war, we will first of all strike all bases of U.S. imperialist aggressors and turn them into a sea of fire,” North Korea's Central Radio quoted officer Hur Ryong as saying. Hur was also quoted as saying that the North Korean military will "thoroughly incinerate the aggressors’ elements that collude with the U.S. Imperialists."


Article 16(4) of the Geneva Convention:
There will be no suspension of the innocent passage of foreign ships through straits, which are used in international navigation between one part of the high seas and another part of the high seas or the territorial sea of a foreign State.



Indonesia, Straits of Malacca, Palau Nua Island
October 27, 2006, 23:00 local time


The narrow wooden boat left the jungle-fringed beach and headed out into the Strait. The helmsman revved the old diesel engine and the boat surged forward, its outrigger creating an intermittent fluorescent wake through the water.

Malik could see the lights of at least a dozen ships. He could recognize a ship's type by its lights. The one they were interested in was long and low. The helmsman set the wooden boat on a course to intercept the massive, slow-moving ship.

The eight black-hooded men on board carried an assortment of weapons, mostly parangs, the short machete-like sword of South East Asia. Two men carried old, but still serviceable, revolvers.

The helmsman steered the boat so that it would pass three hundred meters to the rear of the huge ship.

When the boat was almost directly behind the big ship and had crossed into its wake, the helmsman pushed the rudder hard and the wooden boat turned onto the same course as the big ship. This was always the riskiest part of the operation, but approaching the ship from the rear ensured they wouldn't show up on the big ship's radar.

An alert radar operator might notice that the small boat had disappeared from the ship's radar and not reappeared a few minutes later as it should, but small boats crossed the paths of the big ships all the time in these waters. And even if he did notice, by the time he acted on the information, it would be too late.

The helmsman turned the engine's throttle and the small boat accelerated through the ship's wake and drew level with its side.

The fully laden oil tanker on its way from the Arabian Gulf to Japan rode low in the water. Men threw grappling lines over the ship's rails not far above them. Two of the black-hooded men looped the ropes around wooden cleats on the boat's gunwale and pulled them tight, securing the small boat to the side of the massive ship.

The men began to climb the short distance to the deck. As soon as they could reach the ship's railings, they grabbed hold and pulled themselves on board. Within seconds, eight men were running toward the superstructure at the rear of the vessel.

The leading man ran up the steel stairway that led to the bridge. When he reached the top, he pulled open the heavy metal door, and the four men behind him charged through.

Malik could see the shock and fear on the three men's faces, as he pointed his revolver at the Captain, the only European on the bridge, and demanded, “Where is the radio room?”

The Captain said to the two men with him, “Stay calm, I'll handle this. Company policy is to cooperate. Give them everything they want.”

He then said to Malik, “I'll show you. It's this way.”

Malik and two of the hooded men followed the Captain to a room just behind the bridge. The room was unoccupied. The two men with Malik entered and began disabling equipment by unplugging and smashing what looked like key components.

Malik turned to the Captain and said, “Money, Guns.”

He looked directly at Malik, “The money we have is in the safe in my cabin. Our only weapon is there also.”

“Take me there.”

The Captain turned down a passageway and began to descend a short flight of stairs. Malik glanced at his watch and followed.

The Captain's cabin was neat with photographs of a large blond woman and two blond teenage girls, hanging on the wall. Several books in a language Malik didn't recognize lay on a small pull-down table. The European went straight to a safe in the corner and began to turn the dial on its front. He pulled down the handle and stepped back, leaving the door open.

The Captain said, “Take what you want.”

Malik pointed his gun at the safe and replied, “You empty it.”

Malik couldn't remember if there was a special English word for that kind of table and just pointed at it.

“Put it there.”

The Captain took a cash box and a pile of papers out the safe, put them on the table, and then stepped back. Malik reached over to open the cash box. When he turned back to the Captain, he was standing with a pistol in his hand. Malik started to raise his own pistol before he realized the man was offering the weapon to him, not pointing it at him.

The Captain said, “Take it. It is the only weapon on board.”

Malik reached out and snatched the gun from the man's hand. He knew the European could have killed him if he had the nerve. His finger tightened round the trigger of his pistol. He wanted to kill the man for having exposed his weakness, but that would bring more attention from the authorities, and Wang had stressed no unnecessary violence. It was part of their deal.

He gestured toward the door with his pistol, and the Captain moved around him and left the cabin. Malik shoved the second pistol into his belt, grabbed the cash box, then spread the documents out looking for the captain's log. He found what he was looking for and put it in his pocket.

When he reached the corridor, the Captain was waiting for him. Malik realized he needed another man with him. He could easily lose control of the situation when he was on his own like this.

As soon as the Captain saw him leave the cabin, he turned and ascended the stairs that led back to the bridge. Malik followed him.

The other crewmembers sat on the floor of the bridge with their hands on their heads. Two of his men stood guard over them.

Malik glanced again at his watch, six minutes and twenty seconds since they had entered the bridge, just over eight minutes since they had boarded the ship.

Malik said to his men, “We're finished.”

The black-hooded men headed for the door. Malik was the last to leave the bridge. He couldn't resist a last look at his watch, six minutes and forty-five seconds. Wang had stressed to him that they had to get the whole operation, from boarding to leaving the ship, completed in less than ten minutes, and the time from entering the bridge to leaving it, under seven minutes. This was the first boarding, where he and his men had achieved those times.

When Malik reached the bottom of the stairs, he could see the men ahead of him climbing over the ship's rail. He ran down the deck until he was above the boat. Then quickly climbed over the rail, grabbed one of the ropes and slid down, landing hard on the bottom of the wooden boat. His men were releasing the ropes before he got up.

