Gray Matter Splatter, Chapter 13

“What the hell is going on?” Deckard said as he looked up from the computer screen.

Off in the distance, the ocean was glowing orange.

“I thought it was the northern lights at first,” Otter said. “But that is a different kind of light. We’re not far off the coast of Alaska now, and those are the offshore oil fields.”

“Holy shit.”

Engineers and scientists had demonstrated that the Alaskan arctic contained 40 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil and in the neighborhood 210 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas. America’s long term energy plan to become less reliant on the often unstable Middle East only helped speed up the process of drilling in the arctic off the coast of Alaska.

Companies like Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell, Gazprom, and their own employer, Xyphon, had developed crash programs to build off shore oil rigs all over the arctic, a region reputed to hold up to a quarter of the world’s fossil fuels. While Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves amounted to about 260 billion barrels of oil, the Arctic may have as much as 580 billion barrels and like the Middle East, the arctic was now ripe for conflict.

“They did this because of us,” Deckard said.

“What?”

“Just like Saddam set the oil refineries ablaze to try to delay the coalition advance during the Gulf War, the enemy blew up at least one of the oil rigs to try to prevent our pursuit.”

“We’re on their tail then.”

“Probably closer than we suspected and they are out of options. Get us around the fires, we’re going into the North East passage.”

The radio bolted above the helm suddenly chirped.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday, this is the surviving crew of Hillhorn platform! Mayday, mayday, may-”

“Shit,” Deckard said. “I’m going to wake up the boys and get Otter up here. Then we’re going to find out where the hell Global hawk is and hunt these bastards down.”

Squirrel looked into the looming flames, his eyes filled with uncertainty.

* * *

Jeff Dombrowski was the junior driller on the Hillhorn gas and oil platform, or at least he had been until an hour ago. Huddled under the plastic tent that protected them inside the octagonal inflatable life raft, he stared across at Alan, the assistant rig manager, Roger, the senior toolpusher, and John, their rig maintenance supervisor.

The wind had shifted, and now the four men watched helplessly as their life raft was pushed back towards the sea of fire. The Hillhorn and the Fitzpatrick platforms had both exploded at the same time, something that wasn’t supposed to be possible outside of sabotage. As far as any of them knew, they were the only survivors.

A wave lapped over the side of the raft, cold ocean water seeping inside and as it dripped from the tarp roof. Roger was staring into space, somewhere else, anywhere but here.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” John cried into the handheld emergency radio.

A burst of static emitted from the radio.

“Roger, Hillhorn,” a scratchy voice said on the other end. “This is the Carrickfergus. Give us a grid.”

Jeff nearly jumped out of the raft as he grabbed the GPS.

“It’s not working,” he said as he played with the settings.

“Satellites have been acting weird for a couple days,” John said. “We have a hell of a big Roman candle out there to act as a beacon though. I’ll try to guide them in.”

Jeff unzipped and tossed open the plastic covering. The sea slapped against the side of the raft, spilling more water inside which sloshed around and gathered around their feet.

John poked his head outside.

“Carrickfergus,” he said into the radio. “GPS is a no-go. What is your current heading?”

* * *

The exhausted survivors of the Hillhorn blast were pulled onboard the Carrickfergus nearly an hour later. Their beards were soaked and frozen, their eyebrows drooped. Each of them was walking around like a zombie, not even aware of the strange ethnicities of the crew members who pulled them onto the ship.

“Hey,” a tall American with a chiseled jaw said. Jeff looked up at him.

“I’m Pat. The boss wants us to get you in some warm clothes and then he wants to see you four on the bridge.”

“Yeah, okay.”

Looking up, fluttering in the wind and glowing orange as the oil rigs burned in front of them, was the jolly roger flying above the ship. Looking back down, he then noticed the pistol and spare magazines that Pat had strapped to his belt under his open parka.

“Let’s roll.”

The four survivors followed after Pat as he led them inside. They could already feel the Carrickfergus shifting under their feet, turning around the fields of fire. The Hillhorn crew members blinked in disbelief. There were machine guns, rifles, hand grenades, open metal cans of ammunition, and porn mags laying all over the place. Men wearing snow camouflage who looked to be of a dozen different nationalities were prepping their gear, looking like they were ready to launch World War Three.

Pat took them down a flight of metal steps to a changing room in front of the showers where they had some space. Another camo clad man stepped in behind them, said something in Russian, then dropped a box at their feet. After looking inside, they didn’t need Pat to tell them what to do. The crewmen stripped off their soaked clothes and then tore into the box of brand new thermal underwear, pants, and jackets.

“What is it you guys do exactly?” John ventured.

Pat leaned to the side with one hand propped against the wall, the other at his hip.

“Mergers and acquisitions mostly.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Oh, fuck yeah. C’mon, grab some towels to finish drying off and we can go get this meeting over with. Then we can get you some chow.”

Back up into the bay, they then climbed another set of stairs that was vertical to the point of being a ladder, then up into the bridge. It was pretty easy to identify the ship’s captain behind the helm with his big bushy beard and coffee cup in one hand. The younger guy working the sea charts was obviously the first mate. A third guy who wore a Patagonia pullover looked up from his laptop with bloodshot eyes.

Walking around the desk, he sized up the four oil rig workers up.

“We owe you big time man,” Jeff thanked him.

“Don’t mention it. I’m Deckard.”

He shook all of their hands but the boss didn’t look happy. As he lit up a cigarette, Jeff noticed the scars on his knuckles. He’d worked around the oil industry to know that this guy had been in a few brawls.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” John said. “What exactly is it that you guys do?”

“We’re mercs,” Deckard said without missing a beat. “We kill cunts.”

“Um, what?”

“Let me put it to you this way. If some jag off dictator takes over a country somewhere, they call in the 82nd Airborne or the Marines. If some douche bag hijacks a nuclear weapon they call in SEAL Team Six or Delta Force. But if some x-factor comes out of left field in a blur, steals a super weapon that can end the world, and then takes off in a super-secret high tech stealth boat, then they call me and my boys.”

“Really?”

“I’m afraid so,” Deckard said as he frowned and looked out the window. “Every fucking time.”

The four survivors looked at each other wondering if they had just entered the twilight zone.

“You lost a lot of men on those rigs,” Deckard said, his voice detached from the human toll of the disaster.

“I think we’re the only ones left,” Jeff said.

“I’m sorry, this is my fault.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m chasing someone who doesn’t want to be found. They ordered this strike against your oil platforms to delay us.”

“What strike?”

“I just found out myself. Ballistic missiles launched from civilian container ships traveling along the Northwest sea passage. Russian authorities are moving in now, but the ships are flagged in Liberia and the crews probably had no idea what they were carrying. Knowing the MO of the guys I’m after, the cargo containers onboard were probably fully automated and received an electronic go-code from afar.”

John shook his head. None of it made sense.

“Look, you guys must know this area and I could use your help.”

Deckard walked over to the first mate who was looking over the sea charts.

“The vessel we are looking for is about a two hundred footer. We think they’ve been leaking a lot of fuel and probably haven’t been able to make a lot of repairs while underway. If they had to make a quick stop to refuel and try to patch up their hull, where do you think they would go?”

“Only one place to go.”

Everyone turned to look at Roger who had spoken for the first time.

“Where?” Deckard asked.

“Barrow, Alaska,” he answered. “The northern most city in America.”

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Gray Matter Splatter, Chapter 12

Gray Matter Splatter by Jack Murphy

“Which way are we going?”

“Dammit we can’t go that way!”

“Nyet, nyet!”

“It’s blocked, it’s blocked!”

“Go back the way we came!”

“We ain’t going back that way, the ice just cracked again.”

“What is on our right flank? I can’t see shit!”

Deckard could hear the panic raising in their voices as his men radioed back and forth, desperately trying to find a way off the ice floe. They had spent two hours weaving across the ice, dodging fresh breaks as the ice island continued tearing itself apart. Every time they thought they had found an opening, they would run right into another lead, twenty foot openings with sloshing sea water at the bottom.

“That’s it,” Deckard finally ordered over the radio. “Put them in a file. Dag, get us the fuck out of here now.”

“Roger that,” the the former Norwegian FSK commando replied. “On it.”

The Samruk mercenaries broke formation and began moving in a single file line, sacrificing security for speed. The ice was coming apart under their feet and if they didn’t rendezvous with the Carrickfergus soon they would drown, freeze, or be left squatting on a car sized piece of ice floating towards Siberia like a lost polar bear.

Dag led them over a chest high pressure ridge, then hand railed alongside a fresh lead, driving them deeper and deeper into the darkness of night. The men were frantic, eyes darting around the ice, looking for ghosts that weren’t there. One of the newer guys even let off a burst of Kalashnikov fire at an imaginary enemy before Chuck Rocheniore blasted him in the face with a clenched fist.

Deckard was losing control of his element, and shit was getting more gangster by the second.

“Otter, flip on the IR strobe for thirty seconds.”

The strobe light mounted on the Carrickfergus would blink on and off in the infrared spectrum, visible to those wearing night vision goggles but invisible to the naked eye. Asking for thirty seconds of strobe light wasn’t because Deckard was worried about the enemy spotting their ship. At this point he could care less, but the batteries in their PVS-14 night vision monocles would freeze after much longer than that.

“That’s it, I got them,” Dag confirmed over the radio. “Five hundred meters due East.”

The radio batteries would freeze as well, but they now made sure that they wore their inter-team radios under thermals layers of clothing beneath their parkas.

“Get us there.”

After another fifteen minutes of stumbling around the ice, they could see the silhouette of their ship, docked alongside the ice. Fedorchenko spread his men out in a half moon formation to pull security while the other platoon scaled the cargo net and climbed up the hull of the ship. Once they were onboard, the other platoon collapsed down and climbed onboard as well.

Deckard was the last off the ice. Slinging his rifle, he grabbed onto the net with one hand and looked over his shoulder.

All he saw was darkness.

All he heard was the howling of the wind.

The enemy was out there. Somewhere.

Deckard swung around and stuck his foot onto one of the rungs of the net, then climbed up hand over hand, promising himself that he was going to find them.

