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Destroyer 93: Terminal Transmission

By Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir

Chapter 1

The greatest domestic crisis since the Civil War struck the United States of America at exactly 6:28 p.m. Daylight Savings Time on the last Thursday in April.

Approximately thirty million citizens scattered throughout the nation and in Mexico and the lower reaches of Canada saw the crisis unfold on their television sets. And every one of them, no matter what broadcast station or network they were tuned to, UHF or VHF, saw the exact same thing.

A dead black rectangle where a moment before busy phosphor pixels had been generating kaleidoscopic images of entertainment, information, and commercials.

The blackness was relieved by thin white letters in the upper right-hand corner. The letters spelled out two words.

The words: NO SIGNAL.

TV speakers everywhere, in private homes, in hospitals, in offices, in neighborhood bars, reproduced the same staticky carrier wave hissing of dead air.

Then a voice began speaking in a monotone:

"There is nothing wrong with your television set . . ."

Don Cooder was late.

The news director was in a panic. The floor manager was running from restroom to restroom in the Broadcast Corporation of North America headquarters building on Manhattan's West Forty-third Street, peering under stalls for a pair of trademark ostrichhide wrangler boots.

"Try the ledge," the harried domestic producer cried. "He sometimes hides out on the ledge when he's unhappy."

Everybody who wasn't frantically racing around the Bridge-as the BCN newsroom was called-preparing the 6:30 news feed to the affiliates, raced to the nearest window. Don Cooder was late. Nobody knew what it was about, but everybody knew what it could mean. Their eyes were stark and frantic.

Troubled voices called back reports.

"He's not on the third floor ledge."

"He's not on the fourth floor ledge."

"He's not on any of the ledges!"

"Maybe he fell off," said a lowly desk assistant.

In the great TV-screen-blue newsroom set a hush fell. Faces, so strained a moment ago, lit with entirely different lights. Ambition leapt to some. Relief to others. And all eyes went to the Chair, more coveted than many modern thrones, which now sat spotlit but empty. Power flowed from that elegant seat, situated in the exact geometric center of the Bridge, which had been designed to make the anchor desk seem to be the center of the universe, but in practice made many viewers change channels thinking that they had tuned in to an old Star Trek rerun.

"Maybe he fell off . . ." the producer muttered.

"Maybe he jumped!" said the director.

"CBN star anchor Don Cooder succumbs to ratings pressure!" the chief news writer cried. "Makes dramatic leap into oblivion!"

A dozen lips whispered the rumor. Faces froze, some in shock, others to conceal their pleasure. The makeup woman broke down weeping for her job.

The domestic producer, his face paling, took charge. He began issuing husky orders.

"Camera crew to the sidewalk. If Cooder's a messy spot on the pavement, we'll want to lead with that." He shouted after the running figures, "If he's dying, try to get his last words."

"What about the headlines for the affiliates?" asked the director, gazing at the digital clock which read 06:28:57.

"Somebody get Cheeta Ching! I'd be damned if we go black again because of that Aggie prima donna."

An intern leaped from the room.

In her office in the outermost concentric ring that orbits the Bridge, CBN weekend anchor Cheeta Ching, nine months, one week, and three days pregnant, and as bloated as a floater freshly fished out of the East River, looked up from her script for the evening broadcast of Eyeball to Eyeball with Cheeta Ching as her door unceremoniously crashed in. The can of hair varnish she had been emptying into her raven tresses dropped from her long fingers.

"Miss Ching!" an intern panted. "You're on."

"What are you talking about? I'm not on for two hours yet."

The intern fought for his breath. "Cooder fell down the rabbit hole again," he gasped.

"His job is mine!" screeched Cheeta Ching, selfstyled "superanchorwoman of the nineties," as she bolted from her desk and trampled the unfortunate staffer before he could get out of the way.

The run from Cheeta Ching's office to the Chair was a straight unwavering line. After hours, Cheeta had timed the run with a stopwatch. Her best time had been 47:03 seconds.

That was before the home pregnancy test had come up blue, of course.

Still, Cheeta gave it her best. She had known for years-ever since Don Cooder had let the BCN Evening News with Don Cooder remain black for an unprecedented six minutes because a World Wide Wrestling match had spilled over its allotted span and into his time slot, that it could happen again. And she was ready.

Because Cheeta Ching knew that if she landed in the coveted anchor chair at the right moment, Cooder's job would be hers.

Flinging off her Georgio Armani taupe wool faille maternity skirt, she ran through the halls in her Victoria's Secret chenille slip.

The thought of the high seven-figure salary, the perks, and the intoxicating power that lay at the end of the run drove her to pound down the carpeted hall like a water buffalo in heat. Staff pressed themselves against the walls before her. A cameraman, seeing her careen toward him, hit the rug and covered his head with a script. A technician opening a door flung himself back. Too late. Cheeta hit the closing door like a linebacker; it flew back and broke the technician's nose and glasses where he stood.

The Chair was within sight now. Cheeta could see it clearly through the semicircle of indoor glass windows that overlooked the Bridge from the inner concentric ring of offices.

The director, spotting her, waved her on frantically with a script that flapped like a wounded dove.

"Mine! It's mine!" Cheeta shrieked.

The last door crashed open under the blind force of her padded shoulder. Cheeta was panting now. Only a stretch of a few cable-strewn yards stood between her and the highest-paid job in television news.

Staffers shouted encouragement.

"Come on, Cheeta!"

"You can do it, girl!"

Then a bosun's whistle shrilled and the floor manager shouted, "Admiral on the Bridge! All hands! Admiral on the Bridge!"

That's me! Cheeta thought wildly. I'm the admiral on the Bridge now.

And from out of nowhere, a pinstriped blue shape blindsided her. Heart pounding, Cheeta understood immediately what it meant. Her bloodred fingernails extended like talons as she made a last, desperate lunge for the Chair.

And an ostrich-hide boot stomped on her instep while a hard hip like a whale's jawbone knocked her down. An immaculate shoe sole flattened her nose.

And over the squeal of the Chair's springs adjusting to 185 pounds of human ego, a deep, masculine voice growled, "There's only one admiral on this bridge. And don't you forget it."

Cheeta Ching tried to struggle to her feet. But all around her sycophantic shoes had appeared, preventing her from rising.

"Don, where have you been?" the relieved producer asked.

"None of your business."

"Don, so great that you're here," said the chief news writer.

"Don Cooder is great, no matter where he is."

"Don, here's your script for the affiliates update," said the director.

"Don Cooder doesn't need a script to read headlines. Just tell me what they are and I'll wing it."

"Senator Ned Clancy issues denial on love-nest rumor," the director recited in an urgent voice. "Dr. Doom inaugurates toll-free death line. Scientists dub strange new AIDS-like disease HELP."

"Here's your lavaliere, Don."

"Will somebody please let me up?" Cheeta snapped.

"Quiet, Cheeta," the producer said coldly. "Just lay there until the commercial break."