Michael Harmon has been there and done that. Rescued co-eds, killed major terrorists, stopped nuclear assaults. Now he’d just like to kick back and relax with his harem of lovelies. Unfortunately, the world keeps turning. Mike and the Keldara are back tracking down terrorists, rogue Russian bio-scientists and the doomsday weapon to end all doomsday weapons. It’s going to take some very tough, hard and nasty people to stop the end of the world. Fortunately, there’s Mike Harmon. The Hero of Ghost, Kildar and Choosers of the Slain, along with his company of elite mountain fighters, is sent on a mission to stop an advanced smallpox plague from being turned over to terrorists. But that will only be the beginning as the Kildar and his Keldara rush to stop a host of WMD attacks, coordinated to take out the very heartland of terrorism’s enemies. It’s a battle for culture, and this time the terrorists aren’t aiming at just one building…

Unto the Breach

by John Ringo


As always:

For Captain Tamara Long, USAF

Born: May 12, 1979

Died: 23 March 2003, Afghanistan

You fly with the angels now.


There were a bunch of people I had to get research help from on this one. As usual, Ryan Miller and Mike Massa contributed to technical operational help as well as HALO training details. I’d like to thank Christopher Austin, former member of the Army Hight Altitude Rescue squad for really professional input on the mountaineering portion. James Cochrane, husband of my coauthor Julie and Emil Prasowksi of the Army Marksmanship Training Unit supplied helpful advice on long-range shooting about which I previously knew virtually nothing. I’ll add that James, on the spur of the moment, took over a necessary four hour drive when I was so sleep deprived from writing I was babbling. The fact that I didn’t die in the midst of writing this novel is probably due to James and Julie. Thanks.

As usual, any mistakes are mine.

I’d also like to thank the girls at Hooters of Chattanooga for supplying gallons of sweet tea and keeping my ashtray emptied and my girlfriend for being just fine with me sitting in Hooters five hours a day.


“Working late, Doctor?” Boris asked, yawning and glancing at the scientist’s identity card.

Dr. Tolegen Arensky nodded, trying not to appear nervous. “One of my samples is done cooking; I have to test it when it’s fresh.”

“Better you than me,” Boris replied, handing the ID back and making a note on his log-sheet. “If I ever have to pass the doors of even level one, it will be too soon, yes?”

“The day we have to call security into the quarantine zones is the day I quit,” Dr. Arensky said with a weak smile. “I barely trust our research assistants in there, no offense.”

“None taken,” Boris replied with a shudder, pressing the solenoid under his desk. At the sound of the all-clear buzzer the over-watch, observing the entry room from a remote security station, opened the sliding steel entry door and Dr. Victor Arensky started the last hour of his tenure in Russian biological research.

He passed through another metal door, nodded at the sleepy guard on the far side and turned right towards his office. If he had turned left he would have quickly confronted a third steel door and the various processes required to enter Quarantine Level One. Since he generally worked in Level Four or even Five getting to his primary labs was a daily chore.

Staying in the outer “non-quarantine” zone of the hexagonal building he passed seven office doors, all on his right and representing by their names and title plates descending levels of power in the institute, passing his own at the seventh. Any sample, of course, would be cooking away in Level Four — nobody did any more research in Five since the “incident” nearly ten years ago — but he hoped that the guards would be their usual efficient self and ignore that.

He went past his room, however, and stopped at the very end of the corridor. There was one more door there, a janitor’s closet. He entered the janitor’s closet and removed some bottles of ancient and dust covered bleach from the third shelf on the left. From under his bulky winter coat he removed a vaguely pyramidal object and stripped a coating from the flat underside revealing a sticky tape. He pressed the object against the wall then very gently unscrewed the tip of the object which was cylindrical. On the base of the screw device was a plastic plug with a round plastic tab jutting from it. He grasped the tab and pulled, removing the plug with a vaguely “pock” sound. As he did a blue LED on the other end of the cylindrical device began to blink. He carefully screwed the cylinder back into the device and then placed the plastic plug in his jacket pocket.

That done he proceeded back to his office.

As he entered the room he removed his heavy outer coat and fur hat, hanging them on the coat-rack by the door then followed them with his suit coat and donnned his lab coat. After a moment’s thought, after actually turning to his desk, he paused, removed the lab coat and redonned his suit coat. After another moment’s thought he removed the heavy jacket and fur hat and placed them on his desk.

The office was small, barely adequate to fit his desk, a safe in one corner and a filing cabinet. It was also spartan. On the desk was a lined pad, a pencil and a framed photograph. On the back wall was a picture of the current Russian president. A slight discoloration around the frame indicated that there had once been a larger picture in the same spot. It also indicated how long it had been since the office was painted.

