Sunday WildCard – The Kildaran Chapter 49

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CHAPTER 49

Tbilisi; The Caravanserai; Low Earth Orbit; Moscow

April 16/17/18

“Umarov,” he growled into the phone, half out of breath. He’d just got back from the ‘unscheduled field exercises’ and was halfway through his own version of cardio when the phone rang. The phone. The one under a glass dome with the flashing light, the one he’d had installed specifically for a single man.

Dammit.

“General, Mike Jenkins. Did I interrupt something?” There was a knowing tone in the American’s voice.

As if on cue, his secretary popped her head above the desk, looking at him curiously. He shook his head in negation and sighed. Later, he mouthed. With a pout, she stood and walked toward his private quarters, the perfect image of a general’s secretary from the waist up, bare from the waist down.

“Ah, Kildar! Just a little, ah, exercise. You understand, of course.” He paused at hearing Mike’s chuckle. With a more business-like tone he continued. “I thought you might want to know. It seems there were some Chechens on the wrong side of the border near your area. We secured them without too much bloodshed on our part.”

“Really? I’m shocked, General, simply shocked!”

“Yes, truly surprising,” Umarov said wryly. “But to what do I owe this call? Certainly not to hear about our border security?”

“No, General, though that is good news. I was wondering if you were using the Backfire?”

“Backfire? What Backfire?” Umarov’s voice was carefully neutral.

“The Backfire your fighters forced down during the little unpleasantness with the Russians last year. Specifically, a Tu-22-M3-R ELINT that was forced down at Oh Eight Forty-Seven hours on 10 August and is currently on the ground in Marneuli.”

“I won’t ask how you know about this.”

“Probably wise,” agreed Mike.

Umarov sighed. If only his own intelligence agency was half as efficient!

“The answer is no, we aren’t using the Backfire. We don’t have any pilots currently certified to fly it, for one thing.” Umarov didn’t mention they still held the Russian pilot, who steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the project, and Mike politely failed to bring the subject up.

“Is it damaged?”

“No, it isn’t. Why the interest in a former Russian bomber?”

“I need fast transport,” said Mike, honestly. “And it was suggested the Backfire might fit my needs.”

“Fast transport? For how many?”

“Around twenty, maybe twenty-four people and their gear. Plus a flight crew.”

Mike could almost hear Umarov thinking, calculating.

“There is plenty of space in the fuselage now,” he said. “It would need some work done, though.”

Mike grimaced. “Let me guess. All the ELINT gear?”

“Exactly. It is much advanced over our own equipment, so we removed it for further study.”

“They didn’t damage the airframe, did they?”

“Oh, no! The technicians who did the work were most careful. We had hope to use the bird ourselves later.”

“Cards on the table time. I intend to buy this; I think I’m going to need it on a more-or-less permanent basis. Plus this will put you a step removed from any, well, let’s say ‘repercussions’ and keep it at that.”

Umarov laughed. “I know you have very much money, Mr. Jenkins, but I doubt even you could afford this!”

“Oh, I don’t intend to pay for it,” answered Mike easily. “Let me explain…”

Ten minutes later they had worked out the framework of an agreement. Umarov felt confident he could find experienced pilots willing to ferry the Backfire to Tbilisi, where the interior would be refurbished and refitted as quickly as possible. Mike promised he’d have Vanner and a team of Keldara at the airport soon but asked for local security to provide a five-hundred-meter perimeter at all times.

It would be somewhat more comfortable than your run-of-the-mill military transport, but not nearly as posh as a Gulfstream or its ilk. Officially, title would vest with Mike, pending various concessions from the States. One of the conditions was Mike would ensure it was available for use by Umarov and other members of the government.

“It’s not every country that has a Mach-capable transport,” Umarov had said, pleased.

“When will it be in Tbilisi? I want my Intel guy there to help with the installation and add his touches.”

And to sweep it for any bugs that might have found their way aboard, he didn’t add. Forcing the pace of the deal would limit the time Umarov’s men had to install such gadgets too.

“Will tomorrow morning be soon enough?”

“Might be pushing it. Speed, as you may have guessed, is of the essence.”

Umarov sighed.

“I will try for tonight.”

“Thank you, General. I look forward to a fruitful partnership,” said Mike, grimacing. He could imagine the uses the Backfire was going to have, especially if Umarov was involved. Mile High Club, Georgian Branch?

*

“Chatham Aviation, Gloria speaking.”

“Hello, Gloria, Mike Jenkins.”

“Hello, Mike, is there a problem?”

“No, no, Gloria. Everything has been splendid, as always. Sorry about the wear on the 550.”

“We understand. The repairs will be included in the bill, as usual. How can I help you today?”

“I have a rather delicate question for you, Gloria. Regarding Captain Hardesty.”

“Yes?” she said, her tone curious and cautious at the same time. Mike‘s requests and flights with this particular pilot were legendary around Chatham’s offices.

“Would he be available for a short-term assignment? In a non-Chatham aircraft?” Mike tried to sound as neutral as possible.

“As a rule, we don’t allow our pilots to fly aircraft that we don’t maintain ourselves,” began Gloria. “Insurance, and all that.”

“I understand,” said Mike, resigned to calling Pierson again and begging for pilots, which meant he’d owe a favor which he was loathe to do.

“I guess I’ll –”

“In John’s case, and if you’re the one doing the hiring?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Then I think I’d leave it up to him. I don’t think I want to know too much, do I?” She sounded like she wanted to ask more but would wait for the final reports, and for the checks to clear.

“I seem to be saying this a bunch: probably not.”

“Then good luck convincing him. I would start by apologizing for the G550; he rather thinks of her as his baby. Good day, Mike.”

*

“Hardesty.”

He looked down at his co-pilot, sleeping, and decided not to kick him awake. Yet. Best if he got all the sleep he could. He’d never flown for Mike Whatever-His-Name-Really-Was before, and the high-speed Transatlantic crossing had taken it out of him.

He’d learn.

Eventually.

Or he’d find himself a new co.

“John, Mike. I have a proposition for you.” Speak of the devil.

“Yes?” The veteran pilot’s tones were wary.

“When was the last time you flew a Mach-capable plane?”

“A mate of mine who’s still in the RAF flies Typhoons. He let me backseat with him in a trainer, oh, six months ago. Why?”

“How would you like to fly a Backfire?”

Mike could practically hear the former fighter pilot drool.

“A Backfire? When? Where?” He’d be buggered if he gave this up!

“When is as soon as it’s refitted. Where? Let me ask, where are you?”

“Still in Tbilisi. I wanted to give the 550 a thorough once-over after our speed run. Seems there are a number of issues caused by extended high-speed flight.” His voice was coldly professional.

“I’d heard. Look, I’m sorry about the damage, I already told Gloria I’d take care of it. About the Backfire. You ought to see it arrive; I’ve been told it will be there sometime the next few hours.” He paused. “So. Are you interested in flying it?”

“Bloody hell yes!”

“Good. Take some leave from Chatham; I’ve already talked with Gloria. For the duration, flying the Backfire, I’ll be paying your salary. Whatever you get is doubled. Think you can manage?”

“I‘ll make do,” said Hardesty dryly. Then he remembered what else had happened when he flew Mike around and wondered about the wisdom of his decision.

