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Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Kildaran - Chapter 36

 [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.”
    “And then?”
    “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.
    “My turn?”
    “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.”
    “How large?”
    Mike whistled.  “Guess they were serious about Groznyy.  Any other news?”
    “No more good news, I’m afraid.”
    “Hit me.”
    “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?”
    “About what?”
    “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 -”
    “Then don’t.”
    “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.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Kildaran - Chapter 35

[So since BLOGGER is a Google subsidiary, it seems to have developed an allergy to Mozilla's Firefox.  So for this blog - and ONLY this blog - I have to log in through Google Chrome to post.


Replying to comments - FZY1, Shota isn't in the book, at least not really.  His interludes take place before the action; just keep that in mind.

Okay.  So Mike is winging home with Kat and Stasia... what can possibly go wrong?



Ibrahim’s subordinates all marveled at his abilities.  Oh, he was the very devil incarnate if you failed him, but his plans always succeeded if executed properly.
There had been grumbling, initially, at the depth of the current mission.  Elements had been in play for weeks before the theft of the weapons: late night forays to the Prikumskij Military Depot; surveying the targeted vehicles; acquiring - legitimately! - the necessary parts; making repairs as the oblivious guards inadvertently kept any passers-by from disturbing their work!  Surely a sign from Allah!
The raid, itself.  As perfect a mission as ever accomplished by the Chechen rebellion.  Not a single martyr!  Dying for Allah was glorious, praise to Him and His prophet - but not yet!
A few glitches in rearming the weapons - but was that truly Ibrahim’s fault?  It was the atheist pig Russians who hadn’t maintained them, after all.  And Ibrahim had recognized the problem quickly, moving to solve it in a way that would be difficult to trace back.  Again, was it his fault the orders were delayed?  Of course not!  Why, he even argued with the Emir about the alternate, more dangerous method of replenishing the tritium!  Even though he lost that battle, the men still appreciated it.
And now, this - glorious!  All of their vehicles retrieved, combined, and divided again.  The larger group took the heavy trucks and transports, except one ZIL-E, and the jeeps.  They also had the weapon.  Ibrahim had explained; his reasoning was two-fold.  First, since they had much more capable vehicles, it was more likely they would complete the mission.  Going off-road, while it carried considerable risk, also raised the probability of avoiding detection or, if spotted, interception.  Even if intercepted, they carried the bulk of the fighters, so should be able to deal with the infidels.
  Second, Ibrahim’s much smaller group would serve as a decoy, as needed.  He’d even brought another weapon’s crate, to provide the ring of truth.  His was the much more dangerous mission, too, driving the M-23s in plain sight, escorting his ZIL-E, down the coast of the Caspian Sea all the way to Baku, then turning west through Azerbaijan.  He only took twenty men, as well!
Inshallah, they would perform well.  Or they would be martyrs and be served in Paradise!  Either way, their mission was simple enough: drive south, avoid contact as much as possible, halt north of the target, and drive in the weapon on a GAZ-69.  Detonate when inside the valley proper, and that lucky fedayeen would be an instant martyr!  Then, back to the Emir, and lead him in triumph to his Allah-inspired Emirate!
And Ibrahim?
Funny, wasn’t it?  How he didn’t mention what would happen to him after the mission?  Allah would certainly protect His most faithful warrior!
Wouldn’t He?
“…and two battalions from the 58th Army, 5th Motor Rifle Division, have been ordered to coordinate with the Keldara as needed.”
“Good thinking, Colonel.  I approve entirely.”  Chechnik relaxed briefly, then Putin continued.  “However, I would like to - suggest - a slight change in the mission parameters.”
“Yes, Prime Minister?”
“If the Keldara call for support, by all means, allow the 5th MRD to engage the enemy.  Just be precise who the enemy actually is: the Keldara.”
“Sir?  What are you suggesting?”
“It is simple, Chechnik.  The loyal troops of our Ground Force are to eliminate every enemy combatant, whether rebel or foreign.  I will not be embarrassed by the Ami again, not their blackass president and certainly not this mercenary Kildar!  Kill them all, Chechnik.  Then we can bury this incident with the unmourned dead.”
“Yes, sir.”
Follow orders and betray the Keldara again, or disobey and hello, Siberia.  Either way, his career, at the very least, was over.  It was his choice as to how.
An exit strategy began to form in his mind.  Who to call?  Who to trust?  He knew of more than a few men would love to go ‘freelance’ and move to warmer climes.  Thailand, perhaps.
“Keldara House, Lilia Mahona speaking, how may I help you sir or ma’am?”
“Colonel Nielson, and quickly, please!  Tell him it’s Chechnik!”
Seconds later: “Nielson.”
“Colonel, I understand you are moving against Inarov today?”
“Yes.  Very soon, we hope.  Were you able to secure support?”
“I have, but this is very important: do not utilize them!”
“What?  Why not?”
“I may not say, Colonel.  I would ask you to trust me.”
“Not fucking likely!  I remember the last time you gave us advice!”
“Colonel, I beg of you - do not call for their support!  After, I will explain.”  If I’m around, he mentally added.  “Any forces you can bring to bear, do so!  But not the Russian Ground Force!”
Nielson, thoughtful, said, “This isn’t simple cowardice.  Or a desire to cover your own ass if it all goes south.  Is it?”
“No, Colonel.  I cannot say more.  Good luck - and remember the tale of the scorpion and the fox!”  With that the line went dead.
“Scorpion and fox?” asked Greznya, after the brief recording had been played.  “What is that?”
Vanner, Nielson and Grez were meeting again after Chechnik’s mysterious phone call.
“It’s a fable, I’m not sure of the origin -”
“I’ve heard Middle Eastern and also Native American,” added Vanner.
“Anyway, there’s a river.  A fox and a scorpion both need to cross, but only the fox can swim.  The scorpion begs to be carried across, but the fox refuses, saying that the scorpion would sting him.  The scorpion swears that he won’t sting, and finally the fox relents.  Midway, the scorpion stings the fox and, as the poison takes effect, the fox says, ‘Why did you sting?  Now we shall both die!’  To which the scorpion replies, ‘It’s my nature.’  What Chechnik meant, though - who is the fox?  And the scorpion?”
“I vote them as the scorpion,” snorted Vanner.  “We already know we can’t trust them.”
“I concur,” said Grez.  “And I think I understand what Chechnik intended, too.”
Nielson gave a, ‘come on’ gesture.
