And the vacation ends for Mike.
Not the way he wants it to end, and frankly things could have been better back at the home front, but all in all not a bad start to the op.
If the op had to start while he was away.
Then again, it seems to happen to him, doesn’t it? He’s made a habit, post-Teams, of being in the Wrong Place at exactly the Wrong Time.
Big post drop for you today, because I’m asking a favor.
I need your support.
I have a book cover in a contest; you may have seen the posts. The cover is for my latest Cassidy Chronicles book, and it’s doing well.
In fact, as I type this, it’s in first place.
But it won’t stay there if I don’t keep racking up the votes.
What I need from you, now, is to click the button below this spiel, vote, and then come back and read your three chapters. Don’t worry, it’s programmed to open in a separate tab so you won’t lose the chapters! And I might normally wait to ask you until the end of the post, but I need this. I need the promo lift this will bring.
When you get to the site, you’ll want to be on a computer. It doesn’t like people voting from phones. And when you create an account (if you haven’t done this already), you might want to just use an email address rather than the FB button.
So vote today, and vote again in the final round next weekend.
Here’s the button:
And now, here’s your Kildaran:
Low Earth Orbit; Lake Kek-Usn; The Caravanserai; Groznyy
Chechnik hadn’t lied about Russian satellites.
In so many words.
It was true: most of their high-resolution optical reconnaissance satellites, like the Yantar and Kobolt series, were placed in orbits that allowed them to focus their cameras on the United States. Overflying Russia were several Liana COMINT (Communications Intelligence) and Tselina ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) craft, designed to eavesdrop on cellular phones, radio transmissions, and other forms of electronic ‘noise’.
Only a single old Tsirkon, with its low-resolution, visible-spectrum-only camera, was positioned to observe the area around Lake Kek-Usn. It couldn’t ‘see’ anything much smaller than three meters across, nor could it penetrate the tree cover.
That was the beauty, and the downfall, of the old Soviet-era satellites: their longevity. While they were robust, durable, and long-lived, they were also limited in function and nigh on impossible to upgrade. While they were still functioning, however marginally, they wouldn’t be replaced.
Upgrade? Yes, a newer satellite would have the best possible hardware. And yes, it would be able to take advantage of software updates as they came available. These old satellites, well, some of them had tape drives! Not to mention the fact the software was often written in a programming language which was more closely related to the computers on Skylab.
Uplink? Forget it.
American satellites weren’t any better. While they did provide continuous coverage of the former Soviet Union, the Caucasus region had been a low priority for many months. Even with urging from agency directors, it took considerable time for department heads to execute new orders. Besides, there was plenty of COMINT coverage, and didn’t everybody use cell phones now?
From whatever corner of the universe the various gods and demigods gather to watch the plight of humanity, Murphy smiled.
Three Predator drones had been dispatched. One was forced to turn back when a processor reported an electrical fault. The fact it was a relatively minor system, which had a functional backup and a built-in bypass routine was irrelevant. Standing orders were to RTB if the bird wasn’t 100%, so back it went.
Murphy smiled wider.
The other two continued onward through the icy winds. These same winds deposited a thin coat of ice over the optics of one bird, orbiting the eastern shore of the lake, blurring its vision for this mission.
No permanent damage, noted its controller, and made a note in the log to have it de-iced on return. Of course, if they had been on their game, if they had been brought into the loop as to the importance of the mission, they might have realized that they were taking drones from a desert environment and flying to a cold, mountainous region and installed the necessary hardware. Little things like a heater.
Murphy took a long pull at the glass in his hand: mead, brought over from Valhalla.
The final Predator, on station and fully functional, orbited the western shore, some three kilometers away.
Murphy shrugged. Can’t win ‘em all.
Two hours before dawn, when Gereshk headed north through the woods, with a dozen men and a five-megaton thermonuclear weapon, nobody was in position to note it.
Nor did they note, an hour later, when Boulos Rahal and another six mujahideen headed south, with their much-smaller bomb, to Groznyy and Kassab’s impatient force.
Grez looked over.
“What’s the problem, Anisa?”
“Look at this map!” She transferred the map she was examining from her station to the main screen.
It was more of a patchwork than a map. Gaping holes in coverage were immediately apparent, giving the image the appearance of a jigsaw put together by a three-year-old.
