Sunday WildCard, The Kildaran Chapters 41 & 42

Brace yourselves.

This is a long installment.

The first chapter you get isn’t all that long, only 10 pages of manuscript. Still, given what I’ve been supplying to you, it doesn’t really cut it.

The second chapter, though, is a battle in the Valley and runs about 30 pages.

All told? 13000 words.

And as I was going through and editing I’ve noticed things I still do today in my writing. First, incorporating friends into the story by borrowing their names. Second, adding little pops of humor here or there. Third, running heavy on dialogue so you’re seeing and learning things as the characters see and learn them. Fourth, inserting pop culture references. Or, in at least two examples, military history references.

Oh, yes, on final detail – has anyone really examined the cover image you get with each post? There are three elements; two are pretty obvious, and the third is more subtle. Any thoughts as to what the third one is?

Anyhow, I hope you’re enjoying this! Happy Father’s Day to all the dads reading on posting day!

CHAPTER 41

Near the Georgia Border; The Cave; The Road from Tbilisi to the Valley; A Road to Moscow

April 13

It was nearly ten before Haroun Tahan and his men broke camp.

It wasn‘t easy getting moving in the high, cold air. The machinery did well enough, but the men were reluctant to leave the relative warmth of their tents. Tahan exhorted, bullied and cajoled them into motion; Ibrahim had entrusted the mission to him, and he would not allow these men to fail him. Still, it wasn’t easy. He hadn’t wanted to climb from bed, either.

The briefing he’d received had been less than detailed about the routes and the relative scale of the challenge facing him and his men. Looking around at the rising slopes and craggy outcrops, Tahan realized this was probably intentional. If he’d known, he might have been a little more reluctant about assuming command!

Well, nothing for it.

He consulted the GPS unit Ibrahim had provided him again. The target was set as their destination, but the total lack of roads in the mountains didn’t seem to have confused the device in the slightest. It held true, directing them nearly exactly south-west.

The old Soviet-era trucks were having no problems with the meter-deep snow which persisted in the mountains along the Russia-Georgia border. Tahan had been canny enough to set the gigantic ZIL-E167 in the forefront, crushing the snow below its six massive tires, virtually creating a road where none had existed before.

The Tatras and the PAZs easily widened and packed the remaining snow, allowing the smaller, Jeep-like GAZ-69s easy passage. All in all, he was quite proud of his ingenuity.

The track they left behind could have been read by a blind man.

Captain Cheal was neither.

She and her U-2V sent a nearly continuous stream of data back to the Keldara, noting the arrow-straight course of the slowly approaching force. Minute by minute, the combined observations by Captain Cheal and a virtual constellation of satellites, American and Russian, had produced a detailed description of his force’s composition, speed, and projected destination:

Through the heart of the mountains to the Valley of the Keldara.

*

Grez couldn’t believe it.

What sort of complete moron would come across the spine of the mountains?

“It’s not Schwenke.”

Her announcement, quiet as it was, in the humming depths of the Cave, still brought the combined activities of her team to a complete halt.

“Grez?” Anisa recovered first. “What isn’t Schwenke?”

“The force we’re tracking, here,” she replied, pointing to the large plasma display opposite her.

“They’re coming in dumb. Really dumb. Straight line from Itum-Kale to here?”

She tapped a few keys, and a projected course appeared.

“Right into the Valley. Stupid. Completely exposed. It’s like a child, given written instructions, or -” She paused. “Or a GPS. An older one, that doesn’t ‘think’ or adjust routes for conditions.”

“She’s right,” agreed Stella. “There’s at least sixteen, eighteen kilometers of mountain peaks, not passes, peaks, between here and there. They’ll have to have the luck of Amaton, the blessing of Skadi and the skills of Ull to get across there!”

“Then who is it?” asked Kseniya, the least experienced of the four.

“More importantly, where is Schwenke?” said Grez. “Has Kassab regained consciousness yet?“

“Not yet,“ answered Stella. “Dr. Arensky checked on him about an hour ago.“

“Call the doctor, ask him if we can rouse him somehow.” She turned to Anisa. “Meanwhile, get Lilia and Olga up here. Before we go upstairs with this, I want them to talk to the prisoner who came back with Padrek. What’s his name?”

“Does it matter?” muttered Kseniya, darkly. “They’ll probably scare him half to death. Almost better to use Catrina, and Elena, if they were here. They’d have the information out of him in an houri.”

After the near-constant tension, the short shifts and shorter sleep, Kseniya’s terrible pun was the final straw.

When Vanner came running to see why his Cave was filled with howling screams of laughter, the look of concern on his face just doubled them over and laugh even harder.

Vanner wisely left the Cave in seek of a drink before he resumed his disturbed nap. He was due on shift in less than two hours.

*

“No!”

“Doctor, it is absolutely vital that we interrogate the prisoner, the sooner the better.”

“Absolutely not!”

Grez had called Arensky, who had seemed reluctant, somehow, so she went to talk to Nielson. He’d heard her out before calling Arensky up to his office to discuss the matter of the prisoner.

So far the interview was not progressing well.

“He cannot be awakened; it is simply not possible! And he certainly could not be asked questions!”

“What are you not telling me, Doctor?” pursued Nielson. “I have a prisoner I need to interrogate; that’s all I really care about. I just want to know if you can wake him up. I‘ll deal with the rest.”

“Possibly,” admitted Arensky. “It is not that easy, however.”

“Explain, Doctor.”

Arensky sighed and settled into a nearby chair. “Simply put, there are complications. He hasn’t recovered from the anaesthetic yet.”

“I thought you said he’d be awake a few hours after it cleared his system.”

“Yes, I did, but you must realize, while anaesthesiology may be an exact science, I am only an amateur at it. I can guess dosages, and expected reactions, but?” He shrugged. “The texts, the training I can get, they deal with the most common drugs: ether, propofol, nitrous oxide, even morphine. Yet I deal with, ah, more exotic chemicals.”

“Yes, your experiments, we’re well aware of your research and the benefits we’ve all reaped from it.”

Since his arrival in the Valley, Dr. Arensky had continued his practice of microbiology, utilizing various local flora and fauna, even turning over rocks and scraping lichen. His most notable success was came in isolating a potent antibacterial agent, occurring naturally in the Keldara, and replicated it in his lab.

Initial commercial interests from the big drug companies had been enthusiastic, to say the least. It appeared the next successor to penicillin, which Arensky had named Martinadox after his daughter, could have an even bigger financial impact on the Valley than Mountain Tiger Beer.

When Arensky needed research subjects, the non-Keldara residents had been more than willing to participate. Fortunately, none had experienced anything but the mildest side effects. And none had caught so much as a sniffle since being treated.

“Yes, well, I used one of my own blends for his anaesthetic.”

“Why? Didn’t we have anything else available?”

“No, we keep a stock of both ether and propofol. I simply prefer my own compounds, as I have more experience and familiarity with them. Does Kurosawa buy off the shelf? Or mix his own? Does Lasko purchase his rounds in Alerrso? Or are they custom made?”

“Okay, I understand. What’s the problem, then? If you’re so much more familiar with it, why hasn’t he awakened? Did you get the dose wrong?”

“Colonel!” Arensky’s face colored. “I assure you, I calculated the correct dosage! I have tested his blood, and his system is clear of the drug! He should be awake!”

“Then why isn’t he?”

Arensky hesitated.

“I would rather tell you and the Kildar at the same time,” he stalled.

“Mike has flown to Tbilisi to retrieve Miss Rakovich and some luggage. He’s driving back with her; I expect him in two hours, perhaps less.” He looked sharply at Arensky. “When he returns, I would like to tell him that we’ve been able to interrogate the best prisoner we’ve managed to capture or, failing that, tell him why not. So, please, explain to me.”

“Ah, Colonel, he seems to have had an, er, unexpected reaction.”

“Tell me something I don’t know; I had guessed this much. What kind of reaction, and what are you doing to correct it?”

“It’s an allergic reaction of some kind, I’m fairly sure. It appears to have raised his temperature considerably, for several hours, but we have managed to reduce the fever using medicinal and physical means.”

“Clarify.”

“That is to say, we gave him aspirin and put him in an ice bath.”

“See? I understood that. So the drug you gave him caused a fever. Fine, why didn’t you just say so?”

“It was a very high fever.”

“How high is very high, Doctor?”

“As near as we can tell, it peaked at 110 for fifty-seven minutes.”

“You got it down though, right?”

“Oh, yes, Colonel, we did, after some time. The brain is very difficult to treat directly, of course, since you cannot simply hold the head in the cold water.”

Arensky essayed a weak smile at his joke, but getting no reaction, continued. “Eventually, yes, his temperature fell to 102 and stabilized.”

“That still sounds fairly significant; when my children were young my wife would keep them home from school if they ran a temperature so high. Okay, though, so you got his temperature down some. What happens at that higher temperature?”

“At that temperature, many of the chemicals which allow the brain to function, proteins and lipids, especially, begin to break down into simpler components.”

