Sunday WildCard – The Kildaran, Chapter 46

This is a monster chapter.

Get comfortable. This is gonna take a while to get through.

Seriously, this chapter is massive. Think 90 minutes to read aloud, 14,000 words massive. So massive it just crashed my computer.

So enjoy!

And if you’re also a Cassidy fan, two dates to remember:

July 20 – on Amazon, you can get any of the first four books in the series FREE to celebrate Neilsday.

August 15 – release day for Triumph’s Ashes, which you can pre-order below.


That’s it, click me. Click me good. You want Triumph’s Ashes, you NEED IT.

CHAPTER 46

Tbilisi; The Caravanserai; Various Roads in Georgia; A Hunter’s Track near The Valley

April 15

“Where is he?”

“Patience, Padawan.”

It was near dawn. Cottontail had cat-napped all night, but J had been busy online. He showed no inclination toward moving, however, which was sorely trying her extremely limited tolerance.

“We’ve been here all night, surely you’ve traced him by now?”

“I have.”

Tap.

Tap.

Finger scroll.

Tap.

She wasn’t sure he even blinked as the image changed again, giving his face deep shadows. Another flicker and the shadows moved, but still his face was immobile.

The bland admission infuriated her. She knew she was pushing, but her sleep had been restless, broken by unpleasant flashbacks and nightmares. People she was beginning to think of as friends died in those dreams.

“Then why aren’t we on our way to fuck him over?”

“Backup.”

“Backup? He’s one man!”

“Who escaped both of us in the past.”

“But there are two of us!”

Think, Padawan. Surely the blonde hair hasn’t affected your brain!”

That slowed her. Sarcasm from J was a sure sign. Either she had missed something obvious or she was pushing him too far. Steadying her breathing, she reviewed the exercise of the previous day, added the facts they knew, and only then spoke.

“He’s coming to the Valley with a nuclear weapon. Yield, unknown. Detonation range, also unknown. Likely path, known.”

J nodded and turned back to the tablet.

“And how is he bringing it?”

Oh! “Master, I forgot.”

“An agent cannot afford to let her emotions override her intellect. This was one of your first lessons.”

“Yes, Master. No excuse.” Embarrassed, and a bit angry with herself, she blushed to the tips of her ears.

“Explain what you missed.”

Tap, slide, scroll, tap, tap.

“He cannot be alone, because he is part of a small convoy of multiple vehicles.”

“So at least one driver per vehicle. What else?”

“He’s bringing a nuclear weapon, which will weigh more than one man can reasonably move.”

“False logic, padawan. Not only can a weapon be made small; think ‘suitcase nuke’ -”

She interrupted. “But, Master, we know what was taken from the Russians! There was nothing so small!”

“True, and logical. But what is logic?”

“A way of going wrong with confidence,” she repeated dutifully. He’d drilled this concept into her from the start of her training.

He was continuing.

“Also, we don‘t know if he acquired one from another source. A small weapon would be lost in the signature of the larger and would thereby be virtually invisible to our scans. I regard this as unlikely, though.”

“Why?”

“It is an unnecessary complication. Think. In your encounters with Schwenke, has he ever made the plan more difficult than absolutely necessary?”

She considered this. “No.”

“Nor I. There is another consideration. You assume he would choose to remove the weapon from the vehicle. What is one constant characteristic of Schwenke?”

“People are tools, and therefore disposable; material objects even more so.”

“Precisely. He probably intends to detonate it in place in the transport vehicle. What other evidence exists to show Schwenke is not alone?”

“I am unsure. Other than what visual intel we have gathered, and the fact that vehicles do not customarily drive themselves…” She almost allowed her voice to stray into sarcasm but held back. Just.

He looked disappointed.

“You told me the answer already. ‘People are tools’, and why would he deprive himself of tools?”

She mentally kicked herself. Too easy, too obvious. Her anger, her worry, her desire to get, wait. Home? Was that the word? Really? Yes, home, was blinding her. Perhaps another tack.

“Master, you said ‘backup’. When will this backup be ready? How far from us? How many can we call on? And how will we use them?”

He permitted the change of subject.

“In fact, padawan, it should be available to us,” he ostentatiously consulted his chronograph. “Now.” He cracked a smile.

Cottontail wanted to scream but choked it back. She settled for sticking out her tongue. “Then should I prepare to depart?”

“You should already be prepared, but yes.”

As always, having her failures pointed out angered her, but again she refrained from cursing aloud.

“Yes, Master. Immediately!”