Picking up the briefcase that was already in the room he set it on the desk and opened it. Turning to the safe, the combination for which the facility administrator did not have even if the idiot thought he did, he dialed in the combination from memory and opened it. Inside were four steel containers. Smuggling them to his office had taken the better part of two nerve-wracking months but getting them out of the building was impossible; everything leaving was searched with otherwise abnormal efficiency.

Which was why he was here at three o’clock in the morning.

He opened the briefcase and slitted the containers into the pre-cut slots in the foam rubber inside. He then removed ten CDs from the safe and carefully arranged them on the face of the foam rubber. He started to close the safe then paused and picked up the framed picture on the desk. He looked at it for a moment and then carefully removed the picture itself, sliding it into the briefcase before closing and locking it.

His preparations complete he centered the briefcase on the desk, sat down on his hard wooden chair and steepled his fingers in front of him. After a moment he looked at his watch. He would continue to do so every nine seconds, unthinkingly and really unseeing, for the next three minutes and forty seven seconds.

* * *

At the same moment as Boris was questioning the doctor on why he was arriving to work at three in the morning, on a narrow road nearby a delivery truck was stopping at a police checkpoint.

Police checkpoints were so ubiquitous, and greedy, in the Confederation of Independent States, the former Soviet Union, the only surprise on the part of the driver was to find one at this time of the morning at such an out-of-the-way spot. However, based upon their standard police car and there being only two of them it was probably a roving patrol that had chosen a side-road to “raise some revenue.” If they were on the main road it would be obvious and they’d have to cut their watch supervisor in on their take. Out here nobody was going to notice.

The driver braked to a stop and pulled out his license and registration, slipping a ten ruble note between them. He’d put it in an expense report and probably be paid back, eventually. Karenska Pharmaceuticals could afford the bribes; they were after all a part of doing business in Russia. They were so common, they weren’t even considered bribes. Given the way that all public servants were paid these days it was almost reasonable for the cops to increase their salaries in this way. But they could be God-damned greedy about it.

“License and registration,” the officer said as the driver rolled down the window. There was another officer on the passenger’s side, waiting patiently. Not common but not unknown. Generally they were both on the driver’s side so that the partner could be sure of the take. The strangest thing about the policeman, the driver noticed in the last moments of his life, was that he was unusually fit and professional looking.

“Please step out of the vehicle,” the policeman said, stepping back and gesturing. He also hadn’t pocketed the money.

“Why?” the driver said. “I’m not drunk.”

“I need to ask you a few questions,” the policeman said, waving again with is left hand and placing his hand on the butt of his service pistol. “Out of the truck!”

At this the passenger side door was yanked open and the officer on that side grasped the driver’s mate, pulling him down to the road.

“Okay, okay!” the driver said raising his hands then lowering them to open the door and climb out. “What’s the big deal?”

“To the side of the road,” the policeman said, sternly. “Hands above your head.”

“Fine, fine, whatever,” the driver replied, shaken. “What is all this about?”

The answer was a cold sensation in the back of his head and then blackness.

* * *

The “police officer” slid the silenced Makarov pistol back into the rear waistband of his perfect uniform trousers and looked at his watch. As he lowered his hand a man wearing the identical coveralls to the driver, right down to the Arenska Pharmaceuticals badge on his left breast, walked out of the woods carrying a body bag. He unrolled it next to the body and then the “driver” and the “policeman” lifted the driver’s body into the bag. The “driver” zipped it shut and then the two lifted it and carried it to the rear of the panel van.

When they got there six men in heavy battle dress were already there, opening up the back door. Four of them boarded and caught the tossed bodies, rapidly stacking them on the shelves lining the side of the panel van. The remaining two were carrying weapons, coveralls and body armor. As the bodies were being stacked one of the policemen slid on the coveralls as the two porters handed off their burdens to the four stackers in the van. The second stripped of his police uniform revealing the uniform of the Federal Security Executive underneath. He was handed a heavy jacket, a fur hat and correct equipment for his position. When the “policemen” were dressed, all four climbed into the now crowded panel van.

Three seconds after the door slammed the panel van started rolling again. From braking to a stop until moving the van had been in place for two minutes and twenty-seven seconds, three seconds ahead of plan. The “driver” considered this and reduced his speed by one kilometer per hour. It wouldn’t do to be there early.

