Free Fall: The Free Prequel to Hidden Order

July 26, 2013

Gulf of Aden

Indian Ocean
Just off the Somali Coast

Through the hazy-green of Scot Harvath’s night-vision goggles, it looked like an illusion. The infrared markers, which had been carefully laid out on the rear deck of the ship beneath him, should have been floating — rolling with the swell of the ocean — waiting for him, not racing up to meet him like tracer fire. He was coming in way too fast.

He’d had no choice. The wind had changed, and coming in quickly was the only way to keep up with the speed of the enormous vessel. There was no other way to do this. It had to be tonight.

They might wait weeks for another moonless night like this, but by then, all the hostages could be dead.

It had to be tonight and it had to be moonless, because that was the only way a dangerous, borderline-psychotic insertion like this could ever possibly work.

Most of the operators Harvath had approached had simply shaken their heads. You didn’t parachute onto a supertanker in the middle of the night, in the middle of a shark-infested ocean, and you didn’t do it with only four guys and expect to take control of the vessel. You used a minimum of eight guys and you snick up on the hijackers by using one of their own resupply boats. That was how you took pirates by surprise. At least, that was what the previous team had thought.

The supertanker Sienna Star was a vessel owned by a Maltese shipping conglomerate, crewed by Greeks, and insured out of the United Kingdom. Politically, its hijacking was a maritime nightmare. The government most responsible for resolving the standoff was the Maltese, but it had no firepower in the Indian Ocean.

In response to the exorbitant ransom demand, the insurance company had stepped up and sent in a team it had used in similar hijackings. The results this time, though had been disastrous. The team had not only used the same tactics they had employed in the past, but they assumed their enemy was unsophisticated, and they discounted the hijackers’ ability to network and trade intelligence with other pirates. When the rescue team showed up, the Somalis were ready for them.

The attempt not only failed, but the pirates were so angry, they executed the ship’s navigator as a warning against any future attempts. They also increased their ransom demand, ratcheting it above the conglomerate’s coverage.

The insurance company recommended that the shipping company put up the difference and that, together, they pay the hijackers off. But although the owners of the Sienna Star were ready to spend money, there was no way in hell they were going to do so to buy back their own ship.

They knew all too well that if they paid this time, there’d be another hijacking in the future, and another after that. Someone needed to send a crystal-clear message that their ships, and more important, their crews, were not to be trifled with.

The key to getting that message across would depend on bringing in the right messengers. On paper, the insurance company’s team had been good, but they needed the best. The Sienna Star’s owners wouldn’t tolerate any more mistakes, nor would they tolerate another single crew member dying.

It took the shipping company forty-eight hours to find the men they were looking for. There was a group based in Northern Virginia headed by a distinguished former Central Intelligence Agency operative named Reed Carlton. Carlton had created the CIA’s counterterrorism center in the 1980’s and now helmed his own boutique, private intelligence and counterterrorism organization. The Carlton Group was exorbitantly expensive, but it had an impressive pedigree and guaranteed something none of the other private contracting firms would — results. Carlton promised that if his team wasn’t one hundred precent successful, the shipping company wouldn’t owe them a dime. It was an offer the Sienna Star’s owners couldn’t refuse.

Harvath thought the terms the Old Man, as he referred to Carlton, had offered were nuts. There was no way anyone in their business could guarantee a job like this, and Carlton knew it. The problem, though, was that their firm had just suffered a tremendous loss, and they needed the business. In a crazy turn of events, they had been so good at their job that Carlton and his top operators had recently been targeted for assassination. Harvath and the Old Man had survived, but they had lost their best people. Without operators to carry out assignment, the Carlton Group was hamstrung and the Department of Defense had cancelled their contract.

Now, while they tried to care for the families of their deceased colleague, they had to scramble to bring in revenue. They needed a big payday to help get the Carlton Group back on its feet.

To that end, the old Man had dreamed up the biggest price tag he could for this assignment and then doubled it. He’d done his homework and not only knew about the prior failed rescue attempt, but also what the pirates demands were. He also knew that the insurance company wanted to give in.

