Well, it’s Sunday again. Not much happening, so maybe I’ll just take the day off.
Kidding! I’m kidding!
Happy Pi Day!
One really short chapter this week, which means I’m doubling up again for you.
One of the interesting things when we were writing this was trying to keep the pace moving while still addressing the various plot threads. That led directly to shorter chapters, as well as the chapter headers – chapter, location, date.
Another interesting artifact, despite the multiple iterations, are some of the spacing conventions I had to use while writing it. At the time I was still using Microsoft Works – think Office 365 Lite. It was perfectly adequate, but it had limitations, and every so often one or two of them will pop up.
Before I let you get into the chapters, my Shameless Plug (TM) for the week.
First, don’t forget to pre-order your copy of my next book, A Quiet Revolution (The Cassidy Chronicles Volume 4). It’s only $2.99 for ebook pre-order, but it goes up to $5.99 on Release Day (April 16).
Second, if you want to win autographed copies of all four Cassidy books, enter the contest!
Buttons are below; one to buy, one to enter. Don’t mix them up!
The Valley; The Caravanserai
“Keldara Base, this is Sawn Eight.”
Sawn Eight was Grigor Devlich. Today he was posted at the checkpoint on the main road into Alersso. It was one of the most distant controlled entries to the Valley and usually the least interesting. Traffic was pretty much limited to a few trucks making deliveries, townspeople going back and forth, a couple refugees (though they were much more infrequent, nowadays) and occasionally Captain Tyurin on an honest-to-God patrol. When he couldn’t send some of his Keldara auxiliaries, that is.
Today, though. Today was interesting.
“Keldara Base, go Sawn Eight.”
“Colonel Erkin Chechnik of Russian Intelligence just passed the checkpoint. Blue Mercedes sedan, being driven by a sergeant, probably Georgian Army. They are en route to the caravanserai to meet with the Kildar, over.”
“Sawn Eight, be advised, Colonel Chechnik is not on the Kildar’s approved list for visitors.”
“I told him that, Gana! He insisted on passing, and since he isn’t on the other list…”
The “other” list was Mike’s shoot-on-sight list: any Chechen, anyone carrying sex slaves, and Vladimir Putin.
Gana sighed, then keyed the mic.
“Understood, Sawn Eight. Will advise the Kildar. Keldara Base, out.”
Colonel Chechnik strode into the foyer of the caravanserai. He put on a brave front, but he half-expected to see a line of Keldara, weapons drawn. Instead, he was greeted by Anastasia. She looked decidedly unhappy.
A beautiful woman beats loaded weapons any day, he reflected. Unless…
He looked around. No. That other blonde, the one who’d been ‘augmented’, was absent. Thank the Christ.
“The Kildar is in the conference room,” she said, and led him down the hall. She knocked once on the door before opening it for him.
The greeting, bare as it was, came from a man Erkin didn’t recognize. He was seated at the end of the conference table closest to the door. Chechnik looked around for anyone else before returning his attention to the lone figure, still waiting patiently.
“Chief Warrant Officer Patrick Vanner, Keldara Intelligence.”
He didn’t offer to shake hands. Nor did he stand up.
“Mr. Vanner. I had hoped to meet with the Kildar.”
“Chief Warrant Officer, Colonel.”
“The Kildar does not want to meet with you, Colonel. In fact, there was an opinion, strongly expressed, that you be disposed of. I think that the Chief and Colonel Nielson talked him out of it.”
Chechnik nodded, not missing the emphasis.
“I knew I would not be exactly welcome.”
“And I know why. My friends were out there, too.”
The tone was decidedly chilly. Vanner very obviously shook it off, a touch of professionalism Chechnik appreciated.
“However. You have information that we need. You are a potentially useful conduit between my organization and the Russian agencies that report to you. As such, the Kildar has decided, with, as I said, quite a bit of argument, that killing you would be detrimental at this time.”
“Please. Sit. And tell us what we are getting into, every detail you can manage.”
“I cannot sufficiently express the regret I feel over the decision to withhold information from you, Mr. -”
“Chief Warrant Officer, Colonel. You want something from us, you can address me as Chief.”