“I could do better with Google Earth!” she snapped.
“Probably, but -”
“They ask for our help, promise support, and what do we get? Nothing!”
“And don’t get me started with the Russians! Their crap satellites might be old, but at least they have some in orbit!”
“I understand. Just do the best you can.”
Anisa returned to her work, muttering. She didn’t notice Grez leave the Cave.
“Patrick, we cannot do our jobs if we don’t have the data!”
“If they’d listened to us in the first place, we’d have the gamma scans!”
“It would be a case of ‘follow the bouncing ball’. One JDAM and the problem would be solved! We wouldn’t have to put any of our men at risk cleaning up someone else’s problem!”
“Maybe if they painted it pink…” said Vanner, quietly.
“We need the data, Patrick. At this point, I can only see two solutions: call back the Mice and let them hack their way into whatever they can to steal it; or call the Kildar, get him to shake the trees.”
Vanner shot his wife a horrified look. He was not lacking in courage, but there were some things which simply didn’t bear thinking on.
“Not the Kildar. He’d probably shoot someone. Several someones. Probably whoever called him and ruined his vacation, too.”
“Then the Mice.”
“That won’t work either. They’re up to their armpits in snakes right now.”
“Then what do we do?”
“One other option. We can try to shake the tree and see what Pierson can scare up.”
“Do you think it will do any good?”
“Can’t hurt. And a damn sight better option than calling the Kildar.”
“I have to agree.”
“Okay, I’ll call Bob. In the meantime, see if you can get the girls thinking about the problem from a different angle? Maybe that way they won’t get so frustrated?”
“Weather is a situation you must learn to accept. Missions will not wait for your comfort.”
“I understand, but can’t we figure out a way to be just a little warmer?” She raised an eyebrow, almost suggestively.
“I know one way…” She didn’t expect him to respond and was not disappointed.
Katya and J were laying in the snow, across the road from where Gereshk had disappeared two days before. The signal from the tracer, now that they were back within range, was weak but stationary, about three hundred yards into the woods. They were both dressed in thermal protective garments, camouflaged for the snow cover, and should have been quite comfortable.
Honestly, Katya was warm enough, except for her feet. Next time, she was stealing a pair of the militia’s heated socks. Walking a bit would help, but no. They had to simply lay in wait, observing. Fucking boring. And goddam fucking cold!
“We are virtually invisible to the casual observer as we are now. If we disturb the snow any further, we risk creating an unnatural shape, one which a sentry’s eye would be prone to pick out. Or, worse still, if we should be spotted while creating our little shelter, our mission would certainly be a failure. With nuclear stakes, do you wish to risk that?”
“No, teacher.” The admission was grudging, at best.
“Maybe next time we should build a fucking hide.” She didn’t expect him to hear the mutter, and his gaze was like ice. “Sorry.”
“Then concentrate on the track into the woods.”
“Greetings, brother! It is Boulos!”
“Boulos, my friend, how good to hear from you! It’s been a long, long time.”
“Too long, indeed. Good news, though: I am on my way to visit, if that is convenient?”
“Delightful! All is prepared!”
“Allah smiles upon me, I shall be there tonight! And I shall bring a great gift to you!”
Stella was monitoring the ECHELON take.
“Kassab’s talking on the phone again, someone named Boulos.” She listened to the raw feed, then called up a transcript.
“Grez? I think they might be moving.”
By its nature ECHELON could be hit or miss. Massively capable, it could intercept just about any signal, any location, any time. This was its downfall, too; without an adequate filter, it returned far too many false positives.
Filters and other such programming were usually the purview of Creata and her Mice. However, the Mice weren’t available, and needs must. These filters had been programmed jointly by the rest of the intelligence center. This call was returning a confidence rating of 85%. Good as gold.
Greznya was by her side in seconds.
“Who is moving?”
“I mean, I think a bomb is on the move. To Groznyy.”
“Did Katya or J call it in?”
Stella shook her head.
“No, and that’s why I’m not sure. It sounds like a badly-disguised code, but here, you listen.”
Grez put on headphones and listened to the brief conversation.
“You’re right, it does sound like movement. Who is Boulos?”
