Sunday WildCard – The Kildaran, Chapters 47 & 48

Yes, you’re back to two chapters again. Rejoice!

It’s still a good chunk, just under 8000 words.

One of the things I’ve been doing in my editing is going on a “THAT” hunt. See, this particular four-letter word is highly flexible and thus useful to a writer. However it can also be overused quite easily.

And we did.

Oh boy, did we!

So I’ve been removing all the surplus “THAT”‘s I could find and replacing them with alternatives. Sometimes it takes a little bit of tweaking in the sentence structure, sometimes it’s a replacement (usually ‘it’, ‘the’, or ‘which’), sometimes I can simply omit the word entirely.

Overall I think I’ve probably eliminated upwards of 1000 so far in my editing.

Some exciting news for you before I let you get into the chapters!

First, the cover for my next book is out, and pre-orders are open!

Here’s a little teaser:

Triumph’s Ashes Promo!

I am also looking for a few more eARC readers. If you’re interested, fill out the form below and I’ll get back to you pretty damn quick!

Third, if you want to win a copy of my new Audiobook (A QUIET REVOLUTION) as ready by Veronica Wylie, click the next button! And if you’re unsure, listen to her reading of the Prologue.

A Quiet Revolution – Prologue

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CHAPTER 47

Near the Valley; OSOL

April 15

“Where’s Schwenke?” demanded Mike. He paced back and forth then stopped, suddenly aware of his actions. This wasn’t something he wanted to get in the habit of doing; it showed nervousness and you never, ever, did that in front of the troops. He turned instead to Oleg, forcing him to answer the rhetorical question.

“I don’t know, Kildar,” replied Oleg uncomfortably. “We haven’t been able to find his body yet.”

The one-legged man-giant was covered with mud and grass stains. He checked his BFT, as if an update would have come in the eight seconds since last he peeked.

“You telling me he got up and walked away?” The disbelief was clear.

“Yes, Kildar. It looks so,” said Oleg.

“How the fuck does a man with no balls walk away?” He shook his head. “Never mind, just keep looking.”

“Yes, Kildar! We, ah, did find those.”

“Those?”

“His balls. Had to fight off a couple ravens, but they weren’t too interested and flew off.” He turned and jogged away, back to the search.

“Piatras!” Mike turned to his next victim.

“Kildar?” asked the young militia man. He blinked rapidly in exhaustion. The ‘battle’ at the caves, the harrowing ride home, and this search, all piled on scant rest, made for short nerves. Add a nuke not fifty meters away, and anyone would be on edge.

“Where’s Cottontail?”

“On the other side of the big truck. Master Chief Adams is debriefing her.” He pointed, not looking. Not even a glance. His voice was stilted, as if reluctant to give the information out. No. It was as if he’d been ordered to keep quiet, which meant someone pretty senior.

Mike didn’t have to guess who.

“Right, thanks.”

He walked around to see; did he really see Adams give Cottontail a hug? He blinked. What the hell?

“What’s the scoop, Chief?” he said, announcing his presence.

Before Adams could get a word out, Cottontail broke away and moved as swiftly as only she could manage towards him, bloodied hands outstretched.

He barely had to time to think, Oh fuck me! when her arms wrapped around him. He almost pulled away before, he returned the hug gingerly, unsure of the exact protocol here, given his ‘interesting’ history with her.

Not that he could have pulled away, she was clinging to him so tightly. Then something inside him awoke to echo the feeling, and his embrace tightened fiercely.

“I’m here. I always have been,” he whispered. She stiffened for a moment at the kindness in his voice, felt the honesty behind the words, and finally accepted them. He could feel her body shake as she fought for breath, great heaving sobs, as she cried. Cried? Definitely crying.

He’d never been a father. For the first time, a sociopathic Russian ex-whore in his arms, he felt a faint echo of why the Chief had taken the plunge so many, many times: to care for someone who needed you at a time like this.

“Hey, hey, now,” he said, gently. “It’s gonna be okay. You did good, Cotton – Katya. You did good.”

What felt like hours was only minutes. Mike looked over at his closest friend and mouthed, “What the fuck?“ but the Chief returned the look, shrugged, and smiled, as if being hugged by a walking biotechnology experiment happened every day. It was also the smile of a father acknowledging a secret, one he would treasure and torture Mike with until the end of time, given the chance. For now the choice to go on living won and he kept his mouth firmly shut.

“How’s J?” he finally managed to ask, releasing her. His freed hands wiped the remaining tears from her eyes as she sniffled.

“Kira said that he’d taken a large dose of curare,” she replied in a broken whisper. “The cut itself isn’t too bad, but the knife was covered with multiple coats of poison.”

“Shit. Curare’s nasty stuff and it doesn‘t take much to truly fuck up your day. They use that stuff in some surgeries, though. Maybe his dose isn’t more than that. We‘ve got to get him right. If we can, we will. I promise you, Katya.”

Dropping her eyes, she leaned into him, weak as a kitten, for a moment. Then she straightened, stamped her foot, and looked back up at him.

“J,” she managed, before her voice caught. She stopped, gathered herself, and started again. “J had me study various poisons, their effects, and their antidotes.”

“I didn’t think there is an antidote for curare,” Mike said, puzzled. He was dammed sure there wasn’t. He’d used it often enough himself.