Then he was going to kill every single one of them.

* * *

Flinging open the door to the bridge, Deckard dumped his kit on the ground and slammed his rifle down on a shelf.

“Where-”

Deckard interrupted the ship’s captain before he even had the chance to ask.

“East. Just head East.”

Opening his laptop, Deckard punched in the number for the JSOC guys in Tampa. He needed a word. The VTC opened and he was looking at the usual four-man cast of characters.

“Deckard, what happened?” Gary asked. “Did you get them?”
“Prevented them from transferring the weapon. It was a submarine, not an airplane but they got away.”

“What? How the hell did that happen?”

“We need to talk. You level with me right now about what I’m up against or I’m assaulting my way to Tampa to skull fuck the four of you once I’m done up here.”

“Whoa, hey, what are you talking about?”

“What. The. Fuck. Am. I. Hunting.”

“We told you, we’re still trying to fit the puzzle pieces together. We don’t know who this is.”

“Beyond that. Whatever the fuck it is they stole, it isn’t nuclear.”

“The Urals compound they hit is a nuclear research facility.”

“Bullshit,” Deckard said as he slammed his fist on the table. “Whatever that thing is, they activated it just as we were moving in for the kill. It shook the ice beneath our feet. The next thing I know the ice floe was coming apart right under us and my men were getting sucked into the ocean. They made the entire ice floe destabilize so that they could get the device back to their ship and escape.”

Everyone in Tampa was silent.

“What the fuck am I up against here? I want a answer and I want it right fucking now.”

Will cleared his throat.

“There have been stories, rumors really, coming out of Russia since the Soviet years.”

“Rumors of what?”

“An entirely new generation of weapons. Directed energy systems, psy-tronics, stuff that can even steer weather patterns. Sometimes defectors or recruited assets would pass on whispers about this kind of stuff.”

“Consider the rumors confirmed. They’ve been holding an ace up their sleeve.”

“None of it makes sense. We’ve had scientific review boards come up with classified findings. None of the math adds up.”

“Humor me.”

“We know that it is possible for man-made earth quakes to be induced. It has been done accidentally in India and China by building massive reservoirs on top of fault lines. Some scientists have theorized that nuclear testing is also responsible for increased earthquake activity, but there isn’t much proof of that,” Will said.

“What about actual weaponization?”

“Well, even the scientists more open the this idea only believed that it was possible to tickle seismic activity were there is already great tectonic pressures, basically inducing an earthquake that is already going to happen at some point, maybe making it a little stronger.”

“There are already frictions on an ice floe, we know that because of the leads and pressure ridges present, but that is nothing like the tectonic forces of the earth’s plates.”

“No, it isn’t,” Will agreed. “Which means the Russians may be much farther along with the weaponization process than any of us had suspected. SCOPE employs a number of scientists as consultants that we will have to call in to work on this.”

“We are in the shit right now. How is it possible for something like this to work?”

“If I was to speculate,” Will said. “I would guess it utilizes electro-magnetic energy. Nikola Tesla claimed to have nearly shook a building to the ground with a device he build based upon what he termed telegeodynamics. From there, we are getting into conspiracy theory territory.”

“An area of expertise for you isn’t it Will,” Craig said as he turned to face his co-worker.”

“Mine too,” Deckard added. “I’ve seen too many black helicopters to discount it. Especially when it is right in front of my eyes.”

“Where does this leave us?” Gary asked.

“We are heading east. With the Bering Strait cut off, they won’t be double backing right into Russia’s Northern Fleet.”

“The North East passage then?”

“That’s their only way out of this, through Canada and into the Atlantic. That submarine took direct hits and won’t be resurfacing anytime soon, if ever. What is the status of the Global Hawk UAVs?”

“We have one platform flying up from Montana right now. It will have to refuel in Fairbanks. ETA is almost twenty four hours.”

“I’m going to pursue. We can’t wait for you guys to get your shit together.”

“Deckard, we need-”

Slamming his laptop shut, Deckard grabbed his rifle and threw the door open on his way off of the bridge.

* * *

Opening his eyes, Deckard was immediately awake.

Despite only sleeping for five hours, he felt like he had just woken up after hibernating over the winter. When you are so exhausted that you start droning, even a little bit of sleep can make an amazing difference when it comes to recharging your brain.

Tossing a woodland camouflage poncho liner off, he rolled out of his cot and pulled on a layer of thermal clothing before walking through the ship. Most of the men were still asleep, a few others lay awake watching movies on portable DVD players or laptops. A few Xbox One and PlayStation Four consoles hummed in the darkness as the guys bunked in that particular area had fallen asleep watching movies or paused the screen in the middle of a Call of Duty deathmatch.

Stepping up the steep metal steps, Deckard climbed up to the bridge. Otter’s second mate, a younger sailor in his late twenties named Squirrel, was on watch.

“Any updates?”

“Not much on our end, we are on course heading towards the North East passage as you instructed. Back home, half of Los Angeles lost it’s power grid and ISIS set off a couple car bombs in Paris,” Squirrel answered.

“Someone keeping the pressure on us.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing.”

Sitting behind a desk, Deckard opened his laptop.

* * *

The Blade Master pulled back on the crossbow’s string. Most warriors couldn’t draw back the bow on this particular weapon, but with a flex of his shoulders, he was able to set the string in the weapon. Inserting a poison tipped quarrel, he looked for his query.

The humidity of the jungle was thick in the air, enveloping him in a haze that the tangles of vines over his head eventually disappeared into. Somewhere, through the mist, was a Drakkenborn. Ducking under a fallen tree, the Blade Master stayed as stealthy as possible, stepping into a stream. The decaying machines of war lay scattered throughout the jungle, like the one in front of him. Powered by steam, they had been used in the third Aqualonian War, the technology that gave them life, long since lost. Now they were just remnants of the past.

Moving around the arms of the broken mechanical cyclops, the Blade Master noticed movement in the distance.

Jackpot.

The Drakkenborn was stalking something, not realizing that he himself was the prey. As he inched closer, the mist parted, revealing the half breed spawn of a human and a dragon, made possible by the dark machinations of sorcerers and warlocks. He was as tall as he was wide, wearing a golden tunic with heavy metal armor on his shoulders and chest.

Holding a lance above his head, the Drakkenborn prepared to launch his weapons at a giant spider creeping up a tree.

Leveling the crossbow to his shoulder and taking aim, the Blade Master fired first. Depressing the lever on his crossbow, the quarrel shot through the air and speared the Drakkenborn in the neck. He recoiled as the poisoned dart struck its mark. Turning to face the unexpected threat, he cast a bolt of lighting.

The Blade Master strafed to his left, narrowly avoiding the flash of electricity. Now the Drakkenborn came crashing through the brush, his sword drawn.

“Get the hell out of there,” a voice sounded in the Blade Master’s ear. It was his Dark Elf mentor, communicating to him by an enchanted gemstone that he wore around his neck. The Dark Elf wore an identical one which had been magically bound together with his own.

Executing an about face, the Blade Master ran towards the shard. If he could make it in time, the poison would do the rest. Slinging the crossbow over his shoulder helped him run faster, and he was going to need all the help he could get.

Dodging around the overgrown war machine, the Blade Master cringed as another bolt of lighting hit a tree just in front of him, setting it ablaze with fire. The ferns were waist high, leaving an obvious trail in his wake, not that any was necessary. The Drakkenborn was nearly on top of him. The Blade Master climbed on top of one of the war machines and slide down the opposite side.

His enemy was still in pursuit, cursing at him in some foreign language.

The shard was right in front of him in an open clearing, glowing with ancient magic. The Blade Master sprinted towards it. Half way across the clearing, a dagger stuck into his back. The Drakkenborn had depleted his reserve of magicka, but was not out of the fight. Another throwing dagger sunk into his shoulder.

Without looking back, the Blade Master dived into the shard.

The world blinked and he rolled into a dusty dirt road. A village full of small houses with thatch roofs was laid out in front of him. His hand went to his katana and drew it from its sheath. A dead body fell out of the shard at his feet. The Drakkenborn had succumbed to the poisoned quarrel.

“Not bad, but you got lucky,” the gemstone around his neck glowed with each word.

“Luck is one of my skills.”

The Blade Master sheathed his sword and yanked the two throwing daggers out of his back.

“That remains to be seen. I’ll be more interested to see how you deal with the next target.”

“Where is he?”

“Head west through the village.”

The Blade Master crouched down next to the corpse of the Drakkenborn and got some mad loot off of the body. Walking through the village, piglets and baby goats parted as he walked between them. Pollen floated through the air as the towns people worked at the mill and merchants sold their wares from stales alongside the road.

“Dwarven armor for sale!”

“Magicka elixir +10 mana!”

The hustle was unreal, even in such a small village.

“Hey,” a tinkerer said as he approached the Blade Master. Half of his teeth were made of wood and he carried a heavy load on his back with pots and pans strung into his pack. “Want to watch Kim Kardashian suck a cock?”

“God dammit,” the Blade Master cursed. “Get the fuck away from me!”

Climbing over a wooden stake fence, he walked through someone’s farm and then out into the countryside. Lazy white clouds floated through the sky. Cows were not supposed to have horns and farms were not supposed to have jackalopes, but they were here in spades.

The Blade Master slid down an embankment and disappeared into the forest.

“I’m going to love seeing how you will pull this one off.”

He spun, the Katana materializing in his hand.

The Dark Elf threw his hands up in front of him.

“Hey, take it easy.”

“You take it easy.”

“You are going to love this. The next one is a barbarian. Maxed out legacy status. Level 150.”

“How am I supposed to pull that off?”

“Luck is one of your skills.”

“Shit.”

“Listen, it’s working,” the Dark Elf said through cracked lips. “A lot of people are looking for the new Blade Master who has burst upon the scene on the PvP sever. You are getting attention, and that is exactly what we want.”

“And here I was thinking I was just helping you guys level up your RPG character.”

“You are making fast progress, not to worry. You have already killed seven of their people. If you take down this barbarian you are going to be on their radar in a big way.”