“Okay. As soon as the Backfire arrives, I want you over there to oversee and familiarize. In the meantime, find any tech manuals you can and start reading. I’m working on getting you a co with some hours in the airframe, but no guarantees. Any questions?”

“Just one. Are things going to be getting wild and wooly again?”

“This time? Probably.”

“I was afraid there was a catch.”

*

It was actually a straightforward bit of programming, reflected Vanner.

The profile of the missing nuke had finally arrived. Once he had it in his hands, all he needed to do was plug the specifics into the code he’d already written. He knew that the base program would work; he’d stolen, err, borrowed, it from the NRO’s files for other searches.

Uploading it back to Chechnik took a little longer.

*

“Colonel, the Amis have sent us their program,” said his surviving aide, Lieutenant Sankovsky.

“You know what to do?”

“Yes, Colonel.”

“Then what are you waiting for? Permission?” Chechnik’s tone was biting. He couldn’t take his frustrations out on the Kildar. He certainly couldn’t take them out on Putin, who had put him in this untenable position in the first place. That just left his aide. Fortunately, one of an aide’s roles is to be abused.

“No, Colonel. Working on it, Colonel.” The lieutenant’s fingers fairly flew over the keyboard.

*

A veritable constellation of satellites turned their ‘eyes’ to Moscow. Russian and American ‘national technical means’, reporting to the FSS, NRO, and CIA all peered downward.

Other missions joined in, though not all of their controllers were aware.

Konos-Wind, a NASA project studying the solar wind, turned two gamma ray spectrometers Earthward.

INTEGRAL, despite its extremely eccentric orbit, was ordered by the ESA to join the search. A three-day orbit had benefits, such as much longer scan periods; and drawbacks, like the Earth turning underneath.

Even AGILE, an Italian spacecraft, was added to the search.

Of course, even the most sensitive gamma radiation detector can only report what it ‘sees’.

One of the few materials which blocks gamma rays effectively is lead. Lead, which for centuries had been used as a roofing material. Which was, and still is, widely used on concrete roofs.

Like the one on the warehouse Gereshk had chosen to hide in.

Murphy snickered.

*

Putin was absolutely livid, and the staff did their best to get out of his way as he stormed through Chechnik‘s office. Chechnik looked at him as he ranted and, despite the ominous nature of the visit, found his mind wandering to descriptions of his boss.

Livid didn’t really fit, it was much too mild. Incandescent? Closer, perhaps. Volcanic? Better still. Ready to stroke out? Bozhe moi, Dear God, please! It didn‘t seem that God was listening.

“Who authorized you to allow American spy satellites to peer into Moscow, you fucking kulak!?!” he had screamed.

“You did, Prime Minister,” Chechnik replied as coolly as possible. “As part of the effort to track –”

“I don’t care if God told you to do it!” bellowed Putin. “You need to ask me beforehand on issues of national security!”

Like losing a double dozen nuclear warheads and trying to get them back? Chechnik thought.

Aloud, he said, “Yes, Prime Minister.”

“And how do we know if they are telling the truth? They say the feed is going to Galitsino-2, but what proof have we?”

“We are receiving data there, sir, directly from the satellites in question.”

“Fool. And they cannot transmit to another location simultaneously?”

“Actually, sir, no. Their satellites mount unidirectional antennas, specifically to control the data stream.”

He tapped a highly redacted report from a mole in the CIA, a copy which he could permit Putin to see without worrying about his source being burnt, or, worse still, traded to the Americans for some concession or another.

“And they cannot record their observations and transmit them to their own ground control later?” So. Someone had been briefing him on technology again.

“I do not know, Minister,” admitted Chechnik. “It is an oversight, I admit.”

“An oversight?” The spittle flew from Putin’s lips, veins throbbing.

“If they get wind of our entirely proper, though foolishly banned,  nuclear-tipped Opekun Anti-Missile system, you’ll have caused me. No,  the President,” he corrected hastily, “Great embarrassment and difficulty!”

He paused for emphasis. “In attempting to enhance the security of the Rodina, Colonel, you may have done great damage to it!”

“Prime Minister, I apologize for any difficulties which may arise, but I felt the threat of a five-megaton bomb actually in Moscow outweighed any longer-term repercussions.”

“Perhaps,” conceded Putin. “But why the fucking Keldara? And that miserable mercenary AmericanWhy didn’t the Guards take them out?”

The PM’s fist hammered down on a framed photograph of Chechnik’s family, cracking the frame and shattering the glass. It took considerable willpower for Chechnik to ignore the assault and still appear as cowed and broken as Putin believed him to be.

“Sir?”

“The 5th Motor Rifle Division! Why didn’t they engage and destroy the Keldara while they were on Russian territory?”

Putin smashed the photo to the ground. Even though Chechnik didn’t have much of a relationship with his family any longer, it still pissed him off. Gathering his self-control, he answered as meekly as he could.

“You ordered them not to, sir.”

“I did no such thing!” Putin exploded. “I remember giving you the order, that the 5th was to wipe out, eliminate, every enemy of the state, foreign or domestic! So do not stand there and lie to me, you osel!”

“Mr. Minister! You said they were to execute that order when, and I quote you, sir, ‘if the Keldara call for support.’ Sir, they never called for support. They went in, performed the mission, and withdrew. Our men were left sitting, waiting for a call which never came. By the time we knew they were in place, they were already moving out.”

“I don’t want excuses, Colonel! I want results, and I want the Kildar dead!”

“Perhaps, Mr. Minister, you should be talking to the Thirteenth Department of the First Chief Directorate of the FSB?” Department 13  dealt with assassinations.

Putin turned, if possible, a brighter red.

“Out of my office!”

That was one order Chechnik was eager to execute even if it was technically his office. It wouldn‘t do to point it out. Putin could search all he wanted; there was nothing incriminating left.

Bangkok was looking better and better.

*

Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Watson, USAF, had flown the hottest planes on the planet in his capacity as a test pilot. From the F-117 Night Hawk to the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II, he’d flown them all and flown them first. His experience and competence had made him the logical choice to be the Air Force’s ‘point man’ when examining samples of foreign aircraft that fell into American hands.

He’d logged time in all the major Soviet fighters through the MiG-29 Fulcrum and the Sukhoi-27 Flanker. He’d flown the Tu-16 Badger (old and slow, but surprisingly durable); the Tu-22 Blinder (fast as blazes but short legs); and the Tu-22M Backfire (solid range but tricky to handle). He wanted to fly the Tu-160 Blackjack, the world’s largest and fastest supersonic combat aircraft, and had finally finagled an invitation from the Russians to come over and participate in a joint exercise.

That’s why he was pissed now. He hated frago’s!

Some Pentagon weenie from an office he’d never heard of had issued the frag orders, dispatching him to Tbilisi, of all places. He was to make himself ‘available’ to something called a Kildar for an unspecified length of time for ‘non-Air-Force-related duties’. Probably ferrying some crappy third world politico around in an old Gulfstream or Learjet.

Shit.

He hated babysitting VIPs, especially pissants like this one probably would be. At least he was TDY so he’d come out of this with a little extra cash in his pocket. And, he reflected, stick time was stick time, even if it was a C-21 or some such.

His musings were cut off as the captain of the Airzena Boeing 737-500 announced their arrival. Tbilisi. What did he do to end up in this armpit?