“There is and there isn’t. Physostigmine is one compound which, if injected intravenously, will temporarily reverse curare’s effects. And there are some derivatives of aminopryridine that can have reversing effects. Neither of these are commonly available.”

Mike was shaking his head. “And I doubt the hospitals in Tbilisi stock them either.”

“No,” agreed Katya. “They don’t.“

Before he could ask, she explained.

“As part of the background for any mission, J had me memorize the stocks of anti-toxins at the local hospitals, so I could select the most effective poisons to use in case I was out of my own.“ She waggled her fingers in emphasis. “There is one non-pharmacological cure.”

“Oh?” This would be enlightening.

“Curare works on nerves, preventing them from transmitting or receiving, especially the nerves that control respiration. It affects all, but primarily those.”

“Knew that.” He flashed back to a face turning blue after he’d fired a curare-laced dart into the target, while Adams had hit his mistress, the daughter of Someone Important stateside who’d been kidnapped, gone Stockholm and fallen into bed with her captor, with something less lethal. How they’d gotten out was – he blinked, returning to here and now.

“What you probably don’t know is that the human body will, in time, rid itself of the curare. The problem is, the stronger the dose, the longer it takes, and once respiration shuts down…”

“It’s game over. You still haven’t told me the cure, Katya.”

“Artificial respiration. If you can keep the victim on artificial respiration until they clear the toxin from their system they’re effectively cured.”

“It’s really so simple?”

“There may be some residual effects, but overall, yes, Kildar. That is why he asked for Valkyrie. But,” she blushed slightly, “I panicked a little and didn’t remember why until I was actually calling for her.”

He snapped his fingers. “The auto-doc.”

She nodded. “It will keep him alive until they get to hospital, then they can continue with their machines, as long as is needed.”

“And what about Schwenke?”

She looked troubled for about half a second, then smiled sheepishly.

“I tore off his balls and injected him with the toxin Dr. Arensky created for me. He should be dead, but he’s not here.”

“There‘s a blood trail,” added Oleg, who had approached quietly and stood to one side. “He won’t get far; it‘s a lot of blood. Unless he took something beforehand he‘ll bleed out before he gets too far.”

“We’ve underestimated him before,” said Mike, warningly. “Pull anyone you need to find him. Dogs, every hunter in the Six Families, hell, raid the Gurkhas, I don’t care! I want to see his body. I want you to bring me back his dammed head!”

“Yes, Kildar!” The massive team leader turned lightly and practically sprinted away from them.

Mike turned to Katya.

“I suppose you want your money now?” It was half a test, half serious.

She looked at him thoughtfully for a moment.

“No, Kildar. Right now, all I want is a shower, then a ride to Tbilisi.” She looked down, then back up, defiantly. “I will be there for J when he recovers. You will not –”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Mike quickly, before the unspoken threat could emerge and damage the fragile what? Friendship? No, more like kinship. The connection which had emerged today. “Clean up. Take all the time you need. I’ll have Dragon stand by to fly you to the hospital. And when you and J are ready to come home –”

Her face lit with the first genuine smile Mike had seen on her in months.

“—You can, ooft!”

“Thank you, Kildar,” she said, the gratitude evident as she hugged him again and squeezed whatever he was going to say right out of him.

Chief Adams hid a grin.

*

“That’s a big fucking bomb,” said Adams, staring at the plain wooden crate, still in the back of the ZIL-E. For all its simplicity, it seemed ominous.

“No shit,” agreed Vanner. “And those crazy bastards had some that were bigger. Good thing they moved before they were ready. I‘d‘ve used as many nukes as it took, trip-hammer style, to flatten everything in my path.”

He illustrated the point with his hands, opening and blossoming out, mimicking a row of explosions, culminating in one that took both hands. “Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang. Problem solved. Georgia blames Russia, US backs Georgia, pure chaos, and then you could snatch any territory you wanted right out from under their noses.”

“Well, they chose the right beast to carry it,” Mike said, ignoring the byplay to look around, impressed. Considering it was Cold War technology and over forty years old it had proved remarkably durable. It was certainly large enough.

“Wonder if we can salvage these? They’d make superb troop transports for the winter. Slower than crap, I’m sure, but I guarantee you nobody else would even come close to their mobility.”

“Maybe,” said Vanner. “They’re both going to take work, this one less than the other; that one looks like Swiss cheese. Won’t be cheap and we may have to scrap one.”

“After this mission, I think we can finally stop worrying about money,” said Mike. “You may be right about the other, though. It looked pretty sorry. If it can’t be rebuilt, salvage what you can. Anything else, well, I know of a little depot that’s been used for midnight requisitions…” He trailed off, lost in thought.

“That’s good to hear, about the money,” said Vanner, enthusiastically. “I have some ideas.”

The tone in Vanner’s voice brought Mike back to the here-and-now. “Whoa, whoa there! After the mission, Pat. One bomb left, remember?” Mike slammed the brakes on his Intel specialist. If he let him continue, he’d end up signing for something else. He’d had enough surprises.

Vanner’s reply was lost to the sounds of a rising argument. Dr. Arensky was inspecting the weapon, with Jack, and the discussion had been getting louder and more heated. A nuke at the center of discussion  certainly focused attention.

“Problem?” asked Mike.

Jack looked up. “Maybe.”

“And I say not!” said Arensky.

“Okay, Doctor. Jack? You first.”

