Approximately 13 hours before Grex Luporum Team X, assigned PSD duties for Wenzeslaus Gorman, takes contact on the bridge over the Ochtum.
The Jacqueline Q might have changed her digital identifier so that she now appeared to any nautical tracking programs as the Maureen, but there hadn’t been the time nor the available equipment to change the lettering on her bow. They didn’t know that the PLAN had fingered her as the privateer she was, but as things stood, it wasn’t a great idea to take chances. So, she was well out at sea, south of Taiwan, while Hank Foss and his section rode the Zodiacs toward their target.
Hank had essentially pulled rank as the section leader and had appointed himself coxswain. That was normal, but there was an added benefit on a long transit like this. He was still taking a beating, and he’d been soaked to the bone for the last two hours, but he wasn’t getting knocked around nearly as badly as Brule and Carrington up in the bow. Riding the bow in a Zodiac Combat Rubber Raiding Craft for a three-hour over the horizon transit to target was beyond miserable.
The ocean around them looked all but empty, aside from a handful of ship’s running lights on the horizon. It was a startlingly low amount of traffic for one of the primary sea lanes in the world but, given the events of the last couple of weeks, the sparse numbers of ships weren’t all that surprising.
The Western Pacific had become extremely non-permissive lately, though this particular shift in nautical traffic didn’t even have much to do with the maritime guerrilla warfare that Hank and his fellow Triarii had been waging against the PLAN and her proxies in the South China Sea for a couple of months. A lot had happened since a Triarii drone swarm had devastated the carrier Shandong and the Triarii infantry sections had smashed the infrastructure on several of the Chinese’ artificial islands in the Spratly Island chain.
One of those events had led directly to this night’s mission.
The wreckage of the bulk carrier CSC Victor, sunk by PLAAF J-16s, was still drifting only a few dozen nautical miles away. She’d been heading for the Port of Taipei, and that sinking had finally given the Triarii the green light to wreck house.
If the ChiComs were going to play hardball, so would the Americans and the ROC.
They were getting close to their planned staging point, if his navigation was on, and he was pretty sure it was. He throttled back, slowing and finally letting the Zodiac bob on the waves in place as the other boats closed in.
Scanning the darkened horizon beneath the stars and broken clouds, he looked for running lights. He could see a few to the north and west, but none that looked like their target. He checked his watch. They were in position on time, but the target was late.
He was as sure of their position as he could be without GPS. The Triarii flotilla in the Western Pacific had set up something of a mesh navigation network, which allowed anyone with a terminal to use the bigger ships’ stellar navigation computers and relative positions to determine their own coordinates. That required a screen, though, and Hank wanted to avoid showing any light out on the water that night.
The Chinese had to know that their fighter jocks had escalated the already dangerously tense situation in the Taiwan Strait to the breaking point. Not that it had needed too much of a push. The accelerating mobilization of PLA ground and missile forces on the mainland had been hard to miss.
With the Korean peninsula blowing up over the last week, it looked like the PRC was about to make a play for all the marbles.
Which was what brought Tango India Six-Four out onto the water tonight.
“Contact. Port side, third set of lights from the left.”
Keith was on the gunwale, just ahead of Hank, scanning the water through his M5E1’s scope. He’d spotted their target.
Hank lifted his own rifle, letting the engine idle. If not for his gloves, he’d probably have had a hard time holding onto the weapon, given how much silicone spray he’d doused it in to keep the salt water off. That rifle had been through hell since they’d left the States, but it was still running like a champ. He wanted it to stay that way.
He had a feeling that it was going to have a lot more work to do soon.
Finding the lights, he cranked up the magnification. Sure enough, that was the Hong Yun, the letters standing out in white on her red and black bow. She was a few minutes behind schedule, but she might have slowed down based on the maritime security warnings for the Strait.
It was a good thing Hank was a patient man.
Lowering the rifle, he twisted the throttle again, slowly bringing the Zodiac back up to speed. He was still keeping the speed low, avoiding too much noise or too much of a wake, slowly stalking their prey. They’d let the tanker get past, then the boats would move in from her stern.
