The pieces are all coming together now.
Mike and company are on their way back from the States.
Chief Adams and the Keldara are en route to their target.
Dragon and Valkyrie are racking up the stick time.
What could possibly go wrong?
Near Lake Kek-Usn; Moscow; The Caravanserai; A Road in Russia
Ibrahim’s subordinates all marveled at his abilities. He was the very devil incarnate if you failed him, but his plans always succeeded if executed properly.
There had been grumbling, initially, at the depth of the current mission. Elements had been in play for weeks before the theft of the weapons: late night forays to the Prikumskij Military Depot; surveying the targeted vehicles; legitimately acquiring the necessary parts; making repairs as the oblivious guards inadvertently kept any passers-by from disturbing their work! Surely this was a sign from Allah!
The raid itself was as perfect a mission as ever accomplished by the Chechen rebellion. Not a single martyr! Dying for Allah was glorious, praise to Him and His prophet, but not yet!
A few glitches in rearming the weapons but was it truly Ibrahim’s fault? It was the atheist pig Russians who hadn’t maintained them, after all. And Ibrahim had recognized the problem quickly, moving to solve it in a way that would be difficult to trace. Again, was it his fault the orders were delayed? Of course not! Why, he even argued with the Emir about the alternate, more dangerous method of replenishing the tritium! Even though he lost the battle, the men still appreciated it.
And now, this. Glorious! All their vehicles retrieved, combined, and divided again. The larger group took the heavy trucks and transports, except one ZIL-E, and the jeeps. They also had the weapon. Ibrahim had explained; his reasoning was two-fold.
First, since they had much more capable vehicles, it was more likely they would complete the mission. Going off-road, while it carried considerable risk, also raised the probability of avoiding detection or, if spotted, interception. Even if intercepted, they carried the bulk of the fighters and so should be able to deal with the infidels.
Second, Ibrahim’s much smaller group would serve as a decoy, if needed. He’d even brought another weapon’s crate, to provide the ring of truth. His was the much more dangerous mission, too, driving the M-23s in plain sight, escorting his ZIL-E, down the coast of the Caspian Sea all the way to Baku, then turning west through Azerbaijan. He only took twenty men, as well!
Inshallah, they would perform well. Or they would be martyrs and be served in Paradise! Either way, their mission was simple enough. Drive south, avoid contact as much as possible, halt north of the target, and drive in the weapon on a GAZ-69. Detonate when inside the valley proper, and that lucky fedayeen would be an instant martyr! Then, back to the Emir, and lead him in triumph to his Allah-inspired Emirate!
Funny, wasn’t it? How he didn’t mention what would happen to him after the mission? Allah would certainly protect His most faithful warrior!
“…and two battalions from the 58th Army, 5th Motor Rifle Division, have been ordered to coordinate with the Keldara as needed.”
“Good thinking, Colonel. I approve entirely.” Chechnik relaxed briefly, then Putin continued. “However, I would like to suggest a slight change in the mission parameters.”
“Yes, Prime Minister?”
“If the Keldara call for support, by all means allow the 5th MRD to engage the enemy. Just be precise who the enemy actually is: the Keldara.”
“Sir? What are you suggesting?”
“It is simple, Chechnik. The loyal troops of our Ground Force are to eliminate every enemy combatant, whether rebel or foreign. I will not be embarrassed by the Ami again, not their blackass president and certainly not this mercenary Kildar! Kill them all, Chechnik. Then we can bury this incident with the unmourned dead.”
Follow orders and betray the Keldara again, or disobey and hello, Siberia. Either way, his career, at the very least, was over. It was his choice as to how.
An exit strategy began to form in his mind.
Who to call?
Who to trust?
He knew of more than a few men would love to go ‘freelance’ and move to warmer climes. Thailand, perhaps.
“Keldara House, Lilia Mahona speaking, how may I help you sir or ma’am?”
“Colonel Nielson, and quickly, please! Tell him it’s Chechnik.”
Seconds later: “Nielson.”
“Colonel, I understand you are moving against Inarov today?”
“Yes. Quite soon, we hope. Were you able to secure support?”
“I have, but this is very important: do not utilize them!”
“What? Why not?”
“I may not say, Colonel. I would ask you to trust me.”
“Not fucking likely! I remember the last time you gave us advice!”
“Colonel, I beg of you, do not call for their support! After, I will explain.”
If I’m around, he mentally added.
“Any forces you can bring to bear, do so! But not the Russian Ground Force!”
