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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Kildaran - Chapter 29

[Not much of an intro this time - but I did want to say, keep up the good work!  Even though Dick and I have been over this plenty of times, we still miss things - and the idiot spell-check doesn't know when I substitute the correctly-spelled but otherwise INCORRECT word!  So - thanks for the hypo/hyper catch - and it's been fixed already (See?  I read my mail!).



    Chechnik hadn’t lied, precisely, about Russian satellites.
    Most of their high-resolution optical reconnaissance satellites, like the Yantar and Kobolt series, were placed in orbits that allowed them to focus their cameras on the United States.  Overflying Russia were a number of Liana COMINT (Communications Intelligence) and Tselina ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) craft, designed to eavesdrop on cellular phones, radio transmissions, and other forms of electronic ‘noise’.  Only a single old Tsirkon, with its low-resolution, visible-spectrum-only camera, was positioned to observe the area around Lake Kek-Usn.  And, unfortunately, it couldn’t ‘see’ anything much smaller than three meters across, nor could it penetrate the tree cover.
    That was the beauty, and the downfall, of the old Soviet-era satellites.  While they were robust, durable, and long-lived, they were also limited in function and difficult (if not impossible) to upgrade.  And while they were still functioning - however marginally - they wouldn’t be replaced.
    Upgrade?  A newer satellite would have the best possible hardware, while being able to take advantage of software updates as they came available.  These old satellites - hell, some of them had tape drives!  Uplink?  Forget it.
    American satellites weren’t any better.  While they did provide continuous coverage of the former Soviet Union, the Caucasus region had been a low priority for many months.  Even with urging from agency directors, it took some time for department heads to execute new orders.  Besides, there was plenty of COMINT coverage, and didn’t everybody use cell phones now?
    Murphy smiled.
    The three Predator drones were on the way.  One had been forced to turn back when a processor reported an electrical fault.  The fact that it was a relatively minor system, which had a functional backup and a built-in bypass routine was irrelevant.  Standing orders were to RTB, so, back it went.
    Murphy smiled wider.
    The other two continued onward through the icy winds.  Unfortunately, the winds deposited a thin coat of ice over the optics of one bird, orbiting the eastern shore of the lake, blurring its vision for this mission.  No permanent damage, noted its controller, and made a note in the log to have it de-iced on return.  Of course, if they had been on their game, they might have realized that they were taking drones from a desert environment and flying to a cold, mountainous region and installed the necessary hardware.  Little things, like a heater.
    Wider still.
     The final Predator, on station and fully functional, orbited the western shore, some three kilometers away.
    Can’t win ‘em all.
    So, two hours before dawn, when Gereshk headed north through the woods, with a dozen men and a five-megaton thermonuclear weapon, nobody was in position to note it.
    Nor did they note, an hour later, when Boulos Rahal and another six mujahideen headed south, with their much-smaller bomb, to Groznyy and Kassab’s impatient force.
    “Miserable Americans.”
    Grez looked over.  “What’s the problem, Anisa?”
    “Look at this map!”  She transferred the map she was examining from her station to the main screen.
    It was more of a patchwork than a map.  Gaping holes in coverage were immediately apparent, giving the image the appearance of a jigsaw put together by a three-year-old.
    “I could do better with Google Earth!” she snapped.
    “Probably, but -”
    “They ask for our help, promise support, and what do we get?  Nothing!”
    “Anisa -”
    “And don’t get me started with the Russians!  Their crap satellites might be old, but at least they have some in orbit!”
    “I understand.  Just do the best you can.”
    Anisa returned to her work, muttering.  She didn’t notice Grez leave the Cave.
    “Patrick, we cannot do our jobs if we don’t have the data!”
    “Yes, dear.”
    “If they’d listened to us in the first place, we’d have the gamma scans!”
    “Yes, dear.”
    “It would be a case of ‘follow the bouncing ball’ - one JDAM and the problem would be solved!  We wouldn’t have to put any of our men at risk cleaning up someone else’s problem!”
    “Maybe if they painted it pink…” said Vanner, quietly.
    “Nothing, dear.”
    “We need the data, Patrick.  At this point, I can only see two solutions: call back the Mice, let them hack their way into whatever they can and steal it; or call the Kildar, get him to shake the trees.”
    A horrified look from Vanner, and, “Not the Kildar.  He’d probably shoot someone.  Several someones.  And probably whoever called him and ruined his vacation, too.”
    “Then the Mice.”
    “That won’t work.  They’re up to their armpits in snakes right now.”
    “Then what do we do?”
    “One other option - see what Pierson can scare up.”
    “Do you think that will do any good?”
    “Can’t hurt.  And a damn sight better option than calling the Kildar.”
    “I have to agree.”
    “Okay, I’ll call Bob.  In the meantime, see if you can get the girls thinking about the problem from a different angle?  Maybe that way they won’t get so frustrated?”
