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Sky Hunters: Anarchy's Reign
By Jack Shane
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Jack Shane
All right reserved.
The freak storm had been battering the pacific coastline for six days.
It had made a mess of things in southern California. Streets washed-out in Beverly Hills, heavy flooding in the Valley, mudslides near Malibu. Large sections of Los Angeles County had lost power. Phone service was out too. Tsunami-sized waves had even chased the surfers away from La Jolla and Ventura Beach.
The storm was far worse out at sea. The winds were blowing at hurricane force fifty miles offshore. The rain was coming down in sheets, and waves as high as forty feet had been reported. Most Pacific gales blew themselves out in a day or two, but not this one. It seemed like it would go on forever.
All this meant the U.S. Coast Guard had been busy all week. Its main station in southern California was located just north of San Diego at Los Quinos Point. All of its rescue boats were at sea, working overtime. Their mission: to get to vessels radioing for help and locate those that were missing. They'd been at it nearly 150 hours straight.
The Los Quinos station had sixteen rescue boats. Fifteen were RHIs, sixteen-foot fast boats used for rescues within 20 miles of land. The remaining boat was a 270-foot, medium endurance cutter, CGS Steadfast. Built to operate for weeks at a time at sea, when storms came across the Pacific and hung around like this one, the Steadfastcould easily wind up rescuing dozens of people. Pleasure boaters, fishermen, crews of small freighters, souls out beyond the horizon who would have been lost otherwise.
The Steadfast had been at sea since the storm began. Moving up and down the coastline about seventy-five miles out, its crew had rescued twenty-six people in that time. These survivors were huddled in the ship's mess hall--safe, but forced to endure the same stomach-churning conditions as the crew. The weather was so bad, all Coast Guard helicopters had been grounded, so the civilians could not be taken off, not just yet.
And as the Steadfast would remain out here for as long as the Coast Guard kept receiving SOS calls, the rescued boaters still had some uncomfortable hours ahead of them.
It was around midnight, the start of the Steadfast's seventh day at sea, when strange things began to happen.
The cutter's radio team suddenly found their equipment besieged by a massive cloud of electronic interference. The radiomen were experts; they'd experienced problems caused by static before. They knew unstable atmospheric conditions could wreak havoc on modern communications equipment. But they'd never seen anything like this.
The radio room reported the bizarre disturbance to the ship's communications officer. He ordered them to filter out the interference as best they could, as there might be SOS calls hidden within. Meanwhile, outside, the cutter was battling thirty-foot waves and 60 knot winds. The sea was so violent it caused the ship's lights to flicker crazily. Weird shadows were being cast all over the ship. The exhausted crewmen were nearing their breaking point.
It took the ship's radiomen ten minutes to get their communication sets back to something resembling normal. With about half the clutter cleared away, they were able to once again concentrate on the emergency maritime frequencies, radio bands that anyone in trouble out here would use when calling for help.
And yes, as soon as they could hear again, they detected radio chatter on the main emergency band. Many voices, all speaking at once. So many, it was hard to tell what anyone was saying. The radiomen battled to isolate each voice, bringing everything down to basics, and after a while some individual conversations could be heard. More important, the location of where the voices were coming from could also be determined.
But right away the radiomen knew something was wrong. The cutter's surface radar team was telling them two mid-sized cargo ships were within a mile of the Steadfast--and that the explosion of radio chatter was coming from these two vessels alone. Yet, even though there was a lot of conversation going on between the two cargo ships, the discussion was not about their vessels being in trouble--Mayday calls and such. Rather, the chatter was about transferring some very precious cargo from one ship to another.
The two ships were only 1,500 yards away, in the thick in the storm like the Steadfast. Even a large cargo ship would be in danger in these circumstances. Why were these guys talking about moving cargo back and forth in the middle of this tempest? It didn't make sense.
The Steadfast's captain was briefed on the situation. He immediately turned the cutter toward the two ships. The wind had picked up to 70 knots, and the seas were growing by the second. The rain was so fierce the Steadfast was forced to steer via its sea-surface radar. This was as rough as any of the crew had seen it. For the rescued boaters below, it was pure hell.
Even at full speed, it took the Steadfast more than fifteen minutes to reach the two ships. Attempts to contact them along the way had been fruitless. The cutter's home base at Los Quinos Point was now aware of the situation. But all they could do was wait until the cutter made visual contact with the two freighters. Only then would they know whether the ships were in danger or not.
Finally, those on the cutter's bridge could see faint lights ahead of them. The sea-surface radar confirmed first one, then two ships looming off their port bow. Astonishingly, a smaller vessel, a launch of some kind, could be seen battling the waves, moving between the two ships.
This confirmed the intercepted conversations. The two vessels were indeed transferring something--or someone--from one to the other. But this was also insanity--the waves were topping thirty-two feet, the wind was now up to 85 miles an hour. It seemed as . . .
Excerpted from Sky Hunters: Anarchy's Reign by Jack Shane Copyright © 2007 by Jack Shane. Excerpted by permission.
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