“Probably Boulos Rahal, another of Inarov’s regular supporters. We haven’t gotten a voiceprint match, but we’re running it.”
“He would make sense to transport a weapon?”
“Very much so. Inarov trusts him as much as he trusts anyone.”
“Send an alert to Pavel’s team, let them know to expect company soon.”
“Should they take out Kassab?”
Stella’s fingers hovered over the keyboard, ready to tap out the few strokes necessary to put the team into action.
“Not our decision.”
“It’s our decision.”
“Scrag ‘em now and we’ll have a little surprise waiting for Mr. Rahal when he arrives.” The Chief was unequivocal.
“What if there’s another contact attempt? What then?”
“Pat, you worry too much. These ragheads don’t know diddlyshit for security. I’ll bet they don’t even warn ‘em before they show up tonight and have to knock on the door.”
“It’s still too great a risk,” added Nielson. “If Pat’s right about another call, we can‘t chance it. If he’s wrong, we have enough firepower there to take out twice the force.”
Adams considered this. “If the team can plant some demo, it’ll make the take-down easier.”
“Do they have a sniper?”
“Yeah, Braon. He’s not in Lasko’s league, but who is? That’s why he’s off now. You thinking about rooftop?”
“So. They place demo where they can, cover the rear with Braon, and take them from the front. Best time would be when the other group arrives, situational awareness should be at its lowest.”
“You’re the SEAL, Chief. Whatever you think will work best.”
“They are soooo fucked.”
Nielson rolled his eyes.
Both the half-blind Predator and myopic Tsirkon saw the battalion-sized force move south out of the woods. They weren’t moving quickly, since they were on foot and leading a single mule-drawn wagon. This was just what they were looking for, and the electronic intelligences screamed.
Murphy stopped smiling, the mead sour on his tongue.
“Movement south of Kek-Usn,” announced Kelson. The American driver, sitting at her video terminal, commanded the Predator’s camera to zoom in. “Sorry, not much joy here. I can see a bunch of people, but – whoa!”
The screen had suddenly erupted in static.
“We’ve lost telemetry from the bird!” she snapped. “All systems are off-line!”
She typed in a series of commands that should have reset the operations computer aboard the Predator and waited ten seconds.
“Nothing. I don’t think there’s anything there anymore.”
“Confirmed. No joy on return signal. Bird is dead,” agreed the support tech, sitting in the booth next to hers.
“Shot down?” asked the monitoring officer.
“Seems like. Shit! I didn‘t get a flare or any other warning. They shouldn‘t have anything so advanced!”
“Nothing you could have done. The question is, do we leave the other on station, or do we send it after your bogey?”
“What was that?”
“What was what?”
“I thought I heard something, off to the south.”
J strained his ears, but whatever it had been was gone, now.
“What did it sound like?”
“A single sharp crack.”
“A hunter, perhaps. Pay attention to your sector.”
“General, with all due respect, one Predator or two doesn’t mean squat if we lose track of a nuke.”
“How do you know they have a nuke, Pierson?”
“Would you use a ground-to-air on a Predator if you weren’t protecting something big? The driver didn‘t get any warning, which means her bird was taken out by something using either purely passive sensors or optics. Either way, it‘s dammed high tech and seriously expensive.” He plowed on. “Let’s assume you’re right, General, and we just have a bunch of people off for a walk in the woods in winter. I think I’d be just a little curious about it, don’t you?”
“You have a point,” admitted the Air Force officer. “Very well, I’ll order the other Predator to follow. I’m keeping this one above missile range though!”
“That’s not gonna do any good, sir, unless it’s above 20,000 feet. That’s the range of the Igla’s we think these bastards have, and that’s too high for an off-the-shelf Predator to do much good. They’re only good up to 25,000, and their cameras can’t see worth a damn from much over ten thousand.”
“Teach your grandma to suck eggs, Pierson. What else can I do?”
“Not much, sir. My suggestion is you order it in at about ten thousand. It might be high enough to degrade the Igla’s accuracy and maybe give your drivers enough time to pick up a trace and evade. If not, well, they can’t knock out the satellites.”
“42nd Recon, Anderson.”
“Richie? Bob Pierson. How soon can you get that Two Victor in place?”
“One is standing by for orders on Diego Garcia, and a second is en route.”
