Salah was in the dungeons, waiting in the dark.
The room was on the second sub-basement of the caravanserai, one of the deepest parts of the building, and was constantly clammy, despite the recently-installed concrete walls and floor. If he’d been able to see, the presence of a drain would have caused great concern. But he’d been blindfolded almost immediately after stumbling out of the helicopter, and, though it had since been removed, there simply was no light in the room. He was shackled to the chair he sat in which was, in turn, bolted to the floor. He wasn’t going anywhere soon.
Observing him with infrared cameras, Lilia asked, “How much longer do you think he needs?”
“Only a few minutes more,” answered Olga. The two intelligence specialists had been assigned to extract information from this prisoner. They’d shown a knack, over the past year and a half, at getting their subjects to open up without bringing the sledgehammers out. And while few of their sources had actually survived, at least it cut down on the immediate bloodshed. “See how he’s slumped down? That’s pretty typical of his resistance being broken.”
“But he’s been like that practically since he arrived!” argued Lilia. The younger of the two, she was much more willing to take an aggressive stance. She fell naturally into the ‘bad cop’ role.
“So? Remember, this wretch has had it rough, even before he was captured. I don’t think there was much spirit to break.” Olga, expecting her first child in a few short weeks, twisted in her chair to relieve the pressure on her back. “I have an idea. What if you…”
The high-intensity lights blinded Salah with their white glare as they suddenly came on. He didn’t hear the heavy door open, or Lilia’s light footsteps, as he blinked furiously against the tears.
“Your name is Salah,” was the first thing he heard, a soft, lilting, feminine voice - in Arabic, the language of the Prophet!
“Are you a houri?”
The laughter was gentle. “Not for you! No such luck for you, unfortunate one. I am Lilia, and I am come to ask you questions. You would be wise to answer them.”
Salah’s voice showed his dejection as clearly as his face. “I will answer you, houri Lilia.”
Olga’s laughter could barely be contained. Lilia? A houri?
Very quickly, Lilia plumbed the shallow depths of Salah’s knowledge and reported upstairs.
“He went where he was told, when he was told, and did what he was told. Beyond that? He knows he’s fighting to establish an Emirate, he’s seen the would-be Emir, and he reads his Qur’an daily.”
“So a drone,” commented Stella. “Do you think he’s worth holding onto for further questioning?”
“Honestly, I don’t know if he’s worth wasting a bullet on. If there’s a less-knowledgeable mujahideen out there, I’ve yet to meet him!”
“What do you suggest we do with him, then?”
“I have an idea…”
A cold wind blew against Salah’s face as the vehicle door opened. Pushed, again, he stumbled out into the snow. Stripping the blindfold away, his eyes quickly adjusted to the fading light. He turned to see Lilia, bundled in arctic gear, pointing an assault rifle at his middle.
“What is this?” he asked.
“Mercy. You’re too stupid to be any good to us, and you’re too pitiful to kill. So.“ She tossed a worn coat and backpack at him. “Chechnya, and Kvanada, is that way.” She gestured. “If you’re lucky, you might be able to find a road.” She very deliberately cocked the weapon. “Start walking.”
“He’s stabilized. He may even live,” said Arensky, dropping into a seat. “I repaired what I could, loaded him with antibiotics, and closed him up.”
“When can we talk to him?”
“You can talk to him any time you choose,” shrugged Arensky. “He won’t answer until he’s conscious, and that could be hours, even days.”
“Don’t you have some sort of chemical concoction that would -”
“Wake him up? Oh, many. They won’t do any good right now, though.”
“Why not? He’s a dammed Chechen -”
“Oh, no!” Arensky chuckled. “No ethical reason holds me back. No, it’s simply that until the anesthetics I used clear his system, I’m afraid that any stimulant I apply will simply, well, kill him.”
“That would be a problem,” admitted Vanner. “I don’t suppose you have some sort of brain scan, mind-reading device down in your lab?”
“Alas, I am only a simple microbiologist, not an engineer! Once he is awake, I can make him answer all of your questions. And in another five or six hours, when his bloodstream is clear, I can attempt to awaken him. Until then?” He gave that very Russian gesture, a shrug that conveyed, ‘Yes, the world is shit, but what can you do?’ “Nothing.”
