Clive Cussler's Hellburner
by Maden, Mike






"Juan Cabrillo and the crew of the Oregon must track down a nuclear torpedo before it unleashes World War III in this electrifying new installment of the #1 New York Times bestselling series"-





Clive Cussler was the author of more than eighty books in five bestselling series, including Dirk Pitt®, NUMA Files®, Oregon Files®, Isaac Bell®, and Sam and Remi Fargo®. His life nearly paralleled that of his hero Dirk Pitt. Whether searching for lost aircraft or leading expeditions to find famous shipwrecks, he and his NUMA crew of volunteers discovered and surveyed more than seventy-five lost ships of historic significance, including the long-lost Civil War submarine Hunley, which was raised in 2000 with much publicity. Like Pitt, Cussler collected classic automobiles. His collection featured more than one hundred examples of custom coachwork. Cussler passed away in February 2020.

Mike Maden is the author of the critically acclaimed Drone series and four novels in Tom Clancy's #1 New York Times bestselling Jack Ryan Jr. series. He holds both a master's and Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at Davis, specializing in international relations and comparative politics. He has lectured and consulted on the topics of war and the Middle East, among others. Maden has served as a political consultant and campaign manager in state and national elections, and hosted his own local weekly radio show for a year.





This is the 16th installment of the action-packed Oregon Files series. The mercenary Juan Cabrillo and his dedicated Oregon crew confront a ship carrying contraband, which leads to uncovering the Pipeline, a massive smuggling enterprise. As the series' fans know, the Oregon is a 590-foot "rust bucket tramp steamer" on the outside and a technological marvel on the inside. It can zip like a speedboat and even change colors. The primary antagonists are two businessmen named Hakobyan and Katrakis, one Armenian and the other Greek, who have known each other for more than 50 years. Their Pipeline is a conduit for transporting arms, munitions, and meth, making it "the envy of the criminal world." Now the Armenian has a plan to achieve "wealth beyond imagination" and avenge the genocide of Armenians by Turks in the process. They will steal a 100-megaton bomb and explode it underwater in the Bosporus to cause a tsunami that will "drown sixteen million dirty Turks in a flood of their own radioactive bathwater." And it will happen when POTUS and the Turkish president are in Istanbul. Then Turkey will blame Russia and go to war, dragging in NATO. World War III will ensue, and badda-bing-badda-boom, the old crooks will become richer than Croesus by-um, who knows-rebuilding atop the rubble, apparently. Their plan does seem to have a few holes. Cabrillo and crew get wind of the nuclear-tipped torpedo, and of course the clock is ticking. Spectacular fighting scenes ensue, with ex-SEAL Cabrillo displaying tenacity and skill worthy of the best fictional heroes. While the evildoer Hakobyan will "do business with the Devil himself if it turned a profit," Cabrillo will never do anything against American interests. Even his prosthetic leg deserves honorable mention for its unexpected utility in combat. The name Hellburner occurs twice near the end and is not integral to the storyline, but it makes for a good title. Like the Oregon itself, this novel is fast-moving, implausible, and fun. Copyright Kirkus 2022 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.





