Deckard rubbed crust out of his eyes as he sat up in his cot. After getting back on the Carrickfergus he had slept like a rock, the ship’s purring engines putting him out for hours.
“We got a problem,” Frank said. “Come up to the helm.”
“Shit, what is it now?” Deckard asked as he rolled off the cot and slid into his Merrill combat boots.
“You’re not going to believe this shit. C’mon.”
Deckard followed Frank out of the passenger compartment where the rest of the mercenaries were sleeping. Only a few remained awake playing video games or watching movies on portable DVD players. The post-mission hot wash had been just as ugly as the actions on the objective. They were a soup sandwich out there and they knew. The entire team was embarrassed by their vehicle issues and now realized just how dramatically they would have to adapt to the environment.
Climbing a few flights of metal stairs, they arrived at the helm. Otter looked at them with a worried expression that Deckard had never seen before.
“They burned it,” the Captain said.
Deckard was about to ask what the hell he was talking about when he looked out the window. Orange flames raged in the distance, illuminating the ocean and sparking off floating ice.
“Yeah,” Otter replied. “That’s our joint.”
Samruk’s ad hoc operations center lent to them by the oil company had been set on fire. Thankfully, most of their combat equipment and supplies were on the Carrickfergus as Deckard intended the ship to act as a floating Forward Operating Base in of itself.
“I think this is far enough,” Otter said as he eased down the throttle.
“You’re right,” Deckard said. “Whoever it was might have mined the waters around the building.”
“What did we have left in there?” Frank asked.
“Four assault trucks that we brought as spares since there wasn’t room on the ship,” Deckard answered.
“Not that they were worth a fuck out here anyway.”
Deckard turned towards the voice. Kurt Jager leaned against the back wall with his arms crossed.
“I’m going to have to call our paymasters and find out what is going on. This is a hell of a way to cancel our contract.”
The Iridium satellite phone velcroed to the console started to ring. Deckard saw that the number belonged to the head of security for Xyphon Industries, the American oil company that had hired them to protect their personnel and assets in the Russian arctic. Apparently, they had the same idea. He picked up on the third ring.
“Hey Eliot, this is Deckard.”
“Got a minute?” the security executive asked.
“I’m watching the building you lent us burn to the ground right now.”
“You’re what? What the fuck is going on out there? I thought you guys were doing that job that I asked you never to speak to me about.”
“Yeah, we did that job that we aren’t going to talk about just fine but now that we’re arriving back in time for hot sandwiches and we’ve discovered that we are homeless vegabonds. I just hope that we’re not unemployed homeless vagabonds because I’m trying to run a jobs-for-vets program over here.”
“No, no, no. Listen, I was going to call you and bring you up to date. Things are blowing up over here at corporate.”
“Yeah, here too it seems.”
“I don’t know what the hell is going on but the Russians are going ape shit.”
Deckard appreciated the vernacular, Eliot being a former Marine and all who had heard of Deckard through the old boy network, but he wasn’t feeling any more illuminated about their current situation.
“Talk to me.”
“My contacts in the Russian government are saying that they got hit. They are telling me that it was Site 17 in the Ural Mountains. Supposedly a highly secure facility. We were thinking it was separatists from Chechnya or Dagestan but something is going on. The Russians are scrambling forces into the arctic.”
“Who the hell tries to make a getaway into the arctic circle?”
“Think of all the commercial shipping lines opening in the arctic? It’s the whole reason why we sent you guys up there. No one is really telling us what is happening and I’m beginning to think that not many people in the Russian government know in the first place.”
“And they burned my place on their way out? What for?”
“Maybe they were expecting you guys to be there.”
Deckard let that sit in for a moment.
“Listen,” Eliot continued. “Just lay low for a few hours until I can sort things out on my end. We’ll divert you to another one of our company’s stations up there once we figure out what is going on. You should know that the Russians have Navy icebreakers and fighter jets sweeping the entire region, presumably looking for whoever hit their base in the Urals.”
