So hope the tuckerization went over well (you know who you are) - of course, some of you are still awaiting your tuckerizing, and some are, I'm sorry, going to be buckleyed. Keep reading and see if you show up!
If Chief Adams thought the ride north was uncomfortable, it was nothing compared to the ride back, mostly due to the combination of speed and driver.
SLAM! Another fucking pothole! The truck went airborne, Adams’ ass left the seat to rejoin it and the far-too-thin, rock-hard padding on the way down.
And another pot-
“I left the Teams for this crap!?” The money was good, it was Ass-Boy 2 asking, but -
SLAM! WHAM! “Fuck!”
“I’m gonna need Kurosawa worse than Mike if I’m ever gonna walk aga-”
SLAM! WHAM! “Fuck! Just shoot me now!”
Headed north, there was urgency, yes. Warriors, headed into combat, eager to face their foes and confident in their abilities. At the same time, though, they were getting farther from their homes and loved ones, and that added a bittersweet note to the journey.
The journey south, though…
Although the Keldara were well-versed in Operational Security, and used the best equipment money could buy, Vanner could kludge and the Four Blind Mice could reprogram, it was the Kildar’s policy to keep nothing from his troops. So when the news came in of a threat to the Valley, and all its inhabitants…!
They would have been more than human to resist the urge to hurry.
SLAM! WHAM! “Fuck!”
“Slow the fuck down, Jachin!”
The van hit another pothole - he swore Jachin was aiming for the damn things! - and bounced against the old suspension. What was going to break first - his back, the seat, his ass, or the suspension - was anyone’s guess.
“Shit!’ That one really hurt. Aggravated an old wound, some shrapnel picked up near Baghdad. Or was it Kuala Lumpur? Didn’t matter, there were far too many fucked-up missions to remem-
SLAM! WHAM! “Fuck!”
He never should have let the kid drive. Maybe, if Jachin slowed down enough that he could use his arms again for something besides bracing, he’d pull out his sidearm and shoot him somewhere fleshy but non-fata-
SLAM! WHAM! “Fuck!”
“Faster, Chief?” He swore he heard the tortured engine’s scream increase. Fuck the fleshy; shoot him in the balls!
SLAM! WHAM! “Fuck!”
“Big one ahead, Chief!” At least the little prick warned him that time; his arms tightened against the roof to keep his head from smashing again-
SLAM! WHAM! “Fuck me!’
Kacey was bushed.
There hadn’t been any problems - yet, she reminded herself - but she’d put hundreds of kilometers on her bird in the past few hours. At least Anechka could rack out on the return trips; she couldn’t.
Now she was facing a combat op on top of this ferrying shit?
Not good. Time for a command decision.
“Tammy, we’re almost to Elista. I still have enough gas to get home; I’m gonna shag ass out of here as soon as your wheels touch the ground.”
“Thanks a lot. Leave me to fly back alone.”
“Hey, no sweat. You can catch a nap on the ground in Elista before heading back.”
“Oh yeah, in the middle of a couple dozen nukes. Sounds real healthy.” Of the two, Tammy was much more health-conscious.
“Your choice. Didn‘t think you were planning on pumping out brats any time soon. Should have told me; I‘ll throw you a baby shower you‘ll never forget.” Tammy could hear Kacey’s shrug as her mind raced for a comeback. “I’m RTB and bed, at least until it’s time for the Dragon to feed. Out.”
“See you at home. Out.” She switched over to the intercom. “Naida? What do you think - stay and nap, or head right for home?”
“I could sleep, ma’am. But I would like to go home. And we don‘t know what the weather will bring,” she added hopefully.
“Good point. I always sleep better in my own bed, too,” agreed Tammy. “Okay, then, we’ll offload this last load and didee home.”
The KH-13 satellite, nicknamed ‘Misty,’ officially didn’t exist.
The KeyHole series of satellites ended at the KH-11. Anyone in DOD or the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) would tell you that.
