Enjoy your bonus chapter today; it’s already on Anchor so you can listen to the podcast.
St. Louis; Airborne over the US; Dulles International; The Valley
Mike was pissed.
There were nukes in play, and they had lost – temporarily, he was assured – at least one, plus the huge fucking force that was escorting them.
His Keldara were heading into battle without him. Some had already engaged the enemy. While he knew, intellectually, he couldn’t always be in the vanguard for every engagement, it still pained him more deeply than he expected.
He was skipping out on the last quarter of a show he had really, really been anticipating.
And now he couldn’t even get a simple ride to the airport.
If things didn’t change soon, someone was gonna die.
Hughes put away his mobile.
“Got a vehicle. Coming from the Coast Guard, they -”
“Coast Guard?” said Kat, incredulous. “But we’re not near a coast, are we?”
“Not hardly, but the Mississippi is the major river in the U.S., so the Coasties, whose job is to patrol and protect the coastline and waterways, maintain offices all up and down it. Anyway, the Upper Mississippi Region Sector office is sending a van to take us to the airport.”
“Bet that was an interesting conversation,” added Mike, grinning slightly.
“It sure was,” replied Hughes. But Mike was already dialing, game face on. The girls knew better than to interrupt.
“Good evening, Captain Hardesty speaking.”
“Jenkins. What’s our status?”
“Pre-flight completed, plan filed for travel to Tbilisi, with a stop in DC. Fuel will be available in DC if we choose. The luggage is aboard and stowed.”
“Great. I’ll call again when we’re fifteen minutes out.”
Without waiting for an answer, he disconnected and redialed.
“Office of Special Opera -”
“Yes?” the interrupted voice answered warily.
“Jenkins. On our way out of St. Louis shortly, going to stop in DC for a pickup. How badly do you need Hughes back?”
“He’s detached to you for the duration of your visit, so I don’t have him on any duty roster until after you leave. Why?”
“I want to take him with us.”
“Why?” Curiosity warred with suspicion in Pierson’s voice.
“He’s been pretty useful, he seems to know his ass from his elbow, and he’ll be able to give you the after-action report you keep bugging me for.”
“He’ll also provide me with a real-time link back to OSOL and NSC, in case it’s needed. Unless you’d prefer to come along?”
“Not really, I’ve seen the end results of your missions once or twice, remember?” He paused in thought then resumed. “No objection here. I suppose since we’ve borrowed your Blind Mice, you can borrow Hughes. What did he say?”
“I haven’t asked him yet. He’ll say yes or Stasia’ll pout.”
“Uh-huh. If he voluntarily agrees, you can have him. We’d like him back in one piece, though.”
“No promises, Bob. Thanks.” Putting away the phone, he turned back to Hughes. “So, what do you think? Up for a trip to sunny Georgia and points north?”
“If you think I can be useful to you, sir, I’m in.”
“Will you need anything from DC?”
“Passport, secure phone, a few other odds and ends. I keep a case at the office, I can have it brought to the airport.”
“Settled, then. Now. Where the fuck is that van?” A passer-by whistled at Stasia. “I really, really feel the need to shoot someone. But I’m not sure I could live down using a pink gun.”
“You could use mine,” offered Jack, who was getting visibly annoyed at the pedestrians as well.
“Government-issue, too easily traced.”
“Mine, Kildar?” Katrina’s voice was sweet and innocent.
Forty minutes later they were aboard the 550.
“I’m going to rack out,” announced Mike as they began their taxi. “It’s gonna be a long flight.”
“I’ll join you,” said Katrina.
“I cannot sleep yet, Michael.”
“I’ll keep the lady company. Since we‘re going to miss out on the Alamo, I‘m going to see if I can find the movie on-line, play history teacher.”
“No monkey business,” he admonished mockingly. In the rear compartment, he kicked off his shoes and flopped onto the bed. Katrina joined him after removing her flats.
“Hold on there!” he said as they started to accelerate, gripping the mattress with one hand to keep from sliding off, cradling her against him with the other arm.
“This isn’t exactly a recommended position for takeoff!”
Her face was serene.
“I knew you would catch me.”
Mike just shook his head. “Ready to go home?”
“Yes. And no.”
He laughed. “That’s about as ambiguous as it gets!”
“Well. No, I am not ready to go, because it means my first travel is over. There is so much we saw! And I know that there is more we did not see, yes?”
“Oh yeah. We barely scratched the surface.”
“What I saw, I liked.”
“What was your favorite?”
She thought briefly. “The baseball game.”
“Oh?” He was surprised. Baseball was hardly what he expected her to choose.
