Good Stuff for YOU

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Kildaran - Chapter 49

[We're into the interesting situation now where I am awaiting re-edits from Dick.  I have a couple chapters edited, plus another that HE'S done and sent back to me that I have to integrate into the whole, but we're getting down to the nitty-gritty now.

Good news, though.  We will have more that 50 chapters - these last few edits have added 18,000 words.  Just to put this in perspective - before writing this, the LONGEST I had managed was 15,000.  So I'm quite pleased with the results.

But you don't want to hear about this.  You want Mike and company.  So, without further ado...



“Umarov.”  He growled into the phone, half out of breath.  He’d just got back from the ‘unscheduled field exercises’ and was halfway through his own version of cardio when the phone rang.  The phone.  The one under a glass dome with the flashing light, the one he’d had installed specifically for a single man.
“General, Mike Jenkins.  Did I interrupt something?”  There was a knowing tone in the American’s voice.  As if on cue, his secretary popped her head above the desk, looking at him curiously.  He shook his head in negation and sighed.  Later, he mouthed.  With a pout, she stood and walked toward his private quarters, the perfect image of a general’s secretary from the waist up, bare from the waist down.
“Ah, Kildar!  Just a little, ah, exercise.  You understand, of course.”  He paused at hearing Mike’s chuckle.  More business-like, he continued.  “I thought you might want to know - it seems there were some Chechens on the wrong side of the border near your area.  We secured them without too much bloodshed on our part.”
“Really?  I’m shocked, General, simply shocked!”
“Yes, truly surprising,” Umarov said wryly.  “But to what do I owe this call?  Certainly not to hear about our border security?”
“No, General, though that is good news.  I was wondering if you were using the Backfire?”
“Backfire?  What Backfire?”  Umarov’s voice was carefully neutral.
“The Backfire your fighters forced down during that little unpleasantness with the Russians last year.  Specifically, a Tu-22-M3-R ELINT that was forced down at Oh Eight Forty Seven hours on 10 August and is currently on the ground in Marneuli.”
“I won’t ask how you know about this.”
“Probably wise,” agreed Mike.
“The answer is no, we aren’t using the Backfire.  We don’t have any pilots currently certified to fly it, for one thing.”  Umarov didn’t mention that they still held the Russian pilot, who steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the project, and Mike politely failed to bring the subject up.
“Is it damaged?”
“No, it isn’t.  Why the interest in a former Russian bomber?”
“I need fast transport,” said Mike, honestly.  “And it was suggested that the Backfire might fit my needs.”
“Fast transport?  For how many?”
“Around twenty, maybe twenty-four people and their gear.  Plus a flight crew..”
Mike could almost hear Umarov thinking.  “There is plenty of space in the fuselage now,” he said.  “It would need some work done, though.”
“Let me guess.  All the ELINT gear?”
“Exactly.  It is much advanced over our own equipment, so we removed it for study.”
“They didn’t damage the airframe, did they?”
“Oh, no!  The technicians who did the work were most careful.  We had hope to use the bird ourselves later.”
“Cards on the table time.  I intend to buy this for use on a more-or-less permanent basis, and to keep you a step removed from any, well, let’s say ‘repercussions’ and keep it at that.”
Umarov laughed.  “I know you have very much money,  Mr. Jenkins, but I doubt even you could afford this!”
“Oh, I don’t intend to pay for it,” answered Mike easily.  “Let me explain…”
Ten minutes later, they had worked out the framework of an agreement.  Umarov felt confident that he could find experienced pilots willing to ferry the Backfire to Tbilisi, where the interior would be refurbished and refitted as quickly as possible.  Mike promised he’d have Vanner and a team of Keldara at the airport soon, but asked that local security provide a five hundred meter perimeter at all times.
It would be somewhat more comfortable than your run-of-the-mill military transport, but not nearly as posh as a Gulfstream or its ilk.  Officially, title would vest with Mike - pending various concessions from the States - but he would ensure that it was available for use by Umarov and other members of the government.  “It’s not every country that has a Mach-capable transport,” he had said, pleased.
“When will it be in Tbilisi?  I want my Intel guy there to help with the installation and to add his touches.”  And to sweep it for any bugs that might have found their way aboard, he didn’t add.  Forcing the pace of the deal would limit the time Umarov’s men had to install such gadgets too.
“Will tomorrow morning be soon enough?”
“That might be pushing it.  Speed, as you may have guessed, is of the essence.”
Umarov sighed.  “I will try for tonight.”
“Thank you, General.  I look forward to a fruitful partnership,” said Mike, grimacing.  He could imagine the uses the Backfire was going to have.  Mile High Club, Georgian Branch?
“Chatham Aviation, Gloria speaking.”
“Hello, Gloria, Mike Jenkins.”
“Hello, Mike, is there a problem?”
“No, no, Gloria.  Everything has been splendid, as always.  Sorry about the wear on the 550.”
“We understand.  The repairs will be included in the bill, as usual.  How can I help you today?”
“I have a rather delicate question for you, Gloria.  Regarding Captain Hardesty.”
“Yes?” she said, her tone curious and cautious at the same time.  Mike‘s request with that particular pilot were legendary around Chatham’s offices.
“Would he be available for a short-term assignment?  In a non-Chatham aircraft?”  Mike tried to sound as neutral as possible.
“As a rule, we don’t allow our pilots to fly aircraft that we don’t maintain ourselves,” began Gloria.  “Insurance, and all that.”
“I understand,” said Mike, resigned to calling Pierson again and begging for pilots.  He hated doing that.  “I guess I’ll -”
“In John’s case, and if you’re the one doing the hiring?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Then I think I’d leave it up to him.  I don’t think I want to know too much, do I?”  She sounded like she wanted to ask more but would wait for the final reports, and for the checks to clear.
“I seem to be saying this a bunch: probably not.”
“Then, good luck convincing him.  I would start by apologizing for the G550; he rather thinks of her as his baby.  Good day, Mike.”
“Hardesty.”  He looked down at his co-pilot, sleeping, and decided not to kick him awake.  Yet.  Best if he got all the sleep he could.  He’d never flown for Mike Whatever-His-Name-Really-Was before, and the high-speed transatlantic crossing had taken it out of him.  He’d learn.  Eventually.  Or he’d find himself a new co.
“John, Mike.  I have a proposition for you.”  Speak of the devil.
“Yes?”  The veteran pilot’s tones were wary.
“When was the last time you flew a mach-capable plane?”
“A mate of mine who’s still in the RAF flies Typhoons.  He let me backseat with him in a trainer, oh, six months ago.  Why?”
“How would you like to fly a Backfire?”
He could practically hear the former fighter pilot drool.  “A Backfire?  When?  Where?”  He’d be buggered if he gave this up!
“When, is as soon as it’s refitted.  Where, let me ask, where are you?”
“Still in Tbilisi.  I wanted to give the 550 a thorough once-over after our speed run.  Seems there are a number of issues caused by extended high-speed flight…”  He allowed his voice to trail off.
“I’d heard.  Look, I’m sorry about the damage, I already told Gloria I’d take care of it.  But, about the Backfire - you should see it tonight.  I‘m told it should arrive sometime the next few hours.”  He paused.  “So.  Are you interested in flying it?”
“Bloody hell yes!”
“Good.  Take some leave from Chatham; I’ve already talked with Gloria.  For the duration, flying the Backfire, I’ll be paying your salary.  Whatever you get is doubled.  Think you can manage?”
“I‘ll make do,” said Hardesty dryly.  Then he remembered what else had happened when he flew Mike around, and wondered about the wisdom of his decision.
“Okay.  As soon as the Backfire arrives, I want you over there to oversee and familiarize.  In the meantime, find any tech manuals you can and start reading.  I’m working on getting you a co with some hours in the airframe, but no guarantees.  Any questions?”
“Just one.  Are things going to be getting wild and wooly again?”
“This time?  Probably.”
“I was afraid there was a catch.”
It actually was a straightforward bit of programming, reflected Vanner.
The profile of the missing nuke had finally arrived.  Once he had it in his hands, all he needed to do was plug the specifics into the code he’d already written.  He knew that the base program would work; he’d stolen - err, borrowed - it from the NRO’s files for other searches.
Uploading it back to Chechnik took a little longer.
“Colonel, the Amis have sent us their program,” said his surviving aide, Lieutenant Sankovsky.
“You know what to do?”
“Yes, Colonel.”
“Then what are you waiting for?  Permission?”  Chechnik’s tone was biting.  He couldn’t take his frustrations out on the Kildar, and he certainly couldn’t take them out on Putin who had put him in this untenable position in the first place.  That just left his aide.  Fortunately, one of an aide’s roles is to be abused.
“No, Colonel.  Working on it, Colonel.”  The lieutenant’s fingers fairly flew over the keyboard.
A veritable constellation of satellites turned their ‘eyes’ to Moscow.  Russian and American ‘national technical means’, reporting to the FSS, NRO, and CIA all peered downward.
Other missions joined in, though not all of their controllers were aware.
Konos-Wind, a NASA project studying the solar wind, turned two gamma ray spectrometers Earthward.
INTEGRAL, despite its extremely eccentric orbit, was ordered by the ESA to join the search.  A three-day orbit had benefits, such as much longer scan periods; and drawbacks, like the Earth turning underneath.
Even AGILE, an Italian spacecraft, was added to the search.
Of course, even the most sensitive gamma radiation detector can only report what it ‘sees’.
One of the few materials which blocks gamma rays effectively is lead.  Lead, which for centuries had been used as a roofing material.  Which was, and still is, widely used on concrete roofs.
Like the one on the warehouse Gereshk had chosen to hide the bomb in.
Murphy snickered.
Putin was absolutely livid, and the staff did they best to get out of his way as he stormed through Chechnik‘s office.  Chechnik looked at him as he ranted and, despite the ominous nature of the visit, found his mind wandering to descriptions of his boss.  Livid didn’t really fit, it was much too mild.  Incandescent?  Closer, perhaps.  Volcanic?  Better still.  Ready to stroke out?  Bozhe moi, Dear God, please!  But it didn‘t seem that God was listening..
“Who authorized you to allow American spy satellites to peer into Moscow, you fucking kulak!?!” he had screamed.
“You did, Prime Minister,” Chechnik replied as coolly as possible.  “As part of the effort to track -”
“I don’t care if God told you to do it!” bellowed Putin.  “You need to ask me beforehand on issues of national security!”
Like losing a double dozen nuclear warheads and trying to get them back? Chechnik thought.  Aloud, he said, “Yes, Prime Minister.”
“And how do we know if they are telling the truth?  They say the feed is going to Galitsino-2, but what proof have we?”
“We are receiving data there, sir, directly from the satellites in question.”
“Fool.  And they cannot transmit to another location simultaneously?”
“Actually, sir, no.  Their satellites mount unidirectional antennas, specifically to control the data stream.”  He tapped a highly redacted report from a mole in the CIA, a copy which he could permit Putin to see without worrying about his source being burnt, or, worse still, traded to the Americans for some concession or another.
