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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Kildaran - Second Interlude

[So, remember about the Interludes? Here's the second one. Paint It Black has a villain - Major Connors, you've already met her and aren't you HAPPY for it? - so of course it needs a Keldara hero - well, multiple heroes. Meet one of them. Lasko Ferani, sniper extraordinaire. As before, much of the Interlude was written by Dick Evans, and then polished by me (mostly to fit the style I use for The Kildaran, our styles don't quite, ah, match). Enjoy!]


Lasko looked at the Duty Squad, sitting around the table warming themselves with coffee and trying carefully to avoid looking at the “new help” serving them their mid-afternoon tea.
This week, it was Shota's Team's turn to be on Reaction/Errand Boys Duty and perform whatever tasks Vanner would be giving them. Likely it'd be another pack of toys to spread around the Valley. Vanner loved his toys and was always coming up with new uses for things, or altering them to fit the need of the Kildar and the safety of his valley.
In Lasko’s opinion, Vanner was the best kind of soldier: smart and lazy. He'd find the best way to do the job right the first time and with the minimum effort. Though as his budget went up, or he sold another patent and gizmo he'd altered back to Uncle Sam, he'd often upgrade older systems and that was a lot of make work as far as the troopers were concerned.
This was one of those times. With Shota still in the US recovering from the accident during the Festival of Balar, his team would need reminding of what was what. And where he, Lasko, was going to be, as well as the help he'd be giving them along the way.
With Shota, Lasko and Vanner could be sure that such a simple job would be followed to the “T.” Shota would have carried his orders in hand, just to make sure he got it right the first time, too. With him missing, though…
Sure enough, something else would always become a higher priority task for the Kildar and those he commanded. Murphy, he'd learned, was a SOB and loved a good joke. Like finding the Spetnaz snipers asleep in their hide, not an arm's reach away from the hide he'd chosen for his own before light became his enemy. Well, in that situation, both teams had plenty to bitch about with Murphy, but Lasko had noticed first and thus another team of Russians had joined their friends. Oh, not dead, though that would have been easy enough. No, they were held by the Keldara and put to work until the Russians asked for them back. That had been three months or so after the final shots had been fired between Georgia and Russia. Not that the Spetnaz had complained - a little manual labor and they got to drink Keldara beer. Soft life, comparatively.
Then Lasko had lost another spotter. He’d been tracking down what seemed to be a large party of raiders when the boy slipped through an unseen ice crevasse. He’d broken his leg in three places. Even worse, the raiders he'd been tracking turned out to be the survivors of four little farms two valleys east. They’d been just hanging on, surviving hand to mouth.
Valkyrie had been a busy girl for the next few hours moving them to Alersso, and now Lasko had to break in a new spotter, again. He knew Murphy had it in for him for being so damn good and knowing it.
He'd sure had gotten Shota at the Festival.
Lasko swallowed a chuckle. After the Kildar’s example, the Test of the Wood could now be thrown over their head after the required carry, but many still threw it over their shoulder. Shota hadn't. He'd managed to throw it straight up into the air and stood, smiling for the crowd, until it came back down. Straight down.
He'd taken two steps towards the first person to laugh, raising an immense fist, and then fallen over as if dead. Anyone else would have died on the spot, but not Shota. Vanner muttered something about, “Luck protects fools, little children, and ships named Enterprise,“ as Arensky worked his magic and Valkyrie was summoned. It was certainly true in Shota’s case that day.
After an fast flight to Tbilisi, Shota was stabilized and examined. Strangely, a similar injury was discovered on the opposite side of his head that must have been endured as a child. Damage of this type was completely beyond their capabilities.
So the Kildar had made a few calls. Shota was flown to some specialist military hospital where they said they could repair both the new and old damage, maybe even more. Never one to let an opportunity pass, Vanner, Greznya and Mouse had traveled with Shota, part because the Kildar looked out for his own, and partly to do some tech upgrades they couldn’t do by remote. After a few days, they’d come back. Shota still hadn’t.
Mouse - Creata - was an interesting addition. After her training as a safecracker, she’d proven to have a natural grasp of all things computer, as well. Lasko had heard that something called the SEC wanted words with her about ‘insider trading‘. Whatever that was.