“Will they re-form when the fever broke? Or do you have to replace them, an IV or something?”

“Ah, neither. Once broken down in situ, as it were, they are rather toxic.”

“Toxic.”

“Highly, at least to neurons.”

“What you’re saying, then, is our prisoner is brain-dead.” Nielson managed to say this absolutely calmly.

“Essentially, yes, Colonel.”

“Cooked brain. Fried forelobe? Good eats for your local undead?”

“I – I am not sure exactly what you mean, but, yes, I think so.”

“Thank you, Doctor. Please, don’t let me keep you from your patient.”

Coming around his desk, Nielson led Arensky to the door.

“Keep me posted if there is any change.”

“Of course, of course!” agreed Arensky, opening the door, relieved at the mild reaction. “I will let you know instantly!”

“Good, good,” soothed Nielson. “Good day.”

As soon as the door closed, Nielson let out a heartfelt, “Goddammit!”

Murphy chuckled and went looking for more mischief.

*

Mike was heading back from the Tbilisi airport with Stasia and Kat. An older Keldara, Mike thought his name was Vasily, had arrived driving one of the farm Expeditions, but instead of accepting the ride Mike had piled it high with the various boxes, bags, packages, and luggage the girls had accumulated on their trip. They’d even broken out tie-down straps and covered the roof.

Stasia had been on a mission, armed with the most powerful credit cards known to man: single-handedly kick-start the American economy. At first glance, it seemed that she made a good beginning.

And Katrina was learning from her.

Sigh.

Resolved to put his dark thoughts from the plane aside and simply enjoy the drive in the Mercedes, he gathered the women and left for the Valley, Vasily left quickly behind.

He’d just found the satellite radio station he’d stumbled upon in the States when the sat phone rang.

Shit.

“Jenkins.”

“How far away are you?”

“About an hour, Dave. Why?”

“We have new problems.”

Mike sighed.

“What now?”

“You remember Kassab? The raghead Pavel’s team captured in Groznyy?”

“Yeah. What about him?”

“Well, we’re going to have to find a new source of information.”

“He won’t talk? Let me have a little time with him…”

“No, it’s not that he won’t talk.” Then Neilson reconsidered. “Well, maybe it is.”

“Leave him to me. A sledgehammer to the knee has a way of persuading a man that Lilia and Olga just can’t match.”

“It’s not a problem with their technique, Mike. Maybe I should have said that he can’t talk.”

“He ought to be recovered by now,” Mike mused aloud.

“Ought to be, yes. But it seems he had an allergic reaction to one of Arensky’s cocktails.”

“Allergic? What, hives?”

“No-o-o-o, more like a fever that cooked his cranium.”

There was silence for a moment as Mike digested this.

“That’s a thing?”

“According to the good doctor, yes.”

Moving quickly to the crux of the problem, Mike asked, “So what’s the issue? It would have been nice to get him to confirm the destination of the final weapon, but at this point, I think I want to let Chechnik deal with it.”

“That’s not exactly the problem we needed him to solve.”

“Stop dodging the issue, Dave. What’s going on?”

“Schwenke.”

“Yeah, he’s headed there.”

“No, he’s not. Maybe. Probably. We don’t know where he is. Which is to say, we have no fucking clue.”

“What do you mean, ‘no he’s not’? We have confirmation he was leading the force dispatched to take out the Valley!”

“It’s too involved to go into on the phone, but Grez believes the force he’s supposedly leading is acting way too dumb to be actively led by him. I agree with her.”

“Maybe he suffered an accident of some kind? And his deputy is doing the best he can?” Mike asked hopefully.

“Possible, but unlikely. I’ll let Grez explain her thinking when you arrive.”

Mike had already changed gears. “Doesn’t matter. Okay, assume that he isn’t with them. Fuck!”

There was silence on the line as he thought furiously.

“Right. First, everything else in the Cave stops as of now. First and only priority is figuring out where Schwenke went. Other assets can track the idiots and report any changes. We have time?”

“Some. They took the route from hell.”

“Second, get on the line with Pierson and Chechnik. We’ve got to have more eyes on this problem. I know we’re not getting every piece of data from the entire region; we haven’t needed it. Now we do. Get them searching across all of Chechnya, Dagestan, Ossetia, Azerbaijan, Kalmykia. I want every district, republic, and country from Georgia north to Moscow. We ought to see if the Sheik has any sources in Kazakhstan we can utilize.”

“Otryad’s not available right now, remember? Dubai?”

“Dammit! I keep forgetting about his little ‘project’! Still, worth a call. Someone‘s got to be minding the store while he‘s away.”

“I’ll try.”

“Finally, find J and Cottontail. I want to pick their brains, see if we can sit down and make a reasonable guess where Schwenke is going, if not to the Valley.”

“Right. Cave, OSOL, Chechnik, Sheik, J. Anything else?”

“No. We’ll be back sooner.” Without another word, Mike disconnected the phone. “Ladies? You might want to hang on.”

He mashed his foot on the accelerator. The 6.2-liter V-8 responded, going from a throaty growl to a full-fledged roar. The Merc, already fairly flying along the narrow, twisting, tree-overhung road, leapt forward.

Stasia’s scream of ecstasy as they tore through the first hairpin curve could barely be heard.

Mike cranked the stereo.

“Shake Your Foundation” roared through the system. Katrina, in the back seat with Stasia, finally understood what was so exciting about the music, but the adrenaline that flooded her system prevented any reaction like Stasia had to the heavy bass.

She was certainly enjoying the vibrations.

Again.

And again.

And again.

It seemed certain that, once they arrived home, someone would have detail the leather seats very carefully. After they peeled Stasia out of them and carried her to her room.

The smile on her face, belying the seriousness of the situation, looked to be a permanent feature.

*

Bursuk Gereshk didn’t have the luxuries the Ibrahim had afforded himself. He lacked the official-looking vehicles, faked papers, uniforms. It wasn’t going to stop him.

A lorry, driving along the A154, had been forced to stop. The driver and his assistant were killed, their bodies quickly hidden off the road, and the bomb loaded far forward, against the wall of the cab.

Of Gereshk’s twelve men, ten were able to fit in the other half of the truck bed, edging as far as possible from the weapon. The other two, men Gereshk trusted to relieve him as drivers, were with him in the cab. The cargo? The crates of turnips were piled high against one door of the bed, to provide concealment if they were stopped. It also made a good windbreak for his men.

Not that he cared for anything but his mission.

Gereshk knew why he had been chosen for this task. He had spent nearly two years as a student of the Russians at their Moscow Military School before his expulsion. The godless Russians demanded he disavow the faith of his ancestors, but even as a sallow youth his faith had been strong. He refused..

He had carried a battered half of a Qur’an, an heirloom handed down from his grandfather the Imam, through all his schooling. He had kept it concealed successfully all those years, until his fourth term at the MMS. There a classmate, a lying pig of an infidel named Erkin, had found the tattered book among Gereshk’s belongings.

He’d begged and pleaded with Erkin, swore he only carried it to keep the memory of his grandfather, swore he was a good soulless minion of the Soviet state. Erkin had finally relented. He said he understood and returned the precious object. Gereshk, relieved, took the book with him to that afternoon’s physical combat training.

Erkin, of course, had lied.

Upon returning he found guards on either side of his door and the commandant of the school at his desk.

The interview, or interrogation if he was being truthful, had been brutal and short. At the end, he was dismissed from the school, disgraced, reduced in ranks and sent to Anadyr, a small town in Russia’s Far East, to serve the remainder of his term of service. He had vowed revenge on Erkin.

Now he would get his chance. His time in Moscow, coupled with his desire to see his old nemesis humiliated or even dead, made him the logical choice to lead the mission. He knew Moscow better than any other two men serving the Emir, and Ibrahim’s sources had discovered that Erkin, now a colonel in the Russian Federal Security Service, was not only stationed in Moscow but was also the man primarily responsible for suppression of internal security threats.

Even if the bomb failed to kill him, he would be exposed as a massive failure at his post. He would be blamed and feel the shame and loss of honor that Gereshk had, so many years ago.

If he survived.

The nondescript lorry made its lumbering way north, along the M6. Nobody noted its steady progress at a little over fifty kilometers per hour, slow for the surrounding traffic but not suspiciously so. It was simply another old, tired truck. Others of its ilk had formed a semi-convoy behind. Another time this might have worried him.

But here?

Now?

It simply provided more cover.

Another twelve hours and they would intersect the M4, which would finish carrying their deadly cargo to Moscow. Then it would be time to wait for word to execute their mission.

And if no word came? Gereshk would execute it himself and become a martyr of Allah. He’d curse Erkin to the Hell that surely awaited the infidel even as he pressed the detonator.

CHAPTER 42

The Valley

April 13

Twenty-three kilometers of frozen hell in four hours.

And that was with Allah smiling on them.

