Seriously - I love comments, and try to respond to them all (eventually). I have this set up so any comments go to my email, so will react to tech questions and 'oops you goofed' messages ASAP.
Now what? Well, there are a few loose end. Like a bachelor party. And a wedding.
The after-action report was gonna be a bitch.
That was clear enough after doing the very brief hot wash, immediately after their return to the serai. With combat sites scattered across fifteen hundred miles, only two of which were actively under their control, the simple logistics made doing it ‘right’ nearly impossible. Zero chance to comb over them for missed data, or to properly sanitize the battle scenes. Especially not Moscow. No way in hell was he going to dare Murphy there, not until the uproar had settled from Putin’s death.
As far as he was concerned, the mission was done. Over. The nukes were safely returned to better hands than before. The money was in the works. The men had gotten their steaks and beer and one hellacious ‘welcome home!’ party. Everyone was happy. Almost. Upper still wanted more details, of course, and Katrina was insisting, loudly, to Adams that they would do it properly!
Just as loudly, Adams was attempting to explain exactly what happened to all after-action reports. How sooner or later they all ended up in the wrong hands, with a person who had no clue about the details of the situation. They wouldn’t know the background, or the pressures faced at that moment of decision. And sure as God made little green apples, they’d end up making every operator look incompetent, a criminal, or both. Then they’d use the report to push their own agenda, or maybe a bit of petty revenge.
He wasn’t using nice language, either. He was shooting from the hip and Katrina was alternately blushing, nodding, and repeating what Adams was saying even more emphatically. All along, she was cradling her M4, which she hadn’t set down for more than ten minutes since boarding the Backfire for the flight home.
Mike listened to Guerrin promise that, as soon as he had his finished, he’d give a copy to Nielson for review. Chechnya? Not a prayer. Pavel wasn’t up to the task yet, and Adams flat-out refused. On this, Katrina agreed.
“Screw them. The job is done. Pay us and leave us alone for a long, long time. I want to get married, and I want to get laid, and I don’t much care about the order. And if anyone tries to bother us before the honeymoon is over, I will personally shoot them in the nuts.” She caressed her rifle.
That left Moscow, and Cottontail.
“No way. What happened in Moscow, stays in Moscow.” Mike was adamant. There was no way he could prevent stories from being told - already, Vil’s marksmanship was becoming common knowledge, and Katrina was practically preening from all the attention she was getting - and that was bad enough.
He did not need the notoriety that would arise if her role in Putin’s death was generally known. Or guess how many death squads would be dispatched, if they didn’t just drop a missile on them instead. Less personal but cheaper in the long run than trying to penetrate through the Keldara. Even if it wouldn’t bring the wrath of the ultra-nationalist Russians down upon them, he didn’t know if the valley could stand Kat’s ego blowing up. “They came after me?” he could imagine her saying. “Oh! I’m famous!” That chilled him almost more than her need for retribution.
At least there was one positive out of this. Putin’s death had solidified the support for President Medvedev, stabilizing it immensely. The fact that Putin had died as the hero/cowboy he had always pretended to be resonated with the Russian people. And the stories from the witnesses all supported that version of the facts. It was their story, and they were sticking to it.
As for Cottontail - she was still at the Republican Clinical Hospital, waiting for J to recover. He had begun to recover some movement in his extremities, but still required assistance to breathe. His doctors were confident that he’d make a full recovery in time. The anti-toxins had arrived, and were helping him progress, but it was still a lengthy process.
Tamara was one of the few people Katya allowed in the room, and she’d taken a picture of the agent, sleeping. She was head down on J’s leg, one hand clutching a pistol, the other a purple teddy wearing an orange-and-black kilt. It was terribly cute, and frightfully scary, and she couldn’t resist the impulse to snap the photo. Luckily, Katya was fully zonked from exhaustion, helped by valium in her apple juice.
Mike wasn’t sure J would return to the Valley, though, which would be unfortunate. He’d talked with Katya, upon returning from Moscow, and she’d mentioned J’s intent to end Katya’s apprenticeship. What that meant for J’s future as the resident HumInt specialist remained to be seen. It made Vanner nervous, though whether at the thought of losing J or having Cottontail as his primary agent Mike wasn’t sure.
Putin’s death had made all the headlines.