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“Time will tell, but your unorthodox methods are working in your favor. Still, about this barbarian…”

“Just show me where he is.”

“Follow me.”
The Blade Master did. Climbing up a steep cliff, the duo crossed a rickety rope bridge over a gushing white water river a hundred feet beneath them. On the other side was a clearing. Another shard floated in the air, glowing white light.

“Where are we going now?” the Blade Master asked.

“You’ll see,” the Dark Elf replied as he disappeared into the light. The Blade Master followed and found himself in a wind swept tundra. He squinted as wet white flakes of snow stung his eyes.

“Icedale? I really don’t need any more of this shit in my life.”

“I thought it might be growing on you,” the Dark elf said, once again taking the lead.

“My balls still haven’t emerged from hibernation.”

“What the hell do you need those for?”

“You have no idea.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry I asked.”

I few minutes of walking and they found the player character they were looking for. He was of the barbarian class, nearly seven feet tall and wearing heavy bear furs that were tied around his body. Swinging a massive broad sword, the barbarian split open a griffon’s skull, painting the snow crimson.

“One of the legends of Infinity Blade,” the Dark Elf said. “King Krag.”

“Great.”

“So what’s the plan hot shot?”

The Blade Master scoured the terrain.

“Hmm. Wait here.”

The Dark Elf watched the Blade Master go into stealth mode and keep a distance from the non-player character monsters. Icedale was an expansion pack for Infinity Blade and had only been released a few months prior for the most high level players in the game, allowing them to advance to level 150. His protege wouldn’t last long tangling with the Ice Giants and Frost Spiders, not to mention King Krag.

Advancing towards a cave opening he had spotted, the Dark Elf could see King Krag cast a spell, surrounding himself with blue light as the healing potion took effect. Then he charged at one of the Ice Giants. Behind Krag, the Blade Master slid down a snowy slope and disappeared into the opening of a cave.

“What in the hell is that guy doing?”

King Krag continued to swing his broad sword, blocking the Ice Giant’s club with his shield and then slashing again until finally, the giant collapsed with a thud. In the meantime, a mammoth had stormed across the tundra and joined the fray, engaging Krag with his tusks.

Minutes went by with Krag turning the tundra into a bloody killing ground of dead NPCs until the Blade Master suddenly burst out of the cave, running straight towards Krag who was now fighting it out with another Ice Giant. Right on his tail, a long line of ghouls, ghosts, and Orc Lords chased the Blade Master.

“The dungeon train,” the Dark Elf said to himself. “Son of a bitch.”

The Blade Master bumped right into Krag as he parried an attack from the giant, then cast a potion of invisibility on himself and disappeared. The entire dungeon train then crashed right into Krag. He was surrounded by a dozen high level NPCs and was quickly taking a beating. He cast another healing potion on himself, but there was no way he was fighting his way out of this one.

“That should do it,” the Blade Master said, reappearing at the Dark Elf’s side as the potion wore off. Krag was hacking and slashing furiously. The Ice Giant was down but Krag was getting pounded by dark magicka from the ghouls and Orc Lord war hammers.

“But you need to get credit for the kill. It won’t count if he gets slain by NPCs.”

The Blade Master drew his crossbow and loaded it with an explosive quarrel.

“You sneaky bastard.”

He hefted the cross bow to his shoulder and sighted in on King Krag as he was knocked down to his knees. Staggering back up, he was now covered in his own blood.

“Wait for it.”

The two watched as Krag’s HP points were diminished. The Blade Master waited until the final moment, then let the quarrel fly. It struck Krag right between the shoulder blades and exploded in a brilliant phosphorus flash. Krag fell face first into the snow, dead.

“Let’s get out of here before he respawns and comes looking for us,” the Dark Elf suggested.

The Blade Master was silent.

“Hey? You hear me?”

He just stood there, not saying a word.

“Hello? What the hell is going on?”

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Gray Matter Splatter, Chapter 11

Gray Matter Splatter, cover still a work in progress.

Gray Matter Splatter, cover still a work in progress.

“Keep the drone near the ship,” Deckard told Cody as he prepared to launch his toy airplane. Thankfully, he had more than one. “I don’t want it getting brought down by electronic counter-measures or otherwise being spotted by the enemy.”

Cody hurled the drone off the deck of the ship and into the air. Using his tablet to control the drone, it spiraled over the Carrickfergus as it gained altitude. Night had set in and everyone knew that the coming movement was going to be perilous in the dark but on the other hand it would limit the enemy’s visibility as well. It was safe to assume that an opponent this sophisticated would have access to night vision and thermals but just like Samruk, the arctic would severely limit their battery life.

“Okay, I’ve got something,” Cody announced. “Thermal signatures on the other side of the ice floe.”

“How far out?”

“Hard to say, a couple miles I would guess.”

“Okay, get me your best guess at a distance as well as a direction. We’ll initiate the movement. Keep the drone up, then bring it back to refuel, and send it back up when we are ready to make contact with the enemy.”

“I will.”

Deckard turned to prepare the movement across the ice.

“Hey,” Cody said, stopping him. “I heard you are playing Dungeons and Dragons in your free time or something?”

“What?”

“D&D is great man. I have some 12-sided dice and a dungeon master guide at my work station if you ever want-”

“Hey, fuck you dude. That is work related shit.”

“No, I am a big fan. My character has gone into legendary status.”

“Go fuck yourself Cody, I have shit to do.”

“Fine. Fuck you then.”

* * *

One by one the mercenaries scurried down a cargo net that had been hung from the side of the ship. They slipped down and landed on the ice floe before moving out and establishing a security perimeter. No one was more cautious about the landing than Deckard. He still didn’t feet quite right after his accidental swim in the arctic sea. Getting crushed between the Carrickfergus and the ice floe seemed like a better fate than going for another dunk in the water.

With the two platoons deployed out on the ice, the more experienced men in arctic and winter operations took the lead to guide the others through the darkness. Ice floes were dangerous to begin with, even more so at night when you could run into a lead, a opening or crack in the ice, at any time. Also present would be pressure ridges. While leads happened where the ice was pulled apart, pressure ridges were created where the ice had been pushed together. Aside from that, new leads could appear as the ice cracked and new fissures were created as the ice came apart.

Deckard chambered a round into the chamber of his Kalashnikov, the others quickly following suit. They were going into combat in the most inhospitable environment on earth, and this time they were all looking for some payback after a string of embarrassing defeats.

There was one thing that scared every former Special Operations soldier more than death and that was failure. They had lost men and with everything happening back in the world it was clear that the stakes didn’t get any higher. Once again, Deckard and Samruk International found themselves shadow boxing an elusive enemy.

Fanning out in a series squad sized wedge shaped formations, the mercenaries crept forward, their boots crunching through the snow. It was really the sound of the arctic, or lack of sound, that really drove home how far away they were from everything. Other than the wind in their ears and the snow under their feet, there was absolutely nothing. In the dark, they were isolated, each man looking back and forth every few steps to make sure he wasn’t isolated and alone.

The formation moved north east towards the enemy position. From what little Cody had been able to surmise from the drone’s imagery, the enemy had docked their boat alongside the 5-foot thick ice floe and looked to be offloading personnel and equipment. In a quick planning session, Deckard and the others gave it a high probability that the enemy would be flying out the nuclear weapon on a aircraft with ski wheels for landing on the ice. They would do it tonight, under the cover of darkness. Deckard had to make sure that didn’t happen.

A clenched fist was held up by Jacob, who was leading the movement, which was than passed down the line by the other mercenaries. They were taking a tactical pause, something developing up ahead. Jacob cut a hard right and led them around a lead that they had almost walked right into in the darkness. The movement wasn’t especially strenuous since they were on an almost nearly horizontal plane with little snow, but nerve-wracking none the less.

Half way through the movement, someone broke squelch over the radio net.

“Six, there is a new thermal signature.” It was Cody. “Looks like an engine block.”

“Can you tell what it is?”

“I can’t see shit. I’m barely keeping this thing in the air with all the wind!”

“Roger.”

One day they were going to have to water board Cody until he learned proper radio procedures.

The mercenaries continued through the night, crossing over several pressure ridges, one of them almost six feet tall. As they got closer to where the enemy had docked, Deckard gritted his teeth. If they had more radar mounted machine guns operational, they would quickly come under fire. His only hope was that the wind and snow interfered with those systems if they had them.

Then a high pitched whine sounded in the distance. It sounded like a massive lawnmower closing in on them as the buzzing sound got louder.

“Get down!” Jacob barked over the radio as he threw himself down on his belly. The mercenaries dove to the ground as a hovercraft emerged out of the darkness and sped right passed the formation, seemingly unaware of their presence, as it bounced by on its rubber skirt. Deckard reached into his jacket and pulled out a small Insight SU-232 thermal sight which he wore around his neck by a lanyard to keep it warm against his chest.

Pressing the rubber protector around the lens against his eye, the thermal sight activated. The black and white image showed the white-hot displayed engine block in the rear of the vehicle. It looked to be a fairly small hovercraft, maybe a two seater with a storage compartment in the back.

“That’s it,” Deckard said to himself. “They are transporting the nuke to a suitable place for an aircraft to land.”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” Kurt Jager said as he crawled up alongside Deckard.

“Otter,” Deckard said as he keyed his radio. “Make sure the snowmobile teams are ready. The enemy had the device loaded in a hovercraft. We might need an intercept.”

“You got it boss.”

The Samruk mercenaries waited for another few minutes to make sure the coast was clear and that another hovercraft hadn’t been off loaded from the enemy vessel, or that others were not following behind on foot. Finally, Jacob gave the all clear as they moved out in the direct of the hovercraft. Under the moonlit sky, they had visibility of about fifty meters, but the hovercraft had quickly outpaced them. Cody provided updates to help guide them in once it appeared the hovercraft had stopped in a large open patch of ice.

It took another twenty minutes of walking before they made it to where the hovercraft sat idle. The men shook out into an assault line and crawled forward. Unfortunately, they were not lucky enough to have a pressure ridge to use as cover. They were sitting ducks out in the open. At least for now, they would have fire superiority. Just to be sure, they detailed one squad to turn around and pull security to make sure they didn’t get any unpleasant surprises.

