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.
“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.
“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!”
“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.”
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?”
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.
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?”
“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.
“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?”
“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.