“Get it up. We need eyes, and we need ‘em now.”
“You got it.”
Nielson’s voice, echoing through the caravanserai, brought Vanner and Adams at a run.
“What happened?” asked Adams, first to arrive.
“There’s a god dammed battalion-sized force of Chechens marching south from Kek-Usn, armed with SAMs, and we have no fucking idea where they are!”
“How did they get by?”
“They blasted the Predator orbiting above them to splinters as they started movement, then kept firing SAMs at the second drone until the chickenshit Air Force puke in charge pulled it out of the area!”
“Two hours ago. Pierson just called, he’s gotten a U-2V in the air and heading that way, but it’s gonna be at least another hour before it’s on station. Motherfucker!” Nielson dropped into his chair. “We’ve lost them.”
“Dave, Katya and J are in the area -”
“And how the fuck did they manage to miss this? I thought he was the master spy?”
Vanner shrugged. “HumInt is limited to what the agents see and hear. Let’s get them moving, see if they can’t track the Chechens. They can’t have gone far, not on foot.”
“You do that. Chief, get the teams moving faster. As soon as you can get them rolling, I want them on the road.”
“What about Mike?”
“How long do you need?”
“Three hours for the Keldara. Not sure about Dragon and Valkyrie, but they can catch up. They need serious ECM packages, if we‘re getting this kind of fire at drones.”
“I’ll call him once you hit the road. He’ll fly into Tbilisi, I’ll have Dragon pick him up and ferry him to wherever you are at the time.”
“That’ll work. And the girls?”
“Valkyrie can shuttle them back here.” He turned to yell for Daria, but she was already there, closing her notebook. With a half-nod, she headed out, giving orders.
“Damn, I’m gonna miss that girl.”
“They got past us,” snapped J, rising from the snow and dashing down the road, caution thrown to the wind as he traded stealth for speed. This part of the mission was blown and only serious effort would begin to repair the damage.
“What? How?” panted Katya, running hard through the snow to catch up.
“There must be another exit, one we didn’t know about. Vanner said there’s a force headed south, with at least a two-hour head start.” He shook his head. “I should have realized.”
“Remember you heard a noise?”
“Yes, I do.”
“That was one of the Predators being blown up, not a hunter.”
He smiled grimly.
“See? You begin to exceed your teacher’s abilities.” They had reached their car, far off the road in a copse.
“I’ll drive, you look for anything unusual. It won’t be easy to hide several hundred men.”
Despite the late night, Mike woke with the dawn after a restless night. A nagging feeling dogged him, barely remembered dreams of cold and darkness. He extricated himself from the sheets, being especially careful not to wake Katrina, and padded out to the living room. Hughes was racked out on the couch but sprang up almost instantly.
“Sorry. Couldn’t sleep any longer. Need to get some exercise. Want to join me?”
“No problem. Yeah, if I don‘t have to leave the hotel.”
“I‘m sure that can be arranged. Why don‘t you go find where their fitness center, or whatever they call it, is?”
Hughes took the implied dismissal quietly as Mike pulled out his mobile and called Hardesty.
“Yes?” came the sleepy voice.
The response was much more alert.
“Plans have changed.”
“How soon do you need the plane? She’s fueled, but I’d prefer the other crew get a little more rest before we lift.”
“Whoa! No need to be so quick! Consider this a notification of movement.”
“I’m used to your, ah, shall we say precipitous departures?”
“Point. No, we won’t be leaving until late tonight, but we’ll be flying back home. Does the bird have the legs for a single hop from here?”
The reply was hesitant.
“I don’t believe so. I’ll check on that and file a flight plan.”
“Okay, I’ll call back later.” He hung up without another word and, spoke again without turning.
“Morning, Stasia. Sleep well?” He faced her mid-question.
“I slept alone. Again.” She pouted through the reply, then she smiled. “I suppose I shall adjust. What are you doing?”
“Just making plans for tonight. Thought Hardesty might appreciate a little advance notice for once.”
“We are leaving St. Louis so soon?”
“Back to the Valley. Mission’s going hot.”
“Ah. Should we return sooner?”
“No, they can handle the mobilization on their own. Plus, I’m not gonna miss Crüxshadows if I’m in town!”
