Sunday WildCard – The Kildaran Chapter 49

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CHAPTER 49

Tbilisi; The Caravanserai; Low Earth Orbit; Moscow

April 16/17/18

“Umarov,” he growled into the phone, half out of breath. He’d just got back from the ‘unscheduled field exercises’ and was halfway through his own version of cardio when the phone rang. The phone. The one under a glass dome with the flashing light, the one he’d had installed specifically for a single man.

Dammit.

“General, Mike Jenkins. Did I interrupt something?” There was a knowing tone in the American’s voice.

As if on cue, his secretary popped her head above the desk, looking at him curiously. He shook his head in negation and sighed. Later, he mouthed. With a pout, she stood and walked toward his private quarters, the perfect image of a general’s secretary from the waist up, bare from the waist down.

“Ah, Kildar! Just a little, ah, exercise. You understand, of course.” He paused at hearing Mike’s chuckle. With a more business-like tone he continued. “I thought you might want to know. It seems there were some Chechens on the wrong side of the border near your area. We secured them without too much bloodshed on our part.”

“Really? I’m shocked, General, simply shocked!”

“Yes, truly surprising,” Umarov said wryly. “But to what do I owe this call? Certainly not to hear about our border security?”

“No, General, though that is good news. I was wondering if you were using the Backfire?”

“Backfire? What Backfire?” Umarov’s voice was carefully neutral.

“The Backfire your fighters forced down during the little unpleasantness with the Russians last year. Specifically, a Tu-22-M3-R ELINT that was forced down at Oh Eight Forty-Seven hours on 10 August and is currently on the ground in Marneuli.”

“I won’t ask how you know about this.”

“Probably wise,” agreed Mike.

Umarov sighed. If only his own intelligence agency was half as efficient!

“The answer is no, we aren’t using the Backfire. We don’t have any pilots currently certified to fly it, for one thing.” Umarov didn’t mention they still held the Russian pilot, who steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the project, and Mike politely failed to bring the subject up.

“Is it damaged?”

“No, it isn’t. Why the interest in a former Russian bomber?”

“I need fast transport,” said Mike, honestly. “And it was suggested the Backfire might fit my needs.”

“Fast transport? For how many?”

“Around twenty, maybe twenty-four people and their gear. Plus a flight crew.”

Mike could almost hear Umarov thinking, calculating.

“There is plenty of space in the fuselage now,” he said. “It would need some work done, though.”

Mike grimaced. “Let me guess. All the ELINT gear?”

“Exactly. It is much advanced over our own equipment, so we removed it for further study.”

“They didn’t damage the airframe, did they?”

“Oh, no! The technicians who did the work were most careful. We had hope to use the bird ourselves later.”

“Cards on the table time. I intend to buy this; I think I’m going to need it on a more-or-less permanent basis. Plus this will put you a step removed from any, well, let’s say ‘repercussions’ and keep it at that.”

Umarov laughed. “I know you have very much money, Mr. Jenkins, but I doubt even you could afford this!”

“Oh, I don’t intend to pay for it,” answered Mike easily. “Let me explain…”

Ten minutes later they had worked out the framework of an agreement. Umarov felt confident he could find experienced pilots willing to ferry the Backfire to Tbilisi, where the interior would be refurbished and refitted as quickly as possible. Mike promised he’d have Vanner and a team of Keldara at the airport soon but asked for local security to provide a five-hundred-meter perimeter at all times.

It would be somewhat more comfortable than your run-of-the-mill military transport, but not nearly as posh as a Gulfstream or its ilk. Officially, title would vest with Mike, pending various concessions from the States. One of the conditions was Mike would ensure it was available for use by Umarov and other members of the government.

“It’s not every country that has a Mach-capable transport,” Umarov had said, pleased.

“When will it be in Tbilisi? I want my Intel guy there to help with the installation and add his touches.”

And to sweep it for any bugs that might have found their way aboard, he didn’t add. Forcing the pace of the deal would limit the time Umarov’s men had to install such gadgets too.

“Will tomorrow morning be soon enough?”

“Might be pushing it. Speed, as you may have guessed, is of the essence.”

Umarov sighed.

“I will try for tonight.”

“Thank you, General. I look forward to a fruitful partnership,” said Mike, grimacing. He could imagine the uses the Backfire was going to have, especially if Umarov was involved. Mile High Club, Georgian Branch?

*

“Chatham Aviation, Gloria speaking.”

“Hello, Gloria, Mike Jenkins.”

“Hello, Mike, is there a problem?”

“No, no, Gloria. Everything has been splendid, as always. Sorry about the wear on the 550.”

“We understand. The repairs will be included in the bill, as usual. How can I help you today?”

