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Monday, May 30, 2011

The KIldaran - Chapter 17

[Happy Memorial Day everyone (in the US, that is) - and for the rest of our readers, take a moment and remember YOUR fallen heroes.  Keep their memory alive and the reason they fought!

Okay, so they're on their way to the Land of the Big PX.  It's going to be an interesting flight (as you may have noticed).  For those of you who have read other books in the Paladin of Shadows series, you may be wondering when Mike is going to act, well, more like Mike.  He's beginning to relax - so this chapter is definitely at least an R, though not up to NC-17, not yet, at least.

Keep the comments rolling!



    A little while later, Mike returned forward.
    “So where are we?” he asked Katrina, who was still avidly tracking their progress.
    “We are near Kaliningrad, in Russia.  Why is Russia here, too?  It’s all by itself.”  By a geopolitical oddity, Kaliningrad and its environs had remained a part of Russia after the Soviet break-up, separated by Lithuania and Belarus.  It was a little island of Russia, in effect.
    He sat back down next to her.  “Couple reasons, honey.  The port never freezes in winter, so it’s the Russians’ only ice-free port on the Baltic Sea.  Also, unlike all the other little countries around here, Kaliningrad has never been independent.  It had always been part of ‘something bigger’, so when everyone was declaring their independence, they didn’t have any kind of tradition or history of it.  So they just stayed - Russian.”
    She leaned into him.  “I like flying,” she said.  “Why doesn’t Stasia?”
    “She likes flying, it’s just the takeoffs she’s not too thrilled with.”  Not until now, he thought.  Usually the submissive partner, Stasia had nearly thrown Mike onto the couch as soon as the cabin door shut.  She stripped off his pants and taken him into her mouth until he was hard and ready, then slid down onto him.  She came the first time in seconds, and again, and again, before he finally came as well.  Only then, relaxing atop his chest, did she revert to her usual role.  The subsequent punishment session had been good for them both, and left her exhausted and spent, and him stress-free.
      “She’ll be up and about it a few hours.”
    As the plane crossed over the North Sea, Mike and Katrina talked.  Truly talked.  She asked him about his past - his life as a SEAL, his ex-wife, his relationships - and he answered.  They talked about what Katrina’s life would have been like without Mike’s arrival (“I would have gone to town, for sure.”), and what Katrina wanted for the future.  To their mutual surprise, they found that they were more alike than not.  Oh, their experiences couldn’t have been more different.
    Mike grew up in the most connected, technologically advanced country in the world; Katrina, a small valley in the third world.  Mike had gone to school with hundreds of children, thought nothing of going to another town for his little league games; she had never properly attended school, really knew only the people in the Families, and had never ventured farther than Alersso.
    Yet, despite these and countless other points of divergence, they had both grown into the one person perfectly suited for the other.  He could see that she would steady him, provide an anchor to keep what he thought of as his “dark side” bay; he would give her, in turn, the understanding she would need to face her own demons, the strength to fight against them, and the knowledge that they could be defeated.
    By the time they crossed the Faroes into the Atlantic, he was convinced.
    Their conversation had pretty well stopped by then.  Her body, pressed tight against his, raised his awareness of just how lush her body had become.  His hands moved, almost involuntarily, along her sides, and she leaned back into a kiss.  Her hands were busy too, caressing his arms, guiding his hands over her breasts.  No bra, he noticed absently.  None needed.  Her breasts were firm and warm, the nipples hard between his fingers.
    “I have dreamt of this,” she whispered to him.  His hands slid under her blouse and back to cup her tits.  She turned fully into him, biting his neck and ear.  Quickly, Mike pulled her blouse up over her head, trapping her hands.  He held her arms, feeling the goose bumps rise as he kissed the sensitive juncture of her neck and shoulder.  Using his tongue, he teased his way down her chest, from one beautiful breast to the other, circling but never quite reaching her nipples.  She moaned and writhed under him.  When he finally took a nipple into his mouth, sucking and nipping it gently with his teeth, her body arched as she orgasmed.  With an expert touch, he kept her quivering on the brink, pushing her over with a flick and then pulling her back.  Finally she gasped, “No more, no more,” and he relented.  He slid her blouse back down over her chest, and pulled her back into him.
    “That was wonderful,” she sighed.  “I had no idea it would feel so good!”
    He smiled down at her.  “That’s just a start, dear.  You wait.”
    “And how am I to wait, now that I know what I have missed?” she insisted.
    “We’ll manage,” he answered.  “Remember, I gave my word -”
    “- and you deliver on your promises, yes, I know.  But it will be hard to wait!”
    “That’s the idea.”
    An hour later, Stasia emerged from the rear cabin, looking as if nothing had been amiss.  “Ready for lunch?” asked Mike.  “The steward prepared plenty; I was about to ask Katrina to wake you.”
    “You wouldn’t wake me yourself?” she asked, eyes twinkling.
    “Not on a bet,” he laughed.  “Sit down and eat.  We can talk about our plans between bites.”
    “It’s different,” said Katrina.
    “Yeah, it is.  I didn’t specify a menu, so Chatham gave us a menu of British food, done well.”  He pointed.  “That’s beef Wellington, those are Yorkshire puddings, and that’s a Shepherd’s pie.  Mixed vegetables, bread, and, Tony, didn’t you say something about dessert?”
    The steward answered from his miniature kitchen.  “Yes, sir, a banoffee pie.”
    “Banoffee?” said Stasia around a mouthful.
    “A portmanteau -”
    “A combined word,” clarified Mike.
    “Of ‘banana’ and ‘toffee’,” finished Tony.  “A specialty of Mrs. Chatham, sir, she made one specifically for you and your guests.”
    “Very kind of her,” replied Stasia, as Mike was busy shoveling.  “Was it not, Michael?”
    He swallowed hurriedly.  “Yes, very kind!” he managed.  Tony retired back to the kitchen, and Mike continued.  “We’ll arrive in DC about two in the afternoon, local time.  Katrina, I’d suggest you get some sleep, if you can.  Jet lag is a bitch if you don’t know how to deal with it.”  He saw her look.  “We’re moving so quickly, our bodies get confused as to what time it is.  We left at ten in the morning, we’re going to fly for twelve hours, so that would make it ten at night, right?”  She agreed.  “DC is so far away, their clocks are eight hours behind.  So about the time you’re going to want to go to bed will still be the middle of the day.”
    “Ah, I think I understand.”
    “Good.  I don’t have anything laid on for today; Stasia, you?”
    “Yes, Kildar,” she answered.  “I made an appointment for late afternoon with Noemi Diakite, Amelia Weston recommended me to her.  She will take Katrina’s measurements again, and we shall discuss the dress she will make for her.”
    “How long do you expect to be?  And where are you meeting?”
    “I am to phone her when we arrive, and she will meet us at our hotel.”
    “Very convenient.  And how much will this convenience cost me?”
    “I’m kidding, I’m kidding.”  He raised his hands in mock surrender.  “Okay, so you two can have the suite, and I’ll rack out in one of the bedrooms.”
    “You aren’t going to help me choose?” asked Katrina plaintively.
    “It’s considered bad luck for the groom to see the bride in her gown before the wedding,” Mike said, trying to placate her.
    “In other words, Katrina, it’s our problem to solve,” explained Stasia.  “That’s fine, Michael.  You will be surprised on your wedding day - and night.”
    Katrina blushed slightly when Mike answered, “I hope so!”
    “How long will Diakite need to make the dress?  Will she need Katrina to stay in DC?”
    Stasia said, “Not terribly long, and I don’t believe she will need her once she has the measurements and we’ve decided on a design.  We do not have a schedule, do we?”
    “No, we don’t have a schedule, but I’d rather not spend too much time in Sodom-on-Potomac.  There’s lots of other things I want her to see.”
    “Like what, Mike?”  Katrina was eager to hear.
    “Yes, Michael, what do you want Katrina to see?”  The insinuation was clear to Mike.  “And have I seen it, or is it to be something new?”
    “Stasia, you’re being a very good girl right now,” Mike said, warningly.  “And yes, it will be something new for you both.  I’m not sure of the exact plan, but I’m thinking of Boston’s Freedom Trail, Cooperstown, the Alamo, the Gateway Arch, and a couple other stops.  We’ll spend a few days each area, so we don’t have to rush, and we can always change our minds.  Well, almost always change our minds.”  He reached behind and pulled up a briefcase.  Opening it, he pulled out two small envelopes.  “These arrived two days ago, and they’re the only commitments I’ve made for the trip.”
    “What are they?” asked Katrina, as Stasia said, “Where are they?”
    “They’re tickets,” he said to Katrina, and to Stasia he said, “Cruxshadows, in St. Louis, and Opening Day at Fenway Park.”  He grinned.  “Time I took you out to a ballgame.”

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Kildaran - Chapter 16

[Okay, back to the storyline.  Off they go into the wild blue yonder!  A little bit of NSFW at the end, a few lines - just remember that Stasia's not entirely the demure intellectual she seems to be.
Thanks for the comments - we do read them!
And still searching for someone interested in illustrating - again, no pay, but international exposure. =)
Keep reading!



    Stasia climbed into the Hind first, then Katrina, and finally Mike.  As Stasia showed Katrina how to fasten the restraints - something Katrina caught onto suspiciously quickly, he noticed - Mike slipped on the headset and Naida shut the door.  “Ready when you are, Valkyrie.”