Tahan stood in the afternoon sunshine, just below the crest of the final ridge, peering through a powerful pair of binoculars. He could just make out the domed roof of the thrice-dammed leader of the infidel Keldara’s caravanserai, the very heart of the beast. It outraged him that such a building, so obviously Islamic, should be defiled by heathen such as these. The weapon would provide a cleansing fire.

None of the vehicles had broken down although the arduous crossing had taken a toll on the men. Many were suffering from frostbite, the cold and snow having penetrated their scanty gloves and boots. Eight had perished along the journey, victims of hidden crevasses which swallowed them as if they had never been. Thirteen more suffered lesser injuries. There were sprains and a few broken bones, but they could still function and fight.

Now all which separated them from their goal was a lone river valley, stretching southwest about fourteen kilometers. There was little cover, true. It seemed to be intended for farmland, though there was scant evidence of any planting yet, though at least there didn’t seem to be any snow. Tahan was unconcerned.

Not a single farmer was in view, which a more experienced commander might have found suspicious. To Tahan’s eyes it was simply more proof of Allah’s favor. Perhaps he and his men would survive the mission. Allah be praised, he would joyfully martyr himself for the faith, but if it was Allah’s will that they didn’t have to?

He would have been more than human to not wish so.

Tahan reached into his shirt and retrieved Ibrahim’s instructions. It comforted him to see the handwriting of Allah’s most faithful servant, though he had long since memorized the simple words:

“Proceed down the river valley. Close to within at least three kilometers of the caravanserai, nearer if possible.”

Three kilometers was the key. With the relatively small size of the weapon, Ibrahim had explained, the explosion had to occur within that distance from the center of the valley to ensure the entire population was within the area of total destruction. Closer, of course, was preferable, but not necessary.

Inshallah.

“When progress is no longer practical, disable the ZIL-E by any means available.” The list was quite extensive and included soil in the carburetor, grenades under the transmission, and even such simple tricks as removing spark plugs. “Finally, activate the weapon.”

This was achieved with a cell phone Ibrahim had provided, with a single preset number. Once dialed, the number would ring three times then Tahan would need to enter an eight-digit code.

Afterwards?

The instructions said the timer would be twenty minutes, but didn’t order a last-stand defense of the ZIL-E. Tahan intended to spend those minutes fleeing the area he imagined would be the fingerprint of Allah, wiping all trace of the heathens and their works from the Earth. Working vehicles would help, but he thought even on foot he and his men would have enough time to get clear of the area.

He scanned the valley once more. Still nobody in sight. The sun was bright in the sky, a shining beacon above the far end of the valley. That would make his travel easier. No need to go slowly if they could see the potential obstacles.

He made his decision. They were unobserved, undetected. Allah’s blessing, like the sun, was shining gloriously down on them.

“Forward for glory! Forward for the Emir! Forward for Allah!”

His men echoed his cry and began to move.

*

“Movement.”

They weren’t unobserved. Captain Guerrin, dug into a well-prepared bunker three kilometers to the south, watched the toy-like vehicles begin their descent down the slope.

“Looks like they finally decided to join the party,” he commented to nobody in particular. The Rangers had pulled back their long-ranging patrols, concentrating their forces and hopefully lulling the invaders into a false sense of security. A furious argument between Mike, Nielson, and Guerrin had changed the battle plans considerably.

“You’re an idiot!” insisted JP. “You can’t let them get anywhere near this Valley!”

“There’s some information, unconfirmed, which is making us change our thinking,” said Nielson placatingly.

“Lilia and Olga couldn’t get anything out of Qays?” interrupted Mike, who had arrived only moments before.

“Not a thing. He was willing enough, but to the best of his knowledge, Schwenke, Ibrahim, was leading this force.”

Nielson shrugged. “I really don’t think he held anything back.”

“No,” agreed Mike. “He wouldn’t’ve. He’s too scared. Besides, I think the chance to be on the winning side for once may have persuaded him.”

“What information?” demanded JP, impatiently. “Dammit, I have to be in the loop on shit like this!”

“Captain.” Nielson’s voice was like ice. “I am getting to that.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“The reason you haven’t been informed yet, Captain,” Nielson continued, “Is because we have not been able to confirm the data. Since this data could affect your operational deployment in a potentially negative manner, I decided to withhold it pending further developments.”

The military bureaucratese washed over JP like a tide. Mike made a face. Abuse of the language to that degree deserved creative, no, make that Creata-ive,  punishment.

“Yes, sir.”

He felt his back stiffen involuntarily. With all their usual informality, JP sometimes forgot that these Mountain Tigers were, at their core, true professionals.

“At ease, JP,” said Mike after a moment. “What Dave means is, he’d rather take the chance of you being over prepared than under prepared.”

JP’s confusion must have registered on his face.

“Okay, short version. We don’t think that this force -” Mike gestured to the hostile icon, blinking balefully on the large video screen. “ -is commanded by the person we believed. We think the replacement is a much less experienced operator and will therefore make mistakes.”

“’The world‘s best swordsman doesn‘t fear the second best; he fears the worst swordsman, because he can’t predict what the idiot will do,’” intoned Nielson. He’d read it somewhere. He couldn’t remember where, but it fit perfectly.

“Dave, this is my decision. If it’s not Schwenke, then he’s less dangerous to us, period full stop end of debate. Yes, he might get lucky and get away with doing something stupid once. I think, though,  whoever he is he’s been left with a list of instructions and is following them to the letter. That gives us the advantage.”

“He won’t be able to react to changing conditions, while we can,” said JP.

“Exactly!” exclaimed Mike.

“Instead of hammering him farther out, I want to suck him in. If they scatter, here or here,” pointing to the small valleys just north of theirs, “We’ll never catch them all. Remember, these are small nukes. It could be in any of the vehicles they have.”

“I’d put money on the ZIL-E,” suggested Nielson. “It’s the most capable, most heavily-armored, most-survivable vehicle.”

“Probably,” agreed Mike. “But it’s not a gimme. And if they’ve come this far, well, I don’t intend for a single one to slip away.”

“Why not attack them before they reach this ridge?” asked JP. “We can trap them between the ridges, hammer them flat, without ever letting them come closer than ten miles.”

“Range,” said Nielson.

“Right. For this battle, we need the mortars to cover you. If the Tigers were back, or if the Rams were a little further along in their training, we’d have the manpower to completely overwhelm them. As it stands we have to count solely on your company. Like I said, I don’t want one to escape.”

Mike’s grin was purely feral.

“Is there any chance that your Tigers will arrive before the Chechens?”

“No,” said Nielson at Mike’s look. “Four more hours, minimum, maybe as many as six. The Chechens will be peeking into our back yard in less than two.”

JP looked at the map. “So, we need the mortars to be in range, but still far enough away so that the nuke won’t cook us.”

“Cook the Valley, yes. I’m afraid you’re going to be a little bit closer…”

In the end, JP had agreed to the new plan. The wargames had provided them with a series of established positions, easily filled by his company.

The mortars had been moved forward as well, with some assistance. Jessia and Andrew were hurriedly calculating drop points for the new locations, a task that would normally involve test rounds. With the Chechens about to appear they couldn’t take the chance, so the first shots dropped by the mortars wouldn’t necessarily have the precision they normally would.

Jessia did promise not to drop any rounds on the bunkers.

*

“Multiple sources. Tracking on sensors 211-alpha, 256-delta, 194-echo. Pretty much the whole hillside has a signal of some strength,” Sergeant Theo Snow, Guerrin’s S-2, reported, reading from his laptop. It was tied into the sensor net Vanner had laid down. The feeds varied from fuzzy to crystalline, depending on the age of the sensor and which generation it was.

“I can see that,” snapped JP, still peering through the binoculars. “Can you give me something useful from all that?”

“One moment, sir. I’ll see if I can filter it out a bit.”

The clacking of keys came from Snow’s corner of the bunker.

“I can track them individually on foot and also the vehicles.”

“Think you can pull course and speed?”

“Easily, sir.” More clacking. “Downloading to your BFT. Continuous updates.”

He didn’t mention that the apps were already uploaded to the BFT and just needed activation. Nice touch on the codework. Snow admired good hacking, no matter the source, and intended to ‘borrow’ as much code as he could before they left. On second thought, any man who could whistle up a company of Rangers probably wouldn’t think twice about squashing anyone who played fast and loose with his computers. Right. Get permission.

Sure enough, the small plasma screen suddenly displayed dozens, no, hundreds of blood-red tracks, indicating hostiles or at least unidentified intruders. By tapping on any icon, Guerrin could ‘zoom in’ on it, bring up a projection of a probable course, see where it had been, and more.       

“Good job, Snow. Now, if we could predict their exact track down the Valley, we’d be in the clover.”

“I think I can do something for you.”

Clack. Clack. He accessed another app. “Done, sir. You should have an icon on your tablet now, a little running figure?”

Guerrin examined the screen. “Got it.”

“Tap that once, then tap any hostile icon. Based on known direction, speed, and terrain, the system will compute the most likely path. It allows for obstacles as well. Sir? Those coders? Any chance of getting one or two for our own?”