All things considered, Carlton’s offer was a steal. The fact that the client had to pay only if the assignment was successful was the icing on the cake. The supertanker’s owners had jumped on it.

Harvath, though, had reservations. It wasn’t that recapturing a supertanker taken by Somali pirates didn’t appeal to him. It did. With an extensive counterterrorism background in the SEALs and then the Secret Service and DHS, this was the kind of action he both trained for and lived for. It was something that, once it got into your bloodstream, was nearly impossible to purge.

But while fitter, faster, and more adept than men half his age, he was entering his early forties and knew all too well that life was eventually going to catch up to him. As long as it wasn’t tonight, he’d deal with that question later.

Right now, he was speeding toward earth like an astroid and needed to create as much drag as possible in order to slow down. Plunging the toggles of his cute toward his boots, he locked out the muscles in his arms. As the canopy flared, his muscles burned and it felt as if the cords would rip right out of the fabric.

He came in hard and ugly, slamming into the deck and being dragged for several feet. To the untrained eye, it looked like the work of a total amateur, but Harvath was anything but an amateur. He had made more jumps under adverse conditions than he could remember. Only someone with a similar background could appreciate how complicated it was to pull off such a landing.

Harvath quickly collapsed and then released his chute. After putting off the harness, he bundled it all together and three it in a ball over the side and into the ocean.

Taking up his position, Harvath heard a voice over his earpiece. “Next time, I’ll just paint a handicapped parking stall. Would that be easier for you to hit?”

The voice belonged to his teammate Matt Sanchez. Without taking his eyes off the six-story superstructure in front of him, Harvath raised his left hand and extended his middle finger.

“Nice, Norseman. Now let’s see if you can count to two,” Sanchez snarked from his position across the deck.

was Harvath’s call sign. Sanchez’s was Streak. He was a good kid and Harvath liked him. He had not only been a SEAL, like Harvath, but he was an incredibly accomplished parachutist. He had been on the U.S. Navy’s Leap Frogs parachute demonstration team and as a SEAL had conducted some of the most challenging parachute insertions into enemy territory ever attempted. The kid had brass balls, and considering that this jump was an eleven on the one-to-ten difficulty scale, he was the perfect choice to hit the deck first and place the IR markers for the rest of the team.

Looking up, Harvath could make out the approaching figure of former Delta Force operator Pat Kass and gave a warning to Sanchez over the radio, “Next package inbound.”

Kass, known by his call sign, Punch, seemed to have judged the speed of the ship better, and was coming in more slowly than Harvath had.

He landed solidly on the deck, but lost his balance and had to catch himself with one had — a situation called “picking up change,” which would have cost a jumper point on a demonstration team, but was nothing short of outstanding under these circumstances.

After collapsing, collecting, and jettisoning his chute and harness over the side, Punch took up his position.

Before leaving for the Indian Ocean, the team had spent two weeks training on an almost identical American tanker in the Gulf of Mexico. They ran through every possible scenario until they not only had an excellent working grasp of the ship, but also of each other. It wasn’t nearly enough time, of course, but it was all they had, and it was better than nothing.

“All good, Punch?” Harvath asked the burly man from North Carolina.

“I think I forgot my cigarette,” he replied, patting his pockets.

Harvath shook his head and laughed.

    Kass, like the last jumper they were now waiting for—another former Delta operator, John Dean, aka Wiggy—had served on the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team, as well as the Special Operations Black Daggers team. Kass and Dean were a few years older than Harvath but completely squared away, and had seen their share of tough jumps. This was one they’d tell their grandchildren about someday.

Glancing skyward, Sanchez was the first to pick up Dean as he descended toward the ship. “Last package inbound.”

Harvath and Kass looked up.
It took a moment to make him out. With their dark parachutes, blackened faces, and dark tactical clothing, they were intentionally difficult to spot.

“He’s coming in too fast,” said Kass. “Slow up, Wiggy. Slow up.”

Harvath could see that Dean was fighting the same battle he had on his jump. It was very hard to gauge both the wind and the speed of the ship.

“He’s going to drill right through the deck!” Sanchez exclaimed.