The passenger jet taxied towards the terminal, and it was probably too much to hope they would have jet ways, it was raining and it looked fucking cold! Then he noticed something odd. Was that a…?

Holy fuck! What was a Backfire doing in Tbilisi?

Peering out the window, he hardly noticed the plane stop at the end of its taxi. He didn’t notice he was the final passenger on the jet until the steward came over and politely, he had to admit, but firmly informed him it was time to disembark. Abashed, he gathered up his carry-ons and exited, pausing at the top of the mobile stairway. Something was going on over there, even though it was hard to see exactly what.

“What time is it?” he asked the still-patient steward.

“Ten twenty,” he replied.

Shit.

His body was telling him it was maybe seven in the morning. Jet lag sucked. But it was late, there were dozens of people crawling all over the Backfire, and he could see a line of trucks backed up a hundred yards.

He reclaimed his duffel from the ancient luggage carousel, squeaking and rattling like it hadn‘t been maintained properly since the Soviets were kicked out. Then he stood in the terminal, lost, until a short and stocky man with brown hair, wearing a peculiarly-patterned military camouflage uniform, approached. He noted a flash badge on the shoulder of a roaring tiger. The only other decoration on the uniform was a name: Vanner.

“Colonel Watson?”

“Yes?” Thank God, an American!

“Chief Warrant Officer Pat Vanner, of the Georgian Mountain Tigers Militia.” He held out his hand, and Watson shook it. “Welcome to Georgia. Sorry about the rain; this time of year, we’re lucky it’s not snow.”

“No problem. Why am I here?” he asked impatiently. He was tired, and his manners were still somewhere over the Med.

Ignoring the question Vanner answered, “Do you have any more luggage?”

Despite the jet lag Watson got the hint. Not here, not in the open.

“No, this is it.”

“Okay, then. I have a ride laid on. If you’ll come this way?” Vanner led him out of the baggage area.

Once outside, Vanner said quietly, “We don’t think anyone is tailing you, and I’m sure there’s nobody on me. But it’s never worth taking a chance.”

What kind of Wonderland have I fallen into?

Watson said, “I didn’t realize we weren‘t. No excuse, but I’ve been given no instructions at all, just grab your gear and get your ass to Georgia.”

“Typical,” Vanner snorted. “Hurry up and wait bullshit. Okay, Colonel, here’s the deal. You have some time in the Backfire?”

“Yeah, more than most. Thirty hours as pilot, and probably another fifty, fifty-two as co.”

“What model?”

“M3.” Like that bird out there, he didn’t say.

“Good.” Vanner fell silent for a moment.

“Colonel,” he finally said, “What I’m about to say is so classified I know I shouldn’t open the compartment, and I’m neck-deep in it. But you definitely have a need-to-know even if your control disagreed.”

“What?”

“Wait. Let me think.” Vanner led on in silence for a few minutes, until they got to a red Explorer. After putting the bags in the back and climbing in, he spoke again, his tone becoming official “Don‘t-interrupt-me-there-will-be-a-quiz-later”.

“You are going to be flying a Backfire Tu-22M3(R) that’s being modified to serve as a personnel transport. You will be training a civilian pilot, former RAF, on the operation of the aircraft. You will know the destination, obviously, but you are not to discuss it, now or any time in the future. When on the ground, you are to remain in the aircraft at all times and off the radio. Food will be brought in, and the facilities aboard should be operational now. You are to be seen by as few people as possible. And I’m sorry, but you will have no other access to outside communications. I need your phone, PDA, pager. Everything. Do you have your issue sidearm?”

“No.”

“We will issue you a sidearm for the duration. If you see anyone aboard the bird without a purple Tiger badge, you are authorized to terminate them immediately. Do you understand these instructions?”

“Christ, Chief! You come up with this all on your own?” He tried for levity, but couldn’t keep the incredulity from his voice.

Vanner’s tone was Arctic.

“Colonel, I would like to keep this as friendly and professional as possible. I can, however, end your career with a single phone call, and ensure you spend the next ten years breaking rocks for scientists in Greenland. Do you get me?”

“Go fuck yourself, Chief. Take me back and put me on a fucking plane.”

The Beretta M9A1, standard issue for the Marine Corps and held onto by Vanner for sentimental reasons, seemed to materialize in his hand. Watson noted that it pointed steadily at his chest.

“Not an option. Whether you fly or not, you’re staying here. I’d prefer to have you fly, but, as my boss says, we have a backhoe.”

Watson gulped. “I think I’ll fly.”

The Beretta disappeared just as swiftly. In a friendlier tone, Vanner said, “Grez, my wife, would kill me if I got blood on the upholstery.”

“Can you tell me anything?” implored Watson.

Vanner thought again.

“Nope. You‘ll thank me for it later. Okay, there are some bennies.”

“Like what?”

“Well, your pay will be supplemented by the Kildar. He believes in rewarding excellence. No taxes, and if you don’t tell Uncle Sam, we won’t.”

“That’s good,” admitted Watson.

“Plus the Keldara consider their beer part of their rations, and since they’re supplying you, you’ll get what they get.”

“Keldara beer? Some sort of local brew? Had enough of those; I’ll pass.”

“You may want to reconsider,” said Vanner. “You heard of Mountain Tiger?”

“Yeah.”

“The Keldara sell it to outsiders because it’s their slops.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, oh. Of course, if you want to pass on it, I’m sure I can find someone to take your ration.”

“On second thought, Chief, I might just hold onto them.”

“Thought you might see it that way.”

*

“You really aren’t going to change your mind.”

It wasn’t a question. Mike had done his best, laying out all the logical, sensible reasons why Katrina should stay behind and she’d shot them all down. As for this final plea? The look on Kat’s face told the entire tale. Her arms, crossed below her breasts, cemented her stance. The tapping foot may have been a bit much.

“I didn’t think so,” he sighed. “I suppose that Moscow’s as good a place as any. At least I’ll be able to keep an eye on you.”

“And I you, Michael.” She tossed her M-4 onto the pile.

*

“Nothing, sir,” the tired tech responded for the third time in as many minutes.

Chechnik winced. It was well after midnight; he’d been in the office since six in the morning; and now this. “Search again.”

“Colonel, it’s not here. We have had ten satellite sweeps, with enough density and overlap. Every gamma source has been positively identified, from our maps and on the ground! It’s not here!”

“I said, search again. Or do you want to ignore a five-megaton bomb in a city of eleven million? How many do you think would survive? Two million? Three? How many families would be destroyed? What if your family was within the footprint, would you give up so easily then?”

“No, Colonel, but the satellites have gone over everything.”

“Fuck the satellites! Get men on the ground with Geiger counters, have them search every block, every building.” He turned to a map and started marking out a quick grid to coordinate the search.

“That will take days, even if we grab every cadet and plebe! People will notice; people will panic!”

“Then we’ll have to hope we get lucky, won’t we? Get them moving. All of them. Match the cadets with experienced line troopers, tell them it’s an exercise. Do it. Now.”

“Yes, Colonel. At once.”

*

Dawn over Moscow.

