Sunday WildCard, The Kildaran Chapters 41 & 42

Brace yourselves.

This is a long installment.

The first chapter you get isn’t all that long, only 10 pages of manuscript. Still, given what I’ve been supplying to you, it doesn’t really cut it.

The second chapter, though, is a battle in the Valley and runs about 30 pages.

All told? 13000 words.

And as I was going through and editing I’ve noticed things I still do today in my writing. First, incorporating friends into the story by borrowing their names. Second, adding little pops of humor here or there. Third, running heavy on dialogue so you’re seeing and learning things as the characters see and learn them. Fourth, inserting pop culture references. Or, in at least two examples, military history references.

Oh, yes, on final detail – has anyone really examined the cover image you get with each post? There are three elements; two are pretty obvious, and the third is more subtle. Any thoughts as to what the third one is?

Anyhow, I hope you’re enjoying this! Happy Father’s Day to all the dads reading on posting day!

CHAPTER 41

Near the Georgia Border; The Cave; The Road from Tbilisi to the Valley; A Road to Moscow

April 13

It was nearly ten before Haroun Tahan and his men broke camp.

It wasn‘t easy getting moving in the high, cold air. The machinery did well enough, but the men were reluctant to leave the relative warmth of their tents. Tahan exhorted, bullied and cajoled them into motion; Ibrahim had entrusted the mission to him, and he would not allow these men to fail him. Still, it wasn’t easy. He hadn’t wanted to climb from bed, either.

The briefing he’d received had been less than detailed about the routes and the relative scale of the challenge facing him and his men. Looking around at the rising slopes and craggy outcrops, Tahan realized this was probably intentional. If he’d known, he might have been a little more reluctant about assuming command!

Well, nothing for it.

He consulted the GPS unit Ibrahim had provided him again. The target was set as their destination, but the total lack of roads in the mountains didn’t seem to have confused the device in the slightest. It held true, directing them nearly exactly south-west.

The old Soviet-era trucks were having no problems with the meter-deep snow which persisted in the mountains along the Russia-Georgia border. Tahan had been canny enough to set the gigantic ZIL-E167 in the forefront, crushing the snow below its six massive tires, virtually creating a road where none had existed before.

The Tatras and the PAZs easily widened and packed the remaining snow, allowing the smaller, Jeep-like GAZ-69s easy passage. All in all, he was quite proud of his ingenuity.

The track they left behind could have been read by a blind man.

Captain Cheal was neither.

She and her U-2V sent a nearly continuous stream of data back to the Keldara, noting the arrow-straight course of the slowly approaching force. Minute by minute, the combined observations by Captain Cheal and a virtual constellation of satellites, American and Russian, had produced a detailed description of his force’s composition, speed, and projected destination:

Through the heart of the mountains to the Valley of the Keldara.

*

Grez couldn’t believe it.

What sort of complete moron would come across the spine of the mountains?

“It’s not Schwenke.”

Her announcement, quiet as it was, in the humming depths of the Cave, still brought the combined activities of her team to a complete halt.

“Grez?” Anisa recovered first. “What isn’t Schwenke?”

“The force we’re tracking, here,” she replied, pointing to the large plasma display opposite her.

“They’re coming in dumb. Really dumb. Straight line from Itum-Kale to here?”

She tapped a few keys, and a projected course appeared.

“Right into the Valley. Stupid. Completely exposed. It’s like a child, given written instructions, or -” She paused. “Or a GPS. An older one, that doesn’t ‘think’ or adjust routes for conditions.”

“She’s right,” agreed Stella. “There’s at least sixteen, eighteen kilometers of mountain peaks, not passes, peaks, between here and there. They’ll have to have the luck of Amaton, the blessing of Skadi and the skills of Ull to get across there!”

“Then who is it?” asked Kseniya, the least experienced of the four.

“More importantly, where is Schwenke?” said Grez. “Has Kassab regained consciousness yet?“

“Not yet,“ answered Stella. “Dr. Arensky checked on him about an hour ago.“

“Call the doctor, ask him if we can rouse him somehow.” She turned to Anisa. “Meanwhile, get Lilia and Olga up here. Before we go upstairs with this, I want them to talk to the prisoner who came back with Padrek. What’s his name?”

“Does it matter?” muttered Kseniya, darkly. “They’ll probably scare him half to death. Almost better to use Catrina, and Elena, if they were here. They’d have the information out of him in an houri.”

After the near-constant tension, the short shifts and shorter sleep, Kseniya’s terrible pun was the final straw.