“I have a rather delicate question for you, Gloria. Regarding Captain Hardesty.”

“Yes?” she said, her tone curious and cautious at the same time. Mike‘s requests and flights with this particular pilot were legendary around Chatham’s offices.

“Would he be available for a short-term assignment? In a non-Chatham aircraft?” Mike tried to sound as neutral as possible.

“As a rule, we don’t allow our pilots to fly aircraft that we don’t maintain ourselves,” began Gloria. “Insurance, and all that.”

“I understand,” said Mike, resigned to calling Pierson again and begging for pilots, which meant he’d owe a favor which he was loathe to do.

“I guess I’ll –”

“In John’s case, and if you’re the one doing the hiring?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Then I think I’d leave it up to him. I don’t think I want to know too much, do I?” She sounded like she wanted to ask more but would wait for the final reports, and for the checks to clear.

“I seem to be saying this a bunch: probably not.”

“Then good luck convincing him. I would start by apologizing for the G550; he rather thinks of her as his baby. Good day, Mike.”

*

“Hardesty.”

He looked down at his co-pilot, sleeping, and decided not to kick him awake. Yet. Best if he got all the sleep he could. He’d never flown for Mike Whatever-His-Name-Really-Was before, and the high-speed Transatlantic crossing had taken it out of him.

He’d learn.

Eventually.

Or he’d find himself a new co.

“John, Mike. I have a proposition for you.” Speak of the devil.

“Yes?” The veteran pilot’s tones were wary.

“When was the last time you flew a Mach-capable plane?”

“A mate of mine who’s still in the RAF flies Typhoons. He let me backseat with him in a trainer, oh, six months ago. Why?”

“How would you like to fly a Backfire?”

Mike could practically hear the former fighter pilot drool.

“A Backfire? When? Where?” He’d be buggered if he gave this up!

“When is as soon as it’s refitted. Where? Let me ask, where are you?”

“Still in Tbilisi. I wanted to give the 550 a thorough once-over after our speed run. Seems there are a number of issues caused by extended high-speed flight.” His voice was coldly professional.

“I’d heard. Look, I’m sorry about the damage, I already told Gloria I’d take care of it. About the Backfire. You ought to see it arrive; I’ve been told it will be there sometime the next few hours.” He paused. “So. Are you interested in flying it?”

“Bloody hell yes!”

“Good. Take some leave from Chatham; I’ve already talked with Gloria. For the duration, flying the Backfire, I’ll be paying your salary. Whatever you get is doubled. Think you can manage?”

“I‘ll make do,” said Hardesty dryly. Then he remembered what else had happened when he flew Mike around and wondered about the wisdom of his decision.

“Okay. As soon as the Backfire arrives, I want you over there to oversee and familiarize. In the meantime, find any tech manuals you can and start reading. I’m working on getting you a co with some hours in the airframe, but no guarantees. Any questions?”

“Just one. Are things going to be getting wild and wooly again?”

“This time? Probably.”

“I was afraid there was a catch.”

*

It was actually a straightforward bit of programming, reflected Vanner.

The profile of the missing nuke had finally arrived. Once he had it in his hands, all he needed to do was plug the specifics into the code he’d already written. He knew that the base program would work; he’d stolen, err, borrowed, it from the NRO’s files for other searches.

Uploading it back to Chechnik took a little longer.

*

“Colonel, the Amis have sent us their program,” said his surviving aide, Lieutenant Sankovsky.

“You know what to do?”

“Yes, Colonel.”

“Then what are you waiting for? Permission?” Chechnik’s tone was biting. He couldn’t take his frustrations out on the Kildar. He certainly couldn’t take them out on Putin, who had put him in this untenable position in the first place. That just left his aide. Fortunately, one of an aide’s roles is to be abused.

“No, Colonel. Working on it, Colonel.” The lieutenant’s fingers fairly flew over the keyboard.

*

A veritable constellation of satellites turned their ‘eyes’ to Moscow. Russian and American ‘national technical means’, reporting to the FSS, NRO, and CIA all peered downward.

Other missions joined in, though not all of their controllers were aware.

Konos-Wind, a NASA project studying the solar wind, turned two gamma ray spectrometers Earthward.

INTEGRAL, despite its extremely eccentric orbit, was ordered by the ESA to join the search. A three-day orbit had benefits, such as much longer scan periods; and drawbacks, like the Earth turning underneath.

Even AGILE, an Italian spacecraft, was added to the search.

Of course, even the most sensitive gamma radiation detector can only report what it ‘sees’.

One of the few materials which blocks gamma rays effectively is lead. Lead, which for centuries had been used as a roofing material. Which was, and still is, widely used on concrete roofs.

