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. She had awakened him with all her wonted gentleness and was proceeding to interrogate him.
She squeezed harder.
“Where are the trucks? Who took them? When did they take them?” A hand on her shoulder stopped her.
“He might be able to answer if you let him breathe,” suggested J.
She dropped him, disgustedly.
“Filthy pig-fucker. Useless, just like all the other soldier-boys.”
J knelt next to the panting boy.
“What’s your name?” he inquired, gently.
“Tomas,” he managed.
“Tomas, we’re trying to help you. My friend just got a little carried away, didn’t you, Katya?”
“And I’m sure she’s sorry. Aren’t you?”
“Yes. Sorry.” She still sounded more pissed than apologetic, but since he was still breathing Tomas didn’t press the issue.
“Now. What happened?”
Ah, yes, old school. Good cop, bad cop.
And the witness? Scared shitless.
“Where do we stand?”
“Another thirty minutes and we’re outta here,” answered Adams. He, Nielson, Vanner, Grez, and Captain Guerrin were gathered in the conference room, reviewing the rapid execution of the mobilization plan.
“Dragon and Valkyrie have received clearance for Russian overflight, but they won’t authorize rearm. Refuel, yes.”
Nielson nodded. It wasn’t an unexpected complication.
“We have the transport to carry her bullets? Hump ‘em. JP?“
“My men are up to speed and synched into your commo, have current maps with pre-set positions noted, and have their gear loaded. One platoon is already in the hills; the other two are on ten minutes’ notice.”
“How’s the liaison with the mortars?” asked Adams archly.
“Corporal Sivula has done his job in a highly professional manner,” said Guerrin stiffly, then smiled. “He and Jessia have them seamlessly integrated.”
“What a shock.”
“And you’re clear on your mission?” interrupted Nielson.
“Patrol out to about ten klicks from the Valley proper. Maintain sentry posts at established locations. Defend the Valley against any incursions.”
“Status of enemy forces?” Nielson turned to Vanner.
“Groznyy site under observation. Demo emplaced. Standing order to engage when the nuke arrives.”
“U-2V orbiting. We’re receiving a continuous feed, visual and infrared. Nothing’s getting out of there without us knowing.”
“And the mobile force?”
Grez answered with a grimace.
“Unknown. Cottontail reported that they followed them to Kalininskiy, a small town a few klicks south of the lake. No attempt was made to hide the movement. The trail ended at a vehicle depot outside town. J questioned the guard, who didn’t know much. He said he was in the guardhouse, answered a knock on the door, and next thing he knew Cottontail had him up against a wall by the throat and was barking questions at him. He did say he was surprised any trucks were missing.”
“This depot is in a very remote area. It’s used mostly for obsolete machines the Russians don’t think have much chance of repair, even allowing for the usual incompetence and parts issues.”
“Did he identify what was taken?”
“He couldn’t point out anything specifically. They don’t actually patrol the lot, just control access from the main road, so he wasn’t familiar with the inventory. And the printed inventory list seems totally worthless. J read parts to me which suggest they made off with four GAZ M-23 escort vehicles, twelve Tatra T-111 trucks, six PAZ-672G all-terrain busses. There were more, but the list seemed silly for a military depot.”
Vanner was looking thoughtfully at her.
“What else was taken? According to inventory.”
She consulted her notes. “Two ZIL-E 167s, no description.”
“Big six by six troop movers designed for heavy terrain. Anything else?”
“That’s their version of a jeep. Okay, this actually makes sense.”
“What? All of these are at least forty years old!”
“No, it’s perfect. Look. First, this facility is close enough to their base to be easily accessed, right?”
“Second, it’s lightly guarded and infrequently visited.”
“They could do any necessary work undisturbed,” Grez added, getting into the rhythm.
“Right. Third, look at what they took. The GAZ M-23 was a high-speed escort vehicle built for the KGB in the sixties; the Tatra T-111 is legendary for its reliability and off-road capability; the PAZ-672G was a twenty-six passenger bus built with four-wheel-drive for use in Siberia; and the ZIL-E was built to carry troops through any terrain, under any conditions.”
“They can move on roads or off-road, whichever is easier.”
“Right again. They can use the M-23s to scout ahead, even split into several groups, an escort with each.”
“And since they’re all army vehicles, nobody will question them, either.”
“Exactly. Perfect camouflage.”
“That’s great,” interrupted Nielson. “How do we track them? We don’t know where they’re going!”
“A problem,” admitted Vanner.
“The only solution I see is to track all groups of trucks in the area,” suggested Grez.
“Very manpower-intensive,” cautioned Vanner.
“And how do we know which bunch of trucks is which? Have the Russians stop them and knock on the window? ‘Excuse me, did you steal these?’ BANG!” mocked Adams.
“If we coordinate with the Russian military, we should be able to eliminate most of the legitimate movements.”
“If they can find their ass with both hands and a GPS!” snorted Adams.
“It’s the best shot we have!” countered Vanner.
“We don’t even know if these fuckers have a nuke! Maybe they’re just transferring to another base!”