The hovercraft sat in the open, waiting.

Sergeant Major Korgan was policing the line as he crawled from position to position, making sure that everyone knew to hold fire until the airplane had landed and was within range of effective fire. Taking out the hovercraft and capturing the device that was almost certainly on board would be a coup, but taking down the enemy aircraft would ensure that none of the enemy could be evacuated along with it, essentially stranding them in the arctic.

From there, Deckard would be happy to let the U.S. Navy sail around and blow their ship out of the water at America’s leisure while he and his men took a vacation to Fiji.

The men worked their fingers inside their gloves, trying to keep them warm. They had on enough cold weather gear for the time being, but they would freeze if they were exposed to the elements for too long. The irony was that they ran the risk of overheating under their parkas during the movement, but then froze half to death if they were stationary for too long.

The cold was starting to make Deckard sleepy, a dangerous situation that could quickly lead to hyperthermia if he actually passed out on the ice. He was grateful when the door on the hovercraft flew open and one of the passengers jumped out onto the ice. Deckard looked at him through the thermal sight, noticing an Israeli bullpup rifle slung over his back. He didn’t believe for a moment that they were up against Israelis but they had sold those guns all over the world, making them a much more deniable weapon for black operations.

He realized that this was the first time that they had actually gotten eyes on the enemy. Thus far all they had done was fight robotic proxy forces. Deckard scrutinized the image in his thermal sight as their mysterious foe walked around the hovercraft, wondering who he was and what he was thinking. Was he about to deploy some flares to guide in the aircraft?

The mercenaries nearly jumped out of their skin as they heard a massive fissure crack in the ice. A new lead opening under their position could kill them in seconds. The ice continued cracking, the sound reverberating across the empty ice. Then, a few hundred meters from the hovercraft, Deckard saw something rising up out of the ice. Huge blocks of ice slipped and fell off the black form emerging out of the ocean beneath their feet. A black tower pushed right through the ice floe and rose into the air.

With the tower growing taller and taller, the ice in front of it and behind it was propelled upwards a well as it cracked down the middle around the shape underneath it. The ice undulated and flexed outwards like a wave as the tower sank back down into the water for a few seconds. Then it was propelled back upwards, smashing against the ice again and forming a hill on either side of the tower before coming to a stop.

“Fuck me,” Deckard said, exhaling a white cloud as his breath froze in the air.

They were evacuating the nuclear weapon by submarine.

Sheets of ice were pushed off the top of the submarine mast and Deckard could make out several forms moving around up top through his thermal sight. He was trying to zoom in and get a better look when the batteries froze and the screen blinked out.

Meanwhile, the hovercraft pilot jumped back inside the craft and powered it up. Skidding across the ice, the craft powered its way closer to the submarine, coming to a stop alongside where it was bulging out of the ice floe.

Deckard reached down and keyed his radio again.

“On my mark, give me a mad minute. Unload everything you’ve got of them. Only put 7.62 on the hovercraft or we risk covering ourselves in radioactive material.”

Fedorchenko and Shatayeva radioed back to confirm the order.

The driver was back outside of the hovercraft and opening the bay doors in the rear. It was going down now. If they got away, the next thing any of them knew that nuclear bomb would be creating a mushroom cloud over New York City or Washington DC.

Resting his elbows in the snow, he tucked the stock of his Kalashnikov into the pocket of his shoulder. Looking down the iron sights, he took aim at the rear of the hovercraft. The creeping feeling of impending doom was once again sneaking up on him. Deckard had seen enough combat to know that he had to act now, not let himself be paralyzed by fear of what could be.

Deckard milked the trigger until the stock recoiled back into his shoulder.

Then the whole world exploded, turning into a game of Star Wars as red and green tracer fire created a storm down range from the mercenaries. Bullets sparked against the hovercraft and the submarine. Their remaining Carl Gustav and a half dozen RPG rocket launchers shook the ice as they blasted the submarine. A few shots went wide, but more than a couple scored direct hits, creating brilliant yellow flashes that briefly illuminated the ice floe around them.

Muzzle flashes continued to light up the darkness, looking like dozens of strobe lights at a night club as they peppered the enemy with automatic fire. Deckard’s radio started blowing up with flurry of traffic that he wasn’t able to keep up with over all of the shooting, garbled transmissions as squad leaders attempted to give orders over the cacophony of machine gun fire.

“Cease fire! Cease fire!” he yelled.

After a few more sputters of gunfire, the Samruk mercenaries managed to ratchet it down. They lay in the prone, watching for signs of life. The submarine mast was now a smoking tower. Getting his thermals back up for a few seconds after having it under his parka, Deckard could make out several gaping holes in the submarine where Anti-Tank rounds blasted it.

“Six,” Cody said over the radio. You’ve got a lot of movement back at their ship. It looks like they are prepping a couple more vehicles.”

“Launch the snowmobiles to intercept.”

“Roger.”

They watched and listened for signs of life in the kill zone but nothing moved.

“Assault!”

The mercenaries loaded fresh magazines into their rifles and new belts into their machine guns before getting to their feet. They re-arranged themselves into a tighter assault line and began stalking forward across the ice floe. A loud groan could be heard over the sound of the wind in their ears, the submarine scraping against the ice as it slowly began sinking.

“Six, this is Frogman,” Rocheniore said over the radio. “We are en route to intercept the enemy snowmobile team.”

“Roger, Deckard confirmed. We’re counting on you to cover our six.”

Scanning for targets, none of the Kazakh, American, and European mercs saw anything moving. They were a couple hundred meters away from the hovercraft and the submarine, which was still sinking, when they noticed the ice beneath their feet vibrating.

“Another lead opening in the ice?” Fedorchenko said from Deckard’s side.

“Could be.”

The ice was now visibly vibrating, bouncing around the snow on the surface. Several of the mercenaries slipped and had to be helped back up to their feet. They stumbled along, heading towards the hovercraft.

Then the ice snapped open, flashing like bolt of lighting right in front of their eyes. The chasm opened, the ice tilting, and sending the mercenaries falling to their knees or flat on their face. The crack continued to grow, racing up between the submarine, the hovercraft, and the Samruk troopers.

Deckard’s mouth hung open as the ice tilted backwards, sending them slipping away from the direction of the submarine. They skidded across the floe, and without any ice axes to help them gain purchase, they were at nature’s mercy. They each slid about half the length of a football field and then finally, Deckard’s stomach turned upside down. The sheet of ice was now pitching forward. An object in motion, stayed in motion. They were about to slip right off the side and into the crack, into the dark waters below.

“Brace yourself with something!” he yelled.

Down on his knees, Deckard slid towards the ice valley in front of them. As the floe tilted down, he could see the churning arctic water. No one would be able to pull him out this time. Letting his AK-103 hang by its sling, Deckard slapped at his chest rig, his hand closing around the handle of his knife. Yanking from the klydex sheath, he twisted to face the ice, and slammed the black fixed blade knife into the ice.

The knife successfully stopped his collision course with death. One of the Kazakhs was not so fortunate. As he careened across the ice, Deckard reached out and grabbed him by the sleeve, holding on to his hard point in the ice with one hand. It felt like he shoulder was about to pull out of its socket, but he had held on to his team mate.

Deckard and the young Kazakh watched in horror as several of their friends were too close to the chasm and unable to find something to break their trajectory forward. Two Samruk mercenaries slipped right off the side, their howls disappearing into the night. Another formed claws with his hands as he tried to dig into the ice, but to no avail as he was unable to scramble away from the edge. He too disappeared into the water.

The sheet of ice they were on was leveling out, but there was now a huge lead in the ice between them and the enemy. Echoes could be heard all around them as the ice floe cracked again and again. The entire island sized sheet of ice was breaking up.

“What the fuck is this shit,” Deckard grunted.

It was no coincidence that the ice floe started breaking up just as they got the drop on the enemy. Reaching down, Deckard pulled his knife out of the ice and slid it back into its sheath. It was a Company Knife, made for commandos, mercs, and black helicopter types by Newt Livesay. Reaching down, he helped the Kazakh trooper to his feet.

“Six, we’re not going to be able to intercept. The ice is cracking up all around us. What the hell is going on?” Rocheniore radioed him.

“Good question. Get back to the Carrickfergus.”

Just then, two black snowmobiles powered over a pressure ridge in the distance. From across the chasm, Deckard watched them tear through the snow and pull up alongside the destroyed hovercraft. They got off snowmobiles and began unloading something out of the back. Deckard pressed the thermal sight up against his eye.

Four men in black balaclavas unloaded a large plastic case that looked to be about the size of a refrigerator. They held onto the carry handles at the side of the case and set it down on a sled attached to the back of one of the snowmobiles. Meanwhile, the submarine had completely slipped back beneath the ice, its status unknown, but it couldn’t be good.

“On my tracer fire,” Deckard ordered.

Leveling his AK-103, he sent a stream of red tracer rounds at the snowmobiles on the other side of the ice floe. The Samruk mercenaries joined in, cutting loose on the enemy one more time. The balaclava clad men were already on their snowmobiles, vanishing into the dark.

Deckard’s jaw tensed as he lowered the smoking barrel of his Kalashnikov.

Everything about this was wrong.

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Gray Matter Splatter, Chapter 10

“Oh. my. God.”

Nate covered his mouth with his hand.

“It’s a tragedy,” Pat confirmed.

They stood in the doorway of the communal showers, the steam from hot water billowing above their heads.

“It’s looks just like a penis,” Rocheniore stated bluntly. “Only smaller.”

“Hung like a elevator button,” Nate mumbled.

Deckard looked up at them with fury in his eyes. His lips were still blue even after shivering himself half to death in the scalding hot water for half an hour. Crouched over, he hugged himself hoping that the feeling would return to his body at some point. At any rate, it was clear that he wasn’t going to see undescended testicles for at least a week.

“I h-h-h-hope-”

“Hope what Deckard?” Pat asked. “Hope that I put you down and spare you the humiliation?”

“H-h-h-hope y-y-you fffffucking die.”