*

“Got ‘em!” Kira Makanee’s voice rang through the Cave. She’d just come back on duty after returning from the ‘Rockpile’ mission and was taking the missing nukes personally.

“Where?” Stella was running the Cave at the moment, Grez finally having crashed after twenty-eight straight hours.

She zoomed in the map on her station.

“Here, just past Norio, bypassing Tbilisi on the M9.” The main screen shimmered and then reflected the data on her console.

“Probable route?” asked Stella, looking at the giant LCD.

“He’s stayed on the major roads,” said Kira, tapping on a few keys. “This is a composite view of their route.”

Made of point sources spread across two full days, it traced the route of the little convoy back through Georgia, Azerbaijan, and into Russia.

“Sneaky bastard, isn’t he? Out in the open but gone around the long way. While we were looking north, he went east.”

“Yep. But we’ve got him now, and we won’t lose him again.” Kira called up yet another screen.

“This is Captain Cheal’s live feed. She just came on station, replacing Captain Steckino, and has legs for another six hours of observation. I hope we don‘t need it that long; he‘s already far too close for my comfort!”

“We’ve got to get this upstairs.”

Tap, tap.

“Done. And sent to J, as well.” She paused. “That’s odd. It looks like he’s receiving the raw data, though what good it will do him without our programs boggles the mind.”

“Good girl! Now it’s up to our boys to nail him. Let‘s show those Rangers what Tigers can do!” She slammed her hand down on a button that would alert the troops in their bays. She winced when she realized how little sleep they’d had since returning. They were warriors, no, soldiers now, which was more dangerous, and they’d deal. She’d suggest some strong coffee before moving out.

“Kira. I’m going to personally update the Kildar. Do not disturb Grez for at least two more hours, and no, I don’t care what she told you. Keep sending updates to the Op room and J, especially if there are any radical changes. Make sure J’s tablet IFF is working and has the current FOF cues; we will not have another blue on blue!”

“Yes, ma’am!“ Kira turned to execute the orders, then turned back. “One thing more?“

“Yes?“

“Don’t forget Dragon; she hasn’t fed lately.”

*

“What’s the plan?”

Mike looked a little bleary-eyed. The look he shot the others ensured any comments about sleeping partners and his current condition were unwelcome. Even the Chief shut up in the face of that glare. For now.

“Best estimate, based on their route history, is this.” Nielson called a detailed map of the area roads onto the display. A bright red line snaked around the M9, up the M3, and then turned east onto the Tilaneti Road. Occasional green dots showed where a positive, matching gamma reading had been made. “Even though the ZIL has serious off-road capability, the GAZ-23s are, essentially, souped-up sedans. They’ve stuck to good roads the entire route we’ve been able to reconstruct, and I suspect it’s an attempt to keep their force intact and minimize breakdowns. No doubt they‘re trying not to leave a vehicle behind before the mission is accomplished.”

“That’s what they’ve done; what do you think they’ll do?” snapped Mike.

“I was getting there, Kildar,” said Nielson, placatingly.

“Sorry. Bad night.” Bad dreams.

“What’s the matter, didn’t you get laid last night? I know the harem’s missed you,” ribbed Adams. Water, duck. It hadn’t even been a minute. But it was an old game which helped them both prepare; it also focused Mike’s anger on the Chief rather than the other personnel.

“Fuck off,” muttered Mike. Adams raised an eyebrow.

“That’s the best you’ve got? You’re not even trying.”

“In any case,” interceded Nielson quickly before things escalated. “I think our best option is to place Pavel’s team here.”

He highlighted a point about halfway between Alerrso and Bukhrala, about a fifteen kilometers south of the Valley proper.

“It’s close enough so we can provide solid support if Schwenke somehow manages to elude or break through, but distant enough to keep our people safe in case he prematurely detonates.”

“Weasel words,” said Vanner. “Rough on the town, too, if the nuke goes off. I think we ought to take him out here,” and he pointed to another location.

“Yes, it’s closer to Zhinvali, which is a much bigger town, but look at the terrain. A winding mountain road, sparsely inhabited, steep inclines to either side? He’ll be trapped. And if he sets off the nuke there, so what? A few mountain goats get killed.”

“The problem I see is it’s a good fifty klicks away from here, at least an hour to get there, plus time to set the ambush, and we’re going to be on minus minutes,” countered Nielson. “If we’re closer to the Valley, we have a better chance of being set.”

“They’re averaging thirty kilometers an hour,” retorted Vanner. “There’s plenty of time to catch them farther away. We can use both birds to bunny hop a short platoon forward, and he‘ll never hear or see a thing.”