“We know there aren’t motion sensors on this; at least they aren’t active or they would have detonated it already. Between Katya‘s IED ripping apart the tranny, J and Schwenke‘s little tête-à-tête, and all our people in and out, well, let‘s just say I‘ve been waiting for that suspiciously scary ominous hummmm sound for a while.”

Arensky muttered, “It beeps, you… Why it beeps, I don’t know, it was meant for a missile and who’d hear the beeping while it’s in flight? Silly engineers, watching one too many James Bond movie.” He trailed off.

“And when were you going to tell us this?” asked Mike angrily. “You notice that we‘re standing next to it?”

“Oops?” said Jack. “Payback’s a bitch? Sir? Anyway, you’re the one who keeps telling me what a nutcase this Schwenke character is.”

“Okay, okay. We were stupid and got away with it. So what?”

“We don’t know if any other triggers were armed. Timer? Remote detonator?”

Mike paled. He had all the experience he wanted with both those items, coming seconds, and a fifty-fifty guess, from incinerating Paris.

“How do we solve it?” he said. He paled as another thought crossed his mind. “The bastard’s still missing. What if he has the remote, or a cell phone?”

Vanner said, “No worries there. I shut down the cell towers in the area since they all run off our juice and I had the girls blanket the area in EM ‘noise’ on all but the frequencies we’re actually using at the moment.” He looked smug, showing off his techie prowess.

“We don’t because there are no triggers like that!” said Arensky, full of the self-assurance that came with usually being the smartest person within fifty miles.

“Doctor?”

“This is a hundred fifty kiloton, fission/fusion bomb. Powerful, yes, but also not high tech, even by former Soviet standards. It would be extremely difficult for Chechens to rig any additional detonation systems because it‘s so primitive. All we need to do is open up the box and ensure that the detonator circuits are disabled.”

He reached for the lid to raise it, and Jack’s hand slapped down.

“And I say that would be purely stupid! It‘s Schwenke we‘re dealing with, dead, dying, or other!”

Mike raised a hand.

“Doctor, I have to agree with the Major. I’ve seen them rigged with just such a device, and we simply can’t take the chance.”

“But -”

“I’m not in the habit of repeating myself, Doctor, so no argument. This discussion is over. Chief, I need a work party to load this into Valkyrie as soon as she returns. We know it can be moved; let’s get it to Novorossijisk as quickly as possible and let the professionals handle it.”

“What if there’s a timer?” asked Arensky.

“All the more reason to get it out of this Valley, yes?”

“Pretty rough on Tammy if it goes off mid-flight,” said Vanner, sotto voce.

“Yeah,” agreed Mike, just as quietly. “But she’ll never know it.”

Louder, he said, “Jack, hope you don’t have any plans for tonight.”

“Well –”

“Break ‘em. You’re bomb-sitting again. Consider this an order, Major. You‘re all I can spare, and we need official control all the way to the delivery site.”

“Shit. Can I have five minutes?”

Mike consulted his watch.

“You can have fifteen; Valkyrie should be back by then.” He grinned mischievously. “Good luck. And yeah, payback is a bitch, ain‘t it? I‘m a SEAL, Marine, and we know all about payback. Just ask the Chief sometime. Half of his stories may be bullshit, but you never know.”

*

“Colonel Pierson, it’s the Kildar.”

“Go ahead, Mike. We‘re secure and the line is clear.”

“Got another one. That makes an even two dozen. It’s en route to the ship, with Hughes riding shotgun on it.”

“How’d you , no, never mind, I don’t want to know.”

“Not gonna tell you anyway,” said Mike. “You need to inform the receiving end this bomb may be active. It was twenty klicks from the Valley when we stopped it, and the psycho controlling it may have had enough time to start a timer or rig other booby-traps.”

“They’re going to love this.”

“I’m sure they will,” agreed Mike. “Probably a good idea to have them meet the chopper well away from the other nukes.”

“I need to make some calls,” said Pierson.

“I believe you do.” There was a click, and the line disconnected.

Deep in the Pentagon, Pierson called for his aide.

“Anderson! Get your ass in here! We’ve got another situation! Three guesses who with, and the first two don‘t count.”

Again, he didn’t add.

CHAPTER 48

Moscow; The Caravanserai

April 16

Gereshk and his men were safely ensconced in Moscow proper. Not in the outskirts; though it would be easier to escape, they could be found more easily. Instead, they had taken residence in a disused warehouse near Komsomolsky Square, less than four kilometers from the headquarters of the Russian Federal Security Service in Lubyanka Square.

The warehouse was well within the range of the weapon, even though it put the RFS outside the actual fireball. The Emir had insisted their largest bomb be taken on this mission, and Gereshk had been most careful to get that information from Ibrahim before he left.

He was still torn over his decision for their location to detonate the device. On one hand, if Chechnik was anywhere within about twenty kilometers he was dead. Perhaps not immediately, which was a pleasant thought to Gereshk. Heat, radiation, or the building being demolished by the massive overpressure; it didn’t matter. They were all likely to be fatal, especially at the relatively close distance, which would additionally gut the center of Moscow and send millions of unbelievers to their Shai’tan-ordained doom.

Oh, it would be glorious! It would damage, no, cripple the Lesser Satan’s rail services. Komsomolsky Square was a major rail terminus, with three rail stations and a metro station. In addition, the Leningradskaya Hotel and the Moscovsky department store, along with scores of smaller shops and restaurants, were located within the Square. It was a major destination; the casualties among the infidels would be enormous, and the damage to the railways, businesses, tourism, banking, and even the oppressive security forces, potentially crippling.