    “Roger, Kildar,” came Tammy’s voice in his headset.  “Any requests for the ride?  I know we have a virgin back there.”  He could hear the smile in her voice.
    “Nice and gentle, Valkyrie.  Show her the sights.  Out.”  He removed his headset and sat next to Katrina, who Stasia had seated by the window, facing forward.  Stasia sat facing aft, opposite them.  Katrina took his hand as soon as he was buckled in.
    “In just a moment, Captain Wilson will start the engines.  You’ll need to have a headset on so we can talk, like Stasia has.  See?”  Stasia pointed to her own head, already fitted with her mike and phones.  Shortly, the twin turbines started with a whine, and the massive rotor started to turn.  In moments, they were at full power.  Katrina squeaked when the ground suddenly dropped away.  “Mike!”
    “This is normal,” said Stasia before Mike could react.  “Don’t be afraid; you’ll enjoy it!”
    True to her word, the flight to Tbilisi was an air tourist’s dream.  Tammy kept up a running commentary, soon interrupted by Katrina’s eager, “What is that?” and “What is this?” as soon as she figured out the intercom.  Mike just sat back and enjoyed watching her.
    Far too soon, the grey outskirts of the city replaced the forest and rivers.  “Is that Tbilisi?” she asked.  “It’s so big!”
    “Almost a million and a half people live here,” answered Mike.
    “So many!”  He had to admit it was a sizable city, even by American standards.  The architectural variety amazed him, as usual.  An ancient city, oft-conquered, Tbilisi was an eclectic mix of styles, from old Georgian, to neo-classical European, Russian, Soviet, and Middle Eastern, with no clear defining lines between them.
    The city had reined in the unchecked growth of the post-Soviet era, and, from the air, Mike could sense, more than really see, a plan beginning to emerge.  He pointed out the oddly-shaped Roads Department Building, a Soviet holdover, which looked like nothing so much as a set of blocks stacked at right angles, jutting out of a cliffside.  Tammy, with her better view in the cockpit, told them when they were passing Sameba cathedral, the main Georgian Orthodox church.  After a few minutes, the chopper started to descend toward the airport.
    “Already?” Katrina pouted.
    “Fraid so.  See?”  Mike pointed.  “I think that’s our plane.”  The twin-engined G550 was parked at the private terminal Chatham Aviation commonly used.  As the Hind flared into its landing, the pilot of the Gulfstream was seen stepping down the boarding stairs.  The turbines gradually cycled down, and the rotors slowed, slowed, and finally stopped.
      “Everyone out!” said Mike, unlatching the crew door before Naida could reach it.
    “Mr. Jenkins, a pleasure, as always.”
    “Captain Hardesty.  Anything exciting going on?”
    “Not unless you’re not telling me something,” the pilot said with a small smile.
    “Not this time.”
    “Miss Rakovich.  As lovely as ever.”  Stasia managed a blush.  “I don’t believe I know the other young lady?”
    “Ah, yes.  Captain Hardesty, Miss Katrina Devlich.  Katrina, Captain John Hardesty.”
    “A pleasure, Miss Devlich.”  Captain Hardesty took her hand and gave a brief bow over it.
    “The pleasure is mine, Captain,” returned Katrina, after a quick glance at Stasia.  She’d obviously been given some etiquette lessons.
    “Miss Devlich is the Kildar’s fiancĂ©e,” added Stasia.
    “My congratulations, Mr. Jenkins!” said Hardesty.  “And my sympathy, Miss Devlich,” he added, with a broad wink.
    This threw Katrina for a loop until Mike clarified.  “I’ve had some interesting flights with Captain Hardesty.  I promise, nothing like that this time!  Why won’t anyone believe me?”
    “Your luggage?”
    “Just my bags, for now,” Mike said, ominously.  “Stasia is going to take Katrina shopping.”
    “Oh.  Glad I’ve cleared out plenty of room in the boot.”
    “Very funny, Captain,” replied Stasia.  Katrina still looked confused, so she elaborated, “I have flown with Captain Hardesty before, and one trip -”
    “Which was for a single day, I might add!” interjected the captain.
    “For a single day, yes, I purchased quite a selection for the Kildar.  So he feels that he can tease me a bit.”
    “In any case,” said Mike, attempting to steer the conversation back, “It’s time to board the plane.  Captain, Miss Rakovich has agreed to permit you one of your more typical takeoffs, just once, so Miss Devlich can get the full experience.  This will be her first flight.”
    “Are you sure, Mr. Jenkins?  This plane has an even better performance than others -”
    “Positive.”  Mike smiled.  John Hardesty had been a fighter pilot in the RAF before retiring, and still preferred to squeeze every drop of adrenaline out of his takeoffs.  The G550, with a maximum speed over five hundred miles per hour, and engines generating more than 15000 pounds of thrust, came closer than most to matching what Hardesty used to fly.  And given the, ah, ‘aggressive’ nature of his usual takeoffs…!
    Mike was eagerly anticipating what Hardesty could do with the plane, while Stasia was at least willing to play along, once.  “Do your best.”
    That got a wide grin from Hardesty.  “Yes, sir!”
    A few minutes later, the three were settled into a couch in the cabin.  Mike would have preferred individual seats, of which there were plenty, but he didn’t want to leave Katrina on her own, and Stasia, a nervous flyer at best, insisted on holding his hand.
    “Everyone secure?” he asked, checking their belts.
    “Yes, Mike,” answered Katrina.  Stasia just gripped harder.  “You might like this more, Stasia,” he said.  “We’ll be up and cruising even faster than usual.”
    “I hope so,” she replied.
    “Rolling to taxi,” came Captain Hardesty over the intercom.  The jet gently began to move away from the terminal.  In just a couple moments, they were at the end of their runway, waiting for clearance.
    Katrina quickly grew impatient.
    “Mike, I thought you said this would be exciting?” she demanded.  Just then, the engines rose in pitch and volume and the aircraft fairly leapt forward.  In seconds, they were hurtling down the runway, then they were airborne and climbing at what felt to the ladies a nearly vertical angle.
    “John’s really letting it all out!” called Mike over the roar of the engines as the ground dropped away.  Katrina, forward on the couch, was pressed hard against his side, while Stasia was leaning against the bulkhead to the aft.  Mike turned to Stasia; she was wide-eyed, obviously frightened, but he could see her pleasure under her fear.  He looked back to Katrina; she was simply ecstatic, as wide a smile as he could ever remember etched on her face, enjoying every second of the climb.
    “See?” he said, “I told you, you just had to experience it!”
    All too soon, the engines’ scream died away as they began to level out.  Brilliant sunlight shone in the large, oval windows, and the clouds were left far below.
    “We’ll be leveling off at forty-five thousand feet,” Captain Hardesty announced.  “Should be a nice smooth flight all the way to DC.  Estimated flight time is twelve hours.  Feel free to move about.”
    “Forty-five…thousand?” gasped Katrina.  “That’s over eight miles!”
    “Yep,” agreed Mike.  “Smoother up here, fewer planes, less turbulence.  Take a look out the window.”  He pointed forward to a window.  “See that screen?  The map on it is generated by a GPS unit, so you can tell where we are, what we’re passing over.  Right now,” he looked, “We’re still over Georgia, heading to the Black Sea.  We’ll be near Sochi, actually - maybe we should spend time on the ‘Sudden Stop‘?” he added wickedly.  His yacht was moored in Sochi, the closest, or at least most convenient, major port to the valley.  “I don’t know if we’ll actually overfly the Sea - I can ask Captain Hardesty?”
    “This is wonderful!” said Katrina, simply.  She was enraptured, looking from the map, to the window, and back, over and over.  He moved over to Stasia.
    Her skin was flushed, her breath shallow and rapid.  “How are you doing?” he asked, gently.
    “That was wonderful!” she breathed.  “Oh, Mike, why didn’t you tell me it could be like that?”
    He looked at her, stunned.  “You enjoyed that?” he asked.
    “Enjoyed?” she replied, taking his hand and guiding him between her legs.  She was sopping wet.  “That was almost as good as you!”  She reached an arm around his neck and pulled him close for a kiss.  “How long do you think Katrina will be distracted?”

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Kildaran - Third Interlude

[Well, actually the SECOND interlude.  While the interludes are being added to the book in roughly chronological order - at least, in terms of the interludes; we know that they're not concurrent with the chapters that get posted - sometimes they don't get WRITTEN in sequence.  Or we realize that we really, really need to have another one added to explain this or that.  So, what was posted here as the SECOND interlude is now, actually, the THIRD interlude.  And vice versa.

So this begins to explain What Happened To Shota.  Shota?  Who's Shota?  Shota is a very, very LARGE member of the Keldara who, alas, is not the sharpest knife in the drawer.  In one book, he has difficulty counting to five.  So how does he now have a team?  Well, read on and find out!

Comments welcome below - or email them to]


    Somehow the tests had changed since the Kildar came to the Valley.
      It was a natural thing for families to cheer for their members.  It was what the Keldara had done from time immemorial.  But now there were differences.
    Now, the teams each had their own name and flag.
    Now, they worked together to prepare for the Tests.
    Now, there were more healthy young men than ever before to try for the title of Ondah.
    It had begun the year before, with distinct cheers for teams instead of just individuals.  This year, a handmade scoreboard had appeared to score, not only individuals, but the teams as well.