When Vanner came running to see why his Cave was filled with howling screams of laughter, the look of concern on his face just doubled them over and laugh even harder.

Vanner wisely left the Cave in seek of a drink before he resumed his disturbed nap. He was due on shift in less than two hours.

*

“No!”

“Doctor, it is absolutely vital that we interrogate the prisoner, the sooner the better.”

“Absolutely not!”

Grez had called Arensky, who had seemed reluctant, somehow, so she went to talk to Nielson. He’d heard her out before calling Arensky up to his office to discuss the matter of the prisoner.

So far the interview was not progressing well.

“He cannot be awakened; it is simply not possible! And he certainly could not be asked questions!”

“What are you not telling me, Doctor?” pursued Nielson. “I have a prisoner I need to interrogate; that’s all I really care about. I just want to know if you can wake him up. I‘ll deal with the rest.”

“Possibly,” admitted Arensky. “It is not that easy, however.”

“Explain, Doctor.”

Arensky sighed and settled into a nearby chair. “Simply put, there are complications. He hasn’t recovered from the anaesthetic yet.”

“I thought you said he’d be awake a few hours after it cleared his system.”

“Yes, I did, but you must realize, while anaesthesiology may be an exact science, I am only an amateur at it. I can guess dosages, and expected reactions, but?” He shrugged. “The texts, the training I can get, they deal with the most common drugs: ether, propofol, nitrous oxide, even morphine. Yet I deal with, ah, more exotic chemicals.”

“Yes, your experiments, we’re well aware of your research and the benefits we’ve all reaped from it.”

Since his arrival in the Valley, Dr. Arensky had continued his practice of microbiology, utilizing various local flora and fauna, even turning over rocks and scraping lichen. His most notable success was came in isolating a potent antibacterial agent, occurring naturally in the Keldara, and replicated it in his lab.

Initial commercial interests from the big drug companies had been enthusiastic, to say the least. It appeared the next successor to penicillin, which Arensky had named Martinadox after his daughter, could have an even bigger financial impact on the Valley than Mountain Tiger Beer.

When Arensky needed research subjects, the non-Keldara residents had been more than willing to participate. Fortunately, none had experienced anything but the mildest side effects. And none had caught so much as a sniffle since being treated.

“Yes, well, I used one of my own blends for his anaesthetic.”

“Why? Didn’t we have anything else available?”

“No, we keep a stock of both ether and propofol. I simply prefer my own compounds, as I have more experience and familiarity with them. Does Kurosawa buy off the shelf? Or mix his own? Does Lasko purchase his rounds in Alerrso? Or are they custom made?”

“Okay, I understand. What’s the problem, then? If you’re so much more familiar with it, why hasn’t he awakened? Did you get the dose wrong?”

“Colonel!” Arensky’s face colored. “I assure you, I calculated the correct dosage! I have tested his blood, and his system is clear of the drug! He should be awake!”

“Then why isn’t he?”

Arensky hesitated.

“I would rather tell you and the Kildar at the same time,” he stalled.

“Mike has flown to Tbilisi to retrieve Miss Rakovich and some luggage. He’s driving back with her; I expect him in two hours, perhaps less.” He looked sharply at Arensky. “When he returns, I would like to tell him that we’ve been able to interrogate the best prisoner we’ve managed to capture or, failing that, tell him why not. So, please, explain to me.”

“Ah, Colonel, he seems to have had an, er, unexpected reaction.”

“Tell me something I don’t know; I had guessed this much. What kind of reaction, and what are you doing to correct it?”

“It’s an allergic reaction of some kind, I’m fairly sure. It appears to have raised his temperature considerably, for several hours, but we have managed to reduce the fever using medicinal and physical means.”

“Clarify.”

“That is to say, we gave him aspirin and put him in an ice bath.”

“See? I understood that. So the drug you gave him caused a fever. Fine, why didn’t you just say so?”

“It was a very high fever.”

“How high is very high, Doctor?”

“As near as we can tell, it peaked at 110 for fifty-seven minutes.”

“You got it down though, right?”

“Oh, yes, Colonel, we did, after some time. The brain is very difficult to treat directly, of course, since you cannot simply hold the head in the cold water.”

Arensky essayed a weak smile at his joke, but getting no reaction, continued. “Eventually, yes, his temperature fell to 102 and stabilized.”

“That still sounds fairly significant; when my children were young my wife would keep them home from school if they ran a temperature so high. Okay, though, so you got his temperature down some. What happens at that higher temperature?”

“At that temperature, many of the chemicals which allow the brain to function, proteins and lipids, especially, begin to break down into simpler components.”

