Sunday WildCard – The Kildaran, Chapters 37 & 38

So these were two longish chapters but they really needed to go together, so I did. You’ve got something north of ten thousand words to enjoy!

For those curious, that’s just over an hour of spoken audio, using Audible’s standard rate, so when I get the podcast up it’ll be quite the thing.

Here’s a question for you. If – and this is a HUGE if – I was to put together an audio version of the book, read by a real human (instead of a robot, like the podcasts do), would you be willing to chip in?

Per my agreement with John, I can’t sell this book. Period. And that’s fine; it’s his universe, after all. But I’m also not rich, and given the length of the book and the cost to get a quality narrator, it would cost between $2,000 and $5,000 to get it recorded.

That leads me to the question: if I was to set up a Kickstarter or GoFundMe or IndieGogo to pay for the recording cost, would you pitch in? (And the reward would be, obviously, a copy of the recording.)

Here’s a poll; take 2 seconds and click a box, kay?

Enjoy!

CHAPTER 37

The Caravanserai; Kek-Usn; Airborne over Europe; Elista

April 12

Salah was in the dungeon, waiting in the dark.

The room was on the second sub-basement of the caravanserai, one of the deepest parts of the building, and was constantly clammy, despite the recently installed concrete walls and floor. If he’d been able to see the presence of a drain would have caused great concern. But he’d been blindfolded almost immediately after stumbling out of the helicopter, and, though it had since been removed, there simply was no light in the room. He was shackled to the chair which was, in turn, bolted to the floor. He wasn’t going anywhere soon.

Observing him with infrared cameras, Lilia asked, “How much longer do you think he needs?”

“Only a few minutes more,” answered Olga.

The two intelligence specialists had been assigned to extract information from this prisoner. They’d shown a knack, over the past year and a half, at getting their subjects to open up without bringing the sledgehammers out. And while few of their sources had survived, at least it cut down on the immediate bloodshed.

“See how he’s slumped down? That’s pretty typical of his resistance being broken.”

“But he’s been like that practically since he arrived!” argued Lilia. The younger of the two, she was much more willing to take an aggressive stance. She fell naturally into the ‘bad cop’ role.

“So? Remember, this wretch has had it rough, even before he was captured. I don’t think there was much spirit to break.” Olga, expecting her first child in a few short weeks, twisted in her chair to relieve the pressure on her back.

“I have an idea. What if you…”

*

The high-intensity lights blinded Salah with their white glare as they suddenly came on. He didn’t hear the heavy door open, or Lilia’s light footsteps, as he blinked furiously against the tears.

“Your name is Salah,” was the first thing he heard, a soft, lilting, feminine voice. Moreover it was in Arabic, the language of the Prophet!

“Are you a houri?”

The laughter was gentle.

“Not for you! No such luck for you, unfortunate one. I am Lilia, and I am come to ask you questions. You would be wise to answer them.”

Salah’s voice showed his dejection as clearly as his face.

“I will answer you, houri Lilia.”

Olga’s laughter could barely be contained. Lilia? A houri?

*

Very quickly, Lilia plumbed the shallow depths of Salah’s knowledge and reported upstairs.

“He went where he was told, when he was told, and did what he was told. Beyond that? He knows he’s fighting to establish an Emirate, he’s seen the would-be Emir, and he reads his Qur’an daily.”

“A drone,” commented Stella. “Do you think he’s worth holding onto for further questioning?”

“Honestly, I don’t know if he’s worth wasting a bullet on. If there’s a less knowledgeable mujahideen out there, I’ve yet to meet him!”

“What do you suggest we do with him, then?”

            “I have an idea.”

*

A cold wind blew against Salah’s face as the vehicle door opened. Pushed, again, he stumbled into the snow. Stripping the blindfold away, his eyes quickly adjusted to the fading light. He turned to see Lilia, bundled in arctic gear, pointing an assault rifle at his middle.

“What is this?” he asked.

“Mercy. You’re too stupid to be any good to us, and you’re too pitiful to kill. So.“

She tossed a worn coat and backpack at him.

“Chechnya, and Kvanada, is that way.” She gestured. “If you’re lucky, you might be able to find a road.”

She very deliberately cocked the weapon.

“Start walking.”

*

“He’s stabilized. He may even live,” said Arensky, dropping into a seat. “I repaired what I could, loaded him with antibiotics, and closed him up.”

“When can we talk to him?”

“You can talk to him any time you choose,” shrugged Arensky. “He won’t answer until he’s conscious, which could be hours, even days.”

“Don’t you have some sort of chemical concoction that would, you know.”

“Wake him up? Oh, many. They won’t do any good right now, though.”

“Why not? He’s a dammed Chechen.”

“Oh, no!” Arensky chuckled. “No ethical reason holds me back. No, it’s simply until the anesthetics I used clear his system, I’m afraid that any stimulant I apply will simply, well, kill him.”

“That would be a problem,” admitted Vanner. “I don’t suppose you have some sort of brain scan, mind-reading device down in your lab?”

“Alas, I am only a simple microbiologist, not an engineer! Once he is awake, I can make him answer all your questions. And in another five or six hours, when his bloodstream is clear, I can attempt to awaken him. Until then?”

He gave that very Russian gesture, a shrug that conveyed, ‘Yes, the world is shit, but what can you do?’

“Nothing.”

“Thanks, doc. Can we at least move him? I’d like to have him in the interrogation room when you’re ready to try waking him.”

“Oh, certainly! I’ll arrange it, yes?” He stood and left the room, leaving Pat and Grez behind.

“Damn! We really need to pick his brain!”

“Maybe not,” said his wife. “We did get quite a collection from their safe house. Their security was a joke. We’ve already cracked every encryption they had set up.”

“Find anything useful?”

“Not much. It’s terribly disorganized! Would you believe they were using Word documents for data storage?”        

“What have you found?”

“So far, we’ve pulled out references to Inarov and Ibrahim, and a timetable for the Groznyy operation. Apparently, once the bomb was in place, they were to wait four days longer.”

“Why?”

“We don’t know yet. That’s probably in another document we haven’t found yet.”

“How long until you dig up something else?”

“Who knows? I have everyone I can spare working on ploughing through the data, though.”

“Let me know if you want help. We could probably get OSOL to bring in more eyes?”

“No. We’ll find it soon enough.”

*

“You didn’t get lost. That’s a plus.” Adams’ acerbic comment startled Jachin, who had been concentrating on the road.

“All Father!” he swore, gripping the wheel tightly as his eyes flashed from Adams’ still-recumbent form to the road.

“Steady!”

Jachin recovered control of the slight swerve. “If not for your snores, I would think you dead!”

“Yeah, that’s what the third, or was it the fourth? One of my ex- wives said at the divorce. Where are we?”

Instead of replying directly, Jachin keyed the mike. “Dragon, Orkin Actual requests a position check.”

“One five klicks west southwest of Prikumskij. Glad he’s awake; the snoring was getting to be a tactical concern.”

Jachin looked at Adams, shrugged as if to say, ‘Told you so,’ and answered, “Roger, out.” He began to slow down.

“What are you doing?” demanded Adams.

“Pulling over so you can take over driving?” answered Jachin, suddenly unsure.