“Calm down, you two!” snapped Nielson. “It’s a major movement either way. It needs attention. If it turns out they’re simply en route to a new location, then the Russians can deal with them.”
“Here’s a scary thought: what if they break up into multiple groups because they have multiple nukes?”
“Thank you so very fucking much!” snarled Adams.
Nielson ignored him.
“Pat, get on the horn to Chechnik. Fill him in, get him working his end.”
“Grez, back down in the hole. You usually run three shifts?”
“Run them double shifts, overlapping. Primary group on for eight hours, second group comes on with primary for eight, primary goes off for eight when the third group comes on. You’ll need the extra eyes and ears.”
“What about Mike?”
“I’ll make that call.”
The Keldara’s whisper over the radio net brought the entire team to full attention. Silently, with the skill pounded into them through seemingly endless drills, safeties were released, rounds chambered, guns raised. The plastic explosives, arranged around windows and doors that would otherwise potentially deflect a bullet from its target, were primed and armed.
Braon just waited. He was the team sniper, this was his role.
An old Toyota sedan, battered and dented, rolled down the street towards the house, followed by a nondescript heavy truck, bed covered over with rotting canvas. The sedan flashed its brights once, twice, three times, then rolled to a stop.
The front door opened.
“Wait until they all exit the building,” whispered Pavel. “Try not to kill Kassab.”
Chechens, bundled tightly against the cold, spilled out of the doorway. The sedan’s doors opened in response, and three men climbed out.
“Seven, eight. That’s all of them. Kassab’s in the lead.”
The night erupted. The demo charges were triggered, spraying the trailing fighters with glass and brick, while deadly-accurate fire methodically mowed them down from the front. Kassab alone escaped immediate death, but rounds shattered his left leg and right shoulder simultaneously.
The men in the car fared as poorly; all three died before properly registering they were being attacked. The driver of the truck reacted a little more quickly, slamming into gear and mashing the accelerator to the floor. Unfortunately, he slammed the truck into fourth instead of reverse. The truck lurched forward, crunched into the trunk of the sedan, and stalled. The driver didn’t have time to realize his mistake before a round exploded his head like an overripe melon. The tires exploded under the impact of dozens of rounds.
“Don’t fire into the back of the truck!” called Pavel over the radio. “We can’t risk damaging the bomb!”
He changed frequencies.
“Braon, shift position. I need you able to see into the truck.”
Intermittent, ineffectual fire sprayed erratically from the bed of the truck. It was uncoordinated, panicked, but it forced the Keldara to stay undercover.
“In position. Sighting.” A series of sharp cracks echoed through the night. “Targets serviced.”
Pavel waved Ivor and Artur forward. Moments later, they reported, “Package secure.”
“Check for survivors and get a medic out for Kassab.”
Kassab had lost a fair amount of blood and was barely conscious. Gerasim, the medic, ran a pint of O Neg and another of saline to bring the volume up while he worked on staunching the bleeding.
“Can he hear me?” asked Pavel.
“He should, but he’s in and out. He might not track very well.”
“Good enough. Kassab!”
The Chechen’s eyelids fluttered. “Who are you?”
“I’m the man asking you questions. If you want to live, I’d suggest you answer them. When do you report in next?”
“Piss on you.”
“If that’s how you want it,” shrugged Pavel. He grabbed the ruined shoulder and squeezed. Kassab groaned.
“Again, Kassab. When do you report in?”
“I would rather die.”
“And I would prefer to honor your wish, but the Kildar would be disappointed in me. So I will ask once more. If you do not tell me, why, we’ll just have to keep you alive. Awake. In pain. All the way back to the Valley. Then I’ll let Mother Lenka ask you questions. I’m sure our doctor can repair any truly critical damage, keep you functional for a long, long time.”
He leaned in closer.
“Do you know the stories they tell of our women, Kassab? How they tear the still-beating hearts from the bodies of their victims? Drink their blood?” His voice dropped to a ghastly whisper. “They’re all true.”
At a normal tone, he continued, “Last time. When do you report in?”
Kassab choked out, “I am to report when Boulos arrives, and again when we’re ready to place the device.”
“Timetable? Exact, please.”
Kassab shook his head. “No exact timetable. We didn’t know how quickly Boulos would arrive, or how long it will take to move the bomb.”
“Have to hurry up. There must be internal bleeding, his BP is dropping like a stone.”
“When is the latest you can report? When will they start to worry?”
Kassab didn’t answer. He seemed to have passed out. Pavel hit the bloody leg, and Kassab awoke with a gasp of pain.
“How long until you must report?”
“Sundown, tomorrow.” His face grayed and he slumped down unconscious. Gerasim pushed Pavel away.
“That’s it. He’s out. If you want any more information from him, I need to treat him now.”
“Keep him alive. We need what he knows.” Artur trotted up. “Report.”
“Weapon is secure, but that truck isn’t going anywhere. Three survivors from the house force; none from the incoming group.”
“Condition of survivors?”
“Two are in a bad way, don’t think they’ll make it much longer. The third is better off, says his name is Salah.”
“Very good. Casualties?”
