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Sunday WildCard – The Kildaran, Chapters 29, 30, & 31

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.

Thank You.

Here’s the button:


I’ll be happy to vote for your cover! It looks great!

And now, here’s your Kildaran:

CHAPTER 29

Low Earth Orbit; Lake Kek-Usn; The Caravanserai; Groznyy

April 11

Chechnik hadn’t lied about Russian satellites.

Exactly.

Quite.

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.

*

“Miserable Americans.”

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!”

“Anisa -”

“And don’t get me started with the Russians! Their crap satellites might be old, but at least they have some in orbit!”

Anisa!

“Sorry.”

“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!”

“Yes, dear.”

“If they’d listened to us in the first place, we’d have the gamma scans!”

“Yes, dear.”

“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.

“What?”

“Nothing, dear.”

“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?”

“I’ll try.”

*

“It’s cold.”

“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!

J explained.

“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.”

*

“Kassab.”

“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!”

“Inshallah, Boulos!”

“Inshallah.”

*

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.”

“No bet.”

“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?”

“Exactly.”

“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.

“SEALs.”

*

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.”