KH-12? The Advanced KeyHole? A Tom Clancy dream.
KH-13? Don’t be ridiculous! A stealth satellite? Impossible!
Even the report in 2007 that Misty had been cancelled, by no less a personage than the SecDef himself, only brought the bland comment, “The Secretary has the authority to cancel projects as he sees fit.”
Still, she flew on.
Launched in 1990, she was a veritable ancient among satellites. Her stealthy nature - that much, at least, the press had gotten correct - forbade the deployment of the usual array of solar panels. The solution? A half-dozen radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG), each capable of pouring out over a hundred fifty watts of power continuously for half a century.
There was a drawback, of course. The RTGs used pressed plutonium oxide pellets as their power source. Had it been known, this would have doomed the project from the start. Another reason to keep it quiet.
And, due to the extended - and completely covert - nature of her mission, radical orbital shifts simply weren’t possible. She simply couldn’t carry enough reactant to create a delta-vee of more than a few centimeters per second.
But, finally, she was in position over the Caucasus, and her high-powered electro-optical ‘eyes’ peered at the Earth below.
There was Captain Cheal in the Victoria.
A line of vans and trucks headed to Georgia at high speed? Keldara, headed home.
Confirmation! In the mountains, near the Georgian border - the missing vehicles appropriated by the followers of the late Emir, Giku Inarov.
All these were immediately queued up and delivered to the Cave - and a few other select locations.
What wasn’t downloaded immediately was the image of four GAZ-23s escorting a lumbering ZIL-E167 northwest along the M1, the main road from Baku to Georgia.
When it was finally downloaded, later in the morning in routine housecleaning, it was diverted by an NRO watchdog program. Azerbaijan was definitely NOT Georgia or Chechnya, the two regions that the Keldara - or, as the program knew them, ‘Authorized User Kilo Three Two’ - had been granted immediate access to.
In fact, it took nearly eight more hours before a secondary protocol, based on the vehicle descriptions, caused the data to be forwarded.
And then, since it was outside the primary area - plus the more immediate threat of trucks coming through the pass - another six hours would pass before anyone in the Cave noted the little convoy.
Murphy had struck again.
“Are you sure this is safe?”
Padrek, the most technically-savvy of the Keldara team leaders, was standing back from Major Hughes, who was occupied with spot-welding heavy lead shielding over the damaged nukes. It took a fine touch and a gentle hand; the combination of soft metal and low melting point made it, well, frustrating as hell didn’t do it justice.
“Compared to what?” quipped Jack from behind the welder’s mask.
“I didn’t think so,” said Padrek, stepping back another pace.
“No, seriously, it’s nothing to worry about. The heat, the sparks, they won’t do anything to the fissile material. Might screw up the electronics, but that wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
“No,” agreed Padrek. Still, he didn’t step closer.
The careful plan - drive to Elista, get evacced by air back to Tbilisi, let the nukes fly off wherever they were headed for - had gone out the window about 3am. That’s when Nielson had called in and let the Kildar know that one of the missing nukes - the one headed for the Valley! - had been located.
It might have been marginally faster to keep to the plan. Maybe. It was still a hell of a drive to Elista. It didn’t matter, though. Within fifteen minutes, every Keldara, save Padrek and a half-dozen of his team, was in the vehicles and barreling south.
Hughes had flown with Dragon to Elista, to start making the necessary patches for safe transport to Novorossijisk. Padrek had overhead the Kildar saying something about wanting his own plane, but not a radioactive one. And Chatham would make him buy it out of spite if he abused them.
Qays was still with them, trying to be inconspicuous. After the demolition of the headquarters, he wasn’t sure that he wasn’t next. He didn’t have to worry; the Kildar had been very clear about that.
“He’s just a dumb kid,” he said, gesturing with his thumb. “I don’t think the Russians would take kindly to him, though, so he’s your problem for now.”
“What do I do with him, then?”
“Take him with you.”
“All the way?”