Brule and Carrington would have to be on the ball during the next few minutes. Intel hadn’t received any reliable reports that the PLAN marines had put security teams aboard any of the ships moving into Xiamen or through the Strait to any of the other ports along the eastern seaboard, but it was probably a decent possibility. Given the advantage of height, a handful of men on the fantail could easily lay waste to men in combat rubber raiding craft on the water below. Thanks to the amount of noise a tanker makes on the move, though, and the suppressors every man had mounted on his M5, there was a chance, if they were on the ball, that they could eliminate any security before they were spotted.
Both men adjusted their positions as they got closer, getting down into the boat itself instead of riding the gunwales. Brule tried lying on his belly, his rifle resting on the gunwale, for about thirty seconds before he reconsidered and followed Carrington’s lead, getting into more of a sitting position with his boots up on the gunwale, leaning back against the assault packs stacked in the middle of the deck. He could shoot at a higher angle a lot more easily that way.
Still keeping their speed low, Hank closed in on the massive ship. The other boats trailed behind in a loose wedge, keeping well behind the lead craft, trying to hide in the darkness. Hank’s boat would be the first to make contact, and if they could avoid being spotted too early, so much the better.
The boat rocked on the massive tanker’s wake as they closed in. The running lights were on, but the crew and the security detail—presuming there was one—weren’t using floodlights. Hopefully, they thought they were still far enough out at sea that they didn’t have to worry about such precautions.
The tyranny of distance has its advantages, provided you can avoid some of its traps. Time and thousands of miles of open ocean can erode even the most intense watchfulness. Nobody can be switched on all the time, no matter how hard they try. And if the Chinese security “contractors” thought that they were now close enough to the mainland that they’d be under PLAN protection… They might have gotten sloppy.
Hank hoped so. He hadn’t planned on it, but he could still hope.
The rails were deserted as the boats closed in, Hank steering his Zodiac up right next to the steel cliff of the hull. Jim Shevlin brought his own boat in alongside Hank’s so he could cover the gunwale while Hank and his element started their boarding operation.
Handing the throttle over to Keith, Hank got ready to move. Carrington and Brule had abandoned their earlier positions, and Carrington was hauling the boarding ladder out, extending it as Keith held the boat against the tanker’s hull.
The hook went over the steel almost soundlessly. The Triarii of Tango India Six-Four had gotten a lot of practice at boarding operations since they’d sailed through the Timor Sea and into the Philippines with havoc on their minds. The next months of disruption and asymmetric warfare against the Communist Chinese had been instructive. The section was as good at maritime ops now as any dedicated naval commando unit.
Slinging his rifle across his back, Hank grabbed the ladder and started up. He was the section leader. He’d be the first one on deck. There’d been a time, especially back when he’d been a platoon sergeant and then a Company Gunny, that he would have let the younger guys go first. They were all Triarii here, though. There were billets, but no real ranks. And he wasn’t willing, after the losses they’d taken from Phoenix to San Diego to Texas to the Philippines, to let another of his guys take the chief risk.
A tiny voice in the back of his head wondered as he climbed, careful not to move so quickly that the ladder bounced against the hull and made noise, if he wasn’t halfway hoping that he’d get smoked.
Then he might not see a dead kid, torn apart by .50 caliber machinegun fire, every time he closed his eyes.
He shook the thought off as he neared the rail. Not the time. He needed to be focused, entirely in the moment.
He could worry about his mental health when his boys weren’t in harm’s way anymore.
Just before he reached the rail, he held on with one hand and brought his M5 back around, tucking the buttstock under his arm with the suppressor pointed up toward the top of the ladder and the superstructure that loomed overhead, the white-painted steel bathed in a handful of floodlights.
It took a little more doing to get up and over with only one hand, but as he lifted himself over the lip of the gunwale, he saw no one on deck. They had gotten sloppy. Probably figured that they were close enough to the mainland that they were home free and didn’t have much to worry about anymore.
After all, most of the pirate activity was in the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea. Hank had, himself, had something to do with the specific targeting of China-bound freighters by Indonesian pirates. He couldn’t take credit for the idea, though. After all, the Chinese had been pointing pirates at the Australians for months.
When you change the rules in a war, don’t be surprised when those changed rules get turned back on you.