“When you talk to Captain Hardesty again, please ask him to plan a stop in Washington.”
“Have you forgotten Katrina’s dress?”
Danger! Danger! Stall! Don’t answer that!
“And would it be polite to strand Jack, I mean, Major Hughes here?”
“Not as such.”
“Michael!” She sounded vexed. “I see you would have!”
He was saved by the suite’s phone ringing.
“They’ve got a gym, and it’s open. Seventh floor.”
“Be right down.” Hanging up, he stood. “Hughes. Off to do a workout. Kat’s still asleep; I’ll wake her when I get back.”
Minefields avoided for now, he retreated.
A sweat-filled hour later they returned. Stasia was waiting.
“I talked with Noemi. Most of Katrina’s clothes are finished, and she can have them at the airport tonight. But the dress is taking longer.”
“Can she ship it?”
“I asked. She can but is unwilling. She will bring it personally to the Valley when it is complete.”
“I’m sure that’ll cost.”
“She said she would do it at no charge, on the condition she be allowed to use photographs of Katrina in the dress for her business.”
“Deal.” He nodded at his bedroom door. “Is Katrina awake yet?”
“I have not heard her,” she answered.
“Right. We’ll be out in a while.”
He walked to the door and ghosted in. Katrina was still asleep, nightclothes disarrayed. He said, once, “Kat?”
She stirred slightly.
“Kat?” he repeated, a little louder.
She stirred again, but that was all.
He opened his palm and slapped her butt, eliciting a startled squeak as she popped upright.
“Good morning!” he said cheerfully. “Awake now?”
“Michael!” she said severely.
“What? You weren’t waking up, and we need to get going.”
“Busy day. Now, are you going to get out of bed, or do I have to encourage you again?”
“Jenkins. We have to add a stop in DC.”
“Bugger. Right, I’ll refile the flight plan.”
“Murphy strikes again.”
“Indeed. Just for information though, she does have the range, just, to make Tbilisi from here.”
“Good to know, I guess.”
Eventually they were ready.
“The Arch should be open soon,” said Mike. “We can visit there first, go to the Zoo, or just walk around the city if that strikes your fancy.” He looked out the window, seeing the wind stand the flags straight out. “I’d suggest the Arch, since it’s sunny now. Don’t want to go up and get clouded in.”
“The Arch, then,” said Katrina.
“Sounds like a plan,” added Hughes.
“How high is it?” asked Stasia.
“I’m not sure of the exact number, but I know it’s over six hundred feet. High enough to see quite a ways. Come on, let’s head out.”
The sun warmed them as they walked the few blocks to the site of the Arch. They entered the North entrance, underground, and boarded the egg-shaped tram car to the top. The door closed.
“Are you sure this is safe?” asked Stasia, looking nervously around at the small space.
“Of course,” started Mike, but was interrupted by a narration: “Welcome to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis…”
Four minutes later, the tram stopped, and the small door slid open. They climbed a series of stairs, past other similar doors, which began curved but quickly flattened out. Soon they were in the observation deck, a long, gently curved room. The walls were angled out from the floor, mirroring the triangular facets of the arch. Deep, small windows were set along both sides, the walls carpeted, and a small ledge ran along the floor to provide extra lift. A few other tourists wandered from window to window.
Stasia clung to Mike.
“I do not like this,” she said.
“Here,” he responded, guiding her to the wall. “Lean against this. Feel how solid that is?”
“You’ll be okay here,” he added. “Jack? Stay nearby.”
Katrina was leaning over to a west-facing window, overlooking the city. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing.
“Don’t know, babe,” he replied. “I’m not that familiar with St. Louis.”
A park attendant, walking by, said, “What building do you mean?”
“Right down there, many pillars out front, with the green dome on top.”
“Oh, that’s the Old Courthouse.” The attendant’s voice changed; obviously, this was a question he’d answered before. “The majestic Old Courthouse has remained over the past 150 years as one of St. Louis’ most prominent architectural landmarks. The Old Courthouse was the site of the first two trials of the pivotal Dred Scott case in 1847 and 1850. It was also where Virginia Minor’s case for a woman’s right to vote came to trial in the 1870s.”
“Sounds like you’ve said that once or twice,” said Mike.
