Going Deep

Image: Royal Australian Navy

The following story was written by Saku. This piece is a finalist from the Art of Future Warfare project’s “After the War” war-art challenge. This is Saku’s third story selected as a finalist entry. His story The Indian Defense was a finalist in the project’s contest calling for stories exploring conflict in space during the 2090s and Pacific Plunged Into The Abyss was a finalist in a contest depicting a news account from the outbreak of a future “Great War.”

The skinny man with the assault rifle caved in the five-year old’s skull with one blow. Signaling with his assault rifle, the smuggler ordered the parents to throw the dead child over the gunwale. The wooden dhow, which was dangerously overcrowded, sat low in the water, and rolled with the swells on the humid night. Nobody said anything. There was absolute silence as two hundred pairs of eyes turned away. The pirate kicked at the mom and dad, frantically indicating to them to dump the body. His partner stood next to him, finger on the trigger of his shotgun, scanning the cargo for any sign of resistance. He was sweaty and shirtless, wearing just shorts and sandals.

The father, fearing for the safety of his wife, muttered a quick prayer and slid the tiny body over the side, her purple shirt briefly visible on the surface of the water. The girl’s only crime had been crying loud enough for the smugglers to fear the voice would carry over the water to lurking Indonesian patrol boats. Tamboy Sirijintikan looked away like everyone else, desperate just to survive the night, but still managed to furtively watch from sideways glances and remember.

At the back of the dhow the pirate captain steered the boat with a GPS, headed where, nobody knew. The refugees’ original intent weeks or months ago had been to make it to Australia. Now they all just hoped to survive the night.

Tamboy had started his trek three months ago on the Thai / Cambodian border where persistent clashes over a poorly marked border had driven him and many others from the area. It was one of a half dozen conflicts the people on the boat were fleeing. Tamboy was short, only 5’5, and weighed no more than 150 pounds when he started off, now probably twenty pounds less. He was still in surprisingly good shape however compared to the others around him.

From upper Thailand he had headed south and made contact with aid agencies near Bangkok. Not surprisingly, he was quickly swept up into the for profit refugee pipeline which exploited them at every turn. He was shipped south through Thailand at night in sealed cargo trucks, eventually joining refugees from southern Thailand fleeing an intractable Muslin insurgency.

For-profit refugee networks had turned migrants into a 21st Century slave trade. Dealing in refugees could turn a profit. Underage and teen girls were prized above all others, destined to be trafficked in sex tourism hot spots. Healthy males like Tamboy had a good chance of being sent to copper mines in Indonesia or illegal fishing fleets in the sea of Andaman. If not immediately turned into a slave, all a refugee could hope for was years of being a debtor worker in a factory anywhere across South or East Asia. The very old and very young were often killed unless they had relatives who could pay ransoms to buy them back.

For the last three weeks Tamboy and the others on the boat had been held in a locked building near the Thai coast with almost no food while they were sold. The guards beat men and raped some of the women every night. Tamboy was selected one night by the drunk guards. They bet money as to which one could knock him out cold with one punch. Both eyes were almost swollen shut by the time they dragged him back to the room. That night had cost him two teeth.

The refugees who had made it to the holding facility on the coast, pitiful retches from a half dozen conflicts, held onto the slim hope of eventually being shipped to the Promised Land – Australia. It was the only thing which kept all of them going.

Four nights ago armed men herded them into trucks and drove them over back roads to a remote beach, where they were loaded onto the dhow, beaten by the truck drivers and crewmen in turn to keep them cowed. Since then they had sailed south. Tamboy assessed they were in the Java Sea. Tamboy, having an excellent grasp of the region’s geography, and having training in celestial navigation, thought they were headed for Timor-Leste, a major smuggler jumping off point for the run into Darwin.

The excitement of the murder over, the two pirates went back to squatting in the bow, one guarding the cargo, the other watching ahead with night-vision goggles. The cargo settled back into starving, petrified docility. The fact they had been given food only once since setting sale and three sips of water a day meant many of them were close to death regardless of where they were headed.

Hours later a dark hulk loomed out of the night. The guard with the night vision stood up and signaled to the captain. A red light blinked several times from the larger vessel. The cargo, sensing trouble, came to life and started shifting and mumbling on the deck like a herd of cows in a chute waiting for slaughter.

The dhow came aside the derelict commercial fishing vessel. One of the two guards went up the pilot ladder. Soon the pirate captain was on his Thuraya phone haggling over fees. Eventually a price was agreed and the captain indicated for the guard at the front to start sending people up the ladder.