And yet there was a certain appeal in having Chechnik simply incinerated in the burst. He remembered cartoons, probably Ami, showing creatures turn to ash after explosions. How he would rejoice to see it, even if he died only seconds later! For that to happen, he would need to be much closer. Within a kilometer. The continuing build-up of the city since his last visit was astounding but would deflect and absorb some of the explosion. Security would be that much stricter, closer to the diseased heart of the rotten city.

It was still not much of an issue but it would make escape for himself much more difficult. A truck, loitering on the roadside, is much less suspicious if the driver is sitting behind the wheel, reading a newspaper and waiting for his appointment.

Not that Gereshk planned to escape. He wanted to be present if possible, with Chechnik, to see the lying prick’s eyes when he finally realized that Gereshk had taken his revenge. He wondered what would be passing through Chechnik’s mind at that last moment before oblivion.

Plasma.

He giggled. His men turned and smiled at his private joke before he sobered again.

Only he would die here if he could arrange it. He had an obligation to the Emir. He had decided to send them back at sundown tomorrow. They would be given money, precise instructions, and sent into the crowds to mingle with them and use the very rail system he planned to destroy to make their way home. They would all carry letters to tell his story, to show the world being a selfish, lying, greedy prick would only earn you the wrath of Allah.

The irony was exquisite and he chuckled. His men smiled again, even if they were a bit confused. They were in the heart of the enemy, bearing the Spear of Allah, and no one knew it. They would strike a blow that would sweep the Tower attacks to the dustbin of history. The faithful would rejoice in the streets for weeks after this!

He checked his phone again.

Still nothing, no messages, no missed calls, and it was too dangerous to initiate contact before the appointed time. It could expose them all if anyone was watching. Very well, he could be patient. One more day. If he received no contact from the Emir by tomorrow at noon he would execute the plan. After his men were on their way, Allah Willing.

Still.

Which plan? Stay, and hope the explosion caught Chechnik? Or move closer, risk exposure, but be sure? Perhaps he would call Chechnik himself and announce it, even as he detonated the device. That would be milk and honey to his soul as he achieved his martyrdom. He would feel nothing, but Chechnik might have quite a few seconds to know from whose hand the blow fell.

Delicious.

It was quite the decision to make.

*

The Intel team was brainstorming. Pain and exhaustion from the short shifts and endless hours of sifting data were both in evidence. Data which should have been given, not stolen or forced from the hands of supposed allies. The frustration was starting to tell.

“Again.”

The hand slammed down on a rare clean spot on the workstation. The rest was covered with half-filled mugs of cold tea and coffee which jumped at the impact, splashing onto the already cluttered floor.

“Grez, we’ve gone over this a dozen times already,” one of the girls pleaded.

“Again, I said!” Grez growled back.

Stella sighed. “You really need to get some sack time, Grez.”

“I slept earlier!”

“That’s not what I meant,” said Stella, arching a brow. The raunchiness of the cloistered group was also near a breaking point.

As Grez turned red, Anisa said, “We think Gereshk has gone to ground. Since we still don’t know what he’s using for transport we couldn’t use any ‘eye-in-the-sky’ assets to localize him. There‘s simply too much traffic in the target areas. Those are guesses anyway and too big for us to follow since there are only five of us in here at a time. We need to narrow it down to a specific target of interest to have any chance of finding them or at least eliminating areas to move on to others.”

“What about gamma scans?” asked Kseniya.

“Too many false positives,” answered Stella. “Anything radioactive will give off gamma radiation in some quantity. EBesides, we never received updated reads on the refurbished nukes. We might have gotten lucky with the others since they only needed minor repairs. But Dr. Arensky said this one would have needed major work and the ‘gamma halo‘ could have changed up to five percent, more if they added extra shielding.”

“We know the size of the bomb he carried, yes? And the Russians have all the characteristics, the profile, yes?” said Grez.

“Probably. We haven’t received it,” replied Stella. She looked as pissed as Grez at that news.

Anisa asked, “Why not? I thought we were mining all their data?”

Stella shook her head sadly. “We are, but their systems are so completely screwed up we’re getting it in dribs and drabs.”

“The manifest?” suggested Kseniya.

“That we have, but it only lists size, type, and serial number.”

“Okay, gamma scans are out. For now. Why do we think he’s gone to ground?” Grez tried to pace, kicking aside the accumulated trash of endless watches. The other girls looked a bit jealous that she had something to take out her frustrations on as well as the room to stretch out.

“He’s had enough time to get to Moscow,” said Anisa. “It’s been four days. Assuming Moscow is his final destination.”

            “So? We know that Loki has a way of causing mischief for all, not just the side of right,” said Stella.

“True,” agreed Anisa. “Still, we cannot search the entire distance between Kek-Usn and Moscow. Too fucking big.” Anisa used the borrowed American word for emphasis; no one in here would tell on her for using such crudity.

“And the Russians certainly can’t,” added Kseniya. “Or won’t. Idiots, if the latter.”

            “That leaves us where? Searching a city of ten million inhabitants and eleven hundred square kilometers from two thousand kilometers away?”