“Will they re-form when the fever broke? Or do you have to replace them, an IV or something?”

“Ah, neither. Once broken down in situ, as it were, they are rather toxic.”

“Toxic.”

“Highly, at least to neurons.”

“What you’re saying, then, is our prisoner is brain-dead.” Nielson managed to say this absolutely calmly.

“Essentially, yes, Colonel.”

“Cooked brain. Fried forelobe? Good eats for your local undead?”

“I – I am not sure exactly what you mean, but, yes, I think so.”

“Thank you, Doctor. Please, don’t let me keep you from your patient.”

Coming around his desk, Nielson led Arensky to the door.

“Keep me posted if there is any change.”

“Of course, of course!” agreed Arensky, opening the door, relieved at the mild reaction. “I will let you know instantly!”

“Good, good,” soothed Nielson. “Good day.”

As soon as the door closed, Nielson let out a heartfelt, “Goddammit!”

Murphy chuckled and went looking for more mischief.

*

Mike was heading back from the Tbilisi airport with Stasia and Kat. An older Keldara, Mike thought his name was Vasily, had arrived driving one of the farm Expeditions, but instead of accepting the ride Mike had piled it high with the various boxes, bags, packages, and luggage the girls had accumulated on their trip. They’d even broken out tie-down straps and covered the roof.

Stasia had been on a mission, armed with the most powerful credit cards known to man: single-handedly kick-start the American economy. At first glance, it seemed that she made a good beginning.

And Katrina was learning from her.

Sigh.

Resolved to put his dark thoughts from the plane aside and simply enjoy the drive in the Mercedes, he gathered the women and left for the Valley, Vasily left quickly behind.

He’d just found the satellite radio station he’d stumbled upon in the States when the sat phone rang.

Shit.

“Jenkins.”

“How far away are you?”

“About an hour, Dave. Why?”

“We have new problems.”

Mike sighed.

“What now?”

“You remember Kassab? The raghead Pavel’s team captured in Groznyy?”

“Yeah. What about him?”

“Well, we’re going to have to find a new source of information.”

“He won’t talk? Let me have a little time with him…”

“No, it’s not that he won’t talk.” Then Neilson reconsidered. “Well, maybe it is.”

“Leave him to me. A sledgehammer to the knee has a way of persuading a man that Lilia and Olga just can’t match.”

“It’s not a problem with their technique, Mike. Maybe I should have said that he can’t talk.”

“He ought to be recovered by now,” Mike mused aloud.

“Ought to be, yes. But it seems he had an allergic reaction to one of Arensky’s cocktails.”

“Allergic? What, hives?”

“No-o-o-o, more like a fever that cooked his cranium.”

There was silence for a moment as Mike digested this.

“That’s a thing?”

“According to the good doctor, yes.”

Moving quickly to the crux of the problem, Mike asked, “So what’s the issue? It would have been nice to get him to confirm the destination of the final weapon, but at this point, I think I want to let Chechnik deal with it.”

“That’s not exactly the problem we needed him to solve.”

“Stop dodging the issue, Dave. What’s going on?”

“Schwenke.”

“Yeah, he’s headed there.”

“No, he’s not. Maybe. Probably. We don’t know where he is. Which is to say, we have no fucking clue.”

“What do you mean, ‘no he’s not’? We have confirmation he was leading the force dispatched to take out the Valley!”

“It’s too involved to go into on the phone, but Grez believes the force he’s supposedly leading is acting way too dumb to be actively led by him. I agree with her.”

“Maybe he suffered an accident of some kind? And his deputy is doing the best he can?” Mike asked hopefully.

“Possible, but unlikely. I’ll let Grez explain her thinking when you arrive.”

Mike had already changed gears. “Doesn’t matter. Okay, assume that he isn’t with them. Fuck!”

There was silence on the line as he thought furiously.

“Right. First, everything else in the Cave stops as of now. First and only priority is figuring out where Schwenke went. Other assets can track the idiots and report any changes. We have time?”

“Some. They took the route from hell.”

“Second, get on the line with Pierson and Chechnik. We’ve got to have more eyes on this problem. I know we’re not getting every piece of data from the entire region; we haven’t needed it. Now we do. Get them searching across all of Chechnya, Dagestan, Ossetia, Azerbaijan, Kalmykia. I want every district, republic, and country from Georgia north to Moscow. We ought to see if the Sheik has any sources in Kazakhstan we can utilize.”

“Otryad’s not available right now, remember? Dubai?”