A suspicious number of high-ranking officials were unexpectedly absent from their homes and offices today. Unscheduled fact-finding trips, serious health issues, and impromptu vacations had swept scores from the city, literally overnight. In every case, though, they kept their mouths shut about the true reason for their departure. Wives, families, mistresses were abandoned with little explanation and no satisfaction, but they could be replaced.

Their own hides, not so much.

The onion domes of the Kremlin caught the early morning sunshine and reflected it back in a thousand directions.

Russian soldiers, grumbling at the earliness of the hour, trooped along sidewalks, waving detection wands at every building. So far several dentists’ offices, and an infirmary, had been singled out, but the search continued. Higher was looking for something else. Of course, betting pools sprang up in every company over which squad might find the mysterious gamma target first. And it gave the enlisted men a rare opportunity to pilfer from stores and warehouses. For once, it wasn’t just the officers getting a slice.

Bakers and markets opened their doors. The smells of fresh black bread and kasha spread through the city streets as the people emerged from their homes, headed to work or to the market to shop for the day. The soldiers on their mysterious patrols went unnoticed, or at least unremarked. The civilians had learned long ago to remark usually led to problems. One look at the tired, hungry, sour faces of the soldiers was all it took to turn their eyes elsewhere.

Commuters from suburbs all around Moscow emerged from their trains at the Leningradsky, Yaroslavsky and Kazansky terminals and thronged to the Komsomolskaya Metro station, one of the busiest in the city. Despite the long lines, tempers were held in check, especially with all the troops about. The sun was shining, the weather warm, and hadn’t they waited in longer lines for bread under the Soviets? Soldiers on some sort of exercise, waving wands? The merest nothing.

A half kilometer away, in a tired warehouse that bore the logo of a defunct exporter, other men awoke to greet the day with prayers while facing almost due South. After praying, they cleaned their weapons under the alert gaze of their leader.

Gereshk planned.

His men would depart that night, merging with the infidels, the mindless herd pushing and bellowing their way to their pasturage. It should be easy enough for his warriors to mimic the unthinking masses and make their way to report. They had all in readiness; he’d inspected each man’s pack the night before.

Papers? Check.

Money? Check.

Bus and train schedules? Check.

Weapons troubled him. Security wasn’t the issue; on the state lines, it was an open joke. Restraint, ah, now that was a potential problem. Would his men be able to restrain themselves at the sight of the hated Russians? Or would they surrender to their righteous urge to lay waste to the infidels, the despoilers of the Dar Al Islam?

No.

Much as he wanted to, he couldn’t risk putting temptation into the hearts of his men. No weapons. At least, he amended, no rifles. Pistols, knives, yes. Those could be concealed easily and ordered to remain so. At least he wouldn’t be stripping his fedayeen of every measure of defense. To draw such weapons would require time, time in which they could consider the consequences of baring arms here, in Moscow, the very heart of the enemy.

One more day, and he would achieve his glory. His men would live to spread the tale and his name, the name of the man who brought the Finger of Allah to the enemy’s core.

*

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

While Vanner was overseeing the conversion of the Backfire, Grez was again running the Cave and reporting to Mike. She looked like she needed a solid week’s sleep at this point.

“We’re sure we have the entire take? They’re not holding back on us?” Mike obviously still distrusted the Russians. What had he said? Oh, yes. ‘I trust them as far as I can throw a bear.’

“I cannot vouch for the Russian satellites; we have been unable to access them directly. But the American satellites? NASA, ESA? Those, we have connections with.”

“You mean the Mice hacked them,” Mike corrected with a grin.

“Yes. A while back. Mouse wanted to make a point with those who would hack into our servers,“ she said with a shrug. “The point is, we have some of the raw data, and it’s matching the data Chechnik’s office is sending us which was filtered by Pat’s program.”

My husband, her smile said.

“This isn’t good news.”

“No, and it gets worse. Overnight the Ground Forces in and around Moscow have all been mobilized. They’re searching for it on the ground.”

“That’ll take half of forever,” commented Adams from the overstuffed chair he’d dragged into the conference room.

“And tip off Gereshk,” added Nielson. “I understand the pressure they’re under to find the thing, but this could cause him to accelerate their timetable. Russian troops aren‘t exactly what you‘d call subtle.”

“Precisely, Colonel,” agreed Grez. “I suggest we move to assist them now, rather than later. Eventually the story will leak and the citizens will panic. Emplacement and reaction time will be even more critical for us. Instead of hours?”

“We might have minutes. Right. Have we heard from Pat yet?” Mike asked the table in general.

“He sent a message early this morning, about four. He had personally gone over every inch of the plane, removed a half-dozen bugs of one type or another, and was going to sleep for a few hours.”

“Anything since?” Mike looked down at the muck in his coffee cup.

Suck it up, SEAL! he berated himself. You used to eat this shit for breakfast!

“No. He might not be up yet. He pulled in many favors to move this quickly.”

“Get hold of him soonest and find out where we stand. If he’s behind, find out what he needs to expedite. Kacey, Tamara, we’re gonna need transport to the airport.”

“Not a problem,” answered Kacey for both. “Both birds are ready to fly.”

“You’re going to be pretty heavily loaded, between the teams and their weapons.”

“For a little hop to Tbilisi, these birds can handle it. Anything else?”

“Yeah,“ he answered, turning to her partner. “No stupid stunts this time Tammy. Got it?”

Wilson looked at him, eyes wide and overflowing with innocence.

“Me, Kildar?”

*

The interior of the Backfire had been transformed. Where it had been bare metal skin and ribs, revealed when the Georgians had removed all the ELINT gear, it was now foamed and covered with standard aircraft tile.

Comfortable seats had been installed, spaced far enough apart to recline almost horizontal to allow for better rest en route. These had been liberated from a pair of semi-civilian planes which had been badly damaged during the short war. Both tails had been shot off, but neither burned. It was hoped they could be repaired, eventually. Of course, the fact that they had been cannibalized by every passing jet which needed immediate repairs was going to make it problematic, but…

A pair of small refrigerators and a cooking area were mounted far aft to allow the preparation of hot meals. Lord only knew where they’d come from. A workstation was built aft of the cockpit door, with sufficient computing capacity to keep even the Mice happy.

Vanner knew it had come from his wife, but from what source? He didn’t know, he didn’t want to know, and he would deny ever even thinking that it looked awfully similar to the stations the CIA installed in their offices in the Embassy.

Maybe it wasn’t the teak you’d find on the 550, Hardesty thought, looking around the cabin that had been built literally overnight. But it will do.

The American Colonel walked up behind him.

“Morning, John.”

“Good morning, Christopher! I’m ready for my lesson whenever you are.”

After a brief meeting the previous night and a quick session of ‘Do you know -?’ and ‘Did you fly -?’, both pilots decided that any serious training would have to wait for morning.

“Let me check with Chief Vanner,” Watson said, looking around. “Any idea where he’s hiding?”

“I believe he’s forward, in the cockpit. Probably up to no good. If he wasn‘t a sodding Yank, no offense, I‘d have him pegged for MI-5, section 9, without a doubt.”

“Wonder what he’s really doing?” mused Watson, moving that direction. He didn’t have the experience with the Tigers his co did and was genuinely curious.

What could have changed in just a few hours?

When he opened the cockpit door he stopped and gawped in amazement. The flight deck had been completely transformed, even more than the passenger area.