“Look,” interrupted Adams, “Why don’t we just get Dragon to hose them down with a few hundred rounds, followed by a shitload of rockets?”

“Because I’ve already dumped one bird after a nuclear blast!” snapped Kacey, who was sitting in.

“In case you haven’t noticed, Chief,” added Mike, “Those Hind-Js aren’t cheap.”

“So? We have a couple hundred mil coming in, we can afford a fucking fleet of them!”

“That’s not the point! The point is I’m not riding a dead bird into mountains! I‘m not taking passengers along for the ride, I‘m not gonna dump a bird, and I’m not going to lose friends and maybe more! Not gonna happen!”

“Shut it!” The pitched contralto cut through the Op room.

All heads turned to Katrina.

“Thank you,” she said much more quietly. “I assume that you wanted to hear my opinion, since you invited me to this meeting?”

“You just sort of showed up,” muttered Adams.

Overriding the Chief, Kat continued.

“I agree with Vanner. And the Colonel. And Kacey. And Michael. And even the Chief.” Seeing the baffled looks, she raised her hand, ticking points off one finger at a time.

“Vanner: We need to intercept them as far from here as possible. Colonel: We don’t have enough time to set a proper ambush there. Chief: An aerial assault will maximize our chances of success. Kacey: I wouldn’t want to crash land in the mountains either. Michael: We don’t want to replace any equipment we don’t have to. I propose we call OSOL and see if we can get a Predator up here to do the job.”

They sat dumbfounded for a moment. Katrina smiled serenely. Stella snuck a wink at her which was returned as Kat brushed her hair back behind her ears before looking innocently around the table again.

“Fuck me, why didn’t I think of that?” was Adams’ comment.

“Got me, Chief. I didn’t think of it either,” admitted Vanner.

“I’ll call OSOL,” said Nielson, leaving the room.

Mike just sat back and smiled proudly. “That was impressive.”

Tammy whispered to Kacey, “When did she become a Captain Jack fan? I thought they just streamed porn?”

“No, that’s just you and the Chief. Speaking of which, when you going to take a run at him? Oof!” Whatever else she was going to say was lost to the elbow planted firmly in her side.

*

“Won’t work,” said Nielson, returning a few minutes later.

“Why not?” asked Mike.

“Too far away to make it here in the time constraints. They‘re all looking over here.” He pointed to the map. ”They were so sure that was the only route, too. Boss.”

When the Kildar looked up, he continued. “When this is all over, you really need to have a little chat with some alphabet soup agencies. If we’d had the gamma scans from the beginning, this wouldn’t be an issue.”

“Fuck! And, yeah, boot to ass time. Guaranteed.”

“It was a good idea,” consoled Kacey, trying to calm both Katrina and the Kildar.

“Right, then,” said Mike. “We go with Dave’s plan. Roll Pavel and his team, set up the assault. Kacey, I want you close enough to be on site quickly, but you don‘t have to stay airborne. Coordinate with Captain Cheal to keep them under observation. Direct feed to you, filtered feed to the ground pounders. Primary consideration, I want to know where he, and the fucking nuke, is at all times.”

“Got it, Kildar.”

“They’ll be rolling in ten minutes,” said Nielson. “Stella got the men up and fed as soon as she got the data. Nice work, by the way.” She nodded in acknowledgement. He turned to the two pilots. “What are you two still doing here? Grab the ready vehicle and shag ass to the flight line!”

They shagged ass.

“Chief, I want you to have two more teams on ready status. Pick ‘em.”

“Probably Vil and Yosif. They‘re the most flexible and had the best trucks on the way back.” He unconsciously rubbed his ass and the small of his back.

“Whoever. Vanner, I want those expensive toys of yours dialed up so high they scream if a mouse farts. If time allows, run a full check from the inner perimeter outward. Lasko, fuck!” He shook his head, remembering too late Lasko was unavailable. “Just when you need him!”

“What about the Mice?” someone squeaked.

“I thought Creata was still away? Wait, how would we know until it was too late?” Neilsen waited for the chuckles to die, then said, “Got it. So, no Mice, no Shota, no Lasko. Hmm. Kildar? One option is to alert the trainers and DI with the Rams, get them in position to guard the serai?”

“Works. Let them earn some pay the hard way. The Gurkhas will eat it up if they get a chance to fight. If not, well, good training.”

“Okay, people, I think we have a plan.”

As everyone filed out of the room, Mike put his hand on his fiancées shoulder. “Kat.”

