THE TRAGEDY OF VAUN GREYLOCK - CHAPTER THREE
"Something ain't right here Greylock," Nixon radios in via coms, then continues, "The dogs man. Ain't no fuckin' poochies out here anymore."
I pause, bringing my monocular up to my eye, its green scope perverting the landscape into night vision. My left eye darts across the perimeter, a small knot building in the back of my throat. Nixon was right, something is off.
"Maybe they went underground," I suggest, trying to make sense of the situation. We've had geospatial survailance over this compound for weeks. Real-time satellite imaging to scope out the everyday innerworkings of this metropolitan utopia's operations. The same dogs that brought us here like a trail of breadcrumbs were always scattered throughout the city's outer perimeter. Always.
Alarm dogs, guard dogs, attack dogs. Call them what you want, but we have had eyes on the city formally known as Thrawn every day, and the rottweilers were always out. It was one of the only certainties we concluded from our surveillance of the metropolis. All day. All night. Rottweilers. Confined within a fenced-in area spanning the island's perimeter, the dogs were what we'd spent so much time preparing to evade.
Because if there is any certainty life has to offer it's that if one dog barks, all dogs bark. They are nature's best security system.
Unfortunately for us, we must get by them to find the treasure they protect. But this is all wrong. How is it that the demon dogs spent every waking moment outside during out casing period, yet the night we strike they disappear. I am not stupid enough to believe this is a coincedence.
"If them dogs went underground we are as good as dead when we breach the bunker. They know we're here, we gotta make like ghosts and disappear, chief," Baxter whispers, vocalizing what we are all simultaneously thinking.
"What's the recourse?" Cane radios in. Cane and Nixon both rest a thousand meters away in opposite directions, nestled tight in designated sniper nests. They are our eyes tonight, watching down upon us like hawks hunting for field mice.
I lower the monocular, gazing up at the beautiful city before me. The city of Thrawn is wonderful to behold at this hour. I have seen the majestic city of Abu Dhabi in the summer sun. I have gazed upon the lights of Paris and the warm glow of the Effiel Tower in the swoon of Twilight. I've visited the foothills of New Zealand in the haze of early autumn. My eyes have stared in awestruck wonder at the inhumane pyramids of Egypt. But all of those sights somehow pale in comparison to Thrawn.
The Warlords are the richest black-market entity to ever exist, and their headquarters reflect this perfectly. Located on an undiscovered island off the coast of Libya, Umra' Alharb has amassed enough money to keep this island in the dark. To all government agencies across the globe, it doesn't exist.
It lies on no map. Its advanced firewall makes it undiscoverable to all satellite imaging. It remains completely hidden from the rest of the world, and only those who have been here know about it.
But with much luck and a little effort on my part, there are ways to twist a man's wrist into talking. And I did much more than twist a few mens' wrists to find the coordinates to this island.
And now I behold the fruits of my labor. The city is astonishing. Ungodly skyscrapers gleaming with dull lights across their glass surfaces. The whole city glows, the architecture lined with LED lights that shift from red to purple to blue to green to yellow to red.
If Las Vegas is the city that never sleeps, then Thrawn is the city that never weeps. All their needs are accounted for. At first glance, it appears to be heaven on earth. It is the future hidden in the present, so much money invested into this island that it looks as if they paid aliens to build it.
Nestled safely between bordering mountain ranges, the city is unidentifiable from the sea. The only entry permitted onto the island is through a private access dock, only known by one boat operator stationed in Libya. Faking a narrative to gain entry via boat access would've been impossible. There is no lie we could have sold about ourselves that wouldn't have been ripped to shreds long before hitting the Mediterranean Sea.
Our presence isn't welcome, and faking a story for our arrival would be impossible. This island isn't Khathul's hideout, it's his headquarters. There will be more cameras with facial recognition per square inch of this island than Beijing, China. Once we enter the perimeter of the city's domain there won't be a single step we can take where we are not heavily monitored by digital eyes.
I may be dead to the world, but their cybersecurity will be able to identify me in milliseconds. And a dead man walking will set off alarms faster than a hundred dogs collectively barking.
And what's worse is that our target doesn't reside above ground. Thrawn is merely a coverup for something much more sinister. An entire city built to coverup the Underworld, a place that we know relatively nothing about. Every attempt we've made to get eyes down into Khathul's underground lair has been a failed attempt.
Above the soil, Thrawn is home to multiconglomerate billionaires and the politicians who allow themselves to be wrapped around Khathul's fingers. You've heard the expression work hard, play hard. Thrawn is the island where those who work their hardest to keep humanity in bondage also play their hardest. The city is practically a never ending party. A single hour in Thrawn is not for the faint of heart, but it is mostly only the heartless who visit this sector of the world.
And for those brave enough to leave their soul above ground, you can journey underground, where the real demons live. Our scouting has revealed two known entrances. One for entering, one for exiting. We have attempted thrice, unsuccessfully, to send remotley piloted drones into the underground development. Short wave electromagnetic pulse barriers are stationed at each entrance, frying our insect-disguised drones before they have a chance to survey the Underworld.