Otter looked down at the computer screen which displayed the ship’s Automatic Identification System, or AIS. AIS was a VHS responder and transmitter that displayed the call sign, heading, and speed of commercial vessels in the area. After seeing which commercial vessels were in the area, Otter then turned his attention to the radar display.
“Yup, look at that,” he said. “AIS is showing a dozen commercial ships just within a few miles and radar is picking up a few more ship not displaying any AIS information. That must be the Russian Navy.”
“Any idea who they are after?” Deckard asked.
“It looks like they are trying to intercept a couple of these call signs,” Otter said pointing to the AIS screen.
Deckard picked up a set of binoculars, knowing that he was going to have a hard time spotting anything at night.
“Deckard,” Eliot’s voice came from the Iridium phone. “You still there?”
“Hold on. I think-”
Suddenly a burst of yellow flashed on the horizon.
“Oh shit,” Otter grunted.
A second flash came a few kilometers away from the first and a little further out. Then a third. Otter reached over and grabbed the binoculars from Deckard.
“Fire boat,” he said after examining the burning fires in the distance. “They go back all the way to ancient Greece.”
“Loading a ship with explosives and then using deception to lure in an enemy vessel,” Deckard thought aloud.
“And then they both go kablooie,” Otter finished. “They just used decoys to take out the Russian Navy.”
“Deckard,” Frank whispered. “This isn’t some half assed Chechen terrorists. This is an act of war.”
“Eliot,” Deckard said picking up the phone. “I think we’re in deep shit.”
“Tell me about it. Turn on the television. Any channel will do.”
Kurt reached up and turned on the satellite television mounted in the corner of the helm. The sound was muted, but they didn’t need to hear. One of the major news networks was reporting on a series of terrorist attacks against Americans at home and abroad.
Deckard looked back out at the sea, seeing several more flashes across the ocean and a few more in the sky, Russian aircraft being shot down.
“Welcome to the thunderdome,” Frank mumbled.
* * *
Outside a non-descript building in Tampa, Florida a man in a black trench coat lit up a cigarette. Flicking the lighter closed with one hand, he quickly looked down at the insignia etched into the side and remembered another time.
“Hey,” someone shouted from behind him. “It’s done Will. You’re all set.”
Taking a deep drag on his cancer stick, Will dropped it on the sidewalk and stubbed it out with the sole of one of his cheap dress shoes before turning to face the man holding open a glass door. Exhaling a cloud of smoke, he walked over to the door.
“I’ve never heard of a security clearance being re-instated that fast,” Will said sarcastically. “It reeks of desperation.”
“Don’t start, I had to pull some serious strings to bring you back in.”
“I’m sure World War Three cooking off helped too Gary.”
At the front desk a bored looking kid in a Army uniform checked Will’s ID card and then issued him a visitor’s pass. Both men were then waved through a security check point. As they walked, Will looked around seeing that not much had changed since he had left. He still had a lot of bitter memories about the place and never expected to be allowed back in.
At an unmarked door, Gary swiped his security pass against a scanner and a light above the door knob turned green. Stepping inside, Gary walked around a table where several other men were already seated. Will stood in the corner eyeballing the group. They were drilling holes in him as well.
Craig wore old man glasses with a chord that ran behind them so that they could hang around his neck when he wasn’t reading something. Joshua wore a pink polo shirt and sported a perfect military buzz cut. In Will’s eyes they were a bunch of geriatric spies, despite being just as old as they were.
“Let’s welcome Will back to the team gents,” Gary said, his words ringing hollow with the other three men.
Joshua nodded towards Will. Craig sat motionless. The second hand on a wall mounted clock ticked.
“We’ll get Will read back onto the project in a more formal manner, but right now we have more pressing concerns.”
Will took a deep breath.
“What are we looking at?”