“Chief, then. I am sorry, sorrier than you know. It was never my intent -”
“Colonel, save your breath. You don’t need to apologize to me; it wasn’t someone I love who was killed. The person you need to talk to wouldn’t listen to you anyway. Let’s quit the bullshit and get down to it.”
“Very well, Chief. You know this convoy was ambushed by -”
“ – a large force of Chechens, yes?”
Mike leaned forward and silenced the speaker.
“We’ll get it on tape. I really don’t feel like listening to him right now.”
“You don’t think that Vanner’s laying it on a little thick, do you?” asked Adams. They were sitting in another conference room, one floor down in the more-secure first basement.
“Naah. It’s good to see him sweat a bit.”
“I was pissed at him for a long time. Honestly, if he had come here even six months ago? He’d have been sorry, sore, and in an unmarked grave. Now, though, not so much.”
He raised a hand to forestall Nelson’s comments.
“I still don’t want to see him. I don’t even want him here. We need him, though, or at least the information he can provide. If nothing else, maybe he can keep that prick Putin out of my hair this time.”
Nielson spoke up.
“On that note. Mike, I think you need to make an appearance. Put the fear of the Kildar in him.”
“No. The fear of the Keldara.”
The door to the conference room opened with a slam.
“Stay in your fucking seat, Chechnik!”
Mike strode across to the opposite side of the table.
“Don’t open your lying mouth! You will listen, and you will comply, or you will die. Here, now. Understand?”
“First smart thing you’ve done, Colonel. Didn’t I tell you not to come here? Didn’t I tell you I didn’t want to see you?”
Chechnik nodded again.
“It’s not me you have to worry about. You know that, don’t you? Oh, I could make your life miserable for what little time you had left. And I would enjoy it,” he snarled. “You – you! – are responsible for the death of a woman I cared for, very much.”
He lowered his voice slightly.
“You knew. Without the information, you knew we would be hammered. You knew. But you followed your orders, didn’t you, Colonel? You just followed orders.” He leaned forward.
“Just like a goddamn Nazi storm trooper, you followed your fucking orders!” he shouted, then sat back.
“It’s not me you have to worry about, Erkin.” Mike’s voice was soft and full of menace. “You want to know why? It’s because, like you, I was a soldier. I understand sometimes you have to simply follow orders, even if you disagree with them. I’ll even give you credit, that you did disagree.”
Now he stood, and walked towards Chechnik, still speaking.
“But the Keldara, now, they’re warriors.” His voice got softer, quieter, and more threatening with each step.
“They believe in honor and doing the right thing. They can’t understand why you didn’t. They don’t understand why you couldn’t. It was their brothers and sisters out there, Chechnik, wives and husbands. Sons and daughters. Yes, it was war. Soldiers die. But more of them died than had to had you done the right thing. In the mind of the Keldara, you owe them a debt of blood.”
Mike’s face was inches away from Chechnik’s now.
“Frankly, I’m surprised you lived to get here.”
He stood again.
“Every piece of information you get, we get. I don’t care if you burn your source. I don’t give a damn if Vlad gets annoyed. And I don’t give a fuck if you end up in some nowhere town in Yakutsk! If I get even a hint that you’re holding out on me, I turn the Keldara loose with my blessings and the best intel I can give them.”
He leaned back down again.
“And if I do that, you had better pray the men get you before the women.”
Mike turned away.
“Vanner, when you finish with this piece of shit, make sure he gets safely out of the Valley. Then put his sorry ass on the other list.”
He walked out.
“Other list?” Chechnik said after a moment.
“Shoot on sight,” replied Vanner, with a smug, Cheshire cat smile. “Now. Where were we?”
Mike couldn’t dodge this meeting any longer.
In the days since the double whammy of Katrina and the mission, he had managed to plead “planning and training” every time the Elders wanted a meet. It wasn’t all bullshit. Team training had required some of his expertise, though maybe he didn’t have to spend quite so much time with his Keldara.