The helmsman gunned the engine, pushing the tiller hard over to the left. The small boat sped away from the massive ship and disappeared into the darkness.

As the small boat headed back into the maze of islands and inlets along the Indonesian shore, Malik thought they had earned their five thousand dollar payment tonight. While he still didn't understand why they had to execute these operations at six hours notice, he was learning the importance of timing as an aid to organizing complex operations. It forced him to mentally prepare exactly what would happen on board the ship and make sure every man understood his role. Malik appreciated the training he was getting in executing operations swiftly and smoothly.

***

The crew on standby ran out to a twin-engined light plane waiting beside the runway at Seletar Airport. The plane was registered to a company owned by the Singapore Government.

The plane took off and climbed into the air following a flight path to the southwest, crossing the Singapore coastline west of Jurong Island. Over the ocean, it turned northwest and flew at five thousand feet, holding to a path directly up the center of the Malacca Strait and slightly to the south of the international maritime boundary between Malaysia and Indonesia.

Two technicians sat in the area behind the pilot and copilot intently occupied by an array of monitors and instrument displays

Fifteen minutes later the pilot spoke over the plane's intercom. “We will be there in approximately thirty seconds. What do you want me to do?”

“Turn to the southeast on a heading of two four five”

“OK, turning now.”

The technician could clearly see the infrared image of a small boat approximately nine kilometers southeast of where the mayday message had reported the piracy incident. Tracing back the boat's path would intersect almost exactly with the ship's reported position. The technician thought this has to be the boat.

“I think I've got him.”

“Give me a release point.”

The technician made a series of calculations, then entered a number into a keyboard. He said to the pilot, “Maintaining this heading, we need to release in exactly fourteen seconds. Can you manage that? If not, let me know and I'll do a calculation that gives you more time.”

“I think I can manage that.”

Fourteen seconds later a pod underneath the plane released a sleek gray torpedo-shaped object that arced down toward the ocean below.

The technician waited to see if it resurfaced and started transmitting.

“OK, it's transmitting. I just need to see if it finds the target before we can get out here.”

“Make it quick. Even the Indonesians will eventually notice a plane flying randomly around their airspace.”

The technician matched the current position of the boat heading away from the pirate attack and the location transmitted by the object they had dropped. It looked like his calculations were spots on. They should intersect within one hundred meters.

“OK, it’s got a sonar lock. We can leave now.”

The plane turned back toward Singapore and the Seletar Airport.

On the way back, the young copilot who had been intently plotting the plane's position felt he could relax.

He asked the pilot, “Do you think the Indonesians noticed us?”

“Possibly, but if they did, we will issue a statement saying the plane had navigational problems.”

“Will they believe us?”

“Probably not, but then they don't believe us when we tell the truth.”

***

A senior Naval Officer entered a large warehouse-like building on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. After going through two security checks, he was led through the cavernous interior past row after row of racks containing computers, Internet routers and other computer equipment.

A sign on one wall caught his attention as he walked past. It said, 'Whoever has information fastest and uses it, wins'.

The directions he had been given, led to an office that was cluttered by the normal standards of a naval officer. The clutter reassured him that this was a man more interested in getting the job done than in maintaining an appearance.

“Impressive operation you have here, Commander Braddock. That's the most computer equipment I have ever seen in one place. How many computers are out there?”

“We don't keep a running count. It's over four thousand now, although the Navy is not responsible for running them. This facility is shared between a large number of programs. The main reason we are here is not to be close to the computers, which frankly could be anywhere. It's to be close to other shared resources, like translators.”

“How is the Maritime Piracy Detection Program progressing?”

“Very well, sir. We are adding new interfaces every few weeks, and those interfaces, give us access to new data streams and existing databases. They represent additional gigabytes of data we can mine. All the data the program needs is already available. But for the program to help you with your problem, I need incidents to work with, because without incidents we can't find patterns and connections, and without patterns and connections we can't identify piracy incidents at the preparation stage.”

Commander Braddock continued, “Get me data on actual piracy incidents and you will be surprised by what those thousands of computers and terrabytes of data out there can tell you.”

The senior Naval Officer replied, “We are working on it.”

***

Captain Habib walked down the street and saw his informer waiting for him in the back of the coffee shop. The man didn't see him, so he looked away and continued walking. He'd let him sweat for another ten minutes. Habib knew that time was invariably on his side.

Habib strolled a few hundred meters down the street, turned and came back. He walked into the cheap coffee shop. His immaculately pressed TNI uniform got the attention of the patrons and the hubbub of conversation died down. His informer looked up and saw him. Habib walked up to the man and didn't sit at the table.

“What have you got for me that justifies bringing me here?”

“I have some information.”

“Habib smiled and said, “Providing information is why you are still walking around and not in prison or worse.”

“I need some money.”

Habib knew the dirty, disheveled man in front of him was an amphetamine addict.

He replied, “It depends on what the information is.”

“I've heard that Jemaah Islamiyah is planning an operation.”

“You've heard. Where did you hear this, in some drug dive?”

“No. My cousin in going to marry one of the men who are organizing it, I heard it from him directly. One night he got drunk and boasted how he was going to make a lot of money from the operation.”

“What else do you know?”

“A man called Malik is planning the operation.”

“Where is he from?”

“Medan, I think.”

Habib said, “If you are lying, I know where to find you.”

He then took a small roll of Indonesian currency from his pocket and pressed it into the hand of the man sitting at the table.

Habib thought, it always paid to have informers around other informers, because it helped catch them out in their lies.



Chapter 2