“Not unless you’re willing to marry her,“ Guerrin chuckled. He tried it. A dark red line extended from the current location, down the slope and into the valley. “And the pink cone is…?”

“A probability zone, sir.”

“And that means what, Sergeant?” His BFT wasn’t as capable, or large, as Snow’s laptop.

“Since humans are, individually, highly unpredictable, the program quickly reaches the limits of accuracy. Once that point is reached, probability takes over and the possible track becomes wider and wider. Hence a cone, instead of a discrete line.”

“It narrows again, further down the slope.”

“Which track, sir?”

“Echo three.”

“Let me look. Okay, I think I can explain. See this feature?” Snow pointed to his screen, which was necessarily larger and gave better resolution.

“Yes.”

“It’s a small stream. It’s narrow, but deep. The system knows there are only a few good fording points, so it tends to track towards those points.”

“What if this guy doesn’t find the ford?”

A shrug. “Then he gets wet, sir. The problem is, we’re up against the limits of probability. Computers are logical, they have to be; humans, inherently, aren’t.”

“Let’s turn that function off, then.”

“Just tap the hostile icon again. It will revert.”

Tap.

“That’s better. Just knowing where these pricks are is a huge advantage.”

“True, sir.”

“Guerrin to platoon leaders.” The frequency-hopping radio automatically shifted to the appropriate channel. “We have confirmation on enemy forces. Hold fire until range falls below two hundred meters. I‘ve been told a death‘s-head emblem will appear above each target on your BFTs at that point. Someone‘s got a sense of humor.”

“First, confirm.”

“Second, roger.”

“Third, understood.”

“Guerrin to mortars.”

“Mortars, Mahona here.” Jessia’s rich contralto filled the radio, a pleasant change from the usually gruff voices of his Rangers.

“Are you receiving the same feed we are?”

“Position of tangoes? Yes.”

“Are they in range yet?”

“Forward elements are within optimal range. Rear elements are a little more problematic; I would prefer to hold fire until they are all over the crest and at least halfway down the slope.”

Guerrin looked at the screen, considering. That would bring the closest Chechens to about three hundred meters if they kept the same speed and spacing. “Acknowledged. Just make sure you tell us when you’re going to open up on ‘em!”

He could hear her answering grin. “No worries, Captain. We’ll call you first. Estimate five minutes, mark.”

“Roger, out.”

More waiting. At least the end, or the beginning, was in sight. Felt more like a video game, though.

*

Mike was tired of waiting, too.

Not that he couldn’t live without combat ops. Hell, he’d retired, once upon a time!

This was different.

Not only had he, albeit indirectly, brought this potential disaster down on the Keldara; not only had he given the final approval to the plan that sent virtually the entire fighting population of the Valley hundreds of kilometers north; not only was he relying on ‘borrowed’ troops; but now this?

“If you go forward, I go too.”

“Listen to me, you stubborn bitch! Your place is here, in the caravanserai or with your Family, not on the front line!”

“I am the Kildaran!”

“Not yet, you’re not.”

“We are betrothed! By the customs of the Keldara, with the handfasting ceremony complete, you have accepted me as your bride. Since you are the Kildar, your betrothed, your bride, is the Kildaran. Therefore, I am the Kildaran and my place is by your side as your lead our people into battle!”

Seeing a loophole, he leapt.

“Ah-ha! I am not leading our people, am I? This battle is being fought by a company of Rangers, right? As such, I am simply going forward to ensure that the interests of the Keldara are adequately protected, and maybe lend a little expertise.”

“Then why are you in your battle armor? And why do you carry Culcanar?” She pointed to the massive, ancient battle-axe that was slung across his back.

Shit.

He knew he should have waited to pick it up.

Thinking fast, he answered, “Father Kulcyanov is allowing me to wield it as a symbol of the position of Kildar.”

“And does Father Kulcyanov know this?”

He ignored her jibe.

“The point, Katrina, is I have a place in this battle, if only as an observer. You don’t. End of story.”

“It has been foreseen,” croaked a voice.

Both Mike and Kat whirled around. They were shocked to see Mother Lenka standing in the doorway to the conference room; she rarely came up to the caravanserai and never ventured into the side devoted to the militia.

Kat recovered first.

“What has been foreseen, Mother Lenka?”

Her thin, old voice cut through them both. “You will accompany him, constantly, through all of his days in the Valley.”

Smugly, Kat turned back to Mike.

“You see? I must come with you.”

“Mother Lenka,” began Mike, desperately.

“There can be no argument, Kildar. The Goddess has granted me a vision. Katrina is not to be separated from you, from the day you return to the Valley to the day you leave. Her destiny is intertwined with yours, as surely as the grapevines are tangled in the vineyard.”

She coughed. Katrina moved to support her, but she waved her off. “I must finish this, child. You will save him and hold him forever even though you may lose him.”

“I don’t understand, Mother Lenka,” said Kat, plaintively.

“You shall. In time.”

Without another word, the old, old woman turned and walked away from the couple. With a start, Mike realized just how old she truly was, and what a heavy burden she carried.

“So,” Kat said, smiling smugly.

“So what? You think I’m going to listen to that crazy old bat?”

Katrina’s eyes flashed fire. “Michael! You do NOT speak of the High Priestess as an old bat!!”

Mike knew when to retreat.

“Kidding, I’m kidding!”

“Then let’s go!” She was already turned and moving before he spoke again.

“Whoa! Not so fast. Battle rattle and armed, got it? Short and long arms.”

“Yes, Michael. Five minutes!” Like a flash she was off.

“No grenades!” he called after her. He’d seen her shoot; he was fine her gun. Guns, probably. Definitely. Throwing a grenade?

Vanner poked his head in the doorway a moment later. “Problems, Kildar?”

“Oh. My. God. You have no idea.”

“You think? Who did you stick riding herd on the Mice?”

Mike considered then shook his head. “Close. Mine’s a redhead.”

“Four Mice to one redhead. Hmm. Call it even?”

“We’ll see as the day goes on. I’ve got a feeling about this…”

“I get them all the time. Seeing eyes in the floors and walls. Then I find out we’re missing four hundred meters of fiber optic cable, and I really begin to worry.”

“Yours don’t play with grenades. And guns. And insist on being your shield maiden, do they?”

“Well, no, but…”

“I think I win this round. Now, let’s get to work.”

*

Tahan motioned the ZIL-E forward, over the ridge. It was the last vehicle and the most critical. He had chosen to deploy all his men forward to ensure its survival. His wave of fighters would roll across the fertile valley like a tide, scouring it of anything living, before allowing the cleansing fire of Allah to rain down upon it.

“Forward for glory! Forward for the Emir! Forward for Allah!” Tahan’s shout echoed from the lips of his mujahideen, breaking into a run down the remainder of the slope.

The massive, six-wheeled transport rumbled along, diesel engines pounding powerfully. The driver, a teenager named Qutaybah, had wrestled the machine through the mountain passes with surprising skill, given he had never controlled anything more powerful than a moped before.

He seemed to have a knack for maneuvering through the treacherous snow and ice. As his reward Tahan had permitted him the honor of driving on this final leg.

He would have been better served finding a less tired driver.

The boulder on the slope ahead was partially concealed by a cluster of small birch saplings, just beginning to leaf. Qutaybah, seeing only the slender saplings, plowed straight into them.

The ZIL-E had a ground clearance of 0.85 meters. The boulder, when Guerrin measured it later, protruded 1.23 meters above the ground and extended who knew how far below.

In the Cave, and relayed to the Rangers, the data feed from the sensors showed the seven-thousand-kilogram vehicle was traveling at twenty-four KPH when it impacted, creating nearly five hundred thousand Newtons of force. Enough, in other words, to gouge a thirty centimeter rip through the tough steel of the old beast, all the way back to and through the second axle, and tossing it into the air like a dog with a sock.

Simple Newtonian physics came into play.

Transfer of inertia.

An object at rest tends to stay at rest until acted on by an outside force.

F=MA.

All that energy had to go somewhere.

Qutaybah never stood a chance. While the body of the ZIL-E had survived years in virtual exile, the framework holding the driver’s chair wasn’t nearly as sturdy. With a wrench, lost under the deafening screech of rending metal, it tore free from its braces and slammed forward into the layered glass-and-plastic windscreen.

Ribs, hips, spine, and skull all shattered, the soft organs they protected turned into paste virtually instantaneously, and the interior of the cab was spattered in Qutaybah Red.

The scream of tortured metal halted the running mujahideen in their tracks. Turning almost as a man they faced a horrific scene. Their weapon of holy vengeance was, was it destroyed? Surely Allah wouldn’t permit it to happen!

None of them had ever heard of Murphy.

*

The order to open fire hung on Guerrin’s lips as he watched the disaster unfold. The swarms of men charging down the Valley had suddenly frozen in place, statue-like. Easy pickings for his Rangers. As he watched, the other trucks, noting the lack of movement, slowed to a stop as well.

Even better.