“Dammit! I keep forgetting about his little ‘project’! Still, worth a call. Someone‘s got to be minding the store while he‘s away.”

“I’ll try.”

“Finally, find J and Cottontail. I want to pick their brains, see if we can sit down and make a reasonable guess where Schwenke is going, if not to the Valley.”

“Right. Cave, OSOL, Chechnik, Sheik, J. Anything else?”

“No. We’ll be back sooner.” Without another word, Mike disconnected the phone. “Ladies? You might want to hang on.”

He mashed his foot on the accelerator. The 6.2-liter V-8 responded, going from a throaty growl to a full-fledged roar. The Merc, already fairly flying along the narrow, twisting, tree-overhung road, leapt forward.

Stasia’s scream of ecstasy as they tore through the first hairpin curve could barely be heard.

Mike cranked the stereo.

“Shake Your Foundation” roared through the system. Katrina, in the back seat with Stasia, finally understood what was so exciting about the music, but the adrenaline that flooded her system prevented any reaction like Stasia had to the heavy bass.

She was certainly enjoying the vibrations.

Again.

And again.

And again.

It seemed certain that, once they arrived home, someone would have detail the leather seats very carefully. After they peeled Stasia out of them and carried her to her room.

The smile on her face, belying the seriousness of the situation, looked to be a permanent feature.

*

Bursuk Gereshk didn’t have the luxuries the Ibrahim had afforded himself. He lacked the official-looking vehicles, faked papers, uniforms. It wasn’t going to stop him.

A lorry, driving along the A154, had been forced to stop. The driver and his assistant were killed, their bodies quickly hidden off the road, and the bomb loaded far forward, against the wall of the cab.

Of Gereshk’s twelve men, ten were able to fit in the other half of the truck bed, edging as far as possible from the weapon. The other two, men Gereshk trusted to relieve him as drivers, were with him in the cab. The cargo? The crates of turnips were piled high against one door of the bed, to provide concealment if they were stopped. It also made a good windbreak for his men.

Not that he cared for anything but his mission.

Gereshk knew why he had been chosen for this task. He had spent nearly two years as a student of the Russians at their Moscow Military School before his expulsion. The godless Russians demanded he disavow the faith of his ancestors, but even as a sallow youth his faith had been strong. He refused..

He had carried a battered half of a Qur’an, an heirloom handed down from his grandfather the Imam, through all his schooling. He had kept it concealed successfully all those years, until his fourth term at the MMS. There a classmate, a lying pig of an infidel named Erkin, had found the tattered book among Gereshk’s belongings.

He’d begged and pleaded with Erkin, swore he only carried it to keep the memory of his grandfather, swore he was a good soulless minion of the Soviet state. Erkin had finally relented. He said he understood and returned the precious object. Gereshk, relieved, took the book with him to that afternoon’s physical combat training.

Erkin, of course, had lied.

Upon returning he found guards on either side of his door and the commandant of the school at his desk.

The interview, or interrogation if he was being truthful, had been brutal and short. At the end, he was dismissed from the school, disgraced, reduced in ranks and sent to Anadyr, a small town in Russia’s Far East, to serve the remainder of his term of service. He had vowed revenge on Erkin.

Now he would get his chance. His time in Moscow, coupled with his desire to see his old nemesis humiliated or even dead, made him the logical choice to lead the mission. He knew Moscow better than any other two men serving the Emir, and Ibrahim’s sources had discovered that Erkin, now a colonel in the Russian Federal Security Service, was not only stationed in Moscow but was also the man primarily responsible for suppression of internal security threats.

Even if the bomb failed to kill him, he would be exposed as a massive failure at his post. He would be blamed and feel the shame and loss of honor that Gereshk had, so many years ago.

If he survived.

The nondescript lorry made its lumbering way north, along the M6. Nobody noted its steady progress at a little over fifty kilometers per hour, slow for the surrounding traffic but not suspiciously so. It was simply another old, tired truck. Others of its ilk had formed a semi-convoy behind. Another time this might have worried him.

But here?

Now?

It simply provided more cover.

Another twelve hours and they would intersect the M4, which would finish carrying their deadly cargo to Moscow. Then it would be time to wait for word to execute their mission.

And if no word came? Gereshk would execute it himself and become a martyr of Allah. He’d curse Erkin to the Hell that surely awaited the infidel even as he pressed the detonator.

CHAPTER 42

The Valley

April 13

Twenty-three kilometers of frozen hell in four hours.

And that was with Allah smiling on them.