“At least to Tbilisi. Maybe back to the Valley. You talk to him, find out if he’s worth anything to us. If nothing else, I’m sure Shota could use another grunt.” He shrugged. “In for a penny, in for a pound. Feed him up, make sure he‘s healthy, then run him through training. If he breaks, he breaks. We‘ve got the backhoe.”
That was about the last he’d said, climbing aboard the smallest of the jets in the Chatham white and blue with Katrina.
So here he was. Babysitting nukes. Babysitting a man welding lead shielding on broken nukes. And babysitting a potential turncoat. Wasn’t it wonderful to be a Team leader?
The Major was almost done with this one, he could see.
“How many more?”
“Five. About another half hour. I‘d have wrapped them in lead foil, if that was available quickly. Welding lead is a bitch.”
“Are the other ones already loaded?”
“Yes, Major. We’ve been loading them as soon as you finished them.”
“You have any idea how we’re supposed to get home?” It was disconcerting to hold a conversation like this, thought Padrek. Shouldn’t he be concentrating on the welding?
“I was supposed to ride with the Kildar,” continued Hughes. “Welding these nukes was NOT part of the job description.”
“Aboard Valkyrie, I suppose,” suggested Padrek. “Just be grateful it’s not Dragon.”
“Sounds like a story.”
Mike and Katrina had caught a lift with Dragon back to the Elista airport, where they boarded the Hardesty‘s G550 for the run to Tbilisi. There had been little conversation.
Mike’s thoughts were turned toward the upcoming battle. Assuming the Keldara could complete the trip in time, they’d almost certainly hold an overwhelming advantage over Schwenke and his men.
Three hundred Chechens. He had two hundred Rangers, plus the Keldara, plus, if necessary, he could pull in the Rams. No Mules, though, which put a hurt on his heavy-weapons mobility.
What the fuck were they doing? Didn’t matter; they’re not here. Concentrate on assets on hand.
Fixed mortar positions, with the most heavily-trafficked routes in and out dialed in. Plus, he’d trust the girls to drop heavy fire on any position they could reach. They’d trained hard - though he wasn’t sure it wasn’t because they just loved hearing the rounds go boom! No matter, they were trained up as well as could be managed. And with the sensors to lock in on positions - deadly.
Kacey and the Dragon, though he didn‘t know which was more dangerous. Dragon hadn’t had a good feed since -
Kat curled into his lap, disrupting his chain of thoughts for a second.
All of Vanner’s little toys. Sensors that could go boom!, and he was talking about getting hold of some manjack autocannons - those would add another layer of security to their perimeter, if the damn things could be trusted to target foes, not friends. Mike still preferred the old Mark One Eyeball when it came to distinguishing friend from foe. Technology could be spoofed; humans were harder, for even the most adept at camouflage brought some of their habits and mannerisms with them.
Okay, so tech was a clear advantage for them, and also, he had to assume, the quality and training of the troops, whether Ranger, Tiger, Ram, or some combination of all three.
On paper - a cakewalk.
So why was he worried? He looked down at the kitten asleep in his lap
Two words: Kurt Schwenke.
No, he didn’t have any experience in field tactics. At least as far as Mike knew.
No, the force he was leading wasn’t exactly the best of the best. In fact, in terms of raw material, it was probably as poor as it could get. It seemed that late Emir had found every possible corner to cut on training and supplies for his troops. And the men themselves would be shit, even those who had survived other skirmishes. Can’t stiffen spit with iron; it just rusts.
No, the weapons and ammo he carried with him would necessarily be quite limited, whatever the men could carry plus some in the vehicles. He supposed they could have hit an arms depot, but there hadn‘t been any reports that he‘d heard of. Get the Cave to check on that. Although the SAMs were top-of-the line. But why use them on drones?
Drones were dumb. They could be spoofed with just a bit of work, killed with much less capable weapons. Hell, an AK-47 could take one down if you could get enough rounds on it. No, using the SAMs was overkill. Why? Schwenke never did anything without a reason.