            “Grez, if it was easy, the Kildar wouldn’t need us,” said Anisa, garnering a laugh for her effort. “Not that we’re being very effective right now. I’d make another joke about the Mice, but my brain is just like pudding and might leak out if I laugh too hard.”

After the laughter had died away, Grez said, “What do we know about Bursuk Gereshk? Why was he chosen for this mission instead of others? Did he volunteer? Does Qays know anything?”

Kseniya called up his bio on her screen without really seeing what she was reading.

“Age thirty-four, unmarried, no known family. Served in Russian Ground Forces, four years, final two plus at Anadyr after expulsion from MMS, now MCTS. Discharged upon completion of term, he next surfaced at –”

“Back up,“ interrupted Grez. “What’s MMS, or MCTS?”

“Military Commanders Training School. Formerly Moscow Military School.”

“Someone thought he had a brain worthy of cultivation. Why was he expelled?” Grez’ pacing stopped.

Tap tap tap.

“The public file simply lists ‘Unsuitable attitude’. Hold on, I’ll see what I can dig up.”

Tap tap tap.

Servers whined as Anisa hacked and burned her way into the supposedly secure files. Three minutes later she said, “Got it! We’re in! Transferring control, Kseniya.”

“Right.” A few seconds passed. “School records say he refused to relinquish his copy of the Qur’an to the Commandant when he was ordered to do, oh!”

“What?” asked Grez.

“You’ll never guess who turned Gereshk in to the Commandant.”

“Probably not,” remarked Grez dryly. “Why don’t you just tell me?”

“Cadet Erkin Chechnik.”

“No shit?” blurted Anisa.

“No shit,” answered Kseniya. “Date stamps all correct, no signs of tampering. The PDF files show documents that have the right date. No, if this is disinformation, it was done at the time, not added later, and even though the Russians are masters of the maskirovka, this is too far-fetched even for them”

“I think we know what’s motivating Gereshk,” said Stella. “But it doesn’t help us narrow down his hide.”

“This might,” said Kseniya. “The MCTS is located in Moscow.”

“Then Gereshk spent the better part of two years living in Moscow,” finished Stella. “Where, exactly, is MCTS?”

Tap-tap-tap.

“It’s part of the Yaroslavsky District, in the North-Eastern Administrative Okrug -”

“Okrug?” said Anisa.

“It doesn’t translate well. Region? Area?”

“Okrug. Whatever.” Another American word that they’d grabbed. It covered so much and fit so many situations! Priceless.

“- of Moscow,” finished Kseniya.

“Seems like we might have a starting point,” said Grez. “Maybe even a bullseye. Revenge is a pretty good motivator.”

“Maybe,” said Stella, punching up the data on the Okrug. “But it’s still a pretty big chunk. The Okrug itself is over a hundred square kilometers and a million plus people. And it’s still over two thousand kilometers away. And we still don‘t have all our feeds.”

“But the District that MCTS is in is smaller, right?” asked Grez.

“Oh, much smaller,” agreed Stella. “Still much too large for the Keldara to handle alone.”

“Who said the Keldara will be doing it alone?” said Grez. “The Kildar needs to know this. I think Colonel Chechnik would be interested to know about his old schoolmate, don’t you? And the Kildar would be the perfect person to remind him.”

“Any bets on whether he runs or stays?” asked Stella. There were no takers but a few giggles.

*

“Chechnik.”

The speakerphone in the command center carried his voice to Mike as well as Nielson and Vanner, both of whom were there to observe.

“Does the name Bursuk Gereshk mean anything to you, scumbag?”

Mike’s voice was harsh over the scrambled satellite line.

“Bursuk Gereshk? He’s, how is it said, a ‘person of interest’ in your investigations, correct?”

“Nothing else? No old memories?”

“Old memories? No.” Although something was tickling the back of his mind. What?

“Tell me, Erkin. Where did you study? Once you joined the Army, that is. When some corrupt jackass of a political appointee decided you deserved to be an officer.”

If Chechnik was surprised by the turn of the conversation, he didn’t show it. “The Moscow Military School. It’s called some other name now, but it’s still… Gavno.”

“Think of something? Something you feel like sharing?”

“Gereshk. Second year. I turned him in to the commandant’s office for having a copy of the Qur’an.” The shock of the memory returning was in his voice.

“No shit? Wow. I wonder how it is my Intel girls came to me with this little tidbit before my supposed ally, hmm?”

“Kildar, it was a long time ago! I totally forgot about it!”

“Just another betrayal, eh, Chechnik? Boy, they start teaching you fuckers early, don’t they?”

“It wasn’t that way! There were rules!”

“Then why don’t you tell me just what way it was?”

“I found out about the dammed book by accident! Once I learned of it, well, the school’s code required me to report it or I would be punished as well, to the same severity!”

“To save your skinny ass, you turned in a man, a fellow cadet, who had never done anything to you, is that it?”

“That’s not how I would put it, Kildar.”

“In case I haven’t made it perfectly clear, I really don’t give a flying fuck how you would put it!” bellowed Mike. “We’re playing with the lives of millions, millions, of your countrymen, Chechnik! And while I wouldn’t give two red cents for the current political leadership of your country, my President doesn’t seem to have as much of a problem with them so I’m trying to avoid doing a preemptive regime change!”

There didn’t seem to be anything Chechnik could say in response so he remained silent.

“No platitudes, Chechnik? No protestations? Nothing?”

Silence still.

