Somewhere in the Pacific
DAMMIT!” CHIEF PETTY Officer Chasen Ward cursed, dropping to one knee on the metal decking of the ancient cargo ship and trying to soak up some of the sweat pouring down his face with the sleeve of his uniform. “There’s no way in hell we’re making it out of here in time.”
Petty Officer First Class Holden Lockwood looked past his chief at the endless miles of open ocean surrounding them. Chasen might be right. They’d been on the ship for more than a week already and there wasn’t any indication they’d be leaving anytime soon. Not that he was going to say so out loud.
“Relax,” Holden told him. “I promised Hayley we’d get you home for the wedding and we will. The big day isn’t until Saturday. We’ll definitely finish this training and get home to San Diego by then.”
Even if they didn’t have a clue exactly where the hell they were.
Chasen snorted, his blue eyes dubious. “I appreciate the pep talk, but Saturday isn’t the deadline. I told Hayley if she doesn’t hear from me before the rehearsal dinner on Friday night, she should postpone the wedding and try to save as much of our deposit money as she can.”
Holden winced as he checked the live ammo in his M4 carbine and got himself mentally ready for another run through the blazing hot rust bucket they’d been training on for days on end. Sweat droplets dripped from his arms, making patterns on the gently heaving metal decking below him. Out on the ocean there was usually a constant breeze that helped cool things off, but for the past two days, there’d been no wind at all. The old hulk of a ship felt like one big oven.
“Okay, maybe you are screwed,” he agreed. “Are we talking temporary delay in the wedding, or is Hayley going to wake up Saturday morning, realize she can do better, and dump your ass?”
Fellow SEAL, Wes Marshall, crouched down beside Chasen with a chuckle. “Oh, Hayley can definitely do better. My money’s on her dumping him.”
Chasen scowled. “Hayley’s not dumping me. We knew something like this could happen, so we picked three different wedding dates. We missed the first one because of that rescue operation in Yemen last month. If we miss the one this weekend, we still have our backup to the back-up date at the end of the month. It means more lost deposits, though.”
Beside Holden, his Teammate, Noah Mitchell, shook his head. “You set up multiple wedding days? I’m not sure if that’s romantic, practical, or just plain sad. I’m leaning toward sad.”
Holden laughed. While Noah had been in their sixteen-man SEAL platoon for a while, he hadn’t worked with the rest of them much. It seemed like he was always working with other members of the Team. Still, Noah was good at his job, didn’t complain about the ungodly heat on the old cargo ship floating in the middle of friggin' nowhere, and could throw a burn with the best of them. As far as Holden was concerned, that was about all you needed in a Teammate.
“Since I’m the effing new guy, I know I’m going to be sorry for asking this,” Sam Travers said, a chagrined look on his youthful face. “But could you guys tell me what day of the week it is? I’ve been out here on this tub for so long without my phone that I have no friggin’ idea.”
Holden snorted at the newbie’s question along with the other guys. Sam was the son of the Team’s former chief and recently retired, Kurt Travers. Even though he was a fully-trained SEAL with all the badges and patches to prove it, Holden still had a difficult time looking at the dark-haired kid and not seeing the teenager who used to hang out at the SEAL Team 5 cookouts all the time.
He could have easily ribbed the kid about the question, but decided not to. He knew what it was like to be so focused on doing the job right those first few times that you forget what day it was. “It’s Wednesday, kid. If we get through this next training run without pissing somebody off, maybe we can get the hell out of here in time for you to find someone to bring to the wedding.”
“Don’t go putting pressure on the kid like that, dude,” Noah said. “We all know Sam isn’t old enough to date yet.”
Sam laughed good naturally with the rest of them. “If that’s my excuse for not bringing a date to the wedding, what’s yours? The whole Team knows it’s been so long since you were with a woman that they’ve renewed your virginity card.”
“Damn, Noah,” Wes chuckled. “It might be hot as hell out here, but I could still feel that burn all the way over here.”
Holden cracked up along with the other guys. He only hoped none of them asked who he was bringing as his plus-one. He’d been dating this amazing personal trainer named Mia for a while and had planned to bring her as his date, but then he’d come back from that Yemen mission a few weeks ago covered head-to-toe in bruises and cuts. A rocket propelled grenade had hit the Land Rover he’d been in, flipping the whole thing over and bouncing him around like a nickel in a piggy bank. His injuries hadn’t been that bad, but unfortunately, he hadn’t been able to tell Mia what had happened because the whole mission—as well as the fact that he’d been out of the US—was classified. She’d bailed after that. Not that he blamed her. What kind of woman wanted to put up with crap like that?