It was a slow and tedious process. Everyone was weak from hunger, thirst, and cramps. Three people fell from the pilot into the water. Nobody tried to save them. As the dhow slowly emptied, the dead began to reveal themselves. Twelve people, including three more children, had died either of thirst or were crushed on the boat from overcrowding. They were ordered thrown overboard. A family of four stepped up to the ladder – father, mother, infant son and twelve year old girl. The guard grabbed the girl, his intentions clear he wasn’t letting her leave the ship. The father tried to intervene and the second guard stepped up and in one quick sweep, slashed his throat with a machete. The man fell back and laid there, bleeding out. The crowd started screaming and the guard with the bloody machete was waving it menacingly at the crowd. Tamboy, realizing the crowd was close to stampeding, which would only lead to the guards opening fire, gently pushed the mother up the stairs while holding the boy in one arm, whispering in her ear to move.

Once at the top more men with cane sticks whipped them while herding them into the hold. It was easily 120 degrees and the air was foul smelling of dead fish and feces. The dhow pulled away with the girl still aboard. Tamboy knew she would never be seen again.

Buckets of tepid water were lowered into the hold and some raw fish was thrown in. People greedily ate and drank and then generally passed out, it being the first time in days they could stretch out. Tamboy joined them after mentally reviewing everything he had seen and heard and filing it away for later.

Tamboy’s group was extremely lucky. The fishing boat was taking them to Australia, although they didn’t know it. Two nights later they were ordered out of the hold and put on motorized life boats. A member of the crew piloted each boat. They headed for an unknown shore, bursting through the crashing surf, where ethnic Chinese men on the beach were there to greet them. Again cane whips herded them into trucks. “Where are we?” people asked each other. The consensus was Timor or Australia. Despite everything, Tamboy started to see some smiles. It reminded him how desperate they truly were.

The trucks drove only for an hour and then the trucks backed up to a loading dock in a commercial building and they were left there in a locked room for the night, only two buckets for all of them for sanitary needs. In the morning men, mostly Chinese but a few Caucasians, showed up. All but two carried guns. They addressed the refugees in Chinese and then English.

Tamboy knew English so he translated for others. They were in Australia! That brought momentary smiles to the crowd. They were there courtesy of the Triad who had paid for their delivery. Those who were able to work would be sent to various Triad-owned factories, brothels, or restaurants to work off their dues. If they could not work they would be held until their families back home, or families already in Australia, could afford the Triad ransom.

The men then interrogated everyone and separated them into those who would work as slaves and those who would be ransomed. Tamboy was put into the slave group and put on another truck and driven into Darwin. There he was sold to a restaurant who kept his ID and locked him in the backroom at night with five others. He worked as a busboy for minimal wages, which were garnished for room and board, putting him in more debt to his “employer.”

He was there three weeks before one night two police officers came in to eat. As he sat glasses of water on the table he looked down, making sure not to make eye contact and said in perfect English under his breath, “Beagle.” He saw the police officer to his right nod almost imperceptibly and mutter the countersign, “Dog Catcher.” Tamboy had made contact! Despite his training he almost started crying.

The police finished their meal a half hour later and left without another look at Tamboy.

Twenty minutes after the restaurant closed, the doors crashed open and thirty Australian Federal Police and Customs officers charged in, raiding the restaurant. The owners were marched out in cuffs. Tamboy and the five other slaves were taken out and put into ambulances to be taken for medical evaluations, being fussed over by med techs and social workers. It just worked out Tamboy got his own ambulance. He climbed in with the help of the med tech and the doors were closed.

Waiting for him in a med tech uniform was his OC, Colonel Harry Handcock, Australian SAS. “Sergeant Sirijintikan, it is a great honor to have you back!” Colonel Handcock said, and being in civilian clothes, held out his hand. Sergeant Sirijintikan shook it with vigor and smiled a (somewhat toothless) smile. Then they hugged. “Thank you sir, it is great to be back home,” he said with an unmistakable Australian accent. Colonel Handcock reached into his sack and pulled out a can of Victoria Bitter. “Thought you might need this, Sergeant,” he said with a smile.

“Bloody hell sir yes sir. That and a shower and a great bloody steak.” He sank onto the bench in the ambulance and took a long pull of the beer. It was heaven and it went straight to his head. He closed his eyes for a second.

“Sergeant you held out longer than almost anyone we’ve inserted in the last five years. It was a job well done. The new model sat tracker in your leg worked perfect. We followed you the whole route. I can tell you several of the holding locations were new to us, as was the fishing ship. We think you exposed most of a whole new route for us into the North Coast. We, ASIO and AFP are all excited to get to the debriefing. But first a medical checkup and a week’s rest are in order.”

“Thank you sir, I’m glad you already view the mission to be so successful. I have a number of individuals I can’t wait to get onto our targeting list.” He thought back to the girls on the dhow. He was looking forward to some payback. He took another long pull and drained the beer. He’d made it back! It had been the hardest mission of his Special Forces career.

