“Contact, starboard side, five miles and closing at fifteen knots!” The warning crackled over the intercom speaker in berthing.
Hank Foss rolled out of his rack, grabbing for his gear and his rifle. He’d been halfway expecting this alert for days now.
Shrugging into his chest rig, he slung the modified M5E1 in front of him as he climbed up out of the berthing, clattering up the metal-grated ladderwell along the starboard side before turning through a narrow hatchway and into the modified command center that they’d built out of about half the galley.
Space aboard the Jacqueline Q was at a premium, as large as she was. The Triarii command center consisted of three laptops on a table, with charts, maps, and printed imagery tacked up on the bulkheads. Right then, Cole Spencer, Hank’s second in command and his closest friend, was studying the laptop that showed their current drone overwatch feed.
“What have we got?” Hank was tall and spare of frame, with a lean, hatchet face and black hair starting to show some gray at the temples. Having retired from the Marine Corps as a Gunnery Sergeant before joining the Triarii, he was surprised there wasn’t a lot more gray. Especially after the last couple of years.
“Three boats.” Spencer didn’t look up as he watched the video feed. He’d started shaving his head to simplify hygiene since they’d boarded the Jacqueline Q in Port Arthur. The overhead lights gleamed off his ebony scalp and the furrows in his brow as he watched the screen. “They look like local fishing boats, but I think we both know better.”
Hank stepped around to look over his assistant section leader’s shoulder. The drone feed was a bit pixelated, but still a lot clearer than it might have been even five years before. The tech had gotten better and cheaper, fast. It was easy to pick out the three white boats, each probably forty feet long, bouncing across the waves, spread out into a loose wedge formation. They were tiny compared to the Jacqueline Q’s massive four-hundred-seventy-foot length, but each one carried at least ten to fifteen shooters. He could see the weapons clearly; they weren’t exactly hiding them. Several RPGs were mixed in with the rifles and machineguns. If the Jacqueline Q had been the simple fishing trawler that she appeared to be, they’d be in trouble.
“I don’t know what you mean. Little fishing boats like that always have that kind of firepower aboard. Makes the fishing easier.” His eyes narrowed. “They’re awfully far out for boats that size.” Hank was already thinking ahead. He was fairly sure of the resolution if the pirates tried to take the Jacqueline Q, but if the small attack boats were this far out in the Timor Sea, then they wouldn’t be out on their own. “Did you wake up Chan?”
Spencer nodded. “He’s already getting his boys into the hold, ready to play.”
Hank turned toward the ladderwell aft. “I’ll go talk to the captain.” He ducked to fit through the hatch. “I don’t think he was quite ready for things to get this froggy, this fast.”
“I don’t think so, either, but after the drone footage from the other day…” Spencer let the sentence trail off.
“Yeah.” Hank didn’t have to comment. They’d both watched as pirates had surrounded and boarded a Malaysian-flagged container ship barely fifty nautical miles off the Australian coast. It had been too far away for them to do anything but watch, and their mission wasn’t here, anyway. But the message had been clear enough.
It still bugged him a little as he mounted the ladderwell toward the bridge, as hard as he was trying to keep his emotions locked away. Can’t save everybody. He’d told himself that many times since they’d watched the attack.
He’d told himself that a lot over the months since Texas. The months since Arturo’s death. He still wasn’t sure he believed it.
He forced the thought—and the memories that went with it—away as he got to the bridge. Not the place, not the time.
Michael Chan, commanding the other Triarii infantry section aboard the Jacqueline Q, was coming up at the same time, geared up and armed, his helmet under his arm. “What’s up?”
Hank paused at the hatch. “Looks like pirates. I’m heading up to brief the Skipper.”
Chan nodded briefly. “Is Cole still on watch?”
“Okay, then. I’ll get everybody to action stations.” Chan turned and headed back down toward the hold. He wasn’t a man of many words, and his ego wasn’t so large that he had to be in the middle of planning. He accepted that Hank had a grasp on the situation, and so he was going to get things moving and get the rest of the brief when it came. Chan was the sort of man who’d rather be ready for action first, then find out the specifics later.
The bridge wasn’t crowded or especially busy. Captain Reggie Smythe didn’t like a lot of noise and fury on his bridge. He had originally been a fishing trawler captain, which was why he’d taken the Jacqueline Q out after her extensive refit in Port Arthur. And given that the Jacqueline Q only had an operational crew of about six, with the other sixty-eight men aboard being Triarii infantry, there was no reason to have a lot of people on the bridge.
Smythe was at the control station, while Vern Satoshi was bent over the chart table. They both looked up, Satoshi’s eyes widening as he saw that Hank was geared up and armed, wearing a plate carrier with four 7.62 mags in the placard on the front plate, two more on his belt, his modified M5E1 hanging from its sling in front of him, his helmet dangling from his off hand.