The old-fashioned analog controls had been replaced with a suite of small monitors which surrounded a central and much larger one. The clunky overhead and wall-filling electronics were all gone as well. A fifth seat had been added, where Vanner now sat, cables snaking from his laptop to every new suite of controls.

“What the fuck did you do to my cockpit?” asked Watson, aghast. About the only things he recognized were the throttle controls, still in the center, and the control yokes.

“Upgrades,” answered Vanner easily. “Did you know that they were still using tubes in this bitch? Not many; it’s obvious they’d done some improvements. It was still solidly 1970’s tech; now it’s not. And no, I‘m not gonna tell you where it came from or how it got here.”

He smiled wanly and then tapped a few more times at the laptop. Row after row of lights suddenly shone green.

“All done. Green across the board, full connectivity, tell-me-three-times redundancy and fault protection. My people are good,” he finished with visible pride.

“I think it’s bloody brilliant!” said Hardesty. “All our instruments are on those wee screens?”

“Yep. Altitude, speed, radar, everything you need. It’s all touch screen and voice-driven technology. You can either tap a screen to bring up a menu,” he said, walking forward and demonstrating on the pilot‘s main display. Sure enough, when he touched the chosen monitor a menu popped up, and a soft voice could be heard from the headset.

“She tells you what the menu options are so you don’t need to take your eyes from the sky, and you can control her simply by speaking.” He picked up the headset, said, “Grez, radar,” and the display changed instantly.

“Right now, since we’re on the ground, she’s taking the feed from the control tower,” he said. “Grez, change scale, two hundred kilometers.” The display shifted and resolved, with startling rapidity.

“System off.” Obediently, the image disappeared.

“I printed a list of commands that she’ll recognize. Simple ones, but she’s got a heuristic algorithm. She’ll learn quickly. I think you’ll like her.” He pointed to clipboards magnetically mounted on each pilots’ seat. “Be sure to familiarize yourself with the codes and keywords. She’s smart, and will get smarter, but she’s still a computer. She’ll take you literally if you’re not careful.”

“You keep referring to the plane as ‘her’. And isn‘t Grez your wife?” said Hardesty, amused.

“Oh, no, not the plane. Just the control system. Though,” Vanner added thoughtfully, “They’re pretty well integrated now.”

“What if I’m just talking to Hardesty about something and use a command phrase?” said Watson.

“I thought of that. She has three modes: full manual, full voice, and voice recognition. The first, well, obvious. All from the touch screens. The second, anything you say she’ll scan to see if it’s in her command list; if it is, she’ll ask you to confirm the command before executing.”

“And the third?”

“The third? Well, that’s the mode she was in. You have to say her name, or say ‘system’, to trigger her. Once she’s triggered you don’t get a confirmation request, so you must be careful what you say. She‘ll repeat the order as she executes it, so you have a chance to unscrew the pooch if you‘re quick about it.”

“You named the control system after your wife?” Watson asked, amused.

“It’s something she’s been tinkering with for a while,” he said proudly. “It seemed appropriate. She likes to have her hands free and absolutely hates typing.”

“And does your missus know you’ve applied her program to a plane?”

Vanner looked a little abashed.

“Not yet,” he said.

Hardesty was looking around in awe. “What else have you done?”

“This was originally an ELINT bird, right?”

“Yes, but I thought the Georgians removed all that?”

“They did, all the Russian crap. I’ve loaded her back up with the best I had in my workshop, plus everything I could beg, borrow, and steal. She’s now the equal of –”

Watson interrupted him, pointing to the left bulkhead, which was once again covered with electronics.

“Where did you get an AN/ALR-66B(V)3? And what did you do to it?”

“A what?” said Hardesty.

“It’s the ELINT/MASINT unit from the P-3 Orion. Navy. I think you Brits would call it top shelf. It’s fucking state-of-the-art intelligence gathering equipment, and sure as hell shouldn’t be in some whack job Warrant’s ‘workshop’!”

“Where I got it, or how, is irrelevant,” said Vanner in a tone that would have frozen boiling water. “It’s now installed here. I gather you’re familiar with it?”

“Basic familiarization, yeah,” said Watson, much more subdued. “I can hum a few bars, but that’s about all. Does it come with the flight engineer too?”

“What about you, Captain?”

“Not a bleeding hope! I just aimed at the enemy when they told me to make him go away. Avoided any duties with the Weasels; once you climb in, they never let you out to play with the good toys!”

“Good thing it’s hooked into Grez as well,” said Vanner. “She can process and analyze the signals. There‘s your flight engineer.”

“Jesus.”

“And over here?” Hardesty motioned to the right, where another electronic suite of instruments was mounted.

“That’s my little addition. ECM suite, complete with flares, chaff packs, and a pair of drop drones that can be programmed to simulate her profile.”

“I recognize the ALQ-99 and the ALQ-100,” said Hardesty. “They’re from your Prowlers, aren’t they? And they imply the presence of the jammer pods, am I correct?”

“The ALQ-99, yes. Only two of those, instead of five, so not quite the same capability. I had to sacrifice something for my last surprise.”

“What’s that?” said Watson, resignedly. “The rotary missile launcher from a Spirit?”

“No,” replied Vanner seriously. “Too large for the bay, and I couldn’t get one in time. You’ll have to make do with four AGM-88 HARMs.”

“Bullshit. No way you got one HARM, let alone four.”

“No shit, Colonel. See for yourself.” He led them back, through the converted cabin, to a locked hatch. When opened it revealed the rear of the bomb bay. He stood aside.

“Down there.”

Before Watson’s unbelieving eyes lay a smaller rotary launcher, loaded with the promised HARMs. Their wingspan just cleared the bomb bay walls, but they gave the Backfire a totally unexpected anti-radar punch. A very long-ranged and hard-to-spoof punch.

“How did you get these? And where?”

“Friends in high places,” said Vanner, cryptically. “Well, maybe low places. It’s amazing what you can get when you ask nicely and have a friendly Uncle.”

“Wild and wooly time again?” said Hardesty with a predatory grin. For once, if it got too wooly, he could finally hit back.

“Let’s just say that the Kildar believes in being prepared.” With a clap of his hands, Vanner changed the subject. “I think, Colonel, you’ll find that she handles better than the Backfires you may have flown before. I took advantage of the additional…”

*

The search for Gereshk’s bomb began, naturally enough, at the Kremlin, and spread outward, while other troops were ordered from the periphery of the city inward. Progress wasn’t steady, or even, as the various districts had differing mixes of residential, commercial, industrial, and government buildings. Security ranged from adequate to nonexistent, but they couldn’t judge probabilities simply by the security levels. Guards could be bribed, after all. They had to physically enter each structure to examine them. This led to much bitching, considerable five-finger discounting, and, after several hours, very bored troops.

“I don’t care why we’re out here. It’s stupid!”

“Shut up, Lavrenti!” snapped the sergeant in charge of the detail. “We do as we’re ordered! Game, exercise, they can call it what they will. Think, what if this was for real?”

“You know where I was, Sergeant?” said Lavrenti, seeming to concentrate on his counter.

“I don’t care! You’re here, so pay attention!” Sergeant Feliks, like most in the Russian army, was simply a second-year conscript selected by his company commander. It was an odd holdover from the Soviet system and the days when the mandatory term of service was reduced to two years. The atrocious pay, miserable conditions and near-constant low-level conflicts discouraged most from reenlisting, so it became common to simply appoint ‘instant sergeants’ from the most competent men who had completed their first year.