Like the one on the warehouse Gereshk had chosen to hide in.

Murphy snickered.

*

Putin was absolutely livid, and the staff did their best to get out of his way as he stormed through Chechnik‘s office. Chechnik looked at him as he ranted and, despite the ominous nature of the visit, found his mind wandering to descriptions of his boss.

Livid didn’t really fit, it was much too mild. Incandescent? Closer, perhaps. Volcanic? Better still. Ready to stroke out? Bozhe moi, Dear God, please! It didn‘t seem that God was listening.

“Who authorized you to allow American spy satellites to peer into Moscow, you fucking kulak!?!” he had screamed.

“You did, Prime Minister,” Chechnik replied as coolly as possible. “As part of the effort to track –”

“I don’t care if God told you to do it!” bellowed Putin. “You need to ask me beforehand on issues of national security!”

Like losing a double dozen nuclear warheads and trying to get them back? Chechnik thought.

Aloud, he said, “Yes, Prime Minister.”

“And how do we know if they are telling the truth? They say the feed is going to Galitsino-2, but what proof have we?”

“We are receiving data there, sir, directly from the satellites in question.”

“Fool. And they cannot transmit to another location simultaneously?”

“Actually, sir, no. Their satellites mount unidirectional antennas, specifically to control the data stream.”

He tapped a highly redacted report from a mole in the CIA, a copy which he could permit Putin to see without worrying about his source being burnt, or, worse still, traded to the Americans for some concession or another.

“And they cannot record their observations and transmit them to their own ground control later?” So. Someone had been briefing him on technology again.

“I do not know, Minister,” admitted Chechnik. “It is an oversight, I admit.”

“An oversight?” The spittle flew from Putin’s lips, veins throbbing.

“If they get wind of our entirely proper, though foolishly banned, nuclear-tipped Opekun Anti-Missile system, you’ll have caused me. No, the President,” he corrected hastily, “Great embarrassment and difficulty!”

He paused for emphasis. “In attempting to enhance the security of the Rodina, Colonel, you may have done great damage to it!”

“Prime Minister, I apologize for any difficulties which may arise, but I felt the threat of a five-megaton bomb actually in Moscow outweighed any longer-term repercussions.”

“Perhaps,” conceded Putin. “But why the fucking Keldara? And that miserable mercenary AmericanWhy didn’t the Guards take them out?”

The PM’s fist hammered down on a framed photograph of Chechnik’s family, cracking the frame and shattering the glass. It took considerable willpower for Chechnik to ignore the assault and still appear as cowed and broken as Putin believed him to be.

“Sir?”

“The 5th Motor Rifle Division! Why didn’t they engage and destroy the Keldara while they were on Russian territory?”

Putin smashed the photo to the ground. Even though Chechnik didn’t have much of a relationship with his family any longer, it still pissed him off. Gathering his self-control, he answered as meekly as he could.

“You ordered them not to, sir.”

“I did no such thing!” Putin exploded. “I remember giving you the order, that the 5th was to wipe out, eliminate, every enemy of the state, foreign or domestic! So do not stand there and lie to me, you osel!”

“Mr. Minister! You said they were to execute that order when, and I quote you, sir, ‘if the Keldara call for support.’ Sir, they never called for support. They went in, performed the mission, and withdrew. Our men were left sitting, waiting for a call which never came. By the time we knew they were in place, they were already moving out.”

“I don’t want excuses, Colonel! I want results, and I want the Kildar dead!”

“Perhaps, Mr. Minister, you should be talking to the Thirteenth Department of the First Chief Directorate of the FSB?” Department 13 dealt with assassinations.

Putin turned, if possible, a brighter red.

“Out of my office!”

That was one order Chechnik was eager to execute even if it was technically his office. It wouldn‘t do to point it out. Putin could search all he wanted; there was nothing incriminating left.

Bangkok was looking better and better.

*

Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Watson, USAF, had flown the hottest planes on the planet in his capacity as a test pilot. From the F-117 Night Hawk to the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II, he’d flown them all and flown them first. His experience and competence had made him the logical choice to be the Air Force’s ‘point man’ when examining samples of foreign aircraft that fell into American hands.

He’d logged time in all the major Soviet fighters through the MiG-29 Fulcrum and the Sukhoi-27 Flanker. He’d flown the Tu-16 Badger (old and slow, but surprisingly durable); the Tu-22 Blinder (fast as blazes but short legs); and the Tu-22M Backfire (solid range but tricky to handle). He wanted to fly the Tu-160 Blackjack, the world’s largest and fastest supersonic combat aircraft, and had finally finagled an invitation from the Russians to come over and participate in a joint exercise.