I don't like surprises. That's why we will be making a third entrance tonight. One only known to us.
Initially we were tempted to make this a bomber mission. The entire underground beneath the island is believed to be hollow, home to the Khathul's Underworld. All we need to do is set up enough explosives to implode the surface until all monsters who dwell beneath suffocate.
Concaving is the preferable course of action, but this mission is too important to not get a confirmed kill on Khathul. We need to see his eyes roll back in his head from our own doing to know we've completed our mission, and that requires that we journey into the Underworld, blind, and find him.
I will ensure that he dies no matter what. Dogs or no dogs.
"There is no recourse, men. We came here to get this done, and that's what we will do," I relay over the coms so Nixon and Cane can hear me.
"You've gotta be shittin' me Vaun. Our cover is obviously blown, don't be stupid now," Baxter comes up from behind me and whispers so only I can hear. It isn't good policy to call out the commander in front of other subordinates, and the fact that he whispers the grievance out of earshot shows the level of respect he holds toward me.
I turn to face him and see his disgruntled face. I put my hand on his shoulder, as I've grown accustomed to doing with most of these men when I address them. I grab his shoulder as if he is my brother by blood. Firm yet endearing. "They cannot kill what is already dead," I say, repeating the motto that has become the unofficial mantra for GHOST squadron.
"I love you Vaun, but this is fucking suicide," Baxter said, the sound of his voice now raising above a whisper. "Every day and every night them damn dogs have been fenced in around the city's perimeter. You're fucking crazy if you think they just disappeared into thin air. Somethin's up, and I love y'all too much to lose you tonight. We are GHOST. We get to pick and choose our battles, and this—"
"If we don't do this now, it will another five years before someone finds him. All those women and children in the brothels, think of how many more the Warlords will turn for a profit if we don't finish what we started tonight?"
"GHOST will finish what we started without you. This is your last mission, not ours. We will regroup and reassess. But you owe it to Maev and Harper to come home alive tonight, and we're going to see that you do," Baxter announced, this time loud enough for those around to hear. It was a break in his character, to see him care so deeply for someone other than himself. Baxter is a shithead. Has never been one for talking unless the talk was filled with obscenities and redneck slander.
But he now talks to me as if I am the husband and father he's come to admire. That man isn't the ghost that stands before him. His words fall on the ears of a cold-blooded killer. One who has flipped the switch long minutes before all this talk of retreating. The man he speaks to intimately will not turn back.
The monster he speaks to now is the hollow shell of a man. I grip his shoulder tighter, pulling him in close so he can smell the intensity on my breath. Our eyes lock, and I can sense that my glare intimidates him. Why wouldn't it? He looks into the eyes of a monster.
"Dog or no dogs, I am finishing what we started. If you want to see me home alive, you will come with me and watch my six." My words burn into him. I watch the noticeable transformation his face makes as his brain realizes that we are still going in. I won't hear another word of protest out of him, that much is certain. He respects me too much to stand here and bicker. He loves me too much to see me home in a body bag.
For how complex the layout of this island is, the plan is relatively simple. Without Nixon and Cane, there are eight of us. Sheridan will stay here and work to hack into the central database—the mission's success is contingent on Sheridan. Subtract Nico, who will be working on gaining access to a getaway vehicle. That leaves six of us.
Three teams of two. Two will go to the entrance in the middle of the city—a private elevator located in the largest tower within the vicinity. That is where the island's surface-dwellers may gain access to the Underworld. That is where Baxter and Zen go. The other entrance is a cave tunnel, located approximately a mile from where we stand. That is where Hux and Sunder go. They are to barricade those entrances at all costs. Nothing gets in—or out—during this operation.
Matthews and I will be making our own entrance—what we hope will be the only access point to the underground sanctuary during the mission. One that will be uniquely familiar to us—our own little slice of recognization during the storm to come.
Contrary to popular belief, the rich bastards that inhabit this island are still human. They piss and shit like the rest of the human population. And all that piss and shit has to go somewhere.
Buildings this size will have an intricate plumbing system, but it doesn't take an engineer to know where it's all flowing. Excess waste from above ground or below ground—it matters not. The grey water will certainly flow into the ocean. And Matthews and I will be the ones swimming upstream.
We are shit trout. Or at least that's the name our gracious comrades have come to assign us. For weeks we have been studying the art of underwater welding and learning how to navigate the complex innerworking of a tunnel's notorious twisting and turning.
It will be a gravity-fed tunnel system, so the tunnels will be sloped so the grey water can naturally flow into the ocean. But rest assured, the tunnels will lead to viable access point to the Underworld. A contingency entrance where staff can access the plumbing should something go awry.
All six of us will converge upon the Underworld at the same time. We have no knowledge of what it will be like down there, so we are armed heavy and ready to take out anything with a heartbeat. We must assume that all present upon this island are guilty by association. The Geneva Conventions hold no weight here. There are no civilians present upon this hellish land. Only devils and monsters.
And we will treat them accordingly.
"Sheridan, what's your status?" I ask, looking at the coder's makeshift setup. He uses his backpack as a table, his fingers rattling off the keys of his laptop faster than the bullets that will soon fire from our rifles.
