But enough maudlin crap. Bob Pierson's coming for a visit. Wonder how that's gonna go?
The secure phone beeped. That meant a call from someone important enough to have the ability to call that number, a very short list indeed. And that meant that he couldn‘t just ignore it, despite the other demands on his time.
“So how do I get to Alersso from Tbilisi?” The voice crackled and snapped. A land line, and not a good one. That meant it probably originated in Tbilisi like the caller said, and also that it certainly wasn’t secure. He heard the phone slam into something hard once, twice, and the worst of the static cleared. “I said, Mike, how do I get to Alersso from Tbilisi?”
“Pierson? You’re in Tbilisi? I thought you were still overseeing a delivery?” No point in talking about the nukes over an open line.
“It wouldn’t make much sense for me to ask directions otherwise, would it?” he responded acerbically. “Sorry, I‘m running on caffeine right now and the ragged edge at that. Yeah, the delivery went smoothly, so I figured, what the hell, you invited me, and how often do I get a chance to get away?”
“I’ll have a chopper there in a half-hour to pick you up.” Mike grinned. Tired? He could solve that.
“I made it this far on my own. You don’t have to -” Pierson began, but Mike interrupted him.
“Four hour drive on typical third-world roads in a rental that’s had the odometer clock over who knows how many times on minimal maintenance, then doing the pothole slalom on unfamiliar roads against locals. Or, a half-hour in the air. Your choice.”
“Ah. Chopper, please. Half an hour‘s just long enough for a power nap.”
Nap? Not likely.
“Thought so. Listen for call sign Dragon. And I‘ll arrange for the grand tour, plus a suitable room and personal attendant.” Which Valkyrie had the duty, and he’d get Vanner to sweep the room, make sure all the bugs were their own.
“Dragon? It’s not that crazy pi-” But Mike had already hung up.
“Kacey! Need you!” he snapped over the intercom.
A moment later, “Go, Kildar.”
“Two items. Need a VIP pick-up at TIA, grand tour, anything he wants to see.”
“Easy. What else?”
“Anechka. How’s she doing on flight training?”
“Coming along nicely. Why?”
“I have an idea…”
Another man left the airport. His destination: a certain valley to the north. His trip would take slightly longer.
The PA blared almost continuously.
If it was quieter, and in English, and undistorted, it might be tolerable, or at least comprehensible. This PA failed on all three counts. For a brand new terminal, they certainly seemed to have skimped on the sound system. Pierson shrugged, He’d been in worse before, he’d be in worse again. Newark came immediately to mind.
Finally, Pierson heard his name - he thought - but failed to understand any other part of the announcement. That was his signal to find someone who might be able to translate. He struggled with his bags until he found an airport worker who at least seemed to understand a modicum of English, mixed with bad Russian. Berlitz, he thought. If I’m going to spend any time dealing with Mike, I need Georgian.
“Pierson? My name was called?” He pointed to the ceiling-mounted speakers which were continuing their blattering.
He gabbled something in, what, Georgian? Definitely Berlitz. Don’t care if I ever get out here again, at least it’ll get me out of the office for a while.
“Meenya zavoot Pierson.” God, what a mash-up.
“Pierson! Da!” He pounded his chest, nodding vigorously.
Another gabble and a nod from his chosen interpreter.
Pierson shook his head. “Nyet, nyet.” He did his best to look confused; not particularly difficult under the circumstances. “I can’t follow you, I don’t speak Georgian. Uh…govoreet pa-russki?”
Using the international standard of making oneself understood, the worker slowed down his speech, increased his volume, and added gestures.
Pierson thought he caught a couple words of that. There were some Slavic cognates in there he could almost understand.
“Chastnikh terminalov?” He repeated it as best he could. Private terminal? “Where? Gdyeh?”
“Da!” The worker pointed down a long corridor, rattling off another long string of syllables. Good enough.
“Spasiba.” Thank you. He smiled and turned in the new direction.
“Welcome.” Oh, sure, one word. Great.
Five minutes later, Pierson reached the end. Literally. All that was ahead of him was a door inscribed in the curiously fluid Georgian script. He was sure it said something like, “Intruders will be killed and eaten,” or something similar, but he pushed it open anyway.