That was something to think about.
This was Schwenke, the man behind the operational details of Marina Arensky’s kidnapping, who had nearly gotten away clean.
The man who had so completely infiltrated Juan Gonzalez’ organization that SOCOM had no idea who he was, who had only been ‘made’ by a single person - Katya. A sociopath picked out by a sociopath.
A man who knew no bounds when it came to pursuing his own ends.
A man with a nuclear bomb and a reason to use it. The same obstruction that had disrupted his plans twice before. Katya Ivanova. Cottontail.
Kat stirred in his lap, as if sensing his distress.
Taking the head of the enemy - an old, old tradition, symbolizing the total defeat of the foe. Well, it wouldn’t be symbolic this time. It would be a necessity. He’d have to remember to give that order.
“Michael?” Kat’s voice was sleepy but full of concern. “I see that you are worried.” She rubbed her eyes. Fuck. He’d awakened her. When he spoke, it was harsher than he intended.
“A goddamn nuke is heading for home behind three hundred Chechens and a certifiable lunatic! Of course I’m worried!”
“Isn’t this what you trained the Keldara for? And the Rams, too?”
“I didn’t train them for a nuclear weapon! No way in hell we have enough shelter for even the Keldara, even with the serai and their root cellars. And Alersso? Forget them!”
“Michael.” Her soft, almost placid, tones penetrated. “We are warriors. We serve the All-Father, and the Goddess. If it is our fate to fall in battle, we fall. But you have given us a chance to stand, instead.”
“I have given you a chance to be wiped out, is what I’ve done!” he snarled. “I didn’t sign up to fight off a nuclear assault, and the Keldara sure as hell didn’t! It’s not fair, and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t intruded on your lives!”
“And who said that life is fair? Or that it had to be? Was it fair before you came? And if you hadn‘t come? We‘d be under the Russians again.” There was a timbre to her voice that made Mike’s head snap up. In that instant, he didn’t see a seventeen-year-old girl, hidden away in a remote valley for most of her life. Instead, he saw the next priestess of the Keldara’s Goddess.
“Life is struggle and strife, Michael. Conflict between the cold and the fire. Each of us are given a choice to stand up, or stand aside. We Keldara have always chosen to stand up. We are of warrior blood, kept pure from ancient times. Made stronger by our Fathers and our Priestesses. We take what is needed to make us stronger, discard that which would weaken us. We honor our past.”
“Many have fallen. Many more will fall. If it is written that we shall fall now, then fall we shall. But in this, there is no blame for men who stand, or the consequences of their stand, or the women who bore them!” Her voice grew stronger with each word. “If we fall, it is fitting that we fall as one. Keldara. Born with axe in hand. Dying with our axes, our enemies piled about our feet, even if they should bring the very sun down to the Valley. Our shades will curse them and their line to the end of time, if that happens. This is the way of the Keldara, husband-to-be.”
He simply turned away. “I need to think.”
This wasn’t going to be easy at all.
He’d been wrong before, and all it had cost him was pain.
What if he was wrong now?
What would the cost be then? Could his soul - frayed and tattered it may be, but he knew it for his own - survive at the cost of the Keldara?
He stared out the window until the plane touched down in Tbilisi, unable to look at Kat. Afraid that she’d look into his eyes and see his thoughts.
Doubt was the least of it.
The men of Bravo Company, First of the Seventy-Fifth, were ready.
Weapons were cleaned, loaded, and ready for action.
Assignments were given.
The protocols were clear.
Where was the enemy?
Rangers are not, by temperament, inclined to sit and wait.
They’re trained to go out and bring the fight to the foe.
This morning, though, the foe was nowhere to be found.
A freezing mist fell gently from the sky. Perfect weather to attempt an assault. And yet -
Tac net - silent. Sensors they were tied into - silent. Even good old Mark One eyeball - silent.
It was maddening.