“And they cannot record their observations and transmit them to their own ground control later?”  So.  Someone had been briefing him on technology again.
“I do not know, Minister,” admitted Chechnik.  “It is an oversight, I admit.”
“An oversight?”  The spittle flew from Putin’s lips, veins throbbing.  “If they get wind of our illegal, nuclear-tipped Opekun Anti-Missile system, you’ll have caused me - the President,” he corrected hastily, “Great embarrassment and difficulty!”  He paused for emphasis.  “In attempting to enhance the security of the Rodina, Colonel, you may have done great damage to it!”
“Prime Minister, I apologize for any difficulties that may arise, but I felt that the threat of a five-megaton bomb actually in Moscow outweighed any longer-term repercussions.”
“Perhaps,” conceded Putin.  “But why the fucking Keldara?  And that miserable mercenary - I don’t care what he calls himself! - American?  Why didn’t the Guards take them out?”  The PM’s fist hammered down on a framed photograph of Chechnik’s family, cracking the frame and shattering the glass.  It took considerable willpower for him to ignore the assault and still appear as cowed and broken as Putin believed him to be.
“The 5th Motor Rifle Division!  Why didn’t they engage and destroy the Keldara while they were on Russian territory?”  Putin smashed the photo to the ground.  Even though Chechnik didn’t have much of a relationship with his family any longer, it still pissed him off.  Gathering his self-control, he answered as meekly as he could.
“You ordered them not to, sir.”
“I did no such thing!” Putin exploded.  “I remember giving you the order, that the 5th was to wipe out - no, eliminate - every enemy of the state, foreign or domestic!  So do not stand there and lie to me, you osel!”
“Mr. Minister!  You said that they were to execute that order when, and I quote you, sir, ‘if the Keldara call for support.’  Sir, they never called for support.  They went in, performed the mission, and withdrew.  Our men were left sitting, waiting for a call that never came.  By the time we knew they were in place, they were already moving out.”
“I don’t want excuses, Colonel!  I want results, and I want the Kildar dead!”
“Perhaps, Mr. Minister, you should be talking to the Thirteenth Department of the First Chief Directorate of the FSB” - the branch that dealt with assassinations.
Putin turned, if possible, a brighter red.  “Out of my office!”
That was one order Chechnik was eager to execute, despite it being his office.  It wouldn‘t do to point that out, however.  Putin could search all he wanted; there was nothing incriminating left.
Bangkok was looking better and better.
Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Watson, USAF, had flown the hottest planes on the planet in his capacity as a test pilot.  From the F-117 Night Hawk to the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II, he’d flown them all and flown them first.  His experience and competence had made him the logical choice to be the Air Force’s ‘point man’ when examining samples of foreign aircraft that fell into American hands.
He’d logged time in all the major Soviet fighters through the MiG-29 Fulcrum and the Sukhoi-27 Flanker.  He’d flown the Tu-16 Badger (old and slow, but surprisingly durable); the Tu-22 Blinder (fast as blazes but short legs); and the Tu-22M Backfire (solid range but tricky to handle).  He wanted to fly the Tu-160 Blackjack, the world’s largest and fastest supersonic combat aircraft, and had finally finagled an invitation from the Russians to come over and participate in a joint exercise.
That’s why he was pissed now.  He hated frago’s!
Some Pentagon weenie from an office he’d never heard of had issued the frag orders, dispatching him to Tbilisi, of all places!  He was to make himself ‘available’ to something called a Kildar for an unspecified length of time for ‘non-Air-Force-related duties’.  Probably ferrying some crappy third world politico around in an old Gulfstream or Learjet.
He hated babysitting VIPs, especially pissants like this one probably would be.  He was TDY, at least, so he’d come out of this with a little extra cash in his pocket.  And, he reflected, stick time was stick time, even if it was a C-21 or some such.
His musings were cut off as the captain of the Airzena Boeing 737-500 announced their arrival.  Tbilisi.  What did he do to end up in this armpit?
As the passenger jet taxied towards the terminal - too much to hope that they would have jet ways, it was raining and it looked fucking cold! - he noticed something odd.  Was that a - holy fuck!  What was a Backfire doing in Tbilisi?
Peering out the window, he hardly noticed the plane stop at the end of its taxi.  He didn’t notice that he was the final passenger on the jet until the steward came over and - politely, he had to admit, but firmly - informed him that it was time to disembark.  Abashed, he gathered up his carryons and exited, pausing at the top of the mobile stairway.  Something was going on over there, even though it was -
“What time is it?” he asked the still-patient steward.
“Ten twenty,” he replied.
Shit.  His body was telling him it was maybe seven in the morning.  Jet lag sucked.  But it was late and there were dozens of people crawling all over the Backfire, and line of trucks backed up a hundred yards.
After reclaiming his duffel from the ancient luggage carousel, squeaking and rattling like it hadn‘t been maintained properly since the Soviets were kicked out, he stood in the terminal, lost, until a man, short, stocky, with brown hair, in a peculiarly-patterned military camouflage uniform approached.  He noted a flash badge on the shoulder of a roaring tiger.  Other than that, all that decorated the uniform was a name: Vanner.
“Colonel Watson?”
“Yes?”  Thank God, an American!
“Chief Warrant Officer Pat Vanner, of the Georgian Mountain Tigers Militia.”  He held out his hand, and Watson shook it.  “Welcome to Georgia.  Sorry about the rain; this time of year, we’re lucky it’s not snow.”
“No problem.  So why am I here?” he asked impatiently.  He was tired, and his manners were still somewhere over the Med.
Ignoring the question, Vanner answered, “Do you have any more luggage?”
Watson got the hint.  Not here, not in the open.  “No, this is it.”
“Okay, then.  I have a ride laid on.  If you’ll come this way?”  And Vanner led him out of the baggage area.
Once outside, Vanner said quietly, “We don’t think anyone is tailing you, and I’m sure there’s nobody on me.  But it’s never worth taking a chance.”
Thinking, What kind of Wonderland have I fallen into?, Watson said, “I didn’t realize we weren‘t.  No excuse, but I’ve been given no instructions at all, just grab your gear and get your ass to Georgia.”
“Typical,” Vanner snorted.  “Hurry up and wait bullshit.  Okay, Colonel, here’s the deal.  You have some time in the Backfire?”
“Yeah, more than most.  Thirty hours as pilot, and probably another fifty, fifty-two as co.”
“What model?”
“M3.”  Like that bird out there, he didn’t say.
“Good.”  Vanner fell silent for a moment.  “Colonel,” he finally said, “What I’m about to say is so classified I know I shouldn’t open the compartment, and I’m neck-deep in it.  But you definitely have a need-to-know, even if your control disagreed.”
“What -”
“Wait.  Let me think.”  Vanner led on in silence for a few minutes, until they got to a red Explorer.  After putting the bags in the back and climbing in, he spoke again, his tone becoming official don‘t-interrupt-me-there-will-be-a-quiz-later.
“You are going to be flying a Backfire Tu-22M3(R) that’s being modified to serve as a personnel transport.  You will be training a civilian pilot, former RAF, on the operation of the aircraft.  You will know the destination, obviously, but you are not to discuss it, now or any time in the future.  When on the ground, you are to remain in the aircraft at all times and off the radio.  Food will be brought in, and the facilities aboard should be operational now.  You are to be seen by as few people as possible. And, I’m sorry, but you will have no other access to outside communications.  I need your phone, PDA, pager - everything.  Do you have your issue sidearm?”
“No, I -”
“We will issue you a sidearm for the duration.  If you see anyone aboard the bird without a purple Tiger badge, you are authorized to terminate them immediately.  Do you understand these instructions?”
“Christ, Chief!  You come up with this all on your own?”  He tried for levity, but couldn’t keep the incredulity from his voice.
Vanner’s tone was cold.  “Colonel, I would like to keep this as friendly and professional as possible.  I can, however, end your career with a single phone call, and ensure you spend the next ten years breaking rocks for scientists in Greenland.  Do you get me?”
“Fuck yourself, Chief.  Take me back and put me on a fucking plane.”
The Beretta M9A1, standard issue for the Marine Corps and held onto by Vanner for sentimental reasons, seemed to materialize in his hand.  Watson noted that it was pointed very steadily at his chest.
“Colonel, that’s not an option.  Whether you fly or not, you’re staying here.  I’d prefer to have you fly, but, as my boss says, we have a backhoe.”
Watson gulped.  “I think I’ll fly.”
The Beretta disappeared just as swiftly.  In a friendlier tone, Vanner said, “Grez - my wife - would kill me if I got blood on the upholstery.”
“Can you tell me anything?” implored Watson.
Vanner thought again.  “Nope.  You‘ll thank me for it later.  Okay, there are some bennies.”
“Like what?”
“Well, your pay will be supplemented by the Kildar.  He believes in rewarding excellence.  No taxes, and if you don’t tell Uncle Sam, we won’t.”
“That’s good,” admitted Watson.
“Plus - the Keldara consider their beer part of their rations, and since they’re supplying you, you’ll get what they get.”
“Keldara beer?  Some sort of local brew?  Had enough of those; I’ll pass.”
“You may want to reconsider that,” said Vanner.  “You heard of Mountain Tiger?”
“That’s the Keldara’s second-rate stuff.”
“Yeah, oh.  Of course, if you want to pass on it, I’m sure I can find -”
“On second thought, Chief, I might just hold onto them.”
“Thought you might see it that way.”
“I don’t suppose I can talk you out of this, can I?”
The look on Kat’s face told the entire tale.  Her arms, crossed below her breasts, cemented her stance.  The tapping foot may have been a bit much.
“I didn’t think so,” he sighed.  “I suppose that Moscow’s as good a place as any.  At least I’ll be able to keep an eye on you.”
“And I you, Michael.”  She tossed her M-4 onto the pile.
“Nothing, sir,” the tired tech responded for the third time in as many minutes.
Chechnik winced.  It was well after midnight; he’d been in the office since six in the morning; and now this.  “Search again.”
“Colonel, it’s not here.  We have had ten satellite sweeps, with sufficient density and overlap.  Every gamma source has been positively identified, from our maps and on the ground!  It’s not here!”
“I said, search again.  Or do you want to ignore a five megaton bomb in a city of eleven million?  How many do you think would survive?  Two million?  Three?  How many families would be destroyed?  What if your family was within the footprint, would you give up so easily then?”
“No, Colonel, but the satellites -”
“Fuck the satellites!  Get men on the ground with Geiger counters, have them search every block, every building.”  He turned to a map and started marking out a quick grid to coordinate the search.
“That will take days, even if we grab every cadet and plebe!  People will notice; people will panic!”
“Then we’ll have to hope we get lucky, won’t we?  Get them moving.  All of them.  Match the cadets with experienced line troopers, tell them it’s an exercise.  Do it.  Now.”
“Yes, Colonel.  At once.”