This is the 16th installment of the action-packed Oregon Files series. The mercenary Juan Cabrillo and his dedicated Oregon crew confront a ship carrying contraband, which leads to uncovering the Pipeline, a massive smuggling enterprise. As the series' fans know, the Oregon is a 590-foot "rust bucket tramp steamer" on the outside and a technological marvel on the inside. It can zip like a speedboat and even change colors. The primary antagonists are two businessmen named Hakobyan and Katrakis, one Armenian and the other Greek, who have known each other for more than 50 years. Their Pipeline is a conduit for transporting arms, munitions, and meth, making it "the envy of the criminal world." Now the Armenian has a plan to achieve "wealth beyond imagination" and avenge the genocide of Armenians by Turks in the process. They will steal a 100-megaton bomb and explode it underwater in the Bosporus to cause a tsunami that will "drown sixteen million dirty Turks in a flood of their own radioactive bathwater." And it will happen when POTUS and the Turkish president are in Istanbul. Then Turkey will blame Russia and go to war, dragging in NATO. World War III will ensue, and badda-bing-badda-boom, the old crooks will become richer than Croesus by-um, who knows-rebuilding atop the rubble, apparently. Their plan does seem to have a few holes. Cabrillo and crew get wind of the nuclear-tipped torpedo, and of course the clock is ticking. Spectacular fighting scenes ensue, with ex-SEAL Cabrillo displaying tenacity and skill worthy of the best fictional heroes. While the evildoer Hakobyan will "do business with the Devil himself if it turned a profit," Cabrillo will never do anything against American interests. Even his prosthetic leg deserves honorable mention for its unexpected utility in combat. The name Hellburner occurs twice near the end and is not integral to the storyline, but it makes for a good title. Like the Oregon itself, this novel is fast-moving, implausible, and fun. Copyright Kirkus 2022 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.





1

The North Atlantic Ocean

180 miles off the coast of Suriname


That's his third course correction, sir," Santos said. "There's no doubt he's chasing us."

Captain Calvera heard the tension in his first officer's voice. They were both hovering over a military-grade electronics suite-something his commercial fishing trawler El Valiente shouldn't have but did.

Calvera stood scratching his beard, a nervous habit. It didn't make any sense. According to the automated identification signal, they were being chased by an Indonesian-flagged vessel, the Sungu Barat, a 590-foot break-bulk carrier scheduled to arrive in Caracas in two days. Santos had examined its shipping records. The unremarkable cargo ship had been built in 1971 and had exchanged ownership at least thirteen times over the decades, most recently a month ago. Judging by its Vesseltracker photo, it was a floating wreck. Its hull, bridge and cranes were streaked with rust and grime. It was better suited for a trip to the breaker yard than sailing the open water.

The slow-moving vessel hadn't caught anyone's attention over the last few days, but Santos had programmed their search radar to pick up on behavioral anomalies. Three hours ago, the Sungu Barat triggered an alarm and Calvera initiated course corrections to see if the radar's warning software had made a mistake.

It hadn't.

Stranger still, the Sungu Barat was over twice the length and double the weight of El Valiente and yet the broken-down cargo ship not only kept pace but was actually gaining on them. Now it was just a little over two kilometers behind and closing in.

"Who do you think it is?" Santos asked.

"Your guess is as good as mine. If anything, I'd say it might be pirates." But even as he said it, Calvera shook his head in disbelief. "But sailing an old rust bucket like that? I doubt it."

"What do you want to do, sir?"

Calvera frowned, thinking. There were only three choices ever available to a captain in his position: run, hide or fight. El Valiente was indeed a commercial fishing vessel, but it had been modified to function as a covert smuggler. He and his crew had spent years perfecting the art of hiding in plain sight, plying the fishing waters and port cities of the Atlantic and Mediterranean for over half a decade. Not being noticed was their first and best defense.

Apparently, the Sungu Barat had breached that first defense. Now the options were either to run or fight. His eyes quickly scanned the radar screen again. They were the only two ships within five hundred kilometers, which meant they had this patch of the ocean all to themselves. A gun battle wouldn't be noticed.

Calvera's inclination was to attack, but as his grandfather taught him, it was always better to defeat an enemy without actually fighting him. It was a lesson the old man learned as a young guerrilla alongside Che and Fidel in the Sierra Maestra mountains over sixty years ago. While they may be far out at sea, there was always the chance that if Calvera overplayed his hand, the authorities might be alerted. Better to play it safe.

He turned to the ship's helmsman. "Rico, full speed ahead."

"A la orden, mi capitán."

The helmsman advanced the throttle. The ship's massive diesel engine roared to life. While the trawler normally cruised at eleven knots, its top speed was rated at seventeen. But with the specially modified engine fitted for just such an occasion, El Valiente accelerated to an incredible thirty. The entire vessel thrummed with the vibrations of the racing pistons now hammering belowdecks.