“Negative, Keldara. I just told you to wake me at Prikumskij, not that we’d be changing positions. No, you’re in the hot seat the rest of the way.”

“The seat isn’t that warm?”

“Never mind. Point is, you’re still driving. I’m coordinating, making sure none of our other sheep wander off.”

He keyed the mike for the tactical radio net to the other vehicles.

“Orkin team, Dragon puts us at one five klicks from initial penetration of OA. Any issues we need to deal with?”

All the calls came back negative.

“Very good. Upon arrival at OA, unload…” Jachin could imagine the groans from Adams’ captive audience.

*

Not surprisingly, the evolution went smoothly. The last few klicks, after parking, were tedious but not especially difficult, as the road leading past the lake was maintained year-round. Each Team silently faded into the trees upon reaching their designated spot and quickly began concealing themselves.

Vil and Oleg allowed their sub-leaders to coordinate their Teams’ emplacement, as they met with Adams in a portable command center. The basic design was stolen from Delta; Vanner had worked his magic on it, and now it adequately duplicated the capabilities of the main intel suite back in the caravanserai. Of course, on this mission, basically a smash-and-grab, they anticipated using very little tech support. The lone member of Vanner’s staff occupied herself, setting up workstations to her liking.

“Their perimeter security is shit,” opined Vil.

“We didn’t see anyone,” agreed Adams. “You know how easy it would be to conceal all sorts of fancy electronics.” He waved at the Intel specialist.

“We scanned for active and passive monitors. Nothing.”

“Just eyeballs,” added Oleg. “And yes, Chief. The men were careful not to be spotted. Shaynav’s already got them scoped; he says there are three guards near the entrance, two below, one above.”

“Watch for patterns.” He checked the time. “We assault in ninety minutes.”

*

            “Why have we not heard from Kassab?”

Inarov was pacing up and down. It was nearly sundown. Since departing the previous morning, nothing had been heard from Boulos or his Groznyy-bound team. Ibrahim and Gereshk were out of contact as well, but that was planned. They both had further to travel, and the importance of maintaining radio silence had been repeatedly stressed by Ibrahim before his departure. It was closing in on the deadline for Boulos and Kassab to report successful contact, however, and with Ibrahim absent, Inarov was taking counsel of his fears.

“Handal!” he bellowed.

Mansur Handal, one of the remaining members of Inarov’s inner circle, immediately appeared. “How may I serve Your Excellency?”

“Call Boulos. If he does not answer, call Kassab. Find them!”         Handal had followed Inarov for the best part of five years and was familiar with his moods and concerns. He could usually persuade him to keep to the planned path when the unexpected arose.

”I would not dream of disobeying you, O Wise One, but did not Ibrahim insist we await their calls?”

“I am the Emir and you will obey!”

Sometimes discretion was the better part of survival.

“At once, Emir.” Striding to the side of the room, he picked up a past-generation Russian scrambled mobile phone that had been acquired in a raid. To the Chechen, it was advanced technology, with multiple selections and modes of communication available: fax, text, scrambled, clear channel. You had to know which one was appropriate for use.

He didn’t.

He assumed that the default setting would be a satellite link and therefore nearly untraceable. He dialed.

“No answer from Kassab,” he said after a moment.

“Try Boulos, fool!”

“At once.” Another moment: “No answer either.”

“Allah be merciful, where are they?”

*

 Kira Makanee was the only member of Vanner’s staff to accompany the teams on this mission. She was tall for a Keldara woman, nearly six feet tall, and strongly built. Her Nordic heritage shone through in her blonde hair, blue eyes and high cheeks. She was another of the older Keldara, just past her twentieth birthday, and had settled into the intel job as naturally as other generations had taken to the axe. She was composed, intellectual, and able to concentrate through the chaos that surrounded her. When Vanner asked her one day how she thrived in Chaos Central, she laughed and replied, ‘I am the oldest of thirteen children. This is nothing!’

She was attached to Team Vil, so when her intercept gear beeped for attention, she called Vil over to her side of the command center.

“What do you have?”

“They’re attempting to contact Kassab. There’s no answer.” The success of the raid in Groznyy was well-known. “Now they’re trying Boulos. No answer there either, of course.”

“They must be getting nervous. We may have to kick off early. Good work, Kira.”

*

The phones ringing was noticed by Stella, too.

“They‘re getting worried.” She looked at the phones thoughtfully. “I wonder.”

“What?” asked Anisa.

“I wonder if we could spoof them?”

“How? None of us sound like Kassab, or Boulos, and even if we alter our voices we don’t have the speech patterns or the information they’d have!”

“I have an idea.”

*

The secure phone sounded a tone. Inarov pounced on it.

“What does this mean?” he asked, holding the flashing phone out so Handal could see it.

“May I?” he said, reaching for it.

“Ah!” and he pressed some buttons. “It is Kassab, reporting in with a SMS message.”

“A what?”

“He texted us, Excellency.”

“Why did he not call? Why did he not answer?”

“One moment, Your Wisdom, allow me to read this.” A few clicks, a few seconds, and he spoke again.

“Excellency, the message is: “Boulos has arrived, the package is secure. We have very bad conditions here and I was unable to answer the phone. I can only respond in this manner for now. Kassab.” All is well, Your Wisdom.”

“I should not have doubted our faithful servants, eh, Handal?”

“Yes, Excellency.”

*

“Think they bought it?”

“Assuming that Kassab knew how to text? Maybe. But you want to know the best part?” Stella giggled.

“What?”

“The message we sent is all true. Well, except the signature.”

*

 “They don’t seem to be moving yet.”

Manos Shaynav was the sniper for Team Padrek. He was keeping the three sentries in constant view, one in the crude rock hut atop the ridge, the other two sharing cigarettes by the entry.

“Good,” came back Padrek’s reply on the radio. “Be prepared. No searching for tigers.”

“Understood.”

He raised his weapon of choice, a Russian-made KSVK 12.7. A massive rifle, it had been designed for anti-material sniping – taking out people hiding behind walls, for example – but he loved it. His theoretical range was two kilometers, though his best shot to date was only about eleven hundred meters. At this range, little more than five hundred meters, his targets had no chance.

So far, nothing much had happened. An NCO, a sergeant-equivalent, had come out briefly, sending one of the two guards by the door scurrying off toward the woods. Seeing this, the guard above, huddled in his pathetic rock hut, stood and walked to the edge of the escarpment. Manos could see past him into the shelter as he gestured and yelled down to the maybe-sergeant.

Probably complaining about being stuck up top, thought Manos.

Except for a rough blanket against the rocks to try to seal out the rushing wind, and a thermos sitting on the ground, the space was bare of any other equipment, no radio, no gun. The discussion, argument, was brief. Refused permission to move, the guard returned to the rocks. A few minutes after the NCO went back inside, the scurrier returned to the cliff face, and soon enough the two were reunited in the dubious shelter of the cave entrance. They were his first targets when the word came down, he decided. Without a radio, Hut-boy couldn’t warn the encampment, and without a gun, he couldn’t shoot back.

Grain to be threshed. If they lined up just right, he thought, maybe I can take them both out with one shot…

*

The intercom sounded. “Yes?”

“ETA?”

