You may have notice this book has two primary tracks. On the one hand you have the Mike & Kat Road Show; on the other you have Let’s Blow Up the Valley!
However, like all good books, it’s not that simple. The Mike & Kat Road Show has now combined with the Let’s Blow Up the Valley! track; more I can’t really say, as I really don’t intend to have any spoilers in these introductions.
But one of the things I tried to do was have a sub-plot: J and Katya’s Quest for Schwenke. Katya has encountered him twice: the first time, she was lucky and he decided he wanted out; the second time, they were simply crossing paths. Now, this third time, they’re nearly evenly matched.
In fact, when I think about it, this entire book is much more the dynamic, the conflict, between Schwenke and Katya than anything to do with Mike and the Keldara.
But let’s explore that topic another day, shall we?
One final item: you really ought to check out the FREEBIES page on this website if you haven’t already. It’s all legitimately free things, gifts from me to you, so take advantage of them! If you aren’t good at navigating, just click the button below and you can scoot over there and grab your swag.
Near the Georgia-Azerbaijan Border; A Road to Tbilisi; The Caravanserai; Tbilisi
Ibrahim was still dressed as a Russian Army Major. He and his men were stopped in Ikinzhi-Shikhly, a small Azerbaijani village about three kilometers south of the Georgian border on the M1. It wasn’t for a much-needed rest, though the men’s nerves were on edge, kept in check only by the reassuring presence of their leader. It was simply time to change uniforms again.
Their Army uniforms had served them well through Azerbaijan, speeding them through the scattered checkpoints. The two nations had experience a warming trend in their relations over the past few years, and the sight of Russian nationals, even those in uniform, raised no suspicion. More importantly it inspired no hostility from the Azerbaijani, whether military, militia, farmer, or peasant. Now, though, they were about to cross into Georgia, and the situation would change.
Not only were they getting closer and closer to the pit of vipers they were set to exterminate, but complicating the issue, Russia and Georgia had recently cooled a violent border conflict. Russian Army troops would not be a welcome sight at the Georgian border, no matter what their faked papers might say. As a consequence they donned the uniforms of the shadowy, officially outlawed paramilitary/political party, the Mkhedrioni.
The Mkhedrioni, ‘Horsemen’ or ‘Knights’, had been active in the early days of Georgian independence in the battles against the Ossetians and the Abkhazians in the early 1990’s. They had supported, sometimes brutally, then-President Shevardnadze as he consolidated his power in 1993, even being named the “Georgian Rescue Corps” for their actions. But their Russian-mafia-influenced methods had landed their leadership in prison, and their organization was outlawed in 1995.
They never quite disappeared, however, living in the fringes of Georgian society. While membership was still officially prohibited, there was a lingering fondness for them, especially in the northwest and central regions of the country. Even here, in the far southeast, they were likely to be ignored, if not actively supported. It was a perfect cover.
“Ibrahim, I have a question.”
This was from Faruq, a middle-aged man who had remained close to Ibrahim through the entire journey.
“Yes?” The smile on Ibrahim’s face was totally guileless, a man at peace with whatever he had to do next.
“Not to doubt your planning, Ibrahim, but it seems that we have taken overlong in our mission. Should we not be closer to our destination?”
“Shai’tan has laid traps for us, Faruq, and we must be cautious and circumspect to avoid them.”
The djinn-like desert blue eyes glinted.
“Surely now that we are on the cusp of victory, we can accelerate our progress?”
“Soon, Faruq, we shall strike a crippling blow upon the enemies of the Emirate. But we have not achieved victory yet; if we succumb to Shai’tan’s guiles, we may still fall short of our goals.”
“As you say, Ibrahim, so is it true. Yet I would be more than human if I did not admit to feeling some anxiety, an eagerness to complete our mission and return to the heart of the Emirate.” No such fear showed in his face, belying his words.
“What then do you suggest, Faruq?” asked Ibrahim in a dangerously reasonable tone.
Quietly, so as not to be heard by the others, Faruq answered, “Allow me to continue the mission, while you return to the Emir and stand by his side at this, his hour of greatest need.”
He smiled, as if genuinely offering a way out of the mission, a way without consequences or repercussions, revealing his feeling that he held this power.