“Listen carefully.”  She replayed the recording again.  “It’s in what he does not say, as much as what he does.  ‘May not’ - he is doing this without permission.  ‘I would ask you to trust me’ - but he won’t ask, knowing we won’t trust.  ‘Do not call for their support’ - but he specifically tells you that support is acceptable.”  She stopped, looking confident.  “I think that he was ordered to betray us again, but this time is refusing as best he can.”
“Finally grew a set,” muttered Vanner.  “Ow!”
Drawing back her foot, Grez continued.  “It is not his balls that are in question here.  I think that he’s playing a dangerous game here, trying to balance his loyalty to his country with his desire to take the honorable road.”
“Who could give this order?” asked Nielson.
“We don’t even know what the order is!” protested Vanner.  “Maybe he’s trying to set us up, make us refuse to call for help so that, if we fail, his hands are clean!”
“I disagree,” said Grez.  “As for the order?  Anyone in the Ground Force chain of command could deal with the troops, but Chechnik reports directly to the Prime Minister.”
“Putin.”  The venom in Vanner’s tone was palpable.
“Exactly.  We know he is capable of giving orders purely for the benefit of Russia; why would he not do it again?”
“It all fits,” admitted Nielson.  “Chechnik didn’t sound like he was trying to pull a fast one.  Pat, you’ve talked with him in person most recently.  Do you think he could pull this off?”
Slowly, Vanner shook his head.  “When he came to the caravanserai, I was ready to waste him when he walked in the door.  But I could see, hear, that he genuinely regretted not passing on the intel.  Made it tougher to hammer him.  No, I think Grez is right.”
“Thank you.“  She beamed at her husband.  “So.  What do we do now?”
“Continue on mission,” replied Nielson.  “What else?  There’s better than five full Teams of the best-trained militia I have ever worked with moving into place, men who are tested, proven, and have a grudge to settle ‘s with Chechens.  Even though I wish Shota’s Team was available -”  A purely evil grin split his face.  “Frankly, I don’t think they’d want to share.”
Ibrahim’s small convoy made slow progress down the M215 near the Caspian Sea.  While the escort vehicles could still manage over a hundred kph, the ZIL-E, massive and overpowered as it was, was still designed for rough terrain capabilities rather than speed.  It was, therefore, a relative crawl of thirty five kph at which they crept south.
Uniforms of the Southern Operational Strategic Command, and matching papers, had been found for all of his men.  They had been extremely difficult to obtain in any quantity, becoming the main limiting factor in his selection of fedayeen.
There had been much grumbling when, soon after separating from the rest, Ibrahim had insisted they stop and shave off their beards.  “The Prophet decreed that men should be bearded!” protested a number of the mujahideen.  Surprisingly, Ibrahim took this calmly, explaining that, for their role to be successful, they had to imitate, as perfectly as possible, the look and behavior of the godless infidels.  “Allah shall forgive you, for we act for His glory!”  So, reluctantly, scissors and razors appeared, and beards were removed.
There had been louder protests at his insistence they eat the Russian-supplied combat rations, with their unclean food.  So many of them contained pork in one manner or another!  The other meats - were they halal?  Was it properly slaughtered?  Probably not.  “You will need your strength on our holy mission,” insisted Ibrahim, and eventually they listened.
And no daily prayers.  THAT raised a furor!  As he explained, though, it would be difficult to conceal the halting of their convoy five times a day, at what would inevitably end up being random locations.  “Allah knows what is in your hearts.  He knows you make this sacrifice for Him.”  Finally, after considerable debate, they acquiesced.
The inevitable bottles of vodka didn’t create any discussion.
At this speed, Ibrahim estimated that it would take thirty six hours of constant travel to cover the nearly 1200 kilometers.  Being a good commander, he doubled that estimate to three days.  “We shall gaze upon the scorched remains of the enemies of Islam and celebrate.  We shall rejoice in seeing their bones scattered across their blasted lands.  Then we shall return in glory to our brethren.”
Schwenke, alone in the rear compartment, surreptitiously fondled the arming key for the 150 kiloton weapon crated beside him in the ZIL-E.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Kildaran - Chapter 33 AND 34!


The LZ, Tammy was told, was about sixty klicks north of Groznyy.
That was bad enough.  Sure, her bird had, theoretically, thousand-kilometer range with drop tanks.  And Groznyy proper was only a short hop from the Valley, as the crow flew.
Crows didn’t have to deal with foreign airspace and controlled corridors.  Crows didn’t have to worry about navigating through four thousand meter mountain passes.  Crows certainly didn’t have to think about the extra fuel they burned off by flying nap-of-the-earth whenever possible.  And crows didn’t run the risk of being shot at - well, maybe they did, at that.  But not with AGMs and heavy machine guns and -
It didn’t bear thinking on.
Most Chechens weren’t actively rebelling against the government in Moscow.
Small comfort if she should happen to find a pocket of resistance the Russians hadn’t yet cleaned up.
So Tammy flew fast, and low, precisely along the corridors the Groznyy ATC had assigned her while mumbling every prayer and mantra she had ever heard.
Naida hung on.
“Where is she?”
“She’s coming, Artur,” responded a weary Pavel.
They had cleaned out the Chechen’s safe house, retrieving two computers, a smart phone, and a trash bag full of papers for Vanner and his girls to tear into, before liberally dousing it with gasoline from the destroyed truck.  The bodies had followed.
They’d also scattered plenty of Semtex around the building, setting short ten-minute timers before high-tailing out of the area.  Evac had been smooth as well, Gerasim fussing over his patients in one truck, Iosif and Artur riding with the nuke in a second, and the rest of his force bringing up the rear.
Instead of heading south, into the more populated areas, he’d made the tactical decision to push north, a more agricultural and, he hoped, sparsely settled area.  In that, he had been proven right, traveling through tiny hamlets along a road barely wide enough for one vehicle until they entered an area that seemed totally deserted.  Soviet-style agriculture was obviously still the norm here, as huge, geometrically precise fields stretched away on both sides of the road.  It was in one of these, five kilometers past the last “town,” that he had turned off onto the still-frozen ground.  Once the road was out of sight he’d called a halt.
The two most badly-wounded prisoners had succumbed to their injuries on the trip.
“What should we do with them?” asked Gerasim.
“Get two men, dig a hole, and drop them in.  Let the dammed Chechens have some fertilizer.”
Now, they were awaiting the arrival of Valkyrie.  The LZ was marked out, and as secure as five of his troops could make it.  He wasn’t worried about making it back home; between the Kildar strong-arming the Russians and the firepower they carried, they should manage about anything.  But getting rid of the nuke would be good.  Losing the prisoners would be better.
It was a cold LZ.
Rotors turning slowly, the Hind squatted in the field as Keldara hauled a fair-sized box towards them.