“Iosif tripped over a brick and sprained his ankle. We’ve got it taped up. He‘s fully functional, but he‘ll feel it tomorrow,” he finished with a smile.
Pavel grinned back.
“Good. We’ve got to get out of here, quickly. Take half the men, gather our gear, police the area, and prepare to roll. Ivor!” he called. “Rig the townhouse! I want that place rubble!”
Turning again, he said, “Semyon, take two men and toss the house. Look for cell phones, computers, anything like that. You have five minutes!”
“Tammy, can you make it to Groznyy in one hop?”
“No problem, Colonel.”
“What about back?”
“As long as I’m not too heavily loaded.”
“Get in the air. Tac frequency three. Dust-off of wounded prisoners and a package. Pavel will give you the exact rendezvous point.”
“What’s the package?”
“Crap,” she muttered. “Roger. On our way.”
Tammy dropped the phone, grabbed her flight suit and started slipping into it. “Naida!”
“Suit up! We’re hot! Chief!”
D’Allaird, anticipating her, replied, “Gassed and ready to roll!”
“Outstanding!” Hopping on one foot, she pulled on her other boot. “Lift off in two minutes!”
Naida rushed into the room, zipping her suit. “Mission, ma’am?”
“Pickup in Groznyy, prisoners and a nuke.”
Naida gulped. “A nuke?”
“That’s what the man said. Better be a smooth flight then, huh?” A devil-may-care grin crossed her face. “Knew this job was gonna be the shit!”
Mike’s voice on the phone could barely be heard over the pounding music. Nielson could clearly hear a singer: “With noble acts, the bravest souls / Endure the heart’s remains…”
Stasia and Katrina were wearing the closest they could come to goth outfits on short notice, though Stasia’s leather bustier was considerably closer. They were dancing to the music, Jack watching them while scanning the crowd and enduring. Though, listening to the lyrics, he thought he might have to reassess.
Kat was doing her best to keep up with Stasia, but there was no comparison. Stasia was in her element. Despite the crowd. Despite the oddities of dress. Through Mike, she knew the music. Through the sheik, she knew how to dance. It allowed her to move freely, expressively, and she was taking full advantage of this opportunity.
Rogue, the lead singer, had noticed her, and had asked the stage manager to invite her on-stage. But before he could find her, she would be gone. A dream that once was.
“It’s going down!”
“What?” shouted Mike.
“The op! It’s going down!” shouted back Nielson.
Nielson could hear, barely, heartfelt cursing.
“Understood! We’re moving now!”
The phone cut off. He could only imagine the conversation happening on the other end. The girls weren’t going to be happy. It sounded like one hell of a concert.
“Arise, my brothers!”
Inarov’s still-handsome face glowed with the fervor of the fanatic on the web page.
“The day of reckoning for the infidel overlords is at hand! Arise and join with me in establishing the Trans-Caucasian Emirate of Islam! Take up arms, knowing the Allah has provided you with guidance. Listen and obey my words as your Emir! I promise you justice! I promise you power! I promise you freedom!”
His visage turning stern, he continued.
“O godless leaders of Chechnya and Russia, I abjure thee! Remove your troops from our land, allow our men to live their lives as Allah has willed, and leave this land forever, or Allah shall bring down upon your capitals His holy fire and burn your poison out! Depart, and you shall taste Allah’s mercy. Remain, and you shall taste Allah’s wrath. You have two days to obey the word of Allah and his Emir.”
Now the face softened, smiling.
“My brothers, have faith. Through the mercy of Allah, you shall be free to live as the Qur’an! Be strong, resist the temptations of the infidels, and you shall be among the chosen!”
The picture froze for a moment, then resumed.
“Arise, my brothers!”
“Shit.” Bob Pierson’s oath was muttered, but no less heartfelt. He had made it home at a reasonable time, only to be called back to OSOL three short hours later. Now he watched the feed from the net a second time, reaching for the phone.
“Keldara House, Ilena Mahona speaking, how may I help you sir or ma’am?”
“Colonel Nielson, please.”
“Certainly, Colonel Pierson. One moment.”
“Hold on. How did you know…?”
“The Colonel has been expecting your call, sir.” He could practically hear her dimpling. “You’ll be on the secure line shortly.”
Seconds later, he heard, “Good evening, Colonel.”
Without preface, Pierson replied, “Have you seen the web?”
“We’ve been a little busy, Colonel,” Nielson answered irritably. “What about it?”
“Your friend Inarov just posted a video, calling for an uprising and promising the use of what he calls ‘Allah’s fire’. Sounds like he’s getting ready to make things happen.”
“More than getting ready. We just intercepted a group in Groznyy, and they were packing heavy.”
“We don’t know yet. It’s en route to the Valley, should be here in a few hours. We’ll let you know then. What else does he say on the video?”
“It’s on a loop, you can check it our yourself.”
He gave Nielson a web address.
“We’re trying to trace it, but not having much luck. It‘s getting plenty of hits. With any kind of luck, the server‘ll crash soon. Think you can help on that?”
“Vanner’ll get on it as well. Anything else, Colonel?”
“No. If we hear anything else, I’ll make sure it’s passed on.”
And without another word, the connection was broken.