“You would have the glory of the destruction of our enemies?” Ibrahim hissed. “Or are you planning to betray us to our enemies? It occurs to me that one like you, bringing information such as you have, would be welcomed, celebrated, by the forces of darkness!” With these few words, the battlefield turned. The next few would decide the man’s fate.
Backing away, Faruq‘s voice rose.
“No, Ibrahim, neither! I am loyal, I wish only to serve the Emir!”
“That is what you intend! You would betray your Emir, betray your faith, betray Allah!”
Ibrahim’s impassioned voice rose too, drawing the attention of the other men, exactly as he planned. They needed to witness the fate of the false warrior among them.
He dropped his hands to his sides briefly, then raised them again as if warding off a spectre, pushing Faruq away in spirit, faith, and a Brother of Allah. Exasperation, even disappointment, colored his face, not anger.
He pushed Faruq roughly on the shoulders.
“Go, I say!” he repeated, pushing him again.
Faruq, stumbling backward, fell. Laughter, barely suppressed, echoed from the men he had only moments before he called his brothers.
“You’re mad!” he screeched from the ground. adrenalin flooding his veins, masking the too-rapid beating of his heart.
“A madman am I?” howled Ibrahim, giving proof to Faruq’s words. “I am but a loyal son of Allah, enraged by deceit and lies! Go! You have no more place here!”
Ibrahim dropped his arms dramatically, waving them at the ground before him.
“Go in peace, while you are yet able. Allah’s punishment shall surely follow you along the path you have chosen. No man may outrun Allah‘s wrath.”
Scrambling to his feet, Faruq continued to back away, more calmly now, forced though it sounded.
“Listen to me!” he cried to the men, now gathered in a loose circle.
“The Emir never trusted Ibrahim fully and with good reason! Look! Hear what he is saying! Wahid!” he said, turning to one of the older warriors. “You have known me for years! Have I ever -”
Faruq had passed every test of the Emir.
Pain, he had endured stoically, and deprivation, and hunger, and thirst. He had proven his loyalty, and his worthiness, to the Emir on repeated occasions. He had earned privileges, food, women, for his deeds. He had even proven his ultimate loyalty by inflicting death on several of these women at the Emir’s order, though he had grown fond of many.
For these reasons, he had been chosen as Ibrahim’s minder.
But the pain he had endured, and inflicted, was as nothing compared to what he felt now. He was interrupted by a massive spasm as his limbs were seized by excruciating pain. The muscles in his arms and legs contracted violently, repeatedly, ripping tendons, exploding joints, wrenching a most unmanly scream from his throat.
The human body is a magnificent machine. Faced with unendurable pain, the brain attempts to block it by releasing as many endorphins as possible. The chemical flooded his system, allowing him a chance to breathe and gasp out, “What is happening?”
The man who had murdered him spoke. There were no bullets, no razors, no red-hot pokers or pliers to peel away the skin.
“Shai’tan is claiming you. You have turned your back on the faith, Allah can no longer protect you,” said Ibrahim, quietly. “The wages of sin, Faruq.”
Ibrahim’s lying hands made a double pass at the ground, palms down. A sign, usually used by the mullahs, of a final judgment that brokered no argument.
“I – have – not – sinned!” Faruq managed to squeeze out. His breathing was shallow now, painful. The endorphins had done their best, but the other drugs in his system took over. His skin felt as though fiery needles were poking him. He lacked the knowledge, but it was as the stings of a million fire ants. His heart beat faster, and faster still, beyond the limits of human endurance.
His capillaries constricted, arching his body off the ground. His eyes flared red as the fragile vessels within burst, and tears of blood dripped from the corners of his eyes. With shocking quickness, his vision faded to blackness.
“I – cannot – see!”
His eyes, constricted by the muscles around them, burst.
The men watching, mesmerized, vomited. The judgment of Allah!
“As greed has blinded you, so too has Shai’tan. Soon you shall burn forevermore.”
“What – have – you – done?”
Ibrahim leaned close to the dying man’s ears.
“Eliminated a problem,” whispered Schwenke. “No more.”
These last words went unheard. The cocktail he had created for him proved even more efficient than he had dared to hope, as the fatty tissues liquefied. Schwenke stepped back, almost daintily, as Faruq’s body seemed to collapse on itself. The pyretic bacteria, encouraged by the chemicals injected with them, produced enough internal heat to set the liquefying puddle ablaze.
