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Sunday WildCard – The Kildaran Chapter 53

I’m not going to say too much about this chapter. Only two details.

First, it’s over 10,000 words. BIG chapter.

Second, BACHELOR PARTY!

I’m investigating how I can put this into a printed format without setting it up for sale anywhere (and no, I will not go to a vanity press). If you’d be interested in a print version, let me know. I’ll do it strictly for cost plus shipping; this will fill my agreement with John not to make money on the thing but still get it into your hands.

I’ve left a comment block below here so you can tell me YES! (And I’ll have an idea of who to tell when it IS ready.)

Submit a form.

Oh, yeah. Anyone figure out what the deep background of the cover is yet?

CHAPTER 53

The Caravanserai

Late April

“Ass-boy!”

“What now, Chief?”

Mike rubbed his arms and chest with a towel. The workout he’d finished was long overdue and a welcome break from the post-mission stresses. He would have preferred another hour on the Nautilus but his joints were letting him know it was time to stop. The abuse from previous missions was making itself felt; he was sure he’d have to seek out Kurosawa and his needles. Thus his answer to Adams was perhaps a little gruffer than he’d intended.

“The first stones are back from the cutter,” he answered, dropping a bag on the desk.

Mike sighed down into the expensive executive chair, appreciating the extra support it provided. Definitely getting old.

“Stones? Oh, yeah, right. Good. Thanks.”

“That’s it? ‘Good. Thanks’? You know how hard it was to find a reputable gem cutter in this country? And to keep him from stealing them? I had cameras installed in his shop beforehand and proved they were being watched! Then I had to convince him that the chips and dust weren‘t a bonus for him to keep; you know how much even the scraps are worth? On top of which I‘ve had to babysit his sorry ass the entire time, and you know how much I hate babysitting!”

“I’m sure you got some of the Keldara to watch him, while you sat back and had a beer or two.”

“That’s not the point! The point is, I did you a favor and now it’s no big deal?”

“Ah. You want gratitude. Why didn’t you say so?”

Looking up from his terminal, Mike put on a cheesy fake smile.

“Thank you ever so much for putting yourself out on my behalf! I won’t ever forget this!”

“Ah, fuck it. You just better watch out. Your bachelor party’s coming up really soon.”

That was a threat.

*

“You and Daria, eh?”

He raised a single eyebrow. He’d seen Stasia do it to her charges, and it conveyed so much more than was said. It made the target think whatever they feared most and gave the impression you knew more than you really did.

JP didn’t blink. He‘d been before enough boards of review to have the routine down pat. Admit to nothing until necessary, and only the minimum then.

“Yep. Me and Daria.”

“And here you were complaining about Sivula getting married.”

“His case is different. I’m on short time, no wife or family back home, and I figure if I get out here and manage to get a position with you the odds are pretty good that Uncle Sam won’t be able to call me back into service.”

“How many years have you put in, JP?”

“Thirteen.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, why are you still a captain?”

Mike steepled his fingers and leaned back as if considering the entire man, past, present, and future. Which, in a sense, he was.

“I was a mustang. Enlisted for four years, thinking it would be a good way to save up some money for college. Made sergeant, but didn’t really love it, y’know? I was planning to get out, and my CO knew it, so he made me an offer. It was tough to refuse the old man. He had a way with words, and I swear he could predict the future. Kinda miss the bastard, now.””

“OCS?”

“Yeah. Came out a shiny new second john, didn’t know my ass from my elbow, but I’d signed for another six years. Got all gung-ho after 9/11, went to Ranger school, qualified, and then got assigned to the 75th. Worked my way up to commanding my company in between deployments and getting my hitch ’extended’ three times. “Needs of the service”, you know. Typical bullshit. So here I am.”

“So why get out? Why not go for field grade? I can make a few calls, pull a couple strings…?” He let the offer hang in the air.

“Mike, after so many years in the Big and Little Sandbox, I don’t need to prove my patriotism to anyone. I love my country and want to serve, but I’m over thirty now. I still want some kind of life. Kids, too, ones who know their daddy and have a single home, not just this year’s temporary quarters.”

“You think you’ll get more of one here?”