That’s why he was pissed now. He hated frago’s!

Some Pentagon weenie from an office he’d never heard of had issued the frag orders, dispatching him to Tbilisi, of all places. He was to make himself ‘available’ to something called a Kildar for an unspecified length of time for ‘non-Air-Force-related duties’. Probably ferrying some crappy third world politico around in an old Gulfstream or Learjet.

Shit.

He hated babysitting VIPs, especially pissants like this one probably would be. At least he was TDY so he’d come out of this with a little extra cash in his pocket. And, he reflected, stick time was stick time, even if it was a C-21 or some such.

His musings were cut off as the captain of the Airzena Boeing 737-500 announced their arrival. Tbilisi. What did he do to end up in this armpit?

The passenger jet taxied towards the terminal, and it was probably too much to hope they would have jet ways, it was raining and it looked fucking cold! Then he noticed something odd. Was that a…?

Holy fuck! What was a Backfire doing in Tbilisi?

Peering out the window, he hardly noticed the plane stop at the end of its taxi. He didn’t notice he was the final passenger on the jet until the steward came over and politely, he had to admit, but firmly informed him it was time to disembark. Abashed, he gathered up his carry-ons and exited, pausing at the top of the mobile stairway. Something was going on over there, even though it was hard to see exactly what.

“What time is it?” he asked the still-patient steward.

“Ten twenty,” he replied.

Shit.

His body was telling him it was maybe seven in the morning. Jet lag sucked. But it was late, there were dozens of people crawling all over the Backfire, and he could see a line of trucks backed up a hundred yards.

He reclaimed his duffel from the ancient luggage carousel, squeaking and rattling like it hadn‘t been maintained properly since the Soviets were kicked out. Then he stood in the terminal, lost, until a short and stocky man with brown hair, wearing a peculiarly-patterned military camouflage uniform, approached. He noted a flash badge on the shoulder of a roaring tiger. The only other decoration on the uniform was a name: Vanner.

“Colonel Watson?”

“Yes?” Thank God, an American!

“Chief Warrant Officer Pat Vanner, of the Georgian Mountain Tigers Militia.” He held out his hand, and Watson shook it. “Welcome to Georgia. Sorry about the rain; this time of year, we’re lucky it’s not snow.”

“No problem. Why am I here?” he asked impatiently. He was tired, and his manners were still somewhere over the Med.

Ignoring the question Vanner answered, “Do you have any more luggage?”

Despite the jet lag Watson got the hint. Not here, not in the open.

“No, this is it.”

“Okay, then. I have a ride laid on. If you’ll come this way?” Vanner led him out of the baggage area.

Once outside, Vanner said quietly, “We don’t think anyone is tailing you, and I’m sure there’s nobody on me. But it’s never worth taking a chance.”

What kind of Wonderland have I fallen into?

Watson said, “I didn’t realize we weren‘t. No excuse, but I’ve been given no instructions at all, just grab your gear and get your ass to Georgia.”

“Typical,” Vanner snorted. “Hurry up and wait bullshit. Okay, Colonel, here’s the deal. You have some time in the Backfire?”

“Yeah, more than most. Thirty hours as pilot, and probably another fifty, fifty-two as co.”

“What model?”

“M3.” Like that bird out there, he didn’t say.

“Good.” Vanner fell silent for a moment.

“Colonel,” he finally said, “What I’m about to say is so classified I know I shouldn’t open the compartment, and I’m neck-deep in it. But you definitely have a need-to-know even if your control disagreed.”

“What?”

“Wait. Let me think.” Vanner led on in silence for a few minutes, until they got to a red Explorer. After putting the bags in the back and climbing in, he spoke again, his tone becoming official “Don‘t-interrupt-me-there-will-be-a-quiz-later”.

“You are going to be flying a Backfire Tu-22M3(R) that’s being modified to serve as a personnel transport. You will be training a civilian pilot, former RAF, on the operation of the aircraft. You will know the destination, obviously, but you are not to discuss it, now or any time in the future. When on the ground, you are to remain in the aircraft at all times and off the radio. Food will be brought in, and the facilities aboard should be operational now. You are to be seen by as few people as possible. And I’m sorry, but you will have no other access to outside communications. I need your phone, PDA, pager. Everything. Do you have your issue sidearm?”

“No.”

“We will issue you a sidearm for the duration. If you see anyone aboard the bird without a purple Tiger badge, you are authorized to terminate them immediately. Do you understand these instructions?”

“Christ, Chief! You come up with this all on your own?” He tried for levity, but couldn’t keep the incredulity from his voice.

Vanner’s tone was Arctic.

