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The sea was dark and stormy, illuminated by the full moon. The dramatic lighting gave it that intense look of an old painting depicting a naval battle of some sort. All that was missing are a few tall ships, cannon balls and shrapnel wreaking havoc on the ship’s hulls, rigging, and men, flapping and damaged sails and the fatal grip of grappling hooks biting deep into the ship’s flesh. Come to think of it, if what was to follow is ever painted, I was sincerely hoping for the most boring naval painting ever. Preferably without shrapnel, bodies and such. 

We slowly approached the Azov, matching its speed and essentially hovering slightly above and a couple of hundred meters behind it’s bridge. It was enormous. The innumerable cargo containers were stacked on its deck reaching 6 tiers high above the main deck and 16 containers wide, like gigantic lego bricks mashed together by a very patient but entirely unimaginative giant toddler.   

“That is one hell of a ship,” I said, perplexed by its size and the difficult task of locating the containers with weapons on a terrorist-infested ship. It’s not like there would be a “Death to America!” neon sign, glowing and flickering on the sides of the containers carrying the lethal payload. If terrorists had a sense of humour, they would disguise their containers with the Israeli ZIM shipping company logo, including its seven stars of David. Who knows, maybe they did.

I cleared my throat and spoke to the shuttle, trying to keep my voice level, as if I wasn’t essentially dictating my last will and testament.

“AI, here are your instructions: start monitoring ship’s communications on a wide frequency range, including whatever alien channels you can detect. When our cover is blown, and the Horsemen know we’re here, there is no harm in broadcasting everything. So as soon as our presence is discovered, contact the relevant authorities and tell them about the imminent nuclear attack via all available channels, especially military encrypted protocols – to make sure they take you seriously. If we fail to disable the missiles, a small chance would still remain that they could sink the ship or shoot down some missiles on approach. Despite the compromised communication networks, if the response is swift and massive enough – something may still get through and destroy its target. Warn the military about vulnerability of all networked systems.”

I sighed, steeling myself for what followed.

“And If we fail to disable the missiles, as soon as you deem the launch inevitable,” I said, thinking to myself that we would likely be very much dead at that point, “hijack all major TV networks, internet feeds and cellular networks and broadcast to the general public on the East Coast to take as much water and food as they can carry in a few minutes they have, and get as deep underground as possible, wherever they are. Subway, cellars, basements, whatever. Get some concrete and soil between them and the blast. Tell them not to try escaping the cities, as all traffic will grind to a halt in minutes and even people who might survive the shockwave will likely get exposed to the lethal alpha particle radiation from the blast. Leave the countdown timer on for them so they know how long they have. I think that’s it.”

“Instructions accepted.”

I looked at Tia uncertainly, as if asking her whether it all made sense. She looked back at me.

“What? Are you asking for my approval? I think you are doing all right so far, my reluctant hero,” she said somewhat sarcastically. I decided to take it as a compliment, as it likely was the best I could hope for. 

“Do you want to actually add something useful to that?”

“No, I’m good… Oh, maybe tell them about who is actually launching the nukes? They will think it’s the Russians, you know…”

I snapped my fingers. “Right, how could I miss that? Ship, tell them they are under attack by a faction of the Iranian government. Attach proof. Whatever happens, if the retaliatory strike does not hit Russia there will be no World War III.”

With AI’s help I conjured up a window with a magnified and infrared-enhanced view of the ship and started moving it around, zooming and fishing for anything significant. Tia frowned.

“Why do you think telling people to hide in basements is going to save anyone from a freaking nuclear explosion? I remember photos of Hiroshima after the nuclear blast. Everything was wiped from the face of the Earth. Almost nothing remained of the entire city.”

I shrugged, my gaze scanning the giant ship’s magnified superstructure.

“Actually, most of the Japanese buildings were a bit flimsy. Not unlike a typical American suburban subdivisions. Fun fact,” Tia cracked up at my deliberately inappropriate expression, “There was a Go tournament going on at the outskirts of Hiroshima. It was interrupted by the explosion, which blew the glass  from the window panes and scattered the game stones. The game was resumed after lunch and came to a successful conclusion. Doesn’t fit the picture of a total annihilation, does it? None of the underground bomb shelters beyond a mere half mile of the epicenter were damaged. Many steel and stone buildings were not completely destroyed, including the famous atomic dome, which was almost directly in the epicenter, right under the explosion. Not that anyone could survive there, but I figured that many buildings will remain standing and people as close as one or two miles from the epicenter will have a fighting chance of survival, if they manage to shield themselves from the initial blast wave, heat and radiation. Those warheads are of comparable yield, so many people might survive if they act fast and have a bit of luck. Hopefully the warning will help to minimize casualties by some degree at least…”

“All right, now I get an uncomfortable feeling you have already given up on us stopping the terrorists. This is not how things are done where I’m from. Get a grip and let’s try to avert the nuclear Armageddon in the first place.”