Dawn over Moscow.  A suspicious number of high-ranking officials were unexpectedly absent from their homes and offices today.  Unscheduled fact-finding trips, serious health issues, and impromptu vacations had swept scores from the city, literally overnight.  In every case, though, they kept their mouths shut about the true reason for their departure.  Wives, families, mistresses were abandoned with little explanation and no satisfaction, but they could be replaced.  Their own hides, not so much.
The onion domes of the Kremlin caught the early morning sunshine and reflected it back in a thousand directions.
Russian soldiers, grumbling at the earliness of the hour, trooped along sidewalks, waving detection wands at every building.  So far, a number of dentists’ offices, and an infirmary, had been singled out, but the search continued.  Higher was looking for something else.  Of course, betting pools sprang up in every company over which squad might find the mysterious gamma target first.  And, it gave the enlisted men a rare opportunity to pilfer from stores and warehouses.  For once, it wasn’t just the officers getting a slice.
Bakers and markets opened their doors.  The smells of fresh black bread and kasha spread through the city streets as the people emerged from their homes, headed to work or to the market to shop for the day.  The soldiers on their mysterious patrols went unnoticed, or at least unremarked.  The civilians had learned long ago that to remark usually led to problems.  One look at the tired, hungry, sour faces of the soldiers was all it took to turn their eyes elsewhere.
Commuters from suburbs all around Moscow emerged from their trains at the Leningradsky, Yaroslavsky and Kazansky terminals and thronged to the Komsomolskaya Metro station, one of the busiest in the city.  Despite the long lines, tempers were held in check, especially with all the troops about.  The sun was shining, the weather warm, and hadn’t they waited in longer lines for bread under the Soviets?  Soldiers on some sort of exercise, waving wands?  The merest nothing.
A half kilometer away, in a tired warehouse that bore the logo of a defunct exporter, other men awoke to greet the day, with prayers while facing almost due south.  After praying, they cleaned their weapons under the alert gaze of their leader.
Meanwhile, Gereshk planned.
His men would depart that night, merging with the infidels, the mindless herd pushing and bellowing their way to their pasturage.  It should be easy enough for his warriors to mimic the unthinking masses and make their way south to report.  They had all in readiness; he’d inspected each man’s pack the night before.
Papers?  Check.
Money?  Check.
Bus and train schedules?  Check.
Weapons.  That troubled him.  Security wasn’t the issue; on the state lines, it was an open joke.  But restraint, ah, now that was a potential problem.  Would his men be able to restrain themselves at the sight of the hated Russians?  Or would they surrender to their righteous urge to lay waste to the infidels, the despoilers of the Dar Al Islam?
No.  Much as he wanted to, he couldn’t risk putting temptation into the hearts of his men.  No weapons - at least, he amended, no rifles.  Pistols, knives, yes.  Those could be concealed easily, and ordered to remain that way.  That way, at least, he wouldn’t be stripping his fedayeen of every measure of defense.  To draw such weapons would require time, time in which they  could consider the consequences of baring arms here, in Moscow, the very heart of the enemy.
One more day, and he would achieve his glory.  His men would live to spread the tale and his name, the name of the man who brought the very Finger of Allah to the enemy’s core.
While Vanner was overseeing the conversion of the Backfire, Grez was again left running the Cave and reporting to Mike.  She looked like she needed a solid week’s sleep at this point.
“We’re sure we have the entire take?  They’re not holding back on us?”  Mike obviously still distrusted the Russians.  What had he said?  Oh, yes.  ‘I trust them as far as I can throw a bear.’
“I cannot vouch for the Russian satellites; we have been unable to access them directly.  But the American satellites?  NASA, ESA?  Those, we have connections with.”
“You mean the Mice hacked them,” Mike corrected with a grin.
“Yes.  A while back.  Mouse wanted to make a point with those who would hack into our servers,“ she said with a shrug.  “The point is, we have some of the raw data, and it’s matching the data Chechnik’s office is sending us that was filtered by Pat’s program.”  My husband, her smile said.
“That’s not good news.”
“No, and it gets worse.  Overnight, the Ground Forces in and around Moscow have all been mobilized.  They’re searching for it on the ground.”
“That’ll take half of forever,” commented Adams from the overstuffed chair he’d had brought to the conference room.
“And tip off Gereshk,” added Nielson.  “I understand the pressure they’re under to find the thing, but this could cause them to accelerate their timetable.  Russian troops aren‘t exactly what you‘d call subtle.”
“Precisely, Colonel,” agreed Grez.  “That is why I suggest we move to assist them now, rather than later.  Eventually, the story will leak, and the citizens will panic.  Emplacement and reaction time will be even more critical for us.  Instead of hours -”
“We might have minutes.  Right.  Have we heard from Pat yet?” Mike asked the table in general.
“He sent a message early this morning, about four, that he had personally gone over every inch of the plane, removed a half-dozen bugs of one type or another, and was going to sleep for a few hours.”
“Anything since?”  Mike looked down at the muck in his coffee cup.  Suck it up, SEAL! he berated himself.  You used to eat this shit for breakfast!
“No, but he might not be up yet.  He pulled in many favors to move this quickly.”
“Get hold of him soonest and find out where we stand.  If he’s behind, find out what he needs to expedite.  Kacey, Tamara, we’re gonna need transport to the airport.”
“Not a problem,” answered Kacey for both.  “Both birds are ready to fly.”
“You’re going to be pretty heavily loaded, between the teams and their weapons.”
“For a little hop to Tbilisi, these birds can handle it.  Anything else?”
“Yeah,“ he answered, turning to her partner.  “No stupid stunts this time Tammy.  Got it?”
Wilson looked at him, eyes wide and overflowing with innocence.  “Me, Kildar?”
The interior of the Backfire had been transformed.  Where it had been bare metal skin and ribs, revealed when the Georgians had removed all the ELINT gear, it was now foamed and covered with standard aircraft tile.
Comfortable seats had been installed, spaced far enough apart to recline almost horizontal to allow for better rest en route.  These had been liberated from a pair of semi-civilian planes that had been badly damaged during the short Russo-Georgian war.  Both tails had been shot off, but neither burned, so it was hoped that they could be repaired, eventually.  Of course, the fact that, ever since, they had been cannibalized by every passing jet that needed immediate repairs was going to make that problematic, but…
A pair of small refrigerators and a cooking area were mounted far aft to allow the preparation of hot meals.  Lord only knew where they’d come from.  A workstation was built aft of the cockpit door, with sufficient computing capacity to keep even the Mice happy.  That, Vanner knew, had come from his wife, but from what source?  He didn’t know, he didn’t want to know, and he would deny ever even thinking that it looked awfully similar to the stations the CIA had installed in their offices in the Embassy.
Maybe it wasn’t the teak you’d find on the 550, Hardesty thought, looking around the cabin that had been built literally overnight, but it will do.
The American Colonel walked up behind him.  “Morning, John.”
“Good morning, Christopher!  I’m ready for my lesson whenever you are.”  After a brief meeting the previous night and a quick session of ‘do you know -?’ and ‘did you fly -?’, both pilots decided that any serious training would have to wait for morning.
“Let me check with Chief Vanner,” Watson said, looking around.  “Any idea where he’s hiding?”
“I believe he’s forward, in the cockpit.  Probably up to no good.  If he wasn‘t a sodding Yank, I‘d have him pegged for MI-5, section 9, without a doubt.”
“Wonder what he’s really doing?” mused Watson, moving that direction.  He didn’t have the experience with the Tigers his co did, and was genuinely curious.
What could have changed in just a few hours?
When he opened the cockpit door, he stopped and gawped in amazement.  The flight deck had been completely transformed, even more than the passenger area.
The old-fashioned analog controls had been replaced with a suite of small monitors, surrounding a single larger one.  The clunky overhead and wall-filling electronics were all gone, as well, or what had remained of them when they’d taken control.  A fifth seat had been added, where Vanner now sat, cables snaking from his laptop to every new suite of controls.
“What the fuck did you do to my cockpit?” asked Watson, aghast.  About the only things he recognized were the throttle controls, still in the center, and the control yokes.
“Upgrades,” answered Vanner easily.  “Did you know that they were still using tubes in this bitch?  Not many; it’s pretty obvious they’d done some improvements.  But it was still solidly 1970’s tech.  Now, it’s not.  And no, I‘m not gonna tell you where it came from or how it got here.”  He smiled wanly and then tapped a few more times at the laptop.  Row after row of lights suddenly shone green.  “All done.  Green across the board, full connectivity, tell-me-three-times redundancy and fault protection.  My people are good,” he finished with visible pride.
“I think it’s bloody brilliant!” said Hardesty.  “So all our instruments are on those wee screens?”
“Yep.  Altitude, speed, radar, everything you need.  It’s all touch screen and voice-driven technology.  You can either tap a screen to bring up a menu,” he said, walking forward and demonstrating on the pilot‘s main display.  Sure enough, when he touched the chosen monitor a menu popped up, and a soft voice could be heard from the headset.  “She tells you what the menu options are so you don’t need to take your eyes from the sky, and you can control her simply by speaking.”  He picked up the headset, said, “Grez, radar,” and the display changed instantly.
“Right now, since we’re on the ground, she’s taking the feed from the control tower,” he said.  “Grez, change scale, two hundred kilometers.”  The display shifted and resolved, with startling rapidity.  “System off.”  Obediently, the image disappeared.
“I printed a list of commands that she’ll recognize.  Simple ones.  But she’s got a heuristic algorithm, so she’ll learn pretty quickly.  I think you’ll like her.”  He pointed to clipboards magnetically mounted on each pilots’ seat.  “Be sure to familiarize yourself with the codes and keywords.  She’s smart, and will get smarter, but she’s still a computer.  She’ll take you literally if you’re not careful.”
“You keep referring to the plane as ‘her’.  And isn‘t Grez your wife?” said Hardesty, amused.
“Oh, no, not the plane.  Just the control system.  Though,” Vanner added thoughtfully, “They’re pretty well integrated now, so I guess you could say that.”
“What if I’m just talking to Hardesty about something and use a command phrase?” said Watson.
“Oh, I thought of that.  She has three modes: full manual, full voice, and voice recognition.  The first, well, pretty obvious.  All from the touch screens.  The second, anything you say she’ll scan to see if it’s in her command list; if it is, she’ll ask you to confirm the command before executing.”
“And the third?”
“The third?  Well - that’s the mode she was in.  You have to say her name, or say ‘system’, to trigger her.  But once she hears that, you don’t get a confirmation request, so you have to be careful what you say.  She‘ll repeat the order as she executes it, so you have a chance to unscrew the pooch if you‘re quick about it.”
“You named the control system after your wife?” Watson asked.
“It’s something she’s been tinkering with for a while,” he said proudly.  “It seemed appropriate.  She likes to have her hands free and absolutely hates typing.”
“And does your missus know you’ve applied her program to a plane?”
Vanner looked a little abashed.  “Not yet,” he said.
Hardesty was looking around in awe.  “What else have you done?”
