The Laotian Hummingbird, your repurposed 200-foot fishing trawler, tosses about in ten-foot seas a hundred and fifty miles off the coast of Galmudug province. It’s a relatively cool February night, and you’re choking down a dinner with the few men you have left. The Joint Somali Anti-Piracy Task Force raided the port at El Hur a week ago and you’re having trouble finding a safe haven. Fuel is about to become a real problem.
Mugabe, your right-hand man for more than ten years, gives you a meaningful look after rattling off what’s left of the ship’s dwindling supplies. The gold rush is over, and he knows it too. The Indians and the Emiratis just aren’t tolerating it anymore, and the sea has been crawling with patrol boats for going on three years.
You’re jerked out of your reverie by the sound of the satellite phone. It hasn’t rung in months. You pick it up and listen silently.
“Hugo?” Nigel, your man inside Lloyd’s of London.
“Been a while,” you mutter.
“Pickings have been slim, but I have something for you. It’s a little strange though.”
“Better than nothing.”
“Alright. Maersk Al’lain. It’s insured by us, moving through your neck of the woods now. The boat and crew itself is only covered for two hundred, but I’ve got a request from an anonymous buyer.”
“Wait,” you say, “how’d he know to contact you?”
“I have no idea, and I’m a little freaked out by it. If you want to do this, I think I’m out after it’s done.”
“I get it. What’s this mystery man want?”
“He says the ship might be carrying something of interest to him. He’s offering a million just for a picture of it, and ten million if you can get it off the boat.”
“What is it?”
“He wouldn’t say. He gave a cargo location. Said you’d know it when you saw it and that two men could get it off the ship without any equipment.”
“Yeah, but I got nothing else. This’ll have to be it, unless you’ve drummed up a new source of revenue.”
You grind your teeth a bit and sigh. “Alright, let’s do it.”
“Good man. Okay, the Al’lain is on Maersk’s I7A route and should pass into the Gulf of Aden tomorrow at 20:00 local time. Your mystery cargo is in hold 2, stack D3.”
“Got it. See you after the payout.” You hang up.
You explain the job to the crew. You’ve got eight men, two zodiacs, small arms, and a couple of grenades and rocket launchers to frighten the locals. You don’t explicitly say this is the last job, but they’re not idiots. Well, most of them anyway. They get it.
You spend the evening and most of the next day steaming into the Gulf and planting yourself close enough to I7A that your recycled Nam-era ground effects radar will pick up the Al’lain, and at 19:30 you get a blip that’s got the right speed and heading. You leave old Timba behind to mind the Hummingbird and pack the remaining seven into the two zodiacs and head off into the night.
At six hundred feet, the Al’lain is a smaller ship, relatively speaking, eschewing typical cargo containers for four large dry storage holds. Cutting through ten foot swells has soaked you and the men, but the noise of the waves masks the sound of your outboards as you approach. Apart from some red light coming from the raised wheelhouse at the aft, the ship is running completely dark, which is dangerous as hell at night in a busy shipping lane, but it suits you just fine.
You toss two lines up and all the men are over the rail at the tail of the ship without so much as a squawk from the crew, leaving the zodiacs tied in the water near the port pilot’s hatch. You grab Ziki and Thomas and head for the hold, leaving Mugabe and the rest to secure the wheelhouse and engine room. Ships this size rarely have more than a ten-man crew, mostly mechanics, and with any luck you’ll catch them at dinner.
You head down some narrow stairs and take a gangway that runs the port rail of the ship. You get to the hatch for hold 2, head in and down another narrow ladder, and find yourself among the stacks of crates and containers filling the hold. Row D reveals a gap, giving you access to a void in the middle of the cargo, like a secret room. You come around a corner into the void and walk right into a man coming out.
Time seems to stop for an instant. The man is wearing black BDUs and a black harness. He’s carrying a bullpup-style submachine gun, and before you know what’s happening, he’s raised it and put two bullets into Thomas’ chest. You and Ziki both tumble backwards, he firing wildly from the hip with his rusty old Kalishnakov and you firing two much more measured shots from your pistol. The man’s body falls over the top of Thomas, and both are still. You quickly glance around the room but see no other assailants or, for that matter, ways out of the stacks of cargo boxes.
“There’s no way they slept through that,” you say, “let’s get this done.”