Ibrahim, the djinn-eyed, the devout, the chosen one of Allah, stood silently and watched the execution of Allah’s wrath.
Inwardly, Schwenke smiled. The overwhelming smells of burning pork reminded him of how long it had been since he was last able to indulge himself.
Eggs, and bacon, he thought. Perhaps a woman, no, two, afterward. A mother and daughter. To protect the other, each would do much to please him before he killed them. The only question, the only troubling thought, would be who to kill first.
The ‘pass’ between Bezta and Georgia was hardly more than a farmer’s track. Unpaved and almost certainly abandoned, it followed the path of a river through a meandering valley until turning abruptly south, and upwards, a couple kilometers from the Georgian border. The good news was there was no border patrol or, for that matter, marked border. Only their GPS informed them of the crossing.
Katya and J ended up spending the night in the village of Oktomberi, in a boarding house that reminded Cottontail of Yakov’s brothel in Alerrso, down to the fleas and bedbugs. She started scratching as soon as she saw the room. When morning came, she was eager to depart as quickly as possible.
The struggle for the Keldara to return to the Valley, and the battle, were picked up in snatches along the road. But the news that Schwenke wasn’t among the dead, and his bomb was still missing, stopped them completely. Katya had never seen that look on J’s face before, a mix of fear and respect. But for whom?
J grabbed the sat phone and immediately made direct contact with Vanner, his Intel counterpart.
“No clue,” answered Vanner. “He could be anywhere. We’re trying to figure out if he’s gone to ground, ran away, or is planning something else.”
“I may have some insight into that,” supplied J. “We’re on our way back. When we return, I think we’ll need to discuss the situation.”
“Agreed. Any idea when you’ll get here?”
“Tomorrow, I would think,” said J, vaguely.
“Good enough. See you soon.”
“Tomorrow? We could get there by midnight!” insisted Cottontail. “I can take over, if you’re tired,” she offered.
“I have my reasons, padawan.” And he refused to say anything else for a long time.
She played with her nails and the valves set into her palms. She was determined that her little tricks would work flawlessly when needed. Closing her eyes, she tried to feel for an up-link but received only static. She shut down before the migraine had a chance to gain any strength.
It wasn’t until they had arrived in Tbilisi that he spoke again. “We are not going back to the Valley tonight,” he said, pulling into a hotel parking lot.
“Why not?” asked Cottontail. “Pardon me, Master, but it sounded like you would be able to help them, that you have an idea.”
“I do,” replied J. “But it will wait.”
He smiled, as if to apologize for being cryptic, but said nothing more.
“Master, I am uneasy at this,” admitted Cottontail.
“In what way?”
She hesitated, gathering her thoughts. “I have had no home, no family.”
“We have discussed your childhood in the orphanage, yes.”
“And my life since leaving there has not been easy.”
“None would dispute that,” agreed J.
“I have been beaten, raped, shot at, and sold.”
“Again, all unpleasant.”
“In all that time, few people have ever cared what happened to me, whether I lived or died. I was a moneymaker, or a place for their dick, or worse. Entertainment and a slave. But now…”
She looked down at her God-dammed too-big breasts. That’s where the trouble started, their too-early development. No, the trouble started with the orphan master, the man who raped her when she was just a child. She shook her head to clear it, and looked back up at J, eyes almost wet. Sad. Yes, oh so sad now. The anger she carried with her was fading. What was replacing it?
“But now people do,” she finally finished. “No, wait. Not people. You.”
“I do?” asked J blandly. She could tell, though, that she’d hit something deep in him. It resonated in the tight confines of the BMW.
“I believe you do,” replied Katya.
“Perhaps,” admitted J. His eyes twinkled.
“And Stasia,” she continued.
“Only as long as you don’t interfere with the harem.”
“The Kildar? Are you sure? Or does he simply see you as a useful tool?”
It was a test, she was sure, but she was long past the point where such barbs would derail her thoughts.
“I have thought on this much, Master. If I was simply a tool for him, I could have been replaced long ago. He’s told me of his willingness to do so often enough. I‘m not even unique for my little ‘toys‘,” she added, somewhat bitterly, referring to the extensive bio-enhancements she had received. She flicked her hardened nails against the window.
“Then why has he kept you?”
