Good Stuff for YOU

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Kildaran - ChapterS 44 & 45

[So as we on the East Coast prepare for Irene, I thought I'd give you something to chew on over the weekend in the dark and rain.

What, you were expecting more of Kurt?  Ah-ah-ah, not yet!  This is just a little something that you might appreciate IF you've been wondering about Mike and his destiny.  Maybe.  Perhaps.

It might clarify things.

Or it might make them muddier.



“Ow, dammit!”
“Kat, maybe you ought to get Kurosawa?”
“No!  He said that I am ready to use the needles, that soon it will be my duty, and I should practice on you to learn your particular needs.”
“Did he really?“  Mike flipped over, careful to keep the towel in place around his middle.  “Kat, how, exactly, did you do your training?”  He looked her directly in the eyes.
Katrina stopped in mid-motion, acupuncture needle in hand and about to strike at a newly-exposed area, and thought.  “At first, it was simply a dummy, to learn the general points.  And an anatomy chart with Hiro.”
“Then, the next level, Kurosawa got volunteers from among the Keldara.  It was for the Kildar, so there were many choices at first.”
“Did any of them last more than one session?”
“Well, not at first - but then I started getting it right!”  She waved the needles around in a way that made him flinch inside.   “Jeseph, he did eight or nine practices with me!”  She placed those needles in the sanitizer, picking up another from the warming salts.  That one she ran through a flame to get it even warmer.
“Jeseph?  Jeseph Mahona?”
“Ye-es,” she answered cautiously.  “He was a good patient!  For a while,” she added.
“He’s got a higher pain tolerance than me!”
“Oh.”  She looked at her hand, then the other implements.  “Oh,” again.  She started to pout, not forced at all.
“Yeah, oh.”  A moment’s pause, then, “Tell you what.  Get Kurosawa, and Stasia.”
“Stasia.  Most definitely.”  His tone brooked no disobedience.
In just a few minutes, the Kildar’s Japanese batman and his harem manager both arrived.  Kurowasa was wearing one of the eye-searing Hawaiian print kimonos he favored during his off-duty hours; Stasia was wearing much less, having been giving the Harem another lesson.  They looked at each other then, face carefully neutral, Hiro bowed Stasia in before him.
“Hiro, I don’t think that Katrina is quite up to your level.”
“No.”  He never lied, but he would also never volunteer more information than the question demanded.
“So, if you don’t mind, I would like YOU to continue doing my treatments.”
“Yes.”  Mike explained, quickly, what Katrina had started and what needed to be finished, all the time feeling the full redhead glare that said life wasn’t being fair to her and someone was going to pay.  Until…
“And Stasia?”
“Yes, Kildar?”
“Did you have fun with Jack earlier?“  She didn’t answer, but color rose in her cheeks and her nipples hardened immediately as pleasure and shame warred in her..  “I thought so.  Fine.  Strip.”
Without a word, blushing slightly, she removed every stitch of clothing.  There wasn’t much to take off, but she seemed to linger over ever tie and peeled herself like a banana.  She was shaming herself, intentionally, and loving it.
“Get on the other table.”  He used the voice he usually reserved for their private ‘special’ sessions.
She did so, still bare, flushing a deeper red.  He looked at Katrina, whose anger was slowly fading.
“Katrina.  Practice on Stasia.  You know her tastes, don’t you?”
“Of course, everyone in the caravanserai knows!  Until you finally built her room below, you could hear her through the entire house!”
Stasia wiggled a little.  She knew of Katrina’s practice sessions, and had heard the tales the Keldara told of her.  While she definitely preferred men, pain was pain.  Which is why what Mike said next so surprised her.
“Fine.  She enjoys pain.  So your goal is to give her the least pain possible.”
“Master!” Stasia objected, eyes wide.
“If she orgasms, you know that you’ve really screwed up.  And it will cost you a week‘s truffles that I ordered for you.  And you, Stasia, won‘t get any for the same week.”
“Got it?”
“I understand,” answered Katrina, a wicked smile on her face.  “If she doesn’t come, do I get her chocolates?”  Stasia glared at Kat, who smiled back like that cat who’d just gotten into the cream.  Then they both… giggled?
Had they winked at each other?  That came under the category of Very Not Good Things.  Time to check the credit card bills more closely again.  Maybe vett all the packages before they were opened.
“Good.  Now.  Hiro.”  Mike closed his eyes and relaxed as Kurosawa applied his double dozen years of acupuncture expertise to his joints, trying to ignore the occasional moans and gasps from the other table.
“That’s one week.  Ahhh.  Right there.  That knee’s been giving me hell since I got back.”

He knew something was wrong immediately.
It was the same feeling he got when his Team was about to get screwed on an op.  Same as when Katrina spoke in that weird voice on the road trip.  Cold fingers of dread gripped his heart.
His eyes focused on the figure before him.  The mocking smile flooded his being with anger, dispelling the unnatural cold, and his demons erupted.
“Who the fuck are you and how did you get into Stasia’s dungeon?”
The man laughed.  He was taller than Mike, solidly muscled, with blonde, dirty hair, perhaps dirty with ash, and he smelled like an abattoir.  He looked to be wearing one of Mike’s bondage outfits - leather straps, chains, dark and forbidding - but it wasn’t, quite.  It seemed to have been soaked, saturated, repeatedly with blood, for the coppery scent suffused the air.  Mike’s eyes picked out the knife.  He never carried around a knife like that, with a wicked-looking curved blade and roughly serrated on both sides.  It reminded him of a shark’s grin, and just as hungry-looking.  For another, he was pretty sure that his knives - and the leather, too, he noticed - weren’t that blood-stained.  At least not for long.  It offended him, professionally and primally.
“Stasia’s dungeon!  Oh, mortal, that’s rich!”  The mouth barely moved enough to reveal the blackened teeth.  The fetid breath knocked him back a step before the words sunk in.
His body wanted to fall to its knees and beg under the compulsion from that voice, but he resisted.  Mike was never one to back away from a fight, no matter the odds, and whether expected or not.  This was certainly unexpected, but he found the hot flame of his anger and focused it.  Time to be afraid later.  Now was the time to take charge.  His legs responded to his commands and he rose to his full height.
“The first question stands.  Who the fuck are you?”
“I am Holer.  God of Death and Pain.  I would say at your service, but you have been at mine for so long, it wouldn’t feel right.”  Now the voice didn’t compel as much as caressed.  Mike knew this tactic.  He’d used it before, extracting information.  Scare the prisoner, then calm them, get their emotions whipsawing so badly they turned to him as a single island of sanity and they’d reveal anything he asked.  He could deal with this.
“God of Death?  Bullshit.”
He laughed again, enjoying the situation.  “Ah, such spirit!  I shall enjoy this, mortal!”  He leaned against a whipping posted that groaned in protest, spikes on the gear sinking deep into the wood that was beginning to resemble flayed flesh.
“Enjoy what?”  He stopped short of cursing.  This - god? fraud? - seemed to preen when Mike was verbally abusive.  Fine.  He could play that game too.
“Your fate, of course.”  He smiled, gnashing his teeth and seeming to chew on a fine, tasty meal.  “You belong to me, and it’s going to be so much fun!”
“I don’t suppose it matters that I don’t believe in you?  That you‘re a figment of my imagination, and all I have to do is wake up?  That you have no power over me?”  Dammit, Mike, wake up!
“Not in the least, little man!  And you can stop trying to wake up.  This is real, you see.  As real as the death you’ve dealt to your fellow humans.“
He chuckled lowly, a menacing sound.  “You humans!  Thinking belief matters to a god!”  He snickered.  “At least, not to me.  Death?  Pain?  I am always among you, and I must say, Michael Edward Harmon, you have done more than most to strengthen me!  Even sex and love - “  The distaste was evident in his tone.  “- You turn into pain.  What a glorious joke!  Freya and Gerd’s gifts to humanity, turned into power for me!”  He laughed again, harshly, growing larger.
“So I’m dead?  Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
“Oh, no, little mortal, not yet!  You’re coming with me, and I’m going to have such fun, doing to you all the lovely tricks you’ve done to others!  Such an imagination!  You humans have such imagination, such creativity, when it comes to giving pain.”  He shivered in ecstasy.  His eyes locked with Mike’s, and Mike loathed what he saw there.  But was it his soul reflected?  Or Holer’s?
Suddenly using Mike’s voice, he said, “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.  You motherfucker.”  In his own voice he continued.  “Brilliant!  Such genius!  Oh, I swear, you humans are better at creating new and inventive ways of torture and death than I could ever be!”  He skipped lightly around the post, drawing rope-like intestines out and wrapping them around like he was decorating a Maypole.
Focus!  Duty.  Honor.  Country.  Make the other fucker die for his!
“I remember that,” said Mike.  “OBL.  But he deserved to die!  He had killed thousands of Americans, and was torturing college girls to death right in the next room!”
“Yes, and he was doing a good job of it, even if he delegated too much,” said Holer.  “You interrupted him.  But motivation doesn’t matter.  Reasons don’t matter, in the end.”  He waved blood-soaked fingers at the wall, spattering them with an obscene pattern.  “You killed, you caused him to die painfully.”
He shook his head as Mike began to protest.  “I’m not arguing that he didn’t deserve it!  Everyone dies, eventually, and I am not judging!  But you did: judge, jury, and executioner.  Why, you‘re a regular fashionista of death!”  The laugh was absolutely revolting, and Mike felt his gorge rise.
“Then why me?  Why the show and the stage?  You couldn‘t just tell me?  Surely, if you know me so well, then you know how I despise all the bullshit.”
“Because I’m a god, and I can!”  With a wave of his hand the dungeon disappeared, replaced by a stark, concrete-walled room containing only a sheet-covered gurney.  The sheet was concealing something.  In the darkness beyond the voice echoed off to a whisper.  “I can do anything… anything… anything…”
“Do you remember me?” said a female voice from under the sheet.  It was raw, husky, as if it had been screaming for a long time.  Odd hisses and burbles followed, below where the chin would be.
Mike moved closer, though not of his own volition.  Or did the gurney come to him?  He couldn’t tell.
“You were too late to save me,” continued the voice.  Not a woman’s voice, not quite.  A teenager’s voice, rough from overuse.  He could see, now, bloodstains on the sheet, and blood seeping from the gurney’s drain.
“You were sleeping, and I died.  I died in pain and agony, I died raped and humiliated.  You don’t know the pain I endured when they peeled my skin off.  When they burned off my nipples with a blowtorch.  When they took clubs and smashed my bones.”  The figure under the sheet sat up.  “I still lived, screaming for help, screaming for God, screaming for mercy, screaming for anyone, until they took a knife and slit my throat.”  The sheet fell away, revealing what must once have been a pretty girl with light brown hair.  The eyes, untouched, accused him.