He’d considered asking Teammate, Dalton Jennings, if he had any old Tinder contacts back from his days before falling stupid in love with his wife, Kimber, simply so he wouldn’t have to show up at the wedding solo. But that idea kind of sucked now in retrospect. Did he really want to go to a friend’s wedding with a woman he didn’t know?
“Speaking of dates,” Chasen said, looking Holden’s way, “you still bringing that personal trainer?”
Holden cursed silently at the sneaky, little smile tugging on the corner of his chief’s lips. Damn. Chasen knew Mia had dumped him and was going to rag on him in front the other guys.
“If you five are done bullshitting, maybe we can get in a few more training runs before the sun goes down,” their CIA handler called from the metal walkway overlooking that section of the ship. “Unless you’d rather spend the rest of the night trying to get this right?”
While the rest of his Teammates groaned, Holden breathed a sigh of relief. He wasn’t crazy about going down into the bowels of the ship again, but at least he wouldn’t have to talk about Mia.
Their handler walked downstairs from the upper deck, a clipboard full of notes and checklists in one hand, a bullhorn in the other, which he enjoyed using to yell at them for any failure in performance he happened to notice. And the asshole damn sure noticed a lot of them.
There were a dozen other people on this tub with them, all involved in some manner with the training. Some were responsible for setting up and repairing the pop-up targets Holden and his guys had been shooting the shit out of. Some kept the power generators running. And some provided food and limited hygiene facilities. But the only person they’d actually exchanged any words with was their handler, a real son of a bitch who’d pushed them hard since the day the Navy Sea Stallion helicopter had dropped them off on deck. The guy still hadn’t told them his name and probably never would.
Not surprising considering the guy was CIA. Friggin’ spooks never talked to anybody. Of course, the man had also failed to mention what they were even doing out there in the middle of nowhere on a derelict ship that had been heavily modified to look like a US ammunition carrier similar to the kind the US had prepositioned all around the world just in case they needed them. Because God knew, if you wanted to start a war in a far-off land, you wanted plenty of explosive crap lying around.
The whole thing had been confusing as crap at first, especially since their handler wouldn’t tell them what was going on, but after spending two days zipping around the fake ammo ship on a Zodiac boat figuring out the best way to board the vessel, then another two days going through scenarios to regain control of the bridge from armed bad guys, it quickly became obvious what was going on. For whatever reason, the US government believed one of the Department of Defense’s prepositioned ammo ships was going to be hijacked by people with seriously bad intent. And the threat was serious enough for them to put a mock ship out in the middle of nowhere so a team of Navy SEALs could train for getting the vessel back under their control.
Holden wasn’t sure what scared him more, the fact that there might be people out there aiming to take over a ship loaded with half a million pounds of explosive ordnance, or the idea the government was so paranoid that they’d thought of it first.
“Okay, same drill as the session this morning, with a few changes to keep it interesting,” the CIA guy said as he approached them. “This scenario is a logical follow-on to retaking the bridge. Opposing forces are now aware of your presence on the ship and you have no choice but to move space by space through the ship, clearing hostile OPFOR as you go. Assume you could encounter ship’s crew in the process.”
More groans followed that announcement. Retaking the bridge had been relatively straightforward because they friggin’ knew where the bridge was and what the endgame looked like. But clearing a ship this large deck by deck, space by space was going to be an endless task for a five-man SEAL team. Even if it went well, they’d still be down below deck until midnight in a ship’s hold that was hotter than a Crock-pot set on high.
But grumbling wasn’t going to get the training over with. Besides, if they didn’t get through the damn thing, they’d never get Chasen home in time to make his wedding. And if you couldn’t get out of something, you might as well get into it.
As Chasen worked out some details with their handler about how far they should take that particular training scenario, Holden took the opportunity to take a few sips of water from his Camelback.
Wes joined him, glancing over his shoulder like he thought somebody was going to listen in on whatever it was he wanted to say.
“Did you ever figure out what that thing was we stole up in San Fran?” Wes asked in a low voice. “I kept checking the news from up there since we got back, but I never saw anything about the break-in.”
Holden threw a glance at the other guys on the Team standing a few feet away before glaring at Wes. “You want to say that last part a little louder? I’m pretty sure they didn’t hear it up on the bridge.”
Wes snorted. “Nobody heard me. But aren’t you curious? I mean, we broke into that tech facility almost four weeks ago. Why didn’t it show up in the news?”
Holden frowned. He didn’t want to get into it here. Actually, he’d prefer if they never got into it at all. If they both acted like it had never happened, he’d be fine with that.