Nielson, thoughtful, said, “This isn’t simple cowardice. Or a desire to cover your own ass if it all goes south. Is it?”
“No, Colonel. I cannot say more. Good luck, and remember the tale of the scorpion and the fox!”
With that the line went dead.
“Scorpion and fox?” asked Greznya, after the brief recording had been played. “What is that?”
Vanner, Nielson and Grez were meeting after Chechnik’s mysterious phone call.
“It’s a fable, I’m not sure of the origin -”
“I’ve heard Middle Eastern and also Native American,” added Vanner.
“Anyway, there’s a river. A fox and a scorpion both need to cross, but only the fox can swim. The scorpion begs to be carried across, but the fox refuses, saying the scorpion would sting him. The scorpion swears he won’t sting, and finally the fox relents. Midway, the scorpion stings the fox and, as the poison takes effect, the fox says, ‘Why did you sting? Now we shall both die!’ To which the scorpion replies, ‘It’s my nature.’ What Chechnik meant, though, begs the question. Who is the fox? And the scorpion?”
“I vote them as the scorpion,” snorted Vanner. “We already know we can’t trust them.”
“I concur,” said Grez. “And I think I understand what Chechnik intended, too.”
Nielson gave a ‘come on’ gesture.
“Listen carefully.” She replayed the recording again.
“It’s in what he does not say, as much as what he does. ‘May not’, he is doing this without permission. ‘I would ask you to trust me’, but he won’t ask, knowing we won’t trust. ‘Do not call for their support’, but he specifically tells you that support is acceptable.”
She stopped, looking confident.
“I think that he was ordered to betray us again, but this time is refusing as best he can.”
“Finally grew a set,” muttered Vanner. “Ow!”
Drawing back her foot, Grez continued.
“It is not his balls which are in question here. I think he’s playing a dangerous game, trying to balance his loyalty to his country with his desire to take the honorable road.”
“Who could give this order?” asked Nielson.
“We don’t even know what the order is!” protested Vanner. “Maybe he’s trying to set us up, make us refuse to call for help so if we fail his hands are clean!”
“I disagree,” said Grez. “As for the order? Anyone in the Ground Force chain of command could deal with the troops, but Chechnik reports directly to the Prime Minister.”
“Putin.” The venom in Vanner’s tone was palpable.
“Exactly. We know he gives orders first for his own benefit, then for the benefit of Russia, and he resents the Kildar and his position. Why would he not do it again?”
“It all fits,” admitted Nielson. “Chechnik didn’t sound like he was trying to pull a fast one. Pat, you’ve talked with him in person most recently. Do you think he could pull this off?”
Slowly, Vanner shook his head. “When he came to the caravanserai, I was ready to waste him when he walked in the door. But I could see, hear, that he genuinely regretted not passing on the intel. Made it tougher to hammer him. No, I think Grez is right.”
“Thank you.“ She beamed at her husband. “So. What do we do now?”
“Continue on mission,” replied Nielson. “What else? There’s better than five full Teams of the best-trained militia I have ever worked with moving into place, men who are tested, proven, and have a grudge to settle with Chechens. Even though I wish Shota’s Team was available…”
A purely evil grin split his face. “Frankly, I don’t think they’d want to share.”
Ibrahim’s small convoy made slow progress down the M215 near the Caspian Sea. While the escort vehicles could still manage over a hundred kph, the ZIL-E, massive and overpowered as it was, was still designed for rough terrain capabilities rather than speed. It was, therefore, a relative crawl of thirty-five kph at which they crept south.
Uniforms of the Southern Operational Strategic Command, and matching papers, had been found for all his men. They had been extremely difficult to obtain in any quantity, becoming the main limiting factor in his selection of fedayeen.
There had been much grumbling soon after separating from the rest. Ibrahim had insisted they stop and shave off their beards.
“The Prophet decreed that men should be bearded!” protested several the mujahideen.
Surprisingly, Ibrahim took this calmly, explaining that, for their role to be successful, they had to imitate, as perfectly as possible, the look and behavior of the godless infidels. “Allah shall forgive you, for we act for His glory!”
Reluctantly scissors and razors appeared, and beards were removed.
There had been louder protests at his insistence they eat the Russian-supplied combat rations, with their unclean food. So many of them contained pork in one manner or another! The other meats, were they halal? Was it properly slaughtered? Probably not.