Hardesty sighed inwardly. “Fifty-seven minutes, with this tailwind.” It was the third time in a half hour he had been asked that question, and he didn’t need to be psychic to sense his passenger’s impatience.

“Sir, I have the engines redlined. Every temperature gauge I have says that we should have fallen apart an hour ago. And I’ve never seen any Gulfstream gulp fuel this quickly. I understand that it’s important to get to your destination, but unless you wish to get out and push, or start throwing people out the cabin?” He paused a beat, mentally wincing at his choice of words. “I didn’t think so. Sir, we will get there as quickly as I can manage.”

He heard, rather than saw, the answering, rueful grin.

“I don’t suppose you could just drop the luggage? Never mind, I’d have to jump out after it, if I didn’t get pushed out. Okay, Captain, I’ll stop bugging you.” The connection broke.

“Thank Christ,” he muttered.

“Another bloody impatient Yank?” inquired the co-pilot, Tulleigh O‘Neal.

Hardesty thought before replying firmly, “You haven’t flown Mr. Jenkins around with me, have you?”

“No, sir,” came the now-nervous answer.

“He’s not your typical Yank. Yes, he’s impatient to get to his destination, but there are some things about Mr. Jenkins which, frankly, you don’t need to know.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And, incidentally, I wasn’t referring to his query about our ETA.”

“Sir?”
            “With Mr. Jenkins, I worried too late he might take me seriously and start dumping people overboard.”

“Oh.”

*

The guards were looking anxiously around in the dim light of a lantern. Neither owned a watch, so trusted their replacements to be on time. Several times this had burned them, the next shift taking their time and delaying ten or even fifteen minutes. Today they thought it was after eight, and so were stamping their feet, trying to blot out the fact they‘d left Qays up top the entire shift. Haytham said, “I’ll head out to the other post.”

*

Manos had seen the increasing agitation and reported in. Seconds later, he had a reply.

“Take them down.”

*

Qays heard a muted, if fierce, crack. Peering into the darkness revealed nothing, so he achingly emerged from the shelter and went around the back, overlooking the lake. Fortunately, the wind had died down.

*

The round from Manos’ KSVK was made of Staballoy, an alloy of nickel, zinc, and depleted uranium. Strictly speaking, it was an ‘Armor Piercing Fin Stabilized Discarding Sabot”; Manos called them ‘Ull’s Arrows” after the Norse hunting god. A tiny firm in Macedonia, specializing in unique ammunition, kept him supplied. The cost? He didn’t know exactly, but it had to be appalling. The one time he had wasted a round on a known distance range target, as opposed to an animal or a combat simulator, Lasko had made him clean every rifle in the armory for a week. As a result, he tried very hard not to miss.

He didn’t miss this time.

The round penetrated Haytham’s neck just above the C5 vertebra, virtually decapitating him. Bursting from the clavicle, the round wasn’t appreciably slowed as it plowed into the shorter Kateb’s left eyebrow, followed by a spray of blood and pulverized bone. Of course, by then Kateb’s skull had been nearly exploded by the passing round, which continued for a bare millisecond before impacting the granite behind the men, driving nearly a foot into the recalcitrant stone before finally shattering. The sparks the pyrophoric, ‘fire-making’, uranium erupted into were briefly smothered by the splashes of Haytham and Kateb, but soon flared up again. Blood and body parts contained water, and that reacted as readily with the now-burning uranium as air.

The smell of roast pork began to fill the air.

*

Qays couldn’t see anything from this side, either. But with the wind finally died down, and the stars out, it was peaceful on this side, so he sat down to wait.

An odd whistling noise didn’t disturb him.

*

Lasko’s going to kill me! thought Manos as he frantically loaded another round. The target had sat so quickly, so unexpectedly, that the round that should have sent him to visit Allah sped past, unobserved.

 Good thing he’s on the other mission!

Speaking into the voice-activated mike, Manos reported in. “Two at entrance down. One on rock unable to target, waiting.”

 The round eventually impacted on the far shore.

*

“Go!”

The order came from Adams. Silently, NVGs down, Padrek’s team advanced on the now-abandoned entrance. From the north and south Teams Yosif and Sawn also advanced, tasked with sealing any potential escapes. One of Yosif’s men, Edvin, sprinted up the path to take care of the lone guard remaining. Breathing rapidly but quietly, he slowed to approach the rock pile. M-4 held at ready, he paused, then jumped around to face the guard who –

– was asleep. Backing up a step, Edvin kept the gun leveled at the tango’s head. Still no reaction. Was the son-of-a-goat snoring??

“Ah, Yosif Nine to Yosif Actual,” he subvocalized, the sensitive throat mike picking up the faint sounds.

“Go, Nine.”

“Target is, well, sleeping.”

            He heard Yosif’s snort. “Repeat, Nine?”

            He drew a deep breath. “Target is sleeping, Yosif.”

“Wrong time to joke, Edvin.”

“I’m not kidding!” he nearly snapped. “He. Is. Asleep.”

He could definitely hear laughter.

“Then wake him up and bring him in. Allah must be favoring him today.”

“Nine, out.” He strode closer and poked him with a foot.

“You, wake up!” he said in passable Arabic.

“Hunh? Oh, goat fuck me, I fell asleep on watch!” The clueless man – no, kid, he couldn’t be more than fifteen, didn’t even need to shave yet as far as Edvin could tell through the NVGs – stretched and rubbed his eyes. Looking at Edvin, and the appropriately lethal-looking M-4, he froze.

“You’re not -”

“No. Up. Now.”

The youth sprang to his feet like someone had set a firecracker under his ass.

“Down the hill. Move.” The kid hesitated. “I said, move!”

“Can I get my tea?”

“Your tea?”

“In the guard shack. It’s not my bottle, you see, and if I don’t bring it back -”

“You have bigger problems than a lost tea bottle. Move.”

*

Bori Mahona was first to the entrance. Inspecting it closely, he was shocked at its primitive condition. It wasn’t even a proper door! It seemed to be little more than a heavy piece of wood which had been roughly shaped to the entrance and propped against the hole. He could see light leaking around imperfections in the fit, but one thing he couldn’t see was a handle. Tentatively, he pushed against it. Nothing. He pushed harder. Still nothing.

The team was piling up behind him now. He leaned against it with all his weight. Nothing.

“Did you try pulling it?” rasped Padrek.

“There’s no handle to pull!”

“Tch, tch,” answered Padrek in his favorite MacKenzieism. “Vasya, I think a few meters of det cord are in order here. Justinas, get a camera through that door. We need to know if anyone’s coming.”

“So we can wait until they open it for us?” quipped Justinas as he came forward and pulled a compact camera/monitor assembly from his pack.

“No, so we can blow the bloody door down on their fool heads!” grinned back Padrek. He did love his explosives.

*

The camera revealed a rough, heavy-looking metal bar across the door. Bori did his best, but his fingers couldn’t quite push the det cord through the narrow gap to make solid contact with the shaft. Thinking quickly, he pulled out the multi-purpose tool each Tiger carried. It was essentially a Leatherman folding tool by another name with a few specialized additions. Opening a flat probe blade, he tamped the cord down.

“A little faster, please,” said Padrek patiently.

