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Sunday WildCard – The Kildaran, Chapters 39 & 40

One battle down, if you want to call it a battle.

But the Emirate was always just a shadow to frighten the Keldara into action, wasn’t it? Schwenke might be psychotic and sociopathic, but he isn’t stupid. He’d encountered the Keldara twice before, and given enough time to plan he’d figure out how to make them react the way he intended.

Taking down the Emirate isn’t a bad thing, of course. Removing an egotistical nutjob from the board and recovering 22 nukes? Definitely worthwhile.

But are the Keldara going to be able to react in time?

Okay, sales pitch for my other books. If you haven’t read any of them yet, I have two deals you can’t resist. Get Volume One – where you meet Cass & Ken, get their backstories, and see how they started on their path. And get Volume Two (The Road to the Stars) and see where the path is taking them. Get them both FREE all through June!


Moscow; Somewhere near Georgia; Airborne near the Valley; The Caravanserai; On a road to Tbilisi; Russia-Azerbaijan border

April 13

Colonel Erkin Chechnik was still at work even though it was the middle of the night. His days had been stretching longer and longer with the crisis in Chechnya, and now that the Mountain Tigers were active, well, the days were going to get longer before they got shorter. He’d deliberately funneled all the intelligence gathered on the Kildar’s operation area through his office, and his office alone. While he couldn’t prevent the Prime Minister from receiving the data, he could at least delay it.

The Liana and Tselina satellites had picked up several burst transmissions, almost certainly encrypted, originating in the Prikumskij area. He had them flagged for decoding. Of course the low priority he placed on it pretty well guaranteed nobody would look at them for a week. Maybe ten days.

The Tsirkon wasn’t providing any images at present, being a visible-spectrum-only bird. The images from earlier in the day, showing the Keldara vehicles arriving and taking up their positions, and the circling Hind, were sitting on his hard drive, ready to be forwarded. First thing in the morning.

He’d even written himself a note. Somewhere.

He was scheduled to meet with Putin at ten, which would present some issues. He’d let Future Erkin deal with it; Present Erkin was finally going home.

On his way out he directed the duty officer, “Anything from Prikumskij, put on my desk. I’ll look at it when I return.”

The young lieutenant hesitantly said, “Colonel, there is a message directing all information from Prikumskij and surrounding areas be forwarded to the Prime Minister.”


“Yes, lieutenant, I’m aware, as I originally drafted the directive. Did you miss the sentence regarding review of the data? Here, let me see.”

Chechnik came around the back of the desk, peered at the screen and the memo in question.

“Ah! See? ‘ – for review by suitable personnel for national security matters.’ That is our office, lieutenant, and specifically me. You make sure I get the information for review, understood?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Good night.”


Haroun Tahan knew he should feel honored. After all, hadn’t Ibrahim demonstrated faith in his abilities, choosing him to lead the assault on the Valley of the Tigers of the Mountains? Didn’t he command a powerful force, well-armed, well-trained, and determined to prove their worthiness as Allah’s holy warriors? Had they not crossed hundreds of kilometers smoothly, almost without slowing?

They why was he ready to piss himself?

Tahan wasn’t close to the most experienced commander; in fact, he was probably the rawest, a fact he was frequently made aware of by warriors such as Rahal and Gereshk. He remembered the last discussion he had with Ibrahim:

“What troubles you, Haroun?”

“I worry I am unworthy of this honor, that I will fail and shame you.”

“Impossible! You are precisely the person I need to lead this mission!”

“Yet I have so much to learn!”

“Where better to learn than in the heat of battle? Is not the finest steel tempered in the hottest forge?”

“Yes, Ibrahim, it is, but if the steel fails, you can reforge it. If I fail…” He couldn’t complete the thought.

“You will not fail.” Ibrahim’s eyes seemed to blaze with the pronouncement. “I have foreseen it.”

This gave him sufficient confidence to command his column to this point. Itum-Kale was a village near the terminus of the R305, less than sixteen straight kilometers from the Georgian border. This was going to be the tough part, though, as the roads all petered out as they got deeper and deeper into the snow-covered mountains. The machinery would make it, he was sure. The idea of trying to tackle unknown mountain passes in the dark scared him. If he allowed himself to be fully honest, it scared him shitless.

He called a halt for the night just south of the village, all the stolen trucks parked in defensive circles, just as he had been taught.

First light and they’d tackle the mountains.

After a good meal.

Probably ought to double-check their position.

And it wouldn’t hurt to give all the weapons a good cleaning.

And he must make sure there was enough time for prayers.

Mid-morning was soon enough.


Captain Sarah Cheal loved flying the U-2V.

In her early thirties, Sarah was a tall blonde who had the body to prove she spent hours in the gym each week. She’d graduated near the top of her class at the Air Force Academy and had chosen, with her analytical mind, to go into intelligence gathering. To earn her way, she’d spent time as a ground controller and in tech support, even working hands-on with the various planes and drones the Recon squadrons maintained. It was this which caught the attention of her superiors.