Squatting outside was the single evilest-looking Hind he’d ever laid eyes on. Black from nose to tail, with a snarling dragon’s head on the front, he knew it at once, even before the helmeted crewman walked over. The flight suit looked fairly standard, down to the nametag that read, ‘Bathlick’. Though the shoulder patch - a dragon in full flight, raining flame below - certainly wasn’t.
Scratch that. Crewwoman. The voice was a dead giveaway; any curves were hidden beneath the suit.
“Captain Kacey Bathlick, late of the USMC and currently playing chauffeur for the Kildar,” she said, pushing the visor back and extending her hand.
He shook the proffered hand. “Pleased to finally meet you, Captain. And this is the famous Dragon?”
“The one and only,” she said proudly. “Any more luggage?”
He gestured to his one bag. “Just the bag and the briefcase.”
“Let’s get you aboard, sir. This way. Careful of the rotors.” He climbed up and in and strapped down while Captain Bathlick expertly secured the bags.
“You’ve done this before, sir?”
He nodded, yawning. “You’re not flying tonight, Captain? Is it, ah, Wilson?” he asked, dredging her usual co-pilot’s name from his memory. He’d noticed a slight whirring as the powerful turbines fired.
“No, Tammy has her own bird. Valkyrie.”
Pierson was confused. That seemed to be his usual state in this country. “Then who’s starting - did the Kildar hire more pilots?”
“Sort of,” said Kacey as he settled into his seat. “You may want to secure yourself a little more tightly, sir.”
Tightening the five-point harness again, he said, “Why? The weather a problem?”
“No. But Anechka’s a little nervous tonight. It’s her first night flight.”
“Anechka?” The name staggered off his tongue. Definitely a local.
“Anechka Devlich, my pilot-in-training. I thought, what better opportunity?” Kacey smiled at Pierson, who had paled. “Don’t worry, sir. I’ll be right behind her. She’s quite promising,” she said, entering the cockpit. “Barf bags are on your right. You said you wanted to see the sights up close?”
“Mother of God…”
“You son-of-a-bitch!” Pierson greeted Mike with a snarl as he tried to flatten his hair - surely grayer than when he arrived in Tbilisi - back down from the helmet. His bags landed at his feet.
“Good to see you too, Bob,” said Mike, grinning widely. “How’d Anechka do?”
“You knew about this?”
“Of course I did! I didn’t realize how far along her training was until very recently,” he said, throwing a knowing look at Kacey who looked off innocently. “She’s almost ready to solo.”
“I need a drink. What day is it? And where the fuck am I, exactly?”
“Two days before the weddings,” answered Mike, shaking his head at the jet lag and the effects of the short flight to the Valley. “And how about a beer? I warn you, though, you’ll never look at a Budweiser the same way again.”
“I’ve had Mountain Tiger,” Pierson responded.
“Not like this,” Mike insisted. “There’s a barrel left from the party we can tap; the others are reserved for the weddings, and even I won’t cross Mother Lenka on that.”
Pierson gave him the eye. Unaffected, Mike continued.
“Girls, get Colonel Pierson’s bags. Bob, this is Herja and Reginleif, though we all call her Reggie. They’ll be taking care of you during your stay.” He said it with a completely straight face. Let Pierson figure out just what he meant. He knew that some stories had to have made it back to OSOL. Let’s see how a man stuck behind a desk for a few years dealt with it.
One very large stein of Mother Griffina’s brew later - the one unbroached keg from the party had been discovered and confiscated; Mother Lenka’s brew was in short supply so what there was in the serai was being held for the wedding reception - and Pierson was ready to take care of business. Mostly.
He waved away an offer of a refill from one of ‘his’ girls, he couldn’t remember which one. The names just hadn’t stuck well enough in his sleep-deprived mind, and then Mike’s harem had put in an appearance. It looked like they were wearing feathers, and he tried desperately not to stare as they made their manners. “Learning to belly-dance,“ Mike explained after they cleared out. That didn’t help his mental state any. And Mike was getting married? Have to be a hell of a woman to get him away from all that!
Then there was background music. Quiet, familiar, but just out of reach of his memory.