“I think, no, I know, he has told me so. He and I are somewhat alike, that he sees some of himself in me. We should repel each other, but we don‘t. If he asked me into his bed, asked, mind you, I just might say yes. Not before, I wasn‘t ready. Even though he‘s good at it and treated me well, it brought up too many memories. Even after the harem arrived, and Stasia, he always allowed me the choice, the chance to say ‘no‘. Without ever getting angry. Why?”
She smiled crookedly and looked far off into the distance.
“He’s also called you a sociopathic bitch,” commented J, testing her again.
“And I agree!” responded Katy, her smile straightening. “That doesn’t mean he disapproves. Besides, he knows I bite!”
“This is all very interesting, padawan, but it has been a long day. I would like to take a shower and get some sleep. The point, please.”
“The point, Master, is that I have found a home, and I want to protect it.” When he smiled broadly, she reacted. “It’s not funny! I – I want to have a home!”
“I wasn’t laughing, padawan. In truth, I am pleased at your progress. From an abused teen who was unwilling to trust or care about anyone, angry at the world and anyone or anything that reminded her of her past, to a young woman who has made emotional connections.”
“Then why won’t you help them?!” snapped Katya.
“I didn’t say that I would not help them, padawan. But my idea cannot be executed yet.”
“Oh,” said Katya in a much smaller voice.
“Now. Are you going to check us in, or shall I?”
“The Cave, Kseniya.”
“Where are you?”
“Tbilisi. Are we still receiving satellite feeds?”
“Yes, we are. Anisa thinks that she’ll be able to hold the feeds, as well; she’s hacked a backdoor into the NSA’s servers.”
“Are any of them capable of gamma radiation scans?”
“Let me check. Three, yes. Two are currently in position to sweep the Chechnya region. We ought to be receiving those signals; I wonder why we aren‘t?” He heard her shuffling papers, then, “Yes, we did request it, days ago. This doesn’t make any sense!”
“Does their range include Georgia? And Azerbaijan?”
He heard typing, and muted conversation, but nothing clearly. Perhaps it was time to have his ears checked.
“Ye-es, barely. Why?”
“Can you download those feeds to my computer? I‘ll keep the encrypted satellite links up for some time.”
“Yes, but I’ll need to know -”
“Thank you. I’ll expect it shortly.” And he hung up.
Looking troubled, Kseniya called Grez over.
“What’s going on?”
“J just called and requested gamma radiation scans of Georgia and Azerbaijan but didn’t explain why.”
Grez’s decision was instantaneous.
“Give it to him.”
Over the normal chaos of the Cave, a tone sounded.
“New data,” said Anisa. “New source.”
“Drop it to my station,” commanded Grez. The usual bureaucratese, ‘National Technical Means’, et cetera, was in the header.
“What is it from?”
“Tell me later. Let’s see what we’ve got.” She tapped a few icons, scanning and sanitizing the data of any virus, traps, malware, Trojans; all the nasty bits of software she was still learning about. The Mice had upgraded the security so that it was generally automatic, with only a few point and click options. Now. What was this?
It was only a few seconds before Grez’s quick eyes spotted the entry.
“Got you!” she exclaimed, jumping up. The normally unflappable Intel Sergeant practically sprinted from the Cave.
“What did she see?” asked Kira, back from the mission and at her usual post.
“I’m not sure,” admitted Anisa. “But let’s see if we can figure it out.”
“The man’s a genius,” said Vanner, shaking his head, alternating between wonderment and bewilderment.
“He’s still a freak,” muttered Adams, rubbing his ass and still refusing a seat.
“Who else would have thought Schwenke would go through Azerbaijan?”
The disparate pieces of the puzzle, the gamma scan request and the overflight that picked up the little convoy, had come together clearly for Vanner. But he’d had to fold and spindle the data to get a result which would be as clear to the others as it was to him.
“Did we dump this data on J yet?”
“Not yet. As soon as I get back to the Cave, I will,” admitted Grez. “I thought you should know first.”
“We know where he was yesterday. So what?” asked Adams, acerbically. “How does that help us today?”
“Ass-Boy, sometimes you amaze me,” commented Mike. “We know what he’s driving. We know from this sequence what direction he was heading, and we can approximate his speed. We’re pretty sure he’s headed here, which limits his choice of routes.”
“If we can pick him up again, we’ll be able to lock in on him, maybe even intercept him,” added Vanner.