Bori flushed; while all Padrek’s team had received extensive training in explosives and other mechanical devices of destruction, he was better with the hardware, instead of the things just went boom. This was little out of his comfort zone, but ‘Adapt, Improvise and Overcome! (Or blow it up.)’

“Ready.”

Justinas hastily removed the camera, and the Team backed around the stone corner.

“Fire in the hole!”

There was a flash and a muffled ‘whump’, then a deafening ‘CLAAAANNNNG!’ as the iron bar dropped to the rock floor.

“That does for surprise, boyos!” yelled Padrek, leaning against the door. Now, it toppled easily into the cavern, dimly illuminated by three old-fashioned lanterns hanging from the wall. Echoes of the falling door resonated through the cavern.

“Genrich, left, Steppas, right. Anton, take out the lanterns. Arminis, I want you and your SAW ready to suppress any fire.” Arminis Ferani was Padrek’s third, carrying an M249, followed closely by Efim Shaynav, his ammo bearer, trailed the point as Anton started snuffing the lanterns. As the light dimmed, the team went back to the NVGs.

“Clear left.”

“Clear right, two rooms, both vacant.” Further down the hall, a dim light indicated a curve in the tunnel. The walls here were almost totally raw rock, worn smooth by passage of untold numbers of people over the centuries.

“Look sharpish, lads,” said Padrek. “I can hear ‘em coming.”

Voices floated to their ears, perhaps concerned but not unduly alarmed.

“Some prisoners would be helpful, though not entirely necessary,” he added. Looking at the close quarters, he finished, “And not bloody likely.”

It was about to get very loud and very messy.

*

They came in hotter than usual, barely slow enough to stay on the ground, and Hardesty had his hands full bringing his bird to a controlled stop on the short runway. Stop they did, though, and were quickly off the tarmac and rolling along the taxiway.

“I think our ride’s here,” said Mike, peering out a forward window. In the middle distance squatted the unmistakable silhouette of the Valkyrie, navigation lights flashing, rotors turning slowly. As if in response to his words, the plane veered slightly to pass close to the waiting Hind. It was only a matter of seconds until they were nearly alongside.

“Transfer to Kildar Air here,” joked Hardesty on the intercom. “Miss Rakovich, I understand you’ll be staying aboard for the flight to Tbilisi?”

“Yes, I shall.”

“Very good.”

“Right,” said Mike as the plane completely stopped. “Kat, you sure I can’t talk you into staying with Stasia? I don’t really want to leave her alone for a flight.”

“Almost, you convince me,” said Kat, “but my place is with you.”

“I tried,” he sighed, and undogged the hatch. To his surprise, waiting on the tarmac was Chief D’Allaird and Valkyrie‘s crew chief, Naida Shaynav.

“Evening, Kildar. Captain Wilson’s set to fly you to the LZ. Your gear is aboard.”

“Good work, Chief.” Mike practically jumped down the short set of stairs and was surprised to see Naida climb up. “Naida? Aren‘t you on the wrong bird?”

“No, Kildar. My orders are to return with Miss Rakovich. Chief D’Allaird will be filling in for me on this part of the mission.”

Mike could feel Nielson’s subtle hand at work here.

“Good thinking,” was all he said, though.

“Chief,” he addressed D’Allaird, seeing Katrina and Major Hughes on the ground. “Looks like we’re ready.”

“Follow me.” D’Allaird trotted off. Behind, the G550s engines spooled up, the stairs were pulled in, and the hatch closed. Probably Naida herself; Tammy trained her people well. Hardesty was clearing the area for the Hind’s liftoff.

“I’m afraid it’s a little cramped,” he said over his shoulder. “The Colonel suggested that we fill out our lift capacity with a few extras.” As they approached the Hind, Mike saw what he meant.

Through the windows, which would normally show the crew compartment, all he could see were piles of boxes, crates, and ammo cartons.

“Just what did the Colonel suggest you bring?” he asked, climbing aboard.

“Oh, this and that. Actually, I think it’s mostly Semtex,” he admitted sheepishly.

“Semtex?” said Hughes, surprised. While Semtex was a stable explosive for values of explosive, he obviously was unused to being flown in a compartment stuffed ceiling to floor with the compound. Mike and Katrina simply sat down and started fastening their harnesses so, after a moment, Hughes did as well.

“Don’t worry,” assured Mike, “Valkyrie’s not the crazy pilot. Well,” he amended, “not as crazy.”

“Oh, shit,” said Hughes, as Tammy said, “I heard that, Kildar.”

Whereupon Mike echoed, “Oh, shit.”

CHAPTER 38

Kek-Usn

April 12

They were making good progress.

No alarm had been given they could detect. Kira was monitoring the radios and other electronic devices and had reported no unusual traffic in either direction. They were either completely unaware eighty heavily armed men had invaded their supposedly hidden stronghold, or were far, far more subtle in planning their ambushes than anyone could believe.

Padrek’s team had taken the branch to the right; Oleg and his team had taken the left. Teams Sawn and Yosif had followed Padrek and Oleg, respectively, into the caverns, leaving Vil and the command team to hold the exterior. Of course, with Dragon hovering a thousand feet overhead, ready unleash Hell at the slightest command, and Valkyrie due to arrive any minute, the perimeter was probably the most secure location on the whole lake.

They had accounted for seven tangoes so far, all KIA. Their unfortunate prisoner, whose name was Qays, was spilling his guts to the Master Chief. He didn’t know all the details, all the side passages, but he knew all the major tunnels and chambers of the underground stronghold, he knew the habits and movement patterns of his fellow jihadists, he knew where Inarov kept his quarters and, most vitally, he knew where the nukes were being worked on.

Every few minutes, a new map of the layout would be downloaded to their BFTs with a subtle beep. It seemed they were headed down the residential end; the sleeping quarters and Inarov’s office/suite were about all that were shown, so, after a hasty conference, Padrek’s team moved ahead, while Oleg’s team went to join up with the others.

Padrek had personally sealed the entrance to the barracks with enough Semtex to, as he put it, “Drop the caravanserai.” They didn’t have a count, but according to Qays, the majority of the remaining mujahideen would be racked out. A quick look through NVGs seemed to confirm it so, in short order, several tons of rock were blasted into place in the short corridor leading to the bunks. Those men might know they had been attacked, but Padrek was willing to wager a year’s beer they wouldn’t be doing anything about it any time soon.

According to the schematic, they ought to be getting close to Inarov’s quarters.

His musing was interrupted by a sudden crack-crack-crack. Someone had just opened up at them with an old AK, and his team flattened against the walls and floor, returning fire.

“Filthy sneaking bastards!” came the cry at them. Using the camera system from the door, he looked around the corner. There were five heavy-set Chechens behind a hastily erected defensive point. Behind them was a solid, even regal-looking door. He checked the BFT. Inarov’s quarters.

“Keep them pinned down!” he called. They couldn’t risk an explosives assault in these close quarters; fragments, whether of metal or stone, didn’t distinguish between friend and foe. They’d bounce around until they exhausted their energy. He also couldn’t risk bringing the roof down and trapping Inarov; they were supposed to capture him, not rescue him from an artificial cave-in. Grenades, therefore, were right out, as were his favorite satchel charges. It was too tight for a direct assault, too; his men would be cut down before they covered the twenty meters or so. The Keldara were warriors, true, but the Kildar had taught them to appreciate their value and to spend themselves wisely.