“Kildar? Something wrong?”

He looked oddly at her. “Kildar? Since when do you call me Kildar again?”

“It just feels right, here and now.”

He dismissed the cold that grabbed his soul. “I need to ask you something, as trainee Priestess. You can bring in Mother Lenka, if you want, after. What do you know about dreams?”

*

“Where is he?” They were in the BMW, and Katya was driving.

“On the M9, about to merge with the M3,” replied J, looking at his laptop.

“He’s just ahead of us?” The car surged forward, engine roaring in the cold mountain air.

“It is too soon for us to catch him,” counseled J.

“Slow down, and take the next exit. That one,” he said as they almost passed it, then grabbed the ‘oh fuck me’ handle as she made two emergency brake-assisted J-turns. They ended up on the exit, only slightly after its intended entrance.

“Is that where Schwenke is going?”

“No, it’s where we are going.” He played with the onboard GPS. “Follow the directions, Padawan.”

She looked over the projected route. “That takes us almost to Akhmeti!”

“Yes, again you show your powers of observation.” The road they were on now was narrower and had more curves. Disconcerting curves. Curves where one side dropped sharply off to nothing, without even a guardrail between them. His grip tightened imperceptibly.

“But that’s not where the Kildar thinks Schwenke is going! Have we been taken off the duty?”

“Not at all; in fact, we haven’t been contacted in several hours.” He continued conversationally. “This is market day, you know. And this road is an untaxed road, which most of the locals use.”

“Then why?” She wove through two carts being pulled by no-longer placid and bored mules. J just saw wide eyes in faces wrapped against the wind and cold. He nodded and shrugged. Not likely any would remember details after trying to restrain their mules.

“All will be revealed,” said J unhelpfully. He dialed his phone. “One moment.”

When the call was answered, he said simply, “Now,” and hung up.

“A little surprise for Kurt,” he said before Katya could ask.

“I hope it’s slow and painful.”

A few moments later, she simply had to ask. “Master? What sort of surprise?”

“Would it be a surprise if you knew?”

“I’m not Schwenke! And it’s not as if I’m going to tell him!”

“Just drive, Katya. And please watch out for those -”

Thump!

Whap!

THUMP!

“Potholes!”

“Oops?” She smiled. J found himself smiling back. He liked her; she was full of surprises –

Thump!

Whap!

THUMP!

Then again, maybe he should just pray they arrive in one piece.

*

The ZIL-E was maxed out, rumbling along in the far-right lane at nearly fifty KPH. If new, it would have been able to hit sixty-five, but time hadn’t been entirely kind to it. Nor had the clandestinely-done maintenance acheived more than restore them to running condition. The four GAZ-23 escorts formed a protective bubble around it, one each positioned to the front and the rear, and the other two covering the left side of the vehicle. Curious motorists passed constantly, peering at the ungainly six-wheeled beast. The nervous mujahideen fingered their hidden AK’s.

Despite their disguises, they were unused to hiding in plain sight. More than one had begun to raise a weapon, only to have another slam it back down. The only warning voiced was, “Ibrahim forbids.” But that was more than enough to keep them in line, for now. It didn’t make them any less nervous, though. In fact, it did the opposite, granting them time to dwell on the news they’d received.

Although Ibrahim had forbade use of the radios, word of Tahan’s defeat, his almost utter destruction, had reached them over a cell phone. In sentences made more difficult to understand by the mountainous terrain the few surviving fighters were traversing the details of the debacle were given before the signal was lost for good.

From one car to another the word spread, even into the ZIL-E.

They were surprised when Ibrahim didn’t object to the calls, or even react to the news in any visible way. His face remained placid.

“It is of no importance,” he reassured the men with him in the ZIL-E; not surprisingly, as close as they were, Ibrahim refused to leave sight of the weapon.

“Tahan and his men are glorious martyrs to Allah, and Allah shall reward them in kind! They have weakened the infidel, allowing our true mission to proceed unhindered! Let us praise Allah and remember Tahan as a true son of the jihad!” He lowered his head, and the others, excepting the driver, followed suit.

Perfect. Fucking stupid Keldara will be busy ‘sanitizing’ the battlefield, confident that they succeeded in defeating the threat. They don’t know what a threat is, but they’ll learn.

His hidden musings were interrupted by the blare of cars’ horns and a screech of ripping metal. The massive ZIL-E shuddered, then seemed to jump. The driver disengaged the drive, then applied the brakes. Behind them, two crumpled shapes were stopping traffic.

“Idiot!” barked Ibrahim at the hapless driver. “What did you do?”