“I wonder if Captain Cheal is still available?” suggested Grez. “She’s going to be our best real-time asset, and she’s not limited by orbital constraints. Or egos.”
She stood from the table. “I’ll take care of it.”
“If you get her, make sure J gets that feed, too!” called Vanner as she left the room.
“I still say, so what? Lots of data, no results. You get too much going on, you‘re going to burn out someone‘s brain. Have any of you been down there lately? They‘re making cruder jokes than I do when I‘m drunk! And you don‘t want to hear the puns they‘re coming up with. You don‘t take some pressure off them, you‘re going to start losing operators, if not entire shifts.”
“That’s a point,” admitted Mike. “You have some thoughts on that, Pat?”
“Actually, yeah. If I can write a program to combine -”
Mike waved him off. “I don’t need the details. We’re not just whistling in the dark, right?”
“No, not at all. I wish Mouse was here, or even God-Boy to de-bug, but I’ve done it before.” Vanner started tapping on his tablet.
“Good. Dave, what’s the status of the cleanup from Orkin?”
“All of the weapons have been loaded at Novorossijisk, including the one we captured at Groznyy, making twenty-three.”
“A company of Marines. The Russians are playing nice, now they‘ve got their ass in a crack. They want their money.”
“What about the techs we rescued?”
“Rescued might be too kind a term. Turned over to the hospital in Elista, for treatment for radiation exposure, but it‘s probably going to be too late for most of them.”
“Make sure they don’t disappear. And set up a fund for the survivors, or their families.“
“Maybe Arensky has some ideas?” said Adams. “Gotta be a reason to keep the mad scientist around.”
“I’ll put him in touch.”
“I’ll have a hot read done tomorrow, unless something else comes up.”
Mike looked around. “Speaking of after-action reports, where‘s Major Hughes? I wanted his read on the status of the nukes, plus his eval on what‘s still in play.”
Katrina, who had started following Mike to all the combat conferences, spoke up.
“I think Jack is taking some, he called it ‘welder’s union mandatory down time‘. He started to say something else, not very polite, about nukes and hot-shit Hind pilots. I’d have liked to listen, but I had to hurry to the meeting here. I don‘t know how much rest he‘s going to get,” she added wickedly.
Shaking his head, Mike moved on. “Adams? If we need to take down Schwenke, what Team is on Ready status?”
“Team Pavel. Nobody’s got a lot of rest, but they’re better off than the others.”
“Make up a movement and loading order and have them preload the SUVs.”
“One last thing. I want Dragon on close air support for J. If he and Katya go haring off after Schwenke, they’ve got to have some sort of backup. Armed to the teeth, everything she can carry, ECM, the whole smash. Set up ammo and fuel caches if we get a chance, otherwise Valkyrie‘ll be shuttling guns and gas again. LZ‘s. Prep a MASH unit, too. Once we know where we‘re going to take the bastards, things will move fast. I want Pavel loaded as heavy as possible, too. I‘d settle for short and victorious, but we‘re dealing with Schwenke.”
“I’ll let Chief D’Allaird know,” said Nielson.
Mike looked down at the table, lost in his thoughts for a moment. When he glanced up, he said, “What are you all still doing here?”
There was a scramble as all three tried to clear the room at once.
He hoped this didn’t bode ill for the coming fight.
Four aspirin, a shoulder massage, and an hour later, Vanner had the program written and ready to download. He placed a call to J.
“Are you receiving the feeds you requested?” he asked without preamble. The shooter’s glasses he wore cut down on the glare and reduced the feeling of icepicks being shoved into his eyeballs. How the hell did he ever manage to do this for a living? And find it fun?
“Yes. It’s almost too much data.” He could hear frustration in J’s voice.
“Kinda thought it might be, so I’m going to send you a program I wrote which should help.” He said a quick prayer to St. Isidore, the patron saint of computers, and dropped the code into the link.
“What is it supposed to do?” asked J as icons appeared on his screen.
“The basic program combines any data feeds you give it and filter them based on your requirements. If it needs more data, or it’s acting wonky, ping us and I’ll try to refine the algorithms a bit.”