“Your name was Clarissa McCutcheon,” Mike choked out.  He remembered exactly what he’d seen tossed to one side of the room, once he’d been able to crash their party.  After he’d gotten the bastards who’d ordered it, who sat in their comfortable office watching.
“You remember?  Then tell me.  Why didn’t you save me?  Sleep?  Was it that important?  Or did you really need to get some head?”  Her head cocked sideways, the slit in her throat gaped open.  “Was killing him really more important than saving me?”
“Yeah, sleep!  I had been on a very intense op for two days and -”
“And I died!”
“I couldn’t save everyone!”
“You saved everyone else,” the corpse said bitterly.
The injustice welled, carrying the rage.  “Yeah, well, fuck you!  Now you know why we say, ‘It sucks to be a hostage’!  People always die, no matter what we do to save them!  I did my best, and got shot to hell doing it!  I fucking died three times on the way home, you died once, and I saved the rest of the girls so FUCK YOU VERY MUCH!!!”
The scene suddenly changed.  Now it was the rear compartment of a helicopter.
“You couldn’t save me,” said a voice behind Mike.  He didn’t want to look.  He knew the walls were painted with the blood and gore of the last woman who had taken his heart.  Oh, not all was hers.  Some was her brother’s, killed in a war not his own, a war Mike had sent him to to die.
He knew that his soul was being flayed for someone’s amusement.  He didn’t know why.  He didn’t want to give them satisfaction, but something compelled him to speak.  To ask forgiveness?  To explain?
To say good-bye?
Without turning, he said, “I didn’t know.  They didn’t tell me you were crewing one of the Hinds.  They didn’t tell me you were running a machine gun.”
“I died alone.”
His face in his hands, he answered, “I wasn’t there, I couldn’t stop you.”
“I loved you, but you refused me.  I became a warrior, blessed by the Elders, to make you love me, yet I died never seeing you again.”  The bitterness in her voice was painful.
“How could I know?”  He stared out the door of the not-Hind.  There was no answer from the beyond, either, just a blood-red mist concealing all.
“Even now, you won’t look at me.”
“I want to remember you as we were.  Remember the chocolate mousse?  That’s what I hold in my mind, not what a bullet left behind!  I can’t - I don’t want -”
“To see me?  Am I so shameful?  Is it so awful that I loved you?”  The voice, contradictingly filled with love and bile, got through his guard.
Tasting ash, copper, death, dirt, he turned around.  Somehow, Gretchen stood behind him at her side gun, in her borrowed utilities.  Blood-stained, especially through the middle.  He knew, without a doubt, that they were the only thing holding her body together.
“I never got to say good-bye.  I loved you, Gretchen.  I still do.  When you died, a part of me died and almost didn‘t come back.”  He reached to touch her face and he felt fiery tears in his eyes, the first he’d allowed himself since his epic drunk after her death.  “You’ll always have a place in my heart.  I lo…”
The scene shifted again.  Now it was another room, an office, perhaps.  Bodies were scattered all around.  The smell of burnt flesh wafted through the air.
“You killed me,” from an all-too-familiar, though muffled voice.
“NO!  You’re not dead!”
“You killed me,” repeated the voice.
“YOU’RE NOT DEAD!!” screamed Mike.  “No!  Never again!  I won’t allow it!  Do you hear me, you coward?  COME BACK HERE AND FACE ME!”
“She will be,” said Holer, happily.  “This is her fate, surely as the sun will arise tomorrow.  Her love for you will bring her to this.  I‘m a god; we know these things, we can make them happen!  Fates?  Pagh!  Idle gossips, compared to a god!”
“Does it matter?  Be grateful, mortal, that I am permitting you so much of a glimpse of the future.  She will die attempting to rescue you from your enemies.  It‘s going to be so much - BLAST!”
“Do not be so sure, Holer,” came an old voice from a dark corner.
“You!  Meddler!”  He spat blood that burned the ether around them.
“All three of us,” agreed the voice, moving forward.  Three women, wearing long dark cloaks and hoods, revealed themselves.
“And who are you?” asked Mike.
“We are -”
“Interfering bitches!  Begone, Norns!  You have no place here!  This is a matter for gods, not busybodies!”
“Ah, ah, ah!  Remember, Holer, we spin the threads of gods, as well as mortals,” said the voice.  “And you invoked us.  Tsk, tsk!  Gossips, are we?”
“You don’t frighten me, Urd!”  But Mike could hear the worry in his voice.  Without intent, the pun came to him: finally, a thread of hope to grasp.
“The mortal knows the truth of my sister’s statement,” said a different, younger voice.  The middle figure cast back her hood, revealing the face of a mature woman.  “Shall we reveal your future?  Or perhaps we should simply cut it off?”  She produced a strand from beneath her cloak, glistening strangely in the light, like a string of almost-congealed blood.
“No,” muttered Holer.  “I have no wish for that.”  The being took three steps back from Mike’s side.
“Then piss off!  En‘fore I kick you in your bollocks!” said the third figure in a decidedly girlish voice.  The accent shifted, becoming more modern, almost Californian.  “Like, take a hike!  Now!”  Were those pink, glitter-covered Converse All-Stars he saw?
“Mortal, do not think yourself saved,” Holer growled with some of his previous belligerence.   “You are too much a servant of mine to escape your destiny.”
“Destiny?  What do you know of destiny?” said the mature one.  “Off!  Unless you will pay the All-Father’s price?  We can show you your destiny, Holer!”
“I’m leaving,” said Holer, sourly, and without another word, vanished.
Mike didn‘t say anything, but as if she‘d read his mind, the youngest hummed the closing bars from a famous cartoon series.  “What a total drag!” said the youngest one.  “I want to go shopping!”
“He believes too much in his own power,” agreed the oldest, after slapping the youngest upside her head.
“What was the All-Father’s - Odin.  His eye.  He traded an eye to see the future.“  Mike nodded to himself, gathering his wits.  “He called you Norns,” said Mike.  “Fates?”
“If you wish,” agreed the middle.  “Weavers of the threads of life.  I am Verdandi,” she continued, “Spinner of the present.”  Mike bowed.  Why not?  Return respect when respect was given.
“I am Urd,” said the oldest.  “I watch over the tapestry we have spun, looking always to the past.”  Mike kissed her old, wrinkled hand.  She cackled and pulled it back.  “Can’t let the others make any mistakes.”
“I’m Skuld,” giggled the youngest.  “I’ve got to plan the future, and it’s a bitch!”
Mike settled for giving her a respectful nod.  She was potentially the most dangerous of the lot, and a teenager to boot.  “You’re not quite what I expected,” admitted Mike.  “And what did Holer mean?  I’m too much his servant?”
Urd answered.  “You have been serving him, Michael.  Your entire life, you have been spreading death and pain through Manheimr -”
“That’s Earth,” clarified Skuld, bouncing.  She reminded him far too much of… dangerous, anyway.
“As I was saying,” snapped Urd, rolling her eyes.  “Even those you love, you bring pain to - physical, emotional.  Sometimes both.  So Holer is the ruler of your soul.  He‘s marked you, and watches you.  But playing with you?  That‘s going to far, even for him.  Some bridges even the gods must not cross.”
“If I was to analyze you, I would say that you have deep-seated emotional issues that have manifested themselves in a need to dominate your surroundings, physically and sexually, hence your devotion to -”
Mike interrupted Verdandi.  “If I wanted analysis, I’d go see a shrink.  No thanks.  And, Urd?  You can take Holer and shove him up Odin‘s-”
“Stay on point, dude!” said Skuld.  Her look gave him a chance to stop his thoughts in place and his real needs surface.  One second of clarity, that was all he needed.  His anger faded.  It had probably been that bastard of a god trying to get at the Norns through him anyway.  Fuck him!  Watch me play nice and be calm!  Suffer, you miserable little shit!
“Which is what?”
“Holer was trying to take you away, man!  He wanted you for his own little toy!”
“I don’t swing that way,” joked Mike, feebly.
“Holer takes people and tortures them to death,” interpreted Verdandi.  “That’s his role, and he does it very well.”
“So do you!” added Skuld.  “That’s why he came for you!  He wanted pointers.  No imagination in that one.  Always the same, over and over and over!”
“Even as he tortured you,” agreed Urd.  “He would extract every last idea from you and try them on your body before, eventually, killing you.”
“He could try, but that begs the real question: Why?”
“That’s how he gets his rocks off,” shrugged Skuld.  “Told you he was a freak.”
“And this is a god?  You Aesir’ve got some serious issues,” said Mike.
“The issue, Michael, is that it is not yet your time to pass from your world.  Holer was presumptuous and wanted to speed thing up, claim you now.”
“Yeah!  And who knows, if you bite it fighting, I might come for you!  I moonlight with the Valkyries, you know,” said Skuld.  “Not those twelve chicas you’ve got working for you now, but flattery’ll get you anywhere.”
“Katrina!  Does that mean that’s not her fate?” Mike asked hopefully, the hope warming his soul.
“It is a possible fate,” admitted Verdandi.  “Her path is not yet set, not woven.”
“She’s such a cutie!  I just don’t know what I want to do with her!”
“She deserves a good, long life,” suggested Mike.
“Maybe.  Or maybe she ought to go out gloriously!  She sure has the spirit of a Valkyrie!”
“Ah, for the days of glory!” reminisced Urd.  “Warriors, burning passions, devotion to the gods.  Sword, spear, shield…”
“Yeah, yeah, and magic helmets too.  I want her to live,” pressed Mike, feeling that these women would understand his reaction better than any others and not take offense.
“I know,” said Verdandi.  “But there are - problems.”
“What problems?”
“She can’t tell you, silly!  Only I can!” giggled Skuld.  “And I’m not telling!” she added in a sing-song voice.  Now she was wearing a shockingly pink Japanime wig to go with the shoes, striped socks, and body-hugging dress.  Blink.
“Sister, that isn’t fair,” scolded Verdandi.  “You have to give him enough information to make a good choice.”  She shrugged and looked at Mike.  “Holer interfered with your life.  We have to give you a chance to change your path.  It’s part of the rules.”
“Rules suck!” shouted Skuld.  “They never, ever let me go shopping!  I have to go borrow ideas for new outfits from mortals!”  She looked at Mike.  “Could I borrow your credit card?  Oh, and the body of one of your harem for a bit of fun?  I promise to make it worth your while!”
“Oh, all right.  Michael,” she continued, much more formally, “You have great deeds to accomplish.  Much evil still exists in your world.  For you to have any of the future you desire, you must surrender some part of that future.”
“Surrender my future?  How?”
“You will arrive at a cusp, two paths to take, two choices to make.”  She lifted her hands.  In one was an empty cup waiting to be filled; in the other, a pair of scissors.  “Choose one, and you shall have all that you desire - but not at the time you desire it.  Choose the other, and all you have gained shall be snatched away from you.  Snip!”
“What cusp?  What choice?”
“More we cannot tell you.  You must decide.”
The three figures began to fade.
“Wait!  Stop!  I need to know more!  I‘ll even pay Odin‘s Price!”
“Choose wisely, Michael.”
A grey mist descended, the ground below him rose, and he slammed into it, knocking his breath out.
Mike woke up.
His bed was going to need new sheets.  All of his old wounds were flared red, and it looked like he had been sweating blood.
Marks of Holer?  Maybe.
Marks of his past?  Definitely.
Marks of his future?
On the table to the left he saw a cup.
To the right were scissors.
Explaining this wouldn’t be fun