    Space was at a premium.  It was no longer practical, even possible, to have all the contestants present at a single event.  To prevent bottlenecks, Chief Adams had devised a round-robin system, rotating through all the Tests until everyone had had a chance.  To keep the judging fair, a pair of Elders for each separate event was selected, with the understanding that an Elder could not judge his own Family.  The individual winner was still named Ondah, King of the Spring, but now there was a winning team, as well
    The reward had been up in the air for some time, until Father Mahona had produced an ancient hunting horn.  The winning team would now get the Horn of the Hunt and be sent out to hunt Spring Deer and Boars the day after the Festival
    The Fathers wanted nothing to do with the fate of the team that came in last.   Vanner and Chief Adams finessed that, saying, “That's a militia problem, and so we’ll take care of them.”
    That relieved the Elders, but now the problem was dumped in their laps.
    “Not knowing the shit detail always made me try harder,“ admitted Adams.
    “Shit?  Perfect!” exclaimed Vanner, to Adams’ confusion.  “Don Meller’s coming back soon, right?”
    “Yeah, he’s gonna try to set up a better water and septic sys - oh, man, that is evil!” chortled Adams.
    “You got it.  I’m sure that Don would appreciate a couple dozen strong backs, don’t you?  Digging trenches, laying pipe from the reservoir, filling in the old outhouses, and don’t forget the septic tanks.”
    “And if they slack off, we could always have Don ‘volunteer’ to clean up Alerrso’s system too.”
    “Yep.  Think that’ll get them moving?”
    “Think maybe.”
    That settled, talk had turned the occasional rumor of slavers trying to make another run south around the Valley.  The Mountain Rams were going to be a hell of a surprise for those scumbags, not the “I'll gladly take your bribe, Sir” Georgian military.  If the slavers were even unluckier, they might even get caught up in one of the Mountain Tigers’ random check points.
    Doctor Arensky and the young Swedish medic, Mist were making the rounds of the day‘s events.  She was kind enough to share her arm, and tolerated the hand brushing against her ample bosom.
    “I think we should stay here and watch the next few groups come through,” Mist said with a whisper almost too soft to hear.  It reached the Doctor's ears just fine, though, and made him wish he were twenty, no thirty years younger again.
    They were preparing to lead in a new bull, replacing the first, who’d accidentally had his neck broken when of the Mules had gone for a head-on horn flip - and won.
    “Probably.  Probably.  The young idiots tried to imitate the Kildar last year.  I had over a dozen puncture wounds to take care of before the day was out.  He shook his head ruefully.  “Yes, Mist dear, I think we'll stay right here.”
    He leaned back into her chest as she rested against one of the corral's poles.  “I'm sure we'll hear a call for a doctor soon enough.  You did bring the new spray skin to try out if anyone tries to fire-walk again this year?”
    “Yes, doctor.  It's still in the cooling case at the aid station.  Kara is taking care of all the minor wounds, blisters and cuts just fine.”  She allowed herself a smile.  “Though I'm sure most of the, ‘Oh look I have a nasty splinter!’ cases are just because she's on duty today.  Incidentally, is that why you had us start working at the Free Clinic in Alerrso three days a week?”
    Arensky admitted, “You do bring them in, so I get my DNA samples.  These people are just wonderful genetic anomalies!  A closed society, very limited contact with outside, and rampant inbreeding - the mutations should all be detrimental after so long, yet they are not.  Instead, genetically, they’re probably healthier than ninety-nine percent of the population.  It is a mystery, but one I’m sure I can solve.  If only the Kildar would approve my budget!”
    “Maybe you should have Kara or I ask him instead? After, all, we are trained in 'personal persuasion' methods as part of our hostess duties.”  The doctor didn't respond,  already half asleep in his comfortable bower.  Mist just smiled and brushed his remaining and unruly hair back into place.  Odd he might be, but she was quite fond of the older man.
    She watched them bring in the second bull and tease it until it was as angry as the first one.  This should prove to be interesting.
    “Go Two Brow!  Show them how a Mule throws the AXE!”
    He was the last of the Mules to try.  The others had done fairly well, but Tubri was determined to best them all.
    He was another oddity amongst the Keldara.  He was just under six feet tall, but he twice as wide as any of them across the shoulders.  Already, he'd earned the team bonus points by killing the bull, even if it was an accident.  He grinned and wound up, showing off to the spectators, then like a spring snapped forward.
    The axes normally spun on their way towards the wooden target several meters away.  Tubri's flew like a missile, barely arcing at all.  It screamed into the target and through it, shattering the axe, the axe handle and the wooden target into a spray of wood and metal splinters.
    “Oh.  Crap.”  He looked around at the silent elders and his even more silent teammates.
    “Don't worry, child,” said the Elder.   “It can be reforged, as it has been before.  You shall help us.  If you can swing a forge hammer like that, then perhaps we shall teach you the secrets of the axes.”  Visibly gathering himself, he continued.  “But now, you are the winner, as no one has ever broken both the axe and the target at the same time.”
    He turned to the gathered team.  “You, Mules, gather up all the wood, leather and bits of metal.  All.  Of. It.  You will not go on to the next contest until I am assured that we have enough of Culscathach to be able to reforge it.  Tubri, after the Festival, you shall go to the hills beyond the valley to gather the black sands and hard woods to make the charcoal for the reforging by yourself.”  He held up a restraining hand.  “Do not think of this as a punishment.  It has been a long, long time since we've had one with the build and mindset to be a master at the forge.”
    “Come to us when your duties allow you to do so.”
    There was a long silence and then the Mules all cheered their compatriot.  If they couldn't each win the Ondah, they'd at least win one more of the Tests.  They figured on  winning the Test of the Bull, unless the Kildar tried to show off again, but he'd only watched and cheered on the others as was his place and offered praise and condolences where needed.  Like a ghost he'd disappeared again after Tubri had killed the bull, laughing his ass off.  Something along the lines of, “Even Murphy wasn't ready for the Mules.”
    Mother Lenka had laughed and said, “Murphy is Loki in another guise,” spitting into the fire being readied for that Test.
    No Mule had mastered fire walking, as the Kildar had demonstrated, and that still scared this simple minded group more than they cared to admit.  Being so big, jumping far was difficult for them.  So, they'd do a small jump for honor's sake and continue in the contest.
    All except Savo, who at nearly seven feet tall could almost stride across the short end.  A leap across the widest part shouldn't be too hard for him, if he hadn't been so overly muscled as to resemble the Incredible Hulk - comic books being a big hit with the Mules.
    They made crude jokes about being tired from carrying everyone else's loads before doing the small jumps.  Again, luck was with them and no one got burned.  But it was no competition to those who had the newtech legs, like Oleg.  He'd mastered the technique of landing in the middle of the bed of coals on his prosthetic, pushing off and landing safely on the far side of the pit.  Needless to say, Team Oleg won that competition hands down.
    Then, finally, came the caber toss for Team Mule.
    This was Chief Adams’ favorite event as it seemed to be the most unpredictable.  So far, among other blunders, Padros, Team Padrek’s sniper, tripped as he launched the caber and took a face slide through the mud almost as far as he'd tossed the log, incidentally disqualifying himself.
    Adams had spurted beer out of his nose so hard he’d laughed so hard, before apologizing to the Mother who'd just served him her House’s brew.
    To him, wasting beer, any beer, was a sin.    
    Wasting Keldara-brewed beer?  Fires of Hell awaiting him sin.
    Fortunately, she'd just laughed and filled his personal mug, a relic from a long-ago Oktoberfest in Germany he had few memories of.  Trying to recall the details, he thought of the several lines of reprimand in his old military records.  Although nobody that mattered would ever read that again, maybe he ought to talk to Mouse about fixing certain ‘errors and discrepancies’ in his 201.  She really gets off on that shit, he thought. It would probably help make his retirement checks a little heavier, make the exes a little happier and less likely to try to track him down.  The quarter mil he pulled down here was strictly off the books, and he wanted to keep it that way.  He'd have to talk to Vanner and Mike about that, though.  No point in encouraging the little -
    Speak of the devil.  Vanner joined him  “What was all that about?”
    “Team Padrek's sniper took a nose dive through the mud and almost gave his throw a challenge for distance.”
    “Damn.  I miss all the fun.  Heard about the bull too.  Nice of them to donate the extra meat after tonight's feast to the refugees.”
    “Well, you're going to hate this even more.”
    He pointed at the Mules marching up to the Test of the Wood from the Test of Fire area.
    “See Tubri?  The one that looks like a dwarf?”
    Vanner nodded.
    “He's the one that broke the bull's neck.  Just like I taught him,” he added with noticeable pride.  “He grabbed the horns, grounded it and stepped to one side.”
    Vanner smiled, “And a little inertia, too.  Eh?”
    “That too, that too.  Oh he also broke Culscathach in the test of the axe.  Just decimated the target, the axehead, and the haft too.  Center strike, as near as anyone can tell.  Truth be told, it’s pretty much just splinters now.  Now, Tubri’s gonna have to learn how to be a forgemaster in his spare time, along with his militia duties and farming work.”
    “Don't forget the new town.”
    Adams rolled his eyes.
