[Things have heated up, and the Keldara are on the move! But where's Mike?
Tammy touched down smoothly, of course. Perhaps a touch more smoothly than usual, given her cargo. Dr. Arensky and two of the Rangers rushed to the crew door before the rotor blades fairly slowed.
“Gently but quickly!” he admonished as the stretcher bearing Kassab banged against the frame. “It would be a shame for him to die without even a chance to talk to us!” With surprising rapidity, the unconscious muj leader was borne off to Arensky’s hospital slash laboratory.
Salah wasn’t treated quite as carefully.
“Out, you fuck!” snarled Iosif. The pain medication had worn off, and his ankle was throbbing. The hobbled prisoner half-fell out the door and was immediately dragged upright by another Ranger.
Tammy slid open a window and called out, “Is anyone going to remove the nuclear weapon from my bird? Please?”
Adams altered the route in Solomenskoye.
“Orkin lead, Dragon. You’ve missed your turn.”
“Dragon, I didn’t miss the fucking turn, I’m not taking it!” he snarled.
“Dammit, Chief, where the hell are you going?” barked Kacey.
“I’m taking a better road!”
“Look, Chief, I understand you’re not as young as you once were, but -”
“Stuff it, Captain! This has nothing to do with my comfort! It’s almost eleven, and the GPS estimates our drive time at another three hours taking those roads. If I take the main road, yeah, it adds another sixty kilometers, but it actually reduces the total time by over an hour!” Releasing the transmit button, he added, “And it’ll give our asses a break!”
Wincing, Jachin just nodded.
“Gotcha, Chief. Makes sense. I’ll still have plenty of fuel to reach resupply in Elista. Have you called in to the Colonel yet?”
“Not yet. I wanted to wait until we were well past the turn. You know the old saying, it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”
“Roger that! Okay, I’ll check out the new route.” Lowering the nose, the Dragon flew off to the west.
As they settled into the much smoother, faster road, Adams said, “Okay, Keldara. Mission overview.”
“Yes, Chief,” replied Jachin resignedly. They’d already gone over it five times since crossing the border but, he reflected, it was a small price to pay for the relative comfort of the front seat. “Arrive in OA by fifteen hundred local time. Deploy Team Vil to secure perimeter, while Team Oleg establishes our position. Dragon will orbit at two thousand feet, five miles out, until security is established or thirty minutes, at which time she will depart to refuel. Team Padrek will take the east, Yosif to the north and Sawn to the south, with Oleg and Vil in mobile reserve roles. Sundown is eighteen thirteen hours, with full dark expected within another forty minutes. Assuming we remain undetected, assault is to commence at twenty hundred hours.”
“Then we kill them all!”
Smiling, Adams corrected, “Well, not all.”
“If possible we are to capture Inarov. Priority, though, is given to capturing the nuclear arms intact.”
“Good! And the Evac plan?”
“North, to Yashkul, then west, to Elista. Aviation transport has been arranged for both the men and weapons.”
“Valkyrie will carry critically wounded Keldara back to the valley or other designated location. Non-critical injuries will travel with their Teams.”
“And the dead?”
“Will be carried in honor to the valley for the final voyage of the fallen.”
“Bang on! Guess you have been listening!” Adams stretched as best he could in the seat. “Your turn,” he said, pulling the van over.
“Yeah, you’re driving. It’s easy. Go faster on the right, go slower on the left, and turn right at Zelenokumsk. Piece of cake!” Unbuckling, he opened the door as the radio crackled again.
“Orkin Lead, Dragon. Problem?”
“Negative, Dragon. Switching drivers. Underway momentarily, out.” Adams walked around the front as Jachin slid over to the driver’s seat. He fastened the belt, reclined the chair, and said, “Wake me when we hit Prikumskij.” In seconds, he was asleep and snoring lightly. Well, lightly for the Chief, at least.
“Father of All,” Jachin whispered.
It was bitterly cold on the eastern shore of Kek-Usn. West winds blew across the still-frozen surface, bending back the scrubby pine and fir trees stubbornly clinging to the rocks and sweeping over the low ridge that held Inarov’s caverns.
