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!
Near the Georgia Border; The Cave; The Road from Tbilisi to the Valley; A Road to Moscow
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.
“Doctor, it is absolutely vital that we interrogate the prisoner, the sooner the better.”
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.”
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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
“How far away are you?”
“About an hour, Dave. Why?”
“We have new problems.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
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.