    “How could I?  Every time they got the duty they keep jabbering about blowing up another cliff face for building rock or moving a river to its old bed so they can get at the black sands deposited there.”  He looked around, conspiratorially.  “If I didn't know better, I'd say Meller's looking at that sand as more than a source of good iron ore.  I’d bet he’s looking for gold.”
    Vanner started whistling innocently and reached for a mug of beer from a passing girl who gave him a gleaming smile.  He almost returned it, with interest, before remembering that she was his wife’s cousin.  Grez’d be sure to hear about him flirting.  Best not to.  She was in Intel for a good reason.  Probably had her own team watching him now.
    “Okay, what's the shit-eating grin about?”
    “Well... we may have seeded certain portions of the river with some gold dust, maybe a few nuggets.  And we might just have let it slip in the bigger towns.”  At Adams’ look, he continued.  “It'll bring business to the five valleys.  Besides, who's to say they won't really strike gold?”
    “Uh-huh.  And I can just guess who dreamed up this little scheme.  Wouldn’t be someone who knows all about deceit and financial finagling, would it?  Hmm?  Maybe to free up the budget for a few quarters?  You turn a blind eye and your little project gets funded?”
    “I have no idea what you're talking about.  Anyway, where would the Mice get twenty five kilos of gold dust?  It's not like we had that stuff laying about, you know.”
    “Humph.  With Mouse, you never know.  Did we ever inventory the gold certificates we got from those assholes with the smallpox?  Didn’t think so.  Two or three of those and some help from the Doc and I'm sure...  Never mind.  Here they come.  This should be even better than Team Padrek.”
    The two held out their mugs for refills, grabbed a sweetened oat cake, and moved to stand next to the Elders  who were to judge this event.
    “So, think Tubri's gonna fuck something up this time?”
    “I hope not, I'm just parked over there,” Vanner replied.  “I’m taking a quick break from running loads down to Valkyrie before we fly out to Tbilisi tonight.”
    “Ah, that's right.  I remember being awake for that part of the meeting. Something about a convention and selling some more gizmos.”
    “Yep, and sort of a honeymoon for Grez too.  She's never been to the US and DC in the spring.  We‘re probably too late for the Sakura tree festival, but I wanted to visit the wall again.”
    Adams was instantly sobered.  “Your father's name is there, isn't it?”
    “Yeah.  It'll be my way of introducing him to his daughter-in-law.  Chief, you shoulda seen the fits they threw when they saw our load out - probably all the live ammo for the demonstrations.  Oh, by the way, have your friends liked the toys we sent them?”
    “Probably won't hear anything until it breaks or they want more.  If it works, the Teams like to keep it to themselves before others get their hands on it.  Never fails, they change it, review it, change it again and totally fuck it up.  Used to wish sometimes that we could do a little midnight visit on some of those fat-ass Senators.  You know the ones, they’re damn sure his way is the best and that his ‘friends’ can make the devices better than designed.  Fuckers could screw up a nail.”
    “Know the type.  When Grez wrote the contracts, she put in, right up top, a serious penalty clause.  We’re talking billions with a ‘b’, if they so much as change a line of code, or farm it out, or do any one of a dozen other no-nos.  Plus, she’s picky as hell with who actually gets the contracts.”
    “Can’t they reverse engineer it?“
    “Probably, but the ones we trust get all the plans they need to make ’em and the rights to sell them to the US government.  We get a percentage of the gross.  Not the net.  And that, Chief, is one reason I married her.”  He took a long pull of his beer.
    “Gonna miss this, even if we're only going to be gone a week or so.  But I just don't trust things to stay quiet too long around here.  And I sure as hell can't leave Mouse unsupervised that long.  Hey, Chief, want a job for the duration?  Long hours, low pay, lots of frustration?”
    “Like hell!  I've got kids her age.  No.  Fucking.  Way.  She scares even Murphy. Talk about someone who thinks sideways, it's her.  Why don't you just take her with?”
    “Dunno if Mike would approve.  Not the expense.  She's made enough on her own to pay her own way, if she had to.  Hell, she‘d probably just hack into an airline and fly for free.”  The two shared a brief laugh at that; Mouse was known for her computer skills almost as much as her mischievous sense of humor.
    “You know, some of the guys have taken to using her as their personal investment banker?  She made a killing when gold all but tripled earlier this year.  Dumped it right into oil futures and boom that rose too, sold at the peak and cashed in.  Her Swiss bankers are very very happy with her.”
    “Bet the little vixen has figured out how much our ops affect the world market,”  Adams muttered.  “We had a weenie like that on the teams once.  Smart as hell.  Wrote a program to read the world news.  He could tell you, four times out of five, when we’d be deployed.  Then he rigged to work bass-backwards, trying to see if the market reacted to our actions.  You know, Beltway Bandits dumping stocks or buying cheap.  He played their game and made a metric fuck ton of money.“
    “So he retire rich?”
    “No, caught a round in Mogadishu.  By the way, I didn’t tell you that.”
    “No problem.  You know my job.  I keep secrets unless Mike needs to know about them.”
    “So he died fucking rich, and his will, well let's say some of the stipulations were a bit crazy.”
    “Yep, all of Teams One and Two got sent to Bangkok for a seven day bender on seven man team rotations.  Took almost four months to get all of us through there.”
    He took another pull of his beer.
    “I'm gonna put money on Tubri there to fuck up again, even though Shota, by God, is his Sergeant now.” They both shook their heads in wonder.
     “E-HOSS.  Whose idea was that?”
    “Wasn't it yours?  Didn't you say we needed a cavalry too?”
    “I said Air Cav, I'm sure.  Not the Mules of the Apocalypse.”
    “Maybe it was Mike's idea.”
    “Probably.  Assboy-2 is always good for something to blame on when no one else is handy.  Even if he is signing the paychecks.  Speaking of money - I’ve got a gen-u-ine US twenty dollar bill that says Tubri crosses the line, and another twenty that he gets the Bean tonight at the feast.”
    “Chief, you forget.  I won’t be here for the feast.”
    “You can trust me on that one, can't you?”
    This time it was Vanner that committed the sin of snorting beer out his nose.
    Most of the Mules still held to the old ways, throwing the wood just as they had in years past.  Only a few had adopted the method taught them by McKenzie and the Kildar.
    The rest of the squad had tossed their cabers the way they had learned it from their fathers and grandfathers.  Even Tubri hadn't risked showing off here.  Their task was for everyone to get a good throw and, more importantly, not get disqualified.  They were only ten points behind Team Oleg in the overall standing, with just Shota to go. One good throw by Shota - who'd been training with McKenzie most of the winter - and they’d pull ahead.
    Shota shouldered the Caber easily and eyed the line.
    He spun the log in his hands easily trying to find its center of gravity as he'd been taught.  Once he found its natural balance, he stopped, placing his left hand under that spot.
    He walked up to the line, stopped, then turned around and walked eight careful paces back.
    “Seven!”  He announced and turned.
    The crowd had grown during the day, as more and more were freed from their daily tasks.  A large group of refugees stood back a ways, separate from the Keldara.  They weren‘t sure if they were welcome, but these were the men who'd saved them.  So watching and cheering them from a distance was something they could do without intruding much.  Maybe they’d be invited to the feast later.
    More came to see what Tubri would do at this test.  Some already were calling for Mother Lenka to check the boy for markings of the Trickster, Loki.  Others said he was just unlucky, one of Murphy's favorites.
    How wrong they all were.
    Loki.  Murphy.  Ill luck.  Whatever you called it had something else planned and it was a doozy.
    Sure of himself, Shota shouldered the huge log just as McKenzie had trained him over the winter.  His right hand, his strong arm, replaced his left.  He wasn‘t sure it was correct, but it felt right.  He could use the left to guide his throw over his shoulder.
    Unlike Mike and all the others who'd tried the throw before, Shota leaned forward to the point that the caber almost started to fall forward and then ran as if catching up to it.
    “Oh, clever.  I see the Sergeant has been taking some lessons in physics from someone.”
    “Physics?  Shota?  Naah, just a Bigger Hammer.”
    “Well, he does get the job done.  And he's turning.”
    Shota saw the line and drove his left foot deep into the turf point first.  He wasn't about to twist an ankle like he did the first time he'd tried this method.  McKenzie called it the ‘Berserker Avalanche’.  All that Shota knew was that the log already wanted to fall the way he was going and his twist and throw would just add to its wanting to go that way.
    It would have, had he kept his left hand under the log as he'd been taught.
    It would have, had the log not twisted as he did and delayed the throwing motion just a second.
    The caber flew higher than any other.  Ever.
    Unfortunately, it flew straight up.
    Then gravity took over.
    Shota turned and faced the crowd, raising two huge meaty fists in victory.  Never before had he thrown the caber with so much force, never had it left his hands so fast and freely.  It hadn‘t even touched his shoulder.
    “MULES RULE!” he yelled to the gasping crowd.
    “Oh, fuck,” said Vanner.
    “Holy Shit,” said Adams.
    Min Gud!” cried Kara, lapsing into her native Swedish.  The aid station was close enough to let her witness the log's trajectory.  She grabbed her EMT pack and radio before she realized what she was doing.
    The log rose, inverted, and came straight back down.
    Directly Shota, unaware, showing off for the crowd below.  Two of his men, faster on the uptake than the other Mules, actually started to charge across the grounds, knowing instinctively they’d be too late.  They both missed Shota as the log thunked down with full force on the very top of his head.
