Panama Canal Gatun Locks, Panama

25 June 2014

The eight-man team was wet, cold, and miserable, not that you would hear a complaint from them. They had a job to do here, and nothing short of death would stop the men of 1 Batt, 5th SFG, the "Ghosts". All eight of them were dressed in damp Multi-Cam fatigues and carrying approximately seventeen thousand dollars of waterproofed electronics between them. None of which helped insulate against the wind coming off of the water or their swim up-canal.

They had found a spot in the Gatun lock chamber in its emergency dam system where they had an excellent view of the waters below. Ever since their retirement nearly thirty years ago, there had been a gap underneath the walkways. It was here that they had set up camp while awaiting their target. Schedules they had pilfered from the Canal Authority offices gave them only a few more minutes of waiting.

Lieutenant Orlando Contadino crept amongst his men, patting shoulders as a final sign of reassurance before they were on-mission. His rubber-soled jungle boots made barely a sound as he moved on the rough droppings-coated concrete of the old emergency dam's alcove. The men were all seasoned operators, many of them with long stints with the Rangers and Green Berets before being selected for the Ghosts. They didn't need his reassurance, but it was something of a good luck charm for them. Just another layer of security on top of the live satellite feeds that they had access to as well as all of the intel they and the tech-heads in the Puzzle Palace had scrounged up.

"Systems check," he said as he crept to the edge of the alcove to look down at the water, pulling his data monocle down over his right eye.

The rest of the team started up their own monocles, which were wired to a pair of netbook-sized computers. These were in turn in direct communication with a number of Pentagon servers. Combined with the network of sensors spread throughout their fatigues and body armor, the Integrated Warfighter System provided the unit's commanders with a constantly-updating view of their troops physical condition as well as mission status. The Ghosts would receive in turn live feeds from government satellites and their fellow operators.

All of these systems were in turn powered by a canteen-sized microturbine, whose components were built from a lattice of reinforced silicon that maximized its power-to-fuel ratio so that it practically sipped whatever fuel they had been supplied to provide enough power to run the System. Their issued synthetic p-carb was best, but they had used anything and everything ranging from seventy-proof alcohol to jet fuel with little ill effect.

Systems were lighting up green across the board. Contadino saw the rest of his team in the darkness being represented by seven blue diamond markers superimposed by his monocle. They were all making final preparations, checking each others' equipment and weaponry. Command had issued them suppressed Heckler & Koch MP7s for the operation. Reliable equipment, they had been cleaned and dried after the trek up the canal. With any luck the Ghosts would not need to even brandish them.

"Ghost Lead?" Contadino heard from behind him. The voice played out in stereo from both its speaker Master Sergeant Mack Blane as well as from the earpiece. "Your turn."

He stood up and allowed his executive officer to check his backpack before returning the favor. They were traveling light, but it never hurt to be sure before initiating contact. Blane's equipment was in working order and the lieutenant told him so. They were all check out with each other with three minutes until their target arrived. Time to report in.

"Baseplate, Baseplate, this is Ghost Lead," he said, switching over to the secure command frequency. "Romeo Team is ready. Three minutes until package arrival."

"Ghost Lead, Baseplate," the response came. "We read on confirmation. You are cleared hot. Crew to be considered expendable."

There were days where he wondered if some Chair Force policy officers had snuck into the Ghosts' command staff. He was not passing down that order.

He gestured to the rest of the team to clear and check their firearms. Unfired, their suppressed MP7s and HK45s only had to be brass-checked. Contadino pulled the charging handle half-way back on his submachine gun to make sure there was a round chambered. Then he performed the same process with his suppressed pistol, pulling the slide back enough to check that were was a round chambered as well. Four M84 flashbangs clipped to his vest completed his sparse loadout. Setting his MP7 to single shots, he looked at the rest of the assembled team.

"Rules of engagement," he stated. "If they're armed, weapons free. If they're not armed, subdue. But only if they haven't seen you. Otherwise, take them down as well. Don't take chances. We were never here."

"Lead, what if they're reaching for a weapon?" Sergeant First Class Eric Slade asked. "We're cleared for that?"

"If they're reaching for a weapon, they're armed, Ghosts," Blane said from his position keeping an eye out at the water. "Your heard Ghost Lead. Take no chances with your own safety. If you see them going for a weapon, or you think they've got a weapon, take them. Otherwise try to incapacitate without their noticing."

"Just wondering," Slade said with a shrug.

They were professionals. This was just another pre-mission ritual of sorts. Contadino flicked through his men's vitals on his monocle. They had previously been using the Cross-Com, something so netrocentric and hyperwar that even their commanders didn't know what "Cross-Com" stood for. It wasn't in their operating manuals either.