“What’s up, Hank?” Smythe wasn’t easily rattled, though there was a nervous look in his eyes as he took in the Triarii infantry section leader’s gear and weapon. “Another drill? You know we’ve got a good week before we hit Palawan.”
Hank shook his head as he moved to the radar station. “Not a drill. What are you picking up to the north?”
Smythe tilted his head as he flipped through the windows on his tablet. He had every readout and station on the ship linked to that one device. The originals were all still there, but Smythe could monitor them all from wherever he was aboard. His forehead furrowed. “Looks like three small craft coming our way. Awfully far out for fishing vessels that size.”
“It is. Which was the first clue.” Hank had a tablet of his own under his arm, which he had linked to Spencer’s station. He brought up the drone imagery. The little unmanned plane was banking to circle around, the camera still trained on the three boats. He zoomed in; the weapons were even more obvious now. “We’ve got pirates.”
Satoshi’s eyes got even wider, and he turned pale. Smythe seemed to take it in stride, though. “Been a lot of reports about pirates getting bolder out here. Even stories about an attack within sight of Darwin, though the Aussies took care of that pretty quick.” He frowned at the imagery on Hank’s tablet. “I wasn’t expecting them to come after a fishing trawler, though.”
“Hostages.” Hank’s voice was grim. “There’s been a lot of K&R involved with these attacks.” Kidnap and Ransom was a major industry in international piracy. It could be a lot more lucrative than actually stealing whatever was aboard the target vessels.
“Makes sense.” Smythe was still frowning, though. “This is a whole lot of ocean for them to be hitting ships this far from Indonesia and Timor, though. Why now?”
“You’ve got three guesses and the first two don’t count.” Hank raised an eyebrow as Smythe looked him in the eye.
“China?” Smythe asked quietly.
Hank nodded. “More than likely. The Aussies just tried to disentangle again, so they’ve got to be punished in every way possible. And we’ve seen the PRC use criminal elements as proxies for offensive warfare before; quite recently, in fact.”
Smythe nodded. He knew Hank’s history. He knew what had happened in Texas, and in California before that. What was still happening, in places the Triarii hadn’t secured yet.
The captain looked at the radar plot again. “They’ll be on us pretty soon. Within the next thirty minutes.” He pursed his lips. “What did you have in mind?”
“They ain’t boarding.” To Hank, that was blatantly obvious, and he’d gotten to know Smythe well enough during the long passage from the Gulf of Mexico to know that he didn’t really have to spell that out. But all the same, Smythe was a fisherman and a seaman first and foremost. Not a fighter.
That was why the Triarii were aboard.
“I’d be inclined to agree.” He pulled up the chart. “I’m not sure if we can outrun them, though.”
“Didn’t have running in mind.” Hank was already turning toward the hatch again. “That’s what we’ve got sixty-eight shooters and two disappearing Thirties for. Just make sure your boys don’t freak out when the shooting starts.”
The three pirate boats slowed as they came in closer to the Jacqueline Q. Their gunwales lined with armed men, mostly wearing sleeveless shirts and rolled-up fatigue trousers, they spread out around the trawler, matching course and speed. The Jacqueline Q hadn’t slowed or deviated from her course by much, though Smythe had tried to turn away from the oncoming boats, even if only for show.
Hank waited below the gunwale on the starboard side, just behind the disappearing armature of one of the 30mm cannons that had been mounted forward for defense—or offense, if the situation called for it.
After all, the Jacqueline Q wasn’t exactly a fishing boat anymore.
He cursed quietly under his breath as he watched the drone feed on his tablet. He’d have much preferred to be able to watch their attackers with his own Mark One Eyeballs, but that would have risked giving the game away if he got spotted peeking over the gunwale.
Two of the pirate boats hove in on the starboard side, while the third hung back to the stern. That was a problem. He looked down into the hold. “Jim, see if we can get a LAW to the stern without the pirates noticing.”
Jim Shevlin had joined the section after Texas. An older man, with time in both the Army and law enforcement, he’d taken to the role of the section’s gear NCO easily. He was no Tony Velasquez, but he was a good dude, and he’d actually been a Triarius longer than Hank had.
The lanky, balding man just nodded, grabbed up two of the green tubes, slung them over his shoulder, and hustled aft.
Hank turned his attention back to the tablet. The pirate in the black wife-beater, a yellow bandana tied around his head, with two bandoliers of 40mm grenades dangling around his neck and an M16 with an underbarrel M203 grenade launcher in his hands, had stood up in the bow of the closest boat. Two more pirates with ladders were right behind him, the hooked boarding ladders held in both hands, their weapons slung on their backs.
The pirate with the bandana on his head lifted his M16 and popped off a flare from his M203. It arced over the bow of the Jacqueline Q, hissing and sputtering with red flame. Then he lifted a megaphone. “You stop engines! Prepare to be boarded!” His English wasn’t great, but he’d clearly learned enough to board Australian ships, or any other English-speaking vessels passing within his sphere of influence.