    “I’ll try.”
    “It’s cold.”
    “Weather is a situation you must learn to accept.  Missions will not wait for your comfort.”
    “I understand, but can’t we figure out a way to be just a little warmer?”  She raised an eyebrow, almost suggestively.  “I know one way…”  She didn’t expect him to respond, and was not disappointed.
    Katya and J were laying in the snow, across the road from where Gereshk had disappeared two days before.  The signal from the tracer, now that they were back within range, was weak but stationary, about three hundred yards into the woods.  They were both dressed in thermal protective garments, camouflaged for the snow cover, and should have been quite comfortable.
    Except for her feet.  Next time, she was stealing a pair of the militia’s heated socks.  Walking a bit would help, but no.  They had to simply lay in wait, observing.  Fucking boring.  And goddam fucking cold!
    J explained.  “We are virtually invisible to the casual observer as we are now.  If we disturb the snow any further, we risk creating an unnatural shape, one which a sentry’s eye would be prone to pick out.  Or, worse still, if we should be spotted while creating our little shelter, our mission would certainly be a failure.  With nuclear stakes, do you wish to risk that?”
    “No, teacher.”  The admission was grudging, at best.  “Maybe next time we should build a fucking hide.”  His gaze was like ice.  “Sorry.”
    “Then concentrate on the track into the woods.”
    “Greetings, brother!  It is Boulos!”
    “Boulos, my friend, how good to hear from you!  It’s been a long, long time.”
    “Too long, indeed.  Good news, though: I am on my way to visit, if that is convenient?”
    “Delightful!  All is prepared!”
    “Allah smiles upon me,  I shall be there tonight!  And I shall bring a great gift to you!”
    “Inshallah, Boulos!”
    Stella was monitoring the ECHELON take.  “Kassab’s talking on the phone again, someone named Boulos.”  She listened to the raw feed, then called up a transcript.  “Grez?  I think they might be moving.”  ECHELON could be hit or miss, just by its nature.  Massively capable, it could intercept just about any signal, any location, any time.  That was its downfall, too; without an adequate filter, it returned far too many false positives.
    The Mice were best at programming.  That was a given.  But the rest of the Intel section weren’t slouches, either.  This call was returning a confidence rating of 85%.  Good as gold.
    Greznya was by her side in seconds.  “Who is moving?”
    “I mean, I think that a bomb is on the move.  To Groznyy.”
    “Did Katya or J call it in?”
    Stella shook her head.  “No, and that is why I’m not sure.  It sounds like a badly-disguised code, but here, you listen.”  Grez put on headphones, listened to the brief conversation.
    “You’re right, it does sound like movement.  Who is Boulos?”
    “Probably Boulos Rahal, another of Inarov’s regular supporters.”
    “So he would make sense to transport a weapon?”
    “Very much so.  Inarov trusts him as much as he trusts anyone.”
    “Send an alert to Pavel’s team, let them know to expect company soon.”
    “Should they take out Kassab?”  Stella’s fingers hovered over the keyboard, ready to tap out the few strokes necessary to put the team into action.
    “Not our decision.”
    “It’s our decision.”
    “Scrag ‘em now and we’ll have a little surprise waiting for Mr. Rahal when he arrives.”  The Chief was unequivocal.
    “What if there’s another contact attempt?  What then?”
    “Pat, you worry too much.  These ragheads don’t know diddlyshit for security.  I’ll bet they don’t even warn ‘em before they show up tonight and have to knock on the door.”
    “No bet.”
    “It’s still too great a risk,” added Nielson.  “If Pat’s right about another call, we can‘t chance it.  Even if he’s wrong, we have enough firepower there to take out twice the force.”
    Adams considered this.  “If they can plant some demo, it’ll make the take-down easier.”
    “Do they have a sniper?”
    “Yeah, Braon.  He’s not in Lasko’s league, but who is?  That’s why he’s off now.  You thinking about rooftop?”
    “So they place demo where they can, cover the rear with Braon, and take them from the front.  Best time would be when the other group arrives, situational awareness should be at it’s lowest.”
    “You’re the SEAL, Chief.  Whatever you think will work best.”
    “They are soooo fucked.”
    Nielson rolled his eyes.  “SEALs.”
    Both the half-blind Predator and myopic Tsirkon saw the battalion-sized force move south out of the woods.  They weren’t moving quickly, since they were on foot and leading a single mule-drawn wagon.  This was just what they were looking for, and the electronic intelligences screamed.
    Murphy stopped smiling.
    “Movement south of Kek-Usn,” announced Kelson.
    The American driver, sitting at her video terminal, commanded the Predator’s camera to zoom in.  “Sorry, not much joy here.  I can see a bunch of people, but - whoa!”
    The screen had suddenly erupted in static.