“Prime Minister Stops Nuclear Terror” - CNN
“Evil Empire Has Soft Side, Saves Bakery” - Fox News
“Elvis And Russian Save Moscow!” - Midnight Sun
Okay, some were more accurate than others. The best part was that none mentioned Georgia, or the Keldara, or the Kildar, or a mysterious Backfire flying in and out of Moscow.
Chechnik had taken charge of the situation long enough for the ‘official’ story to be cemented in the public’s eye. His men spent two days getting very, very drunk and vigorously laid, a minor expense Mike was more than happy to absorb. Arensky had provided them with another concoction which he swore would blur all memories of the past week and supplied it to Chechnik before the bacchanalia ended. This way even the most rigorous questioning wouldn’t be able to shake their stories from the party line.
Mike had put Chechnik in touch with Sheik Otryad as a final favor to the man before he disappeared himself. Chechnik could use a patron abroad, especially with the sudden demise of Putin, and Otryad could use a man who, all bitching aside, really knew the intelligence business. Besides, the sheik owed him a favor after borrowing Shota, the Mules, the Four Blind Mice, Lasko, and tapping Mike’s former trainers to reel in McKenzie as well. And Chechnik could use a pair of pilots with no conscience and knowledge of the unofficial southeast Asia flight routes. It was a temporary arrangement, of course, but seemed perfect. God save anyone who got in their way.
Since the news had broken and they’d recovered the last nuke, the phones had been ringing off the hook, as well as all the secure cyber channels. His responses had been remarkably similar to all.
“Fuck you. No.”
“Ask the Big Man, and he’ll tell you what I told you. Fuck off. You don’t have need-to-know.”
Now, though, he had to deal with Major Hughes, and his boss, to whom he at least owed the favor of being polite.
“Jack, if Pierson wants an after-action report, you can give him one.”
“But, Mike, I wasn’t there! Every time something interesting happened, you sent me somewhere else.”
“Not all of it. What about taking down the Emir? You were there for that, weren’t you?”
“So that’s what, one out of five?” He held up a hand and started ticking off fingers.
“First bomb, Groznyy. We were where?”
“St. Louis,” mumbled Mike.
“So all the information I have is second- or third-hand. That makes my boss so happy! Second? Kek-Usn - and, by the way? I didn’t enjoy flying in a fucking Hind on top of three hundred kilos of Semtex, fuck you very much! - Kek-Usn, and the Emir, right?”
“Right.” Mike caught Adams rolling his eyes, and Katrina hiding a smirk. He turned to face Jack more fully and doubly flipped both of them off behind his back.
“That, I can do my job properly. But then you send me back to Elista with a shitload of bombs that have lead aprons rigger-taped to them -”
“You volunteered, Jack,” interrupted Mike. More snickering. He wanted to turn to say something really rude but Jack was still in full bitching mode and had caught his breath.
“Yeah, whatever. The point is, I spent the next eight hours welding lead plates onto live bombs.”
“And your point is?”
Hughes didn’t answer, just continued. “I finally haul my ass back here and find out that I’d just missed a major battle between Rangers and Chechens! Mortars, machine guns, snipers, bunkers, you name it, it was there! And where was I?”
“Screwing my harem manager? I‘m sure Pierson would love details of that type of close quarters action. What‘s that story going to be - diplomacy? Tying down loose ends? Or language lessons in pillow talk?”
“That’s totally not the point!”
“That’s not what she said.” Nobody could hide their giggles any longer. Jack blushed a little, but being a good Marine he pushed on. Forward momentum for good or ill.
“I had intended simply to lie down for an hour. Next thing I know, my hands are tied to the bed and she’s blowing me! What do you think I was gonna do?” Hughes said desperately.
“Cum again? I didn’t hear that last part,” Adams added in laughing.
“Need better situational awareness there, Jack. And Chief? Unless you have something constructive to say, shut it.”
Returning to the subject, Hughes said, “Fourth. The action in the woods.”
“That was personal between Cottontail, J, and Schwenke. You’re welcome to interview any or all of ‘em. I wouldn‘t recommend going to see J, though. Only doctors and nurses Katya‘s personally cleared are getting into that room.”
“Great, I have permission to interview a man on a respirator, a bitch I wouldn’t dare to piss off, and a lunatic whose body has disappeared.”