The previous year's Mexican insurrection had made the papers, particularly with the research teams who were responsible for maintaining and upgrading their technological edge against whoever they might encounter. Subsequently with the work of Alpha and Bravo teams, their IWS equipment had been recalled for upgrades that they had requested. That meant that they had been sent into the field with their older equipment. No live video feed from everyone else in the team, but it was a robust and tested system.

Two minutes. The team had already gathered their ropes and were all ready. It was a simple job and they all remembered their roles. Contadino could hear the distant sound of a cargo ship's horn as it approached the lock. He pulled the thick secondary half-gloves on over his normal shooting gloves, providing his palms with enough protection for what was coming. "Spank gloves" they called them.

One minute. They heard and saw the culverts open up nearly underneath them. Show time. Over twenty million gallons of water spilled out of the massive culverts built into the retaining walls of the canal. This lock and the one before it would have to equalize, lowering the water level in the previous lock and raising the water level in this one. Then the locks would open and let the ship through. Easy. And they had a perfect vantage point.

Right on schedule, the lock gates started to swing open against the weight of the water. It was contrary to common belief, a surprisingly fast process. Hydraulic struts heaved the hollow gates open with minimal fuss from the twenty-five horsepower motors responsible for moving them. There was no spillover as it opened, a credit to the designers of the lock system.

"Get ready," Contadino said. "Spool out on my mark."

The gates finally locked back at full extension to allow the Panamax ship through. It was pretty goddamn large in the lieutenant's opinion as it started to move. They had to time this right. The cargo ship started to steam in underneath them.

"Ropes now, now, now," he said.

Sergeants First Class Miles Chen and Val Hark heaved the heavy ropes out over the edge as the conning tower of the ship passed them. They were practically invisible in the darkness as they spooled out downwards to fall on the deck.

"Let's go," Contadino said.

He and Chen grabbed the end of the ropes still anchored to the wall, turned around, and then kicked off. Contadino felt his body hang in the void, his feet dangling for a moment before he tucked them in to clamp down on the rope. Allowing his weight and gravity to pull him down while managing his fall with his hands and knees, he took the opportunity to look back up. The other men of the team were hitching up and dropping as well. Fast-roping was traditionally done from a helicopter, but since a helicopter would have been far too obvious, they were performing it from a forgotten crevice in the side of the Panama Canal. Marine Recon improvised in adversity. Army Special Forces thrived.

Even with the secondary glove, he could feel the friction of the thick gloves rubbing against the thick rope as he slid. It wasn't a long drop, but it certainly felt that way. He loosened and then tightened his grip slightly as the deck of the ship drew closer. Contadino hit the deck like a ghost, his knees flexing with the impact and he was up and scanning with his MP7. Chen crept up next to him and patted his shoulder. At least one pair made it. The mission would go forward.

The other members of Romeo Team hit the deck in short intervals behind them. Blane came down last with Staff Sergeant Hector Grey and then pulled the ropes clean out of the moorings and respooled them for either later use or disposal. No going back now for sure. All Ghosts active and accounted for. He activated the night optics built into his monocle, turning the world a greenish-gray and white.

"Okay, Ghosts, let's move out, activate NOD." he said, waving them forward. He then switched over to the command frequency again. "Baseplate, Romeo Team is now on-mission."

Using his chest-mounted "stylus," he designated search paths for the rest of the team. They fanned out in pairs to work their way forward toward the two hatches leading into the conning tower. He kept Blane at his side as they moved up towards the conning tower. There was a single guard standing around on the rear railing. Contadino raised his MP7 and extended its stock before shouldering it to sight down the Aimpoint ACOG mounted on its top rail. There was just enough magnification to make out the Heckler & Koch MP5K in his hands.

"Guard on the railing. Taking," he said, calling his target.

Lining up the shot was simple. The submachine gun barely kicked in his hands as he fired a single round. Above them, the armed guard hadn't even seen the intruders before the top of his head exploded in a fine mist. The body slumped sideways and the small submachine gun he had been carrying clattered quietly against the deck. Good hit. He could see the warmth of the blood sprayed against the wall where the guard had been standing against.

"Target down. Target down," Chen whispered over the radio, confirming the kill from a closer position. "Clean shot, Ghost Lead."

He flagged the body for later disposal before continuing forward. The rest of his team was making good time, sweeping through the aft section of the deck without contact. When they made it to the tower's entrance hatches, he split the team even further. Two men would proceed along each side topside to clear out the rest of the deck just in case while the remaining four, including himself, would enter the tower and clear it out.