Despite the fact that men were climbing out of the trucks, it was still going to be oh so easy to pick them off. The range was little more than four hundred meters now.

A few muj started toward the crashed ZIL-E.

Then he had a nasty idea.

“Mortars!”

“Go.”

“I need you to retask! I need you to lay Willie Pete all around the ZIL-E to keep those men away from the payload!” Willie Pete, White Phosphorous, was generally used to produce smoke prior to a ground assault. It burned fiercely on virtually any surface but was notably frightening when applied to bare flesh.

Water wouldn’t extinguish the flame; it would, in fact, intensify it. And best yet, the smoke it produced was toxic after only a brief exposure. In short it was the gift that kept on giving.

“Willie Pete?” answered Sivula. Guerrin could hear Jessia in the background, shouting in Georgian, presumably changing the loads.

“Yes. We need to keep those bastards away from the ZIL-E without destroying it. The way they‘re acting, it‘s got to be carrying the nuke.”

“Sir, yes sir!”

“Ready to fire,” announced Jessia.

“Fire at will, and keep ‘em coming.”

“Shot over.” The Forward Observer, Adelaida Shaynav, radioed back, even as Guerrin passed the word to his platoons. His BFT flashed the warning, simultaneously broadcast from the Cave.

Seconds later, he heard, “Command, splash over.”

“Splash, out.”

The report was repeated down the line again.

There was a whistling, and an explosion a hundred fifty meters upslope. Clouds of white smoke rose in the wind.

The FO was already calling back.

“Drop one fifty.”

Another whistle. This round was downslope by seventy meters and east by fifty. A crosswind may have caught it.

“Up fifty, west fifty.”

A third whistle. This round exploded ten meters away from the side of the wrecked truck.

“Fire for effect, repeat, fire for effect. Over.”

“Fire for effect, out.”

Now, the whistling was nearly continuous. A round would soar overhead, impact and explode, spraying its toxic contents for meters around the truck. Then, within three or four seconds, another round would do the same. Again. And again.

The first muj burned without ever knowing what was happening. His screams could be heard as he dropped to the ground, clothes and flesh smouldering and belching smoke. More and more were caught by the WP.

Only a few thought to roll, hoping to extinguish the flames.

None thought to run uphill, out of the box of death and away from the incoming fire. Some ran downhill, undoubtedly gravity-assisted, but it was the fastest way out of the deadly cloud.

“Bravo Company, fire at will!”

The massed fire of the company seemed, at first, to go unnoticed considering the unceasing barrage. Tahan was driving his men toward the ZIL-E; all he could think of was retrieving the weapon. But when the muj next to him suddenly dropped, clutching his leg, he became aware of the rifle fire.

Realizing that approaching the ZIL meant almost certain death, and faced with a threat from his rear, Tahan reacted shockingly well. Somewhere inside he found a core of strength, telling him not to panic, to follow his orders. Fight as your enemy fights and let him with the greater faith prevail. The voice sounded like Ibrahim’s.

“Form a perimeter! Return fire! The infidels are attempting to thwart the will of Allah!” He pointed in the direction of the greatest fire, unheeding of the danger. He knew the infidels shot the leaders first, but for those moments he knew no fear, only courage and determination.

He prayed it would last long enough.

The invocation of Allah’s name was enough seize their attention. Raggedly at first, then with greater and greater assurance, the would-be army of the Emirate opened up with their weapons.

Most carried some version of the venerable AK-47, the weapon of choice for most insurgent groups. Dependable, simple, rugged, it was the Model-T of automatic rifles.

A few carried the more accurate AK-74, despite it throwing a smaller round downrange. It didn’t matter as they almost universally used the ‘pray and spray’ method favored by Islamic extremists the world over. Ibrahim’s hard-fought training vanished in an instant.

Seeing his men firing blindly, Tahan gave his second, fairly brilliant, command.

“Forward! Find the infidels and slay them as they hide!”

With a howl, his men resumed their charge down the valley.

It took a few moments for the Rangers to adjust their fire to the new threat, moments that some didn’t have.

“Command, Alpha Two! They’re headed right at us!” Guerrin was surprised by the voice on the comm. Why was Portena reporting in for First Platoon? Something must have happened to the chain of command. Did the LT buy it already?

“Alpha Two, hold tight. We’ll get you some support.”

Switching channels: “Alpha Actual, command, report.”

Silence.

“Alpha Actual, report.”

More silence.

Snow reported, “System’s reporting that his pad is still active, sir. He should be receiving us. Either he‘s bought it or he‘s too busy to answer. His comms ought to be -”

“Well, we can’t take too much time now for that.”

Hop channels again.

“Mortars, adjust mission to close support. Fragmentation rounds!”

Hop.

“All squads, duck and cover! Frags incoming! Danger close!”

“Adjusting fire.”

They’d anticipated this potential problem in their planning. ‘Human wave’ attacks were a staple in the region; Iraq and Iran had practically perfected them as an art form during their eight-year war, and many of the current Islamic leadership had cut their teeth during that conflict. Using the known positions of the bunkers, they had created coordinates and codes for each one.

            “First grouping ten rounds frag, set for infantry, open, India X-Ray Two Four.”

“Roger, India X-Ray Two Four. Shot Over.”

“Alpha Two, Command. Shot out.”

The whistling sound was followed by a different, sharper crump! as the anti-personnel round detonated. Essentially an oversized fragmentation grenade, the shrapnel would shred anyone within its range. The Keldara used 120mm mortars, some of the largest available. The results were… impressive.

The hard-charging Chechens, however, had already largely passed through the pre-selected target. Only the trailing two were hit by the fragments, one dropping dead, a chunk of metal lodged in his skull, the other peppered with jagged metal shards, though not killed. He fell to the ground, clutching at now non-existent kidneys, AK forgotten.

The other Chechens were out of the blast radius and never even noticed their comrades’ fall. Firing wildly on full auto, the torrent of fire forced even the combat veteran Rangers to take cover behind their bunkers’ walls. Alpha One and Three, on either side, attempted to shift fire to support the besieged bunker, but they had their own portion of the raid to deal with.

*

Tomran was a seasoned fighter. He’d fought continuously against the Russians since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He’d seen dozens, hundreds, of his comrades killed over the years. Yet he’d passed through the battles with hardly a scratch.

“I am invincible!“ he would claim to the new recruits. They viewed him alternately as one touched by Allah and a blow hard. Under Ibrahim’s watchful eye, though, he was most humble and quiet.

Not to say the years of almost-unending combat hadn’t taken its toll. Battling the forces of the Lesser Satan might be his passion, his calling, but it didn’t pay well. He was reminded of this frequently by his various wives, Malak, Adara, Hana’, and Dahab.

“Tomran, the butcher needs to be paid.”

“Tomran, you are never home.”

“Tomran, the children need you.”

Tomran, Tomran, Tomran!

They didn’t understand he was fighting so his children could live in a Paradise on Earth. Neither did his on-and-off employer, a godless Russian merchant named Edouard.

He promised he would return home after fighting for the Emir. He swore upon his honor, win or lose, he would return after the Emir had finished with him.

So he volunteered for mission after mission, extending his stay. He’d even volunteered for this insanity. Though now, with mortar shells falling and rounds whistling past him, he wasn’t quite as enthusiastic. One had to live to spend one’s pay, after all.

*

Specialist Jason Terry had survived two tours in the Sandbox. He was the epitome of ‘cool under fire’, never seeming to be aware of the fury of battle swirling around him. He simply pounded round after round downrange.

This was supposed to be an easy duty, this trip to Georgia.

Crack.

Women and beer.

Crack.

Maybe some patrolling.

Crack.

They were backups, for Chrissake!

Crack.

They weren’t supposed to be on the front!

Crack.

Well, only one thing for it.

Crack. Crack.

Kill ‘em all.

Crack.

Let God sort ‘em out.

Crack.

*

“Command to Third Actual.”

“Go, Command.” Lieutenant Tom DuPont commanded Third Platoon, kept in reserve for reinforcements.

“I need two squads to support First Platoon’s line; Hughes might be out of it.”

“Roger, out.”

Damn.

Darren Hughes, First’s platoon leader, had been a friend for years. Switching to the platoon frequencies, DuPont called, “Diffenderfer!”

“Sir!”

Master Sergeant William Diffenderfer was DuPont’s Platoon Sergeant, responsible for the day-to-day organization and activities of the Platoon. Now a career NCO, he was in his early 40’s, a bit old for the typical Master Sergeant. He’d joined the Army out of high school, just in time to serve in the First Persian Gulf War, but had separated after serving his four-year hitch. After 9/11, though, he had reenlisted. His troops loved and feared him, as they should a good platoon sergeant, and rumor had it that a promotion to First Sergeant was in the pipeline. He’d become even more of a hardass in the last few months to impress the higher-ups.

“Take two squads and reinforce Alpha’s line.”

“Brooks! Sabasteanski!” The two Staff Sergeants looked up. “I’ve got a job for you.” The smile on his face would have scared lesser men shitless, but these were Army Rangers. They ate danger for breakfast.