“Thanks, doc. Can we move him at least? I’d like to have him in the interrogation room when you’re ready to try waking him.”
“Oh, certainly! I’ll arrange it, yes?” He stood and left the room, leaving Pat and Grez behind.
“Damn! We really need to pick his brain!”
“Maybe not,” said his wife. “We did get quite a collection from their safe house. Their security was a joke! We’ve already cracked every encryption they had set up.”
“Find anything useful?”
“Not much. It’s terribly disorganized! Would you believe they were using Word documents for data storage?”
“What have you found?”
“So far, we’ve pulled out references to Inarov and Ibrahim, and a timetable for the Groznyy operation. Apparently, once the bomb was in place, they were to wait four days longer.”
“We don’t know yet. That’s probably in another document we haven’t found yet.”
“How long until you dig up something else?”
“Who knows? I have everyone I can spare working on ploughing through the data, though.”
“Let me know if you want help. We could probably get OSOL to bring in more eyes?”
“No. We’ll find it soon enough.”
“You didn’t get lost. That’s a plus.” Adams’ acerbic comment startled Jachin, who had been concentrating on the road.
“All Father!” he swore, gripping the wheel tightly as his eyes flashed from Adams’ still-recumbent form to the road.
Jachin recovered control of the slight swerve. “If not for your snores, I would think you dead!”
“Yeah, that’s what the third - or was it the fourth? - wife said at the divorce. Where are we?”
Instead of replying directly, Jachin keyed the mike. “Dragon, Orkin Actual requests a position check.”
“One five klicks west southwest of Prikumskij. Glad he’s awake; the snoring was getting to be a tactical concern.”
Jachin looked at Adams, shrugged as if to say, ‘Told you so,’ and answered, “Roger, out.” He began to slow down.
“What are you doing?” demanded Adams.
“Pulling over so you can take over driving?” answered Jachin, suddenly unsure.
“Negative, Keldara. I just told you to wake me at Prikumskij, not that we’d be changing positions. No, you’re in the hot seat the rest of the way.”
“The seat isn’t that warm -”
“Never mind. Point is, you’re still driving. I’m coordinating, making sure none of our other sheep wander off.” He keyed the mike for the tactical radio net to the other vehicles. “Orkin team, Dragon puts us at one five klicks from initial penetration of OA. Any issues we need to deal with?”
All the calls came back, “Negative.”
“Very good. Upon arrival at OA, unload…” Jachin could imagine the groans from Adams’ captive audience.
“Four Blind Mice report negative, continuing surveillance.”
Switching gears to another op, Pierson, muttering, answered, “Understood. Report completion of sweep.”
Not surprisingly, the evolution went smoothly. The last few klicks, after parking, were tedious but not especially difficult, as the road leading past the lake was maintained year-round. Each Team, upon reaching their designated spot, simply faded into the trees, silently, and quickly began concealing themselves.
Vil and Oleg allowed their sub-leaders to coordinate their Teams’ emplacement, as they met with Adams in a portable command center. The basic design was stolen from Delta; Vanner had worked his magic on it, and now it readily duplicated the capabilities of the main intel suite back in the caravanserai. Of course, on this mission, basically a smash-and-grab, they anticipated using very little tech support. The lone member of Vanner’s staff occupied herself, setting up workstations to her liking.
“Their perimeter security is shit,” opined Vil.
“We didn’t see anyone,” agreed Adams, “but you know how easy it would be to conceal all sorts of fancy electronics.” He waved at the Intel spec.
“We scanned for that, for active and passive monitors. Nothing.”
“Just eyeballs,” added Oleg. “And yes, Chief. The men were careful not to be spotted. Shaynav’s already got them scoped; he says there are three guards near the entrance, two below, one above.”
“Watch for patterns.” He checked the time. “We assault in ninety minutes.”
“Why have we not heard from Kassab?”
Inarov was pacing up and down. It was nearly sundown. Since departing the previous morning, nothing had been heard from Boulos or his Groznyy-bound team. Ibrahim and Gereshk were out of contact as well, but that was planned. They both had further to travel, and the importance of maintaining radio silence had been repeatedly stressed by Ibrahim before his exodus. It was closing in on the deadline for Boulos and Kassab to report successful contact, however, and with Ibrahim absent, Inarov was taking counsel of his fears. “Handal!” he bellowed.