“Maybe you can learn. And you did give us the head’s up about the potential ambush. I guess we can give you this one – I mean, who can reasonably expect you to remember every person you’ve ever betrayed?”

More silence.

“Here’s what you’re going to do, Chechnik. These are non-negotiable. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Kildar.”

Mike checked the manifest he was holding. “You will find the precise radiological profile for a type RDS-46 five megaton warhead, serial number Eight Alpha Seven One Zulu. You will get the information to me, personally, as well as my Intel group, the NSA, and Colonel Pierson at OSOL. The full package, plus possible profile variants due to differences in shielding and refurbishment of same and of the trigger.”

“OSOL? Why?”

Because I am fucking well telling you to! Because if you don’t, I’ll stick my boot so far up your ass I’ll be able to scratch your eyebrows with my toes! You lost the right to ask ‘why’ when you forgot about Gereshk!”

“Kildar, it is not –”

“Not my problem, Chechnik. What part of ‘non-negotiable’ didn’t you understand? Make. It. Happen. Second. Observation of Moscow by gamma radiation detectors.”

“Impossible!”

“Make it possible, Chechnik.”

“I cannot! Not I will not, I cannot!”

“He might not be able to,” said Nielson, quietly.

“Hold.” Without another word, Mike temporarily cut the line. “Why not?”

“The Russians are going to be pretty hesitant about letting our satellites deliberately look into Moscow for gamma sources. Hospitals, high-energy physics labs, we have those locations because they’re open source. If we’re getting the full feed we’re going to get all the other sources of gamma radiation, the ones which aren’t supposed to exist. Nuclear weapons, though I’d be surprised to find any in Moscow proper, and weapons research labs. Most of those are still pretty well under wraps.”

“We could filter it,” suggested Vanner thoughtfully. “Bet they skimped on the shielding on some building contracts, and the generals are worried they’ll get caught. They’ve been death on misappropriation for a while now. Literally.”

“They won’t go for it,” argued Nielson. “Not if we’re getting the raw data and applying the filter. We’d have the unfiltered data, too, and that’s what they want to keep out of our hands, no matter what it showed.”

“Could we give them the filter? Let them apply it to the feed before sending it on to us?”

Now it was Nielson’s turn to be thoughtful. “They might go for it, but we’d have to write the program first.”

“Not a problem,” said Vanner, more enthusiastically. “I have a couple off-the-shelf programs I can modify pretty easily once I get the specs. It’s just a matter of -”

“I don’t need the details,” Neilson interrupted. “Plus, if they apply the filter, couldn’t we unapply it? Remove the filter?”

“Potentially. If they don’t save the filtered data as a new file and simply send us the original with the filter added, probably.”

“Good information to have, just generally,” Neilson said. “And another lever to get some cooperation out of them in the future.”

“We have an idea here?” interrupted Mike.

“Sorry, yeah, we do,” said Vanner.

“Okay.” He punched Chechnik back up. “You there?”

“Yes, Kildar, but I am telling you, it would be impossible!”

“Hold on. All we need is the location of one bomb. I’ve been assured once we get the profile we can write a program which will filter out everything but the profile. We’ll give you the program to apply on your end, then you can send us the results. Would that be acceptable?”

“I think it would be a reasonable accommodation, yes.”

“Good, because it’s the last one I’m gonna make. Third. Once we have the bomb located, you clear the area. I don’t care if it’s the fucking President’s palace, you get every last body out and away from it. We‘ll be coming to kick ass and chew bubble gum and we‘re plain out of bubble gum.”

“Done. I will make it so.”

“Four. You will provide, no, scratch that. I’ll take care of transport, but you will ensure whatever I get has clearance. I don’t know if it’ll be commercial, charter, military, or what. I’ll make sure we squawk ‘Kildar One’ on the transponder; you’ll clear the skies.”

“Again. Done.”

“Fifth. This is a Keldara op, so your men stay out of it. Your personal sorry ass is coming with us, just to make sure you stay honest. I think you’ll be much less likely to fuck us over if your own life’s on the line, don’t you?”

“I agree, Kildar, but I don’t know if the Prime Minister will agree. After the last operation, and my warning to you, well, I’m afraid he might not place the same value on my life as I do.”

“Again, not my problem. If Vlad wants to try to take us out? He’ll have a hell of a fight on his hand and right in the middle of Moscow. We‘ll be in control of a rogue nuke, and you can take that however you like.”

Mike smiled, shark-like, in anticipation. He looked a question at the other two, who both shook their heads.

“One last thing.”

“Anything, Kildar.”

“You take a few hours and try to remember everything you can about Gereshk. I don’t care how insignificant, I need that intel.”

“I understand completely, Kildar. Let me say –”

Whatever Chechnik wanted to say was lost as Mike hit the disconnect.

“Any ideas how we’re going to get a team to Moscow fast?”

*

“Pierson.”

            “How would you get a team of two dozen, plus their gear, two thousand kilometers in an hour? Two squads, medic, heavy gear, plus myself. Short notice hour, that is.”

“Teleport?”

“Seriously, Bob.”

“Seriously, Mike. There is no way to get that many men that far that quickly in a single plane.”

“Multiple planes?”

“Two dozen Eagles would do it but has its own problems. Taking that many out of active service, even for a few hours, makes a hell of a dent in our air superiority umbrella and active response profiles. That‘s a Command Authority decision, and unless you want another couple dozen meetings?” Pierson let the threat hang.