    He looked very, very confused for a few seconds, then down at his men laying at his feet and the useless caber next to them.  It was as if he had no idea why he was there, who they were or what had hurt him so much.
    Everyone else had expected him to be smashed down into the mud.
    Dead on impact.
    But Shota wasn't built like most men.  His neck muscles had muscles of their own. Muscles that made oxen jealous.  He was known to have a hard head ever since his childhood, stories which would be told and retold in the coming days.  Stories that would be important in ways nobody realized.
    Shota glared.  “OW! FUCK!”
    Chief Adams swallowed his heart.  “Guess we're going to need a new caber.”
    Everyone around him started to laugh and chuckle as it seemed Shota had once again survived the unsurvivable.  Bad move.  Shota heard them and in his confusion thought they were laughing at him.
    He raised an immense fist and started to charge at the Chief.
    “Oh, shit!”
    “Damned straight he's coming for you,” yelled Vanner, legs already pumping.  “Run, you dumb SEAL!”
    Shota took two more steps, face growing redder in rage and gritting his teeth, a bloody froth forming on his lips.  His eyes looked like death itself.   Shota raised both fists just steps away from the Chief, showed everyone the whites of his eyes, gave a childlike whimper and crumpled to the ground as if suddenly deflated.
    The cry for “Medic!” woke up Doctor Arensky from his nap.
    “Kara says one of the Mules took the log to the head.  Straight up, straight down. Not sure which.  Definitely neck and head trauma.”
    “There goes my day off.  Fine.  Fine.  You go help her stabilize the patient.  I'll cage a ride to the clinic, get Valkyrie up here.  I think we’ll need her.”  He meant the auto-doc installed in the Hind, a truly amazing piece of equipment.  Once strapped on, it could monitor a patient’s vitals, inject drugs, run plasma, begin CPR, and even shock a heart back to beating.
    He scampered off much faster than anyone his age should have been able, jumped into a SUV, and was babbling into the radio almost as soon as he shut the door.  Having access to an actual doctor and a full library of surgical knowledge, as well as each and every soldier's personal medical file had proven to be a life saver more than once in the past year.
    “Valkyrie is loaded and waiting passengers for Tbilisi International.  Tell the Vanners I'm ready when they are.  Their samples and demos are packed inside.  The HE’s packed up real carefully.  All marked just like Uncle Sam wanted.  Advise Chatham Air of our updated ETA once you've located the rest of the cargo.  And let me know, are they coming down to the airfield or will they be expecting a front door pick-up?”
    Naida laughed.  “Negative, Valkyrie.  ETA should be one zero minutes, repeat one zero.  Break.  Make for -”
    Wherever she was to make for was lost, as the loud warble of the emergency channel overrode her normal comm channel.
    “Valkyrie!  Valkyrie!  We have a downed warrior.  This is Doctor Arensky.  I'm enroute to clinic.  ETA is five minutes.  We need to get him to Tbilisi fast.  I just hope you’ll be able to land, this time.“
    That made Tamara smile.  Twice in the last year she'd had to circle the hospital until the owners of the cars - and one bright yellow Humvee - came out and moved their vehicles so she could land.  The top of the garage was clearly marked for helicopters only.   But the top floor was so open and the perfect place for Important People to safely park their new toys.  Luckily those two times had been with a pregnant woman and one not so lucky spotter with a very badly broken leg, not a critically or mortally wounded Mountain Tiger.
    “Katrina - get your ass off the helo.  Get Kacey and her crew-chief over here ASAP, then have the ground crew throw the Auto-Doc stabilization unit into the cargo area.  Finally, tell Chief D’Allaird to dump his latest bunny out of bed.”  She didn’t mind D’Allaird bedding anyone he could manage, but if he got one pregnant, he was going to get a hell of a shotgun wedding.  Literally.
    “But you promised me!” whined Katrina.  “I did the load up perfectly!”
    “It's a load out, and when you're on my bird, it's ‘Yes Captain’ or ‘Yes Ma'am‘.  Got it?”
    “Yes, Ma'am.”
    “Now move.  Seconds count.  We got someone seriously fucked up at the festival.”
    “Who?”  There was real fear in Katrina's voice.  Mike had said he was going down to the festival to observe things again, but if he got challenged his nature wouldn't let him back down and he might have pushed his luck...
    “Kat!  Move your tiny ass, now!”
    “You're going to need two people to hold that unit on the load as you fly to the festival, and I just have to know.”
    The pleading in her voice sounded so sincere Tamara couldn't deny her.  Katrina’s weight wouldn't matter for the short hop, and dumping her with the cargo?  Well, if she was going to crew, she was going to have to learn to combat unload if she ever went into a hot zone.
    Less than three minutes later she was up in the air and Katrina and her normal crew-chief were moving gear to make room for the stabilization unit and linking up to the clinic's computers.
    “Valkyrie to Base One.  ETA to  clinic, two minutes.  Please advise medics to have patient ready.  I'm going to have to dump the Vanner's load on-site.  Suggest sending additional guards as Katrina will be there alone with all those extra visitors we have watching the festivities.”
    “Valkyrie, Base One.  Obrekta here.  Vanners are at Festival.  Not in Contact.  Will send ready team to secure load and locate the Kildar.  Once patient is secure and uplink ready I'll patch you and the Doctor through to Tbilisi Hospital.  They've been advised of the nature of the emergency, but not the particulars.”
    “Don't have that myself.  Please advise Tbilisi, I'll be coming in hot and fast, patient will likely be critical and I won't wait for them to move their luxury cars this time.  I'm loaded and will be clearing any and all obstacles, with prejudice.  If they complain, tell them to take it up with the Kildar.  Personally.  They can try to bill me.”
    She switched channels.
    “How's the load?  She ready for a slip shot, Chief?”
    “Roger, Tammy.  Load secure.  We got green lights on the unit too. Starting uplink with clinic for status check now.  Good signal.”
    “You're the best Naida.”  She swerved and avoided a stand of beech trees and the new power-lines coming down from the dam, full throttle, following the main road back to where they'd dump the load and pick up their patient.  “Hang on, kicking the tires and lighting the fires.”
    Valkyrie leapt forward at a speed that made more exhilarating for her and the crew, flying nap of the earth and avoiding the ever-growing infrastructure of Alerrso and the Valley.
    Lights.  Warning lights.  Another thing to bring up in the next staff meeting.
    “Naida, remind me when we get back, to take the Kildar for an overflight during the day and then one at night.  Got a few points I need to make with him.”
    “I hope one of them is warning lights on the power-line poles and the radio-repeaters.  We just passed one on the left with about three feet to spare.”
    “A miss by an inch is as good as a mile, Chief.  ETA fifty seconds.  Kat, you're going out with the load and we're not touching down at that spot.  We'll be moving up the road about three hundred meters closer to the Festival, where the vehicle ramp is located.  Your job is to guard that gear with your life.  No one but the Vanners or the Tigers get to touch it.  Once down, go hot on your SMG.  You're allowed one warning shot.  After that, if they try to rush you, take them down like the Chief taught you.  You'll have help shortly, so I don't think it will be a problem.  I think Team Padrek just took over duty so they can cycle the other duty squads through the Tests after we clear out.”
    “Valkyrie, Base One.  Kildar enroute to Cave.  He was busy.  With Anastasia.  He's been advised and will be a few minutes.  He said, ‘If they have anything on that roof blocking your landing, blow it the fuck away‘.”
    “Roger, Base One. Understood.  Might just take out that Humvee anyway.”
    “Kildar agrees, he's busy changing and OH MY!  Base One out for a few minutes.  Out.”
    She switched back to her intercom channel.  “Ten seconds.  Hang on Katrina, this is gonna be a rush.”
    “Ready.”  She sounded nervous.
    “Open the door.”
    “DOOR OPEN”  Kat and Naida yelled through the sudden wind.
    Katrina gasped as she saw a car pass just below her going the other way, then the Hind-D tipped sideways and slewed.  The Chief kicked the last of the quick-release catches and Katrina and the load slid out as one and fell a good ten feet to the ground still moving sideways at about twenty kilometers per hour.
    “Oh, fuck...”
    She'd forgotten to tell Kat to unhook her comm cable.  Well, it was designed to break before the wearer's neck did, so all she'd have is a sore neck to go along with the bruises on her ass and legs.
     “LOAD OUT. SECURING DOOR.”  Abruptly the noise of the wind cut out.  “I see flares four points to our port side, Captain.”
    “It's Tammy again, unless we got trainees and passengers aboard Naida.  We got to stay professional or we might lose the edge when it counts.”
    “Roger that.”
    A few moments later, they were at the clinic.
    “DOOR OPENING!”  The rush of the wind and sound of the blades cut off any further attempts at communication with her chief.
    “Base One, Valkyrie.  On the ground awaiting patient transfer.  Confirm link to a real trauma doctor in Tbilisi, and if you can't get one who's sober, get one of the new doctors.  I.  Am.  Not.  Going.  To.  Lose.  A.  Patient.  Over.”
    “Roger, Valkyrie.”
    In less than thirty seconds six Keldara carried a huge man strapped to a back board.  She also noted that the man had a full neck brace.
    Second note to self.  Get NFL level trauma gear.  The men here were just that big.  Off the shelf stuff just wouldn't work.
    Kira and Chief Adams were holding a reddening bandage to the patient's head.