The practice, and problem, remained, even though the Soviets were long gone. This led to sergeants who had little more real experience than the men they were leading. Disrespect and disobedience were the norm. Discipline tended to be harsher as well, with a strong physical component. That might not be wise, here. On these exercises, one never knew when one was under observation. A single poor report and a man could end up a private again.

“I was on a furlough! Drysi was blowing me when Grisha and Timur started pounding on the door to the flat! Just because I didn’t answer the phone, they said I was –”

“A fucking pain in my ass!”

Feliks was a good sergeant, for Russian values of good. He knew it was best, when possible, for troops to know why they are doing what they are doing beyond the simple, “It’s your duty!“ Unfortunately, this exercise in ’crisis management’ had descended upon them too quickly for proper briefings.

Only the sketchiest information had been given to the battalion commanders, and what filtered down the chain was increasingly distorted and inaccurate. All that was certain was High Command wanted them to take it seriously. That mean no corner-cutting, no half-assing the job.

 Feliks’ company commander was savvier than most and had restricted his news to that of which he was sure, which left surprisingly little to disseminate. The troops would come up with their own reasons in any case. Feliks suspected it was intentionally designed to make their lives more difficult. Some Kremlin hot-shot had a hair up his ass and was taking out on the troops. The rumors were flying.

“Take the Geiger counters. Go to every building in your assigned area. Search for an increase in radiation. Your counters have already been set to block normal background readings. If you get a hit, report in. You will be told if you find the proper location. If not, you will continue your search.”

That scanty information, with the addendum, “And don’t screw this up!”, was given to the company once 90% of the personnel had reported in, about 4 am. Then the squads were given their assignments.

Feliks’ squad was one of eighteen assigned to the Komsomolsky District, which was an entirely adequate number. One problem arose from the squads being chosen in a seemingly random fashion.

‘Go once you have sufficient bodies and NCOs.‘

It didn’t matter that they came from different platoons, different companies, even different brigades. It left a hopelessly complicated chain of command which had to be sorted at each assembly point. As a result, much needed information failed to be passed along, leading to some squads doubling or even tripling up on some areas, and others were passed over entirely. Squads were in visual contact with each other, or completely isolated.

Feliks was commanding an isolated squad. In his opinion, the whole op was a Mongolian cluster fuck. The last command vehicle he had seen was over a half hour ago, and the number of squads he’d noted converging on areas he knew were ripe for looting was depressing. Then there was the chance that they’d stumble upon something they shouldn’t see, like a Bratva safe house or gambling den. That would end him up face-down in the Moskva River.

“Timur! The warehouse is next!”

The soldier, a second-year conscript who had flunked the abbreviated ‘sergeant’s school’, waved in answer. He walked to the rusting corrugated walls and pounded on the door, which threatened to fly from its hinges from the unwarranted abuse. Not even the police came through here; what was the point of having a serious door if you had to replace it every week?

He turned and shook his head.

“Move out,” said Feliks. “Lavrenti, the sooner we get done, the sooner your girl can get back to your dick. Probably only takes one side of her mouth, you’re so tiny.”

His men laughed; good, they were focusing on the complainer rather than the orders.

“Fuck you, sergeant!”

But he raised the counter and seemed to conscientiously check the settings. “Ready. The sooner we get this done, the sooner you can get back. Do you think the sheep will be upset if you‘re late?”

*

Gereshk’s men had reported the army was much more active than the previous days, but none had dared get close enough to discover their purpose. Sometime overnight the soldiers had spread throughout the city. Rumors were flying. Instead of releasing his men to investigate, Gereshk had held them back so as not to arouse suspicion. But cut off from the outside, denied even the dubious pleasure of walking the dilapidated neighborhood, they were more on edge than usual.

Gereshk did what any good leader would do: make work. After morning prayers, his men were ordered to inventory the supplies. Once the tedious task was completed, next was a uniform inspection, which gave Gereshk plenty of opportunity to scream at his men for faults, real and imagined. Finally he assigned the worst duty he could think of: weapons cleaning. This was the task which occupied them when Timur’s pounding resonated through the warehouse. The fedayeen were largely unprepared, with their weapons were scattered about, in pieces, being cleaned.

Quietly Gereshk directed his men to the shadows at the far end of the building, gathering up their disassembled rifles, hoping discretion would truly be the better part of valor today. Without their guns, his men had no chance. Pistols against rifles? Knives?

The latch finally gave way and the door creaked open, a figure silhouetted in the light. He came in casually, his AK-74M held loosely across the chest, not even pausing to allow his eyes time to adjust to the gloom. In short order he was followed by five more, just as relaxed, who spread out in a loose perimeter.

The sixth and slightly more alert trooper entered, AK held at ready. He showed signs of having seen combat. He’d have to go first, then the rest might panic.

 “Look alive, you useless fucks!” he barked, heedless of the echoes.

Obviously the sergeant, thought Gereshk.

He peered around with a definite sense of purpose before waving more of the squad in. The last man in was carrying something boxy, slung around his neck. And he was looking at it closely. Too closely, too focused.

Gereshk gestured to his men, miming assembling the rifles. Whatever that Russian was looking at, it was bad news.

Not now, by Allah! We’re so close!

“Sergeant! I have a reading! Weak beta, but lots of gamma!”

Gereshk could hear the excitement in his voice across the building. A Geiger counter! That’s what he was carrying, which meant the godless Russians were aware of them, aware of the bomb!

Stop, he thought. Only a fool takes counsel of his fears. We are Allah’s warriors, and he shall protect us.

The sergeant’s reply, and the ensuing conversation, was much more subdued. Gereshk imagined it from his days at MCTS:

Check it again, boy.

Yes, sergeant. Fiddle, fiddle. Same readings.

Let me see.

Right here, and here.

Good work, trooper. Voice is raised a little. Looks like we’ve found our target! Spread out, and for fuck’s sake stay alert!

Gereshk was certain of this last as he saw the sudden change in the attitude of the soldiers. From bored, almost contemptuous, they came alive, every fiber of their being poised to what?

From the smiles on the troopers‘ faces, it looked as though they were ready to celebrate, not capture an atomic weapon. They looked to the door, then back to their sergeant, who was pulling out a mobile phone? Not a radio? What was going on here?

Allah be with us! Could they believe this an exercise?

Maybe not Allah. Murphy was.

One of his men, he never found out who and it didn’t seem important later, dropped the magazine for his AK-47 as he was trying to seat it. The metallic clatter rang out unmistakably in the dark silence, a sound every soldier knew by heart.

Immediately the Russians froze in place. They knew they weren’t alone in here, and they suddenly knew this wasn’t an exercise any longer. They had that much discipline, at least.

Gereshk raised his own rifle, sighting in on the sergeant. He knew that if he could take him out, the remainder of the squad would be easy pickings for his battle-hardened warriors. Those of his men with assembled rifles followed suit, waiting in the blackness.

The Russians forgot about the door behind them. Wide open. Spilling brilliant sunshine into the warehouse, silhouetting them. Sunlit halos of dust surrounded them, giving the scene an ethereal feel, if only briefly.