It was unusual for a ring-knocker to volunteer to step away from flying, even briefly, and this had engendered a series of interviews. Was she chickenshit?

She explained she wasn’t at all apprehensive about flying, but simply wanted to have an appreciation for the support structure which would be backing her. Her superiors were satisfied and she’d been moved to active flight status soon thereafter. She had proven her abilities in the old Prowlers, and as a nav in Orions, before being chosen to move to the new version of the U-2.

She loved it.

The old U-2 had been a flying coffin, she’d heard, with a stall speed at altitude of only ten knots less than the plane’s maximum speed! Insanity! The new Victor variant, though, this was flying! They’d taken the original design and completely overhauled it with twenty-first century technology.

Carbon fiber and titanium were the major structural components. To assist in flight controls, because the U-2 was always notoriously ‘twitchy’ at altitude and a pig closer to the ground, the most advanced fly-by-wire system the Air Force could design, a third-generation version of the system in the F-22 Raptor, had been appropriated.

The power plant, a Pratt & Whitney F135, had been stolen from the F-35 program, decreasing the needed runway, stretching the endurance and radically boosting the max altitude, and just incidentally cushioning that too-slim margin to stall. Now, she could cruise at point eight five Mach at over a hundred thousand feet, watch the planet slide by beneath her, and revel in the joy of it all.

And the sensors she carried! The optics alone could zoom down to pick out the title of a paperback book from altitude. She had infrared cameras, which were running now; antennas to pick up the slightest whisper of electronic noise; passive radar systems that would warn her of any threat within the horizon. For the one drawback of her Victor (or, as she thought of her, Victoria) was her total lack of offensive punch.

If a MiG came screaming after her, her only defense lay in her sensors. Between her eagle eyes and the on-board processors, potential threats had little chance. Of course, if someone popped off a KS-172 ‘AWACS killer’, her subsequent life was probably going to be very, very short.

It was a risk she was willing to take.

Tonight, she was stooging over the Caucasus Mountains, keeping Mount Tabulosmta in sight as her reference point, searching for, well, she wasn’t quite sure what. She’d been told it was a lost Russian convoy, they thought it had gotten turned around and was headed into the Georgian side of the mountains.

She wasn’t buying it.

You didn’t take Victoria off her regular routine and fly halfway across the world for a lost convoy. Something was going down, something big. Sarah knew better than to ask, though, having gotten a very firm talk from her CO.

“This mission, and everything about it, is classified Ultra Purple. You should probably be brain-scrubbed afterward. Nobody outside of the NCA is authorized to open this compartment. If anyone attempts to discuss this mission with you, you are to report the breach immediately. As far as anyone on this base is concerned, you are being deployed VOCO for an undetermined length of time for flight engineering tests. Do you understand?”

Of course, she’d answered yes, but this was hardly what she’d expected. As far as she could tell, her ground control was somewhere down in the mountains themselves, not a regular ATC at all. In fact, she’d been required to deny contact with any ATC except for take-off and landings.

Exciting shit and she was loving every second.

It was nearing twenty-two hundred hours, halfway into her eight-hour patrol, when an icon flashed on her main screen, indicating a possible match. Typing quickly into the miniature keyboard, she ordered a zoom on the source.

Twenty-six large heat sources, probably trucks, stationary; twenty smaller, but hotter sources, also stationary, so campfires; and, Jesus, how many were there? The computer was having a hard time isolating the sources, but finally settled on an estimate of two hundred eighty. An absolute shitload of what could only be people. The processors kicked in and started popping up likely vehicle matches.

Time to call in.

“Tiger Base, this is Victorian Lady.”

“Go ahead, Lady.” The reply was almost instantaneous. She had to admit it was good to know she was dealing with professionals.

“Base, I may just have found your lost sheep.”

“Go ahead.”

“I make out two eight zero sheep. Tentative identification of one each Zulu India Lima, seven each Golf Alfa Zulu, twelve each Tango One Eleven, and eight each Papa Alfa Zulu. Sheep are stationary at this time. Downloading data stream.”

“Understood. Receiving data. Continue to monitor and advise of any change.”

“Roger, base. Be advised, I am four hours to bingo. Will maintain contact until RTB.”

“Understood four hours to RTB. Good work. Tiger Base, out.”

Well, that was interesting.

Wonder who they really were?


“What’s the plan?”

Guerrin, Nielson, and the Vanners evaluated the latest data.

“Is there any chance that the Tigers will be able to attack them from the rear?” asked Guerrin. “If they can, I’ll push north, and we can hammer them between us.”

“No, unfortunately. They’re still clearing the nukes from the site. Best estimate is at least another four hours before the last ones are en route to Elista.”

“What if Dragon carries as well?” prompted Grez.