Mansur Handal, one of the remaining members of Inarov’s inner circle, immediately appeared. “How may I serve Your Excellency?”
“Call Boulos. If he does not answer, call Kassab. Find them!”
Handal had followed Inarov for the best part of five years, and was familiar with his moods and concerns. He could usually persuade him to keep to the planned path when the unexpected arose. ”I would not dream of disobeying you, O Wise One, but did not Ibrahim insist we await their calls?”
“I am the Emir and you will obey!”
Sometimes discretion was the better part of survival. “At once, Emir.” Striding to the side of the room, he picked up a past-generation Russian scrambled mobile phone that had been acquired in a raid. To the Chechen, it was advanced technology, with multiple selections and modes of communication available: fax, text, scrambled, clear channel. You had to know which one was appropriate for use. He didn’t.
He assumed that the default setting would be a satellite link and therefore nearly untraceable. He dialed.
“No answer from Kassab,” he said after a moment.
“Try Boulos, fool!”
“At once.” Another moment: “No answer either.”
“Allah be merciful, where are they?”
Kira Makanee was the only member of Vanner’s staff to accompany the teams on this mission. She was tall for a Keldara woman, nearly six feet tall, and strongly built. Her Nordic heritage shone through in her blonde hair, blue eyes and high cheeks. She was another of the older Keldara, just past her twentieth birthday, and had settled into the intel job as naturally as other generations had taken to the axe. She was composed, intellectual, and able to concentrate through the chaos that surrounded her. When Vanner asked her one day how she thrived in Chaos Central, she laughed and replied, ‘I am the oldest of thirteen children. This is nothing!’
She was attached to Team Vil, so when her intercept gear beeped for attention, she called Vil over to her side of the command center.
“What do you have?”
“They’re attempting to contact Kassab. There’s no answer.” The success of the raid in Groznyy was well-known. “Now they’re trying Boulos. No answer there either, of course.”
“They must be getting nervous. We may have to kick off early. Good work, Kira.”
The phones ringing was noticed by Stella, too.
“They‘re getting worried.” She looked at the phones thoughtfully. “I wonder…”
“What?” asked Anisa.
“I wonder if we could spoof them?”
“How? None of us sound like Kassab, or Boulos, and even if we alter our voices we don’t have the speech patterns or the information they’d have!”
“I have an idea…”
The secure phone sounded a tone. Inarov pounced on it.
“What does this mean?” he asked, holding the flashing phone out so Handal could see it.
“May I see?” he said, reaching for it. “Ah!” and he pressed some buttons. “It is Kassab, reporting in with a SMS message.”
“He texted us, Excellency.”
“Why did he not call? Why did he not answer?”
“One moment, Your Wisdom, allow me to read this.” A few clicks, a few seconds, and he spoke again. “He said:
“Boulos has arrived, the package is secure. We have very bad conditions here and I was unable to answer the phone. I can only respond in this manner for now. Kassab.”
“I should not have doubted our faithful servants, eh, Handal?”
“Think they bought it?”
“Assuming that Kassab knew how to text? Maybe. But you want to know the best part?” Stella giggled.
“The message we sent is all true. Well, except the signature.”
“They don’t seem to be moving yet.”
Manos Shaynav was the sniper for Team Padrek. He was keeping the three sentries in constant view, one in the crude rock hut atop the ridge, the other two sharing cigarettes by the entry.
“Good,” came back Padrek’s reply on the radio. “Be prepared. No searching for tigers.”
“Understood.” He raised his weapon of choice, a Russian-made KSVK 12.7. A massive rifle, it had been designed for anti-material sniping - taking out people hiding behind walls, for example - but he loved it. His theoretical range was two kilometers, though his best shot to date was only about eleven hundred meters. At this range - little more than five hundred - his targets had no chance.