The sudden increase in speed brought a smile to everyone on the bridge, including Santos, still hovering over the radarscope. Calvera knew that showing such speed ruined the illusion that El Valiente was a mere fishing trawler, but shaking off this biting tick from the back of his neck was worth it.

"Captain, we caught her flat-footed," Santos said. "We're pulling away."

"Excellent."

Calvera crossed over to Rico and clapped a hand on his shoulder. The young helmsman was grinning ear to ear with pride in his vessel and his captain. They would put plenty of distance between themselves and the old junker within minutes.

"Captain. She's closing on us-fast."

Calvera charged back over to the radar station. He couldn't believe his eyes. The Sungu Barat was making over sixty knots.

Sixty knots!

"Check your radar, Santos. There must be something wrong with it."

"I ran a complete diagnostic earlier. Everything is in working condition."

"It's not possible." Calvera's face darkened. "And yet, there it is."

The two men exchanged worried glances.

"You know what's at stake."

Santos nodded.

A vein throbbed on Calvera's forehead. He had a young wife and several children. So did Santos and the other officers. It was one of the reasons they had been recruited into the organization. If they were boarded and their cargo seized, not only would they be killed but their entire families would be wiped out.

Failure was not an option.

Santos saw the flashing comms light. He pulled on his earphones and tapped a button. A moment later, he glanced up at Calvera.

"Captain, we're receiving a message from the Sungu Barat. Their captain wants to speak with you."

Calvera nodded. "Put him on speaker."

Santos flipped the toggle switch.

"This is Capitan Calvera of El Valiente. We are a flagged ship of the sovereign nation of Argentina sailing lawfully in international waters. Who are you and why are you pursuing us with the intention of harm?"

"This is Captain Jorge Soto on the Sungu Barat. We have no intention of harming you. But you are ordered to shut down your engines and allow us to board and inspect you for contraband cargo."

"Under color of what authority?"

"International maritime law."

"In other words, you have no authority, Capitan Soto. That means you are a pirate, and piracy is a violation of international law. We will not allow you to board us."

"If you say we are pirates, call the Suriname Coast Guard and report us, Captain Calvera. Go ahead. I'll wait."

That pendejo captain called his bluff, Calvera thought. They both knew he couldn't call the Coast Guard. That would be even worse than letting this pirate Soto on board. He signaled to Santos with a finger across his neck to kill the call.

Now what?

"Evasive maneuvers, Captain?"

Calvera stood, tugging at his beard. "No. Keep a steady course."

"Sir?"

"Do it."

"At this rate of speed, they'll overtake us in less than two minutes."

Calvera's eyes narrowed, focused on a bead of sweat glistening on his first officer's forehead. "My math skills are equal to yours, Santos."

"Mis disculpas, mi capitán."

Calvera checked his watch, his father's vintage Rolex Submariner. He called over his shoulder to the weapons officer. "Valent'n, ready number one."

Valent'n nodded grimly. "A la orden, mi capitán."

Calvera's watch hand swept toward thirty seconds. "Distance and location?"

"Five hundred meters, directly astern."

Calvera's eyes remained fixed on his watch. He was doing the calculations in his mind, a more reliable instrument than any computer.

"Valentin...ready-now!"

The weapons officer slapped a button. Three mines were released beneath El Valiente's hull, deployed directly in the path of the Sungu Barat.

Calvera stepped outside onto the bridgewing and raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes. The frothing white wake from his churning propeller drew a straight line to the bow of the distant freighter like a tracer round to its target.

Santos called out the seconds before impact with the first mine.

"Five...four...three..."

Calvera grinned.

Any moment now.

"Captain!" Santos shouted.

He didn't have to say a word. What Santos saw on his radar screen Calvera witnessed with his own bulging eyes. His jaw dropped.