Bare rock above allowed for distant sightlines, at least from the southwest to northwest. Multiple-meter-tall snow drifts, deposited by the constant winds, helped conceal the entrance on the eastern ridge face. A single narrow track, just wide enough for a single vehicle, wound its way two kilometers from the east, through the heavy woods. The trees were monsters, two and three meters thick, centuries old. Sparse undergrowth, still brushed with snow, was scattered between the trunks.
Guard duty was not exactly a plum assignment. In truth, during these winter months, it was punishment duty. Always cold, often wet as well. Three men were usually assigned, one stationed beside the entrance, one in a crude rock shelter atop the ridge, and the third just within the edge of the forest. In theory, they rotated from post to post each hour, for all of their eight hour shift, to provide fresh eyes. In practice, they tended to congregate at the entrance, at least until forced to return to their posts.
Today was no exception. Haytham, usually a cook, had been selected for accidentally substituting salt for sugar in the Emir’s morning coffee; Kateb, supposedly a trained mechanic, still hadn’t managed to repair the transmission on one of their few trucks; and Qays was, well, a fuck-up. His squad leader hated him, he was sure. Every day it seemed there was a problem with his bunk, or his weapon, or how he performed his review, or just about everything possible to be gigged for. He’d begun to regret joining the rebellion. At least, if was home, he’d be warm. He’d have hot food. He’d be able to go to the mosque for his daily prayers, instead of bowing on a cold rock!
“Another day in the cold,” groused Haytham. It was noon. Their shift officially began before the midday prayers, but the early guards always came in before prayer, to warm up, and the next group never went out before completing their prayers, to stay warm as long as possible. It made for a gap in the security, but this was the far side of nowhere. Who was going to find them?
“Hope you brought your tea,” chortled Kateb to Qays. “You get first shift on the rocks.”
“Allah be merciful, not again!”
“Don’t complain, you’re closer to Allah up there!” Qays turned and began the long trudge up to his perch. Eight couldn’t come soon enough.
They landed at Wick, at the very tip of northern Scotland in Caithness, to refuel. A former RAF base, it retained many of the original buildings, including the control tower. Climbing down into the afternoon sunshine, Mike remarked, “Christ, feels like we’re ready for the Battle of Britain here!” An old DC-3 Dakota, resplendent in RAF livery, and a gorgeously-maintained twin-tailed Lockheed Electra were parked at the end of the taxiway, near the tower. He half-expected to see a squadron of Hurricanes come in for a landing.
Kat followed, blinking. “Where are we?”
“Scotland. You should feel right at home here; after all, this is where we think the Keldara came from, originally.”
“Oh yes! Yulia tells me all about it. There’s something called ‘haggis’ she wants to try to make, says it comes from here.”
Mike made a face. SEALs had to eat all sorts of weird shit, but deliberately stuffing a sheep’s stomach with its heart, liver, and lungs, throwing in some herbs and oatmeal and boiling the whole mess just didn’t appeal. “Remind me not to accept that dinner invitation,” was what he said.
“Ask Yulia how she plans to make it.” Pausing to consider some of the odd ceremonies of the Keldara, he backtracked. “On second thought, don’t. You’ll probably like it.”
“Think I can get one here?”
“I don’t know if we’ll have the time, honestly. It shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes to finish fueling, and we have no transport.” Seeing her face fall, he relented. “If you want to look in the airport, I suppose there’s no harm in it.”
“Come with me!” she insisted.
“No, I’ve got to talk to Nielson again, get an update while we’re on the ground. Take Stasia, see what you can find.”
“Stasia!” yelled Kat into the plane. “Come out here! And bring your purse!”
Lord, what did I get myself into?
“Actually, Orkin is ahead of schedule.”
“Orkin? Who the fuck - wait. Vanner.”
“Got it in one.”
“Valkyrie has returned with two wounded tangoes, one a leader, though he may not survive; one wounded Keldara, just a sprained ankle; and a rather large package.”
Mike whistled. “Guess they were serious about Groznyy. Any other news?”
“No more good news, I’m afraid.”
“We think that the Russians have set us up for betrayal again.”
“I’ll kill that son-of-a-bitch Chechnik!”