He did know that Mike had squashed the Ponzi scheme she'd tried to get some rich idiots interested in, and that Mouse hadn't been able to sit for her normal lessons for over a week after that. It hadn’t even been Mike who'd applied the paddle, but Anastasia instead. Proved she could give as good as she took.
Still, she was trouble looking for a home. What was worse, without Mouse to keep them focused, the Four Blind Mice - so named because they occupied the deepest part of the building, below even Anastasia’s ‘special’ room - would definitely get into more trouble. Who else could manage the two ex-hookers and a thirteen year old boy with a God complex? At least the girls, Elena Kulcyanov and Catrina Mahona, had picked up some techno-savvy in Lunari during their years as slaves.
Their escape had been miraculous and once Anastasia started teaching them, they showed an adeptness for the same type of work Mouse did. They had the added advantage - though it was a bitch to acquire it, and he didn‘t envy them for it - of having used their bodies to survive, something Mouse sorely lacked. This gave them a willingness to do the kind of social engineering that sometimes made the difference between success and failure.
Shaking himself out of his reverie, Lasko stopped himself from reaching for a buttery Danish once again. He tried to figure out what to tell the Ready Team's temporary NCO, Savo. They had complained already to Vanner about the “Stuff” they had to carry across every ridge and up every cliffside. Truth be told, Lasko had sympathized, which is why he’d gone with them to beard Vanner in his den.
Vanner had just smiled and said, “We can't have eyes everywhere. With these we have the extra bandwidth, power and new burst encryption packet ability.” Ignoring the rapidly-glazing eyes, he plowed on. “Don’t forget to emplace their micro-solar panels. As long as they have power, you’ll be able tap into them with your new PDA's almost immediately. Grez installed the Apps herself, with a little help from the Four Blind Mice.”
He grinned maliciously. “They worked so hard putting all these 'toys' together so you'd have something to do this week.”
He said this with justifiable pride in his wife’s work. He didn’t mention the months of work and countless bribes to the Mice to rewrite the code and rewire incompatible technologies into one compact box. He also didn’t mention that this deployment was more in the nature of a field test for a possible sale back to the States. Two birds, one stone. Field testing, data studies and another better layer of protection and communications for the Keldara troops. Win, win. As far as he was concerned.
That would get Grez off his back regarding the budget, too. Running an Intel shop was expensive. He’s never realized quite how expensive, when Uncle Sam was footing the tab. But running his own, and writing the budget - well, thank God for Grez! Without her to squeeze every penny, he’d have run over budget months ago. Still, it was getting to be a close thing. Pretty soon, he’d have to go to Mike for another half million dollars if this project didn't pan out.
He nodded to himself and then nodded to Lasko. Even Lasko had had to dip into the new tech funds a few times. His new spotter now had the latest gear, lifted right off the message board. He even had the ability to video shots up to a mile away all in their digital glory. Which in turn allowed data-cowboys like the Four Blind Mice or Greznya's team to massage it into one clear image for posterity. They’d done a poster for him of one of the slavers that just hadn't believed all the stories about this valley and its dangers.
Lasko had provided the blurb for the poster, which showed the dying slaver’s face: “Surprise is finding out, just because the enemy isn't in your range, doesn't mean you're not in his.”
Today, he’d come by the Cave to inform them of his planned training. That’d been a mistake, because it had also allowed Vanner to cadge him into helping “Team Mule” deploy some of the new gadgets.
Lasko needed to get Khul trained, soon. He wasn't getting any younger, and his fame on the sniper board was starting to wane. Now that he‘d gotten a taste of notoriety, he just couldn't help but take it personally. His job had been a solo occupation before the Kildar had come; now it was a two man affair, and made him all the more deadly. If his partner was up to spec.
Lasko finally spoke up.
“About your next task, boys. Don't go near South Face point 212 or up the pass to the mount there for at least a day. I'll be out there training moving... something dangerous. As well as laying out these toys that Vanner keeps giving us to put out . He says it’s so he can tell us when and where the guys we can shoot are coming from in time; I say it’s so he can get fat and lazy in his lair.” He grinned to take the sting out of his words.
“There's something up there that you young men don't need to deal with quite yet. Follow your maps and GPS on your PDA's and call home if you get lost. I'm sure the girls will be happy to escort you fine big lost warriors home to where it's safe and warm. Just think of it as if there be... Dragons in these here mountains.” Lasko repeated a phrase he'd read in a book recently.