“Is that the weapon?” asked a nervous Naida.
“Probably.  Find out from Pavel.”
“Yes, ma’am.”  She scrambled out the crew door and hurried over to Pavel.  “Is that -?”
“Can they lift it in?”
“It’s not as heavy as it looks; much of the box contains padding for transport.  You’ll have to help us tie it down.”
Naida nodded.  “Of course!  You’re warriors, not fliers!” she grinned.
Ignoring the jibe, Pavel continued, “We have two prisoners, and one wounded Keldara going back with you as well.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem as long as it’s not Shota.”
“He’s not on this mission.”  Shota was huge, easily the largest of his generation, stronger even than Oleg.  Unfortunately, his original mental faculties didn’t come close to matching his physical ones, leaving him in an odd position among the Keldara.  Currently, he was on a separate, lower-priority mission with Lasko and a couple others.
“Who’s injured?”
“Iosif, just an ankle.  Gerasim will be with you, too.  Between them, they ought to be able to handle the one functional prisoner.”  As he spoke, the bound and gagged Salah was roughly brought up to await loading.
Naida turned to him and said, in Russian, “I am crew chief on helicopter.  If you or your friend try anything, we see if you can fly.  You understand?”  The frightened would-be martyr nodded.  “Good.  You might survive the flight.”  Turning away, she added, “Strap him in next to the door.”
Overhearing, Tammy smiled.  “That’s my girl!”
Tammy brought the power up slowly.  Between carrying a nuclear weapon, tied to the deck with bungee cords and rope, and Gerasim’s pleadings for a gentle flight for the survival of Kassab, she didn’t see any reason to push her bird’s envelope.  Slowly, so slowly, she rose from the field, clearing the ground effect and beginning the flight home.
“Keldara Base, this is Valkyrie actual.”
“Go Valkyrie,” came back the reply.
“Inform Five that we are airborne and en route.  Package is secure.  Carrying one friendly Whiskey, two Poppa Oscar Whiskey for interrogation, and one escort.  Advise that medical team should be on standby for Poppa Oscar Whiskey immediately upon landing.”
“Understood two Poppa Oscar Whiskey, one Whiskey, one escort and package.  Will notify medical.”
“ETA five zero mikes.  Will confirm at ten mikes.  Out.”
Nielson breathed a small sigh of relief.  “Well, they got one.  Sounds like you’ll have at least prisoner to press for information.”  He was in the command center with Vanner, fretting over their progress, when Tammy’s radio call came in.
“Wish I knew who they captured.  Won’t do us a dammed bit of good if they grabbed us a couple grunts.”
Nielson nodded.  “Get what you can from them.  Have Dr. Arensky stand by with a medic from the Rangers; Tammy wouldn’t call for med support if she didn’t believe it critical.”
“Gotcha.  I’ll ask the doc to prepare one of his little formulas, too, to help suck them dry.”
“Good idea.  Any progress on finding that missing battalion?”
Vanner shook his head.  “Not on this end.  If they’re transmitting, they’ve been extremely disciplined.  We haven’t been able to pick out any kind of pattern.  It’s as if they dropped off the planet.”
“That sounds… ominous.”
“I agree.  I think that this force is the main thrust, and our brain - whoever that really is - is in command.  That would explain the professionalism, the radio silence, everything.”
“Haven’t you any leads?”
“Some.  There are a number of small movements currently active in that area, but none have prescribed routes.  Their orders seem to have been written, ‘Go there,’ and left out any details.  We’ve fed all that information back to OSOL, trying to get us ‘national technical means’ on them -“
“Just say ‘satellite’, Pat!“
“- and to J.  I’m giving him his lead on this one; he’s a lot closer to the source than we are.”
“What about Ibrahim whats-his-name?  Have you figured out who it really is?”
“Not yet.  We know he’s not really Ibrahim al-Jasir - well, we think we know, it all fits together too perfectly to be anything but a cover - but we’re still trying to find a photo of him after the identity was seized -”
A rapid knock interrupted him.  Before either man could speak, Greznya burst into the room and slapped a printout on the conference table.
“It’s Schwenke!” she exclaimed.
“What?  How do you know?”
“The internet, of course.  Kseniya, ah, accessed-”
“Hacked.  It’s okay to say it.”
“- hacked the video files of al Jazeera and ran them against known physical characteristics of missing and inactive agents for the past nine months.”
“Nine?” asked Vanner.
“Six didn’t bring any worthwhile results.  So I stretched the parameters.  Anyways, she’s been up all night reviewing the hits when this popped up.”  She tapped the printout.  They could see it was a still taken from video.  “Eight months ago, they did a series of interviews with Chechen victims of the war.  Human-interest, trying to put a more sympathetic face on the rebellion.  Since his father was a fairly prominent member of the community, and both parents were killed, al-Jasir was a natural.”
Vanner had picked up the picture and was studying it intently.  “Maybe, but this picture could be anyone, not just Schwenke.”
“It’s not something you can see in a still.  The computer picked this out as only a seventy-percent match, but that was high enough for Kseniya to view the whole video.  There’s one shot of his eyes - it’s him.  She’s sure of it, and so am I.”
“I wish Cottontail was here.  She could pick him out in a second,” added Nielson.
“So do I, Colonel.  But this is the best we have.”
“Thank you, Sergeant.  And let Kseniya know, too.”  After she left, he said, “If it is Schwenke -”
“It is.  She’s sure of it, so I am too.”
“As I said, if it is, what’s his game?  What are his plans?  Where is he going to go?”
“Time to make a call, I think.”
“It doesn’t make any sense!”
Katya was practically yelling into the phone as J drove them south.
“Why not?”
“Kurt doesn’t do this shit!  He does chemicals and torture, not nuclear blackmail!”
“But he’s played with WMD’s before, remember?”
“The VX, I know.  He didn’t really plan that, though, just allowed Gonzalez to use his resources.  He perhaps made the link to al-Qaeda.”
Kurt Schwenke was the one person who still scared Katya, despite nearly two years of training and being the most lethal person she knew.  She knew she was sick in some ways, that she carried her anger, fury, at her past into everything she did.  She knew, too, she scared others.
J had taught her much, though.  She had discovered, deep within, a slight stirring of empathy for others like her, whores by force, not choice.  Women whose lives were only worth what they could bring back to their pimp each night, who sold themselves not in hope of buying their eventual freedom but rather to simply survive another day.  And in finding that empathy, she also found she could care, at least a little, for the people who chose to be around her.  She might still want to kill every pimp and john on the planet, but she had learned to listen.