“I did nothing, I swear it!” answered Gamal.

“Then what happened?”

“I do not know! Perhaps one of the other drivers can tell you!”

“It appears that two of our drivers will be answering to Allah,” said one of the other fighters, peering at the two wrecks. “We are missing two cars.”

What could have happened? wondered Schwenke. Realizing the potential for disaster here, he said, “Gamal! Get us moving!”

“But the others -”

“They will follow when they see us moving.”

“No, the men in the wrecks!”

“Allah shall watch out for them,” said Ibrahim.

In fact, he ought to be talking to them right about now, though Schwenke after a single glance in the mirrors revealed the carnage.

“We cannot delay. This is surely a trap laid by Shai’tan. Only our speed can help us escape. Now drive! We cannot afford to deal with the local police, now when we are so close to our objective!”

“Yes, Ibrahim!” The diesels rumbled back to life, and, vibrating a bit, they resumed their travel North.

Witnesses later would generally agree that the accident was entirely the fault of an older model tan Mercedes. The female driver of the Mercedes apparently overtook the odd army vehicles in the middle lane before slamming into the front car and speeding away without another glance. The driver of the impacted GAZ hit the brakes and instinctively swerved away from the impact, into the side of the ZIL-E, before disappearing under one of the oversized wheels and being spit out the side.

The second GAZ’s roof, and the heads of the occupants, was sheared off by the first GAZ spinning out from under the wheels.

There were no survivors, and so nobody to answer questions about the interesting collection of forged papers and military hardware the inspectors eventually dug out of the wrecks.

J’s contact ditched the Mercedes in Tbilisi, where it was quickly stripped down to parts which hit the black market in hours. Of course, she‘d get a cut of that, too, as the mechanics were all cousins of one sort or another. The five thousand Georgian Lari, about two years’ average salary, was already in her bank account.

Female drivers indeed!

*

“Something’s happened,” reported Kira, still on shift.

“Show me.” Grez had returned to the Cave after a few hours’ sleep, but she was the grumpier for it, even more so for missing the meeting.

“Here. All five vehicles, heading north, then,” she shifted screens, “Only three.”

“Did the other two pull over? Take a different road?”

“I think they’re still on the M3. See the traffic backed up?”

“Yes.”

“If I focus in for details…” The picture wavered and changed. “Those look like they used to be GAZ-23s.”

“Can we get some sort of confirmation?”

“I’ll see what I can pull out of the Patruli’s database, though I doubt they‘ve reached the scene yet, not the way the traffic‘s backed up.”

“Too bad they fired the National Police a few years ago; with all the corruption, I’ll be they’d be easier to tap into.”

“The Mice have dug a pretty good tunnel,” amended Kira. “It’s not a question of getting in as much as the Patruli aren’t good at putting data in the system. At least, not as good as we are,” she added with a smile.

“Oh.” Grez thought for a moment. “What about J?”

“What about J?”

“He must have contacts in the Patruli. He is our HumInt guy, after all.”

“I can ask,” said Kira doubtfully. She’d been following his updates; they’d been few and shy on any information. All take and no give.

“No, I’ll ask him. Do we know where he is?” Grez reached for a secure phone.

“Last I knew, he was in Tbilisi.”

*

“Where are we?” asked Cottontail. A large lake was visible on the left, stretching off into the northwest. “Big lake. Wonder why I’ve never been here?”

“That’s called the Tbilisi Sea. It’s a reservoir, and it means we’re getting close to our destination.”

“I still can’t understand why we’re here and where -”

“Wait one, please,” J interrupted as his mobile rang. “J.”

“No, not any longer.” A short silence.

“Yes, a few contacts.” A much longer pause.

“I’ll make some calls. You should hear from someone shortly.”

“Of course, it will be the public line. This is my private line; please keep it that way. Thank you.” He paused again as his tablet downloaded images and smiled.

“Yes, nasty looking. Good-bye.”

Nothing was more frustrating than hearing one half of a conversation, but she’d never quite dared to bug any of J’s devices.

Quite.

Still, she had other methods.

“What was that?”

“Indirect confirmation that Kurt’s gotten a little surprise.”

“That does it!” Cottontail pulled sharply to the side of the road and stopped. “I’m not driving another fucking meter until you tell me what’s going on, what you’ve arranged, where we’re going, and why! I am so sick and tired of your ‘mysterious all-knowing master spy’ bullshit, I can’t even begin to tell you!”

J looked at her with resignation and, was that respect? Something, at least.