“This was originally an ELINT bird, right?”
“Yes, but I thought the Georgians removed all that?”
“They did - all the Russian crap.  I’ve loaded her back up with the best I had in my workshop, plus everything I could beg, borrow, and steal.  She’s now the equal of -”
Watson interrupted him, pointing to the left bulkhead, which was once again covered with electronics.  “Where did you get an AN/ALR-66B(V)3?  And what did you do to it?”
“A what?” said Hardesty.
“It’s the ELINT/MASINT unit from P-3 Orions!  Navy.  I think you Brits would call it top shelf.  It’s fucking state-of-the-art intelligence gathering equipment, and sure as hell shouldn’t be in some whackjob Warrant’s ‘workshop’!”
“Where I got it, or how, is irrelevant,” said Vanner in a tone that would have frozen boiling water.  “It’s now installed here.  I gather that you’re familiar with it?”
“Basic familiarization, yeah,” said Watson, much more subdued.  “I can hum a few bars, but that’s about all.  Does it come with the flight engineer too?”
“What about you, Captain?”
“Not a bleeding hope!  I just aimed at the enemy when they told me to make him go away.  Avoided any duties with the Weasels; once you climb in, they never let you out to play with the good toys!”
“Good thing it’s hooked into Grez as well,” said Vanner.  “She can process and analyze the signals.  There‘s your flight engineer.”
“And over here?”  Hardesty motioned to the right, where another electronic suite of instruments was mounted.
“That’s my little addition.  ECM suite, complete with flares, chaff packs,  and a pair of drop drones that can be programmed to simulate her profile.”
“I recognize the ALQ-92 and the ALQ-100,” said Hardesty.  “They’re from your Prowlers, aren’t they?  And they imply the presence of the jammer pods, am I correct?”
“The ALQ-99, yes.  Only two of those, instead of five, so not quite the same capability.  I had to sacrifice something for my last surprise.”
“What’s that?” said Watson, resignedly.  “The rotary missile launcher from a Spirit?”
“No,” replied Vanner seriously.  “Too large for the bay, and I couldn’t get one in time.  You’ll have to make do with four AGM-88 HARMs.”
“Bullshit.  No way you got one HARM, let alone four.”
“No shit, Colonel.  See for yourself.”  He led them back, through the converted cabin, to a locked hatch.  When opened, it revealed the rear of the bomb bay.  He stood aside.
“Down there.”
Before Watson’s unbelieving eyes lay a smaller rotary launcher, loaded with the promised HARMs.  Their wingspan just cleared the bomb bay walls, but they gave the Backfire a totally unexpected anti-radar punch.  A very long-ranged and hard-to-spoof punch.
“How did you get these?  And where?”
“Friends in high places,” said Vanner, cryptically.  “Well, maybe low places.  It’s amazing what you can get when you ask nicely, and have a friendly Uncle.”
“Wild and wooly time again?” said Hardesty with a predatory grin.  For once, if it got too wooly, he could finally hit back.
“Let’s just say that the Kildar believes in being prepared.”  With a clap of his hands, Vanner changed the subject.  “I think, Colonel, you’ll find that she handles better than the Backfires you may have flown before.  I took advantage of the additional…”
The search for Gereshk’s bomb began, naturally enough, at the Kremlin, and spread outward, while other troops were ordered from the periphery of the city inward.  Progress wasn’t steady, or even, as the various districts had differing mixes of residential, commercial, industrial, and government buildings.  Security ranged from adequate to nonexistent, but they couldn’t judge the risks simply by the security levels.  They had to physically enter each structure to examine them.  This led to much bitching, some light five-finger discounting, and, after several hours, very bored troops.
“I don’t care why we’re out here.  It’s stupid!”
“Shut up, Lavrenti!” snapped the sergeant in charge of the detail.  “We do as we’re ordered!  Game, exercise, they can call it what they will - what if this was for real?”
“You know where I was, Sergeant?” said Lavrenti, seeming to concentrate on his counter.
“I don’t care!  You’re here, so pay attention!”  Sergeant Feliks, like most in the Russian army, was simply a second-year conscript selected by his company commander, unlike NCOs in other armies who had to earn their way through ranks.  It was an odd holdover from the Soviet system from the days when the mandatory term of service was reduced to two years.  The atrocious pay, miserable conditions and near-constant low-level conflicts discouraged most from reenlisting, so it became common to simply appoint ‘instant sergeants’ from men who had completed their first year.
The practice, and problem, remained, even though the Soviets were long gone.  This led to sergeants existing who had little more real experience than the men they were leading.  Disrespect and disobedience were the norm.  So discipline tended to be harsher, as well, with a strong physical component.  That might not be wise, here.  On these exercises, one never knew when under observation.  A single poor report and a man could end up a private again.
“I was on a furlough!  Drysi was blowing me, when Grisha and Timur started pounding on the door to the flat!  Just because I didn’t answer the phone, they said I was -”
“A fucking pain in my ass!”  When possible, it’s best for troops to know - on some level of detail, at least - why they  are doing what they are doing, beyond simply, “It’s your duty!“  Unfortunately, this exercise in ’crisis management’ had descended upon them too quickly for proper briefings.
Only the sketchiest information had been given to the battalion commanders, and what filtered down the chain was increasingly distorted and inaccurate.  All that was certain was High Command wanted them to take it seriously.  That mean no corner-cutting, no half-assing the job.
Feliks’ company commander was savvier than most, and had restricted his news to that of which he was sure.  That left very little to disseminate.  The troops would come up with their own reasons.  It was designed to make their lives more difficult.  Some Kremlin hot-shot had a hair up his ass and was taking out on the troops.  The rumors were flying.
“Take the Geiger counters.  Go to every building in your assigned area.  Search for an increase in radiation - your counter has already been set to block normal background readings.  If you get a hit, report in.  You will be told if that is the proper location.  If not, you will continue your search.”
That scanty information, with the addendum, “And don’t screw this up!”, was given to the company once 90% of the personnel had reported in, about 4 am.  Then the squads were given their assignments.
Feliks’ squad was one of eighteen assigned to the Komsomolsky District, which was an entirely adequate number.  One problem arose from the squads being chosen in a seemingly random fashion.  ‘Go once you have sufficient bodies and NCOs.‘  It didn’t matter that they came from different platoons, different companies, even different brigades.  It left a hopelessly complicated chain of command that had to be sorted at each assembly point.  As a result, much needed information failed to be passed along, leading to some squads doubling or even tripling up on some areas, while others were passed over entirely.  Squads were in visual contact with each other, or completely isolated.
Feliks was commanding an isolated squad.  In his opinion, the whole op was a Mongolian cluster fuck.  The last command vehicle he had seen was over a half hour ago, and the number of squads he’d noted converging on areas he knew were ripe for looting was depressing.  Then there was the chance that they’d stumble upon something they shouldn’t see, like a Bratva safe house or gambling den.  That would end him up face-down in the Moskva River.
“Timur!  The warehouse is next!”  The soldier, a second year conscript who had flunked the abbreviated ‘sergeant’s school’, waved in answer.  He walked to the rusting corrugated walls and pounded on the door, which threatened to fly from its hinges from the unwarranted abuse.  Not even the police came through here; what was the point of having a serious door if you had to replace it every week?
He turned and shook his head.  “Move out,” said Feliks.  “Lavrenti, the sooner we get done, the sooner your girl can get back to your dick.  Probably only takes one side of her mouth, you’re so tiny.”  His men laughed; good, they were focusing on the complainer rather than the orders.
“Fuck you, sergeant!”  But he raised the counter and seemed to conscientiously check the settings.  “Ready.  The sooner we get this done, the sooner I can get back.  Do you think the sheep will be upset if you‘re late?”
Gereshk’s men had reported that the army was much more active than the previous days, but none had dared get close enough to discover their purpose.  Sometime overnight, the soldiers had spread throughout the city.  Rumors were flying.  Instead of releasing his men to investigate, Gereshk had held them back so as not to arouse suspicion.  But, cut off from the outside, denied even the dubious pleasure of walking the dilapidated neighborhood, they were more on edge than usual.
So Gereshk did what any good leader would do: make work.  After morning prayers, his men were ordered to inventory the supplies.  That completed, the next task was a uniform inspection, which gave Gereshk plenty of opportunity to scream at his men for faults, real and imagined.  Then, the worst duty he could think of: weapons cleaning.  This is the task that occupied them when Timur’s pounding resonated through the warehouse.  The fedayeen were largely unprepared, with their weapons were scattered about, in pieces, being cleaned.
Quietly, Gereshk directed his men to the shadows at the far end of the building, gathering up their disassembled rifles, hoping that discretion would truly be the better part of valor today.  Without their guns, his men had no chance.  Pistols against rifles?  Knives?
The latch finally gave in and the door creaked open, a figure silhouetted in the light.  He came in casually, his AK-74M held loosely across the chest, not even pausing to allow his eyes time to adjust to the gloom.  In short order, he was followed by five more, just as relaxed, who spread out in a loose perimeter.
The sixth, slightly more alert trooper entered, AK held at ready.  He’d have to go first, and the rest might panic.  He showed signs of having seen combat.
“Look alive, you useless fucks!” he barked, heedless of the echoes.  Obviously the sergeant, thought Gereshk.  He peered around with a definite sense of purpose before waving more of the squad in.  The last man in was carrying - something.  And he was looking at it closely.  Too closely, too focused.
Gereshk gestured to his men, miming assembling the rifles.  Whatever that Russian was looking at, it was bad news.  Not now, by Allah!  We’re so close!
“Sergeant!  I have a reading!  Weak beta, but lots of gamma!”  Gereshk could hear the excitement in his voice across the building.  A Geiger counter!  That’s what he was carrying!  And that meant the godless Russians were aware of them, aware of the bomb!
Stop, he thought.  Only a fool takes counsel of his fears.  We are Allah’s warriors, and he shall protect us.
The sergeant’s reply, and the ensuing conversation, was much more subdued.  Gereshk imagined it from his days at MCTS:
Check it again, boy.
Yes, sergeant.  Fiddle, fiddle.  Same readings.
Let me see.
Right here, and here.
Good work, trooper.  Voice is raised a little.  Looks like we’ve found our target!  Spread out, and for fuck’s sake stay alert!
Gereshk was certain of this last, as he saw the sudden change in the attitude of the soldiers.  From bored, almost contemptuous, they came alive, every fiber of their being poised to - to what?  From the smiles on the troopers‘ faces, it looked as though they were ready to celebrate, not capture an atomic weapon.  They looked to the door, then back to their sergeant, who was pulling out - a mobile phone?  Not a radio?  What was going on here?
Allah be with us!  Could they believe this an exercise?
Maybe not Allah.  Murphy was.
One of his men - he never found out who, it didn’t seem important later - dropped the magazine for his AK-47 as he was trying to seat it.  The metallic clatter rang out unmistakably in the dark silence, a sound every soldier knew by heart.