A slow grin spread across his face.

He and Vanner had wanted to try out the new toy for a while now. This seemed perfect. He sat back and called back to Justinas, “Bring up my special pack, that’s a good lad.”

*

Changing in a Hind was challenging at best. This was far from best. Especially since it seemed that every time Mike was precariously balanced, the helicopter would suddenly shift. Tammy’s revenge.

Hughes had kept his back to Katrina as much as possible, but that left him with no room to move his legs or arms, so eventually he had to turn. Mike was pretty sure that Kat had left her top off longer than necessary just to give Hughes that quick flash; he really needed to have a talk with her about it. Later.

First things first: survive. He felt his long-ago SEAL training wrap around his mind in a familiar, comfortable way, clearing his thoughts, focusing him on the mission. His heart rate steadied, slowed.

D’Allaird didn’t bother trying not to look; he was too busy trying not to grin. He sat on his perch, steady as a rock, doing his damndest to imitate every Chief of the Boat Mike ever knew. If he’d been sipping coffee in a hurricane, he couldn’t have done a better impression.     

Asshole.

Eventually they were all in their body armor. Just in time, too, as the dense Russian forest suddenly became a lake.

“One minute!” shouted D’Allaird. Mike nodded, holding up a single finger to show he understood. And using the middle finger, just to ensure the message was crystal clear.

They came in low over a rocky hill that dropped abruptly away. With a sudden flare, Valkyrie dropped as well, settling into a clearing. With a speed that still surprised Mike, D’Allaird leapt up to release the passenger door, then the cargo hatch on the opposite side. M-4 loaded but on safe, Mike quickly jumped out, followed by Hughes, then Katrina. He was scanning the perimeter of the surrounding trees when he noticed Vil dogtrotting up.

“How goes it?” he shouted as they cleared the prop wash.

“Very smoothly so far,” answered Vil. “Master Chief Adams has a report for you in the command center.”

“After you!”

The tent was just as calm as the scene outside.

“All this training and the fuckers are just rolling over,” groused Adams as Mike walked in.

“You’d prefer a better fight?”

“I’d prefer a fight, period! So far, the only organized resistance is coming from Inarov’s bodyguards. They’re holding back Padrek and his team, but he’s got something sneaky up his sleeve.”

“I thought we were expecting some hundreds? Where the hell are they?”

“At this point, probably just about out of air.”

“Huh?”

“You always were the one for intelligent questions, Ass-Boy. Seems that our boy Padrek caught them asleep, literally. He did what he does best: demo.” Adams smiled evilly. “He took one look in before he dropped the roof. Our count here makes it out around two hundred fifty of the stupid shits, caught napping.”

‘”Not exactly sporting,” said Mike. Adams groaned.

“That’s exactly what Padrek said. I’ll tell you, with all due respect, what I told him: the point is to make them dead, not be ‘sporting’.”

“What’s that?” asked Mike, gesturing to the prisoner rigger-taped to a chair in a corner.

“That’s Qays. Luckiest SOB in the whole outfit, you ask me. Would you believe that he was asleep on top of the rock pile?”

“He give you anything good?”

“Solid gold, Mike. Everything’s checked out so far.”

“You mean we might have to let him live?” Katrina had entered the tent unnoticed, leaving Hughes outside.

“Damn, you’re a bloodthirsty bitch!” exclaimed Adams.

“Why, thank you, Master Chief, you know me so well!” she replied, dimpling.

“Yeah, we might have to let him live. I think he’s having second thoughts about the wisdom of the Emir.”

Just then Kira spoke.

“Go ahead, Padrek.” A pause. “Understood. Priority is removing prisoner from combat.” She turned to face the group. “Padrek’s captured Inarov alive. He’s bringing him out.”

Mike strode toward the exit. “I’ll meet him. I want to talk to this prick.”

“No sledgehammers, Mike! We didn’t bring any!” yelled Adams.

“I’ll think of something! ‘Improvise, Adapt and Overcome!’ Remember?”

*

Inarov was in sorry shape. Usually meticulous about his appearance, he was dressed in torn and dirty Russian utilities. His beard seemed straggly, ragged, as if he’d taken scissors to it quickly to hide his appearance. His lank hair was in disarray. He was covered in grime, and there seemed to be a shiner developing below his right eye.

Mike met him just outside the entrance.

“Giku Inarov. Would-be Emir of the so-called Caucasian Emirate, and a royal pain in my ass.”

Mike looked him up and down with disgust. “Planning on sneaking away, your Emirateness?” he asked contemptuously.

“While your loyal bodyguard nobly sacrificed themselves for you? How did you take them out?” he asked Padrek, who had followed Inarov.

“Oh, just a wee toy Vanner and I have been playing with. Nothing much, really.”

“What was it?”

“Well, you know those new spy bots the United States is developing? The ones that mimic birds, and insects?”

Mike shook his head. “Not really, no. Thought that was all sort of science fiction.”

“Oh, no, they’re pretty well advanced. Vanner’s been keeping abreast of these things. Truly fascinating! Did you know -”

“Get to the point, Padrek!”

“Yes, Kildar. Vanner arranged to acquire a number for testing purposes, he called them ‘beta tests.’ Then he gave some to me.”

“You used, what, electronic insects? How?”

“Well, the smallest is the size of a bee, so that gave me an idea. I went to Dr. Arensky, and he provided me with a very potent toxin. Mouse did the actual programming, before she left, to seek out bare skin and implant the toxin.”

“You stung them with robot bees.” Mike couldn’t believe this.

“Essentially, yes, Kildar.”

“Fatally?”
            “Oh, assuredly!”

“Creative. Different. Don’t know how practical it is for front-line use, but still…”

Inarov, who had been standing quietly, suddenly roared, “Allah’s curse upon your cowardly hide!” Waving his arms about, he continued, “A true warrior doesn’t hide behind godless mechanical toys! He faces his enemy as a man and wins or loses by his own strength of arms! You make me -”

A flat crack echoed through the clearing and a chunk rocketed from Inarov’s upper left arm.

I think he was quite clever,” came a woman’s voice. “If you’d like to disagree some more, I can use more practice. You’re my first live target.”

Katrina lowered her M4 to point at the ground.

Mike grabbed him just above the wound and made Inarov face him. “You heard the lady. More practice? Or you going to cooperate? I promise, if you cooperate, I won’t kill you.”

“I do not cooperate with infidels!”

“Way wrong answer!” Mike spun him away, grabbing the injured arm and holding it out.

A flat crack-crack-crack rang out. Inarov’s left elbow seemed to explode. The lower arm and hand, neatly severed, dropped to the ground.

“Tourniquet!” shouted Mike. “Nice shooting, Kat,” he called back to her.

After the tourniquet was roughly applied, Mike took hold of the upper arm again.

“That’s one. Hope you’re right-handed. My promise still stands. You cooperate, and I won’t kill you. Refuse, and I let my fiancée use you for more target practice. Wonder what’s next on her list? So do I. Shall we find out?”

“NO!” gasped Inarov. “I’ll cooperate, just get that bitch away from me!”