“Only Dragon I've seen is one of them bitching paint jobbed helos,” said. Tubri, also known as Two Brow. He started to turn to check the rears of the new staffers who had just walked past and got a swat from his acting Sergeant, Leni, as a reminder. “Right Lions, Tigers and Bears... Oh, my!” He joked to cover up his fuck up.
“Laugh if you will. Just make sure you stay off this side of South Face 212 for at least forty-eight hours.” He tapped the map on the table to make sure they knew what he was speaking about.
He answered the unasked question. “Yes, it's the same one you guys put that little robot gun up on last April.”
“Then avoid the backside of the mountain here by the caravanserai for at least a full week, please. After that time is up,” Lasko continued in his rough voice, “I'll place the 'eyes' there myself. I don't want you to...”
As one the squad repeated, “ needlessly endanger yourselves.”
Sergeant Leni spoke up, “Message received. We’ll notify Oleg about the changes in patrol routines so we don't affect whatever you’re doing out there. Good hunting and good luck with the new 'Owl' you‘re breaking in.”
Lasko nodded and left, stopping his hand from snatching one of the tempting pastries that had appeared during the briefing again. They were starting to affect his mid-line and that would affect how he lay prone lining up a shot. That and the butter in them would make his sweat especially sweet and noticeable to a trained nose, let alone one belonging to the prey he was after.
He made one more stop at the armory to pick up a special rifle and two sets of Arctic whites that had been washed a dozen times in clear water and aired out well away from anything that was tainted by human hands. He stuffed them into a garbage bag filled with leaves and fresh pine needles and stuffed that into his already heavy pack.
The laundress was not amused at how he treated her work.
It paid to be careful. Especially with this target. This time it wouldn't be a trophy hunt though.
He hoped Khul had taken a shower with out using any soap or shampoo as ordered. Where the Kildar was a ghost, Lasko knew he'd have to be a forest-wraith to be successful in this operation. No need to give his target a chance to turn the tables on them. That would be bad, as in funeral pyre bad, after someone collected the shit left by their target after it'd feasted on them.
The Elders might not approve of this hunt, but was necessary as the reports of half eaten game and strop marks on trees were getting more frequent and, more concerning, closer to the Valley. This had to be kept secret, at least until completion, but then the North East outer face of the next valley over would have one extra layer of protection that few would notice until too late if they ventured that way.
Few would voluntarily, due to the steepness of the climb and lack of cover and thus he felt no guilt about anyone who might suffer from his uninformed decision. Surely any coming that way would be enemies or spies, and thus due all he and the others could place as future hardships in their path.
Lasko sniffed Khul Savina after they'd donned their snow gear well up the west game path.
“No scent other than your youth. Should suffice. We'll be crawling a lot in the snow and through pines later. T hat will mask any other smells we might make if we sweat.” He smiled, “Trick is, don't sweat.”
Khul looked at him sideways, eyes wide open and then gave the pile of gear they were taking with them another gander. There was no way they'd be able to haul all this without sweating a little, even as cool as it was. Or later when it got colder with the coming of the night.
Khul sighed. Nothing he could add would matter anyway. He just watched the old man gear up and did his best to mimic him. Lasko double checked him anyway and then had him to the same to his gear, ensuring that anything metal was covered and wouldn't clink at the wrong time. Lasko then opened another bag and then assembled a stretcher for the remaining gear.
“What? You think we are 'The Mules?' We'll share the load and place the toys for Vanner to test and calibrate later as we go. The load will lighten up before we reach the top. Then we'll spend the night just below the peak of 212, out of the wind and then do some sightseeing.”
Which, to Khul, meant practice with the new scope and its laser designator only. No live round practice for him. No chance to prove his worth with a rifle, once again. In fact Lasko made sure that except for Khul's sidearm he wasn't carrying. Though that made the giant, odd-looking, over-under shotgun Lasko had slung to his side more of a mystery than before. That he had it out instead of his favorite Mannlicher 7mm rifle was doubly odd.