That didn’t mean they didn’t want to puke when they got ‘volunteered’ for special duty in the middle of a firefight with artillery rounds raining down.

*

It was only moments before the two squads were emplaced and firing. Sergeant Brooks’ squad was a Heavy Weapons squad, hauling around two MG240s and one of the new, still-experimental M60Es. They took position on Alpha’s flank, enabling them to fire obliquely into the attackers. The furious rush began to slow.

*

When he heard the deeper tones of the machine guns, Tomran suddenly had second thoughts about the whole assault.

            Too late.

*

Crack.

“That’s a kill!”

Crack.

*

Irfan Jarrar was a driver. That is to say, he knew how to change gears without burning out the clutch and could usually be counted on to stay on the road. He had been tried on the Tatras, but the heavy, primitive trucks were too much for him to control consistently. He was moved to a PAZ which was substantially more advanced if heavier. For one thing it had seat belts, which the two dozen muj found of great comfort on the sometimes-treacherous drive. Two fuel tanks. Power steering. And heavy-duty power brakes. These were Soviet-era brakes, admittedly, with all the attendant woes, but still. Brakes!

These were used extensively through the mountains and abused more on the final slope into the valley. When he tried to apply them on the flat, shells exploding around him, rounds cratering the heavy windscreen, his foot went straight to the floor with no effect.

The PAZ rumbled along at a steady twenty KPH. He’d had sense enough to take his foot from the accelerator, but the momentum carried them forward. He was running out of room. Now, from the valley floor, he could see the low bunkers ahead.

Martyrdom looked like a positive career choice.

“Allahu Akbar!”

*

Second Platoon’s bunkers, arrayed to the west of First Platoon, were much lower to the ground. The eastern side, First’s side, was built atop a shallow layer of bedrock. Shattered though the rock was from the crushing weights of the glaciers which had scored the Valley, it was still virtually impervious to entrenching tools. Instead, First had been able to scrounge enough boulders to build fairly solid, if primitive-looking, structures.

On the western side, though, the subterranean rock was much, much deeper, covered by fertile soil. Second’s bunkers, therefore, were more traditionally built, which had made their Lieutenant, Charlie Igo, much, much happier. Five feet deep into the ground, eight feet wide and ten feet long, they had a roof of stout timbers, covered with soil, which was barely a foot higher than the surrounding ground.

This saved the men of third squad.

When the PAZ hit the front edge of the bunker, it hopped up onto the roof instead of impacting it directly. The tires exploded, the front axle shattered, the Rangers were showered with dirt, and the timbers were pushed back a full meter before it shuddered to a stop, engine still running.

Nobody spoke for a moment.

“Typical raghead driver,” finally muttered Private Scott Plummer after catching his breath and making sure he hadn‘t shit himself. The timbers groaned.

“What are you waiting for?” yelled Sergeant Pierce. “A fucking invitation?”

“Sarge, I don’t know if you noticed, but the door’s gone.”

It was true. The PAZ, weighing in at well over five thousand kilos, very effectively shifted the roof back, covering the hole they’d used as an entryway. Nobody was getting out that way. Nor could they take advantage of the gap the PAZ had opened at the front of the bunker. At 2.44 meters wide, only a hair over eight feet, the PAZ very effectively sealed the hole above them.

“Doesn’t look like we’re going anywhere.” PFC Will Chapman bitched.

“Bullshit! Chapman, get on the horn, let the Lieutenant know that we’re gonna be delayed. Plummer, you, Gordon, and Manchester break out the entrenching tools and make us a new exit. The rest of you, see if you can make firing holes under that dammed truck!”

Footfalls above.

“Fuck that, fire up into the truck! Now now now!”

*

The fog of war.

Clausewitz’s great aphorism for the uncertainty which accompanies even the most well-thought-out battle plan certainly applied.

Three tons of all-terrain bus and passengers should have, at all rights, smashed through the bunker of third squad, killing or injuring everyone inside and probably doing the same to all its passengers. If it was a Hollywood production, it would have immediately exploded into a massive fireball, incinerating anyone left alive. Probably a terrified-looking driver, plus an unlucky short-time soldier below, and the luckless fellow who’d just found out he was going to be a father.

Cliché.

This was reality. Big impact, lots of dust and noise as the inertia was absorbed by the softer soil. No explosion. No collapse. And, thanks to the lunatic driving of the now-late Jarrar which forced his riders to wear their seatbelts, no major injuries among the passengers.

Instead of a glorious martyrdom, the two dozen muj found themselves crashed literally through the fortified lines of the infidels, unlike their unluckier comrades assaulting the opposite bunkers.

Perfect for causing a little mayhem.

The Rangers’ fire, unexpectedly arising from below, only felled a pair of men before the others decided outside would be a much healthier environment. One that promised easier targets, ones they could see.

            Like the unattended door to a bunker.

*

“What the -”

The doors that were at the rear of Second Platoon’s bunkers were little more than thin pieces of plywood. The idea was to simply stop the nearly constant wind, rather than any sort of security. Rounds from an AK-47 tore right through them.

Fourth squad was the first to face this rear-echelon assault. Through outrageous good fortune, not one man was killed by the initial attack, though three were hit badly. Leaving two men to maintain fire downrange at the visible threat, Sergeant Randy Gardner quickly changed the deployment to face the door.

“Pardue! Doughty! Cover the door! Dexter, be ready with those grenades!” He paused for a few seconds before saying, “Okay, Wiley, open it.”

Standing with his back against the comfortingly solid dirt wall, Private Tom Wiley reached for the handle of the door. With a sharp tug, it pulled open, swinging away from him. He’d seen the shadows through the far too large holes that had appeared in the door. He took no chances and did as quickly as he could. It was much easier to see from dark to light than vice versa.

That was chance enough.

*

Fida Trebelsi was leading the charge toward the sunken door when it suddenly flung itself open.

“Allahu Akbar!” God Is Great! His finger tightened on the trigger as he burst into the relative darkness of the bunker.

*

The men on the far side of the bunker, Olsen and Winde, were cut down without even seeing Trebelsi. At this range, not even armor could help. Gardner didn’t even blink. Soldiers died; it came with the job.

Most of his rounds, though, impacted harmlessly.

Not so the rounds from Pardue and Doughty. Two quick but aimed shots each. Pardue took the body shots; Doughty took head shots. All connected, decorating the two Chechens behind Fida with brains and blood.

Trebelsi fell.

Then Dexter donated a pair of grenades to the two stunned invaders, out beyond the doorway. They exploded seconds later, adding to the chaos. By then, Pardue and Doughty had taken down Trebelsi’s followers and were moving toward the door.

A half-dozen muj had taken up positions in a line about twenty meters from the doorway, eschewing cover altogether, and were taking turns peppering it with rounds, spraying until their bolt clacked back empty then reloading.

Using the rough stairs as cover, Doughty and Pardue began to return fire.

Fog of war, indeed.

*

Most of the rest of the PAZ’s passengers, disdaining the bunkers, barreled downfield toward what they had been told was their ultimate objective, the barely visible caravanserai.

“Captain.”

Sergeant Snow caught Guerrin’s attention.

“Yeah?”

“We’ve got leakers.”

He pointed to the screen, where a dozen red icons were moving steadily toward their position.

“How?”

“Bravo three isn’t answering calls, Bravo four is under attack from the rear. They must have breached the line there.”

“Good work, Snow. DuPont.”

“Sir?”

“Got some leakers.”

“On it, sir.”

*

They were past the infidels!

Nothing stood between them and the women of the valley!

A dozen devoted followers of the Emir, they had been gathered up by Duqaq Nabulsi, another clear-thinking veteran of the Chechens’ interminable wars against the Russians.

“The infidels are weak!” he panted as he ran. “If we can capture, threaten, their women, we may divide their attention, take pressure off Tahan!”

Rallying his men to greater speeds, he didn’t notice the first fall suddenly into the unplanted ground.

*

Corporal Simo Hayha was acknowledged as easily the best sniper in Bravo Company. He was in truth possibly in the entire Division. He and his spotter, Specialist Billy Sing, were on a slight rise forward of the HQ Platoon’s position.

“Twelve hundred meters,” reported Sing.

“Piece of cake,” answered Hayha, prone behind his M107.

CRACK.

CRACK.

CRACK.

The .50 caliber BMG rounds Hayha was using today were modified under the EXACTO program. A microprocessor and stabilizing fins had been added to each, allowing them greater range and accuracy. Hayha looked on them as cheating. On the target range, he used the standard BMG; out here, where accuracy meant lives, he bent to necessity and used the modified rounds.

*

It wasn’t until the fourth man fell out of the loose formation and didn’t get back up that Duqaq began to suspect something was amiss. By then, a small group of tents and other temporary buildings had become visible in the near distance. Antennas and vehicles were visible, too, making this a command position and something worth disrupting, at least.