Because they didn’t put their earpieces in until after they landed, there was no way the men on the ship could warn their teammate.

While Kass kept repeating slow up, Harvath said a silent prayer.

Then, they all watched as John Dean not only came in too fast, but missed the landing zone entirely.

No one knew if he was in the water or not, but if he was, he was as good as dead. Breaking ranks, Kass ran to the railing.

The aft portion of the Sienna Star behind the tanker’s superstructure was composed of the open-air deck where Harvath, Sanchez, and Kass had landed, as well as an additional, extremely narrow deck one level down that jutted out at the very rear of the ship.

Coming in as hot as he had, Dean had needed to buy time to slow down—even if only milliseconds. Realizing this, he had made a judgment call and chose to land on the lower deck. What he hadn’t counted on was slamming into one of the ship’s mooring winches.

“Punch, give me a SITREP . Over,” ordered Harvath as he and Sanchez kept their suppressed MP7 submachine guns trained on the superstructure. SITREP was code for Situation Report.

Kass studied the situation and responded, “He made it. He’s one level below, but it looks like he may be injured. Over.”

Damn it, Harvath said to himself. There was no outside staircase to the lower deck, which meant there was no way to get to Dean without entering the superstructure and using an interior stairwell. That wasn’t going to happen. The entire operation relied upon speed, surprise, and violence of action. They couldn’t waste the surprise portion on rushing inside to get to an injured teammate. The surprise needed to be saved for hitting the pirates and rescuing the crew.

“Is he conscious?” Harvath asked.

“I am,” replied Dean, who had placed his bone microphone into his ear and was now transmitting.
Harvath could hear the pain in his voice. “Wiggy, what’s your status?”

There was a long pause before the man answered. “I hit a winch. My knee’s all messed up. Over.”

“Can you walk? Over.”

“Barely,” said Dean, gritting his teeth as he released his parachute and began to struggle out of his harness. “Over.”

Harvath, like any operator worth his salt, had wanted to take the ship with more men. But because of the difficulty in staggering the jump and getting the entire team on target, he’d been forced to settle for four. Dean would be no good to them if he couldn’t move effectively. As tough as the Delta operative was, barely being able to walk wasn’t going to cut it. They’d have to assault the superstructure without him.

“Find some cover down there and stay put until we come for you. Understood? Over,” ordered Harvath.

Dean didn’t like it, but he knew it was the right call. “Will do,” he replied with a groan, adding, “And when you’re done splashing those skinnies, bring me back an ice pack and some Percocet.”

Skinnies was the sobriquet U.S. service members had been using for Somalis since before the battle of Mogadishu, made famous by the film Black Hawk Down.

“Roger that,” Harvath responded. Their team was now officially down to three.

Via a small drone, hand-launched from a support boat sitting out of the pirates’ radar range for the past week, Reed Carlton’s intel people had been conducting reconnaissance on the tanker. In addition to knowing all of the pirates’ movements, they had been able to estimate their strength. At best guess, there were six to ten pirates on board, as well as an additional man brought in specifically to pilot the ship.

Eleven to three weren’t the best odds, but Harvath and his team still had surprise on their side, and that counted for a lot.

Turning his attention to their next course of action, Harvath said over his radio, “We’re go for Galveston.”

Galveston was code for their contingency plan if one of them was injured or didn’t make the landing. They’d trained for it repeatedly before leaving the U.S. Now, instead of splitting up into two teams, the three remaining men would form one. Clearing the ship would take twice as long, but they had been left with no choice.

Signaling for Sanchez and Kass to follow, Harvath crept forward across the deck.

He pulled up short, just outside a hatchway that led into the six-story superstructure. Sanchez would be the first to go in. He was not only the youngest member of the team, he was also its best shooter.

Testing the handle on the heavy steel door and confirming it was unlocked, Harvath held up three fingers. Sanchez and Kass got into position. When they were ready to go, Harvath counted down to one and quietly eased the door open.

Once it had swung far enough, Sanchez slipped inside. No sooner had he done so, than he radioed, “Contact,” as he depressed his trigger and loosed two suppressed rounds from his MP7. “Tango down.”