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Kildaran - Chapter 43

[Did you enjoy the double post last week?  Just a little something to get you through the blah days of August.

So.  Say goodnight, Tahan.  Not quite wiped off the face of the planet, but as close as you could want.  Don't know if anyone read the comments and replies, but there are some Easter Eggs scattered through here - you just have to do a little research (or really, REALLY know your stuff!) to find the names' meanings.  Here's a hint: the Chechen followers' names were NOT random.

Oh, one more point - the folks who are reading this from Greenland, I'd love to know who you are and how you got into this!  I was absolutely THRILLED to see the flag post!

So.  Kurt's still running around.  Let's see if we can find him!



Ibrahim, dressed as a Russian Army Major, and his men were stopped in Ikinzhi-Shikhly, a small Azerbaijani village about three kilometers south of the Georgian border on the M1.  It wasn’t for a much-needed rest, though the men’s nerves were on edge, kept in check only by the reassuring presence of their leader.  It was simply time to change uniforms again.
Their Russian Army uniforms had served them well through Azerbaijan, speeding them through the scattered checkpoints.  The two nations had experience a warming trend in their relations over the past few years, and the sight of Russian nationals, even those in uniform, raised no suspicion and, more importantly, no hostility from the Azerbaijani, whether military, militia, farmer, or peasant .  Now, though, they were about to cross into Georgia, and the situation would change.
Not only were they getting closer and closer to the pit of vipers they were set to exterminate, but, complicating the issue, Russia and Georgia had recently cooled a violent border conflict.  Russian Army troops, therefore, would not be a welcome sight at the Georgian border, no matter what their faked papers might say.  Instead, they donned the uniforms of the shadowy, officially-outlawed paramilitary/political party, the Mkhedrioni.
The Mkhedrioni, ‘Horsemen’ or ‘Knights’, had been active in the early days of Georgian independence in the battles against the Ossetians and the Abkhazians in the early 1990’s.  They had supported, sometimes brutally, the then-President Shevardnadze as he consolidated his power in 1993, even being named the “Georgian Rescue Corps” for their actions.  But their Russian-mafia-influenced methods had landed their leadership in prison, and their organization was outlawed in 1995.
They never quite disappeared, however, living in the fringes of Georgian society.  While membership was still prohibited, there was a lingering fondness for them, especially in the northwest and central regions of the country.  But even here, in the far southeast, they were likely to be ignored, if not actively supported.  It was a perfect cover.
“Ibrahim, I have a question.”  This was from Faruq, a middle-aged man who had remained close to Ibrahim through the entire journey.
“Yes?”  The smile on Ibrahim’s face was totally guileless, a man at peace with whatever he had to do next.
“Not to doubt your planning, Ibrahim, but it seems that we have taken overlong in our mission.  Should we not be closer to our destination?”
“Shai’tan has laid traps for us, Faruq, and we must be cautious and circumspect to avoid them.”  The djinn-like desert blue eyes glinted.
“Surely now that we are on the cusp of victory, we can accelerate our progress?”
“Soon, Faruq, we shall strike a crippling blow upon the enemies of the Emirate.  But we have not achieved victory yet; if we succumb to Shai’tan’s guiles, we may still fall short of our goals.”
“As you say, Ibrahim, so is it true.  Yet I would be more than human if I did not admit to feeling some anxiety, an eagerness to complete our mission and return to the heart of the Emirate.”  No such fear showed in his face, belying his words.
“What, then, do you suggest, Faruq?” asked Ibrahim in a dangerously reasonable tone.
Quietly, so as not to be heard by the others, Faruq answered, “Allow me to continue the mission, while you return to the Emir and stand by his side at this, his hour of greatest need.”  He smiled, as if genuinely offering a way out of the mission, a way without consequences or repercussions, revealing his feeling that he actually held this power.
“So you would have the glory of the destruction of our enemies?” Ibrahim hissed.  “Or are you planning to betray us to our enemies?  It occurs to me that one like you, bringing information such as you have, would be welcomed - celebrated, even - by the forces of darkness!”  With these few words, the battlefield turned.  The next few would decide the man’s fate.
Backing away, Faruq‘s voice rose.  “No, Ibrahim, neither!  I am loyal, I wish only to serve the Emir!”
“That is what you intend!  You would betray your Emir, betray your faith, betray Allah!”  Ibrahim’s impassioned voice rose too, drawing the attention of the other men.  They needed to witness the fate of the false warrior among them.
He dropped his hands to his sides briefly, then raised them again as if warding off a spectre, pushing Faruq away in spirit, faith, and a Brother of Allah.  Exasperation, even disappointment, colored his face, not anger.
“Go, then!”  He pushed Faruq roughly on the shoulders.
“Go, I say!” he repeated, pushing him again.  Faruq, stumbling backward, fell.  Laughter, barely suppressed, echoed from the men he had only moments before he called his brothers.
“You’re mad!” he screeched from the ground. adrenalin flooding his veins, masking the too-rapid beating of his heart..
“A madman, am I?” howled Ibrahim, giving proof to Faruq’s words.  “I am but a loyal son of Allah, enraged by deceit and lies!  Go!  You have no more place here!”  Ibrahim dropped his arms dramatically, waving them at the ground before him.  “Go in peace, while you are yet able.  Allah’s punishment shall surely follow you along the path you have chosen.  No man may outrun Allah‘s wrath.”
Scrambling to his feet, Faruq continued to back away, more calmly now, forced though it sounded.  “Listen to me!” he cried to the men, now gathered in a loose circle.
“The Emir never trusted Ibrahim fully - and with good reason!  Look!  Hear what he is saying!  Wahid!” he said, turning to one of the older warriors.  “You have known me for years!  Have I ever -”
Faruq had passed every test of the Emir.  Pain, he had endured stoically, and deprivation, and hunger, and thirst.  He had proven his loyalty, and his worthiness, to the Emir on repeated occasions.  He had earned privileges, food, women, for his deeds.  He had even proven his ultimate loyalty by inflicting death on several of these women at the Emir’s order, though he had grown fond of many.  For these reasons, he had been chosen as Ibrahim’s minder.
But the pain he had endured, and inflicted, was as nothing compared to what he felt now.  He was interrupted by a massive spasm as his limbs were seized by excruciating pain.  The muscles in his arms and legs contracted violently, repeatedly, ripping tendons, exploding joints, wrenching a most unmanly scream from his throat.
The human body is a magnificent machine.  Faced with unendurable pain, the brain attempts to block it by releasing as many endorphins as possible.  The chemical flooded his system, allowing him a chance to breathe and gasp out, “What is happening?”
The man who had murdered him spoke.  There were no bullets, no razors, no red-hot pokers or pliers to peel away the skin.  “Shai’tan is claiming you.  You have turned your back on the faith, Allah can no longer protect you,” said Ibrahim, quietly.  “The wages of sin, Faruq.”
Ibrahim’s lying hands made a double pass at the ground, palms down.  A sign, usually used by the mullahs, of a final judgment that brokered no argument.
“I - have - not - sinned!” he managed to squeeze out.  His breathing was shallow now, painful.  The endorphins had done their best, but the other drugs in his system took over.  His skin felt as though fiery needles were poking him.  He lacked the knowledge, but it was as the stings of a million fire ants.  His heart beat faster, and faster still, beyond the limits of human endurance.
His capillaries constricted, arching his body off the ground.  His eyes flared red as the fragile vessels within burst, and tears of blood dripped from the corners of his eyes.  With shocking quickness, his vision faded to blackness.  “I - cannot - see!”  His eyes, constricted by the muscles around them, burst.
The men watching, mesmerized, vomited.  The judgment of Allah!
“As greed has blinded you, so too has Shai’tan.  Soon you shall burn forevermore.”
“What - have - you - done?”
Ibrahim leaned close to the dying man’s ears.
“Eliminated a problem,” whispered Schwenke.  “No more.”
These last words went unheard.  The cocktail he had created for him proved even more efficient than he had dared to hope, as the fatty tissues liquefied.  Faruq’s body seemed to collapse on itself as the pyretic bacteria, encouraged by the chemicals injected with them, produced enough internal heat to set the liquefying puddle ablaze.
Ibrahim, the djinn-eyed, the devout, the chosen one of Allah, stood silently and watched the execution of Allah’s wrath.
Inwardly, Schwenke smiled.  The overwhelming smells of burning pork reminded him of how long it had been since he was last able to indulge himself.  Eggs, and bacon, he thought.  Perhaps a woman, no, two, afterward.  A mother and daughter.  To protect the other, each would do much to please him, before he killed them.  The only question, the only troubling thought, would be who to kill first.
The ‘pass’ between Bezta and Georgia was hardly more than a farmer’s track.  Unpaved and almost certainly abandoned, it followed the path of a river through a meandering valley until turning abruptly south, and upwards, a couple kilometers from the Georgian border.  The good news was, there was no border patrol or, for that matter, marked border.  Only their GPS informed them of the crossing.
They ended up spending the night in the village of Oktomberi, in a boarding house that reminded Cottontail of Yakov’s brothel in Alerrso, down to the fleas and bedbugs.  She started scratching as soon as she saw the room.  When morning came, she was eager to depart as quickly as possible.
The struggle for the Keldara to return to the valley, and the battle, were picked up in snatches along the road.  But the news that Schwenke wasn’t among the dead, and that his bomb was still missing, stopped them completely.  Katya had never seen that look on J’s face before, a mix of fear and respect.  But for whom?
J grabbed the sat-phone and immediately made direct contact with Vanner, his Intel counterpart.
“No clue,” answered Vanner.  “He could be anywhere.  We’re trying to figure out if he’s gone to ground, ran away, or is planning something else.”
“I may have some insight into that,” supplied J.  “We’re on our way back.  When we return, I think we’ll need to discuss the situation.”
“Agreed.  Any idea when you’ll get here?”
“Tomorrow, I would think,” said J, vaguely.
“Good enough.  See you soon.”
“Tomorrow?  We could get there by midnight!” insisted Cottontail.  “I can take over, if you’re tired,” she offered.
“I have my reasons, padawan.”  And he refused to say anything else for a long time.  She played with her nails and the valves set into her palms.  She was determined that her little tricks would work flawlessly when needed.  Closing her eyes, she tried to feel for an up-link but received only static.  She shut down before the migraine had a chance to gain any strength.
It wasn’t until they had arrived in Tbilisi that he spoke again.  “We are not going back to the Valley tonight,” he said, pulling into a hotel parking lot.
“Why not?” asked Cottontail.  “Pardon me, master, but it sounded like you would be able to help them, that you have an idea.”
“I do,” replied J.  “But it will wait.”  He smiled as if to apologize for being cryptic, but said nothing more.
“Master, I am uneasy at this,” admitted Cottontail.
“In what way?”
She hesitated, gathering her thoughts.  “I have had no home, no family.”
“We have discussed your childhood in the orphanage, yes.”
“And my life since leaving there has not been easy.”
“None would dispute that,” agreed J.
“I have been beaten, raped, shot at, and sold.”
“Again, all unpleasant.”
“In all that time, few people have ever cared what happened to me, whether I lived or died.  I was a moneymaker, or a place for their dick, or worse.  Entertainment and a slave.  But now…”  She looked down at her God-dammed too-big breasts.  That’s where the trouble started, their too-early development.  No, the trouble started with the orphan master, the man who raped her when she was just a child.  She shook her head to clear it, and looked back up at J, eyes almost wet.  Sad.  Yes, oh so sad now.  The anger that she carried with her was fading.  What was replacing it?
“But now people do.”
“Not people.  You do -”
“I do?” asked J blandly.  She could tell, though, that she’d hit something deep in him.  It resonated in the tight confines of the BMW.
“I believe you do,” replied Katya.
“Perhaps.,” admitted J.  His eyes twinkled.
“And Stasia,” she continued.
“Only as long as you don’t interfere with the harem.”
“And Michael.”
“The Kildar?  Are you sure?  Or does he simply see you as a useful tool?”  It was a test, she was sure, but she was long past the point where such barbs would derail her thoughts.
“I have thought on this much, Master.  If I was simply a tool for him, I could have been replaced long ago.  He’s told me of his willingness to do so often enough.  I‘m not even unique for my little ‘toys‘,” she added, somewhat bitterly, referring to the extensive bio-enhancements she had received.  She flicked her hardened nails against the window.
“Then why has he kept you?”
“I think - no, I know, he has told me so - that he and I are somewhat alike, that he sees some of himself in me.  We should repel each other, but we don‘t.  If he asked me into his bed - asked, mind you - I just might say yes.  Not before; I wasn‘t ready.  Even though he‘s good at it and treated me well, it brought up too many memories.  Even after the harem arrived, and Stasia, he always allowed me the choice, the chance to say ‘no‘.  Without ever getting angry.  Why?”  She smiled crookedly, and looked far off into the distance.
“He’s also called you a sociopathic bitch,” commented J, testing her again.
“And I agree!” responded Katya with a hint of a smile.  “That doesn’t mean he disapproves!  Besides, he knows I bite!”
“This is all very interesting, padawan, but it has been a long day I would like to take a shower and get some sleep.  The point, please.”
“The point, Master, is that I have found a home, and I want to protect it.”  When he smiled broadly, she reacted.  “It’s not funny!  I - I want to have a home!”
“I wasn’t laughing, padawan.  In truth, I am pleased at your progress.  From a abused teen who was unwilling to trust or care about anyone, angry at the world and anyone or anything that reminded her of her past, to a young woman who has made emotional connections.”
“Then why won’t you help them?!” snapped Katya.
“I didn’t say that I would not help them, padawan.  But my idea cannot be executed yet.”
“Oh,” said Katya in a much smaller voice.
“Now.  Are you going to check us in, or shall I?”
“The Cave, Kseniya.”
“Kseniya, J.”
“Where are you?”
“Tbilisi.  Are we still receiving satellite feeds?”
“Yes, we are.  Anisa thinks that she’ll be able to hold the feeds, as well; she’s hacked a backdoor into the NSA’s servers.”
“Are any of them capable of gamma radiation scans?”
“Let me check… Three, yes.  Two are currently in position to sweep the Chechnya region.  We ought to be receiving those signals; I wonder why we aren‘t?”  He heard her shuffling papers, then, “Yes, we did request it, days ago.  This doesn’t make any sense!”
“Does their range include Georgia?  And Azerbaijan?”  He heard typing, and muted conversation, but nothing clearly.  Perhaps it was time to have his ears checked.
“Ye-es, barely.  Why?”
“Can you download those feeds to my computer?  I‘ll keep the encrypted satellite links up for some time.”
“Yes, but I’ll need to know -”
“Thank you.  I’ll expect it shortly.”  And he hung up.
Looking troubled, Kseniya called Grez over.
“What’s going on?”
“J just called and requested gamma radiation scans of Georgia and Azerbaijan, but didn’t explain why.”
Grez’s decision was instantaneous.  “Give it to him.”  Over the normal chaos of the Cave, a tone sounded.
“New data,” said Anisa.  “New source.”
“Drop it to my station,” commanded Grez.  The usual bureaucratese - ‘National Technical Means’, et cetera - was in the header.  “What is it from?”
“Tracing that now.”
“Tell me later.  Let’s see what we’ve got.”  She tapped a few icons, scanning and sanitizing the data of any virus, traps, malware, Trojans - all the nasty bits of software she was still learning about.  The Mice had upgraded the security so that it was generally automatic, with only a few point and click options.  Now - what was this?
It was only a few seconds before Grez’s quick eyes spotted the entry.
“Got you!” she exclaimed, jumping up.  The normally unflappable Intel Sergeant practically sprinted from the Cave.
“What did she see?” asked Kira, back from the mission and at her usual post.
“I’m not sure,” admitted Anisa.  “But let’s see if we can figure it out.”
“The man’s a genius,” said Vanner, shaking his head, alternating between wonderment and bewilderment.
“He’s still a freak,” muttered Adams, rubbing his ass and still refusing a seat.
“Who else would have thought Schwenke would go through Azerbaijan?”
The disparate pieces of the puzzle - the gamma scan request, the overflight that picked up the little convoy - had come together clearly for Vanner.  But he’d had to fold and spindle the data to get a result that would be as clear to the others as it was to him.
“Did we dump this data on J yet?”
“Not yet.  As soon as I get back to the Cave, I will,” admitted Grez.  “I thought you should know, first.”
“So we know where he was yesterday.  So what?” asked Adams, acerbically.  “How does that help us today?”
“Ass-Boy, sometimes you amaze me,” commented Mike.  “We know what he’s driving.  We know from this sequence what direction he was heading, and we can approximate his speed.  We’re pretty sure he’s headed here, that limits his choice of routes.”
“If we can pick him up again, we’ll be able to lock in on him, maybe even intercept him,” added Vanner.
“I wonder if Captain Cheal is still available?” suggested Grez.  “That’s going to be our best real-time asset, and she’s not limited by orbital constraints.  Or egos.”  She stood from the table.  “I’ll take care of that.”
“If you get her, make sure J gets that feed, too!” called Vanner as she left the room.
“I still say, so what?  Lots of data, no results.  You get too much going on, you‘re going to burn out someone‘s brain!  Have any of you been down there lately?  They‘re making cruder jokes than I do when I‘m drunk!  And you don‘t want to hear the puns they‘re coming up with!  You don‘t take some pressure off them, you‘re going to start losing operators, if not entire shifts.”