“Very bad things,” interjected Vanner. “Even if she’s willing – and I’m sure she is; Bathlick it just crazy enough to do it – I don’t think I want a nuke, armed or not, riding around in the back of a combat-loaded chopper.”

“I agree,” concurred Nielson.

“Especially if she pulls the stunts she did in the pass!” said Guerrin. “The damn thing might go flying out the window!”

“So, no,” said Grez. “Can we at least recall Dragon?”

“I’m sure that both Dragon and Valkyrie will be able to return in time. The feed we’re getting from Victorian Lady shows them pretty settled in for the night. They might only be thirty miles away, but it’s not an easy thirty miles.”

“Closer to forty, actually. That’s some tough terrain,” added Vanner. “Even the passes are over three thousand meters up in places.”

“How long do you think we have?” queried Guerrin.

“It depends on which route they take. Grez?”

She punched a few keys and a large map of the area appeared on the video screen. With a laser pointer, she began.

“They are here,” she indicated. “The road they are on, the R305, ends less than a mile South of where they stopped. There are several options for them from there.” She gestured again.

“The best, shortest, options all continue West through this valley. The most direct route then veers South, up another mountain valley, for ten or twelve miles. By the end of the trail, though, they’re at nearly thirty-two hundred meters. That will make breathing, and driving, more difficult.” She gestured again. “Then they must cross this pass and they’re across the border.”

“Once in Georgia, their choices are worse. An experienced commander may trade time for ease of travel and follow this ravine, between these two mountain ridges. It takes them many miles east before they can cross to the South and finally West, here – “ point “ – but it should be relatively easy to travel. They still must cross the mountains here -” point “ – and here, but the advantage, from our point of view, is that this is one of the approaches we have thickly seeded with sensors. We also have many preprogrammed mortar fire points along that route.”

“Other options? If they choose to take a shorter route.”

“From the initial border crossing, they can also proceed Northwest, across the pass, and then South. The pass, if you want to call it such, is even higher. Thirty-five hundred meters. The only advantage is the distance is perhaps a third. Then, too, there is the most direct route, across the spine of the mountains. But only a fool or an idiot would attempt that!”

“And Schwenke is neither.”

“We have this corridor plotted out as well, and they‘d still have to cross one pass before entering the northernmost Valley.” Vanner looked at the map. “You said there are other routes?”

“Yes. If, instead of South, they continue West while still on their side of the border, they can follow this track.” The laser described a gentle arc, curving gradually South as it crossed the border. “This route only entails a single pass and allows them to regain a proper road very quickly.”

“Then they just follow the Argavi River right up into our back yard,” complained Nielson.

“Yes, but again, that’s part of our network.”

“And my men have been patrolling that area. They’re pretty familiar with it, more than any Chechens will be.”

“It’s going to take hours, maybe even days, for them to move through this crap,” said Guerrin. “Are we sure that your Keldara won’t be back in time?”

“Not to use them as a hammer to your anvil,” corrected Grez. “They may return in time to reinforce. If they were to attempt a crossing behind the Chechens, they would suffer all the difficulties the Chechens face with some additional disadvantages.”

“We did not equip them for an arctic assault, which this would be. They will be on the wrong end of a difficult, and extended, drive. And the vehicles they have taken are not snow-specialized, as we believe the Chechens’ to be.”

She shook her head.

“No, Captain, as much as I would wish them to aid in our defense, I’m afraid that we cannot count on their active participation.”

“Summary, then, please Grez.”

“Likely axis of any attack will be from the North, here, or West, here. Slight chance of an attack from the East.”

“And we ought to have Victorian Lady for aerial coverage.”

“Yes, Colonel.”

“Captain, I think that we ought to deploy your men…”

The meeting lasted well into the small hours.


Every lead they had chased had turned out to be false.

Four times they had tracked down groups of civilians.

Few Chechens could afford a vehicle, be it car or truck, and fewer still could afford a new one. Most tended to be castoffs from the Russian army, decades old. While not as dangerous as it once was during the height of the civil war, there were still occasional fools who would take shots at the hated Russian symbols. As a safety measure, then, the owners of these trucks had learned to drive together, to emulate a convoy. That made it less likely that anyone would open fire at random.

And more likely they’d be mistaken by someone hunting convoys.

The last one was particularly galling. Kseniya had dropped the data into their computer, culled from a combination of satellite imagery and Russian official movement orders.

They had been just north of Kocubej, near the Caspian Sea, when the dump had signaled its presence. Their target convoy was about fifty miles south, driving slowly along the R215, a major road leading to Azerbaijan. J was still calm and controlled. Failure was always an option in his line of work, a fact he’d come to terms with years ago.

Katya was not so composed.

“You lack detachment,” commented J as they hurtled down the road as quickly as the old Lada could manage. “Of course Schwenke is coming after you. You have interfered with his plans at least twice, caused him much pain and cost him money, time, and reputation.”