He got over the rail and onto the deck, dropping as lightly to the steel as he could. The ladder behind him shifted and creaked slightly as Brule mounted it, clambering up fast so that Hank wouldn’t be by himself on the deck for very long.
Meanwhile, the second boat had pulled up in front of them, and LaForce was even then clambering over the rail himself. But Brule wasn’t the type to move slowly when his section leader was already in harm’s way.
The engines chugged under him, but the deck was otherwise weirdly quiet. Either the tanker was running with a skeleton crew, or they really had gotten dangerously complacent.
He held his position, watching the hatches and portholes just over his weapon as the rest of the section, minus the coxswains, climbed aboard. There were some unavoidable noises as the ladders tapped against the hull and boots went over the rails, even the occasional clack of a rifle against the steel hull, but for the most part, the boarding was quick, smooth, and quiet.
Turning to make eye contact with LaForce, Hank pointed down, getting a slightly exaggerated thumbs up in reply. LaForce and the rest of 2nd Squad quickly vanished into a nearby hatch, leading below. They’d secure the engine spaces while Navarro took 3rd Squad forward to sweep the decks.
Hank, along with Lovell’s 1st Squad and their attachment, a short, wiry man in the same green fatigues but carrying a QBZ-191 that the Triarii had captured in the Spratlys, would take the bridge.
On paper, Xu Guang was a retired ROC Army Shàoxiào, or Major. In reality, he was an off-the-books contractor for the ROC’s National Security Bureau. Officially, he wasn’t there, nor was he going to do anything that night.
With Lovell and Carrington taking point, Lovell practically shouldering Hank out of the way as if to say, this is our job, boss, they flowed into the superstructure.
This was hardly the first ship they’d had to clear, but this was going to be a little different. This was a “Capture” mission. They didn’t want to kill anyone if they could help it. Since they appeared to have achieved complete surprise, they needed to reach the control points and secure the ship as fast as possible before the crew even knew what was happening.
They still moved carefully, soles rolling on the deck as they covered each opening with a rifle muzzle, flowing across the deck and up the ladderwells toward the bridge. They hadn’t encountered any resistance yet, so they’d move quickly instead of systematically clearing every compartment.
That part would probably have to come later, but for now, they would bypass what they could to seize control of the ship first.
Hank was right behind Lovell and Carrington as they reached the bridge. So far, so good. No alarms, no security. Carrington put his hand on the handle of the hatch, looked at Lovell, who had his rifle leveled at the opening, and yanked it open.
They went through fast, half of 1st Squad flooding into the bridge with Hank and Xu in seconds.
In fact, they moved so fast, and so quietly, that it took a second before the captain—or maybe he was just the watchstander—turned to look over his shoulder to see who’d come onto the bridge. His eyes widened as he suddenly found himself staring at men in wet green fatigues, helmets, plate carriers, “horse collar” flotation devices, and NVGs, pointing suppressed battle rifles at him and the other two men on the bridge.
One of them, wearing khakis and a black polo shirt, with a QBZ-95 in his hands, very slowly held one hand out, holding the bullpup rifle’s forearm with the other, slowly and gently lowering it to the deck. So, there were security contractors aboard, but they had gone down to a skeleton crew for the night. This guy might even be the only one up. And he didn’t want any piece of the certain death that had just entered the bridge like ghosts.
Xu moved then, stepping up to the captain. Getting a better look at the man, noticeably older than the other two on the bridge, Hank was now pretty sure that this guy was the captain. The hard little Taiwanese officer kept his voice low and calm as he carefully explained to the captain just what was going to happen next in Mandarin.
Somewhere down below, a gunshot echoed through the superstructure. “All stations, this is Six. Status?” Hank kept his own voice down as he keyed his radio, letting his M5 hang as he left security to the other Triarii infantrymen on deck.
“This is Two. Had one of the security guys get froggy. One bad guy down. No friendly casualties.”
“This is Three.” Navarro sounded almost bored. “Deck is secure.”
“Copy.” Hank looked up at Xu, who nodded. Everything seemed to be under control. He switched channels. “Juliet Quebec, Tango India Six-Four. Objective secured. Will rendezvous in six hours.” He nodded to Xu. “Let’s get things going.”