“I know you do weird shit out here that’s so black nobody, and I mean nobody, can talk about it. I also know you don’t take orders from anyone, just requests you think will help the country. That’s where I want to be. Then you have the beer, and all I have to say is, Oh My God. And, of course, Daria. She doesn’t want to leave here, she made it abundantly clear, so if I want her in my life, I have to share her place. Besides, I hear the pay ain‘t bad, either, given the bonuses you gave my men. And thank you; a bunch of ‘em really needed it, even if they didn‘t say anything about it.”

“Even if it means you’re stuck in a training slot?”

“What do you think Rangers do all day when we’re not deployed? Carve ’snake-eater’ tattoos into our arms? And does this mean you have a job for me?”

“Possibly.”

Mike explained about the Mountain Rams.

“They’re a ton of raw material, but I don’t honestly think they’re quite up to the standards of the Tigers of the Mountains. They’re locals, not Keldara, and those two have never mixed well. But they are by God willing and doing their best.”

“What are you looking at, then?”

“There’s a lot more of them, and we‘ve only got the first batch up to snuff,” Mike said. “Word’s gotten out and they’re tired of being sheep. I figure, if we can get them up to the standards of the Corps, there’s enough there to take the biggest burden off the Tigers. Plus, having a potent military force which is politically neutral but strongly in support of the legitimate government will go a long way towards stabilizing the country and dragging it up towards the first world.”

“You want the Rams to be the Army to the Tigers’ Rangers?”

“Something like that, or at least National Guard.”

“I can do that. Tough to turn sheep into soldiers, but I hear you have a good cadre going?”

“You won’t be alone. I have a Scottish sergeant and a few Gurkhas working with them, so I’ll want you to provide general direction, an officer they can look up to and call their own. Nielson‘s done his best, but he‘s got a bunch on his plate already. And you could bring Daria in. She‘d make a hell of an S-2 or -4.”

“Can do. Where will I slot into your command structure?”

“You’ll report to Colonel Nielson, then to me. You’re essentially an independent command; you’re going to have enough men.”

“Maybe I should have asked earlier, but just how many men am I looking at?”

“Right now, we’re projecting a force of 750.”

“Holy crap! That’s more like a battalion!”

“Yep. Which is why, for my purposes, you’re going to get your silver oak leaf. There’s a chicken in your future, too, but only after Neilson takes his medicine and accepts a star. Totally unofficial outside the Valley, but it’ll give you some pull with the troops. Think that‘ll suffice?”

“Captain to Light Colonel in one jump? That’ll do nicely.”

“Once your Rams shake down, we’ll have to nominate some officer candidates and train ‘em up, but that’s a problem for later.”

“You have an OCS?”

“No, that’s why it’s a problem for later.”

The planning meeting went on long into the night.

*

“What do you think?”

“I think you’re insane, but that’s nothing new,” said Kacey.

“Definitely. We’re helicopter pilots, not fixed-wing, and sure as hell not something like a Backfire!” added Tammy. “No matter how sexy it is!”

Mike had suggested his two pilots get some time in the Backfire before John and Chris – he couldn’t call them Hardesty and Watson, it sounded too much like a bad law firm that advertised late nights for personal injury claims – returned to their regular jobs. Hardesty wasn’t an issue; as long as Chatham didn’t need him back, he was perfectly willing, okay, overjoyed, to earn twice his usual pay playing with a supersonic bomber.

Mike’s mind briefly wandered to the stack of claims for broken windows from a nearby village. Again. Hardesty was having way too much fun.

Watson was a different story.

He’d been “shanghaied”, his words, by OSOL, and he was dammed if he was going to spend “any more time in a godforsaken third-world shithole of a country, no matter how good the beer!” than he had to. He was willing to finish familiarizing Hardesty, though with John’s extensive background it wouldn’t take long. And he flat-out refused to consider staying on longer, despite promises of bonuses and the comforts available in the Valley.

Mike had considered the benefits of having Pierson ‘advise’ Watson his time in Georgia was going to be extended. In the end he figured the misery the arrogant pilot would produce far outweighed any possible gains, and so had let Watson know he’d be able to depart as soon as Hardesty reported himself ready to pilot the Backfire solo.