“What do you know?” spat Cottontail.

“I know Schwenke. He and I met, three times, I believe, although I didn’t know it was him the second time. I only learned of it later, when I was reading another agent’s report on Schwenke’s movements.”

“And he let you live?”

“Better say, I let him live.” He shrugged. “I had no orders to eliminate him, so I didn’t.”

He looked at her briefly. “You should know now that we do not act impulsively, or out of spite. We do our mission. If the mission is to kill a man, we kill the man. If we are to retrieve a document, we retrieve the document. We do not allow ourselves to be distracted from the mission.”

“Yes, Master, I know.”

“Now it seems that Schwenke has made it his mission to kill you. Professionally speaking, I disapprove. I have spent too much time and effort in your training to want to see it wasted. However, if you will not focus on the mission, then I will kill you myself and send Schwenke your body. Perhaps then he would spare the Keldara.”

“What do I care about the Keldara? Fucking solder-boys.”

“Padawan,” he said warningly.

She seemed to deflate.

“I try not to care.”

“Better. I am actually proud of you, Padawan.”

“You are?”

“I am. You care. It showed, on the mission with the Mules. For a moment, you allowed the little girl you once were, the one who had hope, to shine through. Then you put your mask back on. Pity. Even though it may cause you difficulties, in the long run it will permit you to reach your full potential.”

The rest of the drive passed in almost companionable silence.

Further and further into Dagestan they drove. The convoy turned off the main road, southwest toward Buynaksk, a city of sixty thousand. Founded in the nineteenth century as a fortified border outpost, it had been the center of the ephemeral Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus, a coincidence that J found quite interesting.

“This could be the one,” suggested Cottontail.

“Then why did they not originate here?” speculated J. “No, I think that Inarov merely got his inspiration from the Republic. Or maybe not. Something to remember, Padawan: sometimes a coincidence is only a coincidence.”

Finally, just short of the city, they pulled even with the trucks. Even in dim glow cast by the car‘s lights, they could see that these trucks, while of the right vintage, weren’t their targets. Discouraged, they stopped at a small café for a drink and a reevaluation.

“We need to rest,” said J.

“They’re counting on us!” insisted Katya.

“They may be, but surely we’re not the only arrow in their quiver. No, we have to stop for a time.”

“How long? I can drive a while longer.”

“I appreciate the offer. If we were in a more comfortable car, I might even accept. But I can’t sleep well in the blasted thing. I‘m still feeling the last catnap I caught.”

“I thought that pain is weakness leaving the body, O Master.”

“You’re listening to the Kildar again. Pain may be weakness leaving the body, but it is also a sign you have been abusing your body. And since I am an agent, not a SEAL, I choose -”

He was interrupted by his mobile.

He activated it and said, “Go.”

“Tango acquired. Return.”

The line disconnected.

J stood.

“Very well, Katya. You can drive.”

“I thought…?” She drained off her Irish coffee, a taste she’d acquired on a training visit to London. “Destination?”


“I know we haven’t succeeded yet, but we haven’t failed!”

“No, but someone else must have succeeded. As I said, we are not the only arrow in the quiver.”

They paid the bill and made for the car. “So how do we get there from here?”

“Ah, Padawan, the magic of GPS!” J turned on their little SatNav unit, punched in a destination near the Valley, and waited. Moments letter, he had a route, of sorts. Reviewing it, he frowned.


“We’re going to need a better car.”

“Master, I know this isn’t very comfortable but -”

“No. Look.” He showed her the roads, especially the one which concerned him. It crossed the roof of the mountains between Bezta and Kvareli, in Georgia. The pass was close to four thousand meters up.

“Not this car. How?”

“I haven’t used it before.” J removed a black, metallic-looking card from a concealed spot. “Feel like doing some shopping?”

“At this time of night?”

“This card will open doors. Trust me.”

Sure enough, an hour later they were headed South in an almost-new, maybe-not-stolen BMW M3. Reclining his seat, heater on, massage running, J said, “Now, I will sleep. Wake me in Bezta.”

Reaching out, he removed the volume control from the stereo.

It was good to be the boss.


So far the forged papers worked.

Ibrahim and his small column had been stopped twice.

First, near Derbent, was a random checkpoint. A few rubles per car, a few more per passenger, and they were on their way. The Dagestan police forces running the stop had barely spared a glance at the official-looking documents, focusing instead on the money neatly folded inside. They simply waved them through the barriers after ensuring the baksheesh was enough. The recent uptick in violence and the army uniforms went a long way toward explaining that; the money simply prevented other questions.

The second stop was more harrowing, though expected. According to the map, the M29 led directly to the border with Azerbaijan, and so it proved. What the maps didn’t show was the damage caused by the flooding the previous year which had washed away the bridge and five kilometers of road. An impromptu ferry service was running at the Samur River, the natural boundary, but the lone raft could barely handle two cars per crossing.