Schwenke didn’t.  He didn’t care about the people around him.  They were only tools to be used and discarded, if useful.  If not, they were ignored, if lucky.  Or maybe he’d grab one for fun, using what he termed ‘my little cocktails’ to cause unimaginable pain.  When she looked into his eyes, she saw simply calculation.  Not even soulless.  Totally blank to emotions, only looking at her as a part of an equation.
“But why did he do that?”
Shrugging, though Vanner couldn’t see, she answered, “Money.  Or maybe he was bored.  He wouldn‘t do this, though.”
“Don’t assume,” said J.  “You have encountered him twice and come away alive both times.  That does not make you an expert in his motivations.”
“J’s right,” chimed in Vanner.  “Okay, let’s try it this way: could he put together an operation of this magnitude?  Forget the whys and wherefores; can he do it?”
“Of course he could do it!” she snapped.  “If he wanted to he could wipe the whole world clean!”
“Would he?”
“If you paid him enough, yes.  Or if he wanted to see what would happen.  Or if he burnt his toast.  Or if you pissed him off enough-”  She froze.  “Oh my God.”
J pulled over, stopped, and looked at her in concern.
“Katya?  What?”  Vanner’s voice came from the phone but she didn’t hear it.
“Who has pissed him off the most, recently?” asked J quietly.
“I have,” she answered, equally quietly.  “It’s me.  He’s coming after me.”
“Katya!”  Vanner was shouting over the phone.  “Fucking hell, what?!”
Nervelessly she raised the phone to her lips.  “He’s coming to the valley, coming after me.”


“Keldara Base to Dragon flight, request status, over.”
“Nominal at this time.  Over.”
“Understood.  Report at next way point.”
“Roger, out.”
Kacey was flying a thousand feet above the convoy from the valley, acting as their air control and, if needed, fire support.  So far she hadn’t had to open up on any targets, but the day was still young.  They hadn’t even slowed through the Georgian checkpoints, as far as she could tell.  Crossing the border, onto the Russian A301, had been problem-free as well.  She hoped that the travel would continue to be problem-free; the tough roads lay ahead.
In the meantime, she’d stay overhead, observing and guiding.
“Fucking Russian roads.”
Adams’ words were almost drowned out by the pounding of the lead van along the so-called ‘highway.’  In the interests of finding the most direct route with the fewest number of potentially prying eyes, they had turned off the M29 near Sunzhensky and were now grinding generally northeast.
He didn’t know the name of this road; hell, he didn’t know if it even had a name.  The only thing he was sure of was, between the GPS and Dragon, he was on the right road.  And soon - please God soon! - they’d be on what looked to be a much more major thoroughfare.  Maybe it’d be paved.
“It’s not so bad,” opined Jachin, riding shotgun.
“Fuck lot you know.  Until two years ago you thought a horse was the way to get around.”  Adams had driven all night.  With Inarov expecting a report by sundown, they had a good distance to cover and still leave time to get in position.  He was wiped.
“It would be smoother than this,” admitted Jachin.  “Where are we?”
“According to the SatNav, we are exactly in - the middle of nowhere.”  That earned him a chuckle.  “And we’re coming up on more nowhere.  All the others still with us?  Because we‘re coming up on the Far End of Nowhere real soon, if they blink they‘ll miss it.”
Jachin consulted his tracker.  Every truck had been equipped with a frequency-hopping transmitter to help keep them all together.  “All except Gregor.  I think he stopped for a piss.  Again.”  One of the recessive mutations the Keldara had picked up over the centuries was a tendency to have four kidneys, rather than two.  None of them were aware of it, but ones with the extra set tended to legendary for two reasons: their astounding, even for Keldara, ability to drink, and their seemingly constant need to urinate.  Gregor had the gene, and the kidneys.  He also was one of the best drivers the militia had, so Adams wasn’t too worried.  He’d catch up.
He lifted the radio.  “Orkin trailers, this is Orkin lead.  Status check.”  The code name for the force was chosen by Vanner, saying, “You’re going to exterminate them, right?”
“Two, nominal.”
“Three, nominal.”
Down the line they rolled, until they reached Gregor’s.
“Eight, holding on, ah, fluid dispersal.  Underway momentarily.”
“I was right,” said Jachin quietly.
Erkin Chechnik was worried.  Again.
Data was flowing from his office to the caravanserai as quickly as it arrived, temporarily sating even Vanner’s demands for information.
Two battalions of troops, battle-hardened veterans of the seemingly endless Chechen wars, were being deployed to support the Mountain Tigers.
He’d even managed to clear airspace for the Kildar’s choppers, though not without some significant restrictions.
Now, though, he had to meet with Putin and update the situation.  Siberia was still a possibility.
“We’re fucked.”
Vanner’s pessimistic assessment sat heavily in the command room.  Nielson, Vanner, Greznya, and Guerrin were gathered to evaluate Cottontail’s conclusion.
“If she’s right -” began Nielson.
“Oh, she’s right.  One sociopath can always pick out another.”
“- then we have forces in place to deal with the threat,” he finished.  “We have a company of Rangers, fully integrated and deployed for just this kind of situation.  We‘ve the new sensor net emplaced, and mines too.  I‘ll have Grez ensure that the Rangers‘ Op-Net is online and synched.”  He nodded at Guerrin in acknowledgement.
“Is Bravo prepared to deal with a nuke going off in their laps?”
“Rein in that shit, Warrant!” barked Nielson.  “Grez?  How do we localize this force, fast?”
“Unless they transmit, we have no way, here, to isolate them.”
“Not what I wanted to hear.  Are we getting any feed from the U-2?”
“Nothing direct.”
“I’ll get that changed.  Will that help?”
“Yeah, it’ll help,” supplied Vanner, rejoining the conversation.  “If we can compare photos, generate a track, we’ll know which ones are headed this way.”
“And how quickly will that work?”
“To narrow it down, say two or three passes, about fifteen minutes apart.  That’ll take care of any strays.  To make it definite?  Not until they cross the Georgian border.”
“How do we stop them?” asked Guerrin.  “My troops, and your mortars, can keep them out of the Valley.  If they’re toting a nuke, though, they don’t need to come anywhere near here.  Just a single truck - shit, a single mule! - would probably be enough to bring it in.”
Nodding, Greznya suggested, “Push the perimeter far, far out.  Beyond the mountains.  Stop all traffic heading this way.”
“Got it.  Can do.”
“Needless to say, Captain, the possible presence of nuclear arms is on a need-to-know basis.  Obviously, your perimeter squads have to know what they’re looking for -”
“But the guys in the 240 nests don’t.  Understood.”
“Let’s be about it, people.”
“Colonel, Chief Vanner.  The U-2V is on station?”