    Tammy double checked her status board and then reached down between her legs and chambered a single round into the autofeeder.      Only problem was, it was a retrofit and its initial load had to be done manually.  The clip only held twenty-five rounds, so if she had to use more - she was truly fucked if Kacey and her Dragon weren't nearby.  It could only be reloaded on the ground and that wasn't something you did while pulling out wounded and dropping ammo and supplies to your troops in the field.  But the Kildar had guaranteed that even a T-62 would know it had been kissed if she shot it in the ass with that gun.  A slow mover or jet circling into her sights?  TOAST!
    “Captain. Patient loaded and secured. EMTs Mist and Kara along for ride. Shouldn't affect the fuel calc either way.  We might need to make more runs, though.  I heard Savo saying the Festival's been cursed by Loki; that worries me, as well.”
    “It's just Murphy at work.  Get the ladies comms and secured and get that patient into the bubble.  Let me know when he's safely hooked up and we'll grab sky.”
    “The Nannies say sixty seconds.”
    “Roger Naida.”
    “Base One, Valkyrie.  Heading to hospital, Tbilisi in five zero seconds.  Give me weather update and sat and radar links with airport please.”
    “Stand-by for feed on channel eleven, Valkyrie.”
    “Roger.  Patch me through to the Cave.”
    “Cave, Kseniya.”
    “Kseniya, do me a favor?  Make damn sure Vanner‘s little toys are cycled down.  I swear, I saw them tracking me last week.”
    “They‘re not loaded, Val -”
    “I don‘t give a fuck if they weren‘t loaded!  They will be off, do you understand me?  Or do you want  to clean my seat next time and do my laundry?”
    Silence was the only reply.
    “Valkyrie, Kildar here.  Get him there in one piece.  And don‘t take any shit.”
    “Gotcha, Kildar.  Valkyrie Air en route.”
    “Goddess!  Tammy, it's Shota!”
    “Noticed he was a big one.”
    “So did the Nannies as they cut his clothes off.  I had no idea...”
    “Grabbing sky! Hang on!”
    Doctor Arensky's fingers flew across the keyboard.  He called up the particulars and inputted the data coming from the rapidly departing Valkyrie, sending it on to the hospital, the Tbilisi State University Republican Clinical Hospital.  Though there were others in the city, this one had received a large grant from USTDA expressly for upgrading to American standards.  What the USTDA didn’t know was that the Kildar had quietly tripled the grant, allowing a massive upgrade of the staff, as well.
    Instead of importing two American specialists, Arensky had gone to India and hired a dozen PA’s and four Internists, all fully trained on the most recent advances.  Once back in Tbilisi, the Kildar had arranged for an entire apartment building to be turned over to them and their families for the duration of their contracts.  Additionally, they’d all received basic self-defense training at the Valley.  None had been harassed more than once.
    Only one incident needed action from the Kildar.
    The IMF chief from France, ostensibly on his annual inspection tour, but actually shopping for young girls for fun, maybe a mistress, made a serious mistake: he tried to grab one of the PA's using his bodyguards.  He found out what happens to kidnappers and sex-slave traders, be they sellers or end users.
    All the IMF got was a letter from an obscure office of the US government called OSOL, stating that they would need to replace the now-missing official.  A few pictures of the young girls in his hotel room being adjusted and prepared for shipment back to France had put paid to any official investigation.  Two DGSE agents arrived shortly after.  They were shown the body and permitted to question the still breathing bodyguards.  After the interrogation, the DGSE requested side arms and shot the bodyguards between the eyes themselves.
    A shame that the IMF regional chief hadn't respected the road conditions, they lamented officially.
    A real crying shame.
    “Valkyrie, Arensky here.  Go with List B.  If that doesn't work go with list C from point seven on.  After that load up trauma pack four and five into the feeder and…”
    “Republican Clinical, this is Valkyrie.  We are Angel Flight status, declaring condition Critical.  Repeat, this is an Angel Flight.  ETA One Five minutes.  Make sure that dammed heliport is clear or I will fucking well clear it myself, you got me?  Transferring to EMT.“
    “Mist here.  EMT on duty.  Patient status follows: blunt force trauma to head and neck.  Suspect internal and possible cervical damage as well.  Patient is unresponsive to all external stimuli.”
    “Roger, Angel Flight.  We have full data feed on patient.  Before we start scanning him, does the patient have any shrapnel or metal implants we should know about?”
    Kara shook her head in the negative.
    “Negative Tbilisi.  No known foreign bodies detected on previous physicals or X-rays.  Ah, be advised this is a very big man.  You’ll need to get some additional attendants to help us move him down to the Trauma Center.  Wait one.”  A loud beeping started, silenced with a slap of a switch.  “Patient’s respiration has ceased; going to mechanical support at this time.  Out!”
    “And Tbilisi Trauma?” Tamara spoke up.
    “Yes Angel Flight?”
    “This is one of the Kildar’s favorites.  He said, and I quote, ’God watches over children, fools and idiots, but if the hospital fucks this up, they’ll be explaining to God.  Personally.‘  Got that?“
    “Clear, Angel Flight.“
    “One more question.  Who drives the yellow Humvee?”
    “Ah, that would be the hospital administrator.”
    “You’re sure?”
    “Positive, why?”
    “Oh, no particular reason.  But you might want to make sure he’s opened the pharmaceutical locker and gotten out the good stuff before we arrive, if you get my meaning.”
    She could hear the grin through the radio.  The Administrator, while capable, was not well-loved.  “Oh that is mean, Angel Flight.”
    “Tbilisi Trauma, you know that Valkyries didn’t only rescue the souls of fallen warriors.  They were also the choosers of the slain.“
    “Well that is an ugly yellow...”
    “How the hell did he live through that, Chief?” Meller asked Adams.
    “We don't know if he will; Murphy sure had his fun with Shota today.  But he must have had someone else looking over him.“  The Chief had seen plenty of friends injured and dead in his years on the Teams, but it still affected him the same way.
    “I think I'll do my praying with a few beers.  I've seen enough of these contests already.  Unless you're participating?”
    “Not this year.”
    “Let's get stinkers then.”
    “Helluva plan, Don.”
    “Should we get Mike in on this?”
    “No, he's got problems of his own.  Maybe we should just get plastered down here.”
    “Yeah.  I want to know how the big guy is doing but I don’t, you know?”
    “Yep.”  He grabbed a bucket of beer from a passing girl and smiled.  “We're having our own contest now.  Keep bringing buckets and food until one of us falls over.”
    “Whatever the Kildar's friends require.  It shall be done.”
    “Gawd I love this place.”  The two then started a serious drinking binge. Everyone handles trauma their own way.
    As for the E-HOSS, they proudly finished the challenges they had already begun before excusing themselves from the Test of Man.  They went to the caravanserai, to hear any reports of their leader and friend.  That they were brought the Kildar's choice cuts from the oxen was barely noted, they ate mechanically.
    Hungry.  Food.  So - eat.
    None would be named Ondah.  The omission of the Test of Man weighed heavily in that decision, the final hand-to-hand combat.  Some would say that Savo would have beaten Oleg, but that would have to wait for next year.
    This year, though, they made history.  They ended up tied with Team Oleg as the winning team, earning their place in the histories.   But it was the present that weighed heaviest on their minds.  They stayed awake all night and into the next day, awaiting word, until they were ordered to bed down.  Even then they didn't go far from the Cave, displacing the ready squad with brute force and then collapsing on whatever surface they could find.
    “So, what you're telling me, Doc, is he's gonna live?” Mike asked through the phone.  He was talking with Dr. Aisharya Kapoor, the most senior doctor he’d imported, because the data on the computer barely made sense to him.  Mostly it was wavy lines, all steady.  He supposed there was a proper name for them, but he didn’t know it.
    “He's stabilized, but comatose.  He's got major neurological trauma we simply can't treat here.  I managed to insert shunts to relieve the pressure, but we don't have a neurosurgeon capable of handling the damage.  We worked on him for the last two hours. We were very impressed with EMTs and Angel Flight staff.” The clearly Indian voice spoke back to him in perfect English.
    “I'll let them know.”  A quick thought and he motioned to Grez for a pen and paper, scribbled something down and handed it back.  She read it and her eyebrows rose.  She ran all the way back to the Cave from the Ready Room to make a call
    “You may not be able to fix the problem, but I have friends that can.  Not here, in the US.  I already have a plane laid in for a flight, so it’d be no trouble at all to carry another passenger and doctor.”
    “Sir, today’s trauma isn’t the only problem.”
    “What else?”
    “The patient also shows sign of similar trauma sometime in his youth.  Was this young man a farmer by chance before his current occupation?  Worked with horses, or cattle?”
    “A kick to the head.  That might explain it.”
    “Explain what?”
    “He's got a damaged section of his skull, between the frontal and parietal lobes - the parts that control speech and reasoning, among other functions.  It's clearly calcified, showing the age of the damage, and the skull seems to have been bored into, perhaps to relieve the pressure in a primitive way.  This is somewhat indelicate, but I must ask: was this patient perhaps a bit slow?”
    “Yes, but he was a pure genius with ballistics, especially rocketry.”
    “That would be controlled by the parietal and occipital lobes, away from the original damage.  He could see and process that information on almost an instinctive level, using those parts, as our ancient, predatory ancestors did.  Understand?”
    “Somewhat.  Go on.”
