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.
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.
Tbilisi; The Caravanserai; Various Roads in Georgia; A Hunter’s Track near The Valley
“Where is he?”
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?”
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? 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.”
“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.”
“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?“
“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 -”
“Oops?” She smiled. J found himself smiling back. He liked her; she was full of surprises –
Then again, maybe he should just pray they arrive in one piece.