The deep crack of Gereshk’s 47 rang out. Feliks would never again have to worry about the slackers in his squad, as the 7.62mm round blew his throat out the back of his neck. He stayed upright for a few seconds, his body dead, his spine severed, unable to move or warn his men.

Feliks was amazed to see shadowy figures spring up against the far wall. The sound of, ‘Allahu Akbar!’ rising from a dozen throats was the last sound he heard, and then he saw the man who cut him down firing cool three-shot bursts.

At least there was one professional, he thought. But it’s not the Bratva? Then who…? He never got an answer, his body finally collapsing to the ground, his men falling around him. Dying, just as he was.

Despite the spray-and-pray manner of fire from Gereshk’s men, five of the eleven Russians were down within seconds, before even returning fire. Soon enough the higher voices of the 5.45mm AK-74 entered the argument, and both sides dove for cover behind anything they could find.

Some were faster than others.

Drawing on his experience, Gereshk dispatched four of his men with well-practiced hand signals to exit through the rear and circle around to the front. Unseen, they slipped away.

“We shall keep them busy,” Gereshk told his remaining men. “The others will finish them. In the name of Allah, do not shoot our own! Take care, look first before you pull the trigger!”

The eight kept the Russians occupied, taking turns ripping off entire magazines. Gereshk stood and selected his targets more carefully, choosing those who seemed to be moving toward the door, or looking for better cover, or moving to a flanking position. That wouldn’t do.

The ambush team missed Grisha, the last member of Feliks’ squad, positioned outside the warehouse just as the manual proscribed: one man to be held back to cover the exit, usually with a radio. But Grisha hadn’t ever been given a radio, and mobiles, unless specifically authorized, were strictly forbidden, and he was almost totally unaware of what was occurring inside.

At the shot that laid out Feliks, his first reaction was to rush to his comrades’ aid. Then his training, and his orders, came to the fore. His duty was clear: report. No heroics, no dashing to the rescue. As he listened, he could distinguish large numbers of weapons being fired, few of them by his fellows.

One rifle against all that?

Not today, thank you. He turned and sprinted for his command center down the suddenly empty street. The locals knew this sound of old, too, and knew better than to be witnesses to whatever was happening.

Modern Moscow.

There was no way to know they’d missed a man, of course. When they re-entered the warehouse, the remains of the squad were backing towards the door. The three, including the unlucky Lavrenti, had managed to drop two of their assailants, but at the cost of three more dead. They’d moved into a multi-supporting stack and were deliberately, calmly retreating under fire.

The 7.62mm hail from behind cut all three down in the merest eye blink.

The muj closed the flimsy door, now shot full of holes, behind them. It allowed in a mottled network of sunlight that was strangely beautiful in the wisps of cordite and dust.

Gereshk didn’t waste time sanitizing the area, policing the casings, or even burying his dead. He gave them the quickest prayer he could to speed their way to Allah as martyrs and began issuing orders.

He suspected there had been a sentry. Doctrine called for it, but his ambush team hadn’t seen one. There might even have been a vehicle, even if unlikely in this urban setting.

In any case, it wasn’t worth the risk; it was time to move the weapon. Not too far; just far enough to penetrate the perimeter of the search, find a building which was ‘clean’. Then his surviving men could be sent on their way, and the plan could continue.

He smiled as the truck’s engine caught.

Praise Allah, none of the bullets had gone near it, or the weapon.

There was still time, and a chance.

*

Word of the firefight in downtown Moscow reached Mike as his ad hoc strike team was arriving at the airport.

“Any details?” he asked Anisa, monitoring the radio in the Hind’s crew compartment.

“Not many yet. This private heard firing and ran for it. He says it was a standing order. Nothing else yet on our intercepts or from our local resources in Moscow. The girls back in the Cave are attempting better penetration. If they get confirmation, or a location, they‘ll pass it along.”

“Whatever. He doesn’t know anything, just followed orders and hightailed it out of there? Lucky prick. Well, let‘s try to keep him and a few million Muscovites alive a while longer, eh?”

He paused for thought.

“I know this is asking a lot from the CIA, but do we have map coordinates on this data?”

“No. We’ve got an address which just came in, and we’ve been told that troops from the 2nd Guards are being redeployed. They haven’t even made entry yet. There‘s a strong opinion that it‘s a Bratva operation; it‘s that sort of neighborhood.”

“How long ago did the kid say the firing started?”

“Almost an hour ago, now. Perhaps longer. We have data conflicts on the exact time. Rule of thumb, according to Grez, is split the difference on the side of incompetence. These are Russian troops, after all.”

“Fuck! More than enough time to move the package.” Mike fumed.

“What were they thinking, calling it all an exercise? If you’re going to flood the town with troops and scare the shit out of civilians, what’s the fucking difference? Maybe if they’d known the truth, they might have been more alert and aware, and maybe even alive now!”

“Agreed, Kildar.”

“Right. You hold down the fort until we‘re ready to go. Anything new, make sure the Cave knows it gets fed to us en route.” He disconnected, removing the headset as the Hind flared out next to the altered Tu-22M. Before Naida could get there, Mike was at the hatch and out. He simply pointed at the boarding stairs before striding quickly towards the plane. In passing, he noted the plane had received a paint job.

“Vanner!”

His Intel specialist poked his head out the door and looked down at his boss.

“Hey, Kildar! Up here!”

Bounding up the stairway, Mike said, “Are we ready to fly? How soon can we be airborne?”

The smile disappeared from Vanner’s face instantly.

“Half an hour. All the new equipment checks out, we just need to fuel her up and we’re hot.” A ghost of the smile returned. “Did you see the logo? On the tail?”

Impatiently, Mike answered, “No, we got some hot information from Moscow en route. For once the CIA had its ears out and got it to us before the fucking Russians.”

“You ought to look,” said Vanner before returning inside. “I’ll set up a link with the Cave so we can go live on the feed here. I need to give them instructions, anyway.”

Behind Mike, Vil’s truncated team was trooping across the tarmac, loaded down with their rucks. A couple had seen something on the plane and were grinning, pointing to the others. The grins spread. Cheering started, and a few began to sing their version of a classic poem.

“Tiger, tiger, burning bright!” The rest wasn’t fit for mixed company. Someone, probably the Chief, though MacKenzie might have had something to do with it too, had helped them filk the poem properly.

Curiosity aroused despite the urgency of the mission, Mike made his way down the stairs and looked back at what looked to be a very expensive paint job on his new aircraft.

Upon the standard gray radar-absorbent and heat-dispersing paint stood the logo of the Mountain Tigers, a snarling tiger on a blue background. Almost against his will, Mike smiled as well.

“Ah, hell. It looks good.” Wondering how much it cost him, and what other surprises awaited him, Mike waved his men forward. Fast plane or not, time was a-wastin’.

He still held to the saying in SpecOps: “It sucks to be a hostage.” Didn’t matter if it was a person or a city, odds were, you were going down with the tango. In this case, there wouldn’t be a letter of condolence to write to the victim’s family. How do you tell a nation you were sorry that millions of her citizens were just vaporized?

If Moscow died, but Putin lived, Mike would extract some vengeance on him. No Lasko this time, no single shot mercy.

No.

He’d pay.

Maybe he’d let Kat and Cottontail play with him a while. Or was that too cruel?