The ranger smiled. “Maybe. It’s still worth a look, if you have the time. Some really neat exhibits down there, especially about the Underground Railroad.”
“Oh, we were on one of those in Washington! Boston, too!”
Mike contained his mirth, suspecting that laughing at Kat in public would be a mistake.
“Not a subway, Katrina. The Underground Railroad was a system which helped free slaves before the Civil War.”
“It wasn’t even usually a railroad,” added the ranger with a straight face. “Just a series of safe houses.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed, then returned to the window. “That’s a baseball stadium?” she said, pointing.
“Busch Stadium, right?” said Mike.
“Home of the Cardinals, sure is!”
“I’d like to see another game; can we go, Mike?”
“Don’t suppose you know the schedule?” he said, and the ranger shook his head ruefully.
“Sorry, miss, the Redbirds are out of town this week. They’ll be home again next Tuesday if you’ll be in town?”
“Nope, maybe another visit.”
“No better place to see a game!” Looking around, he continued, “Nice talking to you folks, but I have to keep moving.”
“Thanks for your time,” agreed Mike.
“Sorry, Kat.” He leaned down, head next to hers, and peered out the window. “See that white dome? That’s the football stadium. I don’t know what it’s called, though. The Rams play there.”
Falling silent, he took in the city with her for a moment, then moved to the other side.
“I know what we’re doing next!” he exclaimed.
“What?” she asked, coming across the aisle.
“Down there.” He pointed to a riverboat moored across the river. “On the other side of the Mississippi. Name says it’s the Casino Queen, so I’m thinking it’s a riverboat casino.”
“I don’t want to go there,” insisted Kat. “I thought we were going to the Zoo?”
Damn. He had all sorts of Bond lines all prepared. Well, he could be stubborn too…
They were back to the suite just before two.
“Kat?” called Mike, as he opened the door.
“Major?” No reply.
“Looks like we’re here firs – oof!”
Even an ex-SEAL could be surprised occasionally, and Stasia’s leap caught him unprepared. He staggered for a moment, her legs wrapped around his waist and arms around his shoulders, before recovering to close his arms under her shapely rear.
“What brought this on?”
“I want to thank you.” she replied, kissing his neck.
“For taking me with you today, to the casino, for lunch, for spending time with me, for everything!” She let her voice turn meek. “I’ve been quite naughty, these past days. I’m sure you’d be terribly angry if you knew what I’ve been thinking about every night.”
Getting into the play, carrying her toward his bedroom, he said, “You’d better tell me. And quickly before I really lose my temper!”
He kicked the door shut behind them.
Four o’clock. Stasia was lying across his chest, dozing. Mike heard the outer door open, so he was watching when Katrina opened the bedroom door. Stepping into the darkness, she paused briefly, eyes adjusting to the lack of light, before continuing in.
“You didn’t even flinch,” he said admiringly.
She leaned over and kissed him.
“I knew I cannot provide you all you need. Yet. And Stasia’s my friend, too. She needs you.”
Looking down at the sleeping harem manager, a wicked gleam in her eye, she inquired, “May I?”
Uncertain of her intent, Mike nodded his agreement anyway.
The palm of Kat’s hand left a bright red mark on Stasia’s ass. Eyes flying open in surprise, Stasia quickly relaxed and, with a lazy smile, said, “You have a good touch for someone so young. Again.”
“None of that right now, ladies!” interrupted Mike. “Do that when we have a little more time. Now, though, we have to get ready for dinner and a show, so up!”
Near Lake Kek-Usn; The Caravanserai; Groznyy; St. Louis
“Where did they go?”
“I – don’t – know – who – you – mean!” gasped out the young soldier. Cottontail had him firmly. no, excruciatingly tightly around the throat with her thighs and was holding him against a wall. The pressure forced him into a subservient position before the questions even started.
They followed the track from Kek-Usn here, a remote Russian Army Vehicle Maintenance Depot. Given the chronic corruption and lack of funding, it was more of a scrap yard. Four rows of trucks, personnel carriers, jeeps, and other assorted machinery lay before them, with a number of notable gaps in the lines.
While J examined the holes, hoping to determine the types of trucks taken, Cottontail made for the guard shack, where she found the unfortunate private lying unconscious in the snow