“We’ve been tasked to assess a situation developing in the arctic circle. The Russians got hit at one of the Ural facilities and we are now receiving reports that they are losing naval ships and fighter aircraft in the arctic sea.”
“We are in agreement that today’s attacks, including in Russia, are not merely a coincidence?” Will asked patiently.
Craig and Joshua looked at each other before turning back to Will.
“We are,” Craig answered.
“But we are not just to assess,” Gary elaborated. “As of 0300 this morning SCOPE has been operationalized. NORTHCOM has the lead for anything in the arctic, but domestic terrorist attacks and cyberwar penetrations of arctic are keeping them tied down. Resources are being diverted everywhere but to our area of concern.”
“Operationalized? SCOPE is just a think tank for JSOC,” Will said. “I guess someone finally found their balls.”
“The White House signed another exemption letter,” Gary informed him. “I don’t think I need to tell you that they are desperate.”
“Desperate and scared,” Will said.
“And apparently someone felt that you were needed here,” Joshua said bitterly.
“Don’t be such a sour puss Joshua. How many times did I try to warn you about this? Instead you railroaded me right out of SCOPE and threw me out on my ass after stripping me of my clearance.”
“You only have yourself to blame for that,” Craig said. “For the record, I was completely against bringing you back. I regard you as a unbalanced lunatic at best and a national security disaster at worst.”
“Thanks for the endorsement, maybe I can put that on my resume.”
“You should be pitching old ladies Amway products in a supermarket somewhere.”
“I thought ponzi schemes were your forte Craig? Think I forgot about your little foray with discretionary funds in Algeria?”
“You know what Will,” Craig countered. “This reminds me of the time you tried to brief the Director of Central Intelligence on 9/11 conspiracy theories.”
“This reminds me of the time I fucked your wife at 29 Palms but you don’t hear me bragging about it.”
“Motherfucker-” Craig’s chair shot out from behind him as he stood up.
“Sit the fuck down!” Gary ordered. “You two are yaking like a couple girls in junior high. For Christ sake, I thought this was a professional organization.”
“Me too,” Will said under his breath.
“I told you to knock it the fuck off Will. Now sit down so we can get to work. Last time I checked we were hours away from a global fucking war.”
Will and Craig sat down.
“Bunch of drama queens I have to work with,” Gary muttered.
“Getting back on track,” Joshua interrupted. “We’re looking at a nuclear incident in Missouri, our embassies in Kenya, Libya, and Saudi Arabia under attack, the White House was penetrated both physically and via cyber attacks, gunmen shot up a movie theater in North Carolina, the Russian northern fleet is under attack, a Special Forces team got taken out in Croatia, and suicide bombers detonated themselves in Washington DC and in Austin, Texas.”
“They are trying to overwhelm our ability to respond by using swarming tactics,” Will said.
“Yeah, but who is they?” Gary asked.
All eyes went towards Will.
The disgraced intelligence operative cleared his throat.
“America’s enemies are now emerging from the shadows. They have prepared the environment for decades using probing techniques, testing our defenses. They know where our stovepipes are, they know about our bureaucratic rice bowls, they have assessed our reactions to cyber attacks and know damn well that we won’t respond to hacker penetrations with military force. Now they have hit three embassies and launched domestic terrorist attacks to overwhelm our counter-terrorism forces. Three Delta Squadrons, three embassies. Do the math.”
“But we still don’t know who they are,” Craig said.
“Again, do the math. Make an inference.”
“Stop being cryptic Will,” Gary said in frustration.
“Through our actions, America has created a coalition of countries who see themselves as adversarial to us. If we don’t like what a country is doing we call them rogue states. We sanction them, we try to strategically encircle them, we sabotage them, sometimes we even use military force against them. It was only a matter of time before we had to face the aggregate result of our political policies.”
“Here we go again,” Craig said rolling his eyes.