Three trips, and ninety minutes, later, the last GAZ-23 was unloaded on the frozen mud flats. Twenty minutes later still, the vague outline of a road emerged from the wastes and they were able to pick up some speed. Twenty minutes after that they had to stop.

Instead of police, this check point was manned by members of the Azerbaijani State Border Service, backed up with Azerbaijani Ground Forces.


“Relax!” hissed Ibrahim. “And remember my cover identity! Now, silence!” Rolling down the window of the GAZ, Ibrahim fixed an appearance of utter unconcern on his face.

“Good evening!” he called out in perfect Russian. “I hope you’ve had a quiet night so far!”

“Out of the car. Now! Why are Russian soldiers crossing into Azerbaijan?”

“Of course, of course,” said Ibrahim, complying instantly. “My name is Major Artemy Goloduvosky, of the Gagarin Division of the Sixth Army, based in Volgograd. My papers,” he added, pulling the documents from inside his coat.

As he peered over the papers with a flashlight, the guard grunted, “Volgograd? Long fucking way out of your neighborhood, aren’t you?”

Ibrahim shrugged. “Orders. You understand.”

“What orders?”

“Fourth page, there.” He started to gesture but a fierce glare from the guard settled his hand back by his side. “Or you can find it yourself.”

“I will. Why don’t you tell me, too?”

“Certainly! We are transporting that old beast, it’s called a ZIL-E, to Baku. Some rich, stupid, foolish American bought it, and he’s arranged to have it flown out from there.”

“Why not Volgograd?”

Reading the man’s rank insignia, Ibrahim said, “Come, Major! You know as well as I that they only tell men of our rank where to go and when, not why!” He shrugged.

“It may have to do with the friendship your country has with America.”

“Huh. And it takes all of you to drive it there?”

“He’s an old machine; would you believe almost forty years? It’s over a thousand-kilometer drive! All my men are drivers, mechanics, or both, and I’ve needed them all! Between the fuel pump failing twice, the transmission locking into low gear, let’s just say this hasn’t been a pleasure drive.”

This finally brought a ghost of a smile to the guard major’s face. “I imagine. I still must search your vehicles, though. We don’t need the crazies from Chechnya or Dagestan spreading their filth here.”

Ibrahim spat on the ground.

“Line them all up against a wall, if you ask me. Go ahead. I will tell you, though, we are carrying quite a bit of weaponry. Like I said, this is going to be the toy of a rich American, and he was quite insistent it arrive in one piece.”

“Didn’t want it stolen out from under him? Don’t worry, I understand.”

The search of the GAZs was quick and painless. The crate in the back of the ZIL-E, though, brought a shout.

“Major! Found something!” The guard major, followed closely by Ibrahim, trotted back.

“What is it?”

“A big crate. Sealed up.”

Climbing up the side of the truck, the major said, “Care to explain this? Doing a little smuggling?”

“Not at all! I was told that it is a replacement turbine for the ZIL-E. I haven’t bothered to check, though. You can if you want.”

“I think I will.” Taking a crowbar handed up from below, he strode over to the crate. Ibrahim sensed, rather than saw, the tension in his men, and subtly waved them back down. With the scream of tortured metal and wood, the cover tore away from the nails.

The cylinder inside was unlike anything the major had ever seen, but he knew one thing: it wasn’t contraband. There were what looked to be instructions, or an installation manual, sealed in plastic and taped to the top of the cylinder. He didn’t examine it any closer; pissing off this many Russian Ground Force soldiers was a lose-lose proposition.

Climbing down, he said, “A turbine, eh? Big fucker.”

“That it is.”

“Sorry about the delay. We just have to be careful, these days. Can’t allow just anyone through.”

“I fully understand. Thank you for your courtesy, major.”

“And you, major. Have a safe trip.” Gathering his men, he walked back his tent.

Fool, thought Schwenke.


On a Road to the Valley; Elista; Low Earth Orbit; The Valley

April 13

If Chief Adams thought the ride north was uncomfortable, it was nothing compared to the ride back, mostly due to the combination of speed and driver.

Slam! Another fucking pothole! The truck went airborne, Adams’ ass left the seat to rejoin it and the far-too-thin, rock-hard padding on the way down.



And another pot-

“I left the Teams for this crap!?” The money was good, it was Ass-Boy 2 asking, but –

Slam! Wham! “Fuck!”

“I’m gonna need Kurosawa worse than Mike if I’m ever gonna walk aga -”

Slam! Wham! “Fuck! Just shoot me now!”

Headed North, there was urgency, yes. Warriors headed into combat, eager to face their foes and confident in their abilities. At the same time, though, they were getting farther from their homes and loved ones, and that added a bittersweet note to the journey.

The journey South, though, was something different.

The Keldara were well-versed in OpSec. They used the best equipment money could buy, Vanner could kludge, and the Four Blind Mice could reprogram. But it was also the Kildar’s policy to keep nothing from his troops. When the news came in of a threat to the Valley, and all its inhabitants, well, they would have been more than human to resist the urge to hurry.