“Nope. What else?”

“An hour. Why an hour?”

“I suppose it could be as long as two hours,” conceded Mike. “I don’t want to take any chances on the target moving before we can be on site.”

“Why not just locate closer?”

“Because I don’t trust my hosts and all my equipment is here,” said Mike grimly.

“A Russian problem, then. Hey!” Mike could hear pages being flipped through. “Bingo!”

“What?”

“They did a version of the Tu-22M3 as an ELINT carrier. They called it the Troika, we called it the Backfire-C. It’s supposed to be similar to our AWACS so it might have the crew capacity you need.”

“You think you can shake one loose?”

“Me? You’re the one who owns the soul of a high-ranking officer in their Security Service!”

“Yeah, but I don’t know how much further I can stretch it.”

“Hmm. I wonder…”

The line went quiet.

“Bob?”

“Sorry. Back in a minute.” Before Mike could say anything he was on hold. Today the muzak was old Stones. Sympathy for the Devil. Mike was just starting to groove to the guitar solo when Pierson came back.

“Your timing sucks, Bob.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind. What was that about?”

“Little known tidbit from the war which happened in your backyard last year.”

“Yeah? Tell me.”

“The Russians used their Backfires. Seems they lost two in combat, though they only admit to one being destroyed by ground-to-air fire. The other one was forced down. They don’t talk about that one.”

“Oh really?”

“Yep. Something about it being a black eye, losing an advanced bomber to a barely third-world power. One of the few outright victories for the Georgians though it ended up costing about a third of their air force. What’s important is when the cease-fires froze everything in place it only dealt with territory and troops, not material. The Russians tended to destroy everything the Georgians threw at them, so there wasn’t anything on their side to recover.”

“But my buddies in Tbilisi kept the Backfire.”

“Exactly. I’ll bet General Umarov would be more than happy to let you borrow it, especially if you’re planning to take it into Russia. He’d love to thumb his nose at them, especially Putin.”

“I’ll bet he would. One problem I can see, well, two. First, a pilot.”

“Think your Captain Hardesty would like to give it a shot?”

“In a heartbeat. I think I‘d like a little bit of experience in a Backfire, just in case.”

“I can arrange someone. Second?”

“What if the Russians want the plane back?”

“Hmm. Could get sticky if they have the stones to try to pull it off.”

“Medvedev, probably not. Putin though?”

“Yeah, Putin does. What if Umarov sold the plane to you? As a private citizen, you’re entitled to bring your plane wherever you want.”

“I don’t think I have the cash lying around. They run, what, two hundred mil per?” So much for the bank accounts.

“North of that for a new one.”

“Yeah, right out then.”

“Just call me your friendly financier. I think I can swing something. Probably along the lines of a nice USAID package, combined with some quiet help rebuilding the Georgian Air Force. I know we have a few deals in the works; this will just sweeten the pot a bit. There‘s some old Phantoms which were refurbbed for drones, new ECM, engines, computers. That sort of thing. I think the Air Force can find something else to shoot at.”

“My own air force. I’m never gonna hear the end of this.”

“I’m sure Umarov will be more than happy to watch over your Backfire for you. Hell, you could probably lease it back to him, if not for cash then for various and sundry favors.”

“True. Wonder if Hardesty would be willing to come aboard permanently?”

“Do you really want to piss off Chatham?”

“Not really. Okay, I’ll call Umarov and talk about the Backfire, he can call you to arrange all the financial details, and you’ll get us a co-pilot. Am I missing anything?”

“Just one.”

“What’s that?”

“I want a picture of Putin’s face when he hears you’ve bought a Backfire.”

“If he’s outside when he gets the news I’ll get you the picture, right off his own satellites. Vanner’s got some new 3D rendering tools he’s dying to try out.”

“I really, really didn’t need to hear that.”

*

“Vil.”

“Kildar.”

“You, your best fire team, two heavies, and your sniper. Prepare for extended deployment.”

“Yes, Kildar. Where?”

“Moscow. Make sure you have your passports. Diplomatic ones.”

“Going in heavy?”

Mike thought. “Yeah. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.”

*

“Captain.”

“Kildar.”

“Your mission here is completed. You are free to return to the land of the Big PX whenever you can arrange transport. We‘ve arranged for your casualties to be shipped to Dover AFB with full honors. Colonel Pierson will sort out everyone‘s debrief and then you’ll get down time in the lands of sun and sand as a bonus, where the women wear bikinis, not burkhas,” he added.

A look of total disappointment consumed JP’s face.

“Or you can remain here on TDY, at least through the Festival of Balar,” Mike relented. “It’ll take that long get the transports here unless I’m gonna pay to fly you home civilian. Not gonna happen.”

“Oh, you prick! You had me going for a minute!”

“Yeah, well. Can’t make you leave without seeing Sivula married off, can I?”

“No, you sure can’t. Don’t think the troops will want to leave, anyway. Something about the beer.”

“You’re sure it’s not the women?”

“Yeah, pretty dammed sure.” At least, not for them. I’m still hoping…

*

“You did what?” Adams nearly spat out his beer across the kitchen table.

“Well, I’m not really buying it. Uncle Sam is, but it’s going to be in my name.”

“Don’t fuckin’ matter. A Backfire? Are you out of your ever-loving skull?”