“The nations that we ostracized have begun working together to counter America’s status as a global hegemon. We are heading towards a multi-polar world, but they don’t want a multi-polar world. They want a world crafted in their own image.”
“What the fuck does that even mean,” Joshua said in frustration. “I told you Gary, we’re getting nowhere here.”
“American power has side effects and this is one of them,” Will continued. “By isolating and casting out various nations from the global community we created after World War Two, we inadvertently created a coalition of enemy states. A shadow NATO.”
“This is pure conjecture,” Craig said. “You can’t prove a fucking word of it. Not a single national intelligence estimate supports any of your conclusions.”
“That’s because people like you got comfortable. You thought things would stay the same, you had hoped they would so that your bureaucracies would remain relevant. But the old rules don’t apply anymore. The players involved will soon signal their hand. Watch for Russia to invade what is left of Ukraine and for China to take over some key islands in the South China Sea.”
“You have got to be kidding me,” Craig said as he threw his hands in the air.
“We can debate what might be true some other time,” Gary said trying to get the think tank back on track. “Let’s address what is. We have HUMINT and SIGINT data coming in that the Ural facility was not just attacked but that something was stolen. The Russians are panicking and are deploying their forces into the arctic as fast as they can. Then they get blown up by players yet unknown.”
“Players without names,” Will shrugged as he tapped a cigarette out of his pack.
“You can’t smoke in here Will,” Gary said. “Considering what happened in Missouri and the reaction the Russians have had, I think we have to assess a worse case scenario.”
“That terrorists hijacked a Russian nuclear weapon?” Joshua asked.
“Yeah,” Gary signed. “DOD thinks this conclusion is pre-mature but we have to consider the possibility.”
“You’re probably right,” Will said. “Except in thinking that it was terrorists who stole it.”
“So the question is what kind of assets do we have in the arctic that can intercept the weapon, if that is in fact what has happened?” Joshua asked.
“What?” Craig asked, seeing the frown on Gary’s face.
“Next to nothing.”
* * *
A castle sat on top of a mountaintop over which dark storm clouds gathered.
The villagers at the base of the mountain knew better to approach the castle, the reckless few who had tried in the past were never seen or heard from again. It was just as rare to see anyone emerge from the castle and travel down the treacherous path to the village. When they did, they passed through the village without a word spoken. Once, those dwelling inside had been adventurers, but today they lurked inside the dark corridors of the castle, conjuring the dark spells of necromancy.
Inside one such corridor, a single torch lit the way, casting long shadows against the cyclopian walls. The massive stones used to build the structure looked like they had been melted together. Such architecture was only possible for something old, something ancient, as such knowledge was long since lost.
In one of the adjoining chambers, a council of three met to discuss an important matter.
“The talisman has been stolen,” an old mage reported. He wore long black robes, his face framed by a hood which left little to be noticed aside from his burning black eyes.
“But it is not yet in our hands,” the necromancer standing next to him said.
“We are close,” the third man said, a druid of the Tuatha order.
The old mage reached towards the pedestal in the center of the room and pulled a heavy bear fur from it. The portal revealed a map with sparkling stars at various important locations.
“The Atlantica plan progresses as expected,” the mage stated. “The king and his men have grown vain, his kingdom ripe for the taking.”
“It will do little good if the Talisman can not be extracted,” the necromancer said as he rubbed a small leather bag tied around his neck.
“The kingdom is in a panic,” the mage said to alleviate the necromancer’s concerns. “They lack organization and structure. They are a new kingdom. An immature one.”
“Others have tried,” the druid said as his eyes narrowed.
“Now is not the time for doubt,” the mage said as he pointed to one of the stars that was slowly moving across the portal. “Even now, our dark lords carry the talisman back to us.”
“The time grows near,” the necromancer confirmed with a smile.
“Yes,” the mage said as he looked up at the portal with fire in his eyes. “And when it is done, we will be crowned the new kings of a new world.”