So far, nothing much had happened. A non-com, a sergeant-equivalent, had come out briefly, sending one of the two guards by the door scurrying off toward the woods. Seeing this, the guard above, huddled in his pathetic rock hut, stood and walked to the edge of the escarpment. Manos could see past him into the shelter as he gestured and yelled down to the maybe-sergeant. Probably complaining about being stuck up top, thought Manos.
Except for a rough blanket against the rocks to try to seal out the rushing wind, and a thermos sitting on the ground, the space was bare of any other equipment - no radio, no gun. The discussion, argument, was brief. Refused permission to move, the guard returned to the rocks. A few minutes after the non-com went back inside, the scurrier returned to the cliff face, and soon enough the two were reunited in the dubious shelter of the cave entrance. They were his first targets when the word came down, he decided. Without a radio, Hut-boy couldn’t warn the encampment, and without a gun, he couldn’t shoot back.
Grain to be threshed. If they lined up just right, he thought, maybe I can take them both out with one shot…
The intercom sounded. “Yes?”
Hardesty sighed inwardly. “Fifty seven minutes, with this tailwind.” It was the third time in a half hour he had been asked that question, and he didn’t need to be psychic to sense his passenger’s impatience. “Sir, I have the engines redlined. Every temperature gauge I have says that we should have fallen apart an hour ago. And I’ve never seen any Gulfstream gulp fuel this quickly. I understand that it’s important to get to your destination, but unless you wish to get out and push, or start throwing people out the cabin?” He paused a beat. “I didn’t think so. Sir, we will get there as quickly as I can manage.”
He heard, rather than saw, the answering, rueful grin. “I don’t suppose you could just drop the luggage? Never mind, I’d have to jump out after it, if I didn’t get pushed out. Okay, Captain, I’ll stop bugging you.” The connection broke.
“Thank Christ,” he muttered.
“Another bloody impatient Yank?” inquired the co-pilot, Tulleigh O‘Neal.
Hardesty thought before replying firmly, “You haven’t flown Mr. Jenkins around with me, have you?”
“No, sir,” came the now-nervous answer.
“He’s not your typical Yank. Yes, he’s impatient to get to his destination, but there are some things about Mr. Jenkins that, frankly, you don’t need to know.”
“And, incidentally, I wasn’t referring to his query about our ETA.”
“With Mr. Jenkins, I worried too late that he might take me seriously and start dumping people overboard.”
The guards were looking anxiously around in the dim light of a lantern. Neither owned a watch, so trusted their replacements to be on time. Several times this had burned them, the next shift taking their time and delaying ten or even fifteen minutes. Today, they thought it was after eight, and so were stamping their feet, trying to blot out the fact they‘d left Qays up top the entire shift. Haytham said, “I’ll head out to the other post.”
Manos had seen the increasing agitation and reported in. Seconds later, he had a reply. “Take them down.”
Qays heard a muted, if fierce, crack. Peering into the darkness revealed nothing, so he achingly emerged from the shelter and went around the back, overlooking the lake. Fortunately, the wind had died down.
The round from Manos’ KSVK was made of Staballoy, an alloy of nickel, zinc, and, mostly, depleted uranium. Strictly speaking, it was an ‘Armor Piercing Fin Stabilized Discarding Sabot”; Manos called them ‘Ull’s Arrows” after the Norse hunting god. A tiny firm in Macedonia, specializing in unique ammunition, kept him supplied. The cost? He didn’t know exactly, but it had to be appalling. The one time he had wasted a round on a known distance range target - as opposed to an animal, or a combat simulator - Lasko had made him clean every rifle in the armory for a week. As a result, he tried very hard not to miss.
He didn’t miss this time.
The round penetrated Haytham’s neck just above the C5 vertebra, virtually decapitating him. Bursting from the clavicle, the round wasn’t appreciably slowed as it plowed into the shorter Kateb’s left eyebrow, followed by a spray of blood and pulverized bone. Of course, by then Kateb’s skull had been nearly exploded by the passing round, which continued for a bare millisecond before impacting the granite behind the men, driving nearly a foot into the recalcitrant stone before finally shattering and stopping. The sparks the pyrophoric - ‘fire-making’ - uranium erupted into were briefly smothered by the splashes of Haytham and Kateb, but soon flared up again. Blood and body parts contained water, and that reacted as readily with the now-burning uranium as air.