“Yes. Not so much the game; that was so confusing! More the people we met, Lewis and Marilyn, Eric and Meghan, Mike and the man with the silly name -”
“Big Papi? Ortiz?”
“Yes! And the others, we didn’t meet them, the fans. You were right, Michael. It was a place, a time, of hope and joy and happiness and expectation like I have never experienced before.” She thought again, struggling to find the right words. “It will sound odd, but in those few hours, more than any other time, I felt that I knew Americans. And you know? They’re not so strange, after all.”
Chuckling, he said, “The Kildaran has spoken!”
“You’re teasing me!”
“A little,” he admitted. “I agree, though. Baseball is about as pure American as you can get.”
“I am also not ready to go home because it means times like this will have to end, for a while.”
“Just for a while,” Mike said. “Less time than you might think.”
“I do not wish to give them up at all!” she insisted, sitting up with a determined look on her face.
Relenting, she sighed. “But I shall do as custom requires. Of course, going home is good, too. I do miss my family, especially my cousin.”
“Yulia. She’s a year younger than me, also unmarried. She serves on a mortar team when she’s not working with Mother Lenka in the brewery.”
“Why isn’t she married?”
“Her betrothed was killed in Pankisi,” said Kat sadly. “They would have been married later that winter.”
“Dammit, I’m sorry,” began Mike, but he was interrupted.
“No! Do not be sorry. She’s not. Oh, she liked Conall well enough, and probably would have been happy with him. When he died, though, she was free to make another choice, and do you know what it was?”
“No,” he had to admit.
“She wants to travel! She heard the explanations you and Vanner and MacKenzie came up with for the Keldara’s origins, and she’s decided she wants to find out the truth. She’s saved her money from the brewery, and from the militia, and is planning to go to Scotland!”
“Sounds pretty serious. Has she thought this out? It‘s been centuries since the Keldara were in Scotland.”
She shook him off fiercely.
“That’s not my point. If you had not come to the Valley, she would be married, probably have her first child by now, and be looking at a life of toil as a farmer’s wife. Now she has a dream to pursue. So what if it’s not practical? She has her dream! As I have mine,” she added softly, settling back against him. “And that’s the final reason I’m ready to go home.”
A quick, almost chaste kiss, and she said, “What of you, Michael? Leaving America again, coming back to the Valley: are you going home? Or leaving it?”
“Yes,” he answered, enjoying the confusion in her eyes.
“America is where I was born, and the country that I am loyal to. But the Valley, the Keldara, are my people now, and have been for months. I feel a kinship with you, much more than I ever felt with ‘Americans.’ Maybe it’s your warrior tradition, or your willingness to accept me as I am. Maybe it’s just the beer.”
“You!” She flipped over top of him, pinning him against the bed. He was pretty sure he could break her hold. Probably. She was remarkably strong, though…
She tickled him.
It devolved from there.
“You promised to protect us.”
“You lied to us!”
“You have failed your role!”
“You have disgraced your name!”
He tried to speak, but no words would come.
“You are not worthy to be Kildar!”
“She is too good to be your Kildaran!”
Katrina. Tied. Terrified. Then dead.
The scream was wrenched from him.
It was the change in the engine’s pitch which awakened them, he convinced himself. He stretched an arm, snagged a headset, and pressed the accept button.
“We’re beginning our descent into Dulles. We should be on the ground in twenty minutes.”
“Thanks.” Replacing the intercom, he stretched.
“That’s a start. Up, minx! Have to make yourself presentable again.” He looked down at his own clothing. “And me.”
“Ha!” exclaimed Kat. “And you think they’ll notice? I may be younger than you, Michael Harmon, but I saw what you did for her.”
“What did I do for her?” he asked, all innocence.
She kissed him, bounced off the bed, and said, “You practically threw Jack at her, which is just what she needs right now! You did well.” With that, she closed the bathroom door.
Tucking this and buttoning that, he stood gingerly, unkinking his damaged joints. He heard a shower running and briefly thought of jumping in but reconsidered. There’d be plenty of time on the long flight overseas. He opened the cabin door and stopped, staring.
Hughes and Stasia were on the couch. Stasia was asleep, curled up against him. He had one arm wrapped around her protectively. By the faint odors, it hadn’t been a completely uneventful flight so far.
Hughes was dozing, not quite asleep but not really aware of his surroundings. Mike watched silently for a few seconds then cleared his throat.
The look on Hughes’ face was priceless, a mix of contentment, confusion, and concern, and Mike had to resist an urge to smile.
“Mike, I didn’t, I mean, this isn’t -”
“What the holy hell do you think you’re doing with my harem manager?” Mike’s voice was low and menacing.