“I knew this day would come soon,” he agreed, explaining nothing.

“Stuff the cryptic shit! Damn you, J, this is my life you’re playing with! I know you care more than Kurt does, but right now I feel like a fucking puppet and you’re the puppeteer! What‘s your excuse?”

“I think you’ve cut your strings,” said J. Before she could erupt again, he continued, holding up the smart phone.

“Fair enough. I arranged for one of my contacts to create a little ‘accident’ for Kurt to whittle down his forces somewhat. The call was from Grez, asking first if we were still in Tbilisi, second if I had contacts in the Patruli, third explaining that Kurt’s little group seemed to lose a pair of vehicles, and fourth asking me to have one of my contacts forward their information to her.”

He shifted in the seat. “I believe that answers your first question, ‘what‘s going on‘, and your second, ‘what have you arranged‘. Now then, as to where we are going: we are positioning ourselves to intercept Kurt before he reaches the Valley and incinerates it. And, finally, I think you can deduce the ‘why’, but I shall elaborate. If you start the car again. Time is rather short.”

With white-clenched knuckles, Cottontail resumed driving.

“As we discussed last night, Kurt is nothing if not devious. The obvious must be dismissed from our consideration immediately.”

“I know that -” began Cottontail.

“Since this is the last chance I have to explain things to you, please do me the courtesy of not interrupting.”

“Last?” The word shook her visibly.

“You’re interrupting.” He waited a few seconds before continuing. “Better. Having correctly concluded that he would not approach from the North, or West, and positioned ourselves for interception from the South or East, why would he now take the obvious route?”

“Because it is easier? Or the only one available?”

“How much time have you spent with the mortar teams?” The apparent non sequitur threw Cottontail for a moment before she replied.

“Very little.”

“A definite lapse. You should always take full advantage of the knowledge and abilities of the people around you. Always walk around, talk to people, old, new, visitors, merchants, city folk, villagers and the farmers and hunters too. If you have your own militia, definitely talk to them. Ask lots of questions, without being obvious. I’ve taught you that much already. And most of all, listen. Listen to their stories, their fears, their dreams and let those create new questions to ask. Wisdom comes from always learning. You will never know it all. Never, my dear Katya. Not ever. And yes, someday it will likely kill you, or someone you care about, and there won’t be a damn thing you can do about it. But you should know enough about yourself to know what you don’t. What you are lacking most and how to rectify that fact. Be sure to do so when you have the chance. Before it is too late.”

“But what would mortar layers know of our jobs?”

“Specifically? Nothing. But they have all lived in this Valley all their lives, as have their parents and grandparents and back and back. They heard more about the Valley as an infant than most others have learned in their lives. Take Jessia Mahona. Very intelligent young woman, very thoughtful and deliberate in her actions. Thinks through all the possibilities, then acts on the most likely to create success, without dismissing the others.”

“I know Jessia’s marrying the American,” said Cottontail.

“That, too. But we were discussing the Valley, and alternate entry and exit points. You never know when it might be important to have a back door. She mentioned a disused road running into the Valley from the East.”

“The Pankisi Gorge track? That’s so heavily seeded with Vanner’s sensors that -”

“No, not that overused way. This is a road that parallels the Ilto River from Akhmeta north, past a number of small towns and ends deep in the Caucasus.”

“So?”

“So, there’s a little western spur that extends right into the heart of the Valley, here.” He pointed to his laptop and Katya stole a quick glance. “It’s so overgrown you can’t see it from the ground. According to Jessia it was another smuggler’s track.”

“And you think Schwenke knows about it? Are you completely nuts? Perhaps one or two of the Elders, or Lasko. Did Lasko tell her?”

“I submit it is the least obvious possible route, and therefore the one that will most likely be overlooked.”

“Jessia didn’t tell Schwenke too, did she? How the fuck would he find out?”

“He’s spent at least the last eight months in place, plotting this. You don’t think he did his research? Where was he for a year? During the little war we just had, how easy would it have been for him to enter the Gorge and talk to people? I’m not saying he knows, but we can’t assume he doesn’t. We can‘t afford to.”

“What do we do about it? There are only two of us, you may have noticed.”

“That, I’m still working on,” J admitted. “In any case, this will be your last mission with me.”

“I’m not ready!”

“You don’t know it all? You certainly acted that way a few minutes ago.”

“I was angry, frustrated!”

“And rightfully so. No, Katya. It is time for you to end your apprenticeship.”

“Master!”

“No longer your master. J. You may call me J now.”

“I don’t know if I can do this without you.”