At the rate things were going, it wouldn’t be more than another couple days. Unless they buzzed another town at full burners. He should never have let them borrow his copy of Top Gun. Dammit, it was a bomber-turned-transport, not a fucking fighter!

However, that was going to leave Mike with a big, expensive aircraft and zero trained pilots. Umarov had volunteered his pilots’ services, but, while they were competent enough in their SU-25 Frogfoots, he wasn’t about to trust them with his supersonic bomber on a regular basis. Hence his suggestion to Kacey and Tammy. He thought they’d be excited.

Boy was he wrong.

“It’s a totally different kind of flying.”

“Almost contradictory, in fact.”

“There’s different procedures and protocols to follow.”

“Different reactions to train.”

“And if we become proficient at flying Grez –“

“- We might lose our touch with the Hinds.”

“Dragon would get lonely if I didn’t let him feed occasionally!”

“And, if you’re going to take me out of Valkyrie, then, Sir, with respect? Fuck No!”

So it had gone, a verbal tennis match, with Mike the only spectator. Mike’s neck was weary from the constant back-and-forth nature of their argument, so he rested his head on his hand for a moment. Now the inner Marine was coming out of his pilots. He knew it was time to call a halt.

“What you’re saying is neither of you could fly her without giving up the choppers.”

They shared a glance, then Kacey’s pilot’s ego took over.

“We could fly her. Probably not well, certainly not up to her abilities. We each have some hours in fixed-wing aircraft. Much smaller, but the principles the same. We can get by, for short periods.”

“We just don’t want to transition out of our Hinds,” admitted Tammy.

“Why us?” asked Kacey.

“You’re the only pilots I have,” answered Mike, somewhat amused by the question.

“You mean, we’re the only rotary-wing pilots you have,” agreed Tammy. “Fixed-wing aircraft are far easier to learn how to fly than helicopters, though.”

“I’ll bet you could find a half-dozen volunteers among the Keldara without even trying!” offered the other Bobbsey twin, and the tennis match was back on.

“Let’s see, there’s Serena Mahona, she always wants to deadhead on training flights.”

“And Akilina Kulcyanov.”

“Who’s the little blonde?”

“The one that D’Allaird was sniffing around?”

“Yeah, until she gave him a black eye.” Tammy smirked. “He’s not going to equate ‘small and blonde’ with ‘stupid’ anymore, no matter how perky her tits are!”

“Lizaveta Shaynav. She’s got the reactions, for sure. And then there’s also –“

“Whoa! We’re talking a multi-million dollar, supersonic, converted and upgraded bomber here, not a farm tractor!” interrupted Mike.

“Your point?”

“My point? Do you really think these girls are able to handle a fucking Tu-22M?”

“Did you think that any of these ‘girls’ would be able to run an Intel shop like Grez?”

“Or shoot like Katrina?”

“Or lay mortars like Jessia?”

“Or rewrite code like Creata?”

“Okay, okay, I give! What about men? Gonna have some bruised egos if you only select the girls for training.”

“What about them?” asked Tammy. “It’s been proven, over and over, women have better reaction times and can make better pilots than men. Besides, all the young men are in the Tigers. Don’t think many will give it up.”

“Ask anyways. Say you’re looking for volunteers. Then make a list and I’ll give it to John, with one condition.”

They looked at him warily before replying.

“What’s the condition?” asked Kacey.

“You two take some ‘refresher’ training. Once John returns to Chatham, unless they get a shitload of hours behind the stick, I want a more experienced, veteran hand available to fly with them.”

“Makes sense,” said Tammy. “You ought to include Chief D’Allaird as well. He’s got plenty of bootlegged hours.”

“Done.”

“And while we’re on the subject?”

“Yes?”

Now Mike was wary.

“It wouldn’t be a bad idea for us to start training some of our crew chiefs how to fly the birds.”

“You’re not planning on leaving, are you?” Mike frowned.

“Hell no!” snapped Kacey. “The hours are good, the pay outstanding, and we get to blow shit up! How could life get any better than that?”

“Getting laid more often?” said Tammy. Kacey glared at her.

“So, why?”

“Redundancy, for one,” said Tammy. “You don’t want to be down a chopper if either of us should come down with the flu, or break a leg, or…”

“I get the idea. Okay, good point, but not enough.”