    “We’ve lost telemetry from the bird!” she snapped.  “All systems are off-line!”  She typed in a series of commands that should have reset the operations computer aboard the Predator and waited ten seconds.  “Nothing.  I don’t think there’s anything there any more.”
    “Confirmed.  No joy on return signal.  Bird is dead,” agreed the support tech, sitting in the booth next to hers.
    “Shot down?” asked the monitoring officer.
    “Seems like.  Shit!  I didn‘t get a flare or any other warning.  They shouldn‘t have anything that advanced!”
    “Nothing you could have done.  The question is, do we leave the other on station, or do we send it after your bogey?”
    “What was that?”
    “What was what?”
    “I thought I heard something, off to the south.”
    J strained his ears, but whatever it had been was gone, now.
    “What did it sound like?”
    “A sharp cracking sound.”
    “A hunter, perhaps.  Pay attention to your sector.”
    “General, with all due respect, one Predator or two doesn’t mean squat if we lose track of a nuke.”
    “How do you know they have a nuke, Pierson?”
    “Would you use a ground-to-air on a Predator if you weren’t protecting something big?  The driver didn‘t get any warning, either.  That means her bird was taken out by something using either purely passive sensors or optics; either way, it‘s dammed hi-tech and seriously expensive.”  He plowed on.  “Let’s assume you’re right, General, and we just have a bunch of people off for a walk in the woods in winter.  I think I’d be just a little curious about it, don’t you?”
    “You have a point,” admitted the Air Force officer.  “Very well, I’ll order the other Predator to follow.  I’m keeping this one above missile range though!”
    “That’s not gonna do any good, unless it’s above 20,000 feet.  That’s the range of the Igla’s we think these bastards have, and that’s too high for an off-the-shelf Predator to do much good.  They’re only good up to 25,000, and their cameras can’t see worth a damn from that high.”
    “I know that, Pierson!  What else can I do?”
    “Not much, sir.  My suggestion is you order it in at about ten thousand.  That should be high enough to degrade the Iglas’ accuracy enough, and maybe give your drivers enough time to pick up a trace and evade.  If not, well, they can’t knock out the satellites.”
    “42nd Recon, Anderson.”
    “Richie?  Bob Pierson.  How soon can you get that Two Victor in place?”
    “One is standing by for orders on Diego Garcia, and a second is en route.”
    “Get it up.  We need eyes, and we need ‘em now.”
    “You got it.”
    Nielson’s voice, echoing through the caravanserai, brought Vanner and Adams at a run.
    “What happened?” asked Adams, first to arrive.
    “There’s a god dammed battalion-sized force of Chechens marching south from Kek-Usn, armed with SAMs, and we have NO fucking idea where they are!”
    “How did they get by?”
    “They blasted the Predator orbiting above them to splinters as they started movement, then kept firing SAMs at the second drone until the chickenshit Air Force puke in charge pulled it out of the area!”
    “Two hours ago.  Pierson just called, he’s gotten a U-2V in the air and heading that way, but it’s gonna be at least another hour before it’s on station.  Motherfucker!”  Nielson dropped into his chair.  “We’ve lost them.”
    “Dave, Katya and J are in the area -”
    “And how the fuck did they manage to miss this?  I thought he was the master spy?”
    “I don’t know, but I’ll ask.  Let’s get them moving, see if they can track them down.  They can’t have gone far, not on foot.”
    “You do that.  Chief, get the teams moving faster.  As soon as you can get them rolling, I want them on the road.”
    “What about Mike?”
    “How long do you need?”
    “Three hours for the Keldara.  Not sure about Dragon and Valkyrie, but they can catch up.  They need serious ECM packages, if we‘re getting this kind of fire at drones.”
    “I’ll call him once you hit the road.  He’ll fly into Tbilisi, I’ll have Dragon pick him up and ferry him to wherever you are at the time.”
    “That’ll work.  And the girls?”
    “Valkyrie can shuttle them back here.”  He turned to yell for Daria, but she was already there, closing her notebook.  With a half-nod, she headed out, giving orders.
    “Damn, I’m gonna miss that girl.”
    “They got past us,” snapped J, rising from the snow and dashing down the road, all caution thrown to the wind as he traded stealth for speed.  This part of the mission was blown, and only serious effort would begin to repair the damage.
    “What?  How?” panted Katya, running hard through the snow to catch up.
    “There must be another exit, one we didn’t know about.  Vanner said that there’s a force headed south, with at least a two-hour head start.”  He shook his head.  “I should have realized.”
    “Remember, you heard a noise?”
    “Yes, I do.”
    “That was one of the Predators being blown up, not a hunter.”  He smiled grimly.  “See?  You begin to exceed your teacher’s abilities.”  They had reached their car, far off the road in a copse.  “I’ll drive, you look for anything unusual.  It won’t be easy to hide several hundred men.”

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