“You have Oleg’s report,” Mike added helpfully. “And you could give the President Kurt’s nuts. I’m sure the crows haven’t touched them yet. And if you make a little coin purse out of his sack, Katya might just be impressed enough to talk to you.”
“Fifth and finally, Moscow. But you send me to babysit a hundred-fifty kiloton bomb in a Hind - which is almost as much fun as Semtex, you know? - to a tiny, stinking port on the Black Sea. There I get the third degree from some CIA degenerates who hadn’t been, let’s see if I remember this right: ‘briefed on the non-itineraried presence of an officered member of the United States Armed Forces in connection with transportation of nuclear deterrent products en route to the US for dismantlification and recycling pursuant to -’ some Executive Order I’ve never heard of.”
Mike winced. “Pure bureaucratese is hard to come by these days, especially around here. I am truly sorry you had to endure that alone. I should have sent the Chief with you. He knows how to put a stop to that.”
“Damn straight. Only takes one round through the knee to set the rules of polite conversation and make them get to the point. Just be sure you have a grenade in your other hand, just in case they don’t understand your accent.” He was grinning like a shark. Mike knew the others weren’t sure if Adams was telling the truth or just spewing bull. That was part of Ass-Boy’s magic with the troops.
“It was three hours before they were convinced I was who I said I was! It didn’t help that your lunatic pilot and her equally-crazed crew chief were sitting back and laughing the entire time! But the Company jerks couldn’t touch them because, somehow, they were carrying diplomatic passports.”
“Just a little precaution,” Mike said. “That, plus they were probably loaded for bear. Bet she landed so her spinal cannon covered their little camp.”
“Yeah, well, they made me pay for it. So by the time we get back, I’m so stressed and wiped out that I crash again. Just sleep, this time. Not that she didn‘t try. I woke up naked when I heard her calling for Kurosawa and his needles. Nothing like it to get the tired out of your bones and make the urge to relocate your primary motivator!”
“I know. Stasia was complaining that you didn’t have the, ah, stamina she’s used to.”
“After I wake up and flee the room, I find that you and your merry band of cutthroats have somehow gotten hold of a Backfire bomber and flown to Moscow! I mean, what the fuck? Didn’t you think of waking me?”
“Stop. One second.“ Mike held up his hand. “Honestly, Jack? You really want to know?”
“Yes, I did. But Stasia promised mayhem if I didn’t let you get a full night’s sleep, and over the next day and into the morning, when it was all going down, well, it was just so fucking chaotic, I just plain forgot.” Mike shrugged. Katrina fell off her perch and onto Adams, reclining in his comfy chair, from laughing. Mike gave her a raised eyebrow. She nodded and covered her mouth, but her whole body was still shaking.
Adams seemed more engrossed in the pert little butt that was almost right in his face at the moment than the chance to joke at his best friend’s expense again. “You know, I haven’t… talked to Bambi in a while. A long while. I think I ought to do that soon. Real soon. Right now, in fact.” And he stood up, dumped the offending pert butt into the floor and strode out of the room. “Don’t call me; I’ll call you. Later. Much later,” he called over his shoulder.
“In any case, I wake up and you’re gone. Kseniya let me into the Cave, so I was able to follow your progress and read your reports as they came in, but it’s not the same as being there. Those girls edit the data on the fly. They must have had it buffered by at least ten seconds, maybe more. I can‘t read Georgian, but my Russian‘s real good, and those screens weren‘t matching at all.”
“You’re absolutely right, Jack, it’s not the same. It’s a lot safer. And you‘re right, they probably were. It‘s as much about sheltering them as anything. If one of their husbands is deployed and gets injured, or worse, the data gets dumped into a buffer for Grez until she has a chance to counsel them in private, get relief and a Mother.”
“The problem with that is there are all sorts of questions that nobody wants to give me a straight answer to.”
“They’re pros. Vanner taught them. Mr. No-Such-Agency himself. But I’ll help you out, if I can. To a point.” Mike noticed that Vanner and Grez had taken advantage of Adams’ departure to slip from the room themselves. That was fine. He just hoped they’d air out the Cave before heading to quarters; it stank like a mix of gym socks, stress, burnt coffee and overheated electronics.