Immediately, the Russians froze in place.  They knew they weren’t alone in here, and they suddenly knew that this wasn’t an exercise any longer.  They were that disciplined, at least.  Gereshk raised his own rifle, sighting in on the sergeant.  He knew that if he could take him out, the remainder of the squad would be easy pickings for his battle-hardened warriors.  His men followed suit, those with assembled rifles, waiting in the blackness.
The Russians forgot about the door behind them.  Wide open.  Spilling brilliant sunshine into the warehouse, silhouetting them.  Sunlit halos of dust surrounded them, giving the scene an ethereal feel, if only briefly.
The deep crack of Gereshk’s 47 rang out.  Feliks would never again have to worry about the slackers in his squad, as the 7.62mm round blew his throat out the back of his neck.  He stayed upright for a few seconds, his body dead, his spine severed, unable to move or warn his men.
He was amazed, as if from nowhere shadowy figures sprang up against the far wall.  The sound of, ‘Allahu Akbar!’  rising from a dozen throats was the last sound he heard, and then he saw the man who cut him down firing cool three-shot bursts.
At least there was one professional, he thought.  But it’s not the Bratva?   Then who…?  He never got an answer, his body finally collapsing to the ground, his men falling around him.  Dying, just as he was.   Serves them right for giving me a hard time…
Despite the spray-and-pray manner of fire from Gereshk’s men, five of the eleven Russians were down within seconds, before even returning fire.  Soon enough, though, the higher voices of the 5.45mm AK-74 entered the argument, and both sides dove for cover behind anything they could find.
Some were faster than others.
Drawing on his experience, Gereshk dispatched four of his men with well-practiced hand signals to exit through the rear and circle around to the front.  Unseen, they slipped away.
“We shall keep them busy,” Gereshk told his remaining men.  “The others will finish them.  In the name of Allah, do not shoot our own!  Take care, look first before you pull the trigger!”
The eight kept the Russians occupied, taking turns ripping off entire magazines.  Gereshk stood and selected his target more carefully, choosing those who seemed to be moving toward the door, or looking for better cover, or moving to a flanking position.  That wouldn’t do.
The ambush team missed Grisha, the last member of Feliks’ squad, positioned outside the warehouse just as the manual proscribed.  One man, held back to cover the exit, usually with a radio.  But Grisha hadn’t ever been given a radio, and mobiles, unless specifically authorized, were strictly forbidden, so he was totally unaware of what was occurring inside.
At the shot that laid out Feliks, his first reaction was to rush to his comrades’ aid.  Then his training, and his orders, came to the fore.  His duty was clear: report.  No heroics, no dashing to the rescue.  As he listened, he could distinguish large numbers of weapons being fired, few of them by his fellows.  One rifle against all that?  Not today, thank you.  He turned and sprinted for his command center down the suddenly empty street.  The locals knew this sound of old, too, and knew better than to be witnesses to whatever was happening.
Modern Moscow.
There was no way to know that they’d missed a man, of course.  When they re-entered the warehouse, the remains of the squad - three men, including the unlucky Lavrenti - were backing towards the door.  They had managed to drop two of their assailants, but at the cost of three more dead.  They’d moved into a multi-supporting stack and were deliberately, calmly retreating under fire.
The 7.62mm hail cut all three down in the merest eye blink.
They closed the flimsy door, now shot full of holes, behind them.  It allowed in a mottled network of sunlight that was strangely beautiful in the wisps of cordite and dust.
Gereshk didn’t waste time sanitizing the area, policing the casings, or even burying his dead.  He gave them the quickest prayer he could to speed their way to Allah as martyrs, then began issuing orders.
He suspected that there had been a sentry.  Doctrine called for it, but his ambush team hadn’t seen one.  There might even have been a vehicle, though unlikely in this urban setting.
In any case, it wasn’t worth the risk; it was time to move the weapon.  Not too far, though.  Just far enough to penetrate the perimeter of the search, find a building that was ‘clean’.  Then his surviving men could be sent on their way, and the plan could continue.
He smiled as the truck’s engine caught.  Praise Allah, none of the bullets had gone near it, or the weapon.  There was still time, and a chance.
Word of the firefight in downtown Moscow reached Mike as his ad hoc strike team was arriving at the airport.
“Any details?” he asked Anisa, monitoring the radio in the Hind’s crew compartment.
“Not many as yet.  This private heard firing and ran for it - he says it was a standing order.  Nothing else yet on our intercepts or from our local resources in Moscow.  The girls back in the Cave are attempting better penetration.  If they get confirmation, or a location, they‘ll pass it along.”
“Whatever.  So he doesn’t know anything, just followed orders and hightailed it out of there?  Lucky prick.  Well, let‘s try to keep him and a few million Muscovites alive a while longer, eh?”  He paused, thinking.  “I know this is asking a lot from the CIA, but do we have map coordinates on this data?”
“No.  We’ve got an address, that just came in.  And we’ve been told that troops from the 2nd Guards are being redeployed, but they haven’t even made entry yet.  There‘s a strong opinion that it‘s a Bratva operation; it‘s that sort of neighborhood.”
“How long ago did that kid say the firing started?”
“Almost an hour ago, now.  Perhaps longer.  We have data conflicts on the exact time.  Rule of thumb, according to Grez, is split the difference on the side of incompetence.  These are Russian troops, after all.”
“Fuck!  More than enough time to move the package.”  Mike fumed.  “What were they thinking, calling it all an exercise?  If you’re going to flood the town with troops and scare the shit out of civilians, what’s the fucking difference?  Maybe if they’d known the truth, they might have been more alert and aware, and maybe even alive now!”
“Agreed, Kildar.”
“Okay, you hold down the fort until we‘re ready to go.  Anything new, make sure the Cave knows it gets fed to us en route.”  He disconnected, removing the headset as the Hind flared out next to the altered Tu-22M.  Before Naida could get there, Mike was at the hatch and out.  He simply pointed at the boarding stairs before striding quickly towards the plane.  In passing, he noted that the plane had received a paint job.
His Intel specialist poked his head out the door and looked down at his boss.  “Hey, Kildar!  Up here!”
Bounding up the stairway, Mike said, “Are we ready to fly?  How soon can we be airborne?”
The smile disappeared from Vanner’s face instantly.  “Half an hour.  All the new equipment checks out, we just need to fuel her up and we’re hot.”  A ghost of the smile returned.  “Did you see the logo?  On the tail?”
Impatiently, Mike answered, “No, we got some hot information from Moscow en route.  For once the CIA had it‘s ears out and got it to us before the fucking Russians.”
“You ought to look,” said Vanner before returning inside.  “I’ll set up a link with the Cave so we can go live on the feed here.  I need to give them instructions, anyway.”
Behind Mike, Vil’s truncated team was trooping across the tarmac, loaded down with their rucks.  A couple had seen something on the plane and were grinning, pointing to the others.  The grins spread.  Cheering started, and a few began to sing their version of a classic poem.
“Tiger, tiger, burning bright!”  The rest wasn’t fit for mixed company.  Someone - probably the Chief, though MacKenzie might have had something to do with it too - had helped them filk the poem properly.
Curiosity aroused, Mike made his way down the stairs and looked back at what looked to be a very expensive paint job on his new aircraft.
Against the fairly standard gray radar absorbent and heat dispersing paint stood the logo of the Mountain Tigers, a snarling tiger against a blue background.  Almost against his will, Mike smiled as well.  “Ah, hell.  It looks good.”  Wondering how much it cost him, and what other surprises awaited him, Mike waved his men forward.  Fast plane or not, time was a-wastin’.
He still held to the saying in SpecOps: “It sucks to be a hostage.”  Didn’t matter if it was a person or a city, odds were, you were going down with the tango.  In this case, there wouldn’t be a letter of condolence to write to the victim’s family.  How do you tell a nation you were sorry that millions of her citizens were just vaporized?
If Moscow died, but Putin lived, he’d extract some vengeance on him.  No Lasko this time, no single shot mercy.  No.  He’d pay.  Maybe he’d let Kat and Cottontail play with him a while.  Or was that too cruel?  Naah.  Fuck him.  He’d heat the needles himself.
“Alright, shake a leg!  Vil, you get these men settled in fast.  Vanner’ll show you where to stow the gear.  Jitka, Irina know you’re running around with other men?  Darin, don’t drop that rifle!  Sveryan, ready for some urban sniping?”  The men, encouraged as he greeted each, smiled widely as they climbed into the plane.
Cargo storage had been adapted under the crew compartment, and quickly the packed rucks were settled.  There were plenty of clips and cargo netting for the gear, even an empty space labeled, ‘Loot or Prisoners’.
The men took their seats and tried to relax.  Trucks, they knew.  Helicopters, they were at least familiar with.  But, like most Georgians, none had ridden in any kind of plane before, let alone a converted Russian bomber.  The first-class seats went a long way into easing their transition.  About a third were asleep before the doors were dogged shut.
The stragglers, Arensky, Grez, and Anisa followed closely, with Adams and Katrina bringing up the rear.
“This will not be as much fun, will it Michael?” asked Kat, meeting him at the foot of the stairs.
“Don’t know,” he admitted.  “It’s got a hell of a punch, so we ought to go like a bat out of hell.  I don’t know what Pat’s managed to do to the interior, though.”
“Let’s see, then.  I’m sure it will be fine.  I heard Stasia telling him of people she knew in Tbilisi.”  He went pale for a few seconds.
“Bet it’s all wires and gadgetry, with benches for the troops,” grumbled Adams.
Katrina’s squeal of surprise disabused him of that notion, and even Adams was impressed when he finally cleared the door.
“Fucker does good work,” was all he’d admit to though.  “Window.  You’ll need to check with comms more than me, dickhead.”
“What makes you think I’m sitting next to you?” retorted Mike, mentally adding up the costs.  Uncle Sam, through Pierson, might buy the bird, but he didn’t think anything outside the needs of the mission would be expensed out.  Vanner’d better have a justification for everything, or his budget would suffer.  Then, Vanner would suffer - Grez didn’t take kindly to budget cuts.
Mike was smiling again by the time he arrived in the cockpit with Hardesty and Watson.  “So, Colonel, you think you can get this bird off the ground?”
“Damn straight,” said Watson.  “I was a little worried when I saw what your Warrant did to her, but Grez’ll fly circles around anything else in this part of the planet.”
“Grez?” asked Mike, confused.
“Didn’t he tell you?” said Hardesty.  “He’s named her.  After his wife, apparently.”
Mike thought.  “Appropriate enough, if a bit surprising.  Trying to stay on her good side.”  Just then Vanner entered the cockpit as well.  “’Grez’?” asked Mike.
“Well, I suppose I could have gone with ‘Vengeance’ or ‘Fuck you’, but…”
Mike laughed.  “If she’s half as good as the original, the name will fit.  Looks like you’ve worked a minor miracle in here,” he added.
“It’s amazing what comes out of the woodwork when you use one of these,” Vanner replied, pulling out a black card.  “Afraid I may have put a bit of a dent on it,” he said sheepishly, handing the Titanium card to Mike.