“Do not fear failure, Katya. Remember what I taught you: fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”

Katya joined her voice to his. “I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

“I remember. Mas – I mean, J, I have always wanted to ask where you learned this?”

“From a very wise man. Frank Herbert taught it to me, and to many others.”

“It is calming.”

“That is the purpose. Now. We have to figure out how to stop him.”

“We’re sure that he’ll take this road?”

“No. But, knowing the Kildar, the other, more obvious roads will be totally inaccessible.”

“What if we…?” She started pitching her ideas and smiled as J, her former Master, smiled back at her. They were partners now. Perhaps unequal partners, but she knew he would no longer treat her as an inferior. It was time to show what she had learned, and how devious she could be.

Best of all, there was a true bastard to be killed at the end of this, and she wasn’t going to miss it for anything.

*

“Pavel reports that the ambush is in place,” said Adams, driving the Expedition. He flatly refused to let any of the Keldara drive.

“Good work! That was faster than I hoped! Do we still have a lock on Schwenke?” asked Mike. They were driving to an OP overlooking the planned ambush.

“Yeah, Captain Cheal’s locked on tighter than a virgin’s pussy. You know what that’s like, right? You haven‘t forgotten yet?”

“Fuck you, Ass-Boy.”

“That’s more like it. Damn, you’ve been in a funk all day. I ain’t good at all that touchy-feely bullshit, but if you want to talk about it?“ The Chief let the offer hang.

“Not really, and sure as fuck not during an op,” answered Mike. “Thanks, though.”

The Expedition ghosted to a silent stop.

Pavel’s chosen location was at a natural chokepoint in the Alerrso road, where the two mountainsides came together. The narrow river that flowed down the Valley had carved a ragged gorge here, which the original settlers had widened a bit, mostly to get at the river rock for construction.

Modern road-building crews, faced with the task of either chiseling away the mountainside and blowing up what they couldn’t chip away, or keeping in the river’s floodplain and risking the spring floods, had chosen a third option: tunneling.

The steepness of the mountain slopes posed a significant avalanche risk, as proven at least once each winter, and the jumbled piles along the river showed the near-constant accumulation of tumbling rocks. The river was too wild yet too unimportant to dam for control, so every spring floodwaters would race through the Valley floor and scour away everything within a hundred meters of the usual banks. Lower down the Valley, the plain widened, and the road was able to cling to a relatively ‘safe’ edge. Further up the valley, toward Alerrso, the mountainsides shallowed, making it practical to build. But at this one spot, neither was a viable option.

A short tunnel had been built to get past the gorge. It was roughly two hundred meters long and had proven quite durable. Padrek had argued passionately that simply dropping both ends of the tunnel, sealing in the attacking force, would pose a lower risk to everyone involved. It might even contain a nuclear blast.

“We have backhoes,” he had mentioned more than once. “We can clear the road.”

He was overruled. This one road was the main link to Tbilisi, the airport, the industries, all the things the growing population of the Valley depended on. There were two other roads, but one was totally unusable by vehicles, and the other involved a detour of over sixty kilometers through very difficult terrain, probably too difficult for any heavy trucks to pass.

The plan was simplicity itself: wait for the ZIL-E to clear the tunnel, then blast it and everyone riding aboard to Hell. The critical concern was to prevent the nuke from detonating. The words ‘Deadman’s switch’ had been brought up repeatedly. While there was nothing they could do about a true Deadman’s switch, they could try to prevent any immediate activation. To that end both Braon and Manos were in God perches, one on either side of the road, to ensure at least one would have a shot into the cabin of the ZIL-E.

Nobody believed that Schwenke would trust the detonation commands to anyone else, so he was the primary target. Once he was taken down, the rest of the team would open up with everything they had, taking no prisoners. The concussive blast should disorient any survivors for the short remainder of their lives.

If Pavel needed backup, Vil and Yosif were in position five hundred meters back. And Kacey was sitting in the middle of the road two kilometers away, rotors turning idly, loaded for bear. The Dragon was hungry.

“You think this will work?” asked Adams.

“It’s as good as we can do for now,” admitted Mike. “I wish we’d had more time, so we didn’t need to allow them into the Valley at all, but we didn’t.” He shrugged. “This will have to work.”

The radio interrupted the conversation. “Kildar, Keldara Base.”

“Go.”

“Patching through from Victorian Lady.” There was a hiss of static, then Captain Cheal’s voice rang through the SUV. “Kildar, do you read?”

“Go ahead, Victorian Lady.”