He shook off his wandering thoughts. “Where’s Major Hughes?” he asked to redirect the conversation. He dipped a meat-filled bun into a spiced meat gravy.
Mike finessed the question, knowing that Stasia had plans for Jack tonight. “He’s on liaison duties right now. Probably pretty well tied up. Should I call for him?”
“Screwing the harem manager again?” nodded Pierson. “Figured.”
Mike‘s jaw dropped. “You knew about that?”
“Hell yes. You think that your girls blocked all the data dumps from our eyes in the sky? Fragged all the drives? Filled the servers with porn?”
“Actually, yes. They‘re damned good at what they do.”
“You’re right. Nothing’s left on any hard drive anywhere I know of. I just happened to have it live on my monitor.” That plus the news chopper that had film that never made the six-o’clock news, and never would. The only copy was on a memory stick in his briefcase, and he was rather looking forward to showing it to the Major at some point during his visit.
“Good to hear. Anisa would’ve been really pissed if she’d missed one.”
“So who moved first? Miss Rakovich or Hughes? That is slightly important.”
“Stasia, though I’ll admit I forced the issue. Yeah, he’s with her now.” He nodded past his left shoulder. “And he might be tied up right now, though more likely she is.”
“And you don’t mind?” he muttered around another bite. The food here was fantastic! He didn’t notice the hand dab a napkin at the stray drop of gravy rolling down his more-than-five-o‘clock shadow. Messy, but good. The hand returned to its mate, kneading his shoulders. He relaxed back into them.
“I’ve told her all along, she’s a free agent. Actually, I’m really glad she’s finally found someone else who can take care of her. And handle her needs.” There was a note in his voice that Pierson immediately picked up on. The background music finally came into focus, singing, “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango? Thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightening me.” He gazed at Mike with sudden suspicion.
“What’s going on, Mike?”
“Later. So what’s in the briefcase?”
Accepting the change of subject, Pierson put the case on the desk. “A little bit of paperwork to finish off,” he said, opening and removing a sheaf of papers. “The finding approved you and the Tigers for recovering two dozen weapons, twenty-two at ten per, and the others at twenty per, for a total of two hundred sixty million.”
“They wouldn’t authorize payment on the twenty-fifth, though, on the grounds that -”
“Oh, I’m not arguing that point. Figured that, in the end, it was enlightened self-interest as much as anything else. Still. That’s a lot of scratch, Bob. Do my bank accounts good, after the dent the girls put in it.”
“It is. All of it non-taxable, of course. And now you get to sign for it. In triplicate.”
“What’s this bullshit?”
Pierson shrugged. “Since the money went missing in Iraq, the new administration’s really tightened up procedures, or at least made more paperwork for me.”
“Great,” muttered Mike, picking up a pen. “Where? And my current name‘s good enough?”
“Down there, and yes it is,” pointed Pierson. “Oh, and the President wanted me to express his sincere appreciation of -”
“Yeah, whatever,” said Mike.
Pierson stopped his signing. “Talk, Mike. Now. If you want to consider that an order I can make it one.”
“You’re not in my chain of command, Bob” he replied, but smiled weakly. A subtle cough from the massaging Valkyrie drew his attention. “Go ahead, Reggie. Unpack his bag, prepare his room. We’ll be fine, and I’ll buzz if we need you.”
He waited until she cleared the nook, then placed a small device on the table and turned it on. All the lights flashed green, then stayed a steady emerald color. No active listening devices in the area or on Pierson, and now any that were trained on them would just pick up so much static. Trust only went so far.
“Fine. You know some of my plans. Well, it’s like this…”
Half an hour later, Pierson was slowly shaking his head. “That’s a bitch of a solution, Mike, but it’s a hell of a problem, too. I can’t see any other way either. Not right now, at least. It’s rough, though. Really rough.” Maybe if he knew about the Dubai operation, it might change his mind.
“Yeah, I know. That’s why I haven’t done anything yet. Oh, all the pieces are in place, but nothing’s committed either way.”
“I think I can help,” said Pierson. “You know how close you came to being blown, right? And why I borrowed the Mice, and the Mules, and Lasko?”