“How did you get - did the Mice hack my account again?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” answered Vanner seriously.  “No, Stasia gave this one to me.  She said to tell you, ah, and remember this is a quote and NOT me saying it, ‘payback from a bitch is a bitch too.’  She said this was a different account, something she charmed out of your bankers  a while back.”
Mike groaned.
“Whatever.  Okay, let’s get this show on the road.”
“I’ve filed a flight plan, direct to Moscow’s Vnukovo airport - they weren’t happy about that, but your Mr. Vanner did something,” said Hardesty.  “I assume you wanted to park upwind of any fallout?  Again?“  Mike looked the question at Vanner.
“I thought about Paris, then I called Chechnik.  Vnukovo’s usually used for domestic flights only, not international.  He arranged it all.  Bet me five hundred, US, that Putin‘d stroke out when he hears about Grez.”
“But it’s the closest, both to us and to central Moscow, and the runways are long enough to handle the Backfire,” added Watson.  “And do me a favor, please, Kildar?”
“What’s that, Colonel?”
“Don’t talk to me about Paris.  I don’t know, I don’t want to know, and I really, really don’t want to get stuck ferrying Beavers around Greenland because you opened a compartment I’m not cleared for.  I’m going to pull a Schultz and fly the Lady where she’s bound.”
“Flight time?”
“About eighty minutes, including taxiing and getting to altitude.  We could perhaps manage to shave ten minutes off that, but I want to leave a little in reserve,” answered Hardesty.  “Just in case of a second sunrise and we have to pull the first-ever aerial J turn at full burners.”
Mike nodded, thinking it wise to leave some fuel for maneuvering.  They might already be too late, or they might be leaving in a hurry, dodging AA and SAMs.  Then he realized the number Hardesty had quoted.
“An hour and change?” said Mike incredulously.
“An hour in the air, given current conditions.  The rest on the ground.  Yes.”
“Holy shit.”  This plane had - potential.  Lots of it.  It was all about force projection, and suddenly the Keldara were going to be able to reach the entire Middle East with ease.
“That assumes we use full military power the entire flight.  And the takeoff,” warned Hardesty.  “I hope the new seating holds up.”
“Don’t worry,” assured Mike.  “Stasia’s not aboard today, and I don’t think the boys are going to react quite the same way.  Some are already asleep.  You do what you need to do, John, Colonel.  The plane is yours.”  He couldn’t resist.  “The target is Moscow.  Make it so.”  He didn’t do the hand gesture; that was just a bit much.
“Very good, Kildar.”
“Tbilisi tower, Kildar One, holding short at runway three one, request permission for takeoff.”  Watson settled his hand on the throttle, and Hardesty mirrored his action.  Both would be needed when they received clearance.
“Kildar One, you are cleared for departure runway three one.”
“Roger, Tbilisi tower,” answered Watson.  “On my mark, we go full military and hang on.  We’ll hit the burners as soon as we’re out of ground effect.  Make sure our airspace is clear.”
“Grez, five kilometer warning, please.  Notify of any hostile emissions.  Any contacts, immediate countermeasures plan Charlie.”
“Roger, Captain Hardesty,” the sultry voice responded smoothly, if somewhat artificially.
Together they pushed the throttles forward, standing on the brakes.
The twin Kuznetkov NK-25 turbofans suddenly grew deafeningly loud as power quickly built.  In seconds, he released the brakes and the Backfire fairly leapt forward.  Within a few hundred meters she was airborne and climbing at her maximum fifteen meters per second.  The variable-geometry wings were pulled back into a delta for maximum speed, and they flashed through the air.
As they passed five hundred meters, the afterburners kicked in, pushing everyone back into their seats.
“That’s one problem you missed!” yelled Mike over the noise.  “Soundproofing!”
“I’ll work on it in Moscow!” promised Vanner.  “I thought the tiles would be enough!”  But Mike wasn’t listening, he was leaned over and saying something to Katrina.  He shrugged and pulled out his master tablet, began checking on the AI heuristics and settings.  He was pretty sure it was all dialed in, but it didn’t hurt to check.  Let the guys up front think it was the airplane doing the magic.  Who said the flight engineer had to be in the cockpit?
Adams was already asleep.  His snores almost overwhelmed the roar of the engines.
No one noticed when they broke the sound barrier except a few mountain goats and one unfortunate Chechen who had, miraculously, evaded all of the Georgian patrols.  The sonic boom reverberated off the steep mountain slopes, starting an avalanche of snow and mud that buried him for all eternity.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Flag Counter

You've probably noticed the flag counter by the side of the blog, yes?  I set that up to track where everyone's reading from - it's just cool, y'know?

So we're at 49 countries (as of yesterday, 9/21 - and I'd like to say a big HELLO! to our Turkish friends!) - and I'm gonna make a big deal of it when we hit country #50!

If you know anyone internationally who'd be interested - why don't you send them an email?

And also - I'm looking for speculation - where is the NEXT country going to be from?


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Kildaran - Chapter 48

[Once more unto the breach, dear friends!

Just wait till you see what Mike's getting into now!



Gereshk and his men were safely ensconced in Moscow proper   Not in the outskirts, where they could have been found more easily but would provide for an easier escape.  Instead, they had taken residence in a disused warehouse near Komsomolsky Square, less than four kilometers from the headquarters of the Russian Federal Security Service in Lubyanka Square.
That was well within the range of the weapon, even though it was outside the actual fireball.  The Emir had insisted that their largest bomb be taken on this mission.  Gereshk had been very careful to get that information from Ibrahim before he left.
He was still torn about his decision for their location to detonate the device.  On one hand, if Chechnik was anywhere within about twenty kilometers when the bomb exploded, he was dead.
Perhaps not immediately, though, which was a pleasant thought to Gereshk.  Heat, radiation, or the building being demolished by the massive overpressure, didn’t matter.  They were all likely to be fatal, especially at the relatively close distance, which would gut the center of Moscow and send millions of unbelievers to their Shai’tan-ordained doom.
Then there was the damage to the Lesser Satan’s rail services.  Komsomolsky Square was a major rail terminus, with three rail stations and a metro station.  In addition, the Leningraskaya Hotel and the Moscovsky department store, along with scores of smaller shops and restaurants, were located within the square.  It was a major destination; the casualties among the infidels would be enormous, and the damage to the railways, businesses, tourism, banking, and, yes, even the oppressive security forces, potentially crippling.
And yet.  There was a certain appeal in having Chechnik simply incinerated in the burst.  He remembered cartoons, probably Ami, showing creatures turn to ash after explosions.  How he would rejoice to see that, even if he died only seconds later!
For that to happen, he would need to be much closer.  Within a kilometer, actually.  The continuing build-up of the city since his last visit was astounding, but would deflect and absorb some of the explosion.  And security would be that much stricter, closer to the diseased heart of the rotten city.
Still not much of an issue, but it would make escape for himself much more difficult.  A truck, loitering on the roadside, is much less suspicious if the driver is sitting behind the wheel, reading a newspaper and waiting for his appointment.
Not that Gereshk planned to escape.  He wanted to be present, with Chechnik, see the lying prick’s eyes when he finally realized that Gereshk had taken his revenge.   He wondered what would be passing through Chechnik’s mind at that last moment before oblivion.
He giggled.  His men turned and smiled at his private joke.  Perhaps he should share this story with them, so they… yes.
No one but he would die here.  Not if he could help it.  He had an obligation to the Emir.  So he had decided to send them back at sundown tomorrow.  They would be given money, and very precise instructions, and sent into the crowds, to mingle with them and use the very rail system he planned to destroy to make their way home.  And they would all carry letters to tell his story, to show the world that being a selfish, lying, greedy prick would only earn you the wrath of Allah.
The irony was exquisite, and he chuckled again.  His men smiled again, though a bit confused.  They were in the heart of the enemy, bearing the Spear of Allah, and no one knew it.  They would strike a blow that would sweep the Tower attacks away to the dustbin of history.  The faithful would rejoice in the streets for weeks after this!
He checked his phone again.  Still nothing, no messages, no missed calls.  Too dangerous to initiate contact before the appointed time.  It could expose them all, if anyone was watching.  Very well, he could be patient.  One more day.  Then, if he received no contact from the Emir by the following noon, he would execute the plan.  After his men were on their way, Allah Willing.
Which plan?  Stay, and hope the explosion caught Chechnik?  Or move closer, risk exposure, but be sure?  Perhaps he would call Chechnik himself and announce it, even as he detonated the device.  That would be milk and honey to his soul as he achieved his martyrdom.  He would feel nothing, but Chechnik might have quite a few seconds to know from whose hand the blow fell.
It was quite the decision to make.
The Intel team was brainstorming.  Pain was showing as was the exhaustion from the short shifts and endless hours of sifting data.  Data that should have been given, not stolen or forced from the hands of supposed allies.  The frustration was starting to tell.
“Again.”  The hand slammed down on a rare clean spot on the workstation.  The rest was covered with half-filled mugs of cold tea and coffee which jumped at the impact, splashing onto the already cluttered floor.
“Grez, we’ve gone over this a dozen times already,” one of the girls pleaded.
“Again, I said!” Grez growled back.
Stella sighed.  “You really need to get some sack time, Grez.”
“I slept earlier!”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Stella, arching a brow.  The raunchiness of the cloistered group was near a breaking point.
As Grez turned red, Anisa said, “We think that Gereshk has gone to ground.  Since we didn’t know what he was using for transport, we couldn’t use any ‘eye-in-the-sky’ assets to localize him.  There‘s simply too much traffic in the target areas, which are guesses anyways.  And too big for us to follow.  There are only five of us in here at a time.  We need to narrow it down to a specific target of interest to have any chance, if not of finding them then at least eliminating areas to move on to others.”
“What about gamma scans?” asked Kseniya.
“Too many false positives,” answered Stella.  “Anything radioactive will give off gamma radiation, in some quantity.  Even if we had the updated reads on the refurbished nukes.  We might have gotten lucky with the others, since they only needed minor repairs.  But Dr. Arensky said that this one would have needed major work and the ‘gamma halo‘ could have changed up to five percent.  More if they added extra shielding.”
“But we know the size of the bomb he carried, yes?  And the Russians have all the characteristics, the profile, yes?” said Grez.
“Probably.  But we haven’t received it,” replied Stella.  She looked as pissed as Grez at that news.
Anisa asked, “Why not?  I thought we were getting all their data?”
Stella shook her head sadly.  “We are, but their systems are so completely screwed up, we’re getting it in dribs and drabs.”
“The manifest?” suggested Kseniya.
“That, we have.  But it only lists size, type, and serial number.”
“Okay, so gamma scans are out.  For now.  Why do we think he’s gone to ground?”  Grez tried to pace, kicking aside the accumulated trash of endless watches.  The other girls looked a bit jealous that she had something to take out her frustrations on, as well as the room to stretch out.