Slam! Wham! “Fuck!”

“Slow the fuck down, Jachin!”

The van hit another pothole. He swore Jachin was aiming for the damn things! It bounced against the old suspension. What was going to break first: his back, the seat, his ass, or the suspension? It was anyone’s guess.

“Shit!’ That one really hurt. Aggravated an old wound, some shrapnel picked up near Baghdad. Or was it Kuala Lumpur? Didn’t matter, there were far too many fucked-up missions to remem-

Slam! Wham! “Fuck!”

He never should have let the kid drive. If Jachin slowed down enough, if he could use his arms again for something besides bracing, he’d pull out his sidearm and shoot him somewhere fleshy but non-fata-

Slam! Wham! “Fuck!”

“Faster, Chief?” He swore he heard the tortured engine’s scream increase. Fuck the fleshy; shoot him in the balls!

Slam! Wham! “Fuck!”

“Big one ahead, Chief!” At least the little prick warned him this time; his arms tightened against the roof to keep his head from smashing again-

Slam! Wham! “Fuck!”


Kacey was bushed.

There hadn’t been any problems, at least not yet, she reminded herself. But she’d put hundreds of kilometers on her bird in the past few hours. At least Anechka could rack out on the return trips; she couldn’t.

Now she was facing a combat op on top of this ferrying shit?

Not good. Time for a command decision.

“Valkyrie, Dragon.”

“Go Dragon.”

“Tammy, we’re almost to Elista. I still have enough gas to get home; I’m gonna shag ass out of here as soon as your wheels touch the ground.”

“Thanks a lot. Leave me to fly back alone.”

“Hey, no sweat. You can catch a nap on the ground in Elista before heading back.”

“Oh yeah, in the middle of a couple dozen nukes. Sounds real healthy.” Of the two, Tammy was much more health conscious.

“Your choice. Didn‘t think you were planning on pumping out brats any time soon. Should have told me; I‘ll throw you a baby shower you‘ll never forget.” Kacey could hear Tammy’s mind race for a comeback. “I’m RTB and bed, at least until it’s time for the Dragon to feed. Out.”

“See you at home. Out.” She switched over to the intercom. “Naida? What do you think? Stay and nap, or head for home?”

“I could sleep, ma’am. But I would like to go home. And we don‘t know what the weather will bring,” she added hopefully.

“Good point. I always sleep better in my own bed, too,” agreed Tammy. “Okay, then, we’ll offload this last load and didee home.”


The KH-13 satellite nicknamed ‘Misty’ didn’t officially exist.

The KeyHole series of satellites ended at the KH-11. Anyone in DOD or the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) would tell you that.

KH-12? The Advanced KeyHole? A Tom Clancy dream.

KH-13? Don’t be ridiculous! A stealth satellite? Impossible!

Even the report in 2007 that Misty had been cancelled, by no less a personage than the SecDef himself, only brought the bland comment, “The Secretary has the authority to cancel projects as he sees fit.”

Still, she flew on.

Launched in 1990, she was a veritable ancient among satellites. Her stealthy nature, which the press had gotten correct, forbade the deployment of the usual array of solar panels. The solution? A half-dozen radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG), each capable of pouring out over a hundred fifty watts of power continuously for half a century.

There was a drawback, of course. The RTGs used pressed plutonium oxide pellets as their power source. Had it been known, this would have doomed the project from the start. Another reason to keep it quiet.

And due to the extended and completely covert nature of her mission, radical orbital shifts simply weren’t possible. She simply couldn’t carry enough reactant to create a delta-vee of more than a few centimeters per second.

But, finally, she was in position over the Caucasus, and her high-powered electro-optical ‘eyes’ peered at the Earth below.

There was Captain Cheal in the Victoria.

A line of vans and trucks headed to Georgia at high speed? Keldara, headed home.

Confirmation! In the mountains, near the Georgian border: the missing vehicles appropriated by the followers of the late Emir, Giku Inarov.

All these were immediately queued up and delivered to the Cave, and a few other select locations.

What wasn’t downloaded immediately was the image of four GAZ-23s escorting a lumbering ZIL-E167 northwest along the M1, the main road from Baku to Georgia.

When it was finally downloaded, later in the morning in routine housecleaning, it was diverted by an NRO watchdog program. Azerbaijan was definitely not Georgia or Chechnya, the two regions that the Keldara, or, as the program knew them, ‘Authorized User Kilo Three Two’, had been granted immediate access to.

In fact it took nearly eight more hours before a secondary protocol, based on the vehicle descriptions, caused the data to be forwarded.

And then, since it was outside the primary area, plus the more immediate threat of trucks coming through the pass, another six hours would pass before anyone in the Cave noted the little convoy.

Murphy had struck again.