Mike looked puzzled. “No, nobody said anything to me.”
“At least they maintained OpSec, then,” muttered Pierson. “Here.“ He filled Mike’s glass with Elijah Craig. “You’re going to need this.“ He waited until Mike took a solid slug before beginning.
“So there was a Major, you might remember her…”
Mike finished half the bottle before Pierson finished his brief. He looked at the pictures and intel Pierson had brought with him and reluctantly pushed it away.
“Fuck me.” He reached for the bottle and took a long pull.
“Yeah. It was that bad.”
The next day, one of the Fathers came up to the Serai and announced that the next day would be the Festival of Balar, would he be attending? Purely a formality, of course. Everyone knew that Mike was getting married after the contests, which would be preceded by the first wedding. Moonrise was to be the end of Mike‘s bachelorhood. It was perfectly fitting for this Festival and had been insisted on by the womenfolk, revealing Mother Lenka's hand as Priestess all over that decision.
Mike had zero input, even as Kildar. Not even on his traditional wear. They insisted he would look his best though as he was their Kildar too and they his Harem. They refused to be embarrassed, dismissing his attempts to wear anything comfortable. The girls had had a great time fitting him out for it and made it a game of teasing him to no end. That had ended when he'd ordered all of them to his room for one last bang - so to speak.
Stasia stayed that night with him too, coaching the harem in case they were called to share his bed with his new wife. That thought made Mike giggle more than a little bit. Kat? Inviting the harem? That lasted until they ganged up and tied him to the bed and made his eyes cross and toes curl over and over again. It had almost been worse than the bachelor party night, or would that be as good as?
Morning finally arrived and his bed, well… He was lucky that Stasia had already ordered a new one to replace this one. She had been most insistent too. It seemed there was a tradition - of course! - with the Keldara that his bed be as virgin as his wife on the night of their honeymoon. He could sleep in it, alone, but no other until the Kildaran allowed it. In any case, his old bed was more than a little broken by the next morning.
He smiled slightly as the old, broken frame was removed. The Keldara would repair it, of course, and it would end up in the serai somewhere, or perhaps down in the Families’ homes. It would certainly boost someone’s status. And Stasia’s insistence that nobody share his bed, even for the single night that remained before the ceremony, and her belief that Kat was still virgin, told him that the little minx hadn't told anyone yet.
They'd just assumed that someone else had been the woman screaming in his bed the night of his bachelor party. Well, everyone had been rightly snookered. Few remembered what had gone on that night with any clarity. That, in part, was due to the efforts of Elena and Catrina. He was sure they'd made the rounds, making certain misleading suggestions and veiled hints. That distracted those who wondered a bit too much too loudly. Right up their respective alleys, so to speak.
They had seemed to beam as much as Katrina the morning after his bachelor party. The Chief? Not so much. Said he felt like he'd been bronco busted in the nuts and had no idea what had happened after the start of the party.
Maybe he'd tell the Chief about his screwing up his date-night with the Marine? Naah, he'd save that for later use if need be. The man never learned, but Mike was glad to have him around. He'd be needed again sometime in the future. For sure. The men would need him and the hookers in the Serai would surely miss him if ever he left.
Mike had left him up at the Serai looking at the twelve boxes his Hog had finally arrived in. The Chief had looked like he was going to cry or kill someone at the condition of the parts. No wonder his ex had let it go so cheaply.
He finally made his way down the hill for the tree-felling and flower picking ceremony. He waved off offers and requests to help girls find the right flowers. Even though he was getting married, the girls of the valley were getting more forward in their advances towards him, ever since he’d ordered the end of the Rites of the Kildar.
He guessed, also, that more than a few had seen what Catrina and Elena did to him during the party. Or someone had and word had spread, perhaps even egged on by Catrina and Elena. He'd just let that be added to the legend of the Kildar. He'd neither confirm nor deny.
Preliminaries started after he'd arrived. He was on time, not that he'd have missed it for anything. This time he wanted to see the event first hand rather than participate, to burn it into his memory. There was that other wedding to attend to the next day. So, early sleep was on his mind. If someone didn't find an excuse to keep him up all night again.