Tahan stood in the afternoon sunshine, just below the crest of the final ridge, peering through a powerful pair of binoculars. He could just make out the domed roof of the thrice-dammed leader of the infidel Keldara’s caravanserai, the very heart of the beast. It outraged him that such a building, so obviously Islamic, should be defiled by heathen such as these. The weapon would provide a cleansing fire.

None of the vehicles had broken down although the arduous crossing had taken a toll on the men. Many were suffering from frostbite, the cold and snow having penetrated their scanty gloves and boots. Eight had perished along the journey, victims of hidden crevasses which swallowed them as if they had never been. Thirteen more suffered lesser injuries. There were sprains and a few broken bones, but they could still function and fight.

Now all which separated them from their goal was a lone river valley, stretching southwest about fourteen kilometers. There was little cover, true. It seemed to be intended for farmland, though there was scant evidence of any planting yet, though at least there didn’t seem to be any snow. Tahan was unconcerned.

Not a single farmer was in view, which a more experienced commander might have found suspicious. To Tahan’s eyes it was simply more proof of Allah’s favor. Perhaps he and his men would survive the mission. Allah be praised, he would joyfully martyr himself for the faith, but if it was Allah’s will that they didn’t have to?

He would have been more than human to not wish so.

Tahan reached into his shirt and retrieved Ibrahim’s instructions. It comforted him to see the handwriting of Allah’s most faithful servant, though he had long since memorized the simple words:

“Proceed down the river valley. Close to within at least three kilometers of the caravanserai, nearer if possible.”

Three kilometers was the key. With the relatively small size of the weapon, Ibrahim had explained, the explosion had to occur within that distance from the center of the valley to ensure the entire population was within the area of total destruction. Closer, of course, was preferable, but not necessary.

Inshallah.

“When progress is no longer practical, disable the ZIL-E by any means available.” The list was quite extensive and included soil in the carburetor, grenades under the transmission, and even such simple tricks as removing spark plugs. “Finally, activate the weapon.”

This was achieved with a cell phone Ibrahim had provided, with a single preset number. Once dialed, the number would ring three times then Tahan would need to enter an eight-digit code.

Afterwards?

The instructions said the timer would be twenty minutes, but didn’t order a last-stand defense of the ZIL-E. Tahan intended to spend those minutes fleeing the area he imagined would be the fingerprint of Allah, wiping all trace of the heathens and their works from the Earth. Working vehicles would help, but he thought even on foot he and his men would have enough time to get clear of the area.

He scanned the valley once more. Still nobody in sight. The sun was bright in the sky, a shining beacon above the far end of the valley. That would make his travel easier. No need to go slowly if they could see the potential obstacles.

He made his decision. They were unobserved, undetected. Allah’s blessing, like the sun, was shining gloriously down on them.

“Forward for glory! Forward for the Emir! Forward for Allah!”

His men echoed his cry and began to move.

*

“Movement.”

They weren’t unobserved. Captain Guerrin, dug into a well-prepared bunker three kilometers to the south, watched the toy-like vehicles begin their descent down the slope.

“Looks like they finally decided to join the party,” he commented to nobody in particular. The Rangers had pulled back their long-ranging patrols, concentrating their forces and hopefully lulling the invaders into a false sense of security. A furious argument between Mike, Nielson, and Guerrin had changed the battle plans considerably.

“You’re an idiot!” insisted JP. “You can’t let them get anywhere near this Valley!”

“There’s some information, unconfirmed, which is making us change our thinking,” said Nielson placatingly.

“Lilia and Olga couldn’t get anything out of Qays?” interrupted Mike, who had arrived only moments before.

“Not a thing. He was willing enough, but to the best of his knowledge, Schwenke, Ibrahim, was leading this force.”

Nielson shrugged. “I really don’t think he held anything back.”

“No,” agreed Mike. “He wouldn’t’ve. He’s too scared. Besides, I think the chance to be on the winning side for once may have persuaded him.”

“What information?” demanded JP, impatiently. “Dammit, I have to be in the loop on shit like this!”

“Captain.” Nielson’s voice was like ice. “I am getting to that.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“The reason you haven’t been informed yet, Captain,” Nielson continued, “Is because we have not been able to confirm the data. Since this data could affect your operational deployment in a potentially negative manner, I decided to withhold it pending further developments.”

The military bureaucratese washed over JP like a tide. Mike made a face. Abuse of the language to that degree deserved creative, no, make that Creata-ive, punishment.

“Yes, sir.”

He felt his back stiffen involuntarily. With all their usual informality, JP sometimes forgot that these Mountain Tigers were, at their core, true professionals.