"Thrawn's mainframe operates on a Vogart System," he says, not looking up a single moment from the computer screen.
"Meaning?" I ask.
"Have you ever seen those spy movies that have a laser security system that protects a big shiny diamond?"
"It's like that, but in the digisphere. I don't have the mental gymnastics to jump through these metaphorical lasers. They're there to trip whatever unwanted presence is trying to break in. And what's even worse, they don't even have a mainframe for me to break into," Sheridan announces. If hacking is as hard as he says it is, the fact that he carries on a conversation with me in the midst of it is astonishing.
"What do you mean there is no mainframe? There must be some central database linked on the grid?"
"It's called a fractured mainframe. Means they've shattered the mainframe into pieces and scattered them into the digital wind. It is like shards of glass floating in the wind. But if you move around them, you should be able to get to a certain angle where they form a picture. Bingo! Found it. You know, no one uses these fucking things anymore because of how much power it takes to keep them up and running. Damn bastards must go through several hundred kilowatt hours a month," Sheridan says, finally looking up from his computer to me. He has a smile on his face. He doesn't fight the same war we do. He is the next generation of soldiers.
The war is moving online. Cyber attacks. Cybersecurity.
A single person can collapse an entire economy with a hundred dollar laptop and enough mental grit. Everything is digital. We build digital replicas of ourself online. Our money, our power, our identity—it's all in the cloud. And people like Sheridan—well, all we can do is be glad they're willing to protect us.
Because there are those who could shut down the power grid with the press of a single key. Many in America have forgotten what it's like to live without power. Don't know what a dark refrigerator means. Rotten food. Don't know what it's like when the lights go out. Bedtime at seven. Don't know what it's like to not carry cash. An electronic bank statement carries no weight when there is no power.
Sheridan is the next wave of soldiers, and by the time he is my age he will be fighting a completely different kind of war. Hackers attacking each other from cyber trenches. Digital guerrilla warfare. A war to gain access over an enemy's nuclear power. A war to corrupt the stock market. To siphen knowledge of vulnerabilities in a line of defense.
Knowledge is power, and most countries now store it all conveniently in the cloud. Where anyone competent enough can find it. Steal it. Use it against us.
Yet Sheridan looks up at me, smiling.
He most likely won't fire his weapon tonight. He has already fired another kind of weapon. One not seen in our tangible world. Sent shots into the digisphere that will give us a leg up tonight. An advantage that will make us move like ghosts.
"You are all now invisible to the cameras, so long as you wear the ghost masks," Sheridan announces, his boyish voice sounding so innocent. A lot of people are going to die tonight, and his voice doesn't reflect that. He has already seen so much. More than any nineteen year old ever has. Yet there is still a tinge of innocence in him. This war hasn't destroyed him yet. Hasn't tainted his character. But it will. And I'm just glad I won't be there to see it when it happens.
"You heard the man. Masks up. Matthews with me. Bravo and Charlie, proceed to course," I say. I press down on the radio coms, "Nixon, Cane. We are going in. Fins wet in 60 seconds."
"Copy that, GHOST leader," Nixon radios back.
"We'll be your eye in the sky. Now go get this bastard," Cane echos.
I look to Baxter and Zen. "Well men, we thought getting past the dogs was going to be the hardest part of the night. You must have a guardian angel, because your night just got a helluva lot easier. No dogs. You're invisible to the cameras. Now you just have to avoid being seen by the naked eye. You have a cake walk lined out for you all the way to the elevators."
I look to Hux and Sunder. "Wait on my call to collapse the cave. I don't want ANY alarms going off before Matthews and I make it through the tunnels, copy that?"
They both give a firm nod of apprehension. The four of them slip their GHOST masks on. The metallic skull pattern on the face of it is now undetectable to the island's cameras, thanks to Sheridan. He has uploaded its profile to the facial recognition database and told the cameras to erase its wearer from detection.
I strip my pack and clothes in a matter of seconds, revealing the wetsuit I wear beneath. Slip on my fins and pull my pack back on. I pull on a pair of goggles, looking at Matthews as he does the same. I give him a thumbs up. He returns it. The nervousness that bubbles like acid at the bottom of my stomach subsides as my feet make contact with the frigid waters.
My back is to the surf as I look at my men for one final second. They are a fearsome sight to behold, and I fear for those who dare to stand before them.
Do they feel fear like I do? Or do they just conceal it better than me?
"We are ghosts," I announce, raising my fist beside my shoulder as a form of saluting my men. "And they cannot kill what is already dead," I finish. My men return the salute, six fists raising to meet mine. "Now let's go make history."
I turn alongside Matthews to face the incoming waves, placing my scuba mouthpiece over my mouth. We walk together, letting the cold caress of the ocean overcome us. And then, we vanish like ghosts.
About the author
I am a 22-year-old recent graduate from Mars Hill University. I have a double major in Criminal Justice and Religion & Philosophy. I also played collegiate lacrosse! In my free time you can find me writing fiction and hiking with my dog.