“You will need your strength on our holy mission,” insisted Ibrahim. And, Schwenke thought, You have the wrong smell. Eventually they acceded to his demands.
And no daily prayers. That raised a furor! As he explained, though, it would be difficult to conceal the halting of their convoy five times a day, at what would inevitably end up being random locations.
“Allah knows what is in your hearts. He knows you make this sacrifice for Him.”
Finally, after considerable debate, they acquiesced.
The inevitable bottles of vodka didn’t create any discussion.
At this speed, Ibrahim estimated that it would take thirty-six hours of constant travel to cover the nearly 1200 kilometers. Being a good commander, he doubled that estimate to three days.
“We shall gaze upon the scorched remains of the enemies of Islam and celebrate. We shall rejoice in seeing their bones scattered across their blasted lands. Then we shall return in glory to our brethren.”
Schwenke, alone in the rear compartment, surreptitiously fondled the arming key for the 150-kiloton weapon crated beside him in the ZIL-E.
The Valley; On the Road to Kek-Usn; Scotland
Tammy touched down smoothly. Naturally. Perhaps a touch more smoothly than usual, given her cargo. Dr. Arensky and two of the Rangers rushed to the crew door before the rotor blades slowed significantly.
“Gently but quickly!” he admonished as the stretcher bearing Kassab banged against the frame. “It would be a shame for him to die without even a chance to talk to us!”
With surprising rapidity, the unconscious muj leader was borne off to Arensky’s hospital slash laboratory.
Salah wasn’t treated quite as carefully.
“Out, you fuck!” snarled Iosif. The pain medication had worn off, and his ankle was throbbing. The hobbled prisoner half-fell out the door and was immediately dragged upright by another Ranger.
Tammy slid open a window and called out.
“Is anyone going to remove the nuclear weapon from my bird? Please?”
Adams altered the route in Solomenskoye.
“Orkin lead, Dragon. You’ve missed your turn.”
“Dragon, I didn’t miss the fucking turn, I’m not taking it!” he snarled.
“Dammit, Chief, where the hell are you going?” barked Kacey.
“I’m taking a better road!”
“Look, Chief, I understand you’re not as young as you once were, but-” “Stuff it, Captain! This has nothing to do with my comfort! It’s almost eleven, and the GPS estimates our drive time at another three hours taking those roads. If I take the main road, yeah, it adds another sixty kilometers, but it actually reduces the total time by over an hour!”
Releasing the transmit button, he added, “And it’ll give our asses a break!”
Wincing, Jachin just nodded.
“Gotcha, Chief. Makes sense. I’ll still have plenty of fuel to reach resupply in Elista. Have you called in to the Colonel yet?”
“Not yet. I wanted to wait until we were well past the turn. You know the old saying, it’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission.”
“Roger that! Okay, I’ll check out the new route.”
Lowering the nose, the Dragon flew off to the west.
As they settled into the much smoother, faster road, Adams said, “Okay, Keldara. Mission overview.”
“Yes, Chief,” replied Jachin resignedly. They’d already gone over it five times since crossing the border but, he reflected, it was a small price to pay for the relative comfort of the front seat.
“Arrive in OA by fifteen hundred local time. Deploy Team Vil to secure perimeter, while Team Oleg establishes our position. Dragon will orbit at two thousand feet, five miles out, until security is established or thirty minutes, at which time she will depart to refuel. Team Padrek will take the east, Yosif to the north and Sawn to the south, with Oleg and Vil in mobile reserve roles. Sundown is eighteen thirteen hours, with full dark expected within another forty minutes. Assuming we remain undetected, assault is to commence at twenty hundred hours.”
“Then we kill them all!”
Smiling, Adams corrected, “Well, not all.”
“If possible, we are to capture Inarov. Priority, though, is given to capturing the nuclear arms intact.”
“Good! And the Evac plan?”
“North, to Yashkul, then west, to Elista. Aviation transport has been arranged for both the men and weapons.”
“Valkyrie will carry critically wounded Keldara back to the valley or other designated location. Non-critical injuries will travel with their Teams.”
“And the dead?”
“Will be carried in honor to the Valley for the final voyage of the fallen.”
“Bang on! Guess you have been listening!” Adams stretched as best he could in the seat.
“Your turn,” he said, pulling the van over.
“Yeah, you’re driving. It’s easy. Go faster on the right, go slower on the left, and turn right at Zelenokumsk. Piece of cake!”
Unbuckling, he opened the door as the radio crackled again.