“For this application, I’ve told it to look for mobile gamma radiation sources. That was easy, I stole the code from an astronomy program that searches for planets, asteroids, you know, moving objects by comparing photographs of the same patch of sky. It‘s really neat, harks back to old-time astronomy, when they‘d flash back and forth between two plates and try to pick them out by eye -” Even with the incipient migraine, he couldn’t resist the slip into technobabble. It sounded impressive to most people.
J wasn’t impressed; he was in a hurry. With a harsh cough, J interrupted.
“Can we save the astronomy lesson for later?”
“Huh? Oh, right. Anyway, it compares them, frame-to-frame. Doesn’t matter the source or time period; it’s flexible enough to handle just about anything you throw at it. That will eliminate any natural sources, or any non-mobile sources. You see the magnifying glass icon?”
“If you highlight an area you want to examine more closely, select that and it will incorporate every photograph and angle it can find to prevent blockage from anything overhead.”
“What if they’re not moving when they’re scanned?”
“Each source has a unique signature, kept on file for years by NEST and other alphabet soup agencies. You probably don‘t want to know which.”
“If they’re stopped on one pass, and moving on the next, or vice versa, they’ll be flagged as the same source from the unique signature. In addition, another subroutine will look for the shapes of the vehicles we know they’re using: the ZIL-E, and the GAZ-23s. Then it will correlate all this data so that you’re not chasing, say, a mobile X-ray truck.”
“You’ve cut down on the possibilities of false positives?”
“Exactly.” It was pleasant to only have to explain it once.
“What if one of the GAZ’s breaks down? Won’t that affect the program?”
“Thought of it. The three main criteria are the presence of gamma radiation, the unique shape of the ZIL-E, and mobility. The presence or absence of one or more GAZ is a corroborating factor, not a primary one. Purely secondary. A final subroutine will feed the data to whatever mapping program you‘re using so you can follow the bouncing ball.”
“Right. Well, thanks. We’ll give it a shot.”
“Good luck. We’ll be in touch if we get any hits here.”
As J shut down his mobile, he scoffed, “Technobabble. I‘ve shot people for less.”
An ancient headache threatened to return, thinking of interminable PowerPoint meetings that had kept him in endless offices instead of in the field, doing his job. At times like this, he was truly grateful to Mike Whateverhisnameis for getting him away.
“Never rely too heavily on technology to do your work, padawan. It is a great aid, and a wonderful tool, but if you depend on it too completely you will surely, someday, fail. And in our job failure can mean death.”
He poked at his tablet.
“In this case, technology is going to help. Assuming Vanner wrote the program well.” He explained briefly what they were looking for, ten seconds as compared to Vanner‘s five minutes. Succinct. Time saved saves lives.
“It sounds reasonable, Master?”
She sounded unsure, but she trusted J and those back in the Cave. They were family too, in a way, and she could trust them to look out for her. Usually. Not that she’d ever admit it to them. Telling J had been hard enough.
“Oh, it is. But as I said before, I have encountered Kurt three times before. After the second encounter, when I didn’t recognize him? I made it a point to learn as much as possible. I studied everything in his dossier, trying to get inside his head. At least as nearly as I could, given the darkness that’s in there.”
His eyes studied Cottontail for a penetrating moment, as if seeking shades of that same madness, but found only concern and a desire to complete the mission right now. Either she really cared, or she was getting better at masking her thoughts. It was progress, either way.
“You know how he thinks? How I think – thought?” Her face was clear, guiltless, guileless. Even the frown wrinkles had faded from the corners of her eyes, making her appear softer, more vulnerable. He knew, though, what lay beneath those placid waters and kept his eyes locked on hers, still probing.
“Not quite. I can, perhaps, reason out his thoughts, and make educated guesses. And yes, the time I’ve spent with you has been very helpful in that regard. You have faced him, too, and lived to tell the tale. Few enough can make the same claim. You saw into what passes as his soul. You thought along the same lines, but now can think as an intelligent, caring woman. He can’t. That makes you invaluable, for while I can think like you, thinking sideways like him hurts. I wonder, sometimes, whether he was born that way, or if it was training.“
“And if you knew it was training?“
“I’d hunt down his trainers and put them down as the diseased animals they are. Sometimes, vengeance can be mission-critical.“
He grinned viciously. “In any case.“
He raised his tablet and pecked at the icons, then waited. “That is why we came here, instead of going back to the Valley.”