* * *

A rubber boat crunched to a stop on the shingle of the island and the six men in black immersion suits and body armor spread out in three teams of two. Each team had one man carrying two Russian RPO-A disposable rocket launchers while the second carried an SV-98 sniper rifle. Each man was wearing night-vision goggles and ran through the darkness as if they had done it a thousand times, easily avoiding the many large rocks that littered the beach.

One of the teams paused and took a knee as the team member carrying the sniper rifle pulled a heavily weighted device from his belt. The device was, essentially, a tomahawk with a heavy head. The “front” side of the head was a razor sharp axe blade. The “back” side was a hammer-head.

After a moment there was a crunch of shingle a sentry stepped off a worn trail onto the shingle and started walking to the east, away from the crouched team.

The team sniper stepped forward silently, placing his feet carefully to prevent the shingles crunching and pausing to let the wind carry the slight sounds he was forced to make away from the sentry. This silent, but rapid, stalk brought him to within a arm’s length of the sentry in less than a minute. As soon as he was within reach he brought the axe, which had been held up over his right shoulder the whole time, down and across from the left, burying it slightly sideways at the very top of the sentry’s neck. Leaving the axe in place, he caught the falling body and lowered it to the ground then gestured to the trail and followed the rocket-man up.

Just over the slight rise to the north was a hexagonal building, guarded on it’s vulnerable rear by three heavily armed, and armored, bunkers…

* * *

As Dr. Arensky was screwing a blue blinking cylinder into a pyramidal device the regular morning delivery from Arenska Pharmaceuticals pulled to a stop at the outer gate of the facility.

The outer gate was on a narrow causeway that led to the mainland. The hexagonal facility was on a small island in Astrakhan. The only way on and off were by helicopter, boat or across the narrow, kilometer and a half, causeway.

“Where’s the regular guy?” the guard asked, blinking. It was breezy as hell on this guard post and he’d been huddling in his unheated shack trying to survive until he saw the headlights. Being out in this whipping wind wasn’t his idea of fun, either.

“Drunk? Sick? Quit? I dunno,” the driver said, unpleasantly, handing over an Arenska ID and manifest stating that he was Ivan Sorvoso, Arenska Pharmaceuticals Employee Number 54820 and that Ivan Sorvoso, Arenska Pharmaceuticals Employee Number 54820, was the correct driver for the vehicle on this day for this load of biological chemicals, precursors and testing samples, inventory enclosed. “All I know is I got called at damned midnight for this shit. So I’d like to be done and gone as soon as possible.”

“Fine by me,” the guard said but studied the documentation carefully. He was new and motivated, which was why the old guys had stuck him on the outer guard shack. That way the little snot wouldn’t be grumbling all the time about them being asleep. He nodded after a moment’s careful perusal and handed the documents back. “All in order,” he said, stepping back into his guard-shack and pressing a solenoid to raise the heavy metal pole across the road.

Without so much as a wave the truck jerked to life and headed towards the vast hexagonal building ahead.

* * *

As the panel van pulled away from the guard-house the three sniper/rocket teams reached their pre-attack points. Each of the sniper members pulled out periscopic night vision devices and checked the bunkers. Each was manned, with lights on in the interior. Tactically, they should have been red or blue but over the years the various users had substituted white bulbs so the bunkers stood out like neon signs. It also meant that the users would effectively night-blind.

Almost simultaneously, although separated by eighty yards, the three snipers snapped their periscopes down and picked up their rifles.

* * *

As the sentry was being taken down, four of the eight entry specialists in the panel van slid off as it passed the front doors. The reason for the hexagonal shape was purely security; the hexagons made it possible to fit more area in while maintaining a reasonable number of external cameras. A rectangle had less internal area, a circle created too many “blind” areas.

Unfortunately, the excellent theory had run into far too typical Russian inefficiency. The front cameras, in fact, left precisely that dead zone to the left of the front doors. The eastern camera pointed slightly outwards as did the western. This was supposed to be covered by the two cameras over the door, but those left a solid gap, about six meters wide, along the wall. The team of four crouched in that gap for a moment as the lead checked his watch. Then he nodded and waved one of the armored and masked figures forward.

The figure, the “policeman”, drew his silenced pistol again and fired one round. The shot took out the right-hand camera and he darted forward, reaching into a pouch. From it he extracted a small device and, quickly unplugging the left-hand camera’s port, he inserted the device and replugged the assembly into it. He stepped back and extracted a small PDA and looked at it for a moment. Then he hit a button on the PDA turned his head and nodded.

* * *

As the snipers snapped down their periscopes a new vehicle appeared out of the woods of the distant mainland.

“Busy night,” the guard muttered, stepping out of the shack and slapping his mittened hands together to try to get some feeling in them.