Harvath and Kass entered the gangway and saw one of the young Somali pirates slumped against the wall at the far end. Both rounds had struck him right above the bridge of his nose. He had been killed instantly.

He was wearing sandals, a muted sarong known as a macawis, a blue T-shirt, and a brown turban. A battered AK-47 hung from a frayed olive drab sling around his neck.

Creeping farther inside, they found two more similarly kitted-out pirates. Sanchez dispatched the first and Harvath the second. All of the dead Somalis had been chewing leaves of khat—a plant native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula known for producing stimulant and euphoriant effects. It was widely abused throughout Somalia. In fact, the Somali military even included it as part of their soldiers’ daily rations, because it not only functioned as an appetite suppressant, it also reduced the amount of sleep soldiers needed and ramped up their aggression.

The drug had two additional features, and those features had played havoc with Harvath’s plan to take the ship tonight. Within twenty-four hours of being harvested, the khat plant rapidly lost its potency. Its consumption also induced dryness, which caused users to consume large amounts of liquids. Those two factors meant that the pirates on the Sienna Star were in constant need of resupply for their habit.

On average, the pirates were sent a resupply boat from their base of operations every thirty-six to forty-eight hours. The last thing Harvath wanted to do was conduct his operation with a khat delivery pending, but he’d had no choice. Tonight was the only night there’d be sufficient cloud cover to attempt their jump unseen. They would have to deal with the supply boat if and when it became a problem.

After stashing the weapons taken from the dead pirates, they proceeded to an interior stairwell and cleared the next two levels, but those levels contained neither hostages nor pirates. They had to keep going.

Harvath looked at his watch as the team took a moment to catch its breath. The resupply boat, along with its armed crew, was going to arrive sometime in the next hour to hour-and-a-half. They needed to wrap this up and be in control of the ship before that happened.

Flashing Sanchez and Kass the thumbs-up, Harvath took point and led the men up the stairwell.

They were about to crest the fourth story landing, when Harvath heard voices and signaled for his team to freeze. It sounded like at least three men, and they were arguing in Somali. Over what, Harvath had no idea, but it was an opportunity they weren’t likely to get again.

He gestured quickly to Sanchez and Kass as to what he wanted. When they nodded in return, Harvath led them onto the landing and stopped.

Taking a deep breath, he counted to three, exhaled, and spun out into the hall.

Less than twenty feet away, three of the pirates were squatting on the floor, playing a traditional Somali board game called Shax. Harvath drilled all three of them with two shots apiece. Six rounds in less than two seconds. None of the men even had a chance to reach for the rifles propped up against the wall behind them.

Two doors down, the team found the crew being kept in a recreation room. There was only one pirate with them, and Harvath nailed him with two shots to the chest and one to the head.

While Kass stood guard at the door, Harvath and Sanchez assessed the hostages and then identified each of them via the photographs they had been issued. The dead navigator’s photo was X’d out. Part of their assignment, though, was to secure his body for repatriation, but they could do that later. Right now, they needed to make sure every crew member was present and accounted for. They weren’t. One was missing.

“Where’s your captain?” Harvath asked.

The ship’s engineer, who spoke English with a thick Greek accent, replied, “They took him.”

“Took him where?”

“Off the ship.”

Harvath looked at the engineer more intently. “When?”

“After the first rescue attempt,” the Greek replied.

“Son of a—” began Sanchez, but Harvath interrupted him. His antennae were up. The team had been discovered before even getting close to the ship. They had been lucky to escape with their lives.

“How do you know about any rescue attempt?” Harvath asked.

“Mukami told me.”

“Who’s Mukami?”

“He’s their engineer from Kenya. The pirates brought him to captain the ship. There have been some mechanical issues. He asked me to help. He speaks English.”

“And while working together, that’s when he told you about the rescue?”

The Greek nodded. “Did he tell you where they took your captain?”

“To the pirates’ port.” “Where specifically in the port?” The Greek shrugged. “He just said the captain was their insurance policy against another rescue attempt and that the pirates took him to their village.”