“Like who shot Gereshk, where is the bomb, and who shot Putin?”
“That’s a bit more than a little. I can give you the official version. I think that some Private shot Gereshk, right after Gereshk shot Putin who was being a dumbass cowboy and crashed our op unannounced -”
“Bullshit, Mike! I can get that from CNN and Vremya! Dammit, if I’m going to do my job, I need the truth!“
Mike pondered this for a moment before replying. “If I say it doesn’t go in your report, do I have your word that it doesn’t go in?”
“Absolutely! On my honor as an officer in the Corps!”
“I don’t care about your honor. If you lie to me, if you’re lucky, you end up in an unmarked grave.”
“Not that I’m gonna lie - but what if I’m unlucky?”
“I’ll tell Stasia she can’t play with you any more, and give you to the Mice.”
“Be afraid. Be very afraid,” was all Mike said.
“Never mind that. I want the truth.”
“Fine. In no particular order? Chechnik took charge of the bomb, and contacted our Ambassador to help arrange for secure transport to Novorossijisk. Vil, one of my Team leaders, shot Gereshk after he took a shot at me.”
“Hit you too! Mike’s getting slo-ow!” Katrina’s voice sing-songed out from under the table.
“Took it in the armor, mostly. Anyway. Katrina did for Putin with a Makarov she’d taken off Gereshk’s body, after he told us he was going to kill us all and pin the entire thing on me and the Keldara. Then he‘d take the credit for saving Moscow, even though they‘re the ones who‘d lost the bombs in the first place.”
“The fuck you say! Chechnik took the bomb?” He didn’t even blink at the part about Putin and Katrina.
“That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”
“Well, I know that the men you picked to lead your Teams can’t be any kind of slouch, so Vil’s shooting doesn’t surprise me. And I spent a week with you and Kat; need I say more? I also know she can shoot; I heard the Chief telling stories about her giving some guy‘s balls a close shave with her gun during a spring festival.”
“So what are you going to tell Pierson?”
“I think we can tell him that Vil took down Gereshk and that Chechnik took care of the nuke.”
“And what about Katrina?” She peeked over the table edge at the sound of her name.
“I wasn’t there; nobody actually saw it, right?”
“Nobody except Katrina. Not even the Keldara behind her or next to her. She always does have to have the last word.”
“Do not! And you’re going to pay for that!”
“Anytime, sweetie. Still, between the glare of the lights and her hip shooting, no one could really say anything with certainty. It helps that Chechnik had his own hand-picked crew there, who were primed for a long, ah, ‘vacation’ in warmer climes.”
“So who can I ask that would contradict Chechnik’s official view? Dead men don‘t talk much, and I never liked that asshole anyway.” Katrina beamed at Jack for that before settling into Adams‘ vacated chair.
“Thanks, Jack. That‘ll make things smoother.”
“No problem. I figure I owed you at least that.”
“At least. So, what’s next?”
“Don’t know. How long until the wedding?”
“Twelve days, maybe? The Festival isn’t a fixed date; it’s sometime between the first and third of May. Besides, with all the traveling, I’m not entirely sure what planet I’m on any more.” He pointedly stretched. “I figure in the next couple hours I’ll either rack out or get acquainted with the floor. The little minx isn’t doing much better, are you?” Silence. “Katrina?” Jack snorted.
Mike turned, following his eyes. Katrina had curled up in the chair like a kitten, curled around her M4 protectively and snoring. Snoring? Oh, he so needed a camera now.
“Know what you mean. All the chopper rides, I feel like I’ve spent a week in a mixing bowl. So a couple weeks, more or less?” Jack spoke in a much quieter voice.
“Well, I have plenty of leave coming. Unless the Colonel orders me back, I think I might just drop him an email and let him know I’m taking it.”
“Why bother? Just don’t say anything. You’re on TDY to me anyhow; who’s to say when I plan to send you back?” Mike smiled conspiratorially and dropped his voice. “I need you to do something, a few things, actually. Let‘s take a walk.”
“Sure.” Mike walked him out of the ready room. Making sure nobody was nearby, he motioned for Jack to follow him through the kitchen into what he thought of as his backyard.
“First, I want you to work with Qays. If we’re picking up strays, they may as well be useful.”