“He’s had enough time to get to Moscow,” said Anisa.  “It’s been four days.  Assuming that is his final destination.”
“So?  We know that Loki has a way of causing mischief for all, not just the side of right,” said Stella.
“True,” agreed Anisa.  “Still, we cannot search the entire distance between Kek-Usn and Moscow.  Too fucking big.”  Anisa used the borrowed American word for emphasis; no one in here would tell on her for using such crudity.
“And the Russians certainly can’t,” added Kseniya.  “Or won’t.  Idiots, if the latter.”
“So that leaves us where?  Searching a city of ten million inhabitants and eleven hundred square kilometers from two thousand kilometers away?”
“Grez, if it was easy, the Kildar wouldn’t need us,” said Anisa, garnering a laugh for her effort.  “Not that we’re being very effective right now.  I’d make another joke about the Mice, but my brain is just like pudding and might leak out if I laugh too hard.”
After the laughter had died away, Grez said, “So what do we know about Bursuk Gereshk?  Why was he chosen for this mission ahead of others?  Did he volunteer?  Does Qays know anything?”
Kseniya called up his bio on her screen without really seeing what she was reading.  “Age thirty-four, unmarried, no known family.  Served in Russian Ground Forces, four years, final two plus at Anadyr after expulsion from MMS, now MCTS.  Discharged upon completion of term, next surfaces -”
“Back up,“ interrupted Grez.  “What’s MMS, or MCTS?”
“Ah - Military Commanders Training School.  Formerly Moscow Military School.”
“Someone thought he had a brain worthy of cultivation.  Why was he expelled?”  Grez’ pacing stopped.
Tap tap tap.  “The public file simply lists ‘Unsuitable attitude’.  Hold on, I’ll see what I can dig up.”
Tap tap tap.  Servers whined as Anisa hacked and burned her way into the supposedly secure files.  Three minutes later: “Got it!  We’re in!  Transferring control, Kseniya.”
“Right.”  A few seconds passed.  “School records say that he refused to relinquish his copy of the Qur’an to the Commandant when it was - oh!”
“What?” asked Grez.
“You’ll never guess who turned Gereshk in to the Commandant.”
“Probably not,” remarked Grez dryly.  “So why don’t you just tell me?”
“Cadet Erkin Chechnik.”
“No shit?” blurted Anisa.
“No shit,” answered Kseniya.  “Date stamps all correct, no signs of tampering.  The PDF files show documents that have the right dates - no, if this is disinformation, it was done at the time, not added later.”
“I think we know what’s motivating Gereshk,” said Stella.  “But that doesn’t help us narrow down his hide.”
“This might,” said Kseniya.  “The MCTS is located in Moscow, so -”
“So Gereshk spent the better part of two years living in Moscow,” finished Stella.  Where, exactly, is MCTS?”
Tap-tap-tap.  “It’s part of the Yaroslavsky District, in the North-Eastern Administrative Okrug -”
“Okrug?” said Anisa.
“It doesn’t translate well.  Region?  Area?”
“Okrug.  Whatever.”  Another American word that they’d grabbed.  It covered so much and fit so many situations!  Priceless.
“- of Moscow,” finished Kseniya.
“Seems like we might have a starting point,” said Grez.  “Maybe even a bullseye.  Revenge is a pretty good motivator.”
“Maybe,” said Stella, punching up the data on the Okrug.  “But it’s still a pretty big chunk - the Okrug itself is over a hundred square kilometers, and a million plus people.  And it’s still over two thousand kilometers away.  And we still don‘t have all our feeds.”
“But the District that MCTS is in is smaller, right?” asked Grez.
“Oh, much smaller,” agreed Stella.  “But still much too large for the Keldara to handle alone.”
“Who said the Keldara will be doing it alone?” said Grez.  “I think Colonel Chechnik would be interested to know about his old schoolmate, don’t you?”
“Any bets on whether he runs or stays?” asked Stella.  Unfortunately, there were no takers, but a few giggles.
“Chechnik.”  The speakerphone in the command center carried his voice to Mike as well as Nielson and Vanner, both of whom were there simply to observe.
“Does the name Bursuk Gereshk mean anything to you, scumbag?”  Mike’s voice was harsh over the scrambled satellite line.
“Bursuk Gereshk?  He’s, how is it said, a ‘person of interest’ in your investigations, correct?”
“Nothing else?  No old memories?”
“Old memories?  No.”  Although something was tickling the back of his mind…
“Tell me, Erkin - where did you study?  Once you joined the Army, that is.  When some corrupt jackass of a political appointee decided that you deserved to be an officer.”
If Chechnik was surprised by the turn of the conversation, he didn’t show it.  “The Moscow Military School.  It’s called some other name now, but it’s still - Oh, shit.”
“Think of something?  Something you feel like sharing?”
“Gereshk.  Second year.  I turned him in to the commandant’s office for having a copy of the Qur’an.”  The shock of the memory returning was in his voice.
“No shit?  Wow.  And I wonder how it is that my Intel girls came to me with that little tidbit before my supposed ally, hmm?”
“Kildar, it was a long time ago!  I had totally forgotten about it!”
“Just another betrayal, eh, Chechnik?  Boy, they start teaching you fuckers early, don’t they?”
“It wasn’t that way!  There were rules!”
“Then why don’t you tell me just what way it was?”
“I found out about that dammed book by accident!  Once I learned of it, well, the school’s code required me to report it or I would be punished as well, to the same severity!”
“So to save your skinny ass, you turned in a man, a fellow cadet, who had never done anything to you, is that it?”
“That’s not how I would put it, Kildar -”
“In case I haven’t made it perfectly clear, I really don’t give a flying fuck how you would put it!” bellowed Mike.  “We’re playing with the lives of millions - millions! - of your countrymen, Chechnik!  And while I wouldn’t give two red cents for the current political leadership of your country, my president doesn’t seem to have as much of a problem with them.  So I’m trying to avoid doing a preemptive regime change!”
There didn’t seem to be anything Chechnik could say to that, so he remained silent.
“No platitudes, Chechnik?  No protestations?  Nothing?”
Silence still.
“Maybe you can learn.  And you did give us the head’s up about the potential ambush.  I guess we can give you this one - I mean, who can reasonably expect you to remember every person you’ve ever betrayed?”
More silence.
“So here’s what you’re going to do, Chechnik.”  Mike checked the manifest he was holding.  “You will find the precise radiological profile for a type RDS-46 five megaton warhead, serial number Eight Alpha Seven One Zulu.  You will get that information to me, personally, as well as my Intel group, the NSA, and Colonel Pierson at OSOL.  The full package.  Plus possible profile variants due to differences in shielding and refurbishment of same and of the trigger.”
“OSOL?  Why?”
“Because I fucking well am telling you to!  Because if you don’t, I’ll stick my boot so far up your ass I’ll be able to scratch your eyebrows with my toes!  You lost the right to ask ‘why’ when you forgot about Gereshk!”
“Kildar, it is not -”
“Not my problem, Chechnik.  Make.  It.  Happen.  Second.  Observation of Moscow by gamma radiation detectors.”
“Make it possible, Chechnik.”
“I cannot!  Not I will not, I cannot!”
“He might not be able to,” said Nielson, quietly.
“Hold.”  Without another word, Mike temporarily cut the line.  “Why not?”
“The Russians are going to be pretty hesitant about letting our satellites deliberately look into Moscow for gamma sources.  Hospitals, high-energy physics labs - we have those locations, they’re open source.  But if we’re getting the full feed, we’re going to get all of the other sources of gamma radiation.  Nuclear weapons, though I’d be surprised to find any in Moscow proper, and weapons research labs - and most of those are still pretty well under wraps.”
“We could filter it,” suggested Vanner thoughtfully.  “Bet they skimped on the shielding on some building contracts, and the generals are worried they’ll get caught.  They’ve been death on misappropriation for a while now.  Literally.”
“They won’t go for it,” argued Nielson.  “Not if we’re getting the raw data and applying the filter.  We’d have the unfiltered data, too, and that’s what they want to keep out of our hands, no matter what it showed.”
“We could give them the filter?”
Now it was Nielson’s turn to be thoughtful.  “They might go for that - but we’d have to write the program first.”
“Not a problem,” said Vanner, more enthusiastically.  “I have a couple off-the-shelf programs I can modify pretty easily, once I get the specs.  It’s just a matter of -”
“So we have an idea here?” interrupted Mike.
“Sorry, yeah, we do,” said Vanner.
“Okay.”  He punched Chechnik back up.  “You there?”
“Yes, Kildar, but I am telling you, it would be -”
“Hold on.  All we need is the location of one bomb.  I’ve been assured that once we get that profile, we can write a program that will filter out everything but that profile.  We’ll give you that program to apply on your end, then you can send us that feed.  Would that be acceptable?”
“I think that would be a reasonable accommodation, yes.”
“Good, because it’s about the last one I’m gonna make.  Third.  Once we have the bomb located, you clear the area.  I don’t care if it’s the fucking president’s palace, you get every last body out and away from it.  We‘ll be coming to kick ass and chew bubble gum and we‘re plain out of bubble gum.”
“Done.  I will make it so.”
“Four.  You will provide - no, scratch that.  I’ll take care of transport, but you will ensure that whatever I get has clearance.  I don’t know if it’ll be commercial, charter, military, or what.  I’ll make sure we squawk ‘Kildar One’ on the transponder; you’ll clear the skies.”
“Again.  Done.”
“Fifth.  This is a Keldara op, so your men stay out of it.  But your sorry ass is coming with us, just to make sure you stay honest.  I think you’ll be much less likely to fuck us over if your own balls are on the line, don’t you?”
“I agree, Kildar, but I don’t know if the Prime Minister will agree.  After the last operation, and my warning to you, well, I have plans for them.  I’m afraid he might not place the same value on my balls as I do.”
“Again, not my problem.  If Vlad wants to try to take us out?  He’ll have a hell of a fight on his hand, right in the middle of Moscow.  We‘ll be in control of a rogue nuke, and you can take that however you like.”  Mike smiled, shark-like, in anticipation.  He looked a question at the other two, who both shook their heads.
“One last thing.”
“Anything, Kildar.”
“You take a few hours and try to remember everything you can about Gereshk.  I don’t care how insignificant, I need that intel.”
“I understand that completely, Kildar.  Let me say that -”
Whatever Chechnik wanted to say was lost as Mike hit the disconnect.
“So.  Any ideas how we’re going to get a team to Moscow fast?”
“How would you get a team of two dozen, plus their gear, two thousand kilometers in an hour?  Two squads, medic, heavy gear.  Plus myself.  Short notice hour, that is.”
“Seriously, Bob.”
“Seriously, Mike.  There is no way to get that many men that far that quickly in a single plane.”
“Multiple planes?”
“Two dozen Eagles would do it, but that has its own problems.  Taking that many out of active service, even for a few hours, makes a hell of a dent in our air superiority umbrella and active response profiles.  That‘s a Command Authority decision, and unless you want another couple dozen meetings?”  Pierson let that hang.