“Orkin Lead, Dragon. Problem?”
“Negative, Dragon. Switching drivers. Underway momentarily, out.” Adams walked around the front as Jachin slid over to the driver’s seat. He fastened the belt, reclined the chair, and said, “Wake me when we hit Prikumskij.” In seconds, he was asleep and snoring lightly. Well, lightly for values of the Chief.
“Father of All, spare me,” Jachin whispered.
It was bitterly cold on the eastern shore of Kek-Usn. West winds blew across the still-frozen surface, bending back the scrubby pine and fir trees stubbornly clinging to the rocks and sweeping over the low ridge that held Inarov’s caverns.
Bare rock above allowed for distant sightlines, at least from the southwest to northwest. Multiple-meter tall snow drifts, deposited by the constant winds, helped conceal the entrance on the eastern ridge face. A single narrow track, just wide enough for a single vehicle, wound its way two kilometers from the east, through the heavy woods. The trees were monsters, two and three meters thick, centuries old. Sparse undergrowth, still brushed with snow, was scattered between the trunks.
Guard duty was not exactly a plum assignment. In truth, during these winter months it was punishment duty: always cold and often wet as well. Three men were usually assigned, one stationed beside the entrance, one in a crude rock shelter atop the ridge, and the third just within the edge of the forest. In theory, they rotated from post to post each hour, for all of their eight-hour shift, to provide fresh eyes. In practice, they tended to congregate at the entrance, at least until forced to return to their posts.
Today was no exception. Haytham, usually a cook, had been selected for accidentally substituting salt for sugar in the Emir’s morning coffee; Kateb, supposedly a trained mechanic, still hadn’t managed to repair the transmission on one of their few trucks; and Qays was, well, a fuck-up.
His squad leader hated him, he was sure. Every day it seemed there was a problem with his bunk, or his weapon, or how he performed his review, or just about everything possible to be gigged for. He’d begun to regret joining the rebellion. At least, if was home, he’d be warm. He’d have hot food. He’d be able to go to the mosque for his daily prayers, instead of bowing on a cold rock!
“Another day in the cold,” groused Haytham. It was noon. Their shift officially began before the midday prayers, but the early guards always came in before prayer, to warm up, and the next group never went out before completing their prayers, to stay warm as long as possible. It made for a gap in the security, but this was the far side of nowhere. Who was going to find them?
“Hope you brought your tea,” chortled Kateb to Qays. “You get first shift on the rocks.”
“Allah be merciful, not again!”
“Don’t complain, you’re closer to Allah up there!”
Qays turned and began the long trudge up to his perch. Eight couldn’t come soon enough.
They landed at Wick, at the very tip of northern Scotland in Caithness, to refuel. A former RAF base, it retained many of the original buildings, including the control tower.
Climbing down into the afternoon sunshine, Mike remarked, “Christ, feels like we’re ready for the Battle of Britain here!” An old DC-3 Dakota, resplendent in RAF livery, and a gorgeously maintained twin-tailed Lockheed Electra were parked at the end of the taxiway, near the tower. He half-expected to see a squadron of Hurricanes come in for a landing.
Kat followed, blinking. “Where are we?”
“Scotland. You should feel right at home here; after all, this is where we think the Keldara came from, originally.”
“Oh yes! Yulia tells me all about it. There’s something called ‘haggis’ she wants to try to make.”
Mike made a face. SEALs had to eat all sorts of weird shit, but deliberately stuffing a sheep’s stomach with its heart, liver, and lungs, throwing in some herbs and oatmeal and boiling the whole mess just didn’t appeal.
“Remind me not to accept that dinner invitation,” was what he said.
“Ask Yulia how she plans to make it.” Pausing to consider some of the odd ceremonies of the Keldara, he backtracked. “On second thought, don’t. You’ll probably like it.”
“Think I can get one here?”
“I don’t know if we’ll have the time, honestly. It shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes to finish fueling, and we have no transport.”
Seeing her face fall, he relented.
“If you want to look in the airport, I suppose there’s no harm in it.”
“Come with me!” she insisted.
“No, I’ve got to talk to Nielson again, get an update while we’re on the ground. Take Stasia, see what you can find.”
“Stasia!” yelled Kat into the plane. “Come out here! And bring your purse!”
Lord, what did I get myself into?
“Actually, Orkin is ahead of schedule.”
“Orkin? Who the fuck – wait. Vanner.”
“Got it in one.”