This Festival, as with the previous two, Mike sat out with the Elders. He’d proven his worth as Kildar his first year. First amongst even their best. Now, he might participate in an event or two, just for fun, but no more all-night tree-hunting parties with the rest of the Burakan. That'd be too much like work now and the girls might actually try to risk family ire and corner him, force a sneaked kiss or more upon him. Nothing would be allowed to taint this day or the wedding to come, not on his part.
He sat back in his most comfortable chair and closed his eyes. Tonight, he was going to sleep in his own bed. Well, his new bed. Tonight, he was not going to worry about finding three trees the size of a man’s thigh. Tonight, he was going sit back, drink a few beers and enjoy a peaceful...
Mike opened his eyes to Katrina’s grin.
“Dammit, girl! I was resting!”
“Did they keep you up too late last night?” she pouted. Every night since the bachelor party, she had shared his bed, becoming more and more brazen as the days went on. Last night, in fact, was the first night she’d been absent, and she wasn’t happy about it.
“Yes, as a matter of fact. Just like you did the night before, and the night before that too!” He was grinning as he said it, though.
“You won’t have to worry about that tonight,” she said with a pout that slowly became a memory-filled leer..
“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow in challenge.
“Yes. There are certain rituals that have to be performed before the joining of the Kildaran to her Kildar.”
“Purification? A symbolic bath?”
More pout, genuine this time. “You and your books again! Do we have any secrets from you?” She crossed her arms under her breasts and glared at him from short range.
“Enough to keep me interested,” he joked. Turning serious, he continued. “Let’s leave.”
“Leave?” She stood, sliding off his lap.
“Leave. Exit. Take off. Hit the road. Take it on the lam. Blow this popsicle stand. Didee-mau.”
“I don’t understand, Michael.”
“We went through the handfasting ceremony, so in the eyes of the Keldara, we’re bound together, right?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“So why do we need a wedding? Let’s finish our tour of America. Hell, let’s see the world! Why stick to one little valley when the whole planet is out there?”
“I - we - you can’t - Leave the Valley?”
“Why not? You liked the ballgame, right?” She looked puzzled and intrigued at the same time. That look made her more desirable to Mike than ever before. He saw the glint of freedom from the Valley and the Keldara light her eyes for a brief second before dimming.
“Why not? You liked the ballgame, right?”
“Yes, but -”
“And the concert?”
“So loud, and all those weird people, but yes!”
“And Air and Space?”
“The shuttle! I loved that the best! And I was learning the whole time, too!”
That was something her keen mind had craved in the years before his arrival, something he’d changed quickly upon arrival. Education, more than money, would be the way for the children of the valley to grow into the twenty-first century.
“C’mon, it’ll be easy. OSOL can give me a new name again, whip up a passport for you, any country you want, and we’re out of here! You say the word. Pierson‘s here, down in his guest room, he‘ll do whatever I ask. He owes me, big-time.”
“But the Keldara -”
“They’ll have plenty of money, now. More than they can ever spend. Plus, with Genadi running the farming, and Nielson and Adams and Vanner to help keep the Tigers organized, there won’t be any Chechen problems. The Rams will be up and running soon, too. Hell, they could turn this corner of Georgia into a new Silicon Valley, if they wanted to, or the next Detroit. They don’t need a Kildar any more, even if they think they do.”
“And what of me, Michael?”
“Well, you can continue your education, for one. Really put that mind of yours to work. You can keep up your training, of course. Maybe you’d be good as a police psychologist - one that works the field, not behind a desk. Or a hostage negotiator. I don’t know, but the point is, there’s more for you out there than there is here!”
“And the Goddess? I am Mother Lenka’s heir, her successor. My training has already begun. She is far, far too old to begin training another before her time is done.”
“She’d have to. Find another one, hold on longer. She‘s stubborn enough to outlive us all.”
Katrina shook her head. “I cannot. It would violate my oath to the Goddess. And how can you talk of abandoning the Keldara? You are the Kildar!” Her eyes flashed, her voice sharpened. “No Kildar has ever - ever! - walked away from the Valley!” She was nearly shouting at him. Thank the gods that most everyone else was down in the valley, watching the gathering. How long that would last, he wasn’t sure, but having his offer thrown back in his face made something snap.