The hatch was unlocked. Sloppy of them. Contadino nodded to Blane and grabbed the handle and pulled it open. The Master Sergeant led in with his MP7 the moment there was enough space. He followed him, his own submachine gun up. They were in an empty corridor with minimal cover and thick pipes running along the walls. Seen one carrier interior, seen them all. The lights were on so he switched off his NOD.

"Let's do this, shall we?" Blane said, his smirk obvious despite the balaclava covering much of his face.

"Remember to stay quiet, boys," Contadino said over the general frequency as he and Blane crept along. "Do not engage unless sure." He keyed Blane's private frequency. "Was that a little over-dramatic, Ghost?"

"You're Ghost Lead," Blane said. "You're allowed to be a little over-dramatic."

The team checked in regularly as they cleared the entrance and the corridors beyond. Lengths of thin steel cable welded with the help of a small propane torch provided rear security, keeping checked hatches shut. Most, if not all of the crew was asleep in their rooms. They certainly didn't encounter any crew wandering the corridors.

About to round a corner, Blane held his hand up in a fist. Contadino stopped immediately and dropped into a deeper crouch behind him. Blane held up two fingers and pumped them in the direction of the corner. Two potential hostiles. Initiate contact or wait for them to verify their status? It would be much faster to just turn and dispatch the two of them. But there was always the chance of them being non-combatants. He had to make a decision.

"Ghost Lead, Team Four here," a voice came in over the radio, suddenly. "Had a brief chat with a tango. The entire ship's on the payroll. All contacts are to be considered armed and hostile."

Contadino looked up at Blane. They exchanged looks for a moment.

"Team Four, Ghost Lead," he said. "He was sure about this? I don't want to have to accidentally light up a non-combatant."

"Pretty sure, Ghost Lead," Staff Sergeant Rick Grigsby said. "I've got a way with words."

Blane gave him a nod. Contadino sighed with relief. "Okay. All Ghosts, this is Ghost Lead. All contacts are to be considered hostile. Light them up."

Taking a moment to position himself, he patted Blane's shoulder. They turned the corner as one just as the two contacts were about the round the corner. The two newly-designated tangos had only a moment to gawk at the two masked and armed men before a pair of double-taps took them down. Already he could see several beacons appear on his tactical map. Bodies for pick up. He looked down at the two bodies. They had been carrying cut-down Remington 870 pump-action shotguns. Excellent close-range weapons that would have likely torn the two Ghosts up. Upon closer inspection he realized that the weapons had been left without a shell in the chamber. Idiots. Marking the bodies on his map, he waved Blane forward.

"Ghost Lead, Team Three is clear with sector. Moving to hold entry positions," Sergeant First Class Norm Wade said. Team Four reported in a moment after them and Contadino watched as their icons fell back to their initial breach points of the tower.

They secured the rest of the deck without any further encounters. Team Two met them at the main staircase leading up. They crept up to the second level of the tower and fanned out into another search pattern. The ship was awful quiet, even with the number of body markers that the sweep teams were racking up. Contadino thought he could scent something through his frozen and balaclava-covered nose. There. He waved for Blane to cover as he approached one of the hatches. He could smell a coppery tang in the air mixed with good amounts of fecal matter and urine. The stench of death.

Blane opened the hatch this time. Even before he stepped through, Contadino already could smell what awaited him. The corpses were fresh enough that the flies hadn't started crawling yet. One of the processes that the body undergoes upon death is the sudden cessation of electrical impulses keeping certain muscles and organs in check. Sphincters become flaccid to release a flood of whatever wastes a person had left in their system in life. The lieutenant was reminded of his as his boots squelched in a slurry of blood, urine, and fecal matter. He played the tactical light of his submachine gun over the bodies just to make sure the cameras built into his rig could record it. Command would want to at least have a look at this.

"Baseplate, this is Ghost Lead," he said, fighting back a surge of bile. "Are you seeing this?"

"Crisp and clear, Ghost Lead," the voice on the other side of the link said, voice still remarkably even despite what they were undoubtedly seeing.

These were the crew of the cargo ship. The rounds looked well-placed, execution shots. But there was also a more wild spray of holes throughout the pile of corpses. Shooters making sure about their job? It seemed likely. Backing out, Contadino waved for Blane to wire the hatch shut. He took a steadying breath of what was now sweet clean air. That had been unpleasant beyond words. But he still had a mission to complete. He could complain later to the shrinks. They marked the cable with a red glowstick for later pick-up.