“Yes, you should be getting the feed relayed to you now.”
“We need it retasked, and we need the feed direct.”
“Retasking, I can do.  Direct feed might be an issue.”
“Cottontail thinks that the Valley is a target of one of the nukes.”
“Exactly.  We think we can isolate the transport, but we’re going to need help.”
“I understand.  No promises, but what do you need?”
“To begin with…”
“Ah, Colonel Nielson.  Always a pleasure talking with you.”
“And you, General Umarov.”
“Your mission proceeds well?”
“Fairly well.  I can’t go into specifics, you understand -”
“Of course, of course!”
“- but plans are coming together.”
“Excellent!  So.  How can the Georgian army help the Mountain Tigers today?”
“General, we have developed intelligence that one or more nuclear weapons may be in transit into Georgia.  Unfortunately, we are not in a position to intercept at this time.”
“This is a serious matter indeed!”  Umarov’s usually humor-tinged voice was deep with concern.  “Where?  How many?”
“We are attempting to determine precise routes and force composition at this time.”
“And a target?”
Nielson hesitated, then admitted, “High probability that the target is the valley.  Tbilisi is a potential target as well.”
“Again, how can we help?”
“We believe that the weapon, weapons, are being transported via truck, south from Russia and through Chechnya.”
“That is simplicity itself!  There is only the single road leading to your valley; a company of paratroops will be in place for interdiction in two hours.”
“Where will you station them?”
“I assume you can assure security for the valley itself?”
“Yes.  Our regular patrols cover out to about fifteen kilometers.”  No need to mention that it was actually a company of Rangers doing the patrolling, not Keldara.
“Then my troops will be ten kilometers further down the road.”
“Thank you, General.”  He paused before continuing.  “I hesitate to ask, but what of the Pankisi?”
Umarov actually laughed.  “The Pankisi is no threat any longer, thanks to the Kildar!  No, you have no reason to be concerned there.”
“That is very good news indeed, General.”
“If there is nothing else, Colonel?”
“No, thank you sir.”
“Then I shall begin issuing orders.  Good day - and good hunting!”
Andy walked into the mortar emplacement ahead of his usual schedule.
“Corporal Sivula!  Jessia isn’t here, yet.”
He shook his head.  His engagement to Jessia had been received with equal parts respect and curiosity among the mortar teams.  All were young women, some married, many not.  All knew of Greznya’s marriage to Vanner, but aside from that exception, no outsider had married a Keldara woman in living memory.  Mother Lenka was from Russia, somewhere, but she, too, was unusual.  He sometimes felt like an exhibit at the zoo.
Still, it didn’t prevent him from making his rounds of the mortars twice a day, checking alignment and readiness.  Usually Jessia was on duty and would walk with him as one of the mortar leaders.
Today he was early.
“I know.  Have to inspect, though.”
By the time he’d reached the third emplacement, word of his broken routine had spread all along the teams.  As he was finishing this inspection, Jessia arrived.
“What’s going on?” she asked directly upon arriving.
“Good morning to you, too,” he answered.
“Why are you out here early?”
“Oh, am I early?” he answered, innocently.
“I’ll tell you, but not in here,” he said quietly.  Walking out of the pit, she took his hand.  As soon as they were a few feet away, she stopped.
“Now.  Tell.”
“A little while ago, the Captain told us that there’s a pretty good-sized force maybe heading this way.”
“How many?  And from what direction?”
“Couple hundred?  Maybe more.  And they’re moving from Russia.”
“So.”  She released his hand and began walking to the next pit.  “Not on foot?”
“No, trucks.”
“We need to change the load mix for each mortar, then.  More HE, less frag.  Some smoke will help, though; we’ll keep those in the queue.”  Moving briskly, she strode on.  “If they’re in trucks, they won’t be able to handle the passes.  They’ll have to use the road -”
“That’s what the Captain said.  He wants us to concentrate our fire on the Alersso road.”
“Most of it, I agree.  But there is another road, you know.”
“The old east road?  It’s not much more than a track now.  I know; I’ve marched  it.”
“A heavy truck could get along it.”
He shook his head.  “That’s crazy.”
“No, that leads to the Pankisi.”
“I thought that was pretty well controlled, lately.”
“Lately, yes.  But there’s another road, before you reach the Pankisi.  It’s steep, and treacherous, but it leads south, past the Pankisi.  Few people remember it.”
“What do you think, then?”
“I think we need to have it covered, at least two teams.”
“You’re the expert; I bow to your knowledge.”  And he did.
Blushing, embarrassed, Jessia pulled him along.  “Come on.  We have much to do.”
“Yes, Mr. Jenkins?”
“How fast can this plane go?”
“Specs list five hundred eighty five mph, ground speed.  She’ll do a bit better than that in a pinch.  Call it six hundred, even.”
“It’s a pinch.  Punch it.”
“We’ll need to stop for fuel, then.  At top speed she’s a bit of a pig.”
“Whatever.  Situation’s changed; I need to get back sooner than soonest.”
“Very good, sir.”  Mike heard the drone of the engines suddenly increase in pitch.
“What’s up?” asked Hughes.
“Problems at home,” he answered.  “While most of the Tigers are off dealing with Inarov and his nest of vipers, another swarm has slipped away.  We don’t know where they’re going, or if they’re packing, but one of my agents has a hunch.  So the plan is, get back quick as we can, wipe out Inarov, and get home before the other force shows.”
“And if that doesn’t work out?”
“Then I’m really gonna be pissed.”
Kat who had listened to the exchange, spoke.  “What happened?”
“Quite a bit.”  Briefly, he explained, Kat remaining still the whole time.  When he finished, she asked only, “And now, where do we go?”
“We fly into Elista, drop off the Major and myself, and then you and Stasia continue to Tbilisi -”
“Fuck that!”  The vulgarity, shouted in English, shocked him into silence.  In Keldaran, she continued angrily, “By the Goddess, if you think that I will run away to safety while my husband-to-be battles for our very survival, then you have still much to learn about me!”
“You’re not running away!  I don’t know that you’re ready for combat!”
“Combat?  Against the Chechens?”  She laughed harshly.  “Have you forgotten, they attempted to abduct me?  Or that I followed Mother Lenka up the ridge, bearing only knives and an axe, to destroy the men who would have killed you?  Oh no, Michael.  You can send Stasia back to the valley; my place is by your side, slaughtering our enemies.”
“I am not sure I wish to go to the valley, Kildar.”  Mike whirled to face Stasia.  Shrugging, she added, “If what you say is correct, that a nuclear weapon might be used on the valley?”  He could only nod.  “Then I think the safest place would be away from there.  I will not follow you into combat!  But I would prefer to stay with the plane in Elista.”