“That’s a point,” admitted Mike.  “You have some thoughts on that, Pat?”
“Actually, yeah.  If I can write a program to combine -”
Mike waved him off.  “I don’t need the details.  We’re not just whistling in the dark, right?”
“No, not at all.  I wish Mouse was here, or even God-Boy to de-bug, but I’ve done it before.”  Vanner started tapping on his tablet.
“Good.  Dave, what’s the status of the cleanup from Orkin?”
“All of the weapons have been loaded at Novorossijisk, including the one we captured at Groznyy, making twenty-three.”
“Security there?”
“A company of Marines.  The Russians are playing nice, now that they‘ve got their ass in a crack.  They want their money.”
“What about the techs we rescued?”
“Rescued might be too kind a term.  Turned over to the hospital in Elista, for treatment for radiation exposure, but it‘s probably going to be too late for most of them.”
“Make sure they don’t disappear.  And set up a fund for the survivors, or their families.“
“No problem.“
“Maybe Arensky has some ideas?” said Adams.  “Gotta be a reason to keep the mad scientist around.”
“I’ll put him in touch.”
“After-action reports?”
“I’ll have a hot read done tomorrow, unless something else comes up.”
Mike looked around.  “Speaking of after-action reports - where‘s Major Hughes?  I wanted his read on the status of the nukes, plus his eval on what‘s still in play.”
Katrina, who had started following Mike to all of the combat conferences, spoke up.  “I think Jack is taking some, he called it ‘welder’s union mandatory down time‘.  He started to say something else, not very polite, about nukes and hot-shit Hind pilots.  I’d have like to listen, it would’ve been very interesting, but I had to hurry to the meeting here. Though I don‘t know how much rest he‘s going to get,” she added wickedly.
She nodded.
Shaking his head, Mike moved on.  “Adams?  If we need to take down Schwenke, what Team is on Ready status?”
“Team Pavel.  Nobody’s got a lot of rest, but they’re better off than the others.”
“Make up a movement and loading order, and have them preload the SUVs.”
“One last thing, I want Dragon on close air support for J.  If he and Katya go haring off after Schwenke, they’ve got  to have some sort of backup.  Armed to the teeth, everything she can carry, ECM, the whole smash.  Set up ammo and fuel caches if we get a chance, otherwise Valkyrie‘ll be shuttling guns and gas again.  LZ‘s.  Prep a MASH unit, too.  Once we know where we‘re going to take the bastards, things will move fast.  I want Pavel loaded as heavy as possible, too.  I‘d settle for short and victorious, but we‘re dealing with Schwenke.”
“I’ll let Chief D’Allaird know,” said Nielson.
Mike looked down at the table, lost in his thoughts for a moment.  When he glanced up, he said, “What are you all still doing here?”  There was a scramble as all three tried to clear the room at once.
He hoped this didn’t bode ill for the coming fight.
Four aspirin, a shoulder massage, and an hour later, Vanner had the program written and ready to download.  He placed a call to J.
“Are you receiving the feeds you requested?” he asked without preamble.  The shooter’s glasses he wore cut down on the glare and reduced the feeling of icepicks being shoved into his eyeballs.  How the hell did he ever manage to do this for a living?  And find it fun?
“Yes.  It’s almost too much data.”  He could almost hear frustration in J’s voice.
“Kinda thought it might be, so I’m going to send you a program I wrote that should help.”  He said a quick prayer to St. Isidore, the patron saint of computers, and dropped the code into the link.
“What is it supposed to do?” asked J as icons appeared on his screen.
“The basic program combines any data feeds you give it and filter them based on your requirements.  If it needs more data, or it’s acting wonky, ping us and I’ll try to refine the algorithms a bit.”
“For this application, I’ve told it to look for mobile gamma radiation sources - that was easy, I stole the code from an astronomy program that searches for planets, asteroids, you know, moving objects by comparing photographs of the same patch of sky.  It‘s really neat, harks back to old-time astronomy, when they‘d flash back and forth between two plates and try to pick them out by eye -”  Even with the incipient migraine, he couldn’t resist the slip into technobabble.  It sounded impressive to most people.
J wasn’t impressed; he was in a hurry.  With a harsh cough, J interrupted.  “Can we save the astronomy lesson for later?”
“Huh?  Oh, right.  Anyway, it compares them, frame-to-frame.  Doesn’t matter the source or time period; it’s flexible enough to handle just about anything you throw at it.  That will eliminate any natural sources, or any non-mobile sources.  You see the magnifying glass icon?”
“If you highlight an area you want to examine more closely, select that and it will incorporate every photograph and angle it can find to prevent blockage from anything overhead.”
“What if they’re not moving when they’re scanned?”
“Each source has a unique signature, kept on file for years by NEST and other alphabet soup agencies - you probably don‘t want to know which.”
“If they’re stopped on one pass, and moving on the next, or vice versa, they’ll be flagged as the same source from the unique signature.  In addition, another subroutine will look for the shapes of the vehicles we know they’re using - the ZIL-E, and the GAZ-23s.  Then, it will correlate all this data so that you’re not chasing, say, a mobile X-ray truck.”
“So you’re cut down on the possibilities of false positives?”
“Exactly.”  It was pleasant to only have to explain it once.
“What if one of the GAZ’s breaks down?  Won’t that affect the program?”
“Thought of that.  The three main criteria are the presence of gamma radiation, the unique shape of the ZIL-E, and mobility.  The presence - or absence - of a GAZ is a corroborating factor, not a primary one.  Purely secondary.  Then, a final subroutine will feed the data to whatever mapping program you‘re using - so you can follow the bouncing ball.”
“Right.  Well, thanks.  We’ll give it a shot.”
“Good luck.  We’ll be in touch if we get any hits here.”
As J shut down his mobile, he scoffed, “Technobabble.  I‘ve shot people for less.”  An ancient headache threatened to return, thinking of interminable PowerPoint meetings that had kept him in endless offices instead of in the field, doing his job.  At times like this, he was truly grateful to Mike Whateverhisnameis for getting him away.
“What, Master?”
“Never rely too heavily on technology to do your work, padawan.  It is a great aid, and a wonderful tool, but if you depend on it too completely you will surely, someday, fail.  And in our job, failure can mean death.”  He poked at his tablet.
“In this case, though - technology is going to help.  Assuming Vanner wrote the program well.”  He explained briefly what they were looking for, ten seconds as compared to Vanner‘s five minutes.  Succinct.  Time saved saves lives.
“It sounds reasonable, Master?”  She sounded unsure, but she trusted J and those back in the Cave.  They were family too, in a way, and she could trust them to look out for her.  Usually.  Not that she’d ever admit it to them.  Telling J had been hard enough.
“Oh, it is.  But as I said before, I have encountered Kurt three times before.  After the second encounter, when I didn’t recognize him?  I made it a point to learn as much as possible.  I studied everything in his dossier, trying to get inside his head.  At least as nearly as I could, given the darkness that’s in there.”  His eyes studied Cottontail for a penetrating moment, as if seeking shades of that same madness, but found only concern and a desire to complete the mission right now.  Either she really cared, or she was getting better at masking her thoughts.  It was progress, either way.
“So you know how he thinks?  How I think - thought?”  Her face was clear, guiltless, guileless.  Even the frown wrinkles had faded from the corners of her eyes, making her appear softer, more vulnerable.  He knew, though, what lay beneath those placid waters and kept his eyes locked on hers, still probing.
“Not quite.  I can, perhaps, reason out his thoughts, and make educated guesses.  And yes, the time I’ve spent with you has been very helpful in that regard.  You have faced him, too, and lived to tell the tale.  You saw into what passes as his soul.  You thought along the same lines, but now can think as an intelligent, caring woman.  He can’t.  That makes you invaluable, for while I can think like you, thinking sideways like him hurts.  I wonder, sometimes, whether he was born that way, or if it was training.“
“And if you knew it was training?“
“I’d hunt down his trainers and put them down as the diseased animals they are.  Sometimes, vengeance can be mission-critical.“  He grinned viciously.  “In any case.“  He raised his tablet and pecked at the icons, waited.  “That is why we came here, instead of going back to the Valley.”
“Please, explain?”  She leaned forward to examine the tablet.  Reading upside-down wouldn’t bother her; he’d taught her that trick long ago - well, perhaps it wasn’t that long ago.  Things had certainly changed.  There was a chrysalis, leaning over him, and he was looking forward to seeing what, exactly, would be revealed.
On the surface, she was entirely focused on the mission at hand.  Yet she almost let their shoulders touch before withdrawing from such presumption.  Her conscious mind didn’t register it, the barrier that her subconscious still maintained.  Yet the barriers were weaker now than ever before.
Her thoughts weren’t as dark.  The cells that held the nightmares of her past - she held the keys, now, and could unlock them at will when the rage at those horrors was needed.  And, similarly, they could remain closed without effort now, a part of her life that she controlled instead of the reverse.
“I leave it as an exercise for the student.  Take what you know of him personally, add in all that you have learned, and work the problem backwards, from his intended result to when we became aware of him.”
“I don’t want to think like him!”  She recoiled in horror.  “Not anymore!”
“What you want or not want rarely enters into our profession, padawan.  Try again.”
“Yes, Master.”  She closed her eyes, called on her nightmares, and found them quiet, just waiting for her to look at them in the light now.  There was no rage, no hate, yet no peace... yet.  There was a need, and if the need had a name...  Cottontail...  Katya...  and it had done thus.
Why am I now doing this? She hugged herself tightly, reassuring herself that she was still herself and in her own body.  She opened her eyes and saw the world a bit differently.  She let her mind race for what seemed hours, but in fact was less than two minutes.
She shut that cell tightly, that way of thinking.  Now it had a face and a name.  It was in good company in the dark recesses of her mind.  Now, though, it was foreign.  It would not affect her real self.
She found that she no longer feared Kurt.  Hated him?
Angry enough to kill him without taking time to question him?
Fear of the man?
No more.  Her shadow was his shadow and she found hers were stronger, armored with a need alien to that other mind.  Love perhaps.
She'd think on that last part later.  Mission first.  The ping from the tablet completing the upload of its newest batch of data called her back to the world around her and she turned to J and smiled.
    “Question: why split forces, and risk defeat in detail?  Answer: a small group is much easier to control than a large group.  He requires control at all times.  He might lose himself in a larger group and fool them, briefly, into doing what he wanted.  It couldn‘t last, though, and that lack of control would infuriate him.  I think what angered him most, in our two encounters, was the damage I did to his professional pride, rather than actually disrupting his plans.  And that anger, simmering for so long, is interfering with his plans, because he cannot let it go.  Like me, before…”  She ended in a near-whisper.
Regaining control, she said, “He’s found a focus for that anger and regaining control: eliminating me, or hurting me so much that I lose my self totally.   Hurt those that I might - do - I don’t know.  Love?”  She finished tentatively.
“A good start.  Is there more?”  His smile echoed unspoken pride.
“Yes.  A small group is harder to detect.  And that allows the other group to be used as a diversion.  To a normal person, it would be a waste of assets, but to him, they are simply tools, to be used.  And if he can use them to disrupt your enemy, so much the better.”  She paused, visibly thinking, then brightened.
“I wonder if the Emir had much of a life expectancy.”
“I think he was healthy, or at least as healthy as most.”
“I meant, some sort of accident.  If Kurt played it right, and you know he would have, he would have ended with full control of the Emir’s resources with no oversight from anyone.”  She shuddered.  “Definitely a good thing that his hand was forced, or we would have lost before we even knew there was a contest.”
“Very probably, padawan.  But, to return to the problem at hand.  What does that accomplish?”
“It drawn resistance to a time and place of my choosing.”
“Therefore weakening the defenses in other places.”  She blinked, herself again.  “But, Master, what of the sensors that Vanner has emplaced?  They won’t be fooled.”
“No, but sensors do no good if their alerts are ignored.  Remember the human factor.  Consider the women in the Cave, how long they have been working this problem, staring at screens, combing gigabytes of data and then digging for more.  How much sleep have they gotten?  How many mistakes have they made already?”
“So he knew of the sensors?  And the people monitoring them?”
“I doubt it, but he likely assumed that there would be mechanical devices of some sort.  He was a successful agent for many years.  He would plan for the worst and build his responses from there.  If he had time, he would use pawns to probe the Valley, gauge the response.  Given the size of the area the Kildar is attempting to protect, he’ll know there will be gaps, but he won’t know where.  Remember the bugs you used against him in the Bahamas?  What did he do about those?”
“Oh, right.  Nothing.  He knew he was blown, so escaped as soon as possible.  Likely he had multiple plans in place against various eventualities.”  She made a face.  “Master, thinking as him is making me ill.”
“Good.  So much the easier to discard his thoughts when you’re done.  Now.  If you are using the bulk of your military might as a diversion, what does that leave you?”
“Guile?  Stealth?  Surprise?”
“Yes.  It also concentrates your enemies in a single place, like what you did with the firecrackers last year.  Some run to trouble, others run from it.  Which are the more dangerous?  Which were more dangerous that night?”
“Yes, Master.  ‘Firemen run to the fire.‘  Which makes it easier to eliminate them all at once!”
“But the concentration of forces takes time.”
“So my assault, if I am Kurt, the real assault, has to take place much later - hours, even days later.  Enough to waste sleepless hours on watch-and-watch, to tire the watchers, exhaust the troops that would defend against attack.  The first assault are the firecrackers; my assault is the claymore we used to eliminate them all.  Yet, Master, if I am Kurt, I worry: what if they actually win?”
“You still win, no matter what.  Let’s say that the Keldara are defeated - unlikely, but possible.  Then when you show up with the bomb, you place it for detonation and leave.  Mission accomplished, and I gloat from afar.  Alternatively, if the Keldara defeat your diversionary force, then they’re lulled into a false sense of security, relaxing their vigilance and allowing for an easier infiltration by you.  And finally, if they don‘t relax, if they stay vigilant, they exhaust themselves in the process.”
“Making them useful, not at all.  I see.  And that, too, explains why we are here, in Tbilisi, instead of to the north.  We must get inside his thoughts, and his mission cycle, again.”
“To reduce my risk, I would come at the target from an unexpected direction.  North is obvious, and the larger force is taking that route - that makes it the worst possible choice.  A double tap could almost be predicted, and might possibly work if he had better troops, or better training.”
“Circling around to the west, I would have to travel through Russia for an extended time, and Georgia, too.  Russia would be easy, if I had the uniforms to match the vehicles.  But Georgia?”  She snorted.  “Not fucking likely.”
“Heightened security, a greater familiarity with the papers you have undoubtedly forged, and the lingering hostility between Russia and Georgia.  Exactly as I‘d have done if I was him, Katya.  That leaves us what?”  He prodded again before she could react to the praise.
“So that leaves east, and south.  Not both, not enough assets.”  She rubbed her temples, considering the possibilities.  Thinking like Kurt seemed to be causing her considerable strain, which reflected well on her new core personality.  “I would come…  Through Azerbaijan and into Georgia, or all the way into Armenia and then north?  Think!”
“I doubt Armenia.  That adds an unnecessary complication, a third country, and another chance for forged passports to be discovered.  Too many hands stretched out, and there are other agencies that have active assets there.”  He raised a hand, forestalling the questions.  “Yes, I know about that.  You’ll have to trust me.”
He tapped the tablet.  “Before we use this, think some more.”
“That’s why we’re here, then.  From Tbilisi, we are in the best possible position to intercept them, no matter which route is taken.  The best roads - well, better than most - and better angles to cut the arc and interfere with the timing of his plans.”  She looked up, pleadingly.  “May I please stop thinking like him?
“Very good, padawan, yes, you may.  Now, though, we must rely on Vanner’s gadgets to complete the task.  If we had more time, we could utilize our network, trust actual sightings.  We don’t, so…”  Tap tap tap.
“ECCHI!  ECCHI!  ECCHI!  HENTAI!  HENTAI!”  He quickly hit mute, cursing Vanner for using software he hadn’t fully vetted and vowing to have a serious, Fear Of The Gods talk with the Mice when they all returned.
“Master?  What was that?”  She leaned closer.
“Ignore that, padawan.  Just someone’s bad idea of a joke.”  He turned the tablet over.
“Shall I kill them?  Just for practice?”
“Regrettably, no.  They’re ours.”
“I can just make them wish they were dead.”
Helpful and willing Cottontail is not what he needed now.  “No.  Just, some aspirin.”  This job was murder.  If the enemy didn’t do him in first…
Not that far away, Vanner’s thoughts mirrored his own.
He dry-swallowed the pills.  “Now, coffee, please, and perhaps some dinner.”
“I saw a drive-thru on the way into the city, not two blocks away, it’s a McD’s and I haven’t tried it yet, so can we?  Can we?  Can we?”  All of Kurt’s personality was totally gone, replaced by the bored and hungry little girl she played so convincingly on others.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Kildaran - Chapter 41 and - SURPRISE! - 42