The Sungu Barat suddenly shifted ninety degrees to his port.

Impossible!

Calvera's heart pounded. In all his years at sea, he'd never seen anything like it.

"Fire the mines!"

Valentin hit the remote trigger. Three towering geysers erupted harmlessly to the Sungu Barat's starboard as it veered away.

The violence of the Sungu Barat's sudden shift sent water crashing over its high deck like a rogue wave. The ship rolled steeply with the impact, then righted itself and resumed its forward speed. But now it was running three hundred meters parallel to Calvera's course to avoid future mine attacks and catching up quickly.

Santos appeared in the hatchway, his face ashen. "Your orders, sir?"

Calvera had never seen his number two this shaken up before. Santos was as loyal as an old hunting dog and just as reliable. But Santos had more to lose. He kept several spoiled young wives and fifteen fat children in three separate countries.

"Get that cabrón Soto on the horn."

***

Calvera keyed his radio mic. "Soto, this is Captain Calvera, over. Do you need assistance? We saw three explosions-"

"Cut the crap, Calvera. Those were mines. Your mines. Kill your engines. Now."

"Look, Soto. If this is about money, I'm authorized to pay a small fee-"

"There's no fee you can pay, Calvera. No bribes. No negotiations. Kill your engines now or I'll kill them for you-and maybe your entire crew."

Calvera swore violently. He'd butchered men for lesser insults. But he swallowed his pride-a tactical necessity.

"I will comply, but under protest. However, your inspection team must not be armed."

"You're in no position to dictate terms, Calvera. Kill your engines, come to a halt and be prepared to be boarded. Entiendes?"

"Entiendo." Calvera spat out the word like a curse and shoved the mic into Santos' hand. He shouted at Rico, "Kill the engines!"

Rico confirmed the order and throttled down. "Full stop, mi capitán."

Calvera turned toward Valentin at the weapons station.

"Ready number two. Wait for my signal."

Valentin smiled.

Moments later, El Valiente was dead in the water.

Calvera crossed back out to the bridge's outer wing to get a better view of his pursuer. He pulled his binoculars to his eyes and scanned the wreck. It was even more disgusting and dilapidated than the photos had suggested. How was it possible for such a poorly maintained vessel to have performed so incredibly, he wondered.

The Sungu Barat came to a full stop three hundred meters directly to port. Calvera adjusted the focus ring on his binoculars, and zoomed in on the bridge. His eyes fixed on the occluded windows, caked with salt and grime. He couldn't see into the bridge but he knew that bastardo Soto was standing up there grinning down at him.

"Valentin…fire!"

Down on the El Valiente's deck a single-barreled Chinese 20mm Gatling gun leaped through the roof of a fake shipping container and opened up. The deafening chainsaw roar unleashed a stream of continuous lead, showering the steel deck with brass casings.

Calvera laughed as the Sungu Barat's bridge windows shattered instantly, and chunks of the rusted bridgework pulverized beneath the hammering shellfire.

But before the laugh had escaped his mouth, the two six-barreled rotary canons of a Russian-made Kashtan close-in weapons system opened up from the top of the cargo ship's forward mast. The canons delivered ten thousand rounds per minute but it only took one brief, earsplitting second for the Kashtan to deliver enough 30mm explosive tungsten-tipped ammo to utterly destroy Calvera's smaller weapon.

In a single beat of Calvera's pounding heart, the gun battle was over.

Calvera dashed back into the bridge, shouting at his helmsman.

"Flank speed! Now!"

Rico slammed the throttle. The specialized diesel engine roared to life, groaning below decks. The ship reared up like a racehorse exploding out of the starting gate.

Calvera shot a hopeful glance at Santos. The big turbocharged diesel had saved them before.

But hope fled his first officer's eyes with the dull, metallic thud that rang like a hammer blow beneath their feet. They felt the entire ship fall back onto its haunches.

"Captain, we've lost speed!" the helmsman shouted.