“Are you sure this is safe?”

Padrek, the most technically-savvy of the Keldara team leaders, was standing back from Major Hughes, who was occupied with spot-welding heavy lead shielding over the damaged nukes. It took a fine touch and a gentle hand; the combination of soft metal and low melting point made it, well, frustrating as hell didn’t do it justice.

“Compared to what?” quipped Jack from behind the welder’s mask.

“I didn’t think so,” said Padrek, stepping back another pace.

“No, seriously, it’s nothing to worry about. The heat, the sparks, they won’t do anything to the fissile material. Might screw up the electronics, but that wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

“No,” agreed Padrek. Still, he didn’t step closer.

The careful plan: drive to Elista, get evacced by air back to Tbilisi, let the nukes fly off wherever they were headed for. Yeah. It had gone out the window about 3am. That’s when Nielson had called in and let the Kildar know that one of the missing nukes, the one headed for the Valley, had been located.

It might have been marginally faster to keep to the plan. Maybe. It was still a hell of a drive to Elista. It didn’t matter, though. Within fifteen minutes, every member of the Keldara, save Padrek and a half-dozen of his team, was in the vehicles and barreling south.

Hughes had flown with Dragon to Elista, to start making the necessary patches for safe transport to Novorossijisk. Padrek had overhead the Kildar saying something about wanting his own plane, but not a radioactive one. And Chatham would make him buy it out of spite if he abused them.


Qays was still with them, trying to be inconspicuous. After the demolition of the headquarters, he wasn’t sure that he wasn’t next. He didn’t have to worry; the Kildar had been very clear about that.

“He’s just a dumb kid,” he said, gesturing with his thumb. “I don’t think the Russians would take kindly to him, though, so he’s your problem for now.”

“What do I do with him, then?”

“Take him with you.”

“All the way?”

“At least to Tbilisi. Maybe back to the Valley. You talk to him, find out if he’s worth anything to us. If nothing else, I’m sure Shota could use another grunt.” He shrugged. “In for a penny, in for a pound. He looks about as threatening as a mouse at a cat convention. After the girls in the Cave finish picking his brains, feed him up, make sure he‘s healthy, then run him through training. If he breaks, he breaks. We‘ve got the backhoe.”

That was about the last Mike had said, climbing aboard the smallest of the jets in the Chatham white and blue with Katrina.

So here he was. Babysitting nukes. Babysitting a man welding lead shielding on broken nukes. And babysitting a potential turncoat. Wasn’t it wonderful to be a Team leader?

The Major was almost done with this one, he could see.

“How many more?”

“Five. About another half hour. I‘d have wrapped them in lead foil, if that was available quickly. Welding lead is a bitch.”


“Are the other ones already loaded?”

“Yes, Major. We’ve been loading them as soon as you finished them.”

“You have any idea how we’re supposed to get home?” It was disconcerting to hold a conversation like this, thought Padrek. Shouldn’t he be concentrating on the welding?

“I was supposed to ride with the Kildar,” continued Hughes. “Welding these nukes was not part of the job description.”

“Aboard Valkyrie, I suppose,” suggested Padrek. “Just be grateful it’s not Dragon.”

“Sounds like a story.”



Mike and Katrina had caught a lift with Dragon back to the Elista airport, where they boarded the smallest of the Chatham jets for the run to Tbilisi, the G550 being down for serious maintenance after the speed run across Europe. There had been little conversation.

Mike’s thoughts were turned toward the upcoming battle. Assuming the Keldara could complete the trip in time, they’d almost certainly hold an overwhelming advantage over Schwenke and his men.

Three hundred Chechens. He had two hundred Rangers, plus the Keldara, plus, if necessary, he could pull in the Rams. No Mules, though, which put a hurt on his heavy-weapons mobility.

What the fuck were they doing? Didn’t matter; they’re not here. Concentrate on assets on hand.

Fixed mortar positions, with the most heavily trafficked routes in and out dialed in. Plus, he’d trust the girls to drop heavy fire on any position they could reach. They’d trained hard, though he wasn’t sure it wasn’t because they just loved hearing the rounds go boom! No matter, they were trained up as well as could be managed. And with the sensors to lock in on positions? Absolutely deadly.

Kacey and the Dragon, though he didn‘t know which was more dangerous. Dragon hadn’t had a good feed in months.

Kat curled into his lap, disrupting his chain of thoughts for a second.


All Vanner’s little toys. Sensors that could go boom!, and he was talking about getting hold of some manjack autocannons. Those would add another layer of security to their perimeter, if the damn things could be trusted to target foes, not friends. Mike still preferred the old Mark One Eyeball when it came to distinguishing friend from foe. Technology could be spoofed; humans were harder, for even the most adept at camouflage brought some of their habits and mannerisms with them.

Okay, so tech was a clear advantage for them, and, he had to assume, the quality and training of the troops, whether Ranger, Tiger, Ram, or some combination of all three.

