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