IN ANY CASE.
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!
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!
“…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.”
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.