This was beyond bad. The owners of the Sienna Star had been very clear. Harvath and his team were to not only rescue the tanker, but the entire crew. That most definitely included the captain.

Right now, though, Harvath had a bigger headache. There were still two levels above them that needed to be cleared and their occupants dealt with. He rapidly interviewed the Greek for any useful intelligence he had on who occupied the floors above them.

Based on what the man had seen, it sounded like there were only three pirates remaining, including their leader, a young man named Abuukar. The Greek claimed he was easy to spot because he spoke English and, unlike the other Somalis, wore a New York Mets cap instead of a turban.

He had appropriated the captain’s quarters for himself, as well as the large desk on the bridge, from which he could place satellite phone calls and handle all the ransom negotiations with the shipping company.

Harvath was confident he would recognize the pirate simply from his voice. He had been played recordings of the young man’s phone call. Abuukar was not only arrogant, but particularly sadistic in what he had threatened to do to the crew if his demands were not met. He was the reason that the Sienna Star’s owners had decided to redouble their efforts to have their ship recaptured. They had made it quite clear that no tears would be shed if Abuukar never left the supertanker alive. According to the Greek, it was Abuukar who had pulled the trigger and murdered the Sienna Star’s navigator.

As the crew members all had prior military service, Harvath chose the first three who stood up, and handed them the AK-47s taken from the dead pirates in the hallway. He then left them under Kass’s command as he and Sanchez made their way to the stairs.

They found two more Somalis on the next level, eating. Harvath shot one and Sanchez the other. If the Greek engineer was right, that left only Abuukar and Mukami, who should be on the bridge at the very top level.

There were multiple ways to access the bridge, and Harvath decided that he and Sanchez should split up. From the level they were on, Sanchez could step outside and take one of two metal staircases leading to the deck wrapping around the bridge. Harvath would come up via an interior staircase. Synchronizing their assault, they inserted fresh magazines into their weapons and parted ways.

Harvath moved quickly down the hallway and into the stairwell. Once Sanchez was in place, he transmitted three quick clicks over his radio. It was time to hit the bridge.

Harvath crept silently up the remaining stairs. Reaching for the bridge hatch, he tested to make sure it was unlocked and then whispered the command to launch the assault, “Go!”

Pulling the door open, he button-hooked onto the bridge, sweeping his weapon from side to side, taking in everything all at once.

He ID’d both Mukami, the Kenyan engineer, and Abuukar, the Somali pirate.

Sanchez came exploding through the door on the port navigation deck as Harvath advanced on Abuukar, yelling, “Drop the weapon! Do it now!”

As the Somali fumbled to pick up his AK, Harvath splintered the desk he was sitting at with rounds from his MP7. “Hands up!” he yelled. “Do it now! Do it now!”

Slowly, Abuukar complied.

“If you fail to follow any of my orders, I will kill you,” said Harvath. “Do you understand? If so, nod your head.”

Abuukar nodded.

“Keep your hands in the air and stand up. Do it now!”

Abuukar did as he was told.

“Take three steps to your left, away from the desk. Do it now!” Harvath commanded.

Once Harvath had the Somali where he wanted him, he directed the pirate to assume an arrest posture, with legs spread, bent at the waist, weight on the balls of his feet, and arms out and swept back like an airplane. Sanchez ordered Mukami to do the same.

“If either of you make even the slightest move, you will be killed. Do you understand?”

When both of them nodded, Harvath signaled for Sanchez to secure his weapon and then step in and FlexCuff each of the men.

Removing the Somali’s AK-47, Harvath sat Abuukar back down at the desk as Sanchez took Mukami to the other side of the bridge.

“How many men do you have on board with you?” Harvath asked.

Without hesitation, the pirate proclaimed, “Fifty!” Harvath smiled and struck him with an open-handed slap, knocking the Mets cap from his head. The blow stung and brought tears to the man’s eyes.

“Let’s try again,” said Harvath. “How many men?”

“Twenty,” replied Abuukar, until he saw Harvath begin to draw his hand back. “Nine. I have nine men with me,” he corrected.