“Ah-ah-ah, even though it’s true, that’s no way to talk about the woman I’m going to marry. No, I think that she’s earned her right to stay with us.” Gesturing, Mike had a bandage applied to the first wound. Probably too quickly for Inarov’s liking they were ready.

“Now then, Giku, may I call you Giku? Yes? We’re going to take a walk. You’re going to give me a tour of your lovely little hidey-hole, and you will tell everyone we encounter to surrender. If they don’t, if you try to get tricky, well, they might get lucky. They might kill me, or her, or another one of my troops.” His voice dropped to a hiss. “But I guarantee you will die, and then every last one of your surviving men will die. Then we’ll drop the rock on their bodies, and that will be the end of your little Emirate, a pathetic attempt at glory, gone forever. You got me?”

Inarov nodded. Somewhere, probably when the tourniquet was applied, someone must have slipped him some anti-shock meds, as he seemed to be having a hard time tracking. That would just make him more reasonable. It was nice working with professionals.

“Good,” said Mike more normally. “Let’s walk.”

*

Inarov was good as his word. He, Mike, Kat, and Padrek’s team toured the underground facility, although Mike did sorely miss Shota at times like this. There were times that a man-mountain was a most useful tool to have. For one thing, he could simply have carried Inarov around by the neck. But he wasn’t available for this mission, and that was that. Still. After having a 5.56 mm amputation, there wasn’t much fight left in Inarov.

They passed several common areas: a rough-hewn mosque, a kitchen and dining hall, and a very haphazard armory. After a while they approached a room whose entrance, unlike the others, was concealed behind a curtain of grayish plastic strips. Gesturing for the others to wait, Mike ghosted forward. He was only a meter from the entrance when Pavel whispered, “Kildar, wait.”

“What is it, Pavel?”

Padrek’s man pointed with the Geiger counter he was carrying. “The room reads hot.”

Taking an involuntary step back, Mike asked, “How hot?”

“About twenty rem. Nothing that will harm us quickly, but I wouldn’t want to be in there for too long.”

            Mike spun on Inarov. “Is anyone in there?”

“Yes. We are trying to rearm the weapons.” His tone was a mix of wariness and pride.

“Are all of the weapons in there?”

“I will not tell you.”

The sound of Katrina’s M4 being switched off ‘safe’ was very loud in the silence.

“Again. Are all of the weapons in that room?”

A very brief pause, and, “Yes. All we have.”

“Kildar!”

“Padrek?”

“If any of those weapons have their shielding off they’re running a risk of an uncontrolled reaction. Especially if the cores are exposed and too close to each other.”

“Uncontrolled? Oh, shit. Explosion?”

“Big one.”

“Right.” Keying the radio, Mike got Adams. “Chief, I need every man not on perimeter guard in here five minutes ago. This idiot’s got all the weapons in one room so we’ve got to separate them. According to Padrek, we could have an explosion.”

“Understood. On their way. Out.”

“Moving them may be difficult,” offered Inarov.

“Why is that?” demanded Mike. He wasn’t in any mood for more bullshit right now.

“The technicians, they’re still in there, working on the tritium process.”

“They haven’t stopped?”

“No, why should they have? They’re not my fedayeen, only technicians that Ibrahim brought in.” He shrugged. “They are here to work.”

“’Brought in’?” asked Mike, suspicous. “You mean kidnapped, don’t you?”

“Like you, they are infidels. Only those who watch them are of the Faithful. Why should I care?”

Mike was instantly furious.

“Because you took them from their homes and their families to work on goddamn nuclear weapons that could kill them all! I’ve run into plenty of your kind in the past, people who believe that ‘different’ means ‘wrong,’ but you take the prize.” Turning to Padrek, he said, “Let’s see how he enjoys radiation. Do you think you could strip the shielding off one of these nukes?”

“I? Maybe, Kildar. With this much radiation in the room, I would think that there are several which already have their shielding removed. Tritium wouldn’t create that much radiation.”

“Fine,” snarled Mike. “As soon as we’re done with this prick, I want you to find a nice, dirty, contaminated bomb and rigger tape his sorry ass to the casing. Put his nuts as close to the source as you can manage; even if he lives, I don’t want him spawning another little jihadist.” Returning to Inarov, he said, “Get your guards out of there. I’ll deal with the techs.”

There were only two guards, who, upon hearing Inarov’s voice, quickly exited the room and were subdued. Mike pulled aside the heavy plastic and was about to stride in.

Anton barked, “Kildar! Back off!”

He dropped the curtain back, bringing his weapon up. “What?”

“The radiation, it spiked to a hundred rem!” Mike paled.

“What’ll that do to us?”

“I’m not sure, but it can’t be good.”

Padrek spoke. “Nothing immediately. After a few hours, mild radiation sickness. Vomiting. Diarrhea. Fatigue. Not too much more, but we ought to get those techs out now. It may already be too late, but we must try!”

Cupping his hands around his mouth, Mike yelled, in Russian, “Attention workers! I am the Kildar, and I need you to stop what you are doing right now and exit the room!”

There was no response, so after a few seconds he added, “You have nothing to fear! We are here to rescue you! But you need to come out now!”

A voice, muffled, replied, “Why should we trust you, ‘Kildar’? Is this another of our jailers’ tricks?”

Mike pushed Inarov forward and through the curtain, holding his shirt firmly. “Is this your jailer? Does he look threatening now?”

He yanked Inarov back.

A moment passed, and a bespectacled, balding man stepped out. “You are here to rescue us?”

“All of you and take those weapons away. But I need you to come out from there.”

The man nodded. “Immediately. God may yet spare us.” He made a feeble kick at Inarov but failed to connect.

Presently a dozen men were gathered in the now-crowded hallway. They were mostly young, with two or three older scientist or technician types scattered in with them.

“Anton will lead you outside and help get you checked out.” In Keldara, Mike said, “Get a reading on them and get them cleaned up as best you can. See if you can find different clothes; I’m sure these are spoiled.”

There wasn’t a Keldaran term for ‘contaminated’, so he did his best.

“Then radio Dr. Arensky, see if there’s anything we can do for them here. I remember some things from my training. After they‘re as externally clean as possible, start giving them liquids, water – beer!”

The shocked looks on their faces were priceless.

“Beer, Kildar? Our beer?”

“Yes, your beer. It’ll help flush the radioactives out of their system. So. Clean, then beer. Got it?”

            “Yes, Kildar.”

In Russian, Anton said, “Please, follow.”

“Padrek, I want two guards here. Two meters away from the doorway. Nobody goes in without my say-so.”

            Over the radio: “Chief. How many NBC suits did we bring?”

“Radiation suits? Two, I think.”

“Fuck. Okay, those are going to be two very sweaty suits. Figure out who they fit; nobody else is to retrieve the weapons. According to Padrek, some of the bombs have had their shielding removed, and the whole room reads as contaminated.”

Another thought hit him. “We’ve got to get the shields back on. Who do we have who could do that?”

Hughes, whom he had forgotten about, spoke up. “I’ve gotten training. I was on a NEST team for a couple years.”

Looking him up and down, Mike said, “I don’t think I have a rad suit that will fit you.”

Hughes was taller, but thinner, than the average Keldara.

He shrugged. “If they can get the weapon out, I can check the shielding out here. It’s not tough to put it on quickly, if you don’t care about neatness.”