“This is what I want you to do with him…”
Mike’s instructions for Qays’ training were very explicit and precise, if a bit strange.
“I can do that,” said Hughes finally. “And what’s the second thing?”
“There are some special rounds I need, that I can’t have traced back to me or the Keldara.”
“What are they?”
Mike told him. “The filler will be in a cooler, under the first bridge down from the dam. Make sure you get to it in time and keep it chilled.
With a surprised look, Hughes said, “And what are you going to do with those?”
“I’m not doing anything, you are. And this is what you’re going to do -”
Shortly: “Did a sneak?”
“Won’t you guess my name?” answered Mike.
“No, I wouldn’t dare. But you give the orders around here.”
“What’s all this about?”
“Let’s just say that I think Vlad may have had something up his sleeve, and this is my insurance.”
“Going to tell anyone else?”
“That’s the other thing…”
There were pluses to being a neo-feudal lord: nice house, freedom to do pretty much as he pleased, Keldara women to look at, a harem at his beck and call, a backhoe to dispose of any stubborn problems… And there were minuses: paperwork, security, paperwork, training, paperwork… And, occasionally, he had to actually check in with his subordinates. Otherwise, who knew what they’d charge into. Or simply charge.
Parts of the valley were supposed to be self-supporting or even money-makers. Long-term, according to Meller, the valleys had the potential to become a major industrial and tech center, bringing major income to everyone who invested either labor or money in building it up. But for now, he had to look after the few that were already completed.
The dam had been a quick in and out. Look at the dials, check cleanliness, listen to the hum of the generators and the rush of the spring waters. They actually managed to export electricity this time of year due to the meltwaters. It allowed Meller to run the system full out as a sort of stress test. Mike would have rather read the memo than endure a twenty minute drive and thirty minutes of technobabble, but at least he’d been spared the full-on Powerpoint presentation and video.
Now, on to something he was passionate about. Beer!
“Gurum! How’s the brewery?” Mike stood to shake the brewery manager’s hand, then sat again. Gurum settled into the seat across the desk.
“We have just finished expanding again. Now we are a three hundred hectoliter plant! Although we cannot, in all likelihood, expand beyond that.”
“Tiger berries. We’re running out of suitable land for the berries, and Genadi doesn’t feel that more acreage can be turned over for planting bushes. Something about a cash crop versus a sustenance crop?”
“I know what he means,” explained Mike. “Two kinds of planting. One is what you need to survive - wheat, beans, peas, vegetables. Now, some part of that can be sold, and another part can be held over for the following year’s seeds, but most of it is simply turned into food.”
“And the other?”
“That’s the tiger berries, or soy, or any other plant you grow with the intent to sell or use in another fashion. You have to have enough planted to make it sufficiently profitable, and you can expand it slightly if you’re willing to buy seeds every year for your food crops rather than store your own, but there’s a fine line. You can’t eat money, after all, and in an area like this, so isolated it’s virtually cut off from the outside, you can’t simply run down to the market if you run out of milk.”
“I see. But could we not use land that is not needed for food? The hillsides, perhaps, or some of the wooded areas?”
Mike shook his head. “Genadi has had most of the areas near the brewery already put to that use, but you run into other problems there. Unless you’re going to terrace the entire hillside, it’s almost criminally foolish to strip the natural vegetation off slopes like we have around here.”
“Too little ground cover and there’s nothing to hold the dirt in place when it rains; you will get mudslides. And the same problem with cutting the trees. Besides providing cover for the game you hunt, they’re natural snowblocks. We have enough problems with avalanches without stripping the mountain flanks of trees, don’t you think?”
“But without more tiger berries, we have nearly reached our production limit.”
Mike shrugged. “It would be nice to get more income through the brewery, but it’s not exactly essential.” A thought struck him. “Do the tiger berry bushes have to be in the Valley itself?”
“No, Kildar. They grow elsewhere, but not in the same quantities. And Mother Lenka says that their flavor is different. She makes a face whenever the subject is brought up.”
“Hmm. I wonder. Right, here’s what I think you should do. Go see Dr. Arensky.”
“The Russian?” Arensky’s eccentricities were known throughout the Valley.
“I know he can be a bit odd, but he’s brilliant. He’s also the only scientist we have locally.”