* * *

It was only by some miracle that none of the Samruk mercenaries were killed in the cove, but they were all walking around with their tails between their legs as they paced the decks of the Carrickfergus. Their pirate ship was normally a heterotopia of guns, high explosives, and shitty attitudes. Now they were beaten, men had been shot to pieces and frozen half to death. An organization that was used to taking no shit from anyone was now having to admit that they were simply outclassed by the enemy.

With Frank dead, Pat was next in line to assume command of Samruk International since there CEO was temporarily incapacitated.

“I think we interrupted the enemy. If they had been expecting us they never would have allowed themselves to be trapped inside the cove like that,” Pat said as Samruk ran a video teleconference with SCOPE in Tampa, Florida. “They were caught by surprise and clearly didn’t think we would catch up with them that quickly.”

“Hmm,” Pat saw the old guy with reading glasses rub his chin on the computer monitor.

“But they laid a trap for us, expecting someone to try to follow their trail at some point. You were right about the enemy vessel, I’ve never seen anything like it, but it was definitely semi-submersible.”

“Forward us eyewitness accounts from your After Action Review,” Will said as Pat briefed them. “We can conduct our own analysis.”

“I will. Where are we at with our eye in the sky.”

As the JSOC think tank members looked down at the table in front of them, it didn’t take a high resolution feed to realize that something was wrong.

“Our satellite in polar orbit was blinded on its last pass,” Will informed him.

“Blinded?”

“High-powered ground-based laser. We don’t know where it originated exactly. Could have been Russia. Could have been China.”

“So I don’t have any ISR?” Pat said referring to Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance platforms.

“We are working on getting Global Hawk into your AO but it is taking time. The Russians are also not cooperating the way they were in the opening hours of this mess,” Will said.

“None of us know for sure how this thing is going to play out,” Craig said. “But we will keep working it.”

“No,” Pat said as he looked out from the bridge to the ocean in front of him. “I’m going to keep working it.”

“What the does that mean?”

“One of my boys put a hole in the enemy ship before it got away. 40mm High Explosive grenade. We’re following a plume of gasoline that it is dribbling out behind it.“

Pat smiled, looking at the clearly visible trail of fuel left in the ocean.

“Any idea where the hell they are going?” Will asked.

“Ship’s Captain says they are probably heading to T6.”

“T6?”

“The T6 ice floe,” Otter shouted from the helm. “A giant piece a floating ice. A Coast Guard aircraft spotted it a month ago and estimated that it was five miles wide. T6 is projected to be right in the path of where that bat-boat is heading.”

“It is going to take us about 14 hours to get to T6. That semi-submersible can haul ass above water when it wants to. They might be making a beeline for the ice floe for an extract, compromising stealth for speed, instead of staying submersed.”

“A plane equipped with ski wheels would do the trick,” Gary spoke up for the first time on the VTC from Tampa.

“If they are leaking fuel, they might be going slow to conserve gas as well,” Craig said as he turned towards Gary.

“Irrelevant,” Will cut in. “Get there as fast as you can. If you see the enemy, wipe them out. In the meantime, we are on the horn with the Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy. Thankfully, we have a submarine of our own that was on a routine patrol under the arctic that can help cut off access to the Bering strait. A Coast Guard cutter is also on its way to this choke point. We prefer to keep this problem isolated in the arctic. Once they make it into the open ocean, there is no telling where they will go. We will have lost them. At least this way, we know they are somewhere between the polar ice cap and the coast of Russia.”

“We’ll track ’em and assault them,” Pat said.

“And Pat?”

“Yeah?”

“Can Deckard move his fingers enough to type on a keyboard yet?”

* * *

Screams echoed down the cobblestone street. Baskets full of produce were overturned and laundry thrown off the line as the townspeople scattered. Doors and windows were slammed shut. In seconds, the street was empty. A single bucket lay turned on its side in the middle of the road, the water that had been in it now seeped between the stones.

A Blade Master stepped out of the shadows.

He squinted in the mid-day light and held a hand out in front of him to shield his eyes from the sun. The Blade Master wore ornate black leather greaves and a similar cloak under which his abdomen was protected by dwarven dragon scale armor. His knuckles were likewise protected by Cyridian metal built into his leather gauntlets, forged by a master blacksmith from ore which had been mined from a falling star.

At the end of the street, a wooden cart was flung through the air. It crashed into the side of a house and disintegrated into a thousand pieces. From around the corner, an Orc lord lurched into view. Standing nearly twelve feet tall, the Orc was clad only in dirty rags leaving his dark green muscular body exposed. Spotting the Blade Master, the Orc roared exposing his white fangs.

The Blade Master drew his weapons. A katana appeared in one hand and a Akkaidian dagger in the other, the weapons specific to the Blade Master’s particular style of fighting.

The Orc charged the Blade Master, bum rushing all the way down the street. The Blade Master stood his ground, ready for a fight. The Orc lord was almost on top of him when he was suddenly yanked back into the alley way.

“Have you lost your mind?” a voice scolded him.

The Blade Master was pulled further down the alley as the Orc lord tried for force himself through the narrow passage. A clawed hand swept frantically, scratching against the stone houses on either side as it sought out the Blade Master.

“You need at least a party of four to take on that bad boy.”

The Blade Master looked up at his rescuer. His wore a brown hooded shawl, his dark blue skin giving him away as a dark elf.

“Let’s go,” the dark elf ordered. “I’m going to take you to a newbie dungeon to show you how it’s done. This is a different world, with different rules.”

“Yeah, I’m finding that,” the Blade Master said sardonically.

Walking through the labyrinthine back alleys of the city, the pair came to an large open graveyard. Passed the tombstones was a marble massive mausoleum. The dark elf pushed on the heavy iron door and it swung open. A cloud of dust shook off the entrance as they walked inside.

“This way.”

Down the well worn steps, they came to a balcony. In the dark chamber below, a re-animated human skeleton paced with a short sword in one boney hand. A few burning torches mounted in the walls let of a dim light, casting shadows in every direction.

“Equip your rope dart,” the dark elf instructed.

“Rope dart?”

“Really? The micro-bow mounted to your gauntlet at your wrist.”

“Oh, cool.”

The Blade Master loaded a dart affixed to a fiber chord into the six inch bow on his gauntlet.

“Now fire it at that wooden beam on the other side of the chamber.”

The Blade Master fired and the dart slammed into the wooden beam with a audible thwunk which made the skeleton look around in confusion.

“Tie the other end of the rope around the balcony’s railing.”

With the rope pulled taunt, the line now wobbled above the skeleton below.

“A Blade Master fights using indirect methods, which should be right in your wheel house. You can also use the environment to your advantage to get the drop on the baddies.”

“I’ll give it a try.”

The Blade Master leapt onto the rope and began balancing his way over the chamber, putting one foot in front of the other. The skeleton was now on alert, sensing someone else in the chamber. Once he was directly overhead, the Blade Master drew his katana and dropped down on top of his opponent. The four foot blade sank right through the skeleton man’s skull as the Blade Master landed a perfect attack. Bones cracked and scattered across the floor.

“Not bad,” the dark elf said from up on the balcony.

Just then a stone slab on the side of the wall began to groan. It receded back into a hidden passage. Inside, the Blade Master heard the distinctive clacking of boney feet scrapping against stone. Metal weapons gave off a ring as they collided with each other.

“Uh oh,” the dark elf said, now seemingly fresh out of sage wisdom for his protege.

Four animated skeletons burst from the chamber door and rushed the Blade Master. Turning, he found a way to escape, up a ramp that led to another part of the dungeon. Sprinting up the ramp, the Blade Master looked back to the see the skeleton’s following him up. A wooden barrel sat in the corner where the ramp changed directions, wax from a long since burned out candle decorating the top of it.

The Blade Master threw the barrel on its side and rolled it towards the ramp. The skeletons would be on top of him in another second. Kicking the barrel down the ramp, the Blade Master tapped into his magicka, casting a fireball at the barrel as it began to gain momentum. The barrel burst into flames and rolled right over the four skeletons. Their short swords went flying into the air as they crumbled and burst into bone fragments.

“Okay,” the dark elf said, somehow materializing back at the Blade Master’s side. “I think you are getting the hang of this.”

“Now what?”

“Now you go and get their attention.”

“Who’s attention?”

“The ones you are chasing halfway across the world of course.”

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Gray Matter Splatter, Chapter 9

Cody overhanded the miniature unmanned aerial vehicle into the air.

The wind caught the UAV’s wings as the small electric engine buzzed along drone’s single prop. The drone itself was French in origin, while the sensor package had been bought in the UK and Austria. Cody had assembled the drone himself in his workshop several weeks prior. Turning away from the deck of the ship, the computer hacker quickly ducked back inside and handled the small control unit.

Using two joysticks retrofitted to a tablet, Cody could look through the drone’s cameras and steer it where he needed it to go. On the screen, broken ice scattered throughout the sea quickly gave way as the drone climbed to a hundred feet above sea level and flew over land. Maneuvering the drone in a long lazy arc, he flew around the cove, looking for signs of the enemy. Flipping a switch, the thermal camera kicked in. White splotches on the tablet would indicate the infrared signature given off by human body heat.

As the drone circled around the cove, everything looked clear.

Leaning up against a bulkhead, he put the drone in a loiter route over the objective area. It would have a little under an hour of fuel before he had to return it back the Carrickfergus and attempt to land it on the deck. Reaching into his pocket, he palmed a radio and held it up to his mouth.

“This is Fapper-1,” Cody said into the radio, barely holding back a laugh as he gave his self-selected callsign. “The coast in clear. No signs of a ambush on the cliffs.”

“Roger,” it was Deckard’s voice. “We’re about to get underway. Can you give us a pass straight up the cove and see if anyone is active down there?”

“On it,” Cody said.

Pocketing the radio, he went back to the control unit, glad that he wasn’t going to be out there paddling in the Russian arctic.