“Which brings me to my second point,” continued Tammy. “If we train up more pilots, especially from among our crew chiefs who at least have some familiarity with the birds, we’ll effectively double our usefulness. Right now, at some point we simply have to stop and get some crew rest. God knows we’ve pushed right to it! If we have a relief pilot, even one we have to co- for, we’ll be able to increase our endurance considerably. You can‘t afford to have us end up like the girls in the Cave did this last op.”

“Okay, now you’re talking sense. I want you to start small at first, though. No more than one relief pilot from each of you. You know your chiefs; I’ll go with your recommendations. Is there anything else?”

“No, Kildar,” answered Kacey, and the two pilots beat a hasty retreat.

“Do you think he knows we’ve already started training?” asked Tammy when the heavy door had closed behind them.

“I sure as hell hope not! How many hours does Naida have now?”

“Fifty-three. Anechka?”

“Forty-two, but she really wants to play with the guns.”

“I know; Naida is still griping about not being able to take out the Administrator’s Humvee.”

“Still? After all these months?”

“Yep. She says target practice just isn’t the same.”

They made their way to quarters. “What’s on the agenda tonight?” asked Kacey.

“Nothing much,” said Tammy. “Did you hear about Daria?”

“Yeah,” grinned Kacey. “She snagged him right out from under you!”

“Not quite under me, but close enough,” grimaced Tammy. “What about you?”

“The Chief asked me to drop by, help him plan the Kildar’s bachelor party. Said to bring the Marine playbook on nasty tricks.”

Tammy brightened. “Sounds interesting. Care if I come along?”

“Naah, I’m sure he won’t mind. If I give you the signal, you get scarce.”

“Why? You planning a bombing run on him? And who said I wouldn’t want in?”

Kacey shrugged. “Not planning on it, and no, I won’t share! Never ever worked out before!”

“And he’s a SEAL. Do you know if he likes ’em young, you think of that?”

“Hell, once a Marine, always a Marine. Adapt and overcome!”

*

“Do you know how difficult this was?”

Actually, what the Chief said came out more like, “D’yuh know ho’ diff’cult thish wa’?”

The bachelor party had begun, officially, only an hour ago, but it seemed Adams had started his celebration quite a bit earlier. Truth be told, so had Mike, though he wasn’t nearly as badly off.

“How difficult?”

His joints were warmed by a recent session with Kurosawa, while his belly had been warmed by two fingers’ of single malt that Bridgewater had claimed was over a hundred years old.

“Very fuckin’ diff’cult. But yer worth it, Ash-Boy!”

Mike was impressed. Instead of holding the party in the caravanserai, the subject of more than one nightmare the past week, the Chief had appropriated one of the emergency shelters. And except for Stella and the Ready Team, it seemed like the entire Valley had made an appearance.

A huge bonfire had been lit out front, casting flames thirty feet into the evening sky. A separate fire pit was laid with at least two steer butchered and grilling over the coals, casting their fragrant aroma far and wide. Turnips and parsnips, harvested after resting underground all winter, had been transformed into a savory hash. Fresh-baked bread had appeared as well.

Then the beer was brought out.

Not the slop they made for export.

Not the slightly better product they sold in the village.

Not even Mother Griffina’s brew, regarded as consistently the second-best among the Families.

No, this was all, all, Mother Lenka’s winter brew. Ten full barrels of dark ale, which made Mike wonder just how long Katrina had been planning her little ambush, and if the old witch really could see the future. Her brew was liquid gold, carefully hoarded and always in scarce supply. The dark ale was only made in times of great good fortune and prosperity, held for drinking on rare occasions. The last such, he’d heard, was the funeral of ten Keldara who’d died trying to rescue some of their own from slavers. It had been over twenty years ago.

Before his arrival, that was the last time Keldara had gone to the Halls, the last time the tun had received warriors. It happened early in the winter, and the bodies had awaited internment until the ground thawed enough for the burial. More than enough time for her to prepare her ale. But for her to provide ten barrels was simply unheard-of, impossible! Unless…

Overanalyzing again, he told himself firmly. No Gods talked to her, let her know the date…

Bowing to American traditions, Katrina was nowhere to be seen. In fact, there were very few women here at all, Mike realized with a start.