Looking from one to the other, Mike said, “You’re a pair of fucking crazy bitches, you know that?”
“That’s why you love me,” smirked Kat.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Kildaran - Chapter 32

[Did everyone enjoy the weekend?  I hope so!  And now, you'll have something to read at work tomorrow (or, if you're being good, read tonight and simply ENJOY tomorrow)!

The kids are in St.Louis, but it's all going to hell back home.  Gee, wonder how long they're going to stay?  Hope they got to see the end of the show!



    Mike was pissed.
    There were nukes in play, and they had lost - temporarily, he was assured - at least one, plus the huge fucking force that was escorting it - them..  
    His Keldara were heading into battle without him.  Some had already engaged the enemy.  While he knew, intellectually, that he couldn’t always be in the van for every engagement, it still pained him more deeply than he had expected.
    He was skipping out on the last quarter of a show he had really, really been anticipating.
    And now, he couldn’t even get a simple ride to the airport.
    If things didn’t change soon, someone was gonna die.
    Hughes put away his mobile.  “Got a vehicle.  Coming from the Coast Guard, they -”
    “Coast Guard?” said Kat, incredulous.  “But we’re not near a coast, are we?”
    “Not hardly, but the Mississippi is the major river in the U.S., so the Coasties - whose job is to patrol and protect the coastline and waterways - maintain offices all up and down it.  Anyway, the Upper Mississippi Region Sector office is sending a van to take us to the airport.”
    “Bet that was an interesting conversation,” added Mike, grinning slightly.
    “It sure was,” replied Hughes.   But Mike was already dialing, game face on.  The girls knew better than to interrupt.
    “Good evening, Captain Hardesty speaking.”
    “Jenkins.  What’s our status?”
    “Pre-flight completed, plan filed for travel to Tbilisi, with a stop in DC.  Fuel will be available in DC if we choose.  The luggage is aboard and stowed.”
    “Great.  I’ll call again when we’re fifteen minutes out.”  Without waiting for an answer, he disconnected and redialed.  “Office of Special Opera-”
    “Yes?” answered the interrupted voice warily.
    “Kildar.  On our way out of St.Louis shortly, going to stop in DC for a pickup.  How badly do you need Hughes back?”
    “He’s detached to you for the duration of your visit, so I don’t have him on any duty roster until after you leave.  Why?”
    “I want to take him with us.”
    “Why?”  Curiosity warred with suspicion in Pierson’s voice.
    “He’s been pretty useful, he seems to know his ass from his elbow, and he’ll be able to give you that after-action report you keep bugging me for.”
    “He’ll also provide me with a real-time link back to OSOL and NSC, in case it’s needed.  Unless you’d prefer to come along?”
    “Not really, I’ve seen the end results of your missions once or twice, remember?”  He paused, then resumed.  “No objection here.  I suppose since we’ve borrowed your Blind Mice, you can borrow Hughes.  What did he say?”
    “I haven’t asked him yet.  He’ll say yes or Stasia’ll pout.”
    “Uh-huh.  As long as he voluntarily agrees, then you can have him.  We’d like him back in one piece, though.”
    “No promises, Bob.  Thanks.”  Putting away the phone, he turned back to Hughes.  “So, what do you think?  Up for a trip to sunny Georgia and points north?”
    “If you think I can be useful to you, sir, I’m in.”
    “Will you need anything from DC?”
    “Passport, secure phone, a few other odds and ends.  I keep a case at the office, I can have it brought to the airport.”
    “Settled, then.  Now.  Where the fuck is that van?”  A passer-by whistled at Stasia.  “I really, really feel the need to shoot someone.  But I’m not sure I could live down using a pink gun.”
    “You could use mine,” offered Jack, who was getting visibly annoyed at the pedestrians as well.
    “Government-issue, too easily traced.”
    “Mine, Kildar?”
    “Definitely not.”
    Forty minutes later they were aboard the 550.  “I’m going to rack out,” announced Mike as they began their taxi.  “It’s gonna be a long flight.”
    “I’ll join you,” said Katrina.
    “Stasia?  Jack?”
    “I cannot sleep yet, Michael.”
    “And I’ll keep the lady company.  Since we‘re going to miss out on the Alamo, I‘m going to see if I can find the movie on-line, play history teacher.”
    “No monkey business,” he admonished mockingly.  In the rear compartment, he kicked off his shoes and flopped onto the bed.  Katrina joined him after removing her flats.
    “Hold on there!” he said as they started to accelerate, gripping the mattress with one hand to keep from sliding off, cradling her against him with the other arm.  “Not exactly a recommended position for takeoff!”
    Her face was serene.  “I knew you would catch me.”
    Mike just shook his head.  “Ready to go home?”
    “Yes, and no.”
    He laughed.  “That’s about as ambiguous as it gets!”
    “Well - no, I am not ready to go, because it means my first travel is over.  There is so much we saw!  And I know that there is more we did not see, yes?”
    “Oh yeah.  We barely scratched the surface.”
    “What I saw, I liked.”
    “What was your favorite?”
    She thought, briefly.  “The baseball game.”
    “Oh?”  He was surprised.  Baseball was hardly what he expected her to choose.
    “Yes.  Not so much the game - that was so confusing! - but the people we met, Lewis and Marilyn, Eric and Meghan, Mike and the man with the silly name -”
    “Big Papi?  Ortiz?”
    She laughed.  “Yes!  And the others, that we didn’t meet.  You were right, Michael.  It was a place, a time, of hope and joy and happiness and expectation like I have never experienced before.”  She thought again, struggling to find the right words.  “It will sound odd, but in those few hours, more than any other time, I felt that I knew Americans.  And you know?  They’re not so strange, after all.”
    Chuckling, he said, “The Kildaran has spoken!”
    “You’re teasing me!”
    “A little,” he admitted.  “I agree, though.  Baseball is about as pure American as you can get.”
    “I am also not ready to go home because it means times like this will have to end, for a while.”
    “Just for a while,” Mike said.  “Less time than you might think.”
    “I do not wish to give them up at all!” she insisted, sitting up.  Relenting, she sighed, “But I shall do as custom requires.  Of course, going home is good, too.  I do miss my family, especially my cousin.”
    “Which cousin?”
    “Yulia.  She’s a year younger than me, also unmarried.  She serves on a mortar team when she’s not working with Mother Lenka in the brewery.”
    “Why isn’t she married?”
    “Her betrothed was killed in Pankisi,” said Kat sadly.  “They would have been married later that winter.”