* * *

With the Carrickfergus’ barge deck lowered, twin Zodiac FC470 boats were launched simultaneously. The black inflatable boats each carried ten mercenaries, making for a total of a 20-man assault force. They were going in light, but it had been decided that sailing the Carrickfergus into the cove could end catastrophically if the enemy had another ambush prepared. Better to go in with the Zodiacs while their mothership cut off entry and exit from the cove.

The coxswain of each Zodiac steered the gas powered engine, taking them on a slow approach through the mouth of the cove. At the head of each boat was a PKM machine gunner, ready to lay down some cyclic fire if the need arose. The riflemen sat on the sides of the Zodiacs, their eyes darting around, looking for targets. Rocky cliffs lurched by on both sides of the mercenaries as the Zodiacs slipped inside the the cove. Coxswains eased them around drifting sheets of ice.

Deckard looked up as Cody’s drone buzzed overhead like a giant paper airplane.

As the rubber boats edged around the rocks, the submarine graveyard came into view. The aquamarine waters parted as the boats churned forward. In the distance were a dozen dark red and brown rusted submarine hulls. Back in Tampa, SCOPE had done some analysis and determined that most of the decaying husks were Tango-Class attack submarines. Now they were just fading vestiges of the Cold War, abandoned in a forgotten corner of the globe.

The PKM gunner at the head of the Zodiac shifted, the black barrel of his weapon sweeping across the submarines as he scanned for signs of the enemy. The subs were in a state of obvious disarray, some laying on their side, half in the water, and half out of it. Beyond the tangle of rusting metal, was a dock and large industrial crane.

“Six, this is Fapper-1,” Cody voice came over the command net. “I just lost the drone, over.”

“What does that mean?” Deckard hissed in response.

“It had plenty loiter time left. All of a sudden the engine went down and it began to go into a spin. Then the video cut out. I don’t know what went wrong. It could have been a gust of wind, over.”

“Catch anything on video before it went down?”

“SHIT,” Cody cursed, his tourettes acting up again. “No, nothing.”

Deckard wasn’t about to abort the mission just because the drone went down. They had gotten some good situational awareness from its surveillance feed before the UAV crashed at least. Now they had to get in there and do the grunt work.

Once they were a hundred meters away, Deckard radioed to Fedorchenko in the other Zodiac.

“Do you see any signs of the enemy ship?”

The Kazakh platoon sergeant turned and looked at him from the other boat which was cruising ten meters off their right flank. His dark eyes were wide as they drilled into Deckard. He shook his head in reply.

“Carrickfergus,” Deckard said as he bumped up radio channels from the assault net to the command net. “This is Six. No sign of enemy activity. They were never here or we missed them. I’m taking our element deeper into the AO to look for signs. Maybe there is something we can use to pick up their trail again.”

“Understood Six,” Sergeant Major Korgan replied from the bridge of their ship.

The head of the cove was a tangle of rusted, twisted steel that looked like it belonged on the set of a a Mad Max film set in the ice age. Deckard directed Fedorchenko to take his boat to the dock while his team would explore the submarine graveyard. Deckard was already having a bad feeling that this would be a dry hole.

Still, as they approached the nearest submarine that had been scuttled along the shore, Deckard looked carefully through the snow flakes swirling in the wind. He couldn’t get over the feeling that they were being watched, even though Cody’s drone didn’t pick up any thermal signatures.

The nose of their Zodiac rubbed up against the submarine’s deck. The PKM gunner immediately jumped off an scrambled up the hull. Deckard and seven other Samruk International mercenaries lumbered up in their cold weather gear and jumped onto the sub. The coxswain stayed on the boat, making sure they were ready to leave at a moments notice.

The mercenaries quickly found a hatch and descended into the belly of the Soviet-era submarine. Deckard pushed his goggles up onto his forehead, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. They stepped carefully, avoiding rusted out portions of the deck as they walked through the corridor towards a light in the distance. The submarine was literally coming apart at the seams as it was exposed to the elements for years on end, including the water freezing and then melting each year.

Stairways leading to no where with rust brown railings made it feel like they were in a haunted house straight out of some Cold War nightmare. It was evident to Deckard that no one had been here in a very long time.

At the end of the corridor, the sub was blasted open where the torpedo tubes were located, the tear in the hull leaving a gap of a few feet to the next submarine. The mercs hopped across the gap one by one onto the submarine which was laying on its side. The wind cut into their faces again, forcing Deckard and the others to pull down their goggles and pull up their face mask.

“Six,” the ear bud connected to Deckard’s radio cracked. “The dock…clear.”

Fedorchenko’s voice was cutting in and out, his words full of static.

“Roger.”

Fedorchenko had cleared the docks but there were about a dozen abandoned submarines in the cove. He might as well search as many of them as possible just to be sure. It wasn’t like they had any other leads. The mercenaries crawled down the hull as it began sloping down into the sea.

From where he stood, Deckard could see that there was another submarine hull just under the surface of the water adjacent to the one they were on. Trudging through a inch of water wasn’t a big deal in boots. They could use the sub as a underwater bridge to make their way over to the next section of the submarine graveyard.

Deckard spoke to the Kazakhs in Russian, instructing them on which route to take. The PKM gunner went into a prone position behind what was left of the submarine mast while the rest of them shuffled down the side to the submarine that was just barely submerged. Deckard took the lead, slinging his AK, and sliding down the edge of the hull on his ass. For a moment, he fell through the air, then his boots came down on the top of the sub with a splash.

Waving the other mercenaries after him, Deckard sloshed through the ice water as he walked along the top of the submarine. His greatest fear of course was that the aging submarine would give way under his weight and he would tumble right through the fuselage and into the cold waters, but even after decades of sitting in the cove it was probably unlikely. Submarine hulls had to be extremely strong, made with hardened steel to withstand the pressures found in the depths of the ocean.

Looking over his shoulder, Deckard could see that the other mercenaries were lined up behind him. Their PKM gunner was still up above on the other submarine, ready to provide suppressive fire if they needed it. Keeping his rifle at the low ready, Deckard scanned for targets. He could hear the low creaks and snarls of metal against metal that echoed through the cove as the elements took their toll on the Soviet subs.

Reaching the far side of the cove, Deckard put an arm out to grab onto the next submarine. There was a rust encrusted ladder rung sticking out from the fuselage. Just as his gloved finger tips reached out and brushed against the ladder, machine gun fire seemed to blast all around him. Deckard was suddenly propelled backwards. One hand tightened around his rifle while the other reached out in vain to find something to brace himself against.

He flew through the air and came down hard on the top of the submarine, then continued, somersaulting backwards, and rolled off the side into the arctic ocean. Disoriented, Deckard suddenly realized why it felt like a giant iron hand was crushing his chest. He couldn’t feel his arms or legs. And he was sinking.

Sinking deeper, as everything began to go dark.

* * *

Fedorchenko was stunned as he watched the submarine that Deckard and his men were crossing swing around without warning and pop up out of the water. The cigar-shaped black ship didn’t look like any submarine he had ever seen. The ship executed a sharp left turn that tossed the Samruk mercenaries over the side like rag dolls in a gale force wind. Arms and legs went spinning and kicking through the air before they splashed down in the freezing water.

With its nose now pointed towards the mouth of the cove, the ship rose even further out of the water, almost like a hydrofoil, and shot towards the Carrickfergus. Fedorchenko, squeezed his radio’s push to talk button.

“Incoming ship!” he shouted. “Tag it! Tag it!”

The black ship was just a few hundred meters from the Carrickfergus now, set on a collision course.

“Incoming! Anyone?”

Nothing but static came over the net. That was when Fedorchenko realized that they were being jammed. That was also when he realized that green tracer rounds from machine gun fire were zipping right over his shoulder.

* * *

Nikita’s eyes were like saucers as he was still in disbelief at what he had just witnessed. His boss and a half dozen of their men had just been condemned to Davey Jones locker as they impacted the icy water. What had been another partially submerged decaying submarine was now a sleek jet-black speed boat racing straight at the Carrickfergus. It must have been a few hundred feet in length and looked like a giant spear heading right at them. Up on the deck, Nikita set down his HK 417 rifle and reached for a Mk14 grenade launcher.

Looking like a giant pistol, the Mk14 featured a cylinder which held six 40mm grenades. He knew he wasn’t going to sink it with a couple high explosive grenades, they probably wouldn’t even penetrate the hull but it was what he had. Leaning over the railing, Nikita fired as fast as he could pull the trigger, walking his shots across the black ship as it bore down on him. Muffled explosions popped off across the ship to no visible effect.

The enemy vessel was only a few hundred meters away. He plopped out the empty HE canisters and plopped in a a tracking round. Closing the cylinder, he looked up as he tucked the stock of the Mk14 into his shoulder.

Nikita’s stomach fell out from under him. The ship was about to ram the Carrickfergus and take them all to watery graves at the bottom of the ocean. None the less, his finger tightened around the trigger as the ship came into ram them.

Then it was gone.

The black ship dropped down under the water, chunks of ice and water sloshing into the space the ship had just occupied. With the crash of waves, the ship surfaced on the other side of the Carrickfergus. The wake created by the surfacing ship rocked him as he stood on the deck, forcing Nikita to grab onto a railing to support himself.

Taking off at high speeds, the demon ship had disappeared as quickly as it had revealed itself.

* * *

Fedorchenko watched in horror as the coxswain below tried to navigate the waters between the submarines and rescue his drowning team mates, only to see him driven away by machine gun fire that traced geysers of water back and forth in front of the zodiac as the guns tried to triangulate in on him. The coxswain was forced to veer away and take cover behind one of the submarines.

Meanwhile, the Kazakh mercenary sergeant had taken a knee behind the old crane as staccato bursts of the machine guns filled the air. The shots were coming from behind the docks. The mercenary Sergeant cursed. The enemy had left a stay-behind force to ambush their pursuers.

Then an automatic grenade launcher started firing. White flashes ripped across the dock as the grenades exploded around Fedorchenko’s position.

“One ‘o clock, fifty meters,” someone yelled above the gunfire.

Finally, one of the mercs had announced the enemy position. It sounded like Nate, the former MARSOC Marine that they had just hired. Fedorchenko peaked out from behind the crane and his head was nearly taken off as the machine gunner vectored in on him instantly. Sure enough, not fifty meters away, he could see the muzzle flashes coming from inside an abandoned building. A frontal assault would be suicide.