“This is a restricted area,” the guard said, as the passenger slid down his window.

“I have a pass,” the man said.

The guard had no time to react to the sight of the silenced muzzle.

* * *

“Camera Four is out,” the intercom announced to Boris on his lonely vigil at the front desk. “And five just flickered. Go check it out.”

“Got it,” Boris sighed, picking up his walkie-talkie and trudging to the front door. He slid his card through the reader, a newfangled innovation in his opinion and totally unnecessary, and opened the door. The last thing he saw was the masked figure in front of him.

* * *

“Security, this is Boris.” The radio crackled with static and was half unreadable.

Markov set his bottle of vodka down and belched then pressed the microphone button. “Yes? What is wrong?”

“The plug came undone again in this damned wind,” Boris said. Or Markov thought he did, the reception was terrible. “There, how is that?”

The screen for the right-hand door camera flickered for a moment and then came to life. After a moment Boris stepped in view by the door. His head was down and covered by a heavy fur hat with the flaps down, but from the way his uniform was blowing it was reasonable wear for the out-of-doors.

“I’m going in,” the guard said, sliding his card through the reader.

* * *

As the panel van backed up to the loading dock the new car accelerated down the causeway, it’s passenger now standing in place of the guard wearing the same style uniform and markings.

“Teams,” the driver said into his microphone.

“Team One, place.”

“Two… place.”

“Three, place.”

“Go,” he said, quietly, sliding to a stop in front of the main doors.

* * *

The back doors of the panel van crashed open and the single external guard had just enough time to wake up from a vodka induced haze and see the four heavily armed attackers before he died. Two more shots and both cameras were out.

“Boris” opened the front doors and drew two pistols. One shot took out each of the internal cameras and then he stepped to the side as the entry team trotted past. The lead of the team slapped a ring of thermal entry plastic onto the steel door while another slapped a breaching charge in the center. All four of the entry team turned to the side, covering their eyes with their arms, as the plastic was ignited. There was a moment of searing white and a sharp “crack” and clang as the refractory steel was first burned through and then slammed backwards by the breaching charge.

At the side door the identical assault had opened up the loading area. Both teams were in.

A moment later an alarm began to shrill.

* * *

At the sound of the alarm Dr. Arensky sighed and pulled a small device out of his side pocket. He pulled a pin from the device and then pressed the only button on the face. There was a distant “crack” and all the lights went out: on the far side of the wall in the janitor’s closet was the main electrical breaker for the entire building.

* * *

At the first hoot of the alarm, which had been right on time according to their internal clock, the three rocket-men stood up, tracked in on the narrow slit openings of the bunkers and fired, all within the span of a second.

The US Marines in Iraq had recently started to use a “new” thermobaric rocket system against the insurgents. It was only “new” to the Marines, though: the Russians had been using it all the way back to the Afghanistan War.

Thermobaric, often incorrectly called “fuel-air”, rounds used heat, “thermo” and overpressure “baric” to create a devastating explosion. Early thermobaric rounds had used “fuel” as their delivery medium, spreading a gas over a wide area before detonating catastrophically. Newer systems, such as the rocket being used in this instance, used a specialized “slow-fire” solid explosive that, as it exploded, continued to carry molecules of the explosive along its blast front which, in turn, exploded.

This created massive overpressure inside of the bunkers, instantly killing everyone within, blasting off the reinforced rear doors and tossing body parts and chunks of machine-gun out through the narrow engagement slots.

Immediately after they fired, the snipers peaked up besides them scanning for targets. There were two potential reactions that the internal defense team could take. They could respond to the bunkers being hit or to the attack on the inside. In the event of attempted reinforcement of the bunkers… there were the snipers…

* * *

Team Two, the side-door team, blew down the cargo door on the side and turned immediately to the right. The internal door here was only wood and the lock blew off at the blast of a shotgun. As the door thudded open the lights went out. The alarm continued to shrill but only spotty emergency lighting, red and dim, came on throughout the facility. The team waited patiently, however, for what was about to occur as shotgun blasts, regular as clockwork, began to boom down the corridor.

* * *

Team One, the front entry team, spread out. Two team members started down the hallway to the left, two more to the right. As each team came to a door, the lead placed his shotgun against the lock, pulled the trigger and then stepped back. The trail then stepped forward tossed a head sized device into the room and the cycle was repeated.

The right-hand team did the same, moving down the corridor to Dr. Arensky’s office then passing by.

As the two teams spread out the driver of the sedan strolled into the main corridor and turned to the right. When he reached Dr. Arensky’s office, as the right-hand team reached the end of the corridor and tossed a device into the janitor’s closet, he knocked on the door, three times, with pauses between.