“No more than usual. How else am I going to get a whole team to Moscow, fast? We need to get in and out when the bubble‘s ready to pop before that prick can bugger us again.”

“Point. What about just buying a Concorde?”

“They don’t fly them anymore, dipshit.”

“So what? Buyer’s market. Bet you could get one cheap.”

“Tell you what, next time I’m looking for a plane, you can consult.”

“Deal. What else?”

“Making a trip to Moscow. Half of Vil’s team. You, Vanner, Grez, Anisa. Figure two dozen is max, if it ends up less, we’ll improvise, adapt and overcome as usual. Gonna be a bigger hammer job if only to keep Putin honest and away from us. Who else?”

“Arensky? Need our pet WMD expert.”

“Good call.”

“Leave Grez behind, though. We need her insight here if we’re hauling around Vanner.”

Mike shook his head. “No, they work better as a team. Stella can mind the store.”

“No Lasko though, dammit.”

“And no Shota or Mules either. I thought about recalling them; a heavy grab would be right up their alley, but Vil’s fast and used to thinking on his feet. They‘ll do; you and the others trained them well.”

“I notice you didn’t say Katrina.”

“Good for you, Ass-Boy.”

“Any particular reason why?”

“Besides the fact I don’t want her to come along but I’m not sure I can stop her?”

“Yeah.”

“Not really.”

Changing the subject, the Chief said, “Thought you might be interested. We got into Inarov’s safe. Seems the Emir did his own security on it, didn‘t trust Schwenke, so no surprises just a lot of sweat. Could have used Creata on this one, then we wouldn‘t have had to lug it down to the valley.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Turned it over to Padrek and his boys. Told him they could do anything they wanted, as long as they didn’t damage the contents.”

“And?”

“Bonanza. Schedules, plans, Inarov’s journal, contact lists; we can roll up the entire fucking Chechen resistance with this shit. Money in the bank, even what I can read. Gonna keep us busy for a long, long time if we take the mission.”

“That’ll make Pierson happy. Or Chechnik. Or both. Anything else?”

“A few pornos. The late Emir was a sick, sick man.”

“How sick?”

“Let me put it this way: I only skimmed ‘em, okay, twice, but I’ll never look at a goat the same way again.” After a laugh, Adams continued. “That’s not the best part.”

“There’s better? What, a mule? A camel?”

“Yeah. I mean, no. You know the old saying, ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’? Of course you do. I saw the rock you gave Katrina. Nice taste, by the way.”

“Thanks. I know the saying. What of it?”

Adams dug into a cavernous pocket, pulled out a lumpy cloth bag, and handed it to Mike.

“Go ahead. Take a look,” he said with a small smile.

Mike poured the contents onto the tabletop. A number of rough bluish crystals spilled out, along with a much smaller bag, which he picked up and emptied onto his hand. Five small blue crystals gleamed at him.

“Pretty. Sapphire?”

“No, though that was my first guess.”

“There’s another one,” Mike said, holding one of the gemstones to the light and watching it shift to a more purple color in the kitchen fluorescents. “Iolite, I think it’s called.”

“Nope, though I haven’t heard of it. I had Vanner check this stuff out, Arensky test it, and they’re both sure. It’s called blue garnet.”

“Garnet? Didn’t know it could be blue. Don’t you use garnet for polishing and smoothing? Think I remember something about that.”

“Common garnet, yeah. Not this stuff. Those five little gems you have weighed out a little more than seven carats. Street value? Over ten million.”

“What’s that in dollars?” Mike inquired, rolling them idly in his hand. “About three hundred sixty thousand? A nice little bonus there for the boys.”

“That is in dollars.”

Mike’s hand froze. “You’re shitting me.”

Adams shook his head. “Nope. One point five mil per carat, in that quality.”

“And the rough stones?”

“They’re about three hundred and twenty carats total weight. Gonna lose some in cutting, but figure with a skilled cutter you’ll end up with between two fifty and two seventy-five.”

Very carefully, Mike put the faceted gems back in the small pouch before speaking.

“Do you think Inarov had the slightest idea what he had here?”

Adams’ grin, which had been getting larger and larger, fairly threatened to split his face.

“That’s the best bit: he had no fucking clue! We found an invoice and an assayer’s report with them, and I don’t know who the jackass was who did the evaluation, but he judged them to be Alexandrite.”

“That’s pretty costly, isn’t it?”

“Ten grand per carat, yeah. I looked it up; it changes color in different lights, too, which is probably why it was assayed that way. It was a nice pile for the Emir to be sitting on, even so. The report estimated them, as Alexandrite, to be worth about three million dollars.”

“Instead of four hundred and fifty. Just a little off.”

“What a pity, eh?”

“Wonder how Inarov got his hands on them?”

Adams shook his head.

“No idea. There are a couple entries in his journal about them, but they’re vague. Oh, and you can forget about going to the assayer. Inarov was very clear about him: ‘Infidel who cut initial gems eliminated.’”

            “Pity,” said Mike, rolling one of the uncut pieces in his hand. “Guess that means we’ll have to keep ‘em.”

He put the fortune away. “Find a reputable, close-mouthed cutting house. I want these done up as soon as possible, about one carat each, and a couple dozen larger stones, say about three carats each.”

“What’re you going to do with them?”

“Don’t worry. You’ll find out soon enough.” Mike gave the Chief his best Mona Lisa and nothing else.

Published by gaffen620

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

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