    “Dammit, I’m sorry,” began Mike, to be interrupted.
    “No!  She’s not.  Oh, she liked Conall well enough, and probably would have been happy with him.  When he died, though, she was free to make another choice, and do you know what that is?”
    “No,” he had to admit.
    “She wants to travel!  She heard the explanations you and Vanner and MacKenzie came up with for the Keldara’s origins, and she’s decided she wants to find out the truth.  She’s saved her money from the brewery, and from the militia, and is planning to go to Scotland!”
    “Sounds pretty serious.  Has she thought this out?  It‘s been centuries since the Keldara were in Scotland.”
    She shook him off fiercely.  “That’s not my point.  If you had not come to the Valley, she would be married, probably have her first child by now, and be looking at a life of toil as a farmer’s wife.  Now she has a dream to pursue.  So what if it’s not practical?  She has her dream!  As I have mine,” she added softly, settling back against him.  “And that’s the final reason I’m ready to go home.”  A quick, almost chaste kiss, and she said, “What of you, Michael?  Leaving America again, coming back to the Valley: are you going home?  Or leaving it?”
    “Yes,” he answered, enjoying the confusion in her eyes.  “America is where I was born, and the country that I am loyal to.  But the Valley, the Keldara, are my people now, and have been for months.  I feel a kinship with you, much more that I ever felt with ‘Americans.’  Maybe it’s your warrior tradition, or your willingness to accept me as I am.  Maybe it’s just the beer; can’t discount that!”
    “You!”  She flipped over top, pinning him against the bed.  He was pretty sure he could break her hold.  Probably.  She was remarkably strong, though…
    She tickled him.
    It devolved from there.
    “You promised to protect us.”
    “You lied to us!”
    “You have failed your role!”
    “You have disgraced your name!”
    He tried to speak, but no words would come.
    “You are not worthy to be Kildar!”
    “She is too good to be your Kildaran!”
    Katrina.  Tied.  Terrified.  Suddenly dead!
    The scream was wrenched from him.
    He awoke.
    The change in the engine’s pitch awakened them.  He stretched an arm, snagged a headset and pressed the accept button.
    “We’re beginning our descent into Dulles.  We should be on the ground in twenty minutes.”
    “Thanks.”  Replacing the intercom, he stretched.  “That’s a start.  Up, minx!  Have to make yourself presentable again.”  He looked down at his own clothing.  “And me.”
    “Ha!” exclaimed Kat.  “And you think they’ll notice?  I may be younger than you, Michael Harmon, but I saw what you did for her.”
    “What did I do for her?” he asked, all innocence.
    She kissed him, bounced off the bed, and said, “You practically threw Jack at her - which is just what she needs right now!  You did well.”  With that, she closed the bathroom door.
    Tucking this and buttoning that, he stood gingerly, unkinking his damaged joints.  He heard a shower running and briefly thought of jumping in, but reconsidered.  There’d be plenty of time for that on the long flight overseas.  He opened the cabin door and stopped, staring.
    Hughes and Stasia were on the couch.  Stasia was asleep, curled up against him, one arm wrapped around her protectively.  By the faint odors, it hadn’t been a completely uneventful flight so far.
    Hughes was dozing, not quite asleep but not really aware of his surroundings.  Mike watched silently, then cleared his throat.
    The look on Hughes’ face was priceless, a mix of contentment, confusion, and concern, and Mike had to resist an urge to smile.
    “Mike, I didn’t - I mean, this isn’t -”
    “What the holy hell do you think you’re doing with my harem manager?”  Mike’s voice was low and menacing.
    Hughes’ instinct to pop to attention warred with not disturbing the beautiful woman resting atop him.  He compromised as best he could.
    “Sir, she was obviously uncomfortable in the early stages of the flight.  I stayed close to her to reassure her, and things kind of - developed, from there.”
    Stasia stirred then subsided.
    “Shut your mouth, soldier!  I’m not bringing you along so you can get your rocks off!  You are here to do a job, and if you can’t keep your dick in your pants, you’re no good to me!”
    “Yes, sir.  I understand.”  Hughes’ face was flat with dejection, and Mike couldn’t keep up the pretense any longer.
    “Ah, forget it.  Who said, ‘A soldier who won’t fuck, won’t fight’?”  Kat, hearing voices, poked her head out.
    “See, Michael?  Just what she needed.”
    Stasia awakened then.  A look of horror spread across her face.   “Michael!”
    “I’ll deal with you later, bitch!” he growled.  Of course, he had realized the situation quickly.  He had been neglecting Stasia’s needs for quite a few days, save their brief encounter that afternoon, and since her ‘liberation’ from the sheik, she had become more vocal, and more comfortable, about expressing her desires.
    Kat was right again.
    In retrospect, he had practically dragged Jack along for Stasia’s benefit.  Now, too, she could get both benefits: Jack would take care of her current needs, and then she’d come back to Mike to be punished for her ‘transgressions’.  As a sub, it was a win-win for her.
    Putting these thoughts aside, he continued, “Pull yourselves together.  We’re going to be landing in DC shortly.  Jack, is your case going to be at the airport, or will we have to wait?”
    “It should be there,” he answered, relief in his voice.  “I called after we were airborne and gave an ETA.”
    “All of Noemi’s creations, save the dress, will be awaiting our arrival.”
    “Right.”  Before he could speak further, the intercom crackled.
    “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re on our final approach to Dulles.  Please prepare for landing.”
    “So much for calling in.  You heard the man, everybody into your seats.”
    When they were parked at the terminal, and Hardesty announced that fueling would take about twenty minutes, Mike pulled out the sat phone again.
    “Nielson.”  The normally unflappable colonel sounded harried.
    “Jenkins.  Status?”
    “Teams are deployed, en route.  Valkyrie is airborne, with an ETA at the LZ about fifteen minutes to retrieve two prisoners and one package.  Bravo emplaced and patrolling.  Intel is still trying to track the southern force.  Where are you?”
    “DC to refuel.  Ten hours flight time, roughly, to Tbilisi once we’re aloft.”
    “That’s going to be tight, trying to get you to the OA before action commences.”
    “Suggestions?  Besides pedal faster.”
    There was silence as Nielson thought.  “Alternate landing site?  Groznyy?”
    “How far is that from the OA?”
    “Two hundred miles, plus or minus.”
    “Long hop in a Hind.  An hour, solid.”
    “You could fly into Elista.  That’s only about seventy miles..”
    “Do they have an airport?”
    “A small one, one paved runway.”
    “Can it handle a G550?”
    “Don’t know.  Depends on how long you need.  I can try to find out.”