"Give it more power."

"Throttle's maxed out, sir."

"Putting Montoya on speakers!" Santos said.

The chief engineer's voice suddenly called out from the engine compartment.

"Captain! We've been hit!"

Calvera snatched up the comms mic. "Damage report!"

"We've lost the prop. The shaft is damaged and torqueing badly. I'm shutting the engine down."

Santos pressed a hand against his wireless headphone.

"Lookout reports a fast-moving rubber skiff with armed men in the water heading our way."

"We can fight them!" Rico said, his young face flushed.

Calvera ran a final calculation in his head. The numbers all pointed in one direction.

He snatched up a satellite phone from his command station, then turned toward Santos as he pulled his pistol from its holster.

"You know what to do."

Santos stood smartly, and flashed a fated smile.

"A la orden, mi Capitán." He pulled his pistol, squared his shoulders and headed for the lower decks.


2
 
The rigid inflatable launched out of the Sungu Barat's waterline boat garage from the Teflon-coated ramp and hit the water with its paired outboard engines screaming.

Blue-eyed, sandy-haired Juan Cabrillo-posing as Captain Soto-held on tight. The rigid-hull inflatable boat bounced beneath him as it raced across the dark blue water. The four-man team was kitted out in body armor, flash-bang grenades and silenced H&K MP5 submachine guns strapped to their chests.

Boarding a hostile ship was always a risk and Calvera had already played his hand with two failed direct attacks on the Oregon-currently disguised as the cargo ship Sungu Barat. The two-hundred foot long Argentine fishing trawler raised all kinds of red flags when it first came to Juan's attention, including the unusual ports of call it had made. Captain Calvera's attempts at evasion and kinetic defense only proved he was smuggling something of incredible value-and no doubt illegal. Smuggling was as old as seafaring itself but Juan's gut told him that the unusually capable fishing trawler was connected to something bigger than simple larceny.

Juan had to find out what the El Valiente was carrying and the only way to do that was to get boots on the deck and eyes on the cargo. He led the boarding expedition, leaving Linda Ross in charge of the ship and Mark Murphy on overwatch with his vast array of automated guns at his disposal in case things went sideways. He gave orders not to fire unless fired upon because, as Ross reminded him, they had no legal right to board the trawler.

What troubled Juan now was the disappearance of the entire trawler crew, no doubt preparing to repel boarders. He kept his assault team small to minimize casualties but they all punched above their weight. No matter what came at them, his people would handle it.

Blond ex-Ranger Marion MacDougal "MacD" Lawless was in back on the wheel driving the RHIB.
Eddie Seng, a lean and wiry Chinese-American, sat near the bow. The ex-CIA operative held the pneumatic telescoping boarding pole. It featured a grappling hook and a wireless video camera so that he could see what they were up against before climbing up the rope ladder. He wore augmented reality glasses synced to the camera.

Buckled in behind him was Raven Malloy, a combat-decorated Native American fluent in Farsi and Arabic who could do more pull-ups in one go than most men on the ship.

Juan smiled to himself.

His people would handle it.

"Ten seconds," MacD said in his molar mic as he wound the engines down. His voice echoed clearly in their skulls, masking the roar of the twin Mercuries in back.

"Ready, Eddie?" Juan asked.

"Good to go."

MacD drove the rubber hull right up to the edge of the El Valiente's steel skin, then killed the engines. The trawler rocked in the gentle swell but was otherwise dead in the water thanks to the Oregon's surgically targeted wire-guided mini-torpedo that took out the propeller and ruined the shaft.

Eddie leaped to his feet and fired the pneumatic telescoping pole. The grappling hook snagged on the steel railing high above. His head swiveled as the augmented reality goggles took in the sweeping view of the deck. Juan stood right behind him.

"Clear!" Eddie shouted.

"Go!" Juan said, laying hands on the ladder first and scrambling up.

Whatever surprise waited for them up top, he wanted to be the first to face it.






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