“It’s not Chechnik!” interjected Nielson. “He’s the one who warned us!”
“Who, then? I want a name.”
“Your old buddy Vlad.”
Mike’s voice, when he spoke again, was full of menace. “We’re going to have some extra nukes lying around, won’t we?”
“Later for that. Focus!”
“Oh, I’m focused. Believe you me. What are we doing about it?”
“Nothing, for now. Grez believes, and I concur, that the trap will only be sprung if we call the Ground Force in.”
“We ought to call them in just so we can royally fuck them over.”
“Will you listen to me? It’s not the men, it’s not Chechnik, it’s Putin behind this! Deal - with - him - later! Got that, SEAL?”
“Got it, Colonel,” Mike ground out. “Anything else?”
“Kseniya might have figured out who the mysterious Ibrahim really is, and Cottontail thinks she knows where he’s headed and why.”
“I thought you said there wasn’t any more good news?”
“This isn’t good. It’s Schwenke, and he’s coming to the valley.”
“Fuck, fuck, FUCK!”
“That’s about it,” agreed Nielson.
“Dammit all to hell!” Mike took a deep breath. “Okay. We have the Rangers, and I assume you’ve screamed for help from Umarov?”
“Yes and yes. We’re pushing the Ranger patrols out further, interdict everything moving before it gets close enough to do damage. Umarov’s setting up roadblocks and checkpoints as well.”
“Good. Make sure the mortars get involved; I won’t forget about them again!”
“Already taken care of; Jessia Mahona and Corporal Sivula were all over it this morning. Oh, one more thing,” he added diffidently. “Should I talk to Father Kulcyanov, or would you rather?”
“Evacuating the valley, just in case.”
“No, and don’t insult him that way. He might just have one more good swing of the axe left. You’ve studied the Keldara damn near as much as Vanner and I; what makes you think they’ll cut and run just because their latest enemy is using a nuke instead of guns?” He laughed harshly. “A glorious defence against hopeless odds? They’d all get their ticket punched right for Valhalla! Think they’ll turn that down?”
“If you asked them - yes.”
“If I asked them. But I won’t. This belief is right at their core; questioning it at all could rob them of what makes them so special. No.”
“I agree, but I thought I should at least mention it to you.”
“Gotcha. Anything else?”
“No. The assault should begin on schedule, in a little more than, ah, three hours. What’s your ETA for Elista?”
“As soon as we refuel, about the same, maybe less if we can pick up a decent tail wind.”
“That’s going to be tough on the teams if they don’t have Dragon for air support.”
“You’re right. Can Valkyrie make it to Elista in time?”
“If she can’t, she’ll be dammed close.”
“Make it so. God, I sound like Picard!” Nielson chuckled at the aside. “Is Kacey already carrying my armor?”
“Yours, the extra set for Hughes, and Kat’s.”
“I don’t want to ask -”
“I won’t. What weapons did you pack for me?”
“You’ve got a Barrett and an M4.”
“And the others?”
“M4’s as well. Adams is toting plenty of extra ammo, so we went light on your initial load.”
“Makes sense. Have Kacey drop it with one of the Evac flights.” He noticed Kat and Stasia returning, toting several bags, and the fuel tender unhooking. “Looks like we’re almost done here. Good hunting, and tell the Chief to save a few of the bastards for me.”
Kat was carrying a large cloth bag and a much smaller paper bag.
“I’m guessing you found haggis?”
“Not just haggis,” she replied happily, “But bannock! ‘Bealtaine Bannock,’ they called it. That’s like our Beltane, isn’t it?”
“I believe so.” Climbing the steps, he pointed. “What’s in the other bag?”
“That’s for you; I’ll show you on the plane. It’s called Old Pulteney; the lady in the shop said it was the best scotch whiskey you could buy. I think. It was difficult to understand her!”
“I imagine so!” Boarding completed, a crewman pulled the door shut. Almost instantly they began to roll onto the runway. As they turned, Mike was looking out the window. Opposite the DC-3, hidden from sight on approach, was a P-51 Mustang.
“It IS still WWII here!” he said as they rushed down the runway and leapt into the air again.