About a month ago, Dalton had needed the kind of help only Holden could provide. Some bad guys had kidnapped the daughter Dalton never knew he had and the ransom had been experimental computer chips being made for the Department of Defense. Breaking in and stealing the chips hadn’t been something he or Dalton had wanted to do, but they hadn’t had a choice. A little girl’s life had been in danger.
Unfortunately, as good as Holden was at stealing stuff—thanks to his misspent youth—he couldn’t do it without the proper equipment. That meant he’d been forced to get involved with someone from his past he’d never wanted to see again. Favors had been exchanged, and in return for the use of the equipment he’d needed to help Dalton, that person had asked him and Wes to acquire another piece of tech gear from a another well-guarded facility outside San Francisco.
Holden had no idea what the thing was he and Wes had taken. But the fact that not a single news story had slipped out about the theft worried him as much as it seemed to worry Wes.
“I don’t know,” he finally answered. “Maybe we got lucky and they didn’t even realize we took it. There were a lot of toys in there.”
Wes gave him a skeptical look. “Seriously? We break into a place with a security system that would have put Fort Knox to shame, steal the one thing that was located in their most protected vault, and you honestly think no one noticed?”
“Call it wishful thinking,” Holden muttered. “The point is, don’t go looking for trouble. The people we stole that thing from might have a good reason for keeping the theft quiet, but the only thing that matters is that we got in and out of there without leaving a trace. No one is going to come looking for us unless we call attention to ourselves.”
Wes looked like he would have said more, but Chasen interrupted.
“All right, guys. Time to go. Let’s lock and load.”
Holden pushed thoughts of the burglary out of his mind as he and the rest of the Team followed Chasen toward the stairs leading down into the darkness of the ship’s cargo hold.
“Night vision goggles down the second we go dark,” Chasen called out. “Holden, you’re on point with me. Wes, you have our left flank. Noah, take the right, Sam, cover our six.”
Their SEAL team had been conducting operations similar to this for years—well, Sam hadn’t, but still—they were all damn good at the job. Working together almost nonstop for the past week had made them even better. As they moved through the dark ship’s storage spaces one after the other, NVGs glowing green as they engaged the pop-up targets that appeared out of the shadows around random corners of the ship’s bulkheads and containers of fake ammunition, they were like a friggin' machine.
The training run went extremely well, until they stepped into a room and multiple targets popped up around them.
Holden focused on the area directly ahead of him, catching sight of a target in front of a pallet of metal cylinders supposed to be a missile. Snapping his M4 into position against his shoulder, he was already squeezing the trigger when he saw the silhouette of a shorter female figure dressed in the uniform of a merchant marine officer positioned right in front of the terrorist. Holden’s sight line was all wrong, leaving him with less than an inch of the bad guy’s face and a little corner of right shoulder showing above the merchant marine. It was an impossible target even for a Navy SEAL. But there was no way to get a better angle on the terrorist silhouette without stepping completely out from behind the limited cover he had.
Holden did it without thinking, even though in the real world it would have exposed him to bullets from the other bad guys in the space. He simply moved to the side, adjusted his aim higher and squeezed the trigger. Just that fast, a neat, pencil-sized hole appeared in the terrorist target…a mere half inch from the hostage.
He was already moving forward, ready to head into the next room when a voice stopped him.
“Cease fire!” their handler shouted from the overhead walkway he’d been watching from. “Cease fire. Lights coming up in five seconds.”
Holden immediately flipped up his NVGs as naked light bulbs flickered to life, wondering why the training run had been cut short.
“That was one hell of a shot, Lockwood,” the CIA guy said as he moved slowly down a set of steps from the darkness above them. “But I have to wonder if you would have stepped out in the open like that if you were facing real terrorists who could have popped a cap in your ass.”
“For them to do that, they’d need to be breathing.” Holden said. “I trusted my Teammates to cover me and put all the other bad guys down before they could shoot me.”
Their handler lifted a brow. “You trust your Teammates so much that you’d put yourself out there in the open, hoping they take down every threat before someone gets a shot off at you?”
“Yes,” Holden said simply.
The man regarded him for a long moment. “Huh. Okay, back topside, everyone. You get in a few more runs like that and maybe we can wrap this up early.”
Chasen fell into step beside Holden as they followed the other guys out of the cargo hold. “I appreciate the fact that you trust us so much, but if we ever have to do this for real, be more careful, huh? I want to make sure we get you back home to your girlfriend in one piece.”
Holden chuckled, not bothering to remind Chasen that he didn’t have a girlfriend at the moment to worry about going home to.