Resignedly, Gurum said, “Yes, Kildar. And what do I ask him?”
“Bring him to other places the berries grow and have him take samples of the plants and the soil, then compare them to a bush and soil from the valley.”
“Dirt is dirt, Kildar,” said Gurum, confused.
“Trust me on this, it isn’t. Just get Arensky to test them both. If it comes out the way I hope, you may be able to plant elsewhere. Also, ask Mother Lenka for a new recipe, for a dark beer. It doesn‘t have to use the tiger berries, just be a good Keldara beer, strictly for export.” He finished with a grin. “There’s a demand for dark beer, and I think we should take advantage of that too. If it fails, we’ll just buy or build a still and make it into vodka. Drop a few berries into each bottle, call it Freedom Spirits, and we’ll be able to charge an arm and a leg for it. Try to remember all that, but I’ll check in a few days.”
“Thank you, Kildar.” Gurum rose and left.
Daria walked in.
“Okay, Daria, before you tell me who’s next, make a note. Get Gurum a PDA and some classes in its use. It‘ll help him do his job better. So who is next?”
“He’s lost every PDA we’ve given him, Kildar, we think on purpose. Or perhaps the boys are still playing jokes on him. We can issue him another and track it, hope it remains in the area. Other than that - that was it for today, Kildar. But -” She suddenly seemed hesitant. “May I speak with you?”
“Of course you can.” Mike had a sinking feeling he knew what she was going to say. He hadn’t forgotten her desire to leave; he simply wasn’t looking forward to it.
“I… you remember our talk?” she began.
This was it. He steeled himself and gave her a genuine smile to calm her down.
“I do, Daria. You made yourself very clear. I don’t want you to go, but I did ask you to stay only until after the mission. The mission’s done, so anytime you’re ready -”
“Oh, no, Kildar!”
“I’ve changed my mind. If that’s all right,” she added hastily.
“All right? Of course it’s all right! It’s fantastic!” He smiled broadly. “So what brought this on?”
“A few things. I realized that, really, I am very safe here. Protected. Even though you have brought some troubles to the Valley, you have also done all you can to push them away. I don’t know if I can find that out there. The friendships. The safety. The…benefits,” she finished with a blush.
“You can; it’s just a question of looking.”
“And until I find it? What then? No, Kildar. I learned long ago not to trade the gifts of today for the promises of tomorrow, for tomorrow might never come. I have seen far too many young men for whom tomorrow never came, whose parents, wives, siblings would know only sorrow and not the joy of having him around.”
“True enough,” agreed Mike. “What else changed your mind?”
“JP,” she said in a tiny, little girl’s voice.
“Captain Guerrin?” Mike couldn’t conceal his surprise.
“Yes, Captain Guerrin,” she said now in a husky whisper, eyes dilated and nostrils flared as she said his name.
“How did you find time to get to know him? And so fast!”
“I’ve been working with him the whole time he’s been here, Kildar. Someone had to run interference for him, help him adjust and stay in contact with his commanders in America. Naturally, he came to me, since I fill that role for you and he figured that I’d know how to help him.”
“But - he’s still active duty!”
“Not for long,” she answered. “When he came here, he had less than two months. Now it’s little more than one, and he says he can probably get something called ‘termination leave’ since he’s hardly used any of his personal time.”
“Yeah, the Army’ll do that if you want to get discharged in place. Doesn’t he have a family or something back home?”
“No,” Daria answered. “Nothing like that. Before you ask, he hopes that you might have a place for him. He said that you could use another full-time trainer, either for the Tigers or the Rams, and that you’d just have to pay him in beer.”
“I don’t know if I can afford him, then,” joked the Kildar. “Well, whatever reasons, you staying is good news. Guess that means you’ll be moving out at some point?”
“Perhaps,” answered Daria. “Though my room is much more comfortable than the barracks he’s used to.”
“Has he seen them?”
“You mean, has he slept with me? No, not yet. He wanted to wait until I had a chance to talk to you.”
“No wonder you’ve been so anxious,” he replied.
That finally drew a blush.
“Fine, fine. My blessings or whatever on you both. I’ll expect you to be professional when he’s around, though. Mission faces and all that.”
“Yes, Kildar.” She twinkled. “Just like you are with Katrina.”