She was right, of course. We didn’t have much time but we still had at least an hour to figure out exactly what we’re up against, plan and execute our infiltration. We had to try our best, even if the odds weren’t good.

I’ve scanned multiple alcoves, niches, stairs and platforms of the huge ship and so far they have turned out to be empty. Then I scrolled higher.

“Ah. Here we go,” I said. There were two armed men behind the railing on the structure above the bridge, housing all kinds of navigation and radio gizmos. Standing right under the large rotating radar antenna should not be very healthy, but I guess health was not high on their priority list.

They were occasionally pacing back and forth, looking around. Their movements were relaxed and slow. It looked as if they were not waiting for a boarding party. Just a routine guard duty. Then I saw one of them speaking into his radio. AI has smoothly patched in the sound and apparently translated it on the fly, similar to that video archive, as I doubt the terrorists were speaking English.

“Station one, all clear.”

Than the other guard did the same.

“Station two, all clear.”

There were four more calls of a similar nature, then whoever had initiated that conversation, has concluded it with a smooth “Stations one to six confirmed, base out,” said in a thoroughly bored voice.

“Ship, time the interval from this radio check until the next one. They must be checking up on their thugs regularly.”

While we were waiting I have located the other guards: two in the crow’s nest on top of its fore mast at the ship’s bow, another one at the starboard overhanging balcony thing at the bridge castle, as I believe the structure is called, and the last one on its port side counterpart. I’m sure they had more at the bridge. Those were just the lookouts.

It looked like the guards were evenly distributed and had all angles covered. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but they weren’t exactly guarding a specific row of containers. I needed to somehow find out where those missiles were located. Tia had clearly thought about the same problem as she was flipping the weapon documentation that was displayed in a window near her. 

“The launchers are deployed through the container’s top and raise at the forty degree angle. So those containers must be in the top tier, and are not likely to be in the center of the first two rows, where the missiles could collide with the fore mast, and also not likely in the rows closest to the bridge, which they could damage with the exhaust blast. The ship needs to be kept steady during launch. There are service doors from both ends of the containers, just as normal containers would have. They might leave them accessible, although they don’t have to, because the targets are already loaded and once they are armed, the rockets can be launched remotely, by wire or encrypted radio command. Those doors have coded locks that we have the codes for, if we can reach them of course. That’s all I can say based on the specs.”

“I’m thoroughly impressed,” I said, “Why don’t I just go and ask the nice gentleman with a gun, which of the dozens of suitable containers are the ones we’re looking for?”

I zoomed in on one of the thugs to see what kind of weapon he had. Looked like it was the All-time Favoured Terrorist Gun award-winner, the Kalashnikov. He had a recent AK-17 model. No surprise there. The enhanced image resolution was so good that I could clearly see a complicated-looking night vision scope mounted on his weapon, as well as every little detail on the terrorist’s face and his clothes. This gave me an idea.

“Ship, is your optical resolution good enough to track their eye movements? Can you extrapolate their lines of sight and overlay a graphical representation of places they tend to look at repeatedly?” 

Ship has immediately started circling around the Azov, apparently trying to gather data of all of the terrorists’ pupil movements. Slowly, some highlighted spots started appearing on top of the ship’s image, their brightness apparently varying with the frequency of the guard’s gaze pausing on those areas. In a couple of minutes we had a few solid bright areas pinpointing the exact locations of the weapons we were looking for: top tier, third row from the bow, three containers on the starboard side, and two on the port side. First and second rows were one tier short, so there was access to the deadly containers from the roofs of the containers in front of them, provided I could get there somehow. The guards at the crow’s nest were diligently scanning the service doors and the surrounding area with their eyes. Unlike other terrorists, they even had the night vision goggles. They didn’t use them though: the moon was bright enough to see any movement on their designated area.

A plan started forming in my mind.

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