Hughes’ instinct to pop to attention warred with not disturbing the beautiful woman resting atop him. He compromised as best he could by lapsing into military formality..
“Sir, she was obviously uncomfortable in the early stages of the flight. I stayed close to her to reassure her, and things kind of developed, from there.”
Stasia stirred then subsided. Mike wasn’t letting Hughes off quite so easily.
“Shut your mouth, soldier! I’m not bringing you along so you can get your rocks off! You are here to do a job, and if you can’t keep your dick in your pants, you’re no good to me!”
“Sir, yes, sir! I understand.” Hughes’ face was flat with dejection, and Mike couldn’t keep up the pretense any longer.
“Ah, forget it. Who said, ‘A soldier who won’t fuck, won’t fight’? Patton? Sounds like him.”
Kat, hearing voices, poked her head out.
“See, Michael? Just what she needed.”
Stasia awakened then. A look of horror spread across her face. “Michael!”
“I’ll deal with you later, bitch!” he growled. Of course he had recognized the situation quickly. He had neglected Stasia’s needs for quite a few days, save their brief encounter this afternoon, and since her ‘liberation’ from the sheik, she had become more vocal, and more comfortable, about expressing her desires.
Dammit. That meant Kat was right again.
In retrospect, he had practically dragged Jack along for Stasia’s benefit. Now, too, she could get both benefits: Jack would take care of her current needs, and then she’d come back to Mike to be punished for her ‘transgressions’. As a sub, it was a win-win for her.
Putting these thoughts aside, he continued, “Pull yourselves together. We’re going to be landing in DC shortly. I’m going to check in. Jack, is your case going to be at the airport, or will we have to wait?”
“It should be there,” he answered, relief in his voice. “I called after we were airborne and gave an ETA.”
“All of Noemi’s creations, save the dress, will be awaiting our arrival.”
“Right.” Before he could speak further, the intercom crackled.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re on our final approach to Dulles. Please prepare for landing.”
“So much for calling in. You heard the man, everybody into your seats.”
When they were parked at the terminal, and Hardesty announced that fueling would take about twenty minutes, Mike pulled out the sat phone again.
“Nielson.” The normally unflappable colonel sounded harried.
“Teams are deployed, en route. Valkyrie is airborne, with an ETA at the LZ about in fifteen minutes to retrieve two prisoners and one package. Bravo emplaced and patrolling. Intel is still trying to track the southern force. Where are you?”
“DC to refuel. Ten hours flight time, roughly, to Tbilisi once we’re aloft.”
“That’s going to be tight, trying to get you to the OA before action commences.”
“Suggestions? Besides pedal faster.”
There was silence as Nielson thought. “Alternate landing site? Groznyy?”
“How far is that from the OA?”
“Two hundred miles, plus or minus.”
“Long hop in a Hind. An hour, solid.”
“You could fly into Elista. That’s only about seventy miles.”
“Do they have an airport?”
“A small one, a single paved runway.”
“Can it handle a G550?”
“Don’t know. Depends on how long you need. I can try to find out.”
“You work on clearances, and I’ll find out from Hardesty how much space he needs to set down. We might just have a plan here.”
“The beginnings of one.”
Mike went off in search of the pilot, finding him, as expected, on the tarmac, overseeing the refueling.
“Mr. Jenkins? Can I help you?”
“How long a runway do you need to land this?”
Suspicion settled onto Hardesty’s face, an old and familiar friend when flying with Jenkins. “Getting wild and wooly again?”
“Not so much, simply trying to find a closer, alternate airport. Merely a precaution.
“Uh-huh.“ Hardesty’s tone belied his disbelief. “Can I at least assume you’d have the decency to find me an asphalt runway? Not gravel or grass?”
“Of course!” Mike hastened to reassure him. “Perfectly good tarmac.”
“In that case, the specs call for slightly less than nine hundred meters. I could probably shave a little off if I needed, but it wouldn’t be a comfortable landing.”
“Nine hundred. Right, thanks.” He pivoted to leave, then turned back. “How much longer?”
“Ten more minutes. The rest of your baggage has arrived and been stowed.”
“I so didn’t need to know that.”
“I need nine hundred meters.”
“Elista will work then; it’s over eighteen hundred.”
“Then plan to have Dragon pick us up there.”
“Us? I‘m surprised you gave in to Katrina on this.”
“Katrina? No, I forgot to tell you: I’m bringing back a passenger, Major Hughes from OSOL. Make sure there’s a set of body armor for him as well as mine.”
Now Mike’s antennae were twitching. “What about Katrina?”
“Should I send along her armor and weapons?”
“What armor and weapons?”
Nielson hesitated. “You don’t know?”