[Talk about poised on a knife's edge!  So let's go check in on J and Katya!


But - sit back and relax.  This is a long one.



It was nearly ten before Haroun Tahan and his men broke camp.
It wasn‘t easy getting moving in the high, cold air.  The machinery did fine, but the men were reluctant to leave the relative warmth of their tents.  Tahan exhorted, bullied and cajoled them into motion; Ibrahim had entrusted the mission to him, and he would not allow these men to fail him.  Still, it wasn’t easy.  He hadn’t wanted to climb from bed, either.
The briefing he’d received had been less than detailed about the routes and the relative scale of the challenge facing him and his men.  Looking around at the rising slopes and craggy outcrops, Tahan realized that this was probably intentional.  If he’d known, he might have been a little more reluctant himself about assuming command!
Well, nothing for it.  He consulted the GPS unit Ibrahim had provided him again.  The target was set as their destination, but the total lack of roads in the mountains didn’t seem to have confused the device in the slightest.  It held true, directing them nearly exactly south-west.
The old Soviet-era trucks were having no problems with the meter-deep snow that still persisted in the mountains along the Russia-Georgia border.  Tahan had been canny enough to set the gigantic ZIL-E167 in the forefront, crushing the snow below its six massive tires, virtually creating a road where none had existed before.
The Tatras and the PAZs easily widened and packed the remaining snow, allowing the smaller, Jeep-like GAZ-69s easy passage.  All in all, he was quite proud of his ingenuity.
The track they left behind could have been read by a blind man.
Captain Cheal was neither.
She and her U-2V sent a nearly continuous stream of data back to the Keldara, noting the arrow-straight course of the slowly-approaching force.  Minute by minute, the combined observations by Captain Cheal and a virtual constellation of satellites, American and Russian, had produced a detailed description of his force’s composition, speed, and projected destination:
Through the heart of the mountains to the Valley of the Keldara.
Grez couldn’t believe it.
What sort of complete moron would come across the spine of the mountains?
“It’s not Schwenke.”
Her announcement, quiet as it was, in the humming depths of the Cave, still brought the combined activities of her team to a complete halt.
“Grez?”  Anisa recovered first.  “What isn’t Schwenke?”
“The force we’re tracking, here,” she replied, pointing to the large plasma display opposite her.  “They’re coming in dumb.  Really dumb.  Straight line from Itum-Kale to here?”  She tapped a few keys, and a projected course appeared.  “Right into the Valley.  Stupid.  Completely exposed.  It’s like a child, given written instructions, or -”  She paused.  “Or a GPS.  An older one, that doesn’t ‘think’.”
“She’s right,” agreed Stella.  “There’s at least sixteen, eighteen kilometers of mountain peaks - not passes, peaks - between here and there.  They’ll have to have the luck of Amaton, the blessing of Skadi and the skills of Ull to get across there!”
“Then who is it?” asked Kseniya, the least-experienced of the four.
“More important - where is Schwenke?” said Grez.  “Has Kassab regained consciousness yet?“
“Not yet,“ answered Stella.  “Dr. Arensky checked on him about an hour ago.“
“Call the doctor, ask him if we can rouse him somehow.  Meanwhile,“ she continued, turning to Anisa, “Get Lilia and Olga up here.  Before we go upstairs with this, I want them to talk to the prisoner that came back with Padrek.  What’s his name?”
“Does it matter?” muttered Kseniya, darkly.  “They’ll probably scare him half to death.  Almost better to use Catrina, and Elena, if they were here.  They’d have the information out of him in an houri.”
After the near-constant tension, the short shifts and shorter sleep, this was the final straw.
When Vanner came running to see why his Cave was filled with howling screams of laughter, the look of concern on his face just doubled them over and laugh even harder.
Vanner wisely left the Cave in seek of a drink before he resumed his disturbed nap.  He was due on shift in less than two hours.
“Doctor, it is absolutely vital that we interrogate the prisoner, the sooner the better.”
“Absolutely not!”
Grez had called Arensky, who had seemed reluctant, somehow, so she went to talk to Nielson.  He’d heard her out, then called Arensky up to his office to discuss the matter of the prisoner.  So far, the interview was not progressing well.
“He cannot be awakened; it is simply not possible!  And he certainly could not be asked questions!”
“What are you not telling me, Doctor?” pursued Nielson.  “I have a prisoner I need to interrogate; that’s all I really care about.  I just want to know if you can wake him up.  I‘ll deal with the rest.”
“Possibly,” admitted Arensky.  “It is not that easy, however.”
“So explain, Doctor.”
Arensky sighed and settled into a nearby chair.  “Simply put, there are complications.  He hasn’t recovered from the anaesthetic yet.”
“I thought you said he’d be awake a few hours after it cleared his system.”
“Yes, I did, but you must realize that, while anaesthesiology may be an exact science, I am only an amateur at it.  I can guess dosages, and expected reactions, but?”  He shrugged.  “The texts, the training I can get, they deal with the most common drugs - ether, propofol, nitrous oxide, even morphine - yet I deal with, ah, more exotic chemicals.”
“Yes, your experiments, we’re well aware of your research and the benefits we’ve all reaped from it.”
Since his arrival in the Valley, Dr. Arensky had continued his practice of microbiology, utilizing various local flora and fauna, even turning over rocks and scraping lichen.  He had isolated a potent antibacterial agent, occurring naturally in the Keldara, and replicated it in his lab.
Initial commercial interests from the big drug companies had been enthusiastic, to say the least.  It appeared that the next successor to penicillin, which Arensky had named Martinadox after his daughter, could have an even bigger financial impact on the Valley than Mountain Tiger Beer.
As long as they could keep GenetixSeeds out of the Valley.  They played dirty.  The Kildar played dirtier.  GenetixSeeds had ‘donated’ - read, infected - other valleys with their own hybrid bastard versions of local seeds.  This led to several problems:
The local plants were quickly snuffed out as the more vigorous strain overwhelmed them.
The hybrids turned out sterile, unable to reproduce in the wild, ensuring that the ‘beneficiaries’ of the donation would be forced to buy more seed or starve.
Finally, representatives of the company had appeared to collect thousands in ‘licensing fees;’ for the use of their hybrids.
Enter the Tigers, and the Kildar.
No, sorry, have to clear this land.  Kildar says.  Flamethrowers?  That’s to ensure that it’s completely clear.  It’s a security issue.  Sorry, can’t go into any more details.  Need to know, dontcha know.
What hybrids?
Fees?  For what?
Funny, you say you sent people out here?  Never saw ‘em.  You sure they went to the right place?  There are all sorts of bandits out here, you have to be very careful on the roads, you know.
The backhoe operators got plenty of practice.
The Kildar had even donated seed from the Keldara’s stocks, paid the farmers for their losses.
The ‘discussion’ between OSOL and GenetixSeeds’ representatives, while still classified, had been copied to Mike.  Vanner, Nielson, Adams and Mike laughed for nearly an hour.
So when Arensky needed research subjects, the non-Keldara residents had been more than willing to participate.  Fortunately, none had experienced anything but the mildest side effects.  And none had caught so much as a sniffle since being treated.
“Yes, well, I used one of my own blends for his anaesthetic.”
“Why?  Didn’t we have anything else available?”
“No, we keep a stock of both ether and propofol.  I simply prefer my own compounds, as I have more experience and familiarity with them.  Does Kurosawa buy off the shelf?  Or mix his own?  Does Lasko purchase his rounds in Alerrso?  Or are they custom made?”
“Okay, I understand that.  What’s the problem, then?  If you’re so much more familiar with it, why hasn’t he awakened?  Did you get the dose wrong?”
“Colonel!”  Arensky’s face colored.  “I assure you, I calculated the correct dosage!  I have tested his blood, and his system is clear of the drug!  He should be awake!”
“Then why isn’t he?”
Arensky hesitated.  “I would rather tell you and the Kildar at the same time,” he stalled.
“Mike has flown to Tbilisi to retrieve Miss Rakovich and some luggage.  He’s driving back with her; I expect him in two hours, perhaps less.”  He looked sharply at Arensky.  “When he returns, I would like to tell him that we’ve been able to interrogate the best prisoner we’ve managed to capture or, failing that, tell him why not.  So, please, explain to me.”
“Ah, Colonel, he seems to have had an, er, unexpected reaction.”
“I could tell you that.  What kind of reaction, and what are you doing to correct it?”
“It’s an allergic reaction of some kind, I’m fairly sure.  It appears to have raised his temperature considerably, for several hours, but we have managed to reduce the fever using medicinal and physical means -”
“That is to say, we gave him aspirin and put him in an ice bath.”
“See?  I understood that.  So - the drug you gave him caused a fever.  Fine, why didn’t you just say so?”
“It was a very high fever.”
“How high is very high, Doctor?”
“As near as we can tell, it peaked at 110 for fifty-seven minutes.”
“You got it down though, right?”
“Oh, yes, Colonel, we did, after some time.  The brain is very difficult to treat directly, of course, since you cannot simply hold the head in the cold water.”  Arensky essayed a weak smile at his joke, but getting no reaction, continued.  “Eventually, yes, his temperature fell to 102 and stabilized.”
“That still sounds fairly high; when my children were at young my wife would keep them home from school if they ran that temperature.  Okay, though, so you got his temperature down some.  What happens at that higher temperature?”
“At that temperature, many of the chemicals which allow the brain to function - proteins and lipids, especially - begin to break down into simpler components.”
“Will they re-form when the fever broke?  Or do you have to replace them, an IV or something?”
“Ah, neither.  Once broken down in situ, as it were, they are rather toxic.”
“Highly, at least to neurons.”
“So what you’re saying, then, is our prisoner is brain-dead.”  Nielson managed to say this absolutely calmly.
“Essentially, yes, Colonel.”
“Cooked brain.  Fried forelobe?  Good eats for your local undead?”
“I - I am not sure exactly what you mean, but, yes, I think so.”
“Thank you, Doctor.  Please, don’t let me keep you from your patient.”  Coming around his desk, Nielson led Arensky to the door.  “Keep me posted if there is any change.”
“Of course, of course!” agreed Arensky, opening the door.  “I will let you know instantly!”
“Good, good,” soothed Nielson.  “Good day.”  As soon as the door closed, Nielson let out a heartfelt, “Goddammit!”
Murphy chuckled and went looking for more mischief.
Mike was heading back from the Tbilisi airport with Stasia and Kat.  An older Keldara - Mike thought his name was Vasily - had arrived driving one of the farm Expeditions, but instead of accepting the ride Mike had piled it high with the various boxes, bags, packages, and luggage the girls had accumulated on their trip.  They’d even broken out tie-down straps, and covered the roof.
Stasia had been on a mission, armed with the most powerful credit cards known to man: single-handedly kick-start the American economy.  At first glance, it seemed that she made a good beginning.
And Katrina was learning from her.
Resolved to put his dark thoughts from the plane aside and simply enjoy the drive in the Mercedes, he gathered the women and left for the Valley, Vasily left quickly behind.
He’d just found the satellite radio station he’d found in the States when the sat phone rang.  Shit.
“How far away are you?”
“About an hour, Dave.  Why?”
“We have new problems.”
Mike sighed.  “What now?”
“You remember Kassab?  The raghead Pavel’s team captured in Groznyy?”
“Yeah.  What about him?”
“Well, we’re going to have to find a new source of information.”
“He won’t talk?  Let me have a little time with him…”
“No, it’s not that he won’t talk - well, maybe it is.”
“Leave him to me.  A sledgehammer to the knee has a way of persuading a man that Lilia and Olga just can’t match.”
“It’s not a problem with their technique, Mike.  Maybe I should have said that he can’t talk.”
“He ought to be recovered by now,” Mike mused aloud.
“Ought to be, yes.  But it seems he had an allergic reaction to one of Arensky’s cocktails.”
“Allergic?  What, hives?”
“No-o-o-o, more like a fever that cooked his cranium.”
There was silence for a moment as Mike digested this.
“It can do that?”
“According to the good doctor, yes.”
Moving quickly to the crux of the problem, Mike asked, “So what’s the issue?  It would have been nice to get him to confirm the destination of the final weapon, but at this point, I think I want to let Chechnik deal with it.”
“That’s not exactly the problem we needed him to solve.”
“Stop the bullshit, Dave.  What’s going on?”
“Yeah, he’s headed there.”
“No, he’s not.  Maybe.  Probably.  We don’t know where he is.  That is to say, we have no fucking clue.”
“What do you mean, ‘no he’s not’?  We have confirmation that he was leading the force dispatched to take out the Valley!”
“It’s too involved to go into on the phone, but Grez believes - and I concur - that the force he’s supposedly leading is acting way too dumb to be actively led by him.”
“Maybe he suffered an accident of some kind?  And his deputy is doing the best he can?” Mike asked hopefully.
“Possible, but unlikely.  I’ll let Grez explain her thinking when you arrive -”
But Mike had already changed gear.  “Doesn’t matter.  Okay, assume that he isn’t with them.  Fuck!”  There was silence on the line as he thought furiously.
“Right.  First, everything else in the Cave stops as of now.  First and only priority is figuring out where Schwenke went.  Other assets can track them and report any changes.  We have time?”
“Some.  They took the route from hell.”
“Second, get on the line with Pierson and Chechnik.  We’ve got to have more eyes on this problem.  I know we’re not getting every piece of data from the entire region; we haven’t needed it.  Now we do.  Get them searching across all of Chechnya, Dagestan, Ossetia, Azerbaijan, Kalmykia - every district, republic, and country from Georgia north to Moscow.  We ought to see if the Sheik has any sources in Kazakhstan we can utilize -”
“Otryad’s not available right now, remember?  Dubai?”
“Dammit!  I keep forgetting about his little ‘project’!  Still, worth a call.  Someone‘s got to be minding the store while he‘s away.”
“I’ll try.”
“Finally, find J and Cottontail.  I want to pick their brains, see if we can sit down and make a reasonable guess where Schwenke is going, if not to the Valley.”
“Right.  Cave, OSOL, Chechnik, Sheik, J.  Anything else?”
“No - yes.  Tell Bridgewater that I‘ll need a drink when I get back, and tell Kurosawa to stay the fuck away from me with his needles today unless he want to eat one!  We’ll be back sooner.”  Without another word, Mike disconnected the phone.  “Ladies?  You might want to hang on.”
He mashed his foot on the accelerator.  The 6.2 liter V-8 responded, going from a throaty growl to a full-fledged roar.  The Merc, already fairly flying along the narrow, twisting, tree-overhung road, leapt forward.
Stasia’s scream of ecstasy as they tore through the first hairpin curve could barely be heard.
Mike had cranked the stereo.  “Shake Your Foundation” roared through the system.  Katrina, in the back seat with Stasia, finally understood what was so exciting about the music, but the adrenaline that flooded her system prevented any reaction like Stasia had to the heavy bass.
She was certainly enjoying the vibrations.  Again.
And again.
And again.
It seemed certain that, once they arrived home, someone would have detail the leather seats very carefully.  After they peeled Stasia out of them and carried her to her room.
The smile on her face, belying the seriousness of the situation, looked to be a permanent feature.
Bursuk Gereshk didn’t have the luxuries the Ibrahim had afforded himself - no official-looking vehicles, no faked papers, no uniforms.  That wasn’t going to stop him.
A lorry, driving along the A154, had been forced to stop.  The driver and his assistant were killed, their bodies quickly hidden off the road, and the bomb loaded far forward, against the wall of the cab.
Of Gereshk’s twelve men, ten were able to fit in the other half of the truck bed, edging as far as possible from the weapon.  The other two - men Gereshk trusted to relieve him as drivers - were with him in the cab.  The cargo?  The crates of turnips were piled high against one door of the bed, to provide concealment if they were stopped.  It also made a good windbreak for his men.
Not that he cared for anything but his mission.
Gereshk knew why he had been chosen for this mission.  He had spent nearly two years as a student of the Russians at their Moscow Military School before being expelled for refusing to disavow the faith of his ancestors.
He had carried a battered half of a Qur’an, an heirloom handed down from his grandfather, an Imam, through all his schooling.  He had kept it concealed successfully all those years, until his fourth term at the MMS.  There, a classmate, a lying pig of an infidel named Erkin, had found the tattered book among Gereshk’s belongings.
He’d begged and pleaded with Erkin, swore that he only carried it to keep the memory of his grandfather, that he was a good soulless minion of the Soviet state.  Erkin had finally relented, he said, and returned the precious object.  Gereshk, relieved, took the book with him to that afternoon’s physical combat training.
Erkin, of course, had lied.
Upon returning, he found guards on either side of his door, and the commandant of the school at his desk.
The interview - interrogation, really - had been brutal and short.  At the end, he was dismissed from the school, disgraced, reduced in ranks and sent to Anadyr, a small town in Russia’s Far East, to serve the remainder of his term of service.  He had vowed revenge on Erkin.
Now, he would get his chance.  His time in Moscow, coupled with his desire to see his old nemesis humiliated or even dead, made him the logical choice to lead the mission.  He knew Moscow better than any other two men serving the Emir, and Ibrahim’s sources had discovered that Erkin, now a colonel in the Russian Federal Security Service, was not only stationed in Moscow but was also the man primarily responsible for suppression of internal security threats.
So, even if the bomb failed to kill him, he would be exposed as a massive failure at his post.  He would be blamed and feel the shame and loss of honor that Gereshk had, so many years ago.
If he survived.
The nondescript lorry made its lumbering way north, along the M6.  Nobody noted its steady progress at a little over fifty kilometers per hour, slow for the surrounding traffic but not suspiciously so.  It was simply another old, tired truck.  Others of its ilk had formed a semi-convoy behind.  Another time, this might have worried him.  But here, now, it simply provided more cover.
Another twelve hours and they would intersect the M4, which would finish carrying their deadly cargo to Moscow.  Then, it would be time to wait for word to execute their mission.
And if no word came?  Gereshk would execute it himself and become a martyr of Allah.  He’d curse Erkin to the hell that surely awaited the infidel even as he pressed the detonator.