“Colonel, I would like to keep this as friendly and professional as possible. I can, however, end your career with a single phone call, and ensure you spend the next ten years breaking rocks for scientists in Greenland. Do you get me?”

“Go fuck yourself, Chief. Take me back and put me on a fucking plane.”

The Beretta M9A1, standard issue for the Marine Corps and held onto by Vanner for sentimental reasons, seemed to materialize in his hand. Watson noted that it pointed steadily at his chest.

“Not an option. Whether you fly or not, you’re staying here. I’d prefer to have you fly, but, as my boss says, we have a backhoe.”

Watson gulped. “I think I’ll fly.”

The Beretta disappeared just as swiftly. In a friendlier tone, Vanner said, “Grez, my wife, would kill me if I got blood on the upholstery.”

“Can you tell me anything?” implored Watson.

Vanner thought again.

“Nope. You‘ll thank me for it later. Okay, there are some bennies.”

“Like what?”

“Well, your pay will be supplemented by the Kildar. He believes in rewarding excellence. No taxes, and if you don’t tell Uncle Sam, we won’t.”

“That’s good,” admitted Watson.

“Plus the Keldara consider their beer part of their rations, and since they’re supplying you, you’ll get what they get.”

“Keldara beer? Some sort of local brew? Had enough of those; I’ll pass.”

“You may want to reconsider,” said Vanner. “You heard of Mountain Tiger?”

“Yeah.”

“The Keldara sell it to outsiders because it’s their slops.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, oh. Of course, if you want to pass on it, I’m sure I can find someone to take your ration.”

“On second thought, Chief, I might just hold onto them.”

“Thought you might see it that way.”

*

“You really aren’t going to change your mind.”

It wasn’t a question. Mike had done his best, laying out all the logical, sensible reasons why Katrina should stay behind and she’d shot them all down. As for this final plea? The look on Kat’s face told the entire tale. Her arms, crossed below her breasts, cemented her stance. The tapping foot may have been a bit much.

“I didn’t think so,” he sighed. “I suppose that Moscow’s as good a place as any. At least I’ll be able to keep an eye on you.”

“And I you, Michael.” She tossed her M-4 onto the pile.

*

“Nothing, sir,” the tired tech responded for the third time in as many minutes.

Chechnik winced. It was well after midnight; he’d been in the office since six in the morning; and now this. “Search again.”

“Colonel, it’s not here. We have had ten satellite sweeps, with enough density and overlap. Every gamma source has been positively identified, from our maps and on the ground! It’s not here!”

“I said, search again. Or do you want to ignore a five-megaton bomb in a city of eleven million? How many do you think would survive? Two million? Three? How many families would be destroyed? What if your family was within the footprint, would you give up so easily then?”

“No, Colonel, but the satellites have gone over everything.”

“Fuck the satellites! Get men on the ground with Geiger counters, have them search every block, every building.” He turned to a map and started marking out a quick grid to coordinate the search.

“That will take days, even if we grab every cadet and plebe! People will notice; people will panic!”

“Then we’ll have to hope we get lucky, won’t we? Get them moving. All of them. Match the cadets with experienced line troopers, tell them it’s an exercise. Do it. Now.”

“Yes, Colonel. At once.”

*

Dawn over Moscow.

A suspicious number of high-ranking officials were unexpectedly absent from their homes and offices today. Unscheduled fact-finding trips, serious health issues, and impromptu vacations had swept scores from the city, literally overnight. In every case, though, they kept their mouths shut about the true reason for their departure. Wives, families, mistresses were abandoned with little explanation and no satisfaction, but they could be replaced.

Their own hides, not so much.

The onion domes of the Kremlin caught the early morning sunshine and reflected it back in a thousand directions.

Russian soldiers, grumbling at the earliness of the hour, trooped along sidewalks, waving detection wands at every building. So far several dentists’ offices, and an infirmary, had been singled out, but the search continued. Higher was looking for something else. Of course, betting pools sprang up in every company over which squad might find the mysterious gamma target first. And it gave the enlisted men a rare opportunity to pilfer from stores and warehouses. For once, it wasn’t just the officers getting a slice.

Bakers and markets opened their doors. The smells of fresh black bread and kasha spread through the city streets as the people emerged from their homes, headed to work or to the market to shop for the day. The soldiers on their mysterious patrols went unnoticed, or at least unremarked. The civilians had learned long ago to remark usually led to problems. One look at the tired, hungry, sour faces of the soldiers was all it took to turn their eyes elsewhere.

Commuters from suburbs all around Moscow emerged from their trains at the Leningradsky, Yaroslavsky and Kazansky terminals and thronged to the Komsomolskaya Metro station, one of the busiest in the city. Despite the long lines, tempers were held in check, especially with all the troops about. The sun was shining, the weather warm, and hadn’t they waited in longer lines for bread under the Soviets? Soldiers on some sort of exercise, waving wands? The merest nothing.