“What about radiation?”

“Well, I can’t say I’m looking forward to it but it shouldn’t be an issue, not for brief exposures. The body armor will help but I’ll want to get rid of it afterward. Gotta have gloves, though.”

“Body armor’s cheap, comparatively. Right, you’ve got yourself a job.” Prodding Inarov, he said, “Move on. What’s left?”

“All that remains down here is my office, and Ibrahim’s quarters.”

“His quarters first.” Inarov walked another twenty meters or so and stopped. This door wasn’t sloppy. It fit flush to the opening, which had obviously been carefully shaped. Inarov tried the knob.

“Locked,” he said, stepping away.

“Open it. You’re Emir; don’t tell me you don’t have a fucking key.”

“I do, but I have never violated Ibrahim’s trust!”

Mike laughed harshly.

“Trust? Let me tell you something about your precious Ibrahim: his real name is Kurt Schwenke, and he is as much a Muslim as I’m a fish. He’s deceived you every step of the way, from his name to his history to the real reason for this whole scheme. This raid and the whole nuclear blackmail plot, that was his idea, wasn’t it?”

Inarov didn’t say anything, or even move, but he had gone more and more pale with each sentence.

“Thought so. He’s played you for a fool, used your ambition and your faith so that he could get revenge on one person.”

Inarov fumbled with his hand for a set of keys. “I do not believe you! Ibrahim al-Jasir is the most loyal son of Allah I have ever known! I shall show you!”

He turned the key in the lock.

Almost before he knew what he was doing, Mike turned and hurled himself at Katrina, knocking her flat and shielding her with his body as the door exploded. Inarov’s body was shredded by the flying metal. Two Keldara were down, too, thrown against the opposite wall by the force of the blast.

“Damn, damn, damn -” Mike cursed. His ears rang.

“Michael? What happened?” Kat, for the first time, sounded shaken.

“I forgot that we’re dealing with Schwenke. No, strike that. I forgot that we’re dealing with a cold, unfeeling killer, who takes every possible precaution. Of course he’d set a trap on his quarters!” He stood, then pulled Katrina up after him. “Chief?”

“Mike! What the hell?!”

“Schwenke booby-trapped his door.”

“Anyone hurt?”

“Two Keldara, don’t know how badly.”

As he spoke, one of the injured troops stood, wobbly. “One’s up. And the Emir’s got his martyrdom, though not quite how he planned it, I think.”

“Damn.”

“Yeah. Would’ve been nice to have another gift for the President.” He looked at the wall.

“We could take a picture. Wonder if he likes Impressionist art?“ He could almost hear Adams wince. “Yeah, think I’ll get a couple shots.”

“Idiot. What next?”

“Next? Cleanup and Evac. Get it rolling.” He switched off. “Padrek? Inarov said his office was down here. I’d assume that’s where his files will be. Get them, any computers, anything else you think would be useful.”

“Right-o, Kildar.”

“Then start rigging this place to drop.”

“Yes, Kildar!”

*

            A large contingent of Keldara were standing outside the ‘bomb room’, as Mike thought of it.

“How’s it going,” he asked Hughes.

“I’ve got your men hauling out the unshielded ones first, reduce the risks. Three done so far. The techs Inarov was using? He at least provided them with lead aprons, so I’m just taking those and rigger-taping them to the open casings. Quick and dirty, but it’ll work for the short term. How far do they need to go, anyway?”

“Chopper to Elista, then we’re flying them Novorossijisk. We turn ‘em over there.”

“To whom?”

“Officially, the Navy, but I suspect that the CIA has a hand in it. In any case, they’ll hold on to ‘em.”

“So about how far do they need to go?”

“About a hundred thirty kilometers in the choppers, then another five hundred on the planes.”

“I’ll want to do something a little more permanent, then, when we get to Elista.”

“No problem.”

“Do the Russians know you’re flying nuclear weapons across their territory?”

Mike’s smile was cold. “Nope. I figure I‘ll tell them after they‘ve sailed off into the sunset. Hopefully, I‘ll get to see Vlad‘s face when I tell him.”

“Does that have to do with, no, that’s above my pay grade.” He was saved from further comment by movement behind him. All the Keldara backed away, giving the two men in olive drab full-body suits plenty of room. The weapon was on a wheeled table and seemed to move easily despite the weight.

“Back to work. You want to stand off a ways.” Mike and Kat moved before he finished his sentence.

“One last question. Do you have a count?”

“Yeah. Twenty-two.”

Something about the number bugged Mike, but he knew better than to jostle Hughes just now.

On the way out, it hit him.

“Twenty-two? There should be twenty-three!” Breaking into a run, he exited the cavern, yelling for Adams.

“What?”

“How many nukes were we looking to recover? Total. What did Pierson say?”

“Twenty-five.”

“There’s only twenty-two here.”

            It only took a second for Adams to do the math. “Shit.”

            “Right. One in Groznyy, one with Schwenke’s missing force, and we’re still short one.”

            “You think he miscounted?”

“Who? Pierson? Hughes?”

            “Either. Both. Christ, the Russians could’ve gotten the numbers wrong.”

Mike shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. They might lose warheads they haven’t accounted for, but ones they’re shipping out? We pay them, you know, for each nuke. They want their dollars, so their manifest is gonna match exactly. And Hughes wouldn’t miscount.”

“That means one’s gone off somewhere.”

Mike winced. “Please don’t say ‘gone off.’”

“Sorry. How about ‘wandered away’? It doesn’t matter what I say, it ain’t here.”

“Goddamn motherfucking prick’s outsmarted us!”

“Who, Inarov?”

“No, Schwenke! Okay. How many of Inarov’s men did we end up pulling out of there alive?”

“Eighteen. That includes Qays.”

“The odds suck, but I want you to talk to each one of them. See if any were privy to any policymaking, any planning. Maybe one will geek to the location of the last bomb.”

“Will do.”

“Givi!” Mike called, spotting one of Oleg’s team. “Over here!”

“Yes, Kildar!” The young man trotted over.

“I want you to count the bombs as they come out. Exactly. Write it down if you must. Got that?”

Confused, but willing, Givi said, “Yes, Kildar!” and ran off.

“Michael? What is problem?”

He’d totally forgotten about Katrina. He turned to look; she had her M4 at the ready, guarding his back. Briefly, he explained.

            “So we are missing a bomb? So what?”

            “Kat?” he said, surprised.

            “If they have another bomb somewhere in Russia, what problem is it of ours? Think, Michael.”

            “How about you explain it?”

“I see three choices. One, they are found by Russians. Problem solved.”

“I’ll buy it. Fine. Two?”

“Two, they are not found by Russians, but cannot detonate bomb. Eventually, they go away, or try to sell bomb, or do something else stupid. Again, problem solved.”

“Maybe. And three?”

            “Three, they detonate bomb and kill many Russians.” She shrugged. “So? I do not hate Russians, but this is not our problem. We are asked to find this base, capture the bombs here. This we do. Can we help if bomb is moved before we arrive? Can we stop it moving in Russia? We are Keldara, but we are only small.”