Ziki kneels down to see if there’s anything to be done for Thomas while you look around. The space is square, about thirty feet to a side, and is almost entirely filled with a heavy iron cage. The bars are extremely thick, they look like they could hold a dinosaur. Through a set of heavy double-gates is what appears to be a hospital setup. Open-sided containers with various equipment and medical supplies surround the perimeter. In the center of the cage is a table on which lies a man. He’s perhaps in his early 40s, with a fit build and short-cropped grey hair. His right arm is completely encased in bandages up to and around his shoulder, and the rest of him is covered in scrapes and bruises. He’s hooked up to several IVs, and appears unconscious – he was certainly unfazed by the gunshots.
“Hey boss,” squeaks Ziki in his broken French, ”take a look at this…”
You pause to take a photo of the man on the table before turning back to the bodies. Ziki is holding up a set of dog tags from the man.
“Marine,” he says.
Your guts go to ice. You pull out your radio. “Mugabe? Mugabe how’s it going?”
“What is it?” Ziki asks.
“You ever seen just one U.S. Marine anywhere? Mugabe? Anyone? Shit!”
You pull the dead soldier’s weapon and magazines for yourself and start looking for keys to the gate. Then a voice shouts down the corridor. American. A bit of an Alabama drawl.
“Hey in there…” the voice shouts. You motion at Ziki to look around for a way out. “…hello? We ran into your friends…. What are you fellas doing on my boat?”
You shrug to yourself. “We’re pirates,” you shout back, a little sheepishly. It sounds ridiculous to say it. The voice guffaws like it’s the funniest thing he’s ever heard.
“Ho boy! Wow, did you pick the wrong boat!”
“Don’t come in here…I’ll shoot the man in the cage.”
The man stops laughing, but the mirth doesn’t leave his voice. “You go right ahead, Skeeter. You think those bars are to keep out pirates? That sumbitch is a bullet sponge. You wake him up, see what happens.”
“So what now?” You shout.
“Well, Slick, I’m not sure. You could put your guns down and we could have a civilized conversation…”
Ziki waves to get your attention – underneath a nearby crate he’s found a hatch in the floor, likely to the bilges. There’s no way he’s going to get it open quietly though.
“I’m not sure how that ends well for me,” you shout. You pull out your two grenades, pull the pin from one, and nestle it spoon-up under the body of the dead soldier, then pull the pin from the second and hang on to it while you raise the submachine gun up.
“Hey Champ, I’m not sure anything’s going to end well for you at this point, but we can at least have the conversation.”
“Yeah,” you growl quietly, “I figured.”
You spray bullets blindly down the corridor. Ziki takes the cue and pulls the hatch open in the noise and drops into it. You keep firing and toss the grenade as hard as you can, bouncing it off the wall and sending it spinning towards where the voice is hiding. You bolt for the hatch and dive in, pulling it closed behind you right as you hear the explosion.
You and Ziki are crouched in foul, oily bilge water, but it appears to run the width of the ship. You scurry to port and emerge through a hatch near the pilot hatch. You throw open the hatch, letting in a wash of seawater with every wave, and the two of you crawl out into one of the zodiacs and tear off into the night.
Thirty terrifying minutes in the dark and you see the silhouette of the Hummingbird. You pull the zodiac aboard and shout at Tiki to punch it for the coast. It’s time to disappear. You’ve barely gotten the zodiac stowed and your heart rate under control when you hear the rotor blades.
You and Ziki look at each other, then out into the night. You don’t see the chopper, but you see the two missiles ignite on either side of it and streak toward the ship. You bolt as fast as you can run for the bow weapons locker and you feel a jolt, and everything stops.
The rotor sounds are gone. The noise of the ocean is gone. All you can hear is your breathing, roaring in your ears. You turn around. Time is stopped. The rockets have hit the aft of the Hummingbird at the water-line and ignited the remaining fuel. There’s nothing but a fireball, propelling razor-sharp debris in all directions. A fireball frozen in place. Sea spray hangs suspended like diamonds, glistening in the orange light. Ziki is thirty feet behind you, already ripped into pieces by the blast.
You turn and keep running, but it feels like you’re moving in molasses, and with every step it’s like the rest of the world starts catching up, the sounds approaching as if from a great distance. You’re nearly to the forward rail when things go back to normal and you’re blasted into the darkness. You hit the water like it’s pavement, and barely register the cold before everything goes black.