The smell of roast pork began to fill the air.
Qays couldn’t see anything from this side, either. But with the wind finally died down, and the stars out, it was peaceful on this side, so he sat down to wait.
An odd whistling noise didn’t disturb him.
Lasko’s going to kill me! thought Manos as he frantically loaded another round. The target had sat so quickly, so unexpectedly, that the round that should have sent him to visit Allah sped past, unobserved. Good thing he’s on the other mission! Speaking into the voice-activated mike, Manos reported in. “Two at entrance down. One on rock unable to target, waiting.”
The round eventually impacted on the far shore.
“Go!” The order came from Adams. Silently, NVGs down, Padrek’s team advanced on the now-abandoned entrance. From the north and south Teams Yosif and Sawn also advanced, tasked with sealing any potential escapes. One of Yosif’s men, Edvin, sprinted up the path to take care of the lone guard remaining. Breathing rapidly but quietly, he slowed to approach the rock pile. M-4 held at ready, he paused, then jumped around to face the guard who -
- was asleep. Backing up a step, Edvin kept the gun leveled at the tango’s head. Still no reaction - was the son-of-a-goat - snoring??
“Ah, Yosif Nine to Yosif Actual,” he sub vocalized, the sensitive throat mike picking up the faint sounds.
“Target is, well, sleeping.”
He heard Yosif’s snort. “Repeat, Nine?”
He drew a deep breath. “Target is sleeping, Yosif.”
“Wrong time to joke, Edvin.”
“I’m not kidding!” he nearly snapped. “He. Is. Asleep.”
He could definitely hear laughter. “Then wake him up and bring him in. Allah must be favoring him today.”
“Nine, out.” He strode closer and poked him with a foot. “You, wake up!” he said in passable Arabic.
“Hunh? Oh, goat fuck me, I fell asleep on watch!” The clueless man - no, kid, he couldn’t be more than fifteen, didn’t even need to shave yet as far as Edvin could tell through the NVGs - stretched and rubbed his eyes. Looking at Edvin, and the appropriately lethal-looking M-4, he froze.
“You’re not -”
“No. Up. Now.”
The youth sprang to his feet like someone had set a firecracker under his ass.
“Down the hill. Move.” The kid hesitated. “I said, move!”
“Can I get my tea?”
“In the guard shack. It’s not my bottle, you see, and if I don’t bring it back -”
“You have bigger problems than a lost tea bottle. Move.”
Bori Mahona was first to the entrance. Inspecting it closely, he was shocked at its primitive condition - it wasn’t even a proper door! It seemed to be little more than a heavy piece of wood which had been roughly shaped to the entrance and propped against the hole. He could see light leaking around imperfections in the fit, but one thing he couldn’t see was a handle. Tentatively, he pushed against it. Nothing. He pushed harder. Still nothing.
The team was piling up behind him now. He leaned against it with all his weight. Nothing.
“Did you try pulling it?” rasped Padrek.
“There’s no handle to pull!”
“Tch, tch,” answered Padrek in his favorite MacKenzieism. “Vasya, I think a few meters of det cord are in order here. Justinas, get a camera through that door. We need to know if anyone’s coming.”
“So we can wait until they open it for us?” quipped Justinas as he came forward and pulled a compact camera/monitor assembly from his pack.
“No, so we can blow the bloody door down on their fool heads!” grinned back Padrek. He did love his explosives.
The camera revealed a rough, heavy-looking metal bar across the door. Bori did his best, but his fingers couldn’t quite push the det cord through the narrow gap to make solid contact with the shaft so. Thinking quickly, he pulled out the multi-purpose tool each Tiger carried - essentially, a Leatherman folding tool by another name, with a few specialized additions. Opening up a flat probe blade, he tamped the cord down.
“A little faster, please,” said Padrek patiently.
Bori flushed; while all of Padrek’s team had received extensive training in explosives and other mechanical devices of destruction, he was better with the hardware, instead of the things just went boom. This was little out of his comfort zone, but ‘Adapt, Improvise and Overcome! (Or blow it up.)’