            “God, you’re a bloodthirsty bitch. That’s not a bad thing,” he added hastily, raising his hands. “But in this case, well, there’s a saying: ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’”

“Ah, I have heard this. We have a similar saying: ‘The enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy. No more.’ Michael, we cannot depend on the Russians to protect us, or the Georgians, or even the Americans. We must protect ourselves. That is what the Keldara have learned, have lived. Capturing these bombs makes us safer, yes? This is good. But does not allowing Russians to die make us safer? I do not know. I do not think so.”

“I disagree. I also promised Pierson that we would retrieve all the bombs.”

“Ah, then it is a matter of our honor. This, I understand.”

“Good. Besides. If it was easy, they wouldn’t have asked us.”

*

            Adams’ interrogations started badly.

“Suck on a goat cock, infidel!” spat the first, a heavy-set, middle-aged man with a typically greasy beard and a lazy eye.

“How about you suck on this?” asked Adams, placing the barrel of his Desert Eagle in his questionees mouth. “Or would you rather answer the question?”

His words were somewhat muffled by the gun but understandable. “I would die before telling you anything!”

“Your choice,” said Adams with a shrug, and pulled the trigger. The back of his skull, and what few brains he had, spattered the line of prisoners standing behind. Adams stepped past the new-made corpse, and had the next selection brought forward.

“Feeling reasonable? Or do I get to waste a round on you, too?”

He didn’t have to waste any more rounds. Unfortunately, though they were now falling over themselves in their eagerness to cooperate, not even one knew any details of the plan. It was common knowledge that three groups had set out, but none knew the destinations. Finally getting to Qays, who was almost pathetically eager to please, he asked, almost out of habit, “I don’t suppose you know anything?”

“I know who was leading the missions!”

            “How?”

            “I was on a double shift on guard duty that day, I saw them all leave!”

“Boy, I’m starting to like you. Who were they?”

“The last one to leave was Ibrahim. It was magnificent, watching all – “

            “Yeah, yeah, a fuckin’ parade. Who else?“

            “Boulos Rahal left before him, much earlier. Before dawn.“

“Yeah, we know Boulos. Knew.“

“And first was Bursuk Gereshk.”

            Adams actually smiled. “That name I know. Very good, Qays. There might be hope for you yet!” Turning back to Kira, he said, “Get the information back as quick as you can.”

            “Understood, Chief.”

*

Originally, the plan called for both Dragon and Valkyrie to ferry nukes to Elista. That was before they learned of the potential for Russian ambush, and since they couldn’t know if it was limited to ground forces or if they had brought along air support, it was decided Valkyrie would carry the nukes while Dragon flew in support. It would take twice as long, but all agreed that security trumped speed in this case.

Stripped out, they figured Valkyrie would be able to carry at most four of the weapons with sufficient fuel to make the trip. The overpowered engines could lift more, yes, but they simply couldn’t pack them any more tightly in the crew compartment. At that, D’Alliard was riding in the copilot’s seat.

The two wounded Keldara, along with four more for the heavy lifting, flew in the Dragon.

“Hey, Anechka!” said Ionis, who was one of the four. “Going to take us for a ride?”

“If you want to survive the trip, you’ll strap in,” warned Anechka on the intercom. “If Captain Bathlick encounters any trouble, you’re in for the ride of your life. Just saying.”

“Remember the tales the Rangers told of the Chechens in the pass?” asked Eamon, tightening the straps and tugging on them to make sure they were secure.

“I, oh.” Ionis settled down and began fastening his. “I get your point,” he said as the engines started revving up.

*

“Anisa, we have a name. I need all the data you can find on him.”

“Who, Grez?” Her fingers were poised over the keys.

“Bursuk Gereshk.”

“Got him. We’ve done a preliminary report on him a couple days ago, remember? Do you want that, or do you need more depth?”

“Everything. According to the one source the Chief has found, he’s got a nuke and is unaccounted for. Guess who has to try to figure out where he’s gone?”

“On it. It might take some time. The Russian security is awful, but so is their organization. It’s not easy finding anything in that mess.”

“Do your best. Once you’re in, get Kseniya to help you.”

“Right.”

*

Round trip, including unloading, seemed to be working out to about seventy minutes.

“We ought to be out of here before dawn,” commented Adams, pleased. “If we can avoid any problems with the Russians, we might be home by sundown.”

“I want you to take it easy on the way back. No point in rushing and arriving tired and groggy. If we’re needed, we need to think clearly and see straight.”

“We’re SEALs -”

“Former SEALs, Master Chief. Very former, in my case.”

“Yeah, but you’re not driving back, are you?”

“As a matter of fact -”

“Didn’t think so. We’ll get there when we get there. Don’t you worry about us grunts.”

“Did we get everything out of the base?”

“I think we got everything useful. It seems like a couple tons of paper. I gave it a quick look; most of it’s either in Arabic or the worst Russian I’ve ever seen.”

“Anything else?”

“Yeah. This way.” Adams led off to one of the vans, which was obviously heavily burdened. He opened the back door to reveal a very solid safe, at least two feet square and three high, with a double combination lock.

“Where was this?”

“Behind Inarov’s throne, or whatever you want to call it. Padrek had a hell of a time blasting it out of the rock without damaging it, though he was grinning the whole time. Boy’s sick, I tell you. Too happy to play with explosives.”

“Any ideas what it contains?”

“Nope. Mouse isn’t here, so we can’t crack it on site, not gently, at least.”

“Can’t risk blowing it,” Mike agreed. “It’ll have to wait until we get back. Speaking of Padrek, is he done rigging?”

“Say the word, and it all comes tumbling down.”

“Everybody clear?”

“One more bomb to bring out.”

            “Okay. Let me know when we’re clear.” Mike walked over to the closely guarded Chechens. In Arabic, he said, “In a few moments, we will be finished here. You will be allowed to return to retrieve any items of a personal nature before we turn you over to the local authorities.”

“Local authorities?”

“The police from Prikumskij. We’ve arranged for you to be held there pending your trial.”

A few knowing smiles passed between the mujahideen. The local authorities? They’d be free before dawn!

“All except you, Qays,” continued Mike. “We have a few more questions for you.”

Qays’ face fell. “Yes, Kildar.”

Over the shoulders of the Chechens Mike could see the last bomb being wheeled out, followed closely by Hughes.

“That it, Jack?” he called across the field.

“Yes!”

“And is everyone out?”

“Yes!”

In Arabic again, Mike said, “You may go now. You have fifteen minutes.”

Quickly, but not running, the Chechens headed for their base. Foolish Ami! Stupid infidel! The mutters grew in confidence as they got closer and closer. By the time the first entered, they were almost laughing.

When the last was out of sight, Mike spoke quietly into the radio.

“Ready, Padrek?”

“Ready, Kildar.”

“Drop it.”

            Padrek gave three blasts on an air horn, repeated it twice, then yelled, “Fire in the hole!” Then he pushed the button.

He had placed nearly two hundred kilos of Semtex, strung with det cord, through every passage and every room of the caverns. When triggered, the PETN exploded at over eight thousand meters per second,  more than twenty times the speed of sound. The Chechens were universally obliterated before they could recognize what happened. The megatons of rock that then fell were merely an artistic touch.

“So falls the Emirate,” said Mike, walking away.

Published by gaffen620

Author of The Cassidy Chronicles. Lives in Colorado with many dogs, cats, and one very patient wife.

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