"Team Two, you find any bodies?" he asked Chen over the radio. "One of the cabins was piled high with them. Looks like the crew."

"Uh, negative," Chen said from his position on the opposite side of the tower. "Will keep you informed, Ghost Lead."

The silence was stomach-churning for Contadino. He and Blane cleared the rest of the deck without encountering a soul. Panamax ships were large but all of their space was taken up by cargo containers. They had small crews, and considering their grisly find, the ship likely had no crew save the tangos who had killed them. More incentive to get the ship cleaned out. There was only another pair of decks to clear, the second being the bridge.

"Ghost Lead, you see anything?" Slade asked from his position outside.

"Nothing to note, Ghost," he responded. If only he'd seen it as well… "Initiate breach and stay sharp. Keep it quiet, Ghosts."

"Roger, Ghost Lead," Slade said, his icon already moving with the others on the small map projected on Contadino's eyepiece. "Breaching now."

Now it was an informal competition to see who could locate the package first, the four Ghosts searching below deck or the four Ghosts who were going to have a toss-around of the bridge and its computers for some likely locations. No need to rush it, though. Contadino breached the staircase with Blane and continued up to the next deck. All quiet again. No, wait one. He picked up the sounds of boot steps. Waving Blane forward, Contadino lined up his shot at approximately head-height for the target. They generally shot center-mass, but sometimes a quieter approach was needed. A headshot ensured that there would be no inconvenient screaming or convulsive fire from downed tangos. Their specialized solid hollow-point rounds helped to tag the somewhat elusive medulla oblongata.

A single shot was what it took. The tango fell into Blane's waiting arms, which lowered the corpse slowly to the ground. Blane pumped a round of his own into what was left of the tango's neck just to be sure. There wasn't much of a point seeing as that Contadino's shot had sprayed much of the back of the corpse's head out behind him. Marking the body, they continued on their way.

There was no way that the tangos would have left the ship practically abandoned. Not with their precious cargo aboard. And who would be piloting the ship?

The deck was cleared out without any problems, Team One and Team Two meeting at the access way to the bridge. Team Two hadn't encountered any resistance whatsoever on that deck sweep, but they still exchanged their partially-used forty-round magazines for fresh magazines from the pouches strapped to their vests. Minimal resistance at first was rarely a good sign. Time to go loud. Contadino tapped his flashbang and pointed at Hark and Chen. Their signal to initiate breach. Checking the hatch, he counted off with his off-hand for the benefit of the others before hauling the metal door open. The two Sergeants First Class pulled the pin from their M84s and bowled them into the bridge. He then pushed the hatch back into place just before the flashbangs went off. It felt like a freight train had run over his head when he pulled the door open again for his team to enter.

Room clearing is a matter of trust. You had to trust the guy in front of you and the guy behind you to keep to their sectors. They would have to engage only in their sectors, leaving any enemy contact specifically not in their sector to whoever it was assigned to. And you had to pay close attention so you didn't wind up shooting a buddy. But this was all automatic for the men of the Ghost teams.

Contadino followed in last with Blane in front of him and Team Two in front of him. Performing a basic four-man penetration, they entered the bridge. They arrayed themselves around the central table, submachine guns up and pointing into their sectors. Five tangos. All but one of them were still reeling from the effects of the flashbang. That lucky guy got topped first by Chen with a pair of rapid double-taps. The others were easy prey with their bodies exposed and their weapons too far away to reach before they were cut down by the Ghosts.

Just as quickly as they had initiated the engagement, they had ended it just as quickly. The four Ghosts found themselves standing in the middle of the bridge with dead bodies and spent shell casings around them. None of their Warfighter Systems indicated that they had been injured. Another clean sweep, and in under ten seconds according to their mission clock.

"Clear," Blane said.

Chen and Hark echoed him, "Clear."

"Room clear," Contadino said finally. "Team Three, Team Four, Ghost Lead. Bridge secured. Sitrep."

"Still checking, Ghost Lead," Grigsby said. "No contacts so far."

"Roger, Ghost. We'll be checking in with their database to see if we can find the listing," he said, waving for Blane and the others to find terminals to begin checking.

He walked over to check the corpses, using his boot to push their weapons out of their hands: a pair of Israeli-made Uzis, an MP5K, a TEC-9, and a worn-looking Kalashnikov that he couldn't make out the details of in the darkness. The bodies, weapons, and casings would have to be disposed of during exfil, bothersome but necessary.