“Ready.” Justinas hastily removed the camera, and the Team backed around the stone corner. “Fire in the hole!” There was a flash and a muffled ‘whump’, then a deafening ‘CLAAAANNNNG!’ as the iron bar dropped to the rock floor.
“That does for surprise, boyos!” yelled Padrek, leaning against the door. Now, it toppled easily into the cavern, dimly illuminated by three old-fashioned lanterns hanging from the wall. Echoes of the falling door resonated through the cavern.
“Genrich, left, Steppas, right. Anton, take out the lanterns. Arminis, I want you and your SAW ready to suppress any fire.” Arminis Ferani was Padrek’s third, carrying an M249, followed closely by Efim Shaynav, his ammo bearer, trailed the point as Anton started snuffing the lanterns. As the light dimmed, the team went back to the NVGs.
“Clear right, two rooms, both vacant.” Further down the hall, a dim light indicated a curve in the tunnel. The walls here were almost totally raw rock, worn smooth by passage of untold numbers of people over the centuries.
“Look sharpish, lads,” said Padrek. “I can hear ‘em coming.” Sure enough, voices floated to their ears, perhaps concerned but not unduly alarmed. “Some prisoners would be helpful, though not entirely necessary,” he added. Looking at the close quarters, he finished, “Though not bloody likely.”
It was about to get very loud, and very messy.
They came in hotter than usual, barely slow enough to stay on the ground, and Hardesty had his hands full bringing his bird to a controlled stop on the short runway. Stop they did, though, and were quickly off the tarmac and rolling along the taxiway.
“I think our ride’s here,” said Mike, peering out a forward window. Sure enough, in the middle distance squatted the unmistakable silhouette of the Valkyrie, navigation lights flashing, rotors turning slowly. As if in response to his words, the plane veered slightly to pass close to the waiting Hind. It was only a matter of seconds until they were nearly alongside.
“Transfer to Kildar Air here,” joked Hardesty on the intercom. “Miss Rakovich, I understand you’ll be staying aboard for the flight to Tbilisi?”
“Yes, I shall.”
“Right,” said Mike as the plane completely stopped. “Kat, you sure I can’t talk you into staying with Stasia? I don’t really want to leave her alone for a flight.”
“Almost, you convince me,” said Kat, “but my place is with you.”
“I tried,” he sighed, and undogged the hatch. To his surprise, waiting on the tarmac was Chief D’Allaird and Valkyrie‘s crew chief, Naida Shaynav.
“Evening, Kildar. Captain Wilson’s set to fly you to the LZ. Your gear is aboard.”
“Good work, Chief.” Mike practically jumped down the short set of stairs, and was surprised to see Naida climb up. “Naida? Aren‘t you on the wrong bird?”
“No, Kildar. My orders are to return with Miss Rakovich. Chief D’Allaird will be filling in for me on this part of the mission.”
Mike could feel Nielson’s subtle hand at work here. “Good thinking,” was all he said, though. “Chief,” he addressed D’Allaird, seeing Katrina and Major Hughes on the ground. “Looks like we’re ready.”
“Follow me.” D’Allaird trotted off. Behind, the G550s engines spooled up, the stairs were pulled in, and the hatch closed. Probably Naida herself. Tammy trained her people well. Hardesty was clearing the area for the Hind’s liftoff.
“I’m afraid it’s a little cramped,” he said over his shoulder. “The Colonel suggested that we fill out our lift capacity with a few extras.” As they approached the Hind, Mike saw what he meant.
Through the windows, which would normally show the crew compartment, all he could see were piles of boxes, crates, and ammo cartons. “Just what did the Colonel suggest you bring?” he asked, climbing aboard.
“Oh, this and that. Actually, I think it’s mostly Semtex,” he admitted sheepishly.
“Semtex?” said Hughes, surprised. While Semtex was a very stable explosive, he obviously was unused to being flown in a compartment stuffed ceiling to floor with the compound. Mike and Katrina simply sat down and started fastening their harnesses so, after a moment, Hughes did as well.
“Don’t worry,” assured Mike, “Valkyrie’s not the crazy pilot. Well,” he amended, “not as crazy.”
“Oh, shit,” said Hughes, as Tammy said, “I heard that, Kildar.”
Whereupon Mike echoed, “Oh, shit.”