For well over a decade the Australian SAS and ASIO had been running covert operations like Tamboy’s through South and East Asia to disrupt regional smuggling networks. Sometimes they fronted the intelligence they gleamed through the AFP for law enforcement action in foreign countries. But more often than not Australian commandos had been creeping up onto isolated beaches at night, or putting charges on smuggler ships in isolated coves, or rolling up to raid safe houses in foreign cities with silenced weapons. A dead smuggler told no tales. Thousands of refugees had been saved, but even more important from an Australian government standpoint, tens of thousands of refugees had been stopped from coming to Australia in the first place.

The use of covert-operations forces had been started by European countries. Frantic to stop the flow of refugees from overwhelming them, Greece was the first to turn to covert operations; sinking possible smuggling boats on foreign shores such as Libya. Slowly the Europeans reached ever deeper into Africa, teams eventually operating as far south as Somalia and the Red Sea.

Actionable intelligence was always the problem. Finally the Brits hit upon the idea of recruiting refugees who had made it to the UK to return to their home countries and enter the smuggling pipeline again, this time as covert agents. Soon after that they started using Special Forces operators under deep cover. Within a few years most West European countries, the United States, and Australia were running covert and pseudo operations to map, target, and disrupt smuggling networks by inserting fake refugees into the network and tracking where they went. It was a dangerous business and many covert agents were killed in the process.

Two Months Later

The pirate captain was in his dhow with another load of cargo. Up front his first mate was using the night vision to look for the fishing vessel. They were almost to the rendezvous point. Soon after the ship arrived and they transferred the cargo. The crew selected their girl and they pushed off. He always let the crew select one girl as a reward.

On the Australian frigate ten miles away Colonel Handcock watched the drone feed of the dhow. They didn’t want to hit the dhow until the refugees were in the larger, more seaworthy commercial vessel. Now only the girl was left. He keyed his mic. “Mission is a go. Cargo has been transferred. One hostage remains. Go get’em.”

Outside the UH-60 lifted off the stern with the SAS assault team on board. It raced through the night towards the dhow as the frigate went to flank speed to intercept the fishing vessel.

On the dhow the captain watched his crew start to play with the girl, pushing her between them and tearing at her clothes, her terrified looks only getting them more excited. Out of the night he thought he heard something which too quickly resolved into a throbbing beat of a helicopter. He started to yell at his crew to kill the girl and grab their weapons when bullets started impacting into them, spinning them as they fell to the deck, dead. The girl screamed and looked at the captain right as a bullet passed through his skull.

“Targets eliminated,” the SAS snipers leaning out the helicopter doors reported over the intercom. “Move in to intercept.”

“Roger that,” came the pilot. He positioned the helicopter over the dhow and two ropes snaked out, followed by four SAS troopers. They quickly reached the girl and got her into a rescue harness. Then they swept the boat for electronics as those could hold vital intelligence. After a quick search of the bodies they set charges and climbed back up into the helicopter on a rope ladder. Once they were all back aboard, the helicopter moved off a couple hundred meters and Sergeant Sirijintikan pushed the detonator switch. A “CRUMP” and flash in the dhow was all they saw and heard. Watching the drone feed on their visor screens, Sergeant Sirijintikan watched with intense satisfaction as the dhow with the pirates sink into the Java Sea.

On the frigate Colonel Handcock turned to his Indonesian liaison officer and nodded. Major Sarin ordered his waiting Coast Guard vessel to also head towards the fishing vessel. Per their agreement, the Indonesians would take all the refugees onto their vessel for repatriation back to Indonesia after the Australians gave them medical attention and checked if there were any refugees with family in Australia. Those refugees, and only those, would be allowed to return with the Australians on the frigate. Colonel Handcock handed over the standard processing fee the Indonesian’s demanded – 10,000 USD in cash, to Major Sarin before he departed for the Coast Guard vessel.

The fishing vessel was boarded by the same assault team from the helicopter. The smugglers were killed by SAS Troopers who moved methodically from bow to stern. Nobody was left alive per the signed covert order from the government for this mission. Often a crew was seized for interrogation purposes, but the testimony of Sergeant Sirijintikan swayed the decision to use extreme prejudice on this mission. It wasn’t the first time the Australian’s had gone for the 100 percent solution. Smugglers in South Asia had to understand the profits came with a price.

After providing medical attention and separating out the eleven refugees with relatives in Australia, the Australian’s transferred the remaining refugees to the Indonesians. The Indonesians would take them back and get them registered with the UNHCR. Some of them might even make it to Australia legally.

The SAS troopers rigged the ship for destruction. Once everyone was clear it was sunk with the crew.

The girl on the dhow would be allowed to proceed to Australia along with her family. Per Australian law, the girl had made it to Australian territory, (the helicopter) so her family could join them. Sergeant Sirijintikan watched the reunion on the flight deck of the frigate at the end of the mission. The troopers stood their stoically watching. They had all read Sirijintikan’s debrief.