    “Well, the damage, at such a young age, would have forced him to use other, undamaged parts of his brain for tasks normally handled by those two lobes.  It would be similar to losing your dominant and learning to write with the other - possible, but it would not have the same skill.  So too with his reasoning, his mathematical abilities - a whole host of issues, in fact.“
    “So an old injury made him a savant of sorts?  That explains a lot.  Perhaps the US doctors can repair that, too?“
    “I'm afraid not.  At this late date, all they can do is remove the scar tissue and damaged bone, perhaps lessen the pressure in the area.  But the damage to the neurons?  Mister Kildar, once a brain cell dies, it doesn’t come back.  With this amount of damage, even attempting higher cognitive functions must be painful.  Frankly, I’m surprised that the shock of combat and explosions hadn't knocked anything else lose in that region.  In your vernacular, he was a dead man walking.”
    “Just Kildar, please.”
    “Very well, Kildar.  As I was saying, I am surprised he survived this long. especially in such rough conditions.”
     “It seems you've kept my man alive.  Long enough that we can get him the care he needs.”
    “It is nothing but my duty.”  She snorted.  “You may wish to tell your pilot to release the administrator from the morgue, though.  Seems he was a little upset about losing his new car.”
    Mike shrugged.  “I warned that bastard.  I think I need to come have a look at the books, the real books.”
    “That may be... Difficult.  He keeps them locked in a safe, in his office.”
    “Don't worry doctor.  I know just the Mouse for the job.  In any case - how long do you need to prepare Shota for flight?“
    “Two, perhaps three hours to ensure he's stable.”
    “Do you have your passport, Doctor Kapoor?”
    “Yes, but do you want me to leave this hospital in the Administrator's hands?  He is afraid of me, I believe.”  He could hear her dimple.  “A broken finger can be most instructive, don’t you think?”
    “Glad the training came in handy.”
    “As to flying to the US right now?  Completely out of the question, as I have other patients that need my care.“  He heard the regret in her voice.  “Even though I would certainly appreciate a quick trip to the US, your EMTs will be sufficient to handle the patient.  Simply have the American hospital contact me so I can give them the information.”
    That stopped Mike cold.  How could he explain that he was sending Shota to a hospital that didn't officially exist?
    “Doc, I gotta make some calls.  I've been waiting on my staff to get me through to the US.  It's just dawn over there, so I'm going to have to wake some folks up.”
    “I'll get to work and let your staff know they are free to prep for movement and they can let the administrator go for now.  Unless you have other plans for him?”
    “No, but if you can give him something to make him, ah, happy?”
    “I understand.  If there are any problems, I‘ll be back in touch.”
    “Doc, you just earned yourself a bonus.”
    “Six hours of sleep and a cheeseburger would be enough payment.  I'm well paid already and such gifts wouldn't be proper.  Maybe some hyper-allergenic toys for the Pediatric wing?”
    “A cheeseburger?“
    “Not all Indians are Hindu, Kildar.“
    “Done and done.  Ever had a Fatburger?”
    “Do not tease me.  I haven't eaten all day.”
    “Out here.  Call you back in an hour or so.”
    “OSOL, Lieutenant Stillwater, how may I help you sir or ma‘am?”
    “Go Scramble.”
    “Scrambled.  Go ahead.”
    “This is the Kildar.  Is Colonel Pierson in?”
    “Yes, but he's in the ready room.  We have a situation.  Not in your backyard, not this time.”
    “Right.  Hmm.  I need to speak to someone about the hospital that isn't.  I have a patient that needs their special care.”
    “That is definitely over my pay grade.  I think I can interrupt the meeting for a few minutes.  Please hold.”
    Someone had changed OSOL's hold muzak.  This time it was playing a selection from Pink Floyd: The Wall, not a choice anyone in the government would normally make. If he hadn't known better he'd have looked straight at Mouse as the source.
    Speak of the devil, Mouse popped out of the wall.  Well, not exactly out of the wall, but the panel that hid the access to the third level of the basements.  He’d initially made off limits to everyone, yet somehow the Mice had made it their home.  Like mice, they preferred to be unseen.
    Creata was all but bouncing out of her glitter sneakers and pink striped socks.  So, it was anime/goth this week.  Okay.  It was better than her try at the anime/Idol look.  Catya and Elena could pull it off, as they had the bodies for it, but Creata had yet to bloom, so the Lolita-pink-goth look worked for her.  At least she'd forgone the pink wig.  For now.
    “I'm kinda busy now Mouse.”
    “I know.  I know.  But this is important!”  Bounce bounce bounce.
    Oh, crap.
    For just a moment, she looked the little girl she still, essentially, was.  “I might have overheard the first call Grez made to JSOC to try to get them to open up the hospital for Shota.”
    “And?”  He reminded himself to relax.  Yelling didn’t help, not with Mouse.  It was her job to hear everything, but sometimes it just purely annoyed him.  “Blue Skies” started playing and he felt himself calm down a bit more.  Good tunes.
    “They’re not gonna give you permission.  I already know.”  Typical teenage know-it-all.
    “We'll see.  I got Pierson coming online here in a few minutes.”
    “Still.  Won't.”
    “You’re sure?” he asked with just a hint of menace.
    “Please, Kildar.  I stay out of OSOL computers because you told me so, but I have friends there too.  We share code.  Vanner set it up.  But that's BORING!”  Bounce bounce.  Sigh.
    “Explain.”  He'd give her until Pierson got on the line and then he'd either call Vanner down or put her over his knee.  Again.  Shota’s future, hell, his life, was on the line; he didn’t have time for the typical teenage ‘I have a secret you don't know‘, bullshit right now.  “Fast and to the point.”
    “Okay.”  At least the bouncing stopped.  “They are prepping for a new program . Supersoldier.  Not Captain America stuff, but more like cybernetics and bio-tech stuff.  Real live cyberpunk.  They are getting ready for human testing really really soon.”
    “And this affects us how?”
    “THIS!  THIS is our - er, I mean Shota's ticket into the program, get him fixed up, get the old injury taken care of too.”
    How could a girl know so much that went on in the house with just two ears?  Then he remembered that there were four of the troublemakers in total.
    “PDA, PDA - gimme!”  Bounce bounce bounce.
    He handed her the device.  She inserted a thumb drive pressed the screen faster than he could follow.  She waited a few seconds, aimed the device at the computer displaying the medical data, pressed another button and waited for something to upload.  Tap tap tap and she bounced again.  Several times in fact.
    “Here look,” she said, showing him the PDA screen.  “This will fix him, make him better.  He can be their first field trial.  Basic assist CPU for damaged areas, flash memory blanks to fill in for damaged brain tissue and upload of data.  Some bone and muscle injections.  Some eyesight upgrades, different from Katya's.  Won't need to put in an uplink as he can link to his helmet and personal comm unit directly and send what he sees that way via the assist CPUs.”
    “HUH?”  He leaned forward after a glance at the stuff on the screen.  It was similar to when he'd taken Katya shopping for her upgrades.  But these were a totally  different level.  Nothing on the list looked lethal on its own; they all had carbon-nano in the name somewhere; and, sure enough, there was the ‘Assist Chip and CPU for brain trauma victims’.
    For once Mike was flabbergasted.  One, she had hacked JSOC.  Two, she had hacked into a super-secret, probably ULTRA-level upgrade program.  Three - but she was still talking.
    “Shota, stronger, faster, smarter than ever before.  If he has to, he can pay for it himself.”  She handed him a slip of paper.  It was a statement from a Swiss bank, and had Shota's name at the top of the printout.  Okay, that was a lot of fucking money.
     “Have you been playing with the SEC computers again, Mouse?”  She paled.
    “Noooo.”  The bouncing stopped.  Her hands covered her small ass protectively.
    “Well how does Shota manage to have this much money?  Over three million US?”
    “Three point five eight six and change as of this morning's Euro market.  I got about the same and the rest of the Mules should have as much as a squad too.”
    “How the hell -”
    “Tech bonuses from US, paid in gold, not dollars.”  She ticked off on her fingers.  “The gold certificates from the ambush, before the battle in the Pankisi Gorge.”
    “I thought they were all destroyed.”
    She had the decency to blush.  “Many were, but Shota and a few others kept their loads.  No one told them not to!” she said defensively.  “They turned in the cash and bearer bonds.  You explained what those were.  But gold certificates?  Those are all shiny and look pretty.”  Her voice turned to a whisper.  “I had to make Tubri undecorate his Mom's room.  He'd used them as wall paper.  Over a million Euros.”  Giggle.  “At least he only used flour paste and so recovery was as easy as using a steam cleaner.”  Bounce bounce.  “In total, we ended up with about two point five million euros in gold.”
    Mike went cross-eyed.  Looked down at the cost assay for the test program.  If he offered to pay for half, and Uncle Sam swallowed the hospital and surgical costs, ate the materials development as part of the trial cost…  It was still going to cost Shota most of his savings.  But, hell, Shota‘d been lucky so far.  Why not?
    That still left Mouse.
    “Young lady, when I find the time -”
    Two bags launched themselves from behind the wall panel before it closed again.
    He looked at the wide, innocent eyes of Mouse.
    “NO!  You are not going!”
    “Bet you a hundred Euro I can change your mind.”  She waved another thumb drive I the air.
    “Fuck me.”