He’d spent some time in the intel room, even though it was decidedly not his specialty. Intel gathering and sorting, well, that was Vanner’s game, and he was good at it; he was even better if he didn’t have the Kildar looking over his shoulder, but Mike knew Katrina wouldn’t bother him in the intel room.
Of course, there were unexpected consequences. The planning session with J and Katya had been exactly that.
“So, we have no idea exactly where these things are, who snatched them, how they’re guarded, or what they plan to do with them,” J had said when Mike finished speaking.
“And you want us to find out.”
J shrugged. “Suits me.”
Katya wasn’t quite so calm.
“Again? I am to play the whore again? You want me to get beaten some more? Maybe killed this time? I am sick of it, Kildar, and I -”
“Katya.” The warning in J’s tone was obvious. “You listen, but you do not hear. Did he say anything about how we are to infiltrate?”
She paused. “No.”
“Then why would you presume to be a whore? Is that the only role you feel you can play? Or do you feel that it is the best role for you? Are you too scared to try something new?”
“No, it isn’t, and I am not scared! Angry? Yes! Scared? No!” She actually sounded abashed. Well, slightly. As much as anyone would ever see.
“Stop reacting and start thinking. We have been given a mission. How we execute it is up to us. Correct, Kildar?” he added, turning to Mike.
“Yep. I don’t care what you have to do to get inside, or how you get the information, as long as it gets back here in time and you can get out. This isn’t a suicide mission, no matter how it may look. Make a plan and tell me what you need for support. You will get it.”
“And my price this time?” demanded Katya, with some of her usual fire.
“A hundred thousand euros, minimum. Bonuses based on usefulness and timeliness of information.”
She shook her head. “More.”
“Two hundred k then.”
“No, not money.”
“I want to be able to leave.”
Mike shook his head decisively.
“Not with all your ‘upgrades,’ you can’t. Bad enough you have over a year training with J. I can’t just let you walk away because you’re too dangerous. Either you’ll let your sociopath side go, getting revenge on everyone you think ever wronged you, or you’ll get caught doing it and burn us to try to buy your freedom. Don’t try to hide it, we both know that’s exactly what you’d do.”
J added, “He is correct. You have learned much, but you have not yet completely learned control of your demons. There is too much of the hurt child you once were, the child who wants nothing more than to hit back, to let you out on your own.”
“I can control it! I do!” she insisted.
“Are you disagreeing with me?” J asked quietly. “I might add that, even if he should acquiesce to your demand, I will no longer be training you. I will be remaining here.”
Katya thought furiously for a few seconds. Her agreement with J, though highly informal, required her honesty and complete attention. He had promised to teach her all he knew as long as she listened. If she ever stopped listening, he stopped teaching.
“No. I will stay.”
“This isn’t a prison, Cottontail,” said Mike. “I’m sure that, if I had to, I could arrange for the removal of your toys. It probably wouldn’t be pleasant, but it could be done. I think. But the other issue remains. You know too much about the Keldara, and about me.”
“You are a cold bitch, Cottontail. I respect that, actually, and understand it. It means, though, you’re not going anywhere on a permanent basis. Not now, not yet. Maybe not ever. And there’s not much I can do about that.”
A few days later, J and Katya had left for Chechnya. A small team of Keldara followed, to ensure extraction and, though Mike didn’t express it, to call in the heavies if needed, including the Dragon.
He had stolen a couple more days by the simple expedient of traveling to Tbilisi to meet with General Umarov and Ambassador Wilson. It was legitimate, sure; he did have to arrange a few details. Of course, he could have handled it on the phone. Hell, he could have had Valkyrie fly him there and back the same day, instead of shaking his body on the roads between. Still, it got him out of the Valley, away from Katrina, away from the Elders.
Another day he spent with Yosif’s team, practicing underwater demo in his “training” lake. Yosif had recovered remarkably from his exposure to VX in Florida; in truth, the strenuous training had probably saved his life and his motor skills, but his determination and Keldara background had done as much to ensure his recovery. Of course, the Keldrara mutation of having four kidneys helped filter it out as well.