“At ease, JP,” said Mike after a moment. “What Dave means is, he’d rather take the chance of you being over prepared than under prepared.”

JP’s confusion must have registered on his face.

“Okay, short version. We don’t think that this force -” Mike gestured to the hostile icon, blinking balefully on the large video screen. “ -is commanded by the person we believed. We think the replacement is a much less experienced operator and will therefore make mistakes.”

“’The world‘s best swordsman doesn‘t fear the second best; he fears the worst swordsman, because he can’t predict what the idiot will do,’” intoned Nielson. He’d read it somewhere. He couldn’t remember where, but it fit perfectly.

“Dave, this is my decision. If it’s not Schwenke, then he’s less dangerous to us, period full stop end of debate. Yes, he might get lucky and get away with doing something stupid once. I think, though, whoever he is he’s been left with a list of instructions and is following them to the letter. That gives us the advantage.”

“He won’t be able to react to changing conditions, while we can,” said JP.

“Exactly!” exclaimed Mike.

“Instead of hammering him farther out, I want to suck him in. If they scatter, here or here,” pointing to the small valleys just north of theirs, “We’ll never catch them all. Remember, these are small nukes. It could be in any of the vehicles they have.”

“I’d put money on the ZIL-E,” suggested Nielson. “It’s the most capable, most heavily-armored, most-survivable vehicle.”

“Probably,” agreed Mike. “But it’s not a gimme. And if they’ve come this far, well, I don’t intend for a single one to slip away.”

“Why not attack them before they reach this ridge?” asked JP. “We can trap them between the ridges, hammer them flat, without ever letting them come closer than ten miles.”

“Range,” said Nielson.

“Right. For this battle, we need the mortars to cover you. If the Tigers were back, or if the Rams were a little further along in their training, we’d have the manpower to completely overwhelm them. As it stands we have to count solely on your company. Like I said, I don’t want one to escape.”

Mike’s grin was purely feral.

“Is there any chance that your Tigers will arrive before the Chechens?”

“No,” said Nielson at Mike’s look. “Four more hours, minimum, maybe as many as six. The Chechens will be peeking into our back yard in less than two.”

JP looked at the map. “So, we need the mortars to be in range, but still far enough away so that the nuke won’t cook us.”

“Cook the Valley, yes. I’m afraid you’re going to be a little bit closer…”

In the end, JP had agreed to the new plan. The wargames had provided them with a series of established positions, easily filled by his company.

The mortars had been moved forward as well, with some assistance. Jessia and Andrew were hurriedly calculating drop points for the new locations, a task that would normally involve test rounds. With the Chechens about to appear they couldn’t take the chance, so the first shots dropped by the mortars wouldn’t necessarily have the precision they normally would.

Jessia did promise not to drop any rounds on the bunkers.

*

“Multiple sources. Tracking on sensors 211-alpha, 256-delta, 194-echo. Pretty much the whole hillside has a signal of some strength,” Sergeant Theo Snow, Guerrin’s S-2, reported, reading from his laptop. It was tied into the sensor net Vanner had laid down. The feeds varied from fuzzy to crystalline, depending on the age of the sensor and which generation it was.

“I can see that,” snapped JP, still peering through the binoculars. “Can you give me something useful from all that?”

“One moment, sir. I’ll see if I can filter it out a bit.”

The clacking of keys came from Snow’s corner of the bunker.

“I can track them individually on foot and also the vehicles.”

“Think you can pull course and speed?”

“Easily, sir.” More clacking. “Downloading to your BFT. Continuous updates.”

He didn’t mention that the apps were already uploaded to the BFT and just needed activation. Nice touch on the codework. Snow admired good hacking, no matter the source, and intended to ‘borrow’ as much code as he could before they left. On second thought, any man who could whistle up a company of Rangers probably wouldn’t think twice about squashing anyone who played fast and loose with his computers. Right. Get permission.

Sure enough, the small plasma screen suddenly displayed dozens, no, hundreds of blood-red tracks, indicating hostiles or at least unidentified intruders. By tapping on any icon, Guerrin could ‘zoom in’ on it, bring up a projection of a probable course, see where it had been, and more.

“Good job, Snow. Now, if we could predict their exact track down the Valley, we’d be in the clover.”

“I think I can do something for you.”

Clack. Clack. He accessed another app. “Done, sir. You should have an icon on your tablet now, a little running figure?”

Guerrin examined the screen. “Got it.”

“Tap that once, then tap any hostile icon. Based on known direction, speed, and terrain, the system will compute the most likely path. It allows for obstacles as well. Sir? Those coders? Any chance of getting one or two for our own?”