A minute passed as Contadino checked Teams Three and Four's progress sweeping the lower decks of the cargo ship on his eyepiece. Without the Cross-Com of the modern Warfighter System, he had no chance to actually link into their cameras for a closer look, but the tactical map that was projected by his eyepiece was just as good. He watched as the four icons swarmed through a wireframe based on schematics pulled from several databases. They stopped occasionally and a marker for corpse retrieval would appear. Making good progress then. He could count three such markers since their initial breach.

"Ghost Lead, we have a match," Chen said from the terminal he was working at. "Registry for Tterrab Industries. Registry is: Golf-six-seven-eight-four-five-two-zero-five-six."

He keyed up the two teams below. "Ghost Lead here. Search for registry code golf-six-seven-eight-four-five-two-zero-five-six."

"Roger, Ghost Lead. We will have it in sight in approximately four seconds."

"Good to hear. We're on our way," Contadino said, making a circular motion at the men on the bridge. "Let's get this thing cleaned up."

The Ghosts filed out with Contadino the last out of the bridge. Safely outside, he hefted the detonator in his hand and squeezed down on the paddle. Sixteen inch-wide blocks of brick-red Semtex detonated simultaneously back inside the bridge, destroying the hardware which were now missing their hard drives, safely sealed up in individual plastic bags for transport. The explosion had been only enough to gut the computers and databases, not enough to cause too much damage to everything else, but playing it safe was always a good idea. He had a feeling the four drives were going to make Romeo Team very popular with the intel unit.

They hurried down into the bowels of the ship, following the path of the other half of the team. Contadino had run a few traffic interdictions in his time, but the interiors of cargo ships always made him stop and look. Much of the cavernous cargo areas were painted a yellowing white from what little he could see between the cargo containers that were stacked high to the ceiling. They stepped past and over several of the bodies that they had tagged as well. Clean kills with no overpenetration. He'd have to buy at least two rounds when they got back.

Romeo Team reunited in front of the area allotted to Tterrab Industries containers, near the prow of the ship. They were not looking at high stacks of containers for a change. A four-man team could have cleared the section in about five minutes. Romeo Team's complement of eight soldiers cut that time down exponentially. And the registry code was likely in the middle of it all. Contadino waved for the team to spread out and start looking.

They spread out and started walking along the narrow paths between containers, reading the at times illegible registry numbers painted on the metal containers. Most of these contained heavy farm equipment, but the Geiger counters built into their IWS were there for a reason. Those had already started clicking quietly in their ears before Contadino had even come within a meter of the Tterrab section.

"Ghost Lead," Grey said, waving his hand slightly to get his attention.

No words needed to be said. The container was visibly rusting and water damaged, its paint peeling and cracking, and the doors slightly ajar. Contadino waved for Slade to join Grey to check it and for the other Ghosts to stay back. He watched from a bit closer as the two Ghosts performed a rapid check for tripwires or anti-tampering devices that might have been wired to the door. Nothing they could see. He cautiously approached, aware of the Geiger counter practically buzzing. Surprisingly high background radiation coming from the container. Hotter than normal but not hotter than nuclear waste. Bingo.

The two Ghosts hauled the doors open while Contadino, Blane, and Chen entered with their weapons drawn. Nothing. Literally nothing. They found themselves staring at an empty cargo container. Well, not completely empty. A brownish-red sludge covered the floor. The lieutenant felt his skin prickle.

"Baseplate, Baseplate, this is Ghost Lead," Contadino said after a moment. "We…we have an Empty Quiver. Say again, Empty Quiver."

Introductory Brief to the 5th Army Special Operations Group (Excerpt)

The United States has had a long tradition of special operations forces stretching back to the Civil War with the Jessie Scouts. Over the years, the US military's special operations capability has only increased. The 5th Special Operations Group is merely an extension of this. Founded back during the Vietnam War, the special forces unit has seen increased backing and funding in the Durling and Ryan administrations. Currently numbering four battalions, one battalion is always on-call 24/7 for whenever a rapid response is required. The 5th SOG is currently one of the premier SOCOM units, many of its operators having been awarded Intelligence and Silver Stars for actions on the field either covert or overt. Despite rumors to the contrary, neither the 5th SOG nor other Army Special Forces groups have female operators in their ranks.

Well, here we are again with the start of a second novelization. While I do admire Tom Clancy's work, sometimes it and its commercially-driven spinoffs make me rage. This is sort of a response to the utter ridiculousness that the Ghost Recon series has become. Come on, sending a lone four-man team to stop a freaking revolution? Where did that even come from? Not to mention how the Ghosts, technically Green Berets, are in fact something closer to D3L74-boys. So here's the beginning of what will hopefully be a much more realistic take on the events of GRAW 2. Commentary and advice is always welcome.