    “You work on clearances, and I’ll find out from Hardesty how much space he need to set down.  We might just have a plan here.”
    “The beginnings of one.”
    “Out.”  Mike went off in search of the pilot, finding him, as expected, on the tarmac, overseeing the refueling.
    “Mr. Jenkins?  Can I help you?”
    “How long a runway do you need to land this?”
    Suspicion settled onto Hardesty’s face.  “Getting wild and wooly again?”
    “Not so much, just trying to find a closer, alternate airport.  Just in case.”
    “Uh-huh.“  Hardesty’s tone was disbelieving.  “Can I at least assume you’d have the decency to find me an asphalt runway?  Not gravel or grass?”
    “Of course!” Mike hastened to reassure him.  “Perfectly good tarmac.”
    “In that case, the specs call for slightly less than nine hundred meters.  I could probably shave a little off that if I needed, but it wouldn’t be a comfortable landing.”
    “Nine hundred.  Right, thanks.”  He pivoted to leave, then turned back.  “How much longer?”
    “Ten more minutes.  The rest of your baggage has arrived and been stowed.”
    “I so don’t need to know that.”
    “I need nine hundred meters.”
    “Elista will work then; it’s over eighteen hundred.”
    “Then plan to have Dragon pick us up there.”
    “Us?  I‘m surprised you gave in to Katrina on this.”
    “Katrina?  No, I forgot to tell you: I’m bringing back a passenger, Major Hughes from OSOL.  Make sure there’s a set of body armor for him as well as mine.”
    “So no Katrina?”
    Now Mike was suspicious.  “What about Katrina?”
    “Should I send along her armor and weapons?”
    “What armor and weapons?”
    Nielson hesitated.  “You didn’t know?”
    “Know what?  Out with it!”
    “You might want to ask your fiancĂ©e about her training, then,” replied Nielson, and refused to say anything else.
    “Dammit, Kacey, I’m busy!”
    “I know, I know.  Tasking order from the Colonel.”
    “Yeah?”  D’Allaird’s head popped out of the engine compartment.
    “After escort duty, land at Elista, pick up the Kildar and passengers, and then to the OA.  He said to expect a hot LZ, so we’ll want the full anti-personnel package.”
    “On it.  That’s quite a distance; we’re going to need the aux tanks.  That‘s going to cut into your ammo load.”
    “Won’t fly, Chief.  We need gas and guns, however you can manage it.”
    Shaking his head, D’Allaird said, “It’s one or the other.  We only have so many hard points, and if we’re using some for drop tanks we can’t carry weapons on ‘em.”
    “We’re not going into Elista hot; what if we carry the weapons packages in the bird?”
    He considered this.  “Have to be a smooth flight.  Don’t want rockets rolling around in the crew bay.”
    “Chief!”  Kacey sounded wounded.  “It’s me!  Smooth is my middle name.”
    D’Allaird snorted.  “That’s what worries me.  Who’s going to crew for you?”
    “Anechka, I think.  She’s best at swapping hardware.”
    “Concur.  Who are the passengers?”
    “You’re never going to believe this.”
    “Try me.”
    “The Kildar -”
    “No surprise.”
    “Some Major who’s along for the ride -”
    “Hope his life insurance is paid up.”
    “And Katrina.”
    “You’re shitting me!”
    “God’s truth.  Nielson said to make sure I drew her armor and personal weapon from the armory, along with the Kildar’s and a spare for the Major.”
    “Guess she’s serious about this Kildaran crap.  At least she can run a minigun for you.”
    “Wonder what the Kildar said to that?”
    “Katrina!” bellowed Mike.
    “Yes, Michael?”
    “We need to talk,” he said sternly.
    Crossing her arms over her chest, she said, “Talk about what?”  Instinctively, she went into full defense mode - ready to attack.
    “Body armor?  Weapons?  Ring any bells?”
    “What about them?”
    “Who the fuck fitted you for body armor, for chrissake?”
    “The Chief,” she answered matter-of-factly.
    “It’s part of my training.  I decided that as your Kildaran, I needed body armor.  And a gun.  I knew that it would relieve your mind, knowing that I can defend myself.  Also, to be a true Kildaran, I must be prepared to stand by you in battle, as other Kildarans have done.  We‘re not simply shield maidens!”  Foot stomp.
    “After becoming Kildaran, maybe, not before!  Jesus, Kat, you drop a bombshell like this on me in the middle of a fucking op, while we’re chasing nukes, trying to track down a missing battalion -”
    “Michael.”  She spoke softly, stopping him.
    “We discussed this.  You worry, probably too much, about my safety.  This is how I can help assure - no, ensure - my own safety.”
    “Dammit, Kat, your safety’s not the issue!”
    “Then what is?”
    “Not telling me about your training!”
    Exasperatedly, Kat replied, “And how was I to tell you of my training when you spent your time avoiding me?”
    “Well -”
    “And what exactly would you have me say?  ‘Michael, I am learning how to shoot so that I can become your Kildaran’?  How would you have reacted to that?”
    “I - that is -”
    “Enough!”  Her temper, as fiery as her hair, flared briefly.  “I did what I did to become who I am!  If you disapprove - tough!  It was my choice, my decision, and I would choose so again!  Everything I have done - all the classes, learning from Daria and Stasia, shooting and fighting, I have done because of who you need as Kildaran!”  She softened her tone.  “Even, especially, the lessons from Hiro.  This is who I am, now.  You want me as I am, now.  So choose, Michael.  All or nothing.  And I will no longer settle for nothing!”
    Thinking rapidly, Michael spoke carefully.  “I‘ll take the all.  I was simply surprised.”
    Dimpling, Kat laughed, “I knew you were smart!”
    “Tell me, how far has your training gone?  Have you finished basic?”
    “Basic?  That’s for wimps!”  She grinned fiercely.  “I got perfect scores on the known distance and combat ranges!  Oleg oversaw my training to ensure it was to the same standard as the rest of the Keldara.  He said that he’d take me on his Team any day.  And Lasko has been training me with the Robar - he doesn’t think I’m ready for the Barrett, yet, but I’ll surprise him soon!”  She’d had to hide the bruise from that beast for two weeks.  After that, she’d listened to Lasko.
    Rolling his eyes, Mike made a hasty retreat.  “Okay, okay!  Fine, you’re well-trained.  You could’ve at least told me about this.”
    “We’ve had other things to discuss,” she said coquettishly.  “Haven’t we?”  She made a little moue with her lips.
    “And just who taught you that?  Never mind, I can guess.  Catya, I think.”
    She said nothing, just lowered her eyes demurely and licked her lips.  Her hips swayed slowly side to side.