“Valkyrie has returned with two wounded tangoes, one a leader, though he may not survive; one wounded Keldara, a sprained ankle; and a rather large package.”
Mike whistled. “Guess they were serious about Groznyy. Any other news?”
“No more good news, I’m afraid.”
“We think the Russians have set us up for betrayal again.”
“I’ll kill that son-of-a-bitch Chechnik!”
“It’s not Chechnik!” interjected Nielson. “He’s the one who warned us!”
“Who, then? I want a name.”
“Your old buddy Vlad.”
Mike’s voice, when he spoke again, was full of menace. “We’re going to have some extra nukes lying around, won’t we?”
“Later for that. Focus!”
“Oh, I’m focused. Believe you me. What are we doing about it?”
“Nothing, for now. Grez believes, and I concur, the trap will only be sprung if we call the Ground Force in.”
“We ought to call them in just so we can royally fuck them over.”
“Will you listen to me? It’s not the men, it’s not Chechnik, it’s Putin behind this! Deal. With, Him. Later! Got it, SEAL?”
“Got it, Colonel,” Mike ground out. “Anything else?”
“Kseniya might have figured out who the mysterious Ibrahim really is, and Cottontail thinks she knows where he’s headed and why.”
“I thought you said there wasn’t any more good news?”
“This isn’t good. It’s Schwenke, and he’s coming to the Valley.”
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
“Sums it up pretty well,” agreed Nielson.
“Dammit all to hell!” Mike took a deep breath. “Okay. We have the Rangers, and I assume you’ve screamed to Umarov for help?”
“Yes and yes. We’re pushing the Ranger patrols out further, interdict everything moving before it gets close enough to do damage. Umarov’s setting up roadblocks and checkpoints as well.”
“Good. Make sure the mortars get involved; I won’t forget about them again.”
“Already taken care of; Jessia Mahona and Corporal Sivula were all over it this morning. Oh, one more thing,” he added diffidently. “Should I talk to Father Kulcyanov, or would you rather?”
“Evacuating the Valley. Contingency planning.”
“No, and don’t insult him that way. He might just have one more good swing of the axe left. You’ve studied the Keldara damn near as much as Vanner and I; what makes you think they’ll cut and run because their latest enemy is using a nuke instead of guns?”
He laughed harshly. “A glorious defence against hopeless odds? They’d all get their ticket punched right for Valhalla! Think they’ll turn it down?”
“If you asked them, yes.”
“If I asked them. But I won’t. This belief is right at their core; questioning it at all could rob them of what makes them so special. No.”
“I agree, but I thought I should at least mention it to you.”
“Gotcha. Anything else?”
“No. The assault should begin on schedule, in a little more than, ah, three hours. What’s your ETA for Elista?”
“As soon as we refuel, about the same, maybe less if we can pick up a decent tail wind.”
“That’s going to be tough on the teams if they don’t have Dragon for air support.”
“You’re right. Can Valkyrie make it to Elista in time?”
“If she can’t, she’ll be dammed close.”
“Make it so. God, I sound like Picard!” Nielson chuckled at the aside. “Is Kacey already carrying my armor?”
“Yours, the extra set for Hughes, and Kat’s.”
“I don’t want to ask.”
“I won’t. What weapons did you pack for me?”
“You’ve got a Barrett and an M4.”
“And the others?”
“M4’s as well. Adams is toting plenty of extra ammo, so we went light on your initial load.”
“Makes sense. Have Kacey drop it with one of the Evac flights.”
He noticed Kat and Stasia returning, toting several bags and the fuel tender unhooking.
“Looks like we’re almost done here. Good hunting, and tell the Chief to save a few of the bastards for me.”
Kat was carrying two bags, one large cloth and a much smaller paper.
“I’m guessing you found haggis?”
“Not just haggis but bannock!” she replied happily, hefting the larger bag. “‘Bealtaine Bannock,’ they called it. That’s like our Beltane, isn’t it?”
“I believe so.” Climbing the steps, he pointed. “What’s in the other bag?”
“That’s for you; I’ll show you on the plane. It’s called Old Pulteney; the lady in the shop said it was the best scotch whiskey you could buy. I think. It was difficult to understand her!”
“I imagine so!” Boarding completed, a crewman pulled the door shut. Almost instantly they began to roll onto the runway. As they turned, Mike caught a glimpse of a P-51 Mustang, opposite the DC-3 and hidden from sight on approach. Then they rushed down the runway and leapt into the air again.