Duqaq looked back over his shoulder. They were at least as far from the fighting behind them as the tents before them, and Allah favored those who took chances in His service.

“Faster! Kill the unbelievers!”

*

CRACK.

CRACK.

CRACK.

CRACK.

CRACK.

*

Four followers remained with Duqaq. They were still four, maybe five hundred meters from their target. Maybe it was time to find some kind of cover.

“Down! Down!”

All four fell to the ground, trying desperately to find any hint of cover – a rock, a bush, anything.

*

“They’ve gone to ground.”

“I see that.”

CRACK.

“Target, four meters north, three east.”

CRACK.

“Target, five meters north, six west.”

CRACK.

*

“Ferran?”

Silence.

“Imad?”

Silence.

“Thabit?”

“Here, Duqaq.”

“Mukhtar?”

Silence.

“What now, Duqaq?”

“Where are you, Thabit?”

“Behind a rock, and you Duqaq?”

“In a pool of water, beneath some water plants.”

“What do we do now, Duqaq?”

“We wait. Unless you’re ready to face Allah?”

“Not yet.”

“Nor I.”

*

“Target – damn.”

“What?”

“They’ve found cover.”

“Cover?”

“One’s cowering behind a boulder. Forget that one, I can’t see any part except a bit of one sleeve. The other one’s found a puddle and is burrowed into the mud.”

“Give me that one.”

“I can’t even see him, just the disturbances on the surface -”

“Target!”

“Six meters south, five east. That’s the center of -”

CRACK.

CRACK.

CRACK.

*

The first shot was long, thudding into the mud near the far end of the puddle. Duqaq held his ground.

The second shot splashed into the water a scant foot in front of him, the massive round passing through the water and splattering Duqaq with filth from the bottom.

He knew, knew, the third round would be between the first two. If he was lucky, it would shatter his spine.

If not, well, it could hit lower.

He jumped up.

For what it was worth, he was right. The third round would have killed him, probably slowly.

He didn’t think about the fourth round.

*

CRACK.

“Target down. What about the last one?”

“I don’t think he’s going anywhere. Command, Nightwish. Threat neutralized. Twelve KIA, one pissing his pants.”

“Ah, roger that Nightwish. Maintain position. Out.”

Sing had to laugh.

“He’s not going anywhere soon.”

“Nope.”

*

Tahan’s frontal assault had failed. They’d taken out one bunker, and the PAZ had flattened another, but the squads from Third Platoon had made the difference. They couldn’t cross the firing lanes without being torn to shreds, in either direction. Of the fifty or so men who survived the initial charge to close with the bunkers, fewer than twenty managed to pull back. Even fewer moved on the field. The Rangers targeted them as soon as they showed signs of life and sent them to discuss their fate with Allah.

Now Tahan recalled an image from a smuggled American movie he had seen as a youth. It was old, black and white. Something called a ‘Western’. In it, and what he remembered now, was when the would-be land thieves were being attacked by the natives, they had driven their wagons into a circle to create a defensive wall.

Well, he had wagons, of a sort. There were still five PAZ-672Gs. He’d worry about withdrawal later. If he couldn’t take out the bunkers, there wouldn’t be any men to withdraw.

He gave the necessary orders.

*

Master Sergeant Julio Portena of First Platoon had inherited command when Hughes went down from a single ‘golden BB‘. He couldn’t fucking believe it. A ricochet, off not one but two scopes, a helmet, and then into Hughes’ open mouth. Took him right through the C3-C4 juncture. Dead before he hit the ground.

A dozen years of experience had prepared him for the role, even if he didn’t relish it. Now, he was keeping the withdrawing Chechens under observation while the men of his squad tended to their wounded.

“Command, Alpha Six.”

“Go ahead.”

“T’ey’re trying to build a pocking barricade,” reported the short, swarthy Sergeant.

“A barricade?”

“Yeah, out of t’eir trucks. Looks like t’ey’re settling in for a while.”

Modder-pocker! We shoulda burned more of them!

He kept this thought to himself. He frequently found himself on very thin ice with Command. If he wasn’t a first-class armorer, he would’ve found a one-way ticket out of the Rangers years ago.

“Roger, Alpha Six. Maintain surveillance. Over.”

“Roger. Out.”

*

“Well, that’ll make them easier to pin down,” said a familiar voice. Guerrin turned to see the Kildar stride into the command bunker, followed closely by the single smallest Keldara he’d ever seen.

Naah. He wouldn’t have.

“Good afternoon, Captain,” came a light voice, one which promised both joy and mischief with a hint of steel behind.

He did. Or, more likely, she did.

“Hello Kildar, Miss Devlich.”

“So formal!”

Ignoring the byplay, Mike approached the tactical displays.

 “What’s the situation?”

“They’ve made one fairly serious attempt at our lines, killed a platoon leader,” said Guerrin. “Broke through in one place; that was more luck than skill. One of their buses crashed into a bunker, and they raised a little hell. We’ve got them contained, with help from the mortars. Have to tell Mahona and Sivula they did a hell of a job, by the way.”

“And now?”

“They seem to be ‘circling the wagons’, as it were.” He pointed to the display. “This is the take from the sensors, which are great little toys by the way, and you can see the vehicles with the men behind them.”

Mike nodded.

“Looks simple enough. Drop mortars on them until they’re all in tiny little pieces, then mop up the remains.”

“Not quite so easy,” contradicted Guerrin. “See how close their barricade is to that big vehicle?”

“Yeah, so? Target-rich environment.”

“I think Nielson was right; that’s how they carried the nuke.”

“Oh, shit.”

“Right. If we drop mortars on the barricade?”

“We risk detonating the nuke or, worse, spreading radioactive dust all around this end of the Valley just about forever. We’re going to have to do this the hard way.”

“Looks like. Unless you have a better idea?”

Mike thought briefly.

“Maybe. Can you get me closer?”

“No problem. What do you have in mind?”

“Well…”

Mike explained.

*

“Attention, soldiers of the Emirate!” The voice, in fairly accented Russian, came from speakers mounted on the roof of a large SUV. “We wish to discuss the situation with you! Send your leader forward!”

The message repeated in Arabic.

“It’s a trap!” insisted Rafiq, Tahan’s closest advisor and second-in-command. “The infidel always lies!”

“Then let him lie. We need time, Rafiq, to get into the ZIL and retrieve the weapon. Otherwise, our mission here is a failure, no matter how many infidels we kill.”

“Tahan, what if he betrays you?”

“Then I go to serve Allah in Paradise. No more discussion. I will meet with him. But while I am meeting them, here’s what I want you to do.”

*

Mike waited in the passenger seat of the Expedition.

A lone figure appeared around east side of the wall of vehicles. Middling height, olive skin, dark hair and the requisite ‘freedom fighter’ stubble. Clad in cast-off Russian Army fatigues, he seemed no more threatening than the immigrant who ran the ubiquitous corner stores in the West. Though, Mike admitted, they weren’t usually waving a white flag.

Maybe in Detroit.

When the man was within twenty meters, Mike climbed down and called, “Close enough!”

He stopped.

“What do you wish to discuss?”

“I’d like to know who I’m talking to, first,” said Mike.

“My name is Haroun Tahan,” said the man. “I am the commander of this brigade.”

“More like a company now,” said the voice in Mike’s ear. Guerrin was monitoring the conversation and any movements. Hayha was intent on Tahan, as well; one word, one move, and he’d be dropped.

“And who are you?” continued Tahan. “Are you the American who styles himself ‘Kildar’, or one of his lackeys?”

“I’m the man who’s been sent to talk to you. That means we’re not shooting at you, which should be enough for you for now.”

“What do we have to talk about, dog?”

“Insults, Tahan?”

“Calling a dog a dog is no insult.”

“Mmm, okay, we can play it that way if you like.”

“He’s trying to piss you off,” said Guerrin.

“No shit, Sherlock,” subvocalized Mike before continuing. “We want to make you an offer. One time only.”

“The only offer I will listen to is your choosing to die by the gun or by the finger of Allah.”

“Sorry, that’s not on the table. Did you know the Emir is dead?” he added, conversationally.

“Liar!”

“No, really. And his little Emirate? Just as dead.”

“You lie! Filthy goat cock sucker!”

Who’s pissed now?

 “And you want to know something amusing?” continued Mike, as if Tahan hadn’t spoken. “It wasn’t even the Keldara that killed Inarov. It was a booby-trap set by your pet genius, Ibrahim. Or should I say, pet sociopath, Kurt Schwenke?”

Tahan’s face registered confusion even as he shouted.

“Ibrahim is the most faithful of the Emir’s followers!”

Mike allowed himself a laugh.

“Damn, boy, he’s got you fooled too! Ibrahim al-Jasir was a phantom, an illusion, a ghost, created by a master puppeteer to get you fools to do his bidding.” Deliberately, Mike laid out the evidence against Schwenke, even over Tahan’s increasingly incoherent screaming.

“He’s sacrificed you, Tahan, you and your men,” concluded Mike moments later. “He sent you here with a bomb while he made his escape. He’s probably in Geneva by now, getting his own face back.”