“Target vehicles have bypassed the road. Repeat, target vehicles have bypassed the road.”

Fuck me!“ Mike sat straight up. His tone changed back to cool professionalism when he thumbed the mike to life. “Do you have a heading?”

Turning to Adams, he said, “Contact the Cave, get me an updated feed, now!” The former SEAL nodded and grabbed his sat phone.

“Continuing east on Tilaneti road, according to your maps.”

“Roger, Victorian Lady. Maintain observation. Out.” He thumbed off the radio. “Fuck!”

“Yeah. Ditto.”

“Back to the barn, Chief. We need to figure out what this asshole is trying to do, and we’d better work fast.” The SUV shot gravel from its tires as Adams threw it into a sharp turn.

“What about Pavel?” Adams said between gritted teeth. Potholes at speed. Again. Dammit.

“Leave ‘em, in case he tries to double back.”

“Vil? Yosif? Dragon?”

Mike was already on the radio. “Dragon, Dragon, Dragon. Dust-off, I repeat, immediate dust-off. We’re coming through and coming through hot.”

“Understood.” From the tone of Kacey’s voice, it was clear she didn’t understand at all, but he could hear the whine of the turbines spooling up. “Dust-off in twenty seconds.”

“Guess that takes care of Dragon.”

“Kildar to Team Vil, Team Yosif. Mission is scrubbed, repeat, mission is scrubbed. Fall back to base. Over.”

“Roger, wilco,” answered Yosif.

“Moving,” came Vil’s simpler reply.

“And where the fuck is J? I really need to pick his brains on this jackoff! Hey, Chief?”

“Yeah?”

“You have my permission to miss the fucking potholes!”

*

They stopped a kilometer past the turn for the smuggler’s track and concealed the car before hiking back along the verge of the gravel road, loaded with equipment. Some, Katya didn’t remember packing at all. Now it was priceless, no matter how heavy. Somebody was gonna get screwed, and it wasn’t going to be her.

“No complaints about carrying our gear?” inquired J.

“No. I understand why. If Schwenke notices the car, we’re screwed. And we need the equipment to fuck him over, sideways, and upside-down, then bury him sorry and sore. Then blow up the grave. Just to be sure.”

“How shall we ‘fuck’ him, then?”

“Well, I was hoping you might have some ideas that are, perhaps, a little more subtle than mine. I tend to be more, ah, direct. Bloody.”

This earned her an arched eyebrow and an, “Oh?”

“I’m afraid I’m thinking along the lines of Semtex and big guns,” she admitted. “That or screaming for help.”

“Help would be useful,” J agreed. “I think it’s time to check in.”

*

“How the fuck does he do it?” marveled the Chief.

“He’s a master spy, didn’t you know? And he‘s kept Katya in check; that‘s proof enough for me.”

Mike and Adams were back at the caravanserai, headed for Ops.

“What do we do now?”

“He asked for support, we get him support.” Mike thought for a moment. “It’s too bad we left Pavel tied down at the ambush site; they’d be perfect in those hills. It can’t be helped, but after the Mules, nobody does chaos better.”

“I think Oleg,” suggested Adams. “Sometimes, you just need a bigger hammer, and he‘ll pound them flatter than shit.”

“Pat, how’s the sensor coverage in that sector?”

“Pretty poor,” he admitted. “I knew about the track, and so the end of it’s pretty well seeded, but beyond that, not much. It’s simply too distant and not a major threat axis.”

“Isn’t that where Lasko released the tiger?” asked Grez.

“I think it is,” said Vanner, thoughtfully. “Wonder if it’s still there?”

“Didn’t you put a tracking collar on it?” asked Grez mildly. The question, innocuous to the others, was like a slap to his head.

“We did!” Vanner’s fingers flew over his keyboard. “Let’s see now. Yes, there he is.” A flashing icon appeared on the screen. “He’s not moving. He might be sleeping.”

“That’s probably a good thing,” said Mike. “Don’t need a tiger eating J, and I really don’t want Cottontail killing it!” The thought of Cottontail fighting a tiger brought a ripple of laughter to the room, despite the tension.

Adams said, “She’d probably tame it and want to keep it as her pet kitty. Bet none of the other girls would try to get in her room then. She’d have to take down the IEDs, though. Come to think of it, a pet tiger might be a good thing.”

“Okay, so we back J’s play and be ready if he calls in a team. Agreed?”

A general murmur of assent swept the room.

“Good. One medic team and one sniper team in Valkyrie, they secure the LZ. Then the Dragon can feast after Oleg pounds some sorry-ass nails.”