“Know what? Out with it!”
“You might want to ask your fiancée about her training, then,” replied Nielson, and refused to say anything else.
“Dammit, Kacey, I’m busy!”
“I know, I know. Tasking order from the Colonel.”
“Yeah?” D’Allaird’s head popped out of the engine compartment.
“After escort duty, land at Elista, pick up the Kildar and passengers, and then to the OA. He said to expect a hot LZ, so we’ll want the full anti-personnel package.”
“On it. That’s quite a distance; we’re going to need the aux tanks. That‘s going to cut into your ammo load.”
“Won’t fly, Chief. We need gas and guns, however you can manage it.”
Shaking his head, D’Allaird said, “It’s one or the other. We only have so many hard points, and if we’re using some for drop tanks we can’t carry weapons on ‘em.”
“We’re not going into Elista hot; what if we carry the weapons packages in the bird?”
He considered this. “Have to be a smooth flight. Don’t want rockets rolling around in the crew bay.”
“Chief!” Kacey sounded wounded. “It’s me! Smooth is my middle name.”
D’Allaird snorted. “That’s what worries me. Who’s going to crew for you?”
“Anechka, I think. She’s best at swapping hardware.”
“Concur. Who are the passengers?”
“You’re never going to believe this.”
“The Kildar -”
“Some Major who’s along for the ride -”
“Hope his life insurance is paid up.”
“You’re shitting me!”
“God’s truth. Nielson said to make sure I drew her armor and personal weapon from the armory, along with the Kildar’s and a spare for the Major.”
“Guess she’s serious about this Kildaran crap. At least she can run a minigun for you.”
“Wonder what the Kildar said to that?”
“Katrina!” bellowed Mike.
“We need to talk,” he said sternly.
Crossing her arms over her chest, she said, “Talk about what?”
She’d instinctively gone into full defense mode, which meant she was prepared to attack.
“Body armor? Weapons? Ring any bells?”
“What about them?”
“Who the fuck fitted you for body armor, for chrissake?”
“The Chief,” she answered matter-of-factly.
“It’s part of my training. I decided that as your Kildaran, I needed body armor. And a gun. I knew it would relieve your mind, knowing I can defend myself. Also, to be a true Kildaran, I must be prepared to stand by you in battle, as other Kildarans have done. We‘re not simply shield maidens!”
“After becoming Kildaran, maybe, not before! Jesus, Kat, you drop a bombshell like this on me in the middle of a fucking op, while we’re chasing nukes, trying to track down a missing battalion…”
“Michael.” She spoke softly, stopping him.
“We discussed this. You worry, probably too much, about my safety. This is how I can help assure, no, ensure, my own safety.”
“Dammit, Kat, your safety’s not the issue!”
“Then what is?”
“Not telling me about your training!”
Exasperated, Kat replied, “And how was I to tell you of my training when you spent your time avoiding me?”
“And what exactly would you have me say? ‘Michael, I am learning how to shoot so that I can become your Kildaran’? How would you have reacted to that?”
“I. Um. That is to say -”
“Enough!” Her temper, as fiery as her hair, flared briefly as she switched from English to Keldaran.
“I did what I did to become who I am! If you disapprove, tough! It was my choice, my decision, and I would choose so again! Everything I have done, all the classes, learning from Daria and Stasia, shooting and fighting, I have done because of who you need as Kildaran!” She softened her tone. “This is who I am, now. You want me as I am, now. So, choose, Michael. All or nothing. And I will not settle for nothing!”
Thinking rapidly, Michael spoke carefully and distinctly.
“I‘ll take the all. I was simply surprised.”
Dimpling, Kat laughed, “I knew you were smart!”
“Tell me how far your training has gone? Have you finished basic?”
“Basic? That’s for wimps!” She grinned fiercely.
“I got perfect scores on the known distance and combat ranges! Oleg oversaw my training to ensure it was to the same standard as the rest of the Keldara. He said that he’d take me on his Team any day. And Lasko has been training me with the Robar. He doesn’t think I’m ready for the Barrett, yet, but I’ll surprise him soon!”
He’d given her one lesson, to which she’d paid little attention. She’d had to hide the bruise for two weeks. After that, she’d listened to Lasko.
Rolling his eyes, Mike made a hasty retreat. “Okay, okay! Fine, you’re well-trained. You could’ve at least told me about this.”
“We’ve had other things to discuss,” she said coquettishly. “Haven’t we?”
She made a little moue with her lips.
“And just who taught you that? Never mind, I can guess. Catya, I think.”
She said nothing, just lowered her eyes demurely and licked her lips. Her hips swayed slowly side to side.