A half kilometer away, in a tired warehouse that bore the logo of a defunct exporter, other men awoke to greet the day with prayers while facing almost due South. After praying, they cleaned their weapons under the alert gaze of their leader.

Gereshk planned.

His men would depart that night, merging with the infidels, the mindless herd pushing and bellowing their way to their pasturage. It should be easy enough for his warriors to mimic the unthinking masses and make their way to report. They had all in readiness; he’d inspected each man’s pack the night before.

Papers? Check.

Money? Check.

Bus and train schedules? Check.

Weapons troubled him. Security wasn’t the issue; on the state lines, it was an open joke. Restraint, ah, now that was a potential problem. Would his men be able to restrain themselves at the sight of the hated Russians? Or would they surrender to their righteous urge to lay waste to the infidels, the despoilers of the Dar Al Islam?

No.

Much as he wanted to, he couldn’t risk putting temptation into the hearts of his men. No weapons. At least, he amended, no rifles. Pistols, knives, yes. Those could be concealed easily and ordered to remain so. At least he wouldn’t be stripping his fedayeen of every measure of defense. To draw such weapons would require time, time in which they could consider the consequences of baring arms here, in Moscow, the very heart of the enemy.

One more day, and he would achieve his glory. His men would live to spread the tale and his name, the name of the man who brought the Finger of Allah to the enemy’s core.

*

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

While Vanner was overseeing the conversion of the Backfire, Grez was again running the Cave and reporting to Mike. She looked like she needed a solid week’s sleep at this point.

“We’re sure we have the entire take? They’re not holding back on us?” Mike obviously still distrusted the Russians. What had he said? Oh, yes. ‘I trust them as far as I can throw a bear.’

“I cannot vouch for the Russian satellites; we have been unable to access them directly. But the American satellites? NASA, ESA? Those, we have connections with.”

“You mean the Mice hacked them,” Mike corrected with a grin.

“Yes. A while back. Mouse wanted to make a point with those who would hack into our servers,“ she said with a shrug. “The point is, we have some of the raw data, and it’s matching the data Chechnik’s office is sending us which was filtered by Pat’s program.”

My husband, her smile said.

“This isn’t good news.”

“No, and it gets worse. Overnight the Ground Forces in and around Moscow have all been mobilized. They’re searching for it on the ground.”

“That’ll take half of forever,” commented Adams from the overstuffed chair he’d dragged into the conference room.

“And tip off Gereshk,” added Nielson. “I understand the pressure they’re under to find the thing, but this could cause him to accelerate their timetable. Russian troops aren‘t exactly what you‘d call subtle.”

“Precisely, Colonel,” agreed Grez. “I suggest we move to assist them now, rather than later. Eventually the story will leak and the citizens will panic. Emplacement and reaction time will be even more critical for us. Instead of hours?”

“We might have minutes. Right. Have we heard from Pat yet?” Mike asked the table in general.

“He sent a message early this morning, about four. He had personally gone over every inch of the plane, removed a half-dozen bugs of one type or another, and was going to sleep for a few hours.”

“Anything since?” Mike looked down at the muck in his coffee cup.

Suck it up, SEAL! he berated himself. You used to eat this shit for breakfast!

“No. He might not be up yet. He pulled in many favors to move this quickly.”

“Get hold of him soonest and find out where we stand. If he’s behind, find out what he needs to expedite. Kacey, Tamara, we’re gonna need transport to the airport.”

“Not a problem,” answered Kacey for both. “Both birds are ready to fly.”

“You’re going to be pretty heavily loaded, between the teams and their weapons.”

“For a little hop to Tbilisi, these birds can handle it. Anything else?”

“Yeah,“ he answered, turning to her partner. “No stupid stunts this time Tammy. Got it?”

Wilson looked at him, eyes wide and overflowing with innocence.

“Me, Kildar?”

*

The interior of the Backfire had been transformed. Where it had been bare metal skin and ribs, revealed when the Georgians had removed all the ELINT gear, it was now foamed and covered with standard aircraft tile.

Comfortable seats had been installed, spaced far enough apart to recline almost horizontal to allow for better rest en route. These had been liberated from a pair of semi-civilian planes which had been badly damaged during the short war. Both tails had been shot off, but neither burned. It was hoped they could be repaired, eventually. Of course, the fact that they had been cannibalized by every passing jet which needed immediate repairs was going to make it problematic, but…

A pair of small refrigerators and a cooking area were mounted far aft to allow the preparation of hot meals. Lord only knew where they’d come from. A workstation was built aft of the cockpit door, with sufficient computing capacity to keep even the Mice happy.