Mike didn’t know if any water skills would be needed on this op, but he figured to err on the side of caution. Admittedly, the lake was barely above freezing, under a still-thick layer of ice, but that’s what the Bare CD4 and CT100 dry suits and polar under lining were for. It was simply amazing what you could do with non-lubricated, reservoir-tipped condoms and Semtex. So much so all thoughts of marriage had completely slipped his mind.
The ice was in much, much smaller chunks now.
Now, though, he had run out of excuses.
The Elders had all come up the caravanserai. Led by Father Kulcyanov they filed into his office and he rose in respect. Not surprisingly, Mother Lenka and Mother Devlich followed.
“Kildar, I greet you in the name of the All-Father,” wheezed Father Kulcyanov formally.
It felt like the beginning of a ritual, so Mike replied in kind.
“I greet you, Father Kulcyanov, and the other Elders of the Keldara. Please, sit.” Mike waited while they settled, then sat himself. “How may the Kildar serve the Elders?”
“We have come in the name of custom and your place in the Keldara, Kildar.”
“What about my place?” he said suspiciously.
Father Kulcyanov raised his hands in placation.
“You are the Kildar. You are the leader of the Keldara, in peace and in battle. You have proven yourself as a true Kildar: valiant, honoring your word, showing your devotion to your people in your actions and your beliefs. You have allowed the Keldara to reveal our true selves, to enjoy freedom to honor the Father of All. You have led our warriors to victory in battle against unspeakable odds. You have done all that a Kildar should, and ever has, done for the Keldara.” He paused for breath, and Mike waited.
“Now it is time for you to bond fully with the Keldara. Now it is time for you to fully assume your place as leader of the Keldara. Now it is time for you to take a woman of the Keldara to be your Kildaran.”
“Father Kulcyanov, I have reasons -” he began, but the elder was not to be stopped.
“It is the will of the Elders that this be done, Kildar. In many things we have bent to your will. We have accepted your changes as the word of the Kildar, and the changes have been good. In this, though, you will bow to us.” The old, old voice was surprisingly strong and would brook no argument.
Two years ago, when Mike had first come to the Valley, he had faced down the Elders. A young Keldara woman, Irina, had displayed signs of acute appendicitis, so Mike had piled her, her friend Lydia, and Genadi into his car for a perilous drive into Tbilisi. This violated so many rules and customs of the Keldara Mike didn’t bother counting them. They were his people, even then, and he was going to take care of them as best he knew how. In a tense meeting, Mike made his attitude known, and used his position as Kildar to make it stick. Time, however, works its changes on everyone, and not only didn’t Mike think he could face down the Elders on this issue.
More, he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to.
“What is the role of the Kildaran, Father?” he asked instead.
The Elders visibly relaxed. Father Makanee almost smiled. “The Kildaran is the primary woman in your household. She does not have to be wedded…”
“If I do this, she will be wedded,” Mike interrupted.
“But she is the Lady of the house. She is Mother to any children you have, of her body or of others’. Only children of her body, however, can ever become Kildar in their turn, should they so choose.”
Now Mother Lenka spoke.
“She is also to be the Priestess to the Goddess, Mother of us all. She should also be able to make beer,” she added with a cackle. Mother Lenka’s brew was legendary in the Valley. Any remaining tension dissipated.
“It has been long years since we had a Kildar worthy of a Kildaran,” said Father Mahona. “The last was a Prussian, appointed by the Tsars, but he died before his Kildaran produced any heirs.”
“All this is to ensure a Kildar?” Mike asked.
“Not at all,” spoke Makanee. “It is the only way, though, that a Kildar can come from the Keldara.”
“And the Kildaran is to be Katrina.”
Father Devlich answered. He had been the Elder most resistant to Mike’s changes, but even he had mellowed somewhat.
“As if it could be anyone else.”
“Ever since you came here! ‘The Kildar this, the Kildaran that’, it’s all I have heard for two years!” He smiled, grimly. “She can be your problem now, Kildar!”
A general chuckle arose.
Father Kulcyanov confirmed it.
“Katrina Devlich is to be the Kildaran, yes. This is our judgment, as Elders of the Keldara, and our final words on the matter. ”