She leaned forward to examine the tablet. Reading upside-down wouldn’t bother her; he’d taught her that trick long ago. Perhaps it wasn’t that long ago. Things had certainly changed. There was a chrysalis, leaning over him, and he was looking forward to seeing what, exactly, would be revealed.
On the surface, she was entirely focused on the mission at hand. Yet she almost let their shoulders touch before withdrawing from such presumption. Her conscious mind didn’t register it, the barrier her subconscious still maintained. Yet the barriers were weaker now than ever before.
Her thoughts weren’t as dark. The cells that held the nightmares of her past; she held the keys, now, and could unlock them at will when the rage those horrors evoked was needed. And, similarly, they could remain closed without effort now, a part of her life that she controlled instead of the reverse.
“I leave it as an exercise for the student. Take what you know of him personally, add in all you have learned, and work the problem backwards, from his intended result to when we became aware of him.”
“I don’t want to think like him!” She recoiled in horror. “Not anymore!”
“What you want or not want rarely enters our profession, padawan. Try again.”
“Yes, Master.” She closed her eyes, called on her nightmares, and found them quiet, just waiting for her to look at them in the light now. There was no rage, no hate, yet no peace. There was a need, and if the need had a name… Cottontail… Katya… and it had done thus.
Why am I now doing this?
She hugged herself tightly, reassuring herself that she was still herself and in her own body. She opened her eyes and saw the world a bit differently. She let her mind race for what seemed hours, but in fact was less than two minutes.
She shut that cell tightly, that way of thinking. Now it had a face and a name. It was in good company in the dark recesses of her mind. Now, though, it was foreign. It would not affect her real self.
She found that she no longer feared Kurt. Hated him?
Angry enough to kill him without taking time to question him?
Fear of the man?
No more. Her shadow was his shadow and she found hers were stronger, armored with a need alien to that other mind. Love perhaps.
She’d think on that last part later. Mission first. The ping from the tablet completing the upload of its newest batch of data called her back to the world around her and she turned to J and smiled.
“Question: why split forces, and risk defeat in detail? Answer: a small group is much easier to control than a large group. He always requires control. He might lose himself in a larger group and fool them, briefly, into doing what he wanted. It couldn‘t last, though, and the lack of control would infuriate him. I think what angered him most, in our two encounters, was the damage I did to his professional pride, rather than disrupting his plans. And the anger, simmering for so long, is interfering with his plans, because he cannot let it go. Like me, before…” She ended in a near-whisper.
Regaining control, she said, “He’s found a focus for his anger and regaining control: eliminating me or hurting me so much that I lose my self totally. Hurt those that I might – do – I don’t know. Love?” She finished tentatively.
“A good start. Is there more?” His smile echoed unspoken pride.
“Yes. A small group is harder to detect and allows the other group to be used as a diversion. To a normal person, it would be a waste of assets, but to him, they are simply tools, to be used. And if he can use them to disrupt his enemy, so much the better.” She paused, visibly thinking, then brightened.
“I wonder if the Emir had much of a life expectancy.”
“I think he was healthy, or at least as healthy as most.”
“I meant, some sort of accident. If Kurt played it right, and you know he would have, he would have ended with full control of the Emir’s resources with no oversight from anyone.” She shuddered. “Definitely a good thing his hand was forced, or we would have lost before we even knew there was a contest.”
“Very probably, padawan. But, to return to the problem at hand. What does that accomplish?”
“It draws resistance to a time and place of his choosing.”
“Therefore, weakening the defenses in other places.” She blinked, herself again. “But, Master, what of the sensors that Vanner has emplaced? They won’t be fooled.”
“No, but sensors do no good if their alerts are ignored. Remember the human factor. Consider the women in the Cave, how long they have been working this problem, staring at screens, combing gigabytes of data and then digging for more. How much sleep have they gotten? How many mistakes have they made already?”
“He knows of the sensors? And the people monitoring them?”
“I doubt it, but he likely assumes there would be mechanical devices of some sort. He was a successful agent for many years. He would plan for the worst and build his responses from there. If he had time, he would use pawns to probe the Valley, gauge the response. Given the size of the area the Kildar is attempting to protect, he’ll know there will be gaps, but he won’t know where. Remember the bugs you used against him in the Bahamas? What did he do about those?”