“Can I smoke these assholes now, Hank?” Marco Rodriguez was the younger of the Rodriguez brothers, and the most openly aggressive of the two. With the section spread out doing a lot of Combined Action work with local militias in Texas, Hank hadn’t gotten to know either brother all that well before the training workup and the voyage from Port Arthur. But he knew him well enough now to know that he occasionally had to keep a tighter leash on him. Even if Lovell had already laid down the law.
“Give it a minute. Let Jim get those LAWs aft.” He wanted to get this done in one fell swoop.
Marco muttered to himself, but held his position. He was a good Triarius. He might complain, but he wouldn’t jump the gun.
Hank briefly thought of an old proverb from his distant career in the Marine Corps. “If Marines ain’t bitching, there’s something wrong.”
The pirate boat drifted closer, lots of weapons pointed up at the trawler, which so far had exhibited no reaction to their approach. Smythe was up on the bridge, he and Satoshi already down and away from the windows, just in case.
With a faint hiss, the modified hydraulic lift elevated as Marco Rodriguez pivoted the 30mm cannon outboard, cranking the barrel down to bring it to bear on the nearest pirate.
Hank had popped up to his own firing position along the rail just in time to see the pirate leader’s eyes go wide as he realized what had just happened.
A moment later, Rodriguez opened fire. The cannon, a home-built, reverse-engineered version of the Orbital ATK M230LF 30mm chain gun, could reach out to nearly 4 kilometers. The fifteen yards between the boat and the Jacqueline Q’s hull was like shooting fish in a barrel.
Flame spat from the massive muzzle brake as the cannon thundered, earsplitting booms rolling out across the water. The effects on target were devastating.
The first pirate to get hit, one of the ladder carriers behind the guy with the 203, just disappeared, blown in half by the massive round that passed through him like he wasn’t even there to smash a massive hole in the hull. The boat immediately began to take on water as Rodriguez played his fire back and forth across the boat, the boomboomboom echoing and making the reports of the other Triarii’s 7.62mm M5s sound like muted pops in comparison.
Hank barely saw the destruction Rodriguez was wreaking. He’d known that Marco would take care of the lead boat, so he’d sighted in on the second, along with most of the rest of Lovell’s First Squad. That vessel was still a little bit farther out, but thirty yards is still pretty easy, even with both platforms moving on the swell. His first shot had still been low, taking the pirate in the loose, light blue shirt in the stomach. The man doubled over the impact, red soaking his shirt, and fell into the bow, as the rest of the squad raked the boat with semi-auto fire.
Then Brule opened up with the squad’s Mk 48, and damned near sank the launch all by himself.
More gunfire rolled out over the ocean from astern, as LaForce’s Second Squad opened up on the rearmost boat. A rolling, hollow boom announced the launch of a LAW rocket.
Hank came off his sights for a moment to take stock. The lead boat was fully swamped, barely floating in a wrack of smashed boards, leaking oil and fuel, blood, and body parts. Rodriguez had ceased fire, mainly because he’d turned everything in front of him to wreckage and shredded meat. The second boat was foundering, though a couple of the pirates were still trying to return fire, AK rounds going overhead with little snaps.
Brule raked the boat with another burst, and the fire ceased.
The higher-pitched whine of an outboard rose somewhere aft, and Hank turned to see the third boat in full flight, putting up rooster tails of spray as the pirates ran for it.
“Fuck.” He gritted his teeth. “What did I give ‘em LAWs for if they were gonna miss?” He scrambled down from the gunwale. “Amos, make sure we snatch up anybody who survived.” He ran down the deck toward the superstructure aft.
He could almost have sworn he could hear LaForce cussing, even though he was too far away, with too much metal and too much spray between them. Etienne LaForce would not be happy with whoever had taken that LAW shot.
Ducking through the forward hatch, he clattered up the ladderwell to the bridge. Smythe and Satoshi were still up there, Satoshi looking more than a little like he was seriously wondering why he’d agreed to come on this float, while Smythe looked relieved that it was over.
Except that it wasn’t.
“We’ve got a squirter.” Hank moved to the starboard portholes and looked aft. He could just see the white shape skipping over the waves as the pirates tried to get away. “We need to come about and go after them.” He thought of something suddenly and keyed his radio. “Five, this is Six. Have we got our jammers up?”
“Up and going hard,” Spencer replied. “Ever since they got within a mile.”
“But we won,” Smythe protested. “They’re running. They’re not a threat anymore.”
“Not an immediate threat, no.” Hank straightened and looked the skipper in the eye. “But what happens when they get back to their buddies and word starts to get out about a fishing trawler with a lot of guns on it?”
He saw the realization dawn in Smythe’s eyes. “Oh. Oh, shit.”
“Yeah.” Hank nodded grimly. “As soon as they came after us, they were never getting back. One way or another.
“Bring us around and get us moving. I’m going to call in the Bell Challenger’s helos. Just in case.”