Naah.

Fuck him. He’d heat the needles himself.

“Alright, shake a leg! Vil, you get these men settled in fast. Vanner’ll show you where to stow the gear. Jitka, Irina know you’re running around with other men? Darin, don’t drop that rifle! Sveryan, ready for some urban sniping?”

The men, encouraged as he greeted each, smiled widely as they climbed into the plane.

Cargo storage had been adapted under the crew compartment, and quickly the packed rucks were settled. There were plenty of clips and cargo netting for the gear, even an empty space labeled, ‘Loot or Prisoners’.

The men took their seats and tried to relax.

Trucks, they knew. Helicopters, they were at least familiar with. But like most Georgians, none had ridden in any kind of plane before, let alone a converted Russian bomber. The first-class seats went a long way into easing their transition. About a third were asleep before the doors were dogged shut.

The stragglers, Arensky, Grez, and Anisa followed closely, with Adams and Katrina bringing up the rear. Mike met them at the foot of the stairs.

“This will not be as much fun, will it Michael? This road trip?” asked Kat.

“Don’t know,” he admitted. “It’s got quite a punch, so we ought to go like a bat out of hell. I don’t know what Pat’s managed to do to the interior, though.”

“Let’s see, then. I’m sure it will be fine. I heard Stasia telling him of people she knew in Tbilisi.”

He went pale for a few seconds.

“Bet it’s all wires and gadgetry, with benches for the troops,” grumbled Adams.

Katrina’s squeal of surprise disabused him of that notion, and even Adams was impressed when he finally cleared the door.

“Fucker does good work,” was all he’d admit to though. “Window. You’ll need to check with comms more than me, dickhead.”

“What makes you think I’m sitting next to you?” retorted Mike, mentally adding up the costs. Uncle Sam, through Pierson, might buy the bird, but he didn’t think anything outside the needs of the mission would be expensed out. Vanner’d better have a justification for everything, or his budget would suffer. Then, Vanner would suffer; Grez didn’t take kindly to budget cuts.

Mike was smiling again by the time he arrived in the cockpit with Hardesty and Watson.

“So, Colonel, you think you can get this bird off the ground?”

“Damn straight,” said Watson. “I was a little worried when I saw what your Warrant did to her, but Grez’ll fly circles around anything else in this part of the planet.”

“Grez?” asked Mike, confused.

“Didn’t he tell you?” said Hardesty. “He’s named her. After his wife, apparently.”

Mike thought.

“Appropriate if a bit surprising. Trying to stay on her good side.” Just then Vanner entered the cockpit as well.

“’Grez’?” asked Mike.

“Well, I suppose I could have gone with ‘Vengeance’ or ‘Fuck you’, but…”

Mike laughed. “If she’s half as good as the original, the name will fit. Looks like you’ve worked a minor miracle in here,” he added.

“It’s amazing what comes out of the woodwork when you use one of these,” Vanner replied, pulling out a black card.

“Afraid I may have put a bit of a dent on it,” he said sheepishly, handing the Titanium card to Mike.

“How did you get this? Did the Mice hack my account again?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” answered Vanner seriously. “No, Stasia gave this one to me. She said to tell you, ah, ‘payback from a bitch is a bitch too’.”

Mike groaned.

“Whatever. Okay, let’s get this show on the road.”

“I’ve filed a flight plan, direct to Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. They weren’t happy about that, but your Mr. Vanner did something,” said Hardesty. “I assume you wanted to park upwind of any fallout. Again?“

Mike looked the question at Vanner.

“I thought about Paris, then I called Chechnik. Vnukovo’s usually used for domestic flights only, not international. He arranged it all. Bet me five hundred, US, that Putin‘d stroke out when he hears about Grez.”

“It’s the closest, both to us and to central Moscow, and the runways are long enough to handle the Backfire,” added Watson. “And do me a favor, please, Kildar?”

“What, Colonel?”

“Don’t talk to me about Paris. I don’t know, I don’t want to know, and I really, really don’t want to get stuck ferrying Beavers around Greenland because you opened a compartment I’m not cleared for. I’m going to pull a Schultz and fly the Lady where she’s bound.”

“Flight time?”

“About eighty minutes, including taxiing and getting to altitude. We could perhaps manage to shave ten minutes off, but I want to leave a little in reserve,” answered Hardesty. “Just in case of a second sunrise and we have to pull the first-ever aerial J turn at full burners.”

Mike nodded, thinking it wise to leave some fuel for maneuvering. They might already be too late, or they might be leaving in a hurry, dodging AA and SAMs. Then he realized the number Hardesty had quoted.

“An hour and change?” said Mike incredulously.

“An hour in the air, given current conditions. The rest on the ground. Yes.”

“Holy shit.” This plane had potential. Lots of it. It was all about force projection, and suddenly the Keldara were going to be able to reach the entire Middle East with ease.

“That assumes we use full military power the entire flight. And the takeoff,” warned Hardesty. “I hope the new seating holds up.”

“Don’t worry,” assured Mike. “Stasia’s not aboard today, and I don’t think the boys are going to react quite the same way. Some are already asleep. You do what you need to do, John, Colonel. The plane is yours.”

He couldn’t resist.

“The target is Moscow. Make it so.”

He didn’t do the hand gesture; that was just a bit much.

“Very good, Kildar.”

*

“Tbilisi tower, Kildar One, holding short at runway three one, request permission for takeoff.” Watson settled his hand on the throttle, and Hardesty mirrored his action. Both would be needed when they received clearance.

“Kildar One, you are cleared for departure runway three one.”

“Roger, Tbilisi tower,” answered Watson. “On my mark, we go full military and hang on. We’ll hit the burners as soon as we’re out of ground effect. Make sure our airspace is clear.”

“Grez, five-kilometer warning, please. Notify of any hostile emissions. Any contacts, immediate countermeasures plan Charlie.”

“Confirmed, Captain Hardesty,” the sultry voice responded smoothly, if somewhat artificially.

Together they pushed the throttles forward, standing on the brakes.

The twin Kuznetkov NK-25 turbofans suddenly grew deafeningly loud as power built. In seconds, Watson released the brakes and the Backfire fairly leapt forward. Within a few hundred meters she was airborne and climbing at her maximum fifteen meters per second. The variable-geometry wings were pulled back into a delta for maximum speed, and they flashed through the air.

As they passed five hundred meters, the afterburners kicked in, pushing everyone back into their seats.

“That’s one problem you missed!” yelled Mike over the noise. “Soundproofing!”

“I’ll work on it in Moscow!” promised Vanner. “I thought the tiles would be enough!”

But Mike wasn’t listening, he was leaned over and saying something to Katrina. He shrugged and pulled out his master tablet, began checking on the AI heuristics and settings. He was pretty sure it was all dialed in, but it didn’t hurt to check. Let the guys up front think it was the airplane doing the magic. Who said the flight engineer had to be in the cockpit?

Adams was already asleep. His snores almost overwhelmed the roar of the engines.

No one noticed when they broke the sound barrier except a few mountain goats and one unfortunate Chechen who had, miraculously, evaded all the Georgian patrols. The sonic boom reverberated off the steep mountain slopes, starting an avalanche of snow and mud which buried him for all eternity.

Published by gaffen620

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

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