On paper it was a cakewalk.

So why was he worried? He looked down at the kitten asleep in his lap

Two words: Kurt Schwenke.

No, he didn’t have any experience in field tactics. At least as far as Mike knew.

No, the force he was leading wasn’t exactly the best of the best. In fact, in terms of raw material, it was probably as poor as it could get. It seemed that late Emir had found every possible corner to cut on training and supplies for his troops. And the men themselves would be shit, even those who had survived other skirmishes. Can’t stiffen spit with iron; it just rusts.

No, the weapons and ammo he carried with him would necessarily be quite limited, whatever the men could carry plus some in the vehicles. He supposed they could have hit an arms depot, but there hadn‘t been any reports that he‘d heard of.

Get the Cave to check on that.

Although the SAMs were top-of-the line. But why use them on drones?

Drones were dumb. They could be spoofed with just a bit of work, killed with much less capable weapons. Hell, an AK-47 could take one down if you could get enough rounds on it. No, using the SAMs was overkill. Why? Schwenke never did anything without a reason.

That was something to think about.


This was Schwenke, the man behind the operational details of Marina Arensky’s kidnapping, who had nearly gotten away clean.

The man who had so completely infiltrated Juan Gonzalez’ organization that SOCOM had no idea who he was, who had only been ‘made’ by a single person, Katya. A sociopath picked out by a sociopath.

A man who knew no bounds when it came to pursuing his own ends.

A man with a nuclear bomb and a reason to use it. The same obstruction which had disrupted his plans twice before. Katya Ivanova. Cottontail.


Kat stirred in his lap, as if sensing his distress.

Taking the head of the enemy was an old, old tradition, symbolizing the total defeat of the foe. Well, it wouldn’t be symbolic this time. It would be a necessity. He’d have to remember to give the order.

“Michael?” Kat’s voice was sleepy but full of concern. “I see that you are worried.”

She rubbed her eyes. Fuck. He’d awakened her. When he spoke, it was harsher than he intended.

“A goddamn nuke is heading for home behind three hundred Chechens and a certifiable lunatic! Of course I’m worried!”

“Isn’t this what you trained the Keldara for? And the Rams, too?”

“I didn’t train them for a nuclear weapon! No way in hell we have enough shelter for even the Keldara, even with the serai and their root cellars. And Alersso? Forget them!”

“Michael.” Her soft, almost placid, tones penetrated. “We are warriors. We serve the All-Father, and the Goddess. If it is our fate to fall in battle, we fall. But you have given us a chance to stand, instead.”

“I have given you a chance to be wiped out, is what I’ve done!” he snarled. “I didn’t sign up to fight off a nuclear assault, and the Keldara sure as hell didn’t! It’s not fair, and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t intruded on your lives!”

“And who said that life is fair? Or that it had to be? Was it fair before you came? And if you hadn‘t come? We‘d be under the Russians again.” There was a timbre to her voice that made Mike’s head snap up. In that instant, he didn’t see a teenage girl, hidden away in a remote valley for most of her life. Instead, he saw the next priestess of the Keldara’s Goddess.

“Life is struggle and strife, Michael. Conflict between the cold and the fire. Each of us are given a choice to stand up or stand aside. We Keldara have always chosen to stand up. We are of warrior blood, kept pure from ancient times. Made stronger by our Fathers and our Priestesses. We take what is needed to make us stronger, discard that which would weaken us. We honor our past.”

“Many have fallen. Many more will fall. If it is written that we shall fall now, then fall we shall. But in this, there is no blame for men who stand, or the consequences of their stand, or the women who bore them!” Her voice grew stronger with each word. “If we fall, it is fitting that we fall as one. Keldara. Born with axe in hand. Dying with our axes, our enemies piled about our feet, even if they should bring the very sun down to the Valley. Our shades will curse them and their line to the end of time, if that happens. This is the way of the Keldara, husband-to-be.”

He simply turned away.

“I need to think.”

This wasn’t going to be easy at all.

He’d been wrong before, and all it had cost him was pain.

What if he was wrong now?

What would the cost be then? Could his soul, frayed and tattered as it was but his, survive at the cost of the Keldara?

He stared out the window until the plane touched down in Tbilisi, unable to look at Kat. Afraid that she’d look into his eyes and see his thoughts.

Doubt was the least of it.


First light.

The men of Bravo Company, First of the Seventy-Fifth, were ready.

Weapons were cleaned, loaded, and ready for action.

Assignments were given.

The protocols were clear.


Where was the enemy?

Rangers are not, by temperament, inclined to sit and wait.

They’re trained to go out and bring the fight to the foe.

This morning, though, the foe was nowhere to be found.

A freezing mist fell gently from the sky. Perfect weather to attempt an assault. And yet.

Tac net: silent.

Sensors they were tied into: silent.

Even good old Mark One eyeball: silent.

It was maddening.

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