If the old man thought he'd needed two rifles, maybe he should have brought more than the standard issue sidearm. But a look and a wry smile from Lasko told him he already knew what questions Khul had and he was ready with the answers. Not in the mood for a lecture at the moment made his doubt's voice die in place. He had a makeshift axe in his E-tool, if it came down to it..
“Our ancestors once hunted special game up in these mountains, with bow and axe alone. Our protectors have returned, but are wandering closer and closer to this side of the valley, to where our cattle and families are. We will catch them and move them to a place them on the far side of the next valley, where the hunting is good, and no one lives. They won't have to compete with our own hunters until a time that the Fathers choose. That and they can't easily return to this place if they do not know where we took them. Ehh? I 's not time for our people and these beasts to meet yet.”
“It's the tigers, right? I've heard the rumors -” the youth exclaimed.
“Not so loud, Khul! We're moving. Load up, take your end, try to walk where I walk, and keep your eyes moving. You need to learn to use them as well as your nose and ears out here. If I freeze...”
“With tigers about? I'll freeze too, then pray that you can shoot it before it decides I'll make a less stringy dinner.” He clutched at the symbol of his gods, a stylized axe hanging around his neck, and made a sign to ward off evil.
Lasko smiled. Maybe this one would last longer than the other. This youngster showed promise. He had the eyes of an owl and moved like one in the woods, normally, and had filled his family's larder with fall game by himself while the troops were patrolling and preparing for the harvest. He just needed more training in the field and less time playing video games. Khul picked up one end of the stretcher, Lasko picked up his and they began the arduous trek to the top.
One step, one breath.
Always looking.
Always listening.
Always smelling the wind for any changes. This method would train Khul on how to move at higher elevations and how to be one with his environment and control his efforts in such a way as to not sweat.
“Do you see it?”
A nod and Khul's fingers flashed the range. Then he popped three fingers and made a pinching motion, then a single finger and a wider set of his free thumb and forefinger. Lasko knew he meant the three cubs and their mother as he had them in his Mannlicher's sight as well.
The cubs weren't ranging far from the overhang that was cover for their lair. They were still very young, he could tell by their oversized paws. Their mother was lounging above, on the overhang, watching them play and sniffing the wind. A low growl reached Lasko a few seconds later.
“Uh, why crap?”
“Wind is from the north and she smells danger. I knew those strop marks we found on the way up here were too big for her. And she is a big one indeed.”
To his credit Khul just nodded and let Lasko keep on telling him what he needed to know.
“That means there are two males in the area now marking territory, She won't tolerate either being near while her cubs are this small. Our work just got twice as hard. If he finds the lair before we move them, he'll kill the cubs to force her into heat again. If he survives that is.”
“No mother would take the threat to her children lightly.”
“No shit, Sherlock.” Lasko was indeed picking up interesting mannerisms along with the new skills the Kildar, the Rangers and Trainers had shared with him. But his skill, that was natural, born of need and hunger in lean times and bullets were expensive.
“Then there's the chance the two males meet up. I don't want two wounded and hungry cats out there hunting each other while I'm trying to hunt them instead.”
“I thought that we weren't going to kill them.”
“Not if I don't have to.” With that Lasko pulled out what to many would seem to be a tomahawk, but with a larger blade and hook opposite. The handle was well wrapped in leather and worn by use. I t was old, but not as old as the Named Axes of the Families. He smiled to calm the boy who suddenly was shivering more than the cold called for.
“To honor the beast should it find us before we find it. It will do when we don't have a named weapon to use. It was forged from the weapons of past Kildar. This is. . .”
“Uh, Lasko...”
The boy froze and then faster than Lasko could blink dove into his bent over body, knocking him towards their carefully stacked remaining gear. There was a roar and ripping sound of nylon and cloth being shredded.
Lasko rolled over to check on Khul. To his honor, the young man, scared to death, still held his backpack between himself and the male tiger who'd just surprised the both of them with its pounce.
It gave Lasko time to lift and fire both barrels of the odd shotgun into the tiger's side. No need to use the sights at this range. Both darts struck and the drugs took immediate effect. The tiger fell unconscious right on top of the backpack and with Khul beneath it.
Lasko flipped his wide-band transceiver on and called in.
“Valkyrie, Valkyrie! I’ve got one large package ready for lift. You were right - there were two males. We're gonna have to move it to an alternate location, away from the female and cubs. Two I could have believed, but five in so few years when none had been seen in a generation or more?”