Harvath was adept at reading microexpressions, what poker players often referred to as “tells.” A microexpression was a subtle facial cue that indicated when a person was under stress either from lying or because of an intent to do harm. Harvath now had a baseline with which to read the Somali.

Activating his radio, he gave Kass a quick update and suggested he take two of the crew to retrieve Dean and begin tending to his injuries.

Then, turning back to Abuukar, he asked, “Where’s the ship’s captain?”

“We have him someplace safe.”

Harvath didn’t like that answer. Grabbing the Somali by the back of his neck, he slammed his head forward into the table.

There was the crack of cartilage as the pirate’s nose broke. Blood began to flow, staining his shirt. Harvath grabbed him by his collar and righted him in the chair.

He had interrogated plenty of very bad people over the course of his career and, in some extreme cases, had even tortured people. He had never lost any sleep over it, though, and no matter what road this particular interrogation took, he wouldn’t lose sleep over it either. That was because Abuukar wasn’t just a pirate; he was a murderer. He had murdered a man with a wife and two children for no other reason than to send a message. Harvath was considering returning the favor, but not until he had squeezed every last drop of information he could from the pirate.

Harvath spoke slowly and deliberately. “Where is the captain?”

The Somali still appeared dazed from having his head slammed into the desk and could only mumble. Harvath leaned in to better hear what the man was saying. He’d made it only halfway when he realized his mistake.

Abuukar reared his head back and spat a frothy mix of blood and saliva, narrowly missing Harvath’s face by only a fraction of an inch.

Harvath hated spitters. Normally, he would have knocked a guy out for doing that, but not this time. The last thing in the world he had any intention of touching without a ten-foot pole and a level-four hot-zone suit was a bleeding Somali.

Harvath found a roll of duct tape in one of the desk drawers and used it, along with the pirate’s New York Mets cap, to fashion an improvised spit shield and secure it over the man’s face.

“Now, you either tell me where the captain is, or I’m going to tie a rope around your neck and feed you to the sharks. Your choice.”

The arrogant Somali was indignant, and his eyes burned into Harvath’s like two hot coals.

Harvath stared right back, never once averting his gaze.

“I know where he is,” the Kenyan suddenly offered from the other side of the bridge.

Harvath looked at him and then back at the Somali pirate. “Does he?” he asked. He could see the distress in the pirate’s face and it made him smile. Using the duct tape to secure the Somali to his chair, he stated, “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.”

As Harvath walked across the bridge, Abuukar yelled threats at Mukami from behind his spit shield, chronicling what would happen to him if he revealed anything at all.

Harvath wasted no time. “Where’s the captain?”

“They took him to port,” the Kenyan engineer replied.

“We already know that. Tell me something we don’t know.”

“The pirates have a house. It is surrounded by a high wall. That’s where they’re keeping him.”

“Do you know where this house is?”

Mukami nodded.

“Will you take us to it?”

“Do you promise not to kill me?”

Harvath nodded.

“Will you pay me?”

The man was pushing his luck, but Harvath wasn’t averse to making a deal. “If you cooperate, I think that could be arranged.”

“We will need a smaller boat. This ship will not fit in their port. It is much too big.”

Harvath had no intention of taking the Sienna Star any closer to the Somali coastline.

“Do you have other men with you?” Mukami continued.

“Other men with guns?”


“A small boat is coming out from the port tonight bringing supplies. My cousin is supposed to relieve me. He will be on it. If you and your men can take that boat, we can get you into the port.”

“And to where the captain is?”

Mukami nodded, and Harvath searched his face for any sign that he wasn’t telling the truth. He couldn’t detect one.

“Do we have an agreement?” the Kenyan asked.

Harvath looked at his watch. The resupply boat was going to arrive soon, and when it did, they’d not only have to be in position, they’d have to have their entire plan of attack ready.

Everything was picking up speed. When things moved this fast, that was when mistakes were made and people got killed.

A member of his team was already injured, and now Harvath was considering sailing right into the middle of a hornet’s nest. The one thing he had going for him, though, was that sailing straight into the hornet’s nest was the last thing the pirates would ever expect.


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