“Nate, lay down a base of fire!”

The former Marine quickly got their element’s PKM gunner on target, walking a 7.62 autofire onto the abandoned structure.

“Flank left, follow me!” Fedorchenko dashed from behind cover and leapt off the dock as more tracer fire sought him out. He hit the ground, stumbled, and quickly regained his footing. The Kazakh found himself in the middle of dozens of bright red 55-gallon drums. They were brand new, easily standing out by comparison to everything else in the cove which was old and decrepit. Their intelligence estimate seemed to be correct, the enemy had set up a fuel depot in the cove.

With the other mercenaries following his lead, Fedorchenko stayed low and flanked around the machine gun position. Nate and his gunner were going cyclic in the meantime, drawing the enemy’s fire. Hopefully they were drawing enough fire to distract the gunners from the twin Zodiacs out on the water behind them. Their men would freeze to death in that water in seconds rather than minutes.

Crawling up behind a pile of rotting rail road ties, the mercenaries formed up. Now within hand grenade range, one of the Kazakhs primed a frag and chucked it through the door. Once the grenade cooked off and detonated, a secondary explosion also blew the aluminum roof off the building. With the booby trap blown, the mercenaries ran towards the structure and through the open door. The smell of sulfate stung their nostrils as they entered and cleared the room.

Two PKM machine guns and one AGS30 grenade launcher lay on their sides, knocked over by the grenade blast. There wasn’t a person in sight. The three weapon systems had been mounted on tall tripods and oriented out the windows. Fedorchenko bent down to examine the odd configuration that the crew served weapons had been set up in. On top of each was mounted a green metal square that was about one foot by two feet in size. Wires ran from the square to a control unit for each gun as well as a battery pack. The charging mechanisms on the weapons was controlled by an automated solenoid.

They were normal Russian infantry weapons that had been fitted with a radar tracking and targeting system. Once again, the enemy had left drones behind to ambush their pursuers. They had also jammed their commo, further disrupting their normal standard operating procedures.

The bad guys got the drop on the mercenaries with superior technology.

Fedorchenko snarled. More than any of that, they had simply been outfoxed, outflanked, and out planned by an opposing force that absolutely had their shit together.

He turned and ran out of the building as the Zodiacs circled the cove, looking for survivors.

* * *

Will slammed his fists down on the table.

“Son of a bitch. I died again.”

“How much more time are you going to waste playing video games?” Craig asked.

“It’s not just that I’m losing, it is that they are not interested in me. I’ve been going head to head with suspected intelligence proxies on the PvP server.”

“PvP?”

“Player vs. Player. It is where the players in the game go to test their characters by dueling with each other.”

“Yeah, great. Whatever.”

“The problem is that they don’t have any reason to give a shit about me. They need some…”

“Some what?”

Will was silent for a moment as his jaw hung open.

“They need some bait dangled out in front of them.”

The corners of Will’s mouth were slowly tugged up at the corners.

“You’re scaring the squares in this office Will.”

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Gray Matter Splatter, Chapter 8

Craig rubbed his blood shot eyes. Joshua had his head down on the table taking a nap. Gary had stepped outside to call his wife and tell her that he wouldn’t be coming home any time soon. SCOPE was a think tank, not an operations center that worked in shifts. Everyone was exhausted and needed a break while the Carrickfergus was in transit and they waited for the satellite window to open up again over Northern Russia.

The JSOC think tank was dead tired, most of them anyway.

Will paced back and forth, his heels clicking on the floor. His lips were moving, the words coming out of his mouth barely decipherable even if someone had been listening. The only words that were really recognizable were the ones consisting of four letters. After years of warning the intelligence community, everything he said was coming true. It wasn’t something he took pride in, but now no one could doubt that his assessment had merit. Or at least, they wouldn’t be able to much longer.

Suddenly, Will stopped dead in his tracks.

“I got it!” he shouted.

“Got what,” Craig said with a yawn.

Joshua continued to snore.

“Something we can do instead of sitting around with our thumbs up our asses.”

“Well, I could go rub one out I guess-”

“Yeah,” Will said under his breath. “Our you could go dust your old lady’s pussy off.

“What did you say?”

“Sorry, just mumbling to myself.”

“Mumbling what?”

“We need to take a serious look at getting inside the enemy’s communication’s network.”

Craig put his head down on the table.

“Will, we don’t even know who the enemy is so how are we supposed to even identify how they are talking to one another?”

“I told you before, they use Infinity Blade.”

“Infinity what?”

“Infinity Blade. It’s a MMORPG.”

“You’ve lost me.”

“A Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game.”

“My kids play those?” Craig asked no one in particular before turning to Joshua who was still asleep. “Do my kids play that?”

The door swung open and Gary walked back inside, pocketing his cell phone.

“The game is based on a series of fantasy novels that became a underground hit. The game also has a cult following. It was produced by the same Norwegian guy who created Paradoxica.”

“What the hell are you two talking about?” Gary demanded.

“Para what?” Craig asked.

“Paradoxica,” Will said. “It is a game about a young woman traveling between three worlds…and filled with existential malaise…”

“Oh. my. God. I’m going back outside,” Gary said as he reached for the door.

“Hold on dammit!” Will yelled. “I’m getting to the good part.”

“So there is a point to all of this?”

“I’ve been playing Infinity Blade for years and I know something is going on inside this game.”

“I should have known. You’re a bigger gamer than my kids, but at least my kids don’t have conspiracy theories about the games they play,” Craig said as he rolled his eyes.

“Look, what is a video game?” Will asked rhetorically. “It’s a communications medium, another way to talk over the internet but in this case it is within a massive multiplayer video game. The FBI identified an island in the game called Second Life that Hezbollah uses to talk to each other. Hezbollah members from anywhere in the world, including their handlers in Iran, can log into the game and meet up with each other to exchange information and issue orders.”

“And you think this Infinity Blade game is used the same way,” Gary said as he walked back and took his seat.

“I know it is. The FBI investigated but they can’t crack the cell inside Infinity Blade. Their operational security is tight. You don’t get into their castle unless you’ve been extensively vetted.”

“Assuming you are correct, what makes you think this is the same group behind our current situation?”

“When I realized that a number of countries antagonistic towards the United States were in collusion with each other I began looking for traces of them and how they communicate. The servers for Infinity Blade are physically located in China, which doesn’t mean anything in of itself, but that prevents the FBI from gaining access.”

“So you identified some secretive group inside a video game which is operated out of China, which means this is just another wild ass hunch of yours?” Craig asked.

“This is how the baddies communicate,” Will replied. “I’m sure of it.”

I’m sure this is a waste of time,” Craig said as he put his head back down on the table. “I’m taking a nap.”

“I’m going to pound down a couple Monster energy drinks and get back to work,” Will announced. “No reason to sit around jagging off to gay porn or whatever it is you guys do when I’m not around. Time to call the CNO office upstairs and get a persona to access the game with.”

CNO, or computer network operations, was a polite way of saying computer hacking.

Gary looked at the clock on his cell phone.

“Another five hours until the satellite window opens,” he sighed. “Give them a call.”

Will reached across the table and picked up the secure telephone before pressing the appropriate extension number.

“So now we’re passing time by playing video games? When the Inspector General investigates this office the report will make one hell of a read,” Craig said looking up at them.

“Hey, this is Will down at SCOPE,” he said as the CNO office picked up the phone. “We need a persona.” He frowned as he listened to the techie on the other end of the line. “Yeah. Yeah. No. Okay. Hold on, look, what personas do you have on Infinity Blade?”

Another few seconds.

“Okay, I’ll take the chaotic neutral blade master. See you in a few.”

“What the hell was all of that?” Craig asked.

“Borrowing a persona from CNO.”

“You keep saying that, what do you mean by borrow a persona?”

“A online persona. Really Craig? How long have you worked here?”

“12 years.”

“And worth every dime of tax payer’s money you are. The techs here maintain digital personas in order to conduct cyber reconnaissance and infiltration. Each persona has its own laptop computer. Each computer has a name, a persona name. Every computer has a set of rules that you follow which is that persona’s bible. His turn ons, turn offs, political views, what websites he frequents, and so on.”

“Building a false identity.”

“A false persona,” Will corrected. “You can than use that persona to infiltrate Jihadi message boards or white supremacist websites, whatever you need. Every so often the techs pull out each laptop, be it named Mike, Bob, or Muhammad, and tool around on the web for a few hours, than move on to the next laptop to maintain the next persona’s online presence.”

“So we actually pay people to fart around on facebook and play farmville all day?”

“Well,” Will said as he thought about it for a moment. “Yes. But the system does work. And some of these personas have maintained a presence in online games. Since Infinity Blade is a popular game, we have three personas run out of this building with characters in it.”

There was a knock at the door and Gary slid across the office while sitting on his rolling swivel chair to open it.

“Hey Jerry,” Will said to the guy standing in the doorway.

He was a very unfortunate looking man. Essentially, exactly what most people thought a computer hacker looked like. His face was drawn, his muscles atrophied, and his mustache and beard grew in so weak that it looked like he had pubic hair glued to his chin.

“So what do you need Roger for?” Jerry asked as he closed the door behind him, a laptop computer secured under one arm.

“Roger?” Gary asked.

“Roger is the name of this computer, and the persona on it,” the computer hacker replied. “So what do you need him for?”

“Oh, nothing much,” Will said as he interlaced his fingers behind his head and leaned back in his chair. “Just saving the world, that’s all.”

“This is a level 37 blade master that I’ve built up over five years,” Jerry cautioned. “You can’t just take him and throw him into Panchea, Wintersebb, and Ravendale without hurting my stats.”

“Jerry,” Will said as he leaned forward. “It isn’t your character profile, it is JSOC’s.”

Jerry shook his head.

“No, you can’t just take him away from me like that!”

Will jumped up out of his chair and lunged for the laptop under Jerry’s arm.

“Give it to me you squirrely little shit!”