Twenty three kilometers of frozen hell in four hours.
And that was with Allah smiling on them.
Tahan stood in the afternoon sunshine, just below the crest of the final ridge, peering through a powerful pair of binoculars.  He could just make out the domed roof of the thrice-dammed leader of the infidel Keldara’s caravanserai, the very heart of the beast.  It outraged him that such a building - so obviously Islamic! - should be defiled by heathen such as these.  The weapon would provide a cleansing fire.
None of the vehicles had broken down, although the arduous crossing had taken a toll on the men.  Many were suffering from frostbite, the cold and snow having penetrated their scanty gloves and boots.  Eight had perished along the journey, victims of hidden crevasses which swallowed them as if they had never been.  Thirteen more suffered lesser injuries, sprains and a few broken bones, but still able to function and fight.
Now, all that separated them from their goal was a lone river valley, stretching southwest about fourteen kilometers.  There was little cover, true - it seemed to be intended for farmland, though there was scant evidence of any planting as yet, though at least there didn’t seem to be any snow - but Tahan was unconcerned.
Not a single farmer was in view, which a more experienced commander might have found suspicious.  But to Tahan’s eyes, it was simply more proof of Allah’s favor.  Perhaps he and his men would survive the mission.  Allah be praised, he would joyfully martyr himself for the faith - but if it was Allah’s will that they didn’t have to?
He would have been more than human to not wish that.
Tahan reached into his shirt and retrieved Ibrahim’s instructions.  It comforted him to see the handwriting of Allah’s most faithful servant, though he had long since memorized the words:
“Proceed down the river valley.  Close to within at least three kilometers of the caravanserai, nearer if possible.”
Three kilometers was the key.  With the relatively small size of the weapon, Ibrahim had explained, the explosion had to occur within that distance of the center of the valley to ensure that the entire population was within the area of total destruction.  Closer, of course, was preferable, but not necessary.  Inshallah.
“When progress is no longer practical, disable the ZIL-E by any means available” - the list was quite extensive and included soil in the carburetor, grenades under the transmission, and even such simple tricks as removing spark plugs - “and activate the weapon.”
This was achieved with a cell phone Ibrahim had provided, with a single preset number.  Once dialed, the number would ring three times then Tahan would need to enter an eight-digit code.
After that?
The instructions said that the timer would be twenty minutes, but didn’t order a last-stand defense of the ZIL-E.  So Tahan intended to spend those minutes fleeing the area that he imagined would be the fingerprint of Allah, wiping all trace of the heathens and their works from the Earth.  Working vehicles would help, but he thought that, even on foot, he and his men would have enough time to get clear of the area.
He scanned the valley once more.  Still nobody in sight.  The sun was  bright in the sky, a shining beacon above the far end of the valley.  That would make his travel easier.  No need to go slowly if they could see the potential obstacles.
He made his decision.  They were unobserved, undetected.  Allah’s blessing, like the sun, was shining gloriously down on them.
“Forward for glory!  Forward for the Emir!  Forward for Allah!”
His men echoed his cry and began to move.
They weren’t unobserved.  Captain Guerrin, dug into a well-prepared bunker three kilometers to the south, watched the toy-like vehicles begin their descent down the slope.
“Looks like they finally decided to join the party,” he commented to nobody in particular.  The Rangers had pulled back their long-ranging patrols, concentrating their forces and (hopefully) lulling the invaders into a false sense of security.  A furious argument between Mike, Nielson, and Guerrin had changed the battle plans considerably.
“You’re an idiot!” insisted JP.  “You can’t let them get anywhere near this valley!”
“There’s some information, unconfirmed, that is making us change our thinking,” said Nielson placatingly.
“Lilia and Olga couldn’t get anything out of Qays?” interrupted Mike, who had arrived only moments before.
“Not a thing.  He was willing enough, but to the best of his knowledge, Schwenke - Ibrahim - was leading this force.”  Nielson shrugged.  “I really don’t think he held anything back.”
“No,” agreed Mike.  “He wouldn’t’ve.  He’s just too scared.  Besides, I think the chance to be on the winning side for once may have persuaded him.”
“What information?” demanded JP, impatiently.  “Dammit, I have to be in the loop on shit like this!”
“Captain.”  Nielson’s voice was like ice.  “I am getting to that.”
“Sorry, sir,”
“The reason you haven’t been informed yet, Captain,” Nielson continued, “is because we have not been able to confirm the data.  Since this data could affect your operational deployment in a potentially negative manner, I decided to withhold it pending further developments.”  The military bureaucratese washed over JP like a tide.  Mike made a face.  Abuse of the language to that degree deserved creative - no, make that Creata-ive - punishment.
“Yes, sir.”  He felt his back stiffen involuntarily.  With all their usual informality, JP sometimes forgot that these Mountain Tigers were, at their core, true professionals.
“At ease, JP,” said Mike after a moment.  “What Dave means is, he’d rather take the chance of you being over prepared than under prepared.”
His confusion must have registered on his face.
“Okay, short version.  We don’t think that this force -” Mike gestured to the hostile icon, blinking balefully on the large video screen.  “-is commanded by the person we believed.  We think that the replacement is a much less experienced operator, and will therefore make mistakes.”
“’The world‘s best swordsman doesn‘t fear the second best; he fears the worst swordsman, because he can’t predict what the idiot will do,’” intoned Nielson.  He’d read it somewhere, he couldn’t remember where, but it fit perfectly.
“Dave, this is my decision.  If it’s not Schwenke, then he’s less dangerous to us, period full stop end of debate.  Yes, he might get lucky and get away with doing something stupid once.  I think, though, that, whoever he is, he’s been left with a list of instructions and is following them to the letter.  That gives us the advantage.”
“He won’t be able to react to changing conditions, while we can,” said JP.
“Exactly!” exclaimed Mike.  “Instead of hammering him farther out, I want to suck him in.  If they scatter, here or here,” pointing to the small valleys just north of theirs, “we’ll never catch them all.  Remember, these are small nukes.  It could be in any of the vehicles they have.”
“I’d put money on the ZIL-E,” suggested Nielson.  “It’s the most capable, most heavily-armored, most-survivable vehicle.”
“Probably,” agreed Mike.  “But it’s not a gimme.  And if they’ve come this far, well, I don’t intend for a single one to slip away.”
“Why not attack them before they reach this ridge?” asked JP.  “We can trap them between the ridges, hammer them flat, without ever letting them come closer than ten miles.”
“Range,” said Nielson.
“Dave’s right.  For this battle, we need the mortars to cover you.  If the Tigers were back, or if the Rams were a little further along in their training, we’d have the manpower to completely overwhelm them.  As it stands, though, we have to count solely on your company.  Like I said, I don’t want a one to escape.”  Mike’s grin was purely feral.
“Is there any chance that your Tigers will arrive before the Chechens?”
“No,” said Nielson at Mike’s look.  “Four more hours, minimum, maybe as many as six.  The Chechens will be peeking into our back yard in less than two.”
JP looked at the map.  “So we need the mortars to be in range, but still far enough away so that the nuke won’t cook us.”
“Cook the Valley, yes.  I’m afraid you’re going to be a little bit closer…”
In the end, JP had agreed to the new plan.  The wargames had provided them with a series of established positions, easily filled by his company.
The mortars had been moved forward as well, with some assistance.  Jessia and Andrew were hurriedly calculating drop points for the new locations, a task that would normally involve test rounds.  With the Chechens about to appear, though, they couldn’t take the chance, so the first shots dropped by the mortars wouldn’t necessarily have the precision they normally would.
Jessia did promise not to drop any rounds on the bunkers.
“Multiple sources.  Tracking on sensors 211-alpha, 256-delta, 194-echo - pretty much the whole hillside has a signal of some strength,”  Sergeant Theo Snow, Guerrin’s S-2, reported, reading from his laptop.  It was tied into the sensor net Vanner had had laid down.  The feeds varied from fuzzy to crystalline, depending on the age of the sensor and which generation it was.
“I can see that,” snapped JP, still peering through the binoculars.  “Can you give me something useful from all that?”
“One moment, sir.  I’ll see if I can filter it out a bit.”
The clacking of keys came from Snow’s corner of the bunker, then: “I can track them individually on foot and also the vehicles.”
“Think you can pull course and speed?”
“Easily, sir.”  More clacking.  “Downloading to your BFT.  Continuous updates.”  He didn’t mention that the apps were already uploaded to the BFT and just needed activation.  Nice touch on the codework.  Snow admired good hacking, no matter the source, and intended to ‘borrow’ as much code as he could before they left.  On second thought - any man who could whistle up a company of Rangers, probably wouldn’t think twice about squashing anyone who played fast and loose with his computers.  Right, better get permission.
Sure enough, the small plasma screen suddenly displayed dozens, no, hundreds of blood-red tracks, indicating hostiles - or at least unidentified intruders.  By tapping on any icon, Guerrin could ‘zoom in’ on it, bring up a projection of a probable course, see where it had been, and more.  
“Good job, Snow.  Now, if we could predict their exact track down the valley, we’d be in the clover.”
“I think I can do something like that for you.”
Clack.  Clack.  He accessed another app.  “Done, sir.  You should have an icon on your tablet now, a little running figure?”
Guerrin examined the screen.  “Got it.”
“Tap that once, then tap any hostile icon.  Based on known direction, speed, and terrain, the system will compute the most likely path.  It allows for obstacles as well.  Sir?  Those coders?  Any chance of getting one or two for our own?”
“Not unless you’re willing to marry her,“ Guerrin chuckled.  He tried it.  A dark red line extended from the current location, down the slope and into the valley.  “And the pink cone is…?”
“A probability zone, sir.”
“And that means what, Sergeant?”  His BFT wasn’t as capable, or large, as Snow’s laptop.
“Ah, well, since humans are, individually, highly unpredictable, the program quickly reaches the limits of accuracy.  Once that point is reached, probability takes over and the possible track becomes wider and wider.  Hence a cone, instead of a discrete line.”
“It narrows again, further down the slope.”
“Which track, sir?”
“Echo three.”
“Let me look - okay, I think I can explain.  See this feature?”  Snow pointed to his screen, which was necessarily larger and gave better resolution.
“That’s a small stream.  It’s narrow, but deep.  The system knows that there are only a few good fording points, so it tends to track towards those points.”
“What if this guy doesn’t find the ford?”
A shrug.  “Then he gets wet, sir.  The problem is, we’re up against the limits of probability.  Computers are logical, they have to be; humans, inherently, aren’t.”
“Let’s turn that function off, then.”
“Just tap the hostile icon again.  It will revert.”
Tap.  “That’s better.  Just knowing where these pricks are is a huge advantage.”
“True, sir.”
“Guerrin to platoon leaders.”  The frequency-hopping radio automatically shifted to the appropriate channel.  “We have confirmation on enemy forces.  Hold fire until range falls below two hundred meters.  I‘ve been told a death‘s-head emblem will appear above each target on your BFTs at that point.  Someone‘s got a sense of humor.”
“First, confirm.”
“Second, roger.”
“Third, understood.”
“Guerrin to mortars.”
“Mortars, Mahona here.”  Jessia’s rich contralto filled the radio, a pleasant change from the usually gruff voices of his Rangers.
“Are you receiving the same feed we are?”
“Position of tangoes?  Yes.”
“Are they in range yet?”
“Forward elements are within optimal range.  Rear elements are a little more problematical; I would prefer to hold fire until they are all over the crest and at least halfway down the slope.”
Guerrin looked at the screen, considering.  That would bring the closest Chechens to about three hundred meters, if they kept the same speed and spacing.  “Acknowledged.  Just make sure you tell us when you’re going to open up on ‘em!”
He could hear her answering grin.  “No worries, captain.  We’ll call you first.  Estimate five minutes from now.”
“Roger, out.”
More waiting.  At least the end - or the beginning - was in sight.  Felt more like a video game, though.
Mike was tired of waiting, too.
Not that he couldn’t live without combat ops - hell, he’d retired, once upon a time! - but this was different.  Not only had he, albeit indirectly, brought this potential disaster down on the Keldara; not only had he given the final approval to the plan that sent virtually the entire fighting population of the valley hundreds of kilometers north; and not only was he relying on ‘borrowed’ troops; but now this!
“If you go forward, I go too.”
“Listen to me, you stubborn bitch!  Your place is here, in the caravanserai or with your Family, not on the front line!”
“I am the Kildaran -”
“Not yet, you’re not.”
“We are betrothed!  By the customs of the Keldara, with the handfasting ceremony complete, you have accepted me as your bride.  Since you are the Kildar, your bride is the Kildaran.  Therefore, I am the Kildaran and my place is by your side as your lead our people into battle.”
Seeing a loophole, he leapt.
“Ah-ha!  But I am NOT leading our people, am I?  This battle is being fought by a company of United States Army Rangers, right?  As such, I am simply going forward to ensure that the interests of the Keldara are adequately protected, and maybe lend a little expertise.”
“Then why are you in your battle armor?  And why do you carry Culcanar?”  She pointed to the massive, ancient battle-axe that was slung across his back.
Shit.  He knew he should have waited to pick it up.
Thinking fast, he answered, “Father Kulcyanov is allowing me to wield it as a symbol of the position of Kildar.”
“And does Father Kulcyanov know this?”
“The point, Katrina, is that I have a place in this battle, if only as an observer.  You don’t.  End of story.”
“It has been foreseen,” croaked a voice.
Both Mike and Kat whirled around.  They were shocked to see Mother Lenka standing in the doorway to the conference room; she rarely came up to the caravanserai proper, and never ventured into the side devoted to the militia.
Kat recovered first.  “What has been foreseen, Mother Lenka?”
Her thin, old voice cut through them both.  “That you will accompany him, constantly, through all of his days in the Valley.”
Smugly, Kat turned back to Mike.  “You see?  I must come with you.”
“Mother Lenka -” began Mike, desperately.
“There can be no argument, Kildar.  The Goddess has granted me a vision.  Katrina is not to be separated from you, from the day you return to the Valley to the day you leave.  Her destiny is intertwined with yours, as surely as the grapevines are tangled in the vineyard.”  She coughed.  Katrina moved to support her, but she waved her off.  “I must finish this, child.  You will save him and hold him forever even though you may lose him.”
“I don’t understand, Mother Lenka,” said Kat, plaintively.
“You shall.  In time.”  Without another word, the old, old woman turned and walked away from the couple.  With a start, Mike realized just how old she truly was, and what a heavy burden she carried.
“So,” Kat said, smiling smugly.
“So what?  You think I’m going to listen to that crazy old bat?”
Katrina’s eyes flashed fire.  “Michael!  You do NOT speak of the High Priestess as an-an-an- old bat!!”
“Kidding, I’m kidding!”
“Then let’s go!”  She was already turned and moving before he spoke again.
“Whoa!  Not so fast.  Battle rattle and armed, got it?  Short and long arms.”
“Yes, Michael.  Five minutes!”  And, like a flash, she was off.
“No grenades!” he called after her.  He’d seen her shoot; fine.  Throwing a grenade?
Vanner poked his head in the doorway a moment later.  “Problems, Kildar?”
“Oh.  My.  God.  You have no idea.”
“Who did you stick riding herd on the Mice?”
“Close.  Mine’s a redhead.”
“Four Mice to one redhead.  Hmm.  Close.  Call it even?”
“We’ll see as the day goes on.  I’ve got a feeling about this…”
“I get them all the time.  Seeing eyes in the floors and walls.  Then I find out we’re missing four hundred meters of fiber optic cable, and I really begin to worry.”
“Yours don’t play with grenades.  And guns.  And insist on being your shield maiden, do they?”
“Well, no, but…”
“I think I win this round.  Now, let’s get to work.”
Tahan motioned the ZIL-E forward, over the ridge.  It was the last vehicle.  The most critical, he had chosen to deploy all his men forward to ensure its survival.  His wave of fighters would roll across the fertile valley like a tide, scouring it of anything living, before allowing the cleansing fire of Allah to rain down upon it.
“Forward for glory!  Forward for the Emir!  Forward for Allah!”  Tahan’s shout echoed from the lips of his mujahideen, breaking into a run down the remainder of the slope.
The massive, six-wheeled transport rumbled along, diesel engines pounding powerfully.  The driver, a teenager named Qutaybah, had wrestled the machine through the mountain passes with surprising skill, given that he had never controlled anything more powerful than a moped before.
He seemed to have a knack for maneuvering through the treacherous snow and ice, so, as his reward, Tahan had permitted him the honor of driving on this final leg.
He would have been better served finding a less tired driver.
The boulder on the slope ahead was partially concealed by a cluster of small birch saplings, just beginning to leaf.  Qutaybah, seeing only the slender saplings, plowed straight into them.
The ZIL-E had a ground clearance of 0.85 meters.  The boulder, when Guerrin measured it later, protruded 1.23 meters above the ground and extended who knew how far below.
In the Cave, and relayed to the Rangers, the data feed from the sensors showed the seven-thousand-kilogram vehicle was traveling at twenty-four KPH when it impacted, creating nearly five hundred thousand Newtons of force - enough, in other words, to gouge a thirty centimeter rip through the tough steel of the old beast, all the way back to, and through, the second axle and tossing it, like a dog with a sock, into the air.
Simple, Newtonian physics came into play.  Transfer of inertia.  An object at rest tends to stay at rest until acted on by an outside force.  F=MA.  All that energy had to go somewhere.