“...Yeah, I'll be buying the beer. I don't welsh on bets woman. Lasko, Out.”
“Uh could you get this thing off me? Please?”
He shook his head regretfully. “Sorry, Khul. I have to get the female and cubs sedated before she scents us or comes to investigate the noise we made. Don't look at me that way. Here. Hold my axe. If the other male comes, cut off his balls or something. I'll be back soon enough.”
Lasko had already scuttled down the hill a ways and didn't hear the rest of the boy's invectives. Not that he needed to. He knew all those words himself by now. English was indeed a fascinating language.
Vanner looked up as a haggard-looking Khul and Lasko finally managed to make their way down to his Intel shop, The Cave.
“You look like shit, old man, and he doesn't look much better. I told you, you should have taken Shota's team with you. Even if he's not here. What did you boys do? Wrestle them into submission?” Vanner nodded to some monitors that had some scenes of the movement of the tigers in with the Helo on them.
The Magic boxes no doubt, thought Lasko.
“No, we found the lair, saw that she had a litter too. We found the father about a kilometer away when we were moving the primary. But as to the gear and our look, well young Khul decided to be a hero and tackled me out of the way of the second male's pounce and decided to feed it his pack instead of his face.”
“Better that than the other. Did you have to kill it?” Lasko shook his head in the negative and handed his PDA to Vanner's wife, Greznya, so that its data could be downloaded.
“It was fully grown and old. Weighed nearly 350 kilos and it landed right on Khul’s belly. Lucky for him the rear claws grabbed his webbing and Kevlar liner instead of his guts. It also wasn't a wild tiger to begin with. I t had a tattoo on it's inner lip. I'm guessing it escaped from some Russian zoo.”
“I pissed myself I was so scared,” Khul muttered.
“Well, I don't know what to say. Good work out there.”

“Is the collar working?“
Vanner nodded.
“Good. I’d hate to think we had to do this again.“
“They won’t wander back this way,“ Vanner said hopefully. “And if they do, we can give them a little zap through the collar to, ah, dissuade them.“
“Nice drugs,” Lasko noted, “but the range on this rifle sucks. Can you get me a real one with similar rounds, or could we do specialty rounds for my normal sniper rifle? Never know when we might need it. Or want to do things a bit less messily.”
“I‘ll see what I can do. Later. Now, I need to enter the signals into the ‘Friend or Foe’ database and download it to all the sensors. Don't want one of the perimeter robot guns to blast it by accident if we ever go hot.”
“I‘m sure Valkyrie was relieved when you told her the system was still down. I don‘t think she likes machines that shoot by themselves any more than I do.”
“Believe me, Lasko, if it gets to the point where I have to set those things on automatic, we'll already be neck deep in shit.” Vanner finally caught a whiff of something ripe and sewer-like through the musk of the tigers and the obvious urine smell. His wife's look made the young man fess up again.
“Yeah, shit. I did that too. Can I go now? Before anyone else smells me? Otherwise, I'll never live that down. I can imagine the nicknames already.” The boy left before the girls in the cave could even begin to giggle. But that would be as far as it went. Those that worked in the cave had learned how to keep secrets even from their husbands and families.
Lasko leaned forward and whispered into Vanner's ear. “Had that tiger gotten the boy, I imagine I'd be shitting myself until and when the Kildar found out.”
Vanner smiled. “Well there's the corollary. 'Better him than me.'”
Lasko gave Vanner a stare that would have made a lesser man faint. “That boy showed more courage than any other three men I’ve known. Better him than me? No. He shows promise. All-Father willing, he may yet save all of your lives as he saved mine.” Striding toward the door, he said, “Now I'm off for a shower and a nap. Then Khul and I are off duty until I say we're ready again. Got it?” Without another word he stalked off.
“Hon?” spoke up Greznya after a few minutes as she reached for the Cave's air ionization unit's power supply. “I didn't have the heart to say it, since I wasn't sure which one of them was the source of this odor. But it was close to what you smelled like after the Kildar had that little talk with you about our expenditures last quarter.” A giggle, quickly suppressed, ran through the Cave. “So perhaps you should let this go. Yes?”
“Yes, dear.”

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