Vanner knew it had come from his wife, but from what source? He didn’t know, he didn’t want to know, and he would deny ever even thinking that it looked awfully similar to the stations the CIA installed in their offices in the Embassy.

Maybe it wasn’t the teak you’d find on the 550, Hardesty thought, looking around the cabin that had been built literally overnight. But it will do.

The American Colonel walked up behind him.

“Morning, John.”

“Good morning, Christopher! I’m ready for my lesson whenever you are.”

After a brief meeting the previous night and a quick session of ‘Do you know -?’ and ‘Did you fly -?’, both pilots decided that any serious training would have to wait for morning.

“Let me check with Chief Vanner,” Watson said, looking around. “Any idea where he’s hiding?”

“I believe he’s forward, in the cockpit. Probably up to no good. If he wasn‘t a sodding Yank, no offense, I‘d have him pegged for MI-5, section 9, without a doubt.”

“Wonder what he’s really doing?” mused Watson, moving that direction. He didn’t have the experience with the Tigers his co did and was genuinely curious.

What could have changed in just a few hours?

When he opened the cockpit door he stopped and gawped in amazement. The flight deck had been completely transformed, even more than the passenger area.

The old-fashioned analog controls had been replaced with a suite of small monitors which surrounded a central and much larger one. The clunky overhead and wall-filling electronics were all gone as well. A fifth seat had been added, where Vanner now sat, cables snaking from his laptop to every new suite of controls.

“What the fuck did you do to my cockpit?” asked Watson, aghast. About the only things he recognized were the throttle controls, still in the center, and the control yokes.

“Upgrades,” answered Vanner easily. “Did you know that they were still using tubes in this bitch? Not many; it’s obvious they’d done some improvements. It was still solidly 1970’s tech; now it’s not. And no, I‘m not gonna tell you where it came from or how it got here.”

He smiled wanly and then tapped a few more times at the laptop. Row after row of lights suddenly shone green.

“All done. Green across the board, full connectivity, tell-me-three-times redundancy and fault protection. My people are good,” he finished with visible pride.

“I think it’s bloody brilliant!” said Hardesty. “All our instruments are on those wee screens?”

“Yep. Altitude, speed, radar, everything you need. It’s all touch screen and voice-driven technology. You can either tap a screen to bring up a menu,” he said, walking forward and demonstrating on the pilot‘s main display. Sure enough, when he touched the chosen monitor a menu popped up, and a soft voice could be heard from the headset.

“She tells you what the menu options are so you don’t need to take your eyes from the sky, and you can control her simply by speaking.” He picked up the headset, said, “Grez, radar,” and the display changed instantly.

“Right now, since we’re on the ground, she’s taking the feed from the control tower,” he said. “Grez, change scale, two hundred kilometers.” The display shifted and resolved, with startling rapidity.

“System off.” Obediently, the image disappeared.

“I printed a list of commands that she’ll recognize. Simple ones, but she’s got a heuristic algorithm. She’ll learn quickly. I think you’ll like her.” He pointed to clipboards magnetically mounted on each pilots’ seat. “Be sure to familiarize yourself with the codes and keywords. She’s smart, and will get smarter, but she’s still a computer. She’ll take you literally if you’re not careful.”

“You keep referring to the plane as ‘her’. And isn‘t Grez your wife?” said Hardesty, amused.

“Oh, no, not the plane. Just the control system. Though,” Vanner added thoughtfully, “They’re pretty well integrated now.”

“What if I’m just talking to Hardesty about something and use a command phrase?” said Watson.

“I thought of that. She has three modes: full manual, full voice, and voice recognition. The first, well, obvious. All from the touch screens. The second, anything you say she’ll scan to see if it’s in her command list; if it is, she’ll ask you to confirm the command before executing.”

“And the third?”

“The third? Well, that’s the mode she was in. You have to say her name, or say ‘system’, to trigger her. Once she’s triggered you don’t get a confirmation request, so you must be careful what you say. She‘ll repeat the order as she executes it, so you have a chance to unscrew the pooch if you‘re quick about it.”

“You named the control system after your wife?” Watson asked, amused.

“It’s something she’s been tinkering with for a while,” he said proudly. “It seemed appropriate. She likes to have her hands free and absolutely hates typing.”

“And does your missus know you’ve applied her program to a plane?”

Vanner looked a little abashed.

“Not yet,” he said.

Hardesty was looking around in awe. “What else have you done?”

“This was originally an ELINT bird, right?”

“Yes, but I thought the Georgians removed all that?”