“No!” Jerry shrieked.

The two entered into a tug of war for the computer, the fate of America potentially hanging in the balance of a full on nerd rage. Finally, Will snatched the laptop away from him.

“You still have a level 14 Paladin and a level 32 Battle Mage you can play while billing DOD for your time,” Will sneered. “Now get the fuck out!”

Jerry’s lips and nose shriveled as he stepped out and slammed the door behind him.

“God damn short bus riding window lickers they employ around here,” Will complained.

Sitting down, Will fired up the laptop and cracked his knuckles.

“Time to go save democracy boys.”

Craig and Gary were still in shock, their minds trying to catch up with what they had just witnessed.

That was when Joshua finally woke up.

“What’s going on guys?”

* * *

The tension was nerve wracking.

Samruk International’s leadership element met to conduct mission planning while they were still underway. Deckard, Sergeant Major Korgan, Fedorchenko, Shatayeva, Aghassi, Nikita, and their mortar section sergeant, Lawrence, stood around a monitor looking at images they pulled off of Google Earth. Pat, Kurt, and Chuck were also in attendance. As senior soldiers in the company, they were always around to provide input during mission planning.

While most of them were sleeping, the second pass from a satellite in polar orbit came in. The imagery did indicate a faint wake from the enemy vessel. It had only deviated slightly from their original heading, making way for a small cove along the Russian coast. The JSOC think tank provided some additional imagery and data, then they began planning the mission.

One concept of the operation after the other was cast aside just as quickly as they were dreamed up by the veteran soldiers. In the arctic, mobility options were extremely limited. The cove was surrounded by steep cliffs covered in ice. Flanking around would take hours that they probably didn’t have. The direct approach led them through icy waters where they were prone to being ambushed along the same cliffs.

At the far end of the cave was their objective, an abandoned Naval port from the Soviet era. The imagery they had showed oblong objects strewn around the end of the cove. Apparently, it was a submarine graveyard. Doing some calculations, Otter estimated that the enemy must have set up a fuel depot there ahead of time to refuel their ship. Without knowing the size of the enemy ship, he made an educated guess that they would be running low on fuel at this point.

Whether or not they were still in the cove was another matter altogether. Again, all Otter could do was make an educated guess as to what the the enemy ship’s speed was relative to the Carrickfergus. They might catch them in the act of refueling, or they might miss them by several hours.

Deckard didn’t like it at all. He screwed up royally by deploying with gun trucks when he should have brought more snow mobiles and zodiac boats but in the end, you deploy with the Army you have, not the one that you want. Now they had to make the best of it.

Rochenoir was sketching something out of the whiteboard and waving his hands at Pat as they argued about some tactical detail. Deckard had reviewed their options and now he had made a decision as well. Once again, this was going to be sketchy as hell.

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Gray Matter Splatter, Chapter 7

Deckard climbed down the metal stairwell from the bridge and down into the passenger compartment of the ship. Standing in the middle of his men’s living and work space, the mercenaries were stepping around him in the cramped ship quarters. His vision was still transfixed on the piece of paper he held in his hand. They had received it by email and Deckard had printed off a couple of copies.

In his hand he held a letter of marque signed by the president, authorizing him to attack enemy vessels at his own discretion. With the flick of a pen, the Carrickfergus had been made into a pirate ship, and Deckard the pirate captain. Some of the mercenaries looked at him strangely as they passed by. No one could recall seeing their boss with such a big smile on his face.

Snapping out of it, Deckard stepped over Mk48 machine guns and around winter parkas and trousers drying from improvised clothes lines. He was looking for the computer hacker he kept on Samruk International’s payroll when he stumbled across Chuck Rochenoir’s hootch. Him and Nate, the new guy who had served with Marine Corps Special Operations, were sitting on top of MRE boxes while drinking a couple Miller High Life beers.

“You want one Deck?” Rochenior asked. “It’s the fuckin’ champagne of beers.”

Deckard stepped forward, looking at the giant black flag that Chuck had strung up on the wall. The skull and cross bones was something that Marines and SEALs could always appreciate.

“Something wrong?” Nate asked.

“Far from it,” Deckard answered.

He handed Chuck the letter bearing the letterhead of the Oval Office. Chuck and Nate crowded around the piece of paper, trying to make sense of it.

“This can’t be what I think it is?” Nate asked.

For once, Chuck was at a lose for words.

“Let’s start flying the jolly roger and make it official,” Deckard said with a grin.

* * *

Deckard found Cody hunched over a desk, finger fucking some electronic gadget.

At the end of the passenger compartment, Cody had set up a small work station. The desk was covered with wires, batteries, rechargers, thumb drives, and other odds and ends. He was perhaps the only non-combat personnel in the company, but he had a magic touch with electronics. From computer network operations, to jerry-rigging satellite dishes, or isolating obscure radio frequency spectrums, Cody had an exceptional talent.

Not that it didn’t come without its drawbacks.

“What do you want?” Cody asked after briefly looking up at Deckard. Then he muttered under his breath, “fucking pussy.”

Cody was in a unique position as he had both aspergers syndrome and apparently an undiagnosed form of Tourette’s syndrome on top of it.

“Get anything off those laptops?” Deckard said as he noticed the laptop computers that Aghassi had taken off the Russian mafia target they had hit.

“Not much, just social media shit that can be used to link them back to the rest of the Russian mob. But we already knew that.”

“The other thing I wanted to talk to you about is what happened on Kotelny.”

Cody didn’t look up and continued to mess around with the Pawn Pad in his hands. It was a Nexus 7 tablet that had been specially built for penetration testing of electronic networks.

“Tanks got hacked. What else you wanna know?” Cody asked. “COCK!”

“How hard is it to do something like that?”

“Very difficult. Just like our Predator drones. The signals being transmitted between the drone and the operator are unencrypted, otherwise the encryption would lead to such a lag time that it would be like trying to have a fire fight with a 56k AOL dial up connection.”

“But intercepting signals doesn’t allow you to take control of the drone?”

“No. FUCK. To do that you have hack the actual hardware on the drone and that is encrypted.”

“Who could do something like that?”

“Military grade encryption? Not me. Not anyone I would know. Governments only I guess.”

“So we’re talking about a major power player? A country that has a massive electronic warfare infrastructure like China?”

“DICK. FACE. Yes. No. Or just a Russian military insider who sold his secrets to someone. I don’t know.”

“You are not filling with me confidence right now Cody.”

“Why the fuck would I want to do that,” Cody snorted. “We’re all going to die up in this frozen shit hole you brought us to.”

“Well, that’s nice to know,” Deckard said as he looked up at the ceiling. “Anything else you can actually do to help me before we stumble into oblivion?”

“Take this next time,” Cody turned around and tossed Deckard the pawn pad. “Turn it on next time you come in contact with these guys. It might suck up some interesting signals we can use.”

Deckard looked down at the tablet and pursed his lips.

“Okay Cody,” Deckard said as he turned to walk away. “Okay.”

“Little shit.”

* * *

Deckard found his cot in the middle of the mercenary maelstrom and sat down. It was his ship and his merry band of pirates, but even he could get lost in the chaos. Having soldiers live right on top of each other in cramped quarters made for an interesting combination of fist fights and grab ass. These were no professional sailors either, they were blow-the-door-down, kill everyone inside, and be home by beer-thirty ground pounders. The few former SEALs and Marines may have been used to it, but most of the men adapted to the maritime lifestyle with great reluctance.

But none of them complained. Deckard’s checks cleared. For now anyway.

The former Special Operations soldier picked up his AK-103 rifle, depressed the nub at the end of the carrier spring and detached the dust cover. He then popped out the spring and pulled out the bolt carrier. Using a rag and some oil he did a few minutes of weapon maintenance.

They were quickly learning how to put a weapon into operation effectively in the arctic. More and more of the mercenaries were rolling out with just iron sights as the batteries in optical sights froze after fifteen minutes. Deckard applied a very light coat of oil prior to reassembling his rifle. Any more, and he risked having the oil freeze and gum up the cycle of operation when he pulled the trigger, leading to malfunctions.

Next he moved on to his Glock 19, the standard issue sidearm in Samruk International. He had given up his much loved Kimber 1911. As much as he loved God’s gun, Deckard knew that the reality was that 1911’s were high maintenance tack drivers only carried by Luddites, Iconoclasts, and connoisseurs. At the end of the day, the Glock 19 was more reliable and reliability was something that they desperately needed in the arctic. It took three minutes to disassemble the pistol, wipe it down, and put it back together again.

Deckard slid the Glock into the Raven Concealment holster on his hip and headed back up to the bridge. Otter had actually let Kurt Jager take the helm while the ship’s captain was looking over sea charts and plotting a course.

“Where do you think the enemy is heading?” Deckard asked him.

“Well,” Otter said as he frowned and blew out his cheeks. “Based on the wake analysis we were given, it looks like they are heading towards the De Long straight.”

“Will we over take them prior to getting there?”

“I have no idea. It depends on their speed relative to ours and right now we have no idea how many knots they are moving at. We should have a better idea in 5 hours when the next satellite in polar orbit goes overhead. If it is able to pick up the stealth ship’s wake again, we could be able to calculate speeds.”

“How long until we reach the straight if we continue at our max speed?”

“At 25 knots we will get there in just a little over 24 hours.”

“Feels like we’re fighting a war in slow motion.”

“We’re not hitting time sensitive targets in some urban sprawl,” Kurt reminded Deckard. “Even with the north-east passage opening up, there is still very little infrastructure in the arctic.”

“Maybe that won’t be the case in another twenty years as the oil companies try to suck every bit of energy reserves out of the arctic,” Otter confirmed. “But for now, we are faced with the tyranny of distance and the austerity of the environment.”

“I guess the good news is that the enemy is as well,” Deckard said.

“Their choice of vessel would make one believe that they chose stealth over speed, counting on the assumption that they would not be found.”

“But we’ve already got their heading.”

“And we’re probably gaining on them as we speak,” Otter said with a rare smile.

Deckard ran his finger over the chart, tracing the projected route of the Carrickfergus, wondering what the next day would bring.

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