Silence. Maybe he’d actually touched a nerve.

“Here’s the deal. Lay down your arms and leave, now, and we won’t stop you.”

Mike didn’t mention the messages to the Georgian and Russian ground forces that were poised to be dispatched.

“That’s it? Lay down our weapons and leave? That’s your deal?”

“Tahan, I promise you if you don’t take this offer, you won’t live to regret it. You and the rest of your pitiful little ‘brigade’ will be fertilizer for the fields of the Keldara.”

“You’re wrong, jackal! It is you and your precious Keldara that shall perish! Allah has blessed our holy mission. He has decreed that you infidels shall burn for your sinful rejection of His holy words! No, I think not.”

He turned and began to walk away.

“Mike. Movement!”

“Tahan!”

To Guerrin: “Where?”

Without stopping, Tahan called back, “What?”

“Last chance.”

“Vehicles, coming around to the West. Looks like they’re jeeps, something along those lines.”

“Suicide bombers. Hayha?”

Another voice. “Kildar?”

“Take ‘em out.”

Your last chance, infidel,” retorted Tahan.

“I warned you.” Reaching over his shoulder, Mike took Culcanar from the harness on his back. In a single smooth motion, he sent the magnificent blade flying, end-over-end.

It struck Tahan vertically, directly below his neck, splitting his spine and very nearly bursting through his breastbone. He fell to the ground, dead instantly.

“Move!” Mike commanded the driver, Private John Walker. Standing on the running board, Mike clung to the roof post as the SUV accelerated. They only had moments before the remaining muj pulled out of their shock.

 “I’ve got to get that axe back or Father Kulcyanov will have me as a sacrifice, Kildar or not!” Distantly, he was aware of five drab green jeep-like vehicles coming around the opposite side. No threat, a part of his mind determined, and dismissed them from thought.

Pulling even with the body, Mike reached down and snagged the handle of Culcanar. It came free easily, and Walker spun the SUV around and headed back toward the Rangers’ lines.

*

CRACK.

“This is way too easy.”

“Quit your bitching. Too easy, too hard. Too hot, too cold. Too big, too small. Bitch bitch bitch.”

“Shut up and hand me another clip.”

CRACK.

“That was a good one.”

“Yeah. Did I ever tell you about that time in Kandahar…?”

CRACK.

*

“Hayha reports that all five vehicles have stopped.”

“Let’s make sure. Have Sivula drop a round or two on each. Wonder what kind of explosives they’re packing?”

“Already on it. You should probably clear the area.”

“Way ahead of you.” Mike was back inside the perimeter now, Culcanar held out the window to keep the blood from staining the upholstery. He wasn’t sure, but he thought that this Expedition belonged to the Devlich Family, and he really, really didn’t need to piss off his future in-laws today.

“Good. Shot over.”

The characteristic whistle of a mortar round came just a few seconds later, detonating only a few feet from a GAZ. The mortar’s explosion was almost immediately dwarfed as the GAZ’s deadly payload went up sympathetically.

“Whoa! Now, that’s impressive! Okay, JP, we’re behind the bunkers. Tell ‘em the range is all theirs.”

“Roger that, Kildar. First, Second, they’re all yours. Kick ass and don‘t bother introducing yourselves.”

*

It took the better part of an hour, but the Chechens’ position was gradually reduced. The parked buses provided effective cover for some time. At least they did until Jessia thought to start walking her mortars from a position between the bunkers and the buses slowly north, toward the now-battered vehicles. Once dialed in, it was quick work to completely shred them with round after round of HE.

Once the cover was gone it was only a matter of time. Tied as they were to defending the shattered ZIL, and deprived of even Tahan’s leadership, the result was chaos. Some small groups took what cover they could, maintained some semblance of fire discipline, and held out for quite a while. Others, driven by a need for martyrdom, were cut down as they charged the bunkers at irregular intervals.

A few tried to withdraw, either on foot or in the remaining Tatras. Hayha dropped several of them; Jessia, Andrew and the mortars accounted for the vehicles; and there was one more unpleasant surprise in the works.

Vanner’s black boxes, the sensors, had all been equipped with a small C-4 charge to ensure their destruction in case of discovery by an enemy. It was a simple matter to send a ‘detonate’ signal to the appropriate sensor as a panicked Chechen entered its lethal range. While it would be a pain to emplace new ones, it certainly proved the charges’ effectiveness.

As the more organized squads ran out of ammo, a few attempted to surrender, waving any white rag they could find. Many of the other Chechens, feeling this was a betrayal of their Emir and their faith, opened fire upon the surrendering groups. Soon, the smartest groups figured out that they were better off simply dropping to the ground and waiting, instead of drawing ‘friendly’ fire on themselves.

In the end, after the last fanatic was dispatched, there were about forty survivors spread across the entire field of battle. All were wounded to some degree, even though some showed no visible signs. Concussion from mortar rounds caused serious internal damage to the brain and other organs.

By nightfall, there would be fewer still, as blood loss, shock, and the cold took their toll.

“And how many did you lose, Captain?” asked Mike, as he and JP made their way toward the battlefield.

“Twelve KIA, including a platoon leader, another nineteen WIA, but between my medics and your Dr. Arensky I think they’ll all pull through.”

“Sorry about your casualties,” said Mike. “We’ll do right by them, I promise you.”

“So am I, Kildar, but it’s a good mission. I hate to lose one, but, hell, if any of us wanted to die in our beds we wouldn’t be Rangers.”

“Truth.”

“What do you want done with these?” JP gestured to the prisoners, guarded by a squad of Rangers, looking alternately sullen and despairing.

“Who is senior?” asked Mike of the Chechens.

There was a brief murmured conversation, then finally one said, “I am.”

“And you are…?”

“Mahar. I have served the cause for -”

“Mahar, let’s be clear on this: I don’t give a flying fuck how long you have served your cause or what you’ve done. All I need to know is, will the others listen to you?”

“Yes,” he said, grudgingly.

“Good. Here’s the deal. You lost. Your mission here is done. If you want to go home, I won’t stop you, but I won’t help you. You take what you have, minus any weapons, and you walk. Russia is that way.”

“And if we choose not to walk? If we resist you?”

Mike shrugged.

“I have a backhoe.”

*

“You’re just letting them go?” demanded Katrina as the dejected Chechens trudged north, escorted by DuPont’s Third Platoon.

“Yep.”

“They are enemies of the Keldara! They would have slaughtered the entire Valley!”

“Yep.”

“And you let them go?”

Quietly, Mike said, “How far do you think they’ll get? No weapons, no food, across, what, twenty kilometers of mountains? Oh, and did I mention the little message I sent Umarov?”

“General Umarov?”

“Yeah. Seems he just got an anonymous tip that there’s a group of illegal immigrants from Russia raising a little hell in this corner of the country. He’s sending a battalion to round them up. And just in case Umarov misses, Chechnik‘s getting a notice of his own.”

“Ah,” smiled Katrina, a smile Cruella would be proud of.

A shout from the ZIL caught Mike’s attention. It was Vanner, waving his arm.

“What’s up, Pat?”

Vanner had taken a Geiger counter and was closely inspecting the entire vehicle, just in case.

“We’ve got nothing.”

“That’s good, right?”

“No, Kildar, it’s not. Even undamaged, I ought to be picking up traces. I’ve got nothing more than natural background radiation.”

“Could the body of the truck be blocking it?”

“Possible, but if it was blocking the radiation, it would also have absorbed some and become radioactive itself.”

“It isn’t?”

“Not a bit.”

“Something’s fishy here. We ought to take a closer look. Not you, Kat!”

He could almost hear her pout.

*

“That sure looks like it,” commented Mike. They were in the passenger compartment of the ZIL, looking at a long, sturdily built wooden box.

“It matches the others we’ve recovered,” agreed Vanner. “Still not getting anything.” He reached out to open it, to have his hand slapped away by Mike.

“What the fuck?”

“Don’t. Booby trap.”

Vanner paled.

“Better get our version of a bomb squad up here. If our buddy Kurt left a surprise in there…” He didn’t need to elaborate.

*

“Rocks.”

“Rocks?” asked Mike.

“Rocks. That’s all,” replied Vanner.

“So this whole thing, all those men -”

“Were just a diversion,” finished Nielson.

“Motherfucker!”

“It’s actually clever of him. The Rangers paid a heavy price in men and ammo and energy; they’re going to need serious R&R before they’re any use for combat again. The Tigers are battered to shit from the speed run back, and exhausted as well. On top of that, we’re almost entirely out of the field; how effective can any of our searches be right now?”

The Combat Staff had gathered at the caravanserai again. Part of Vanner’s Intel squad was combing the battlefield for any information they could gather, but they weren’t hopeful.

“Where the fuck is Schwenke, then?” asked Adams, who had finally made it back. He alone was standing. For some reason, he’d refused a seat.

Nobody had an answer.

Published by gaffen620

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

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