“Oh, right. Nothing. He knew he was blown, so escaped as soon as possible. Likely he had multiple plans in place against various eventualities.” She made a face. “Master, thinking as him is making me ill.”
“Good. So much the easier to discard his thoughts when you’re done. Now. If you are using the bulk of your military might as a diversion, what does that leave you?”
“Guile? Stealth? Surprise?”
“Yes. It also concentrates your enemies in a single place, like what you did with the firecrackers. Some run to trouble, others run from it. Which are the more dangerous? Which were more dangerous that night?”
“Yes, Master. ‘Firemen run to the fire.‘ Which makes it easier to eliminate them all at once!”
“But the concentration of forces takes time.”
“My assault, if I am Kurt, the real assault, has to take place much later. Hours, even days later. Enough to waste sleepless hours on watch-and-watch, to tire the watchers, exhaust the troops that would defend against attack. The first assault are the firecrackers; my assault is the claymore we used to eliminate them all. Yet, Master, if I am Kurt, I worry: what if they actually win?”
“You still win, no matter what. Let’s say that the Keldara are defeated. Unlikely, but possible. Then when you show up with the bomb, you place it for detonation and leave. Mission accomplished, and gloat from afar. Alternatively, if the Keldara defeat your diversionary force, then they’re lulled into a false sense of security, relaxing their vigilance and allowing for an easier infiltration by you. And finally, if they don‘t relax, if they stay vigilant, they exhaust themselves in the process.”
“Making them useful, not at all. I see. And that, too, explains why we are here, in Tbilisi, instead of to the North. We must get inside his thoughts, and his mission cycle, again.”
“To reduce my risk, I would come at the target from an unexpected direction. North is obvious, and the larger force is taking that route, which makes it the worst possible choice. A double tap could almost be predicted, and might possibly work if he had better troops, or better training.”
“Circling around to the west, I would have to travel through Russia for an extended time, and Georgia, too. Russia would be easy, if I had the uniforms to match the vehicles. But Georgia?” She snorted. “Not fucking likely.”
“Heightened security, a greater familiarity with the papers you have undoubtedly forged, and the lingering hostility between Russia and Georgia. Exactly as I‘d have done if I was him, Katya. That leaves us what?” He prodded again before she could react to the praise.
“So that leaves East, and South. Not both, not enough assets.” She rubbed her temples, considering the possibilities. Thinking like Kurt seemed to be causing her considerable strain, which reflected well on her new core personality.
“I would come… Through Azerbaijan and into Georgia, or all the way into Armenia and then North? Think!”
“I doubt Armenia. That adds an unnecessary complication, a third country, and another chance for forged passports to be discovered. Too many hands stretched out, and there are other agencies who have active assets there.” He raised a hand, forestalling the questions. “Yes, I know about that. You’ll have to trust me.”
He tapped the tablet.
“Before we use this, think some more.”
“That’s why we’re here, then. From Tbilisi, we are in the best possible position to intercept them, no matter which route is taken. The best roads – well, better than most – and better angles to cut the arc and interfere with the timing of his plans.” She looked up, pleadingly. “May I please stop thinking like him?
“Very good, padawan, yes, you may. Now, though, we must rely on Vanner’s gadgets to complete the task. If we had more time, we could utilize our network, trust actual sightings. We don’t, so…”
Tap tap tap.
“ECCHI! ECCHI! ECCHI! HENTAI! HENTAI!” blared from the device.
He quickly hit mute, cursing Vanner for using software he hadn’t fully vetted and vowing to have a serious, Fear of The Gods talk with the Mice when they all returned.
“Master? What was that?”
She leaned closer.
“Ignore it, padawan. Just the Mice’s bad idea of a joke.”
He turned the tablet over.
“Shall I kill them? Just for practice?”
“Regrettably, no. They’re ours.”
“I can just make them wish they were dead.”
Helpful and willing Cottontail is not what he needed now. “No. Just, some aspirin.” This job was murder. If the enemy didn’t do him in first… Not that far away, Vanner’s thoughts mirrored J’s.
J dry-swallowed the pills.
“Now, coffee, please, and perhaps some dinner.”
“I saw a drive-thru on the way into the city, not two blocks away, it’s a McDonald’s and I haven’t tried it yet, so can we? Can we? Can we?”
All of Kurt’s personality was totally gone, replaced by the bored and hungry little girl she played so convincingly on others.