    “Kildar!  I'm not old enough yet!  And you have the Harem!”
    Double fuck.  Sideways.
    “Speak.” Dragonforce started to rage through the phone.  Great, either OSOL knew his biometrics and programmed the muzak to respond to each caller, or someone shared his tastes.  Whatever.  He the speaker button to better enjoy it.  Holding the handset while dealing with the teenage infiltration and safecracking specialist was mind numbing.
    “What we have is just the profits from my programs and using the time zones to our advantage here.  We sit right between two major trading points, right?  London and Hong Kong?  Everyone forgets about Dubai.  And their foreign exchange operates on Greenwich Mean Time.  So, a little computer time travel, and we can sell before we buy, sell again, buy again, on and on and on!”  Bounce bounce.
    “Of course, here we know what's going on in the world politically.  I promised not to make any major moves off that information, but not off the impact footprints.  So if oil prices go up, I hit plastics and stuff made from oil instead.  I kept my word.”  Bounce bounce.
    Head slap.  Have to be more explicit with her.  A damned sight more explicit.
    “That doesn't explain how you think you‘re going with.”
    “Well in part it does.  I'm paying my own way.  As long as I‘m on Keldara business, I‘ve got my parents‘ permission.  I'll be with two chaperones and, most of all -”  She handed a second thumb drive to Mike.  He called up the only file and watched the text and memos flow by.  SON OF A BITCH!
    “Third, that fast unload knocked something loose, the Vanners only have two days in DC before the convention in Virginia, they really want to see the Sakura Festival, they‘re so Kawaii when they talk about it like first lovers again.”  She sighed like only a teenager could.  It was very well practiced and not at all Mouse-like.  She'd definitely been taking acting lessons most likely Catrina and Elena, her team's social engineers.
    “So I can spend the time fixing stuff and making sure it's tested okay, my team put so much time into making it in the first place and this is our only chance to impress folks and show that we can develop and make high tech stuff over here in Georgia too, I'm so sure of it that I talked the Mules into investing half of their savings each into development of an industrial slash tech park over at the five valleys, we want to do it without the President, ours, not yours, poking his fingers in the deal and fucking it up but if he does if you say so I’ll empty his secret accounts faster than you can blink your eyes and redirect the funds into the highway program making ours better too, and I want to buy some dirt bikes for my team too, cool ones, Chief Adams said he knew someone that could hook us up, but we had to bring his Hog back here.”  She finally stopped for a breath.
    “Why does he want a pig?  Pigs we got.  Plenty of farms out there.”  She pointed out and up.  Mike's eyes crossed again.  The Chief on his Harley, on these roads? Drunk? Not a good idea. But the thought of him riding a war-pig made him chuckle.
    “I know.  Silly isn't it?  Riding a hog for fun.  You Americans have some really weird ideas sometimes.”
    Now his ribs were hurting.  He held up one hand and gasped. Caught his breath.
    Okay, still on hold.  Must be a deep-in-the-shit national security meeting going on. He'd wait though.
    “Mouse, for all your smarts, you can be dumb sometimes.  You've been reading up on bikes right?  I’m guessing, you’ve been hitting Japanese and Sport sites?”  Nod.  “Okay, that explains it.  A Hawg is a nickname for a big motorcycle.  Comes from road-hog.  Hogging the road.  Bikers like to ride in the middle of the road.”
    “OH!”  She blushed.  “But the Chief, he'd look so cute riding a real hog.  Now I have to rewrite that email to his ex-wife and change my bid, now that I know its a bike.”
    “She's selling it?  Oh wait till Chief hears this.”  Mike grinned evilly.  “Don't you tell him.  This one's mine.  And I won't tell anyone about the other hog thing.”
    “Now continue.  Slower.”
    “One, I need to make sure the demo is a success to get investors for the area and sell our devices to the government, or at least company that can do that for us and bankroll us to make them here.  Two, the Chief's bike, but that's minor.  Three.  That.” She pointed at the PDA and the memos.  “We don't want to get Shota back, just to have them able to control him and spy on him. Or worse another president decide you are no longer necessary and make him go Manchurian on you.”
    “What makes you think -”
    “Four.  They already have a Manchurian problem.  Where do you think I got the idea?”  She held up a third thumb drive, this one jet black with a pair of crossed lightning bolts etched across its surface and a death's head superimposed over them.  It had a pull tab, which looked suspiciously like a self destruct.
    “Who is it?”
    “All the data’s on there, including the program they used on his satellite TV reprogram him.  I've tracked at least a half dozen other high ranking government officials that have had service from the same service.  I used local detective agencies where possible, brute force hacking when that failed.  Took me a whole two weeks to get this together.  I was going to give it to you as a birthday present, but now... well now it's more important.”
    “You can say that again.”  Mike's hand shot up stopping Mouse before she could do just that.  “So they could make Shota a puppet?”
    “Uh-huh.  A Pinocchio.”  She held her hands and arms up at an angle.  “And we'd never know it until too late, and him in E-HOSS.  Well, does BOOM mean anything?”
    “Yeah I get it.  So where do you come in?”
    “This.”  She held up an ugly gnome-like doll he'd seen around and pulled a string. It made some noises and giggles in a rusty childlike voice.
    “I modified it.”
    “Of course you did.”
    “Through it I can link to Shota once he's in ICU.  They can even put it through decon, all that will do is make it stop talking.  No loss there, it’ll still charge the capacitors.  As long as I’m nearby I can monitor whatever they upload into him and change it at machine code level.”
    “What about failsafes?  I’m sure they’ll be expecting a response if they ping it.”
    “It’s first generation, it’ll be buggy as hell.”  She shrugged.  “I can  spoof that easily once he's back here and prevent them from uploading anything bad or giving him orders against his or your will.  If anyone does try,  we can slam it back in their face with solid proof too via OSOL and -” holding the death head thumb drive, “- This will make a lot of people happy, and owe us big time.”
    “That it will.  But how will you explain being in the facility yourself?”
    “Oh. I have a few ideas.”
    “Oh, Hell.  Do I want to ask?”
    “Probably not,” she admitted.  “But think of it this way: I’ll have  a lot less money to play with for a while.  Wouldn't that make you feel better?”
    “Fine.”  Bounce bounce bounce.  “I'd say shag ass and get packed, but you’re ready to go, aren‘t you?  I warn you, nothing like Katya has or I'll drag you back and have them tear it out without anesthesia.”
    “No, Kildar.  Just some things to make my job easier that's all.  And something to protect me.  Nothing lethal.  I saw that stuff.  Who wants sub-dermal claws - that's just gross and the blood?  Mine?  Eww.  Thank you, not.”   Full teenage mode again.  Sigh.
    “You might want to get someone to go relieve Katrina and the Padrek Team on the Road soon as I get down there to work on repacking and checking the gear.  They've been down there all day and I think I'm the only one that's remembered.”
    Oh fuck.
    “Pierson, what's the emergency Mike?”
    Holding his hand over the mic, he said, “Go Mouse, tell the Vanners to get to the meet, get someone in the cave to get a relief team to the guards once you and the Vanners are on site.”
    “Sorry, housekeeping stuff.” He snapped his fingers for the PDA.  She pulled the thumb drives from it and put them into her breast pocket.
    “First, had a major casualty here during the festival.  Shota.  Caber toss.  Straight up.  Straight down.”
    “He lived?”
    “He's alive.  But likely comatose until he can get fixed.  That's where you and a certain hospital come in.  Grez is on with JSOC trying to get a bed for him there.  Odds are they are going to tell her no.”
    “Yeah, zero chance.”
    “Well, we’re going to change their minds.  I hope you're sitting down, because this may affect OSOL once the witch hunts end.  Fact is they are the only ones that can fix him and bring him back to normal.  I know they can.  And here's why I know.  One of my operatives, doing research on her own initiative...”
    “I gotta pee.  I'm cold too.”
    “Suck it up Katrina, or use the bushes.  We've told you over and over.  You've done it before.”
    “But you guys are around.  It's not the same.”
    “It's dark, we won't be able to see anything.”
    “Liars!  You have NODS!”
    “Well that's true...but who'd want to watch you pee?  Wee one?”
    “I think we have her new nickname boys.”
     Katrina shot the ground between his legs, missing his crotch by millimeters.
    “Whose nickname?  Pee-boy?”
    She finally relented when they took off their NODS and hit the bushes, their laughter at their fellow team member's close call and mishap still filling the air well after she was done.  By the time she crawled out of the bushes a car was pulling up, one of the duty SUV's.  The Vanners got out with Mouse, it looked like.  Well, someone had to fix this mess and it wasn't going to be her.  She'd been stuck here smelling the roasting meat for nearly the whole day.  She was famished.
    As the passengers got out, Katrina jumped in next to the driver and nudged him with her pistol.  “To the festival and don't stop until we're at the roasting pits.  I'm starving and thirsty.”
    “What about them?”
    “What about them?”
    “Good night for a walk isn't it?” he said as he turned down the ramp and headed towards the feeding area. Roasted ox or steer.  Better than duty rations.
    “Hey, where's she going with our driver?”
    “I think you pissed her off Pee-boy.”
    “Yeah, just be glad she's a good shot and missed on purpose.”
    “Start walking, it's a long walk up the hill.”
    “I hope they bring us some of that meat.  Been smelling it all day and it’s driving me nuts.”
    “Shut up, Pee-boy.”