“Not unless you’re willing to marry her,“ Guerrin chuckled. He tried it. A dark red line extended from the current location, down the slope and into the valley. “And the pink cone is…?”

“A probability zone, sir.”

“And that means what, Sergeant?” His BFT wasn’t as capable, or large, as Snow’s laptop.

“Since humans are, individually, highly unpredictable, the program quickly reaches the limits of accuracy. Once that point is reached, probability takes over and the possible track becomes wider and wider. Hence a cone, instead of a discrete line.”

“It narrows again, further down the slope.”

“Which track, sir?”

“Echo three.”

“Let me look. Okay, I think I can explain. See this feature?” Snow pointed to his screen, which was necessarily larger and gave better resolution.

“Yes.”

“It’s a small stream. It’s narrow, but deep. The system knows there are only a few good fording points, so it tends to track towards those points.”

“What if this guy doesn’t find the ford?”

A shrug. “Then he gets wet, sir. The problem is, we’re up against the limits of probability. Computers are logical, they have to be; humans, inherently, aren’t.”

“Let’s turn that function off, then.”

“Just tap the hostile icon again. It will revert.”

Tap.

“That’s better. Just knowing where these pricks are is a huge advantage.”

“True, sir.”

“Guerrin to platoon leaders.” The frequency-hopping radio automatically shifted to the appropriate channel. “We have confirmation on enemy forces. Hold fire until range falls below two hundred meters. I‘ve been told a death‘s-head emblem will appear above each target on your BFTs at that point. Someone‘s got a sense of humor.”

“First, confirm.”

“Second, roger.”

“Third, understood.”

“Guerrin to mortars.”

“Mortars, Mahona here.” Jessia’s rich contralto filled the radio, a pleasant change from the usually gruff voices of his Rangers.

“Are you receiving the same feed we are?”

“Position of tangoes? Yes.”

“Are they in range yet?”

“Forward elements are within optimal range. Rear elements are a little more problematic; I would prefer to hold fire until they are all over the crest and at least halfway down the slope.”

Guerrin looked at the screen, considering. That would bring the closest Chechens to about three hundred meters if they kept the same speed and spacing. “Acknowledged. Just make sure you tell us when you’re going to open up on ‘em!”

He could hear her answering grin. “No worries, Captain. We’ll call you first. Estimate five minutes, mark.”

“Roger, out.”

More waiting. At least the end, or the beginning, was in sight. Felt more like a video game, though.

*

Mike was tired of waiting, too.

Not that he couldn’t live without combat ops. Hell, he’d retired, once upon a time!

This was different.

Not only had he, albeit indirectly, brought this potential disaster down on the Keldara; not only had he given the final approval to the plan that sent virtually the entire fighting population of the Valley hundreds of kilometers north; not only was he relying on ‘borrowed’ troops; but now this?

“If you go forward, I go too.”

“Listen to me, you stubborn bitch! Your place is here, in the caravanserai or with your Family, not on the front line!”

“I am the Kildaran!”

“Not yet, you’re not.”

“We are betrothed! By the customs of the Keldara, with the handfasting ceremony complete, you have accepted me as your bride. Since you are the Kildar, your betrothed, your bride, is the Kildaran. Therefore, I am the Kildaran and my place is by your side as your lead our people into battle!”

Seeing a loophole, he leapt.

“Ah-ha! I am not leading our people, am I? This battle is being fought by a company of Rangers, right? As such, I am simply going forward to ensure that the interests of the Keldara are adequately protected, and maybe lend a little expertise.”

“Then why are you in your battle armor? And why do you carry Culcanar?” She pointed to the massive, ancient battle-axe that was slung across his back.

Shit.

He knew he should have waited to pick it up.

Thinking fast, he answered, “Father Kulcyanov is allowing me to wield it as a symbol of the position of Kildar.”

“And does Father Kulcyanov know this?”

He ignored her jibe.

“The point, Katrina, is I have a place in this battle, if only as an observer. You don’t. End of story.”

“It has been foreseen,” croaked a voice.

Both Mike and Kat whirled around. They were shocked to see Mother Lenka standing in the doorway to the conference room; she rarely came up to the caravanserai and never ventured into the side devoted to the militia.

Kat recovered first.

“What has been foreseen, Mother Lenka?”

Her thin, old voice cut through them both. “You will accompany him, constantly, through all of his days in the Valley.”

Smugly, Kat turned back to Mike.

“You see? I must come with you.”

“Mother Lenka,” began Mike, desperately.