Qutaybah never stood a chance.  While the body of the ZIL-E had survived years in virtual exile, the framework holding the driver’s chair wasn’t nearly as sturdy.  With a wrench, lost under the deafening screech of rending metal, it tore free from its braces, slamming forward into the layered glass-and-plastic windscreen.
Ribs, hips, spine, and skull all shattered, the soft organs they protected turned into paste virtually instantaneously, spattering the interior of the cab in Qutaybah Red.
The scream of tortured metal halted the running mujahideen in their tracks.  Turning almost as a man, they faced a horrific scene.  Their weapon of holy vengeance was - was it destroyed?  Surely Allah wouldn’t permit that to happen!
None of them had ever heard of Murphy.
The order to open fire hung on Guerrin’s lips as he watched the disaster unfold.  The swarms of men charging down the valley had suddenly frozen in place, statue-like.  Easy pickings for his Rangers.  As he watched, the other trucks, noting the lack of movement, slowed to a stop as well.
Even better.
Despite the fact that men were climbing out of the trucks, it was still going to be oh so easy to pick them off.  The range was little more than four hundred meters now.
A few muj started toward the crashed ZIL-E.
Then he had a nasty idea.
“I need you to retask!  I need you to lay Willie Pete all around the ZIL-E to keep those men away from the payload!”  Willie Pete, White Phosphorous, was generally used to produce smoke prior to a ground assault.  It burned fiercely on virtually any surface, but was notably frightening when applied to bare flesh.
Water wouldn’t extinguish the flame; it would, in fact, intensify it.  And, best yet, the smoke it produced was toxic after only a brief exposure.  In short, it was a gift that kept on giving.
“Willie Pete?” answered Sivula.  Guerrin could hear Jessia in the background, shouting in Georgian, presumably changing the loads.
“Yes - we need to keep those bastards away from the ZIL-E without destroying it.  The way they‘re acting, it‘s got to be carrying the nuke.”
“Sir, yes sir!”
“Ready to fire,” announced Jessia.
“Fire at will - and keep ‘em coming.”
“Shot over.” The Forward Observer, Adelaida Shaynav, radioed back, even as Guerrin passed the word to his platoons.  His BFT flashed with the warning simultaneously, broadcast from the Cave.
Seconds later, he heard, “Command, splash over.”
“Splash, out.”  The report was repeated down the line again.
There was a whistling, and an explosion a hundred fifty meters upslope.  Clouds of white smoke rose in the wind.
The FO was already calling back.  “Drop one fifty.”
Another whistle.  This round was downslope by seventy meters and east by fifty.  A crosswind may have caught it.
“Up fifty, west fifty.”
A third whistle.  This round exploded ten meters away from the side of the wrecked truck.
“Fire for effect, repeat, fire for effect.  Over.”
“Fire for effect, out.”
Now, the whistling was nearly continuous.  A round would soar overhead, impact and explode, spraying its toxic contents for meters around the truck.  Then, within three or four seconds, another round would do the same.  Again.  And again.
The first muj burned without ever knowing what was happening.  Their screams could be heard as they dropped to the ground, clothes and flesh smouldering and belching smoke.  Only a few thought to roll, hoping to extinguish the flames.
None thought to run uphill, out of the box of death and away from the incoming fire.  Some, though, ran downhill, undoubtedly gravity-assisted, but it was the fastest way out of the deadly cloud.
“Bravo Company, fire at will!”
The massed fire of the company seemed, at first, to go unnoticed in light of the unceasing barrage.  Tahan was driving his men toward the ZIL-E; all he could think of was retrieving the weapon.  But when the muj next to him suddenly dropped, clutching his leg, he became aware of the rifle fire.
Realizing that approaching the ZIL meant almost certain death, and faced with a threat from his rear, Tahan reacted shockingly well.  Somewhere inside, he found a core of strength, telling him not to panic, to follow his orders.  Fight as your enemy fights, and let him with the greater faith prevail.  The voice sounded like Ibrahim’s.
“Form a perimeter!  Return fire!  The infidels are attempting to thwart the will of Allah!”  He pointed in the direction of the greatest fire, unheeding of the danger.  He knew that the infidels shot the leaders first, but for those moments he knew no fear, only courage and determination.
He prayed it would last long enough.
The invocation of Allah’s name was enough seize their attention.  Raggedly at first, then with greater and greater assurance, the would-be army of the Emirate opened up with their weapons.
Most carried some version of the venerable AK-47, the weapon of choice for most insurgent groups.  Dependable, simple, rugged, it was the Model-T of automatic rifles.
A few carried the more accurate AK-74, despite it throwing a smaller round downrange.  It didn’t matter, though, as they almost universally used the ‘pray and spray’ method favored by Islamic extremists the world over.  Ibrahim’s hard-fought training vanished in an instant.
Seeing his men firing blindly, Tahan gave his second, fairly brilliant command.  “Forward!  Find the infidels and slay them as they hide!”  With a howl, his men resumed their charge down the valley.
It took a few moments for the Rangers to adjust their fire to the new threat, moments that some didn’t have.
“Command, Alpha Two!  They’re headed right at us!”  Guerrin was surprised by the voice on the comm - why was Portena reporting in for First Platoon?  Something must have happened to the chain of command - did the LT buy it already?
“Alpha Two, hold tight.  We’ll get you some support.”  Switching channels: “Alpha actual, command, report.”
“Alpha actual, report.”
More silence.
Snow reported, “System’s reporting that his pad is still active, sir.  He should be receiving us.  Either he‘s bought it or he‘s too busy to answer.  His comms ought to be -”
“Well, we can’t take too much time now for that.”  Hop channels again. “Mortars, adjust mission to close support - fragmentation rounds!”  Hop.  “All squads, duck and cover!  Frags incoming!  Danger close!”
“Adjusting fire.”
They’d anticipated this potential problem in their planning.  ‘Human wave’ attacks were a staple in the region; Iraq and Iran had practically perfected them as an art form during their eight year war, and many of the current Islamic leadership had cut their teeth during that conflict.  So, using the known positions of the bunkers, they had created coordinates and codes for each one.
“First grouping ten rounds frag, set for infantry, open, India X-Ray Two Four.”
“Roger, India X-Ray Two Four.  Shot Over.”
“Alpha Two, Command.  Shot out.”
The whistling sound was followed by a different, sharper crump! as the anti-personnel round detonated.  Essentially an oversized fragmentation grenade, the shrapnel would shred anyone within its range.  The Keldara used 120mm mortars, some of the largest available.  The results were… impressive.
The hard-charging Chechens, however, had already largely passed through the pre-selected target.  Only the trailing two were actually hit by the fragments, one dropping dead, a chunk of metal lodged in his skull, the other peppered with jagged metal shards, though not killed.  He fell to the ground, clutching at now non-existent kidneys, AK forgotten.
The other Chechens were out of the blast radius and never even noticed their comrades’ fall.  Firing wildly on full auto, the torrent of fire forced even the combat veteran Rangers to take cover behind their bunkers’ walls.  Alpha One and Three, on either side, attempted to shift fire to support the besieged bunker, but they had their own portion of the raid to deal with.
Tomran was a seasoned fighter.  He’d fought continuously against the Russians since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.  He’d seen dozens, hundreds, of his comrades killed over the years.  Yet he’d passed through the battles with hardly a scratch.  “I am invincible!“ he would claim to the new recruits.  They viewed him alternately as one touched by Allah, and a blow-hard.  Under Ibrahim’s watchful eye, though, he was most humble and quiet.
Not to say that the years of almost-unending combat hadn’t taken its toll.  Battling the forces of the Lesser Satan might be his passion, his calling, but it didn’t pay well.  He was reminded of this frequently by his various wives - Malak, Adara, Hana’, and Dahab.
“Tomran, the butcher needs to be paid.”
“Tomran, you are never home.”
“Tomran, the children need you.”
Tomran, Tomran, Tomran!  They didn’t understand that he was fighting so his children could live in a Paradise on Earth.  Neither did his on-and-off employer, a godless Russian merchant named Edouard.
So he promised that, after fighting for the Emir, he would return home.  He swore upon his honor that, win or lose, he would return after the Emir had finished with him.
So he volunteered for mission after mission, extending his stay.  He’d even volunteered for this insanity.  Though, now, with mortar shells falling and rounds whistling past him, he wasn’t quite as enthusiastic…one had to live to spend one’s pay, after all.
Specialist Jason Terry had survived two tours in the Sandbox.  He was the epitome of ‘cool under fire’, never seeming to be aware of the fury of battle swirling around him.  He simply pounded round after round downrange.
This was supposed to be an easy duty, this trip to Georgia.
Women and beer.
Maybe some patrolling.
They were backups, for Chrissake!
They weren’t supposed to be on the front!
Well, only one thing for it.
Crack.  Crack.
Kill ‘em all.
Let God sort ‘em out.
“Command to Third Actual.”
“Go, Command.”  Lieutenant Tom DuPont commanded Third Platoon, kept in reserve for reinforcements.
“I need two squads to support First Platoon’s line; Hughes might be out of it.”
“Roger, out.”  Damn.  Darren Hughes, First’s platoon leader, had been a friend for years.  Switching to the platoon frequencies, DuPont called, “Diffenderfer!”
“Sir!”  Master Sergeant William Diffenderfer was DuPont’s Platoon Sergeant, responsible for the day-to-day organization and activities of the Platoon.  Now a career NCO, he was in his early 40’s, a bit old for the typical Master Sergeant.  He’d joined the Army out of high school, just in time to serve in the First Persian Gulf War, but had separated after serving his four-year hitch.  After 9/11, though, he had reenlisted.  His troops loved and feared him, as they should a good platoon sergeant, and rumor had it that a promotion to First Sergeant was in the pipeline.  He’d become even more of a hardass in the last few months to impress the higher-ups.
“Take two squads and reinforce Alpha’s line.”
“Brooks!  Sabasteanski!”  The two Staff Sergeants looked up.  “I’ve got a job for you…”  The smile on his face would have scared lesser men shitless, but these were Army Rangers.  They ate danger for breakfast.
That didn’t mean they didn’t want to puke when they got ‘volunteered’ for special duty in the middle of a firefight with artillery rounds raining down.
It was only moments before the two squads were emplaced and firing.  Sergeant Brooks’ squad was a Heavy Weapons squad, hauling around two MG240s and one of the new, still-experimental M60Es.  They took position on Alpha’s flank, enabling them to fire obliquely into the attackers.  The furious rush began to slow.
When he heard the deeper tones of the machine guns, Tomran suddenly had second thoughts about the whole assault.
Too late.
“That’s a kill!”
Irfan Jarrar was a driver.  That is to say, he knew how to change gears without burning out the clutch, and could usually be counted on to stay on the road.  He had been tried on the Tatras, but the heavy, primitive trucks were too much for him to control consistently.  So he was moved to a PAZ which, though heavier, was substantially more advanced.  For one thing, it had seat belts, which the two dozen muj found of great comfort on the sometimes-treacherous drive.  Two fuel tanks.  Power steering.  And heavy-duty power brakes.  These were Soviet-era brakes, admittedly, with all the attendant woes, but still...
These were used extensively through the mountains, and abused more on the final slope into the valley.  When he tried to apply them on the flat, shells exploding around him, rounds cratering the heavy windscreen, his foot went straight to the floor with no effect.
The PAZ rumbled along at a steady twenty KPH - he’d had sense enough to take his foot from the accelerator - and he was running out of room.  Now, from the valley floor, he could see the low bunkers ahead.
Martyrdom looked like a positive career choice.
“Allahu Akbar!”
Second Platoon’s bunkers, arrayed to the west of First Platoon, were much lower to the ground.  The eastern side, First’s side, was built atop a shallow layer of bedrock.  Shattered though the rock was from the crushing weights of the glaciers that had scored the valley, it was still virtually impervious to entrenching tools.  Instead, First had been able to scrounge enough boulders to build fairly solid, if primitive-looking, structures.
On the western side, though, the subterranean rock was much, much deeper, covered by fertile soil.  Second’s bunkers, therefore, were much more traditionally-built, which had made their Lieutenant, Charlie Igo, much, much happier .  Five feet deep into the ground, eight feet wide and ten feet long, they had a roof of stout timbers, covered with soil, which was barely a foot higher than the surrounding ground.
This saved the men of third squad.
When the PAZ hit the front edge of the bunker, it hopped up onto the roof instead of impacting it directly.  The tires exploded, the front axle shattered, the Rangers were showered with dirt, and the timbers were pushed back a full meter before it shuddered to a stop, engine still running.
Nobody spoke for a moment.
“Typical raghead driver,” finally muttered Private Scott Plummer after catching his breath and making sure he hadn‘t shit himself.  The timbers groaned.
“What are you waiting for?” yelled Sergeant Pierce.  “A fucking invitation?”
“Sarge, I don’t know if you noticed, but the door’s gone.”
It was true.  The PAZ, weighing in at well over five thousand kilos, very effectively shifted the roof back, covering the hole they’d used as an entryway.  Nobody was getting out that way.  Nor could they take advantage of the gap the PAZ had opened at the front of the bunker.  At 2.44 meters - eight feet one sixteenth inch - wide, the PAZ very effectively sealed the hole above them.
“Doesn’t look like we’re going anywhere.”  PFC Will Chapman bitched.
“Bullshit!  Chapman, get on the horn, let the Lieutenant know that we’re gonna be delayed.  Plummer, you, Gordon, and Manchester break out the entrenching tools and make us a new exit.  The rest of you, see if you can make firing holes under that dammed truck!”
Footfalls above.
“Fuck that, fire up into the truck!  Now now now!”
The fog of war.
Clauswitz’ great aphorism for the uncertainty that accompanies even the most well-thought-out battle plan certainly applied.
Three tons of all-terrain bus and passengers should have, at all rights, smashed through the bunker of third squad, killing or injuring everyone inside and probably doing the same to all its passengers.  If it was a Hollywood production, it would have immediately exploded into a massive fireball, incinerating anyone left alive - probably a terrified-looking driver, plus an unlucky short-time soldier below, and the luckless fellow who’d just found out he was going to be a father.
This was reality.  Big impact, lots of dust and noise as the inertia was absorbed by the softer soil.  No explosion.  No collapse.  And, thanks to the lunatic driving of the now-late Jarrar which forced his riders to wear their seatbelts, no major injuries among the passengers.
So, instead of a glorious martyrdom, the two dozen muj found themselves crashed - literally! - through the fortified lines of the infidels, unlike their unluckier comrades assaulting the opposite bunkers.
Perfect for causing a little mayhem.
The Rangers’ fire, unexpected from below, only felled a pair of men before the others decided that outside would be a much healthier environment.  One that promised easier targets, ones they could see.
Like the unattended door to a bunker.
“What the -”
The doors that were at the rear of Second Platoon’s bunkers were little more than thin pieces of plywood.  The idea was to simply stop the nearly-constant wind, rather than any sort of security.  Rounds from an AK-47 tore right through them.
Fourth squad was the first to face this rear-echelon assault.  Through outrageous good fortune, not one man was killed by the initial attack, though three were hit pretty badly.  Leaving two men to maintain fire downrange at the visible threat, Sergeant Randy Gardner quickly changed the deployment to face the door.
“Pardue!  Doughty!  Cover the door!  Dexter, be ready with those grenades!”  A few seconds’ pause, and: “Okay, Wiley, open it.”
Standing with his back against the comfortingly solid dirt wall, Private Tom Wiley reached for the handle of the door.  With a sharp tug, it pulled open, swinging away from him.  He’d seen the shadows through the far too large holes that had appeared in the door.  He took no chances and did as quickly as he could.  It was much easier to see from dark to light than vice versa.
That was chance enough.
Fida Trebelsi was leading the charge toward the sunken door when it suddenly flung itself open.
“Allahu Akbar!”  God Is Great!  His finger tightened on the trigger as he burst into the relative darkness of the bunker.
The men on the far side of the bunker, Olsen and Winde, were cut down without even seeing Trebelsi.  At this range, not even armor could help.  Gardner didn’t even blink.  Soldiers died; it came with the job.
Most of his rounds, though, impacted harmlessly.
Not so the rounds from Pardue and Doughty.  Two quick but aimed shots each.  Pardue took the body shots; Doughty took head shots.  All connected, decorating the two Chechens behind Fida with brains and blood.
Trebelsi fell.
Then Dexter donated a pair of grenades to the two stunned invaders, out beyond the doorway.  They exploded seconds later, adding to the chaos.  By then, Pardue and Doughty had taken down Trebelsi’s followers and were moving toward the door.
A half-dozen muj had taken up positions in a line about twenty meters from the doorway, eschewing cover altogether, and were taking turns peppering it with rounds, spraying until their bolt clacked back empty then reloading.
Using the rough stairs as cover, Doughty and Pardue began to return fire.
Fog of war, indeed.
Most of the rest of the PAZ’s passengers, disdaining the bunkers, barreled downfield toward what they had been told was their ultimate objective, the barely-visible caravanserai.
Sergeant Snow caught Guerrin’s attention.
“We’ve got leakers.”  He pointed to the screen, where a dozen red icons were moving steadily toward their position.
“Bravo three isn’t answering calls, Bravo four is under attack from the rear - they must have breached the line there.”
“Good work, Snow.  DuPont.”
“Got some leakers.”
“On it, sir.”
They were past the infidels!
Nothing stood between them and the women of the valley!
A dozen devoted followers of the Emir, they had been gathered up by Duqaq Nabulsi, another clear-thinking veteran of the Chechens’ interminable wars against the Russians.  “The infidels are weak!” he panted as he ran.  “If we can capture - threaten - their women, we may divide their attention, take pressure off Tahan!”