“They did, all the Russian crap. I’ve loaded her back up with the best I had in my workshop, plus everything I could beg, borrow, and steal. She’s now the equal of –”

Watson interrupted him, pointing to the left bulkhead, which was once again covered with electronics.

“Where did you get an AN/ALR-66B(V)3? And what did you do to it?”

“A what?” said Hardesty.

“It’s the ELINT/MASINT unit from the P-3 Orion. Navy. I think you Brits would call it top shelf. It’s fucking state-of-the-art intelligence gathering equipment, and sure as hell shouldn’t be in some whack job Warrant’s ‘workshop’!”

“Where I got it, or how, is irrelevant,” said Vanner in a tone that would have frozen boiling water. “It’s now installed here. I gather you’re familiar with it?”

“Basic familiarization, yeah,” said Watson, much more subdued. “I can hum a few bars, but that’s about all. Does it come with the flight engineer too?”

“What about you, Captain?”

“Not a bleeding hope! I just aimed at the enemy when they told me to make him go away. Avoided any duties with the Weasels; once you climb in, they never let you out to play with the good toys!”

“Good thing it’s hooked into Grez as well,” said Vanner. “She can process and analyze the signals. There‘s your flight engineer.”

“Jesus.”

“And over here?” Hardesty motioned to the right, where another electronic suite of instruments was mounted.

“That’s my little addition. ECM suite, complete with flares, chaff packs, and a pair of drop drones that can be programmed to simulate her profile.”

“I recognize the ALQ-99 and the ALQ-100,” said Hardesty. “They’re from your Prowlers, aren’t they? And they imply the presence of the jammer pods, am I correct?”

“The ALQ-99, yes. Only two of those, instead of five, so not quite the same capability. I had to sacrifice something for my last surprise.”

“What’s that?” said Watson, resignedly. “The rotary missile launcher from a Spirit?”

“No,” replied Vanner seriously. “Too large for the bay, and I couldn’t get one in time. You’ll have to make do with four AGM-88 HARMs.”

“Bullshit. No way you got one HARM, let alone four.”

“No shit, Colonel. See for yourself.” He led them back, through the converted cabin, to a locked hatch. When opened it revealed the rear of the bomb bay. He stood aside.

“Down there.”

Before Watson’s unbelieving eyes lay a smaller rotary launcher, loaded with the promised HARMs. Their wingspan just cleared the bomb bay walls, but they gave the Backfire a totally unexpected anti-radar punch. A very long-ranged and hard-to-spoof punch.

“How did you get these? And where?”

“Friends in high places,” said Vanner, cryptically. “Well, maybe low places. It’s amazing what you can get when you ask nicely and have a friendly Uncle.”

“Wild and wooly time again?” said Hardesty with a predatory grin. For once, if it got too wooly, he could finally hit back.

“Let’s just say that the Kildar believes in being prepared.” With a clap of his hands, Vanner changed the subject. “I think, Colonel, you’ll find that she handles better than the Backfires you may have flown before. I took advantage of the additional…”

*

The search for Gereshk’s bomb began, naturally enough, at the Kremlin, and spread outward, while other troops were ordered from the periphery of the city inward. Progress wasn’t steady, or even, as the various districts had differing mixes of residential, commercial, industrial, and government buildings. Security ranged from adequate to nonexistent, but they couldn’t judge probabilities simply by the security levels. Guards could be bribed, after all. They had to physically enter each structure to examine them. This led to much bitching, considerable five-finger discounting, and, after several hours, very bored troops.

“I don’t care why we’re out here. It’s stupid!”

“Shut up, Lavrenti!” snapped the sergeant in charge of the detail. “We do as we’re ordered! Game, exercise, they can call it what they will. Think, what if this was for real?”

“You know where I was, Sergeant?” said Lavrenti, seeming to concentrate on his counter.

“I don’t care! You’re here, so pay attention!” Sergeant Feliks, like most in the Russian army, was simply a second-year conscript selected by his company commander. It was an odd holdover from the Soviet system and the days when the mandatory term of service was reduced to two years. The atrocious pay, miserable conditions and near-constant low-level conflicts discouraged most from reenlisting, so it became common to simply appoint ‘instant sergeants’ from the most competent men who had completed their first year.

The practice, and problem, remained, even though the Soviets were long gone. This led to sergeants who had little more real experience than the men they were leading. Disrespect and disobedience were the norm. Discipline tended to be harsher as well, with a strong physical component. That might not be wise, here. On these exercises, one never knew when one was under observation. A single poor report and a man could end up a private again.

“I was on a furlough! Drysi was blowing me when Grisha and Timur started pounding on the door to the flat! Just because I didn’t answer the phone, they said I was –”

“A fucking pain in my ass!”