“There can be no argument, Kildar. The Goddess has granted me a vision. Katrina is not to be separated from you, from the day you return to the Valley to the day you leave. Her destiny is intertwined with yours, as surely as the grapevines are tangled in the vineyard.”

She coughed. Katrina moved to support her, but she waved her off. “I must finish this, child. You will save him and hold him forever even though you may lose him.”

“I don’t understand, Mother Lenka,” said Kat, plaintively.

“You shall. In time.”

Without another word, the old, old woman turned and walked away from the couple. With a start, Mike realized just how old she truly was, and what a heavy burden she carried.

“So,” Kat said, smiling smugly.

“So what? You think I’m going to listen to that crazy old bat?”

Katrina’s eyes flashed fire. “Michael! You do NOT speak of the High Priestess as an old bat!!”

Mike knew when to retreat.

“Kidding, I’m kidding!”

“Then let’s go!” She was already turned and moving before he spoke again.

“Whoa! Not so fast. Battle rattle and armed, got it? Short and long arms.”

“Yes, Michael. Five minutes!” Like a flash she was off.

“No grenades!” he called after her. He’d seen her shoot; he was fine her gun. Guns, probably. Definitely. Throwing a grenade?

Vanner poked his head in the doorway a moment later. “Problems, Kildar?”

“Oh. My. God. You have no idea.”

“You think? Who did you stick riding herd on the Mice?”

Mike considered then shook his head. “Close. Mine’s a redhead.”

“Four Mice to one redhead. Hmm. Call it even?”

“We’ll see as the day goes on. I’ve got a feeling about this…”

“I get them all the time. Seeing eyes in the floors and walls. Then I find out we’re missing four hundred meters of fiber optic cable, and I really begin to worry.”

“Yours don’t play with grenades. And guns. And insist on being your shield maiden, do they?”

“Well, no, but…”

“I think I win this round. Now, let’s get to work.”

*

Tahan motioned the ZIL-E forward, over the ridge. It was the last vehicle and the most critical. He had chosen to deploy all his men forward to ensure its survival. His wave of fighters would roll across the fertile valley like a tide, scouring it of anything living, before allowing the cleansing fire of Allah to rain down upon it.

“Forward for glory! Forward for the Emir! Forward for Allah!” Tahan’s shout echoed from the lips of his mujahideen, breaking into a run down the remainder of the slope.

The massive, six-wheeled transport rumbled along, diesel engines pounding powerfully. The driver, a teenager named Qutaybah, had wrestled the machine through the mountain passes with surprising skill, given he had never controlled anything more powerful than a moped before.

He seemed to have a knack for maneuvering through the treacherous snow and ice. As his reward Tahan had permitted him the honor of driving on this final leg.

He would have been better served finding a less tired driver.

The boulder on the slope ahead was partially concealed by a cluster of small birch saplings, just beginning to leaf. Qutaybah, seeing only the slender saplings, plowed straight into them.

The ZIL-E had a ground clearance of 0.85 meters. The boulder, when Guerrin measured it later, protruded 1.23 meters above the ground and extended who knew how far below.

In the Cave, and relayed to the Rangers, the data feed from the sensors showed the seven-thousand-kilogram vehicle was traveling at twenty-four KPH when it impacted, creating nearly five hundred thousand Newtons of force. Enough, in other words, to gouge a thirty centimeter rip through the tough steel of the old beast, all the way back to and through the second axle, and tossing it into the air like a dog with a sock.

Simple Newtonian physics came into play.

Transfer of inertia.

An object at rest tends to stay at rest until acted on by an outside force.

F=MA.

All that energy had to go somewhere.

Qutaybah never stood a chance. While the body of the ZIL-E had survived years in virtual exile, the framework holding the driver’s chair wasn’t nearly as sturdy. With a wrench, lost under the deafening screech of rending metal, it tore free from its braces and slammed forward into the layered glass-and-plastic windscreen.

Ribs, hips, spine, and skull all shattered, the soft organs they protected turned into paste virtually instantaneously, and the interior of the cab was spattered in Qutaybah Red.

The scream of tortured metal halted the running mujahideen in their tracks. Turning almost as a man they faced a horrific scene. Their weapon of holy vengeance was, was it destroyed? Surely Allah wouldn’t permit it to happen!

None of them had ever heard of Murphy.

*

The order to open fire hung on Guerrin’s lips as he watched the disaster unfold. The swarms of men charging down the Valley had suddenly frozen in place, statue-like. Easy pickings for his Rangers. As he watched, the other trucks, noting the lack of movement, slowed to a stop as well.

Even better.