Rallying his men to greater speeds, he didn’t notice the first fall suddenly into the unplanted ground.
Corporal Simo Hayha was acknowledged as easily the best sniper Bravo Company had, possibly in the entire Division.  He and his spotter, Specialist Billy Sing were on a slight rise forward of the HQ Platoon’s position.
“Twelve hundred meters,” reported Sing.
“Piece of cake,” answered Hayha, prone behind his M107.
The .50 caliber BMG rounds Hayha was using today were modified under the EXACTO program.  A microprocessor and stabilizing fins had been added to each, allowing them greater range and accuracy.  Hayha looked on them as cheating.  On the target range, he used the standard BMG; out here, where accuracy meant lives, he bent to necessity and used the modified rounds.
It wasn’t until the fourth man fell out of the loose formation and didn’t get back up that Duqaq began to suspect something was amiss.  By then, a small group of tents and other temporary buildings had become visible in the near distance.  Antennas and vehicles were visible, too, making this a command position - and something worth disrupting, at least.
Duqaq looked back over his shoulder.  They were at least as far from the fighting behind them as the tents before them, and Allah favored those who took chances in His service.
“Faster!  Kill the unbelievers!”
Four followers remained with Duqaq.  They were still four, maybe five hundred meters from their target.  Maybe it was time to find some kind of cover.
“Down!  Down!”
All four fell to the ground, trying desperately to find any hint of cover - a rock, a bush, anything.
“They’ve gone to ground.”
“I see that.”
“Target, four meters north, three east.”
“Target, five meters north, six west.”
“Here, Duqaq.”
“What now, Duqaq?”
“Where are you, Thabit?”
“Behind a rock, and you Duqaq?”
“In a pool of water, beneath some water plants.”
“What do we do now, Duqaq?”
“We wait.  Unless you’re ready to face Allah?”
“Not yet.”
“Nor I.”
“Target - damn.”
“They’ve found cover.”
“One’s cowering behind a boulder - forget that one, I can’t see any part except a bit of one sleeve.  The other one’s found a puddle and is burrowed into the mud.”
“Give me that one.”
“I can’t even see him, just the disturbances on the surface -”
“Six meters south, five east.  That’s the center of -”
The first shot was long, thudding into the mud near the far end of the puddle.  Duqaq held his ground.
The second shot splashed into the water a scant foot in front of him, the massive round passing through the water and splattering Duqaq with filth from the bottom.
He knew - knew - that the third round would be between the first two.  If he was lucky, it would shatter his spine.  If not, well, it could hit lower.
He jumped up.
For what it was worth, he was right.  The third round would have killed him, probably slowly.
He didn’t think about the fourth round.
“Target down.  What about the last one?”
“I don’t think he’s going anywhere.  Command, Nightwish.  Threat neutralized.  Twelve KIA, one pissing his pants.”
“Ah, roger that Nightwish.  Maintain position.  Out.”
Sing had to laugh.  “He’s not going anywhere soon.”
Tahan’s full frontal assault had failed.  They’d taken out one bunker, and the PAZ had flattened another, but the squads from Third Platoon had made the difference.  They couldn’t cross the firing lanes without being torn to shreds, in either direction.  Of the fifty or so men who survived the initial charge to close with the bunkers, fewer than twenty managed to pull back.  Even fewer moved on the field.  The Rangers targeted them as soon as they showed signs of life and sent them to discuss their fate with Allah.
Now, though, Tahan recalled an image from a smuggled American movie he had seen as a youth.  It was old, black and white.  Something called a ‘Western’.  But in it, what he remembered now, was when the would-be land thieves were being attacked by the natives, they had driven their wagons into a circle to create a defensive wall.
Well, he had wagons, of a sort.  There were still five PAZ-672Gs.  He’d worry about withdrawal later.  If he couldn’t take out the bunkers, there wouldn’t be any men to withdraw.
He gave the necessary orders.
Master Sergeant Julio Portena of First Platoon had inherited command when Hughes went down from a single ‘golden BB‘.  He couldn’t fucking believe it.  A ricochet, off not one but two scopes, a helmet, and then into Hughes’ open mouth.  Took him right through the C3-C4 juncture.  Dead before he hit the ground.
A dozen years of experience had prepared him for the role, even if he didn’t relish it.  Now, he was keeping the withdrawing Chechens under observation while the men of his squad tended to their wounded.
“Command, Alpha Six.”
“Go ahead.”
“T’ey’re trying to build a pocking barricade,” reported the short, swarthy Sergeant.
“A barricade?”
“Yeah, out of t’eir trucks.  Looks like t’ey’re settling in for a while.”  Modder-pocker!  We shoulda burned more of them!  He kept this thought to himself; he frequently found himself on a very thin line with Command.  If he wasn’t a first-class armorer, he would’ve found a one-way ticket out of the Rangers years ago.
“Roger, Alpha Six.  Maintain surveillance.  Over.”
“Roger.  Out.”
“Well, that’ll make them easier to pin down,” said a familiar voice.  Guerrin turned to see the Kildar stride into the command bunker, followed closely by the single smallest Keldara -
Naah.  He wouldn’t have.
“Good afternoon, Captain,” came the light voice of -
He did.  Or, more likely, she did.
“Hello Kildar, Miss Devlich.”
“So formal!”
Ignoring the byplay, Mike approached the tactical displays.  “What’s the situation?”
“They’ve made one fairly serious attempt at our lines, killed a platoon leader,” said Guerrin.  “Broke through in one place; that was more luck than skill.  One of their buses crashed into a bunker, and they raised a little hell.  But we’ve got them contained, with help from the mortars.  Have to tell Mahona and Sivula that they did a hell of a job, by the way.”
“And now?”
“They seem to be ‘circling the wagons’, as it were.”  He pointed to the display.  “This is the take from the sensors - great little toys! - and you can see the vehicles with the men behind them.”
Mike nodded.  “Looks simple enough.  Drop mortars on them until they’re all in tiny little pieces, then mop up the remains.”
“Not that easy,” contradicted Guerrin.  “See how close their barricade is to that big vehicle?”
“Yeah, so?  Target-rich environment.”
“I think Nielson was right; that’s how they carried the nuke.”
“Oh, shit.”
“Right.  So if we drop mortars on the barricade -”
“- we risk detonating the nuke or, worse, spreading radioactive dust all around this end of the valley just about forever.  So we’re going to have to do this the hard way?”
“Looks like.  Unless you have a better idea?”
Mike thought briefly.  “Maybe.  Can you get me closer?”
“No problem.  What do you have in mind?”
“Well…”  Mike explained.
“Attention, soldiers of the Emirate!”  The voice, in fairly accented Russian, came from speakers mounted on the roof of a large SUV.  “We wish to discuss the situation with you!  Send your leader forward!”
The message repeated in Arabic.
“It’s a trap!” insisted Rafiq, Tahan’s closest advisor and second-in-command.  “The infidel always lies!”
“Then let him lie.  We need time, Rafiq, to get into the ZIL and retrieve the weapon.  Otherwise, our mission here is a failure, no matter how many infidels we kill.”
“Taran, what if he betrays you?”
“Then I go to serve Allah in Paradise.  No more discussion.  I will meet with him.  But while I am meeting them, here’s what I want you to do…”
Mike waited in the passenger seat of the Expedition.
A lone figure appeared around east side of the wall of vehicles.  Middling height, olive skin, dark hair and the requisite ‘freedom fighter’ stubble.  Clad in cast-off Russian Army fatigues, he seemed no more threatening than the immigrant who ran the ubiquitous corner stores in the West.  Though, Mike admitted, they weren’t usually waving a white flag.
Maybe in Detroit.
When the man was within twenty meters, Mike climbed down and called, “Close enough!”
He stopped.
“What do you wish to discuss?”
“I’d like to know who I’m talking to, first,” said Mike.
“My name is Haroun Tahan,” said the man.  “I am the commander of this brigade.”
“More like a company now,” said the voice in Mike’s ear.  Guerrin was monitoring the conversation and any movements.  Hayha was intent on Tahan, as well; one word, one move, and he’d be dropped.
“And who are you?” continued Tahan.  “Are you the American who styles himself ‘Kildar’, or one of his lackeys?”
“I’m the man who’s been sent to talk to you.  That means we’re not shooting at you.  That should be enough for you for now.”
“What do we have to talk about, dog?”
“Insults, Tahan?”
“Calling a dog a dog is no insult.”
“Mmm, okay, we can play it that way if you like.”
“He’s trying to piss you off,” said Guerrin.
“No shit, Sherlock,” sub vocalized Mike before continuing, “We want to make you an offer.  One time only.”
“The only offer I will listen to is your choosing to die by the gun or by the finger of Allah.”
“Sorry, that’s not on the table.  Did you know the Emir is dead?” he added, conversationally.
“No, really.  And his little Emirate?  Just as dead.”
“You lie!  Filthy goat cock sucker!”
Who’s pissed now?  “And you want to know something amusing?” continued Mike, as if Tahan hadn’t spoken.  “It wasn’t even the Keldara that killed Inarov.  It was a booby-trap set by your pet genius, Ibrahim.  Or should I say, pet sociopath, Kurt Schwenke?”
Tahan’s face registered confusion even as he shouted, “Ibrahim is the most faithful of the Emir’s followers!”
Mike allowed himself a laugh.  “Damn, boy, he’s got you fooled too!  Ibrahim al-Jasir was a phantom, an illusion, a ghost, created by a master puppeteer to get you fools to do his bidding.”  Deliberately, Mike laid out the evidence against Schwenke, even over Tahan’s increasingly incoherent screaming.
“He’s sacrificed you, Tahan, you and your men,” concluded Mike moments later.  “He sent you here with a bomb while he made his escape.  He’s probably in Geneva by now, getting his own face back.”
Silence.  Maybe he’d actually touched a nerve.
“So here’s the deal.  Lay down your arms and leave, now, and we won’t stop you.”  Mike didn’t mention the messages to the Georgian and Russian ground forces that were poised to be dispatched.
“That’s it?  Lay down our weapons and leave?  That’s your deal?”
“Tahan, I promise you, if you don’t take this offer, you won’t live to regret it.  You and the rest of your pitiful little ‘brigade’ will be fertilizer for the fields of the Keldara.”
“You’re wrong, jackal!  It is you and your precious Keldara that shall perish!  Allah has blessed our holy mission.  He has decreed that you infidels shall burn for your sinful rejection of His holy words!  No, I think not.”  He turned and began to walk away.
“Mike.  Movement!”
“Tahan!”  To Guerrin: “Where?”
Without stopping, Tahan called back, “What?”
“Last chance.”
“Vehicles - coming around to the west.  Looks like they’re jeeps, something along those lines.”
“Bombers.  Hayha?”
Another voice.  “Kildar?”
“Take ‘em out.”
“Your last chance, infidel,” retorted Tahan.
“I warned you.”  Reaching over his shoulder, Mike took Culcanar from the harness on his back.  In a single smooth motion, he sent the magnificent blade flying through the air, end-over-end.
It struck Tahan vertically, directly below his neck, splitting his spine and very nearly bursting through his breastbone.  He fell to the ground, dead instantly.
“Move!” Mike commanded the driver, Private John Walker.  Standing on the running board, Mike clung to the roof post as the SUV accelerated.  “I’ve got to get that axe back or Father Kulcyanov will have me as a sacrifice, Kildar or not!”  Distantly, he was aware of five drab green jeep-like vehicles coming around the opposite side.  No threat, a part of his mind determined, and dismissed them from thought.
Pulling even with the body, Mike reached down and snagged the handle of Culcanar.  It came free easily, and Walker spun the SUV around and headed back toward the Rangers’ lines.
“This is way too easy.”
“Quit your bitching.  Too easy, too hard.  Too hot, too cold.  Too big, too small.  Bitch bitch bitch.”
“Shut and hand me another clip.”
“That was a good one.”
“Yeah.  Did I ever tell you about that time in Kandahar…?”
“Hayha reports that all five vehicles have stopped.”
“Let’s make sure.  Have Sivula drop a round or two on each.  Wonder what kind of explosives they’re packing?”
“Already on it.  You should probably clear the area.”
“Way ahead of you.”  Mike was back inside the perimeter now, Culcanar held out the window to keep the blood from staining the upholstery.  He wasn’t sure, but he thought that this Expedition belonged to the Devlich Family, and he really, really didn’t need to piss off his future in-laws today.
“Good.  Shot over.”
The characteristic whistle of a mortar round came just a few seconds later, detonating only a few feet from a GAZ.  The mortar’s explosion was almost immediately dwarfed as the GAZ’s deadly payload went up sympathetically.
“Whoa!  Now, that’s impressive!  Okay, JP, we’re behind the bunkers.  Tell ‘em the range is all theirs.”
“Roger that, Kildar.  First, Second, they’re all yours.  Kick ass and don‘t bother introducing yourselves.”
It took the better part of an hour, but the Chechens’ position was gradually reduced.  The parked buses provided effective cover for some time, until Jessia thought to start walking her mortars from a position between the bunkers and the buses slowly north, toward the now-battered vehicles.  Once dialed in, it was quick work to completely shred them with round after round of HE.
Once the cover was gone, it was only a matter of time.  Tied as they were to defending the shattered ZIL, and deprived of even Tahan’s leadership, the result was chaos.  Some small groups took what cover they could, maintained some semblance of fire discipline, and held out for quite a while.  Others, driven by a need for martyrdom, were cut down as they charged the bunkers at irregular intervals.
A few tried to withdraw, either on foot or in the remaining Tatras.  Hayha dropped a number of them; Jessia, Andrew and the mortars accounted for the vehicles; and there was one more unpleasant surprise in the works.
Vanner’s black boxes, the sensors, had all been equipped with a small C-4 charge to ensure their destruction in case of detection by an enemy.  It was a simple matter to send a ‘detonate’ signal to the appropriate sensor as a panicked Chechen entered its lethal range.  While it would be a pain to emplace new ones, it certainly proved the charges’ effectiveness.
As the more organized squads ran out of ammo, a few attempted to surrender, waving any white rag they could find.  But many of the other Chechens, feeling this was a betrayal of their Emir and their faith, opened fire upon the surrendering groups.  Soon, the smartest groups figured out that they were better off simply dropping to the ground and waiting, instead of drawing ‘friendly’ fire on themselves.
In the end, after the last fanatic was dispatched, there were about forty survivors spread across the entire field of battle.  All were wounded to some degree, even though some showed no visible signs.  Concussion from the mortar rounds caused serious internal damage to the brain and other organs.
By nightfall, there would be fewer still, as blood loss, shock, and the cold took their toll.
“And how many did you lose, Captain?” asked Mike, as he and JP made their way toward the battlefield.
“Twelve KIA, including a platoon leader, another nineteen WIA, but between my medics and your Dr. Arensky I think they’ll all pull through.”
“Sorry about your casualties,” said Mike.  “We’ll do right by them, I promise you.”
“So am I, Kildar, but it’s a good mission.  I hate to lose a single one, but, hell, if any of us wanted to die in our beds we wouldn’t be Rangers.”
“What do you want done with these?”  JP gestured to the prisoners, guarded by a squad of Rangers, looking alternately sullen and despairing.
“Who is senior?” asked Mike of the Chechens.
There was a brief murmured conversation, then finally one said, “I am.”
“And you are…?”
“Mahar.  I have served the cause for -”
“Mahar, let’s be clear on this: I don’t give a flying fuck how long you have served your cause or what you’ve done.  All I need to know is, will the others listen to you?”
“Yes,” he said, grudgingly.
“Good.  Then here’s the deal.  You lost.  Your mission here is done.  If you want to go home, I won’t stop you, but I won’t help you.  You take what you have, minus any weapons, and you walk.  Russia is that way.”
“And if we choose not to walk?  If we resist you?”
Mike shrugged.  “I have a backhoe.”
“You’re just letting them go?” demanded Katrina as the dejected Chechens trudged north, escorted by DuPont’s Third Platoon.
“They are enemies of the Keldara!  They would have slaughtered the entire valley!”
“And you let them go?”
Quietly, Mike said, “How far do you think they’ll get?  No weapons, no food, across, what, twenty kilometers of mountains?  Oh, and did I mention the little message I sent Umarov?”
“General Umarov?”
“Yeah.  Seems he just got an anonymous tip that there’s a group of illegal immigrants from Russia raising a little hell in this corner of the country.  He’s sending a battalion to round them up.  And, just in case Umarov misses, Chechnik‘s getting a notice of his own.”
“Ah,” smiled Katrina, purely evilly.
A shout from the ZIL caught Mike’s attention.  It was Vanner, waving his arm.
“What’s up, Pat?”  Vanner had taken a Geiger counter and was closely inspecting the entire vehicle, just in case.
“We’ve got nothing.”
“That’s good, right?”
“No, Kildar, it’s not.  Even undamaged, I ought to be picking up traces.  I’ve got nothing more than natural background radiation.”
“Could the body of the truck be blocking it?”
“Possible, but if it was blocking the radiation, it would also have absorbed some and become radioactive itself.”
“I take it, it isn’t?”
“Not a bit.”
“Something’s fishy here.  We ought to take a closer look.  Not you, Kat!”
He could almost hear her pout.
“That sure looks like it,” commented Mike.  They were in the passenger compartment of the ZIL, looking at a long, sturdily-built wooden box.
“It matches the others we’ve recovered,” agreed Vanner.  “Still not getting anything.”  He reached out to open it, to have his hand slapped away by Mike.  “What the fuck?”
“Don’t.  Booby trap.”
Vanner paled.
“Better get our version of a bomb squad up here.  If our buddy Kurt left a surprise in there…”  He didn’t need to elaborate.
“Rocks?” asked Mike.
“Rocks.  That’s all,” replied Vanner.
“So this whole thing, all those men -”
“Were just a diversion,” finished Nielson.
“It’s actually clever of him.  The Rangers paid a heavy price in men and ammo and energy; they’re going to need serious R&R before they’re any use for combat again.  The Tigers are battered to shit from the speed run back, and exhausted as well.  On top of that, we’re almost entirely out of the field; how effective can any of our searches be right now?”
The Combat Staff had gathered at the caravanserai again.  Part of Vanner’s Intel squad was combing the battlefield for any information they could gather, but they weren’t hopeful.
“So where the fuck is Schwenke, then?” asked Adams, who had finally made it back.  He alone was standing.  For some reason, he’d refused a seat.
Nobody had an answer.