The door was jerked open as Dr. Arensky struggled into his heavy outer coat, the briefcase in his hand.

“This is madness,” the doctor said, sputtering.

“You do have it, though, yes?” the man asked. He was tall and broad with gray-shot black hair and a tanned face lined by much time out-of-doors.

“I have it,” Dr. Arensky snapped, lifting the case.

“Let us go, then,” the man said, lifting his arm to look at his watch and then nodding as a sharp crack sounded down the corridor. The crack, and flash of light, was followed by a series of rapid, short bursts of fire. Seven in all. “Our ride is on the way and we don’t want to keep them waiting.”

He waved down the hallway as the team of two men, one of them “Boris/Policeman” walked to the door. “Boris” casually tossed his last packet in the room and the two followed Arensky and the broad man out the front door.

From out of the cloudy sky, which was now drifting snowflakes downward, an Alouette helicopter dropped, twin to the one dropping to the rear of the facility. The team boarded silently, the broad man and “Boris” simultaneously pushing Dr. Arensky into one of the seats and buckling him in. When they were done, and in their own seats, the rest of the team was in and secured.

The broad man looked at his watch and nodded as the helicopter lifted into the sky.

“One minute forty seven seconds,” he said across Arensky to “Boris.” “Very good time, Kurt, very good.” He pulled a device similar to the one that Dr. Arensky had had out of his pocket and extended an antenna. When he depressed the plunger the entire administrative section of the Russian Institute for Agricultural and Biological Research disappeared in a blinding flash. The concussion slightly rocked the rapidly ascending helicopter.

“Very good time indeed.”

Chapter One

“Fuck me.”

Mike Harmon, AKA Michael James, AKA Duncan Michaels and currently Mike Jenkins or “Kildar”, was thirty-seven years old, brown of hair and eye, medium height with a muscular build and a face that, while slightly handsome, was also so “normal” that he could pass as a local in just about any Indo-European culture from the US to Northern India. That trait, and an almost prescient talent for silent-kill, had earned him the nickname “Ghost” while on the SEAL teams. After sixteen years as a SEAL, most of it spent as an instructor, he had found himself unable to readjust to team life, gotten out and gone to college. Since then his life had taken so many weird turns that he had ended up as a feudal lord in the country of Georgia. With a harem, no less. Oh, and with every terrorist on earth searching for his head. Which was why he never used the name “Ghost” or “Jenkins” except around a very few, very close, friends.

Mike was sitting on the summit of Mount Sumri, drinking in the cold, heady air of the high mountains and just taking a look around. He’d taken to climbing the mountain every few days as a way to get exercise and some time away from his various duties.

The Keldara called it “Mount Raven” for the flocks that gathered on its slopes. It was the highest peak of the many surrounding the valley and the birds apparently liked the viewpoint. So did Mike: one of the reasons to climb it was to take a look around.

As he’d been examining the mountains to the north, a source of constant low-grade anxiety, a flash of movement caught his eye. The hills had small herds of deer, wild pigs, mountain goats and even a few wolves. But this shape was different. Low-slung, slow-moving and… predatory.

He steadied the binoculars by resting his elbows on his knees and engaged the digital zoom. The picture tended to pixellate but he could zoom to a hundred times normal view magnification at the maximum. He zoomed it out to about seventy times and then controlled his breathing instinctively, trying to catch the shape again.

It was a tiger. A young male Siberian if he wasn’t mistaken. Which was just flat impossible. The last tiger in the Caucasus Mountains had been killed off nearly a century ago. The Keldara still had a few preserved skins, but that was the only remnant. And the nearest breeding group of Siberians, which were themselves threatened with extinction, was, well, in Siberia. Eastern Siberia, which was about as close to the Caucasus as Southern California was to Nova Scotia. There was no way a tiger could have just walked all the way from Siberia.

But the evidence was there before his eyes. He wasn’t about to dismiss it. Even if it was impossible.

The tiger only remained in sight for a moment then disappeared over the crest of the ridge. It was as if it had come into sight just to show say: Hey! Yo! Here I am!

“Cool.” Mike whispered. But he made the decision, immediately, to keep quiet about it. There was no way he was going to mention the sighting unless other evidence turned up. Nobody would believe it. Oh, they’d be polite enough about it. He did, after all, employ or, basically, “own” just about everyone he met on a day to day basis.

While he couldn’t be said to “own” all he could survey from his lofty aerie, he did control it. The valley below, the valley of the Keldara, he did own. He had bought the valley, and the caravanserai that came with it, more or less on a whim. He had gotten lost and found himself