“Won’t do that, then.  What else?”
“An hour.  Why an hour?”
“I suppose it could be as long as two hours,” conceded Mike.  “I don’t want to take any chances on the target moving before we can be on site.”
“Why not just locate closer?”
“Because I don’t trust my hosts and all my equipment is here,” said Mike grimly.
“A Russian problem, then.  Hey!”  Mike could hear pages being flipped through.  “Bingo!”
“They did a version of the Tu-22M3 as an ELINT carrier.  Called it the Troika, or something similar, we called it the Backfire-C.  It’s supposed to be similar to our AWACS, so it might have the crew capacity you need.”
“You think you can shake one loose?”
“Me?  You’re the one who owns the soul of a high-ranking officer in their Security Service!”
“Yeah, but I don’t know how much further I can stretch that.”
“Hmm.  I wonder…”
The line went quiet.
“Sorry.  Back in a minute.”  Before Mike could say anything, he was on hold.  Today the muzak was old Stones.  Sympathy for the Devil.  Mike was just starting to groove to the guitar solo when Pierson came back.
“Your timing sucks, Bob.”
“Never mind.  What was that about?”
“Little known tidbit from that little war that happened in your backyard last year?”
“Yeah?  That was pretty nasty down here.”
“The Russians used their Backfires in that war.  Seems that they lost two in combat, though they only admit to one that was destroyed by ground-to-air fire.  The other one was actually forced down.  They‘re not talking about that one.”
“Oh really?”
“Yep.  Something about it being a black eye, losing a fairly advanced bomber to a barely third-world power.  One of the few outright victories for the Georgians, though it ended up costing about a third of their air force.  The point is, when the cease-fires froze everything in place, it only dealt with territory and troops, not materiĆ©l.  The Russians tended to destroy everything the Georgians threw at them, so there wasn’t anything on their side to recover.  But -”
“But my buddies in Tbilisi kept the Backfire.”
“Exactly.  I’ll bet General Umarov would be more than happy to let you borrow it, especially if you’re planning to take it into Russia.  He’d love to thumb his nose at them, especially Putin.”
“I’ll bet he would.  One problem I can see - well, two.  First, a pilot.”
“Think your Captain Hardesty would like to give it a shot?”
“In a heartbeat.  But I think I‘d like a little bit of experience in a Backfire, just in case.”
“That can probably be arranged.  Second?”
“What if the Russians want the plane back?”
“That could get sticky, if they have the stones to try to pull it off.”
“Medvedev, probably not.  Putin?”
“Yeah, Putin does.  What if Umarov sold the plane to you?  As a private citizen, you’re entitled to bring your plane wherever you want.”
“I don’t think that I have the cash lying around for that.  They run, what, two hundred mil per?”  That would empty the coffers completely.
“North of that for a new one.”
“Yeah, right out then.”
“Just call me your friendly financier.  I think I can swing something.  Probably along the lines of a nice USAID package, combined with some quiet help rebuilding the Georgian Air Force.  I know we have a few deals in the works; this will just sweeten the pot a bit.  There‘s some old Phantoms that were refurbbed for drones, new ECM, engines, computers.  I think the Air Force can find something else to shoot at.”
“My own air force.  I’m never gonna hear the end of this.”
“I’m sure Umarov will be more than happy to watch over your Backfire for you.  Hell, you could probably lease it back to him, if not for cash then for various and sundry favors.”
“True.  Wonder if Hardesty would be willing to come aboard permanently?”
“Do you really want to piss off Chatham?”
“Not really.  Okay, I’ll call Umarov and talk about the Backfire, he can call you to arrange all the financial details, and you’ll get us a co-pilot.  Am I missing anything?”
“Just one.”
“What’s that?”
“I want a picture of Putin’s face when he hears you’ve bought a Backfire.”
“You tell us when he’s outside, I’ll get you the picture, right off his own satellites.  Vanner’s got some new 3D rendering tools he’s dying to try out.”
“I really, really didn’t need to hear that.”
“You, your best fire team, two heavies, and your sniper.  Prepare for extended deployment.”
“Yes, Kildar.  Where?”
“Moscow.  Make sure you have your passports.  Diplomatic ones.”
“Going in heavy?”
Mike thought.  “Yeah.  Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.”
“Your mission here is completed.  You are free to return to the land of the Big PX whenever you can arrange transport.  We‘ve arranged for the bodies to be shipped to Dover AFB with full honors.  Colonel Pierson will arrange for everyone‘s debrief and then time in the lands of sun and sand as a bonus - where the women wear bikinis, not burkhas,” he added.
A look of total disappointment consumed JP’s face.
“Or, you can remain here on TDY, at least through the Festival of Balar,” Mike relented.  “It’ll take that long get the transports here, unless I’m gonna pay to fly you home civilian.  That’s not gonna happen.
“Oh, you prick!  You had me going for a minute!”
“Yeah, well.  Can’t make you leave without seeing Sivula married off, can I?”
“No, you sure can’t.  Don’t think the troops will want to leave, anyway.  Something about the beer.”
“You’re sure it’s not the women?”
“Yeah, pretty dammed sure.”  At least, not for them.  I’m still hoping…
“You did what?”  Adams nearly spat out his beer across the kitchen table.
“Well, I’m not really buying it.  Uncle Sam is, but it’s going to be in my name.”
“Don’t fuckin’ matter.  A Backfire?  Are you out of your ever-loving skull?”
“No more than usual.  How else am I going to get a whole team to Moscow, fast?  We need to get in and out when that bubble‘s ready to pop before that prick can bugger us again.”
“Point.  What about just buying a Concorde?”
“They don’t fly them any more, dipshit.”
“So?  Bet you could get one cheap.”
“Tell you what, next time I’m looking for a plane, you can consult.”
“Deal.  What else?”
“Making a trip to Moscow.  Half of Vil’s team.  You, Vanner, Grez, Anisa.  Figure two dozen is max, if it ends us less we’ll improvise, adapt and overcome as usual.  Gonna be a bigger hammer job, if only to keep Putin honest and away from us.  Who else?”
“Arensky?  Need our pet WMD expert.”
“Good call.”
“Leave Grez behind, though.  We need her insight here if we’re hauling around Vanner.”
Mike shook his head.  “No, they work better as a team.  Stella can mind the store.”
“No Lasko though, dammit.”
“And no Shota or Mules either.  I thought about recalling them; a heavy grab would be right up their alley, but Vil’s fast and used to thinking on his feet.  They‘ll do; you and the others trained them well.”
“I notice you didn’t say Katrina.”
“Good for you, Ass-Boy.”
“Any particular reason why?”
“Besides the fact that I don’t want her to come along but I’m not sure I can stop her?”
“Not really.”
Changing the subject, the Chief said, “Thought you might be interested - we got into Inarov’s safe.  Seems the Emir did his own security on it, didn‘t trust Schwenke, so no surprises, just a lot of sweat.  Could have used Creata on this one, then we wouldn‘t have had to lug it down to the valley.  It‘ll make a good safe for a certain movie collection, though.  Better than what we got now.  After it‘s repaired.”  He coughed the last words through his fist.
“Yeah.  Turned it over to Padrek and his boys.  Told him they could do anything they wanted, as long as they didn’t damage the contents.”
“Bonanza.  Schedules, plans, Inarov’s journal, contact lists - we can roll up the entire fucking Chechen resistance with this shit.  Money in the bank, even what I can read.  Gonna keep us busy for a long, long time if we take the mission.”
“That’ll make Pierson happy.  Or Chechnik.  Or both.  Anything else?”
“A few pornos.  The late Emir was a sick, sick man.”
“How sick?”
“Let me put it this way: I only skimmed ‘em, okay, twice, but I’ll never look at a goat the same way again.”  After a laugh, Adams continued.  “That’s not the best part.”
“There’s better?  What, a mule?  A camel?”
“Yeah.  I mean, no.  You know the old saying, ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’?  Of course you do - I saw the rock you gave Katrina.  Nice taste, by the way.”
“Thanks.  I know the saying.  What of it?”
Adams dug into a cavernous pocket, pulled out a lumpy cloth bag, and handed it to Mike.
“Go ahead.  Take a look,” he said with a small smile.
Mike poured the contents onto the tabletop.  A number of rough bluish crystals spilled out, along with a much smaller bag, which he picked up and emptied onto his hand.  Five small blue crystals gleamed at him.
“Pretty.  Sapphire?”
“No, though that was my first guess.”
“There’s another one,” Mike said, holding one of the gemstones to the light and watching it shift to a more purple color in the kitchen fluorescents.  “Iolite, I think it’s called.”
“Nope, though I haven’t heard of it.  This stuff - I had Vanner check it out, I had Arensky test it, and they’re both sure.  It’s called blue garnet.”
“Garnet?  Didn’t know it could be blue.  Don’t you use garnet for polishing and smoothing?  Think I remember something about that.”
“Common garnet, yeah.  Not this stuff.  Those five little gems you have weighed out a little more than seven carats.  Street value?  Over ten million.”
“What’s that in dollars?” Mike inquired, rolling them idly in his hand.  “About three hundred sixty thousand?  A nice little bonus there for the boys.”
“That is in dollars.”
Mike’s hand froze.  “You’re shitting me.”
Adams shook his head.  “Nope.  One point five mil per carat, in that quality.”
“And the rough stones?”
“They’re about three hundred and twenty carats total weight.  Gonna lose some in cutting, but figure with a skilled cutter you’ll end up with between two fifty and two seventy five.”
Very carefully, Mike put the faceted gems back in the small pouch before speaking.  “Do you think Inarov had the slightest idea what he had here?”
Adams’ grin, which had been getting larger and larger, fairly threatened to split his face.  “That’s the best bit: he had no fucking clue!  We found an invoice and an assayer’s report with them, and I don’t know who the jackass was who did the evaluation but he judged them to be Alexandrite.”
“That’s pretty costly, isn’t it?”
“Ten grand per carat, yeah.  I looked it up; it changes color in different lights, too, which is probably why it was assayed that way.  It was a nice pile for the Emir to be sitting on, even so - the assayer‘s report estimated them, as Alexandrite, to be worth about three million dollars.”
“Instead of four hundred and fifty.  Just a little off.”
“What a pity, eh?”
“Wonder how Inarov got his hands on them?”
Adams shook his head.  “No idea.  There are a couple entries in his journal about them, but they’re pretty vague.  Oh, and you can forget about going to assayer.  Inarov was very clear about him: ‘Infidel who cut initial gems eliminated.’  So that’s a dead end too.”
“Pity,” said Mike, rolling one of the uncut pieces in his hand.  “Guess that means we’ll have to keep ‘em.”  He put the fortune away.  “Find a reputable, close-mouthed cutting house.  I want these done up as soon as possible, about one carat each, and a couple dozen larger stones, say about three carats each.”
“What’re you going to do with them?”
“Don’t worry.  You’ll find out soon enough.”  Mike gave the Chief his best Mona Lisa and nothing else.