“So I’ll be the first!” he blasted back. “Dammit, Katrina, I never asked to be the fucking lord high baron of the Keldara! All I wanted was a safe place to go to ground, maybe make the lives of the people better! They sure got a hell of a lot more than I ever expected to give!” He didn’t bring up the Rite; it was sure to get her riled up further, reminding her of his children running around the Families.
“Yet you took on that burden, Michael! You accepted it, you have become the Kildar in truth, as well as in word! You cannot -”
“Don’t tell me what I cannot do!” he erupted. “Look,” he said more quietly. “I’ve done my part. I’ve made the Valley a better place for the Keldara, haven’t I?”
Reacting to his calmer tone, Katrina responded in kind. “Yes, you have that.”
“Food, shelter, potential - all improved, right?”
“But the one thing I haven’t brought - the one thing that I’ve actually made worse - is security. Oh, the Tigers could probably beat back any odd raid from the Chechens now. And sure as shit, no slavers are ever going to try to take a girl out of this valley again. But they’re not sending raids any more, are they?”
“That was -”
“A special case, right. Because I had to intercept a fucking WMD that would’ve wiped out the planet, or at least most of it. And what about this mess? Nuclear fucking bombs? A motherloving megalomaniac’s plot that would have created a nuclear terrorist Islamic state in the middle of Russia? One that would have nukes to export? And why? Because I managed to piss off a sociopath who happened to be a former Stasi agent, and he decided to take revenge on me!”
“You didn’t piss off Schwenke, Ka -” Mike interrupted her again.
“Not directly, but it was MY operations, MY operative that did it. Hell’s bells, if I hadn’t stopped in Alersso in the first place, Katya would still be a fucking whore! Everything that’s happened here, all the shit that’s gone down, all the people that have died - Sawn, Mikhail, Kiril, Gretchen -” He said the last name with a catch in his throat. “- It’s all because I got lost in a fucking snowstorm. It’s all my fault, and I can’t do it any longer!” His head collapsed into his hands, sinking to his knees before his chair.
Suddenly it was all clear to her, and she knelt before him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. Silently, she held him. Hugged him to her breast as though already a Mother.
She never knew just how long it was before she spoke again. Others should not, must not, see him this way.
“Michael. I love you. I have always loved you. You know this, yes?”
He nodded silently. “You’ve made that apparent many times. Once, on this very Festival day.”
“Know this, too: this is not your fault.”
He moved to protest, but she stopped his lips with a finger.
“You had your say. Now I will speak.”
After a moment, she said, “Your coming here was foretold. I had dreams, long before you arrived, that spoke of it. You wonder, perhaps, why Mother Lenka chose me as her successor?”
“Yeah,” he said, confused by the seeming non sequitur.
“My visions, Michael. I have the gift of Sight. Not reliably, or consistently, but always, eventually, correct. All of my visions have proven true. All of them, Michael. And not once - never! - have my visions shown us leaving the Valley as you speak!”
“Maybe you just haven’t had that dream yet,” he said.
“I haven’t had that vision because it will not happen!” she answered hotly. “Your life, your future - the Gods have foreseen it. You are the Kildar, Michael. And I am the Kildaran. Our children will finish the work we begin, making the Valley a paradise for the Keldara and all those who accept them, and destroying all those who would oppose them. Even if we have to seek them where they hide, find them and strike before they can strike at us.”
“Are we talking about a valley or the next Hitler?” he said weakly.
“Not Hitler, Michael. But we - you and I - shall make these people happy, and secure, yet still true to our traditions and our history. We have taken but the first steps together on this journey.”
She shook her head. “I do not know. The Goddess hasn’t allowed that to become clear, yet. But it will happen, Michael.” The voice of the next Priestess was evident, speaking ex cathedra. “Never doubt that.”
“Or I’ll have to -” She leaned forward to whisper in his ear, smiling.
Grinning back at her, he said, “Now?”
She pretended to consider it for a few seconds. “Now!” she agreed.
“What about traditions?” he protested, pro forma. “This bed is supposed to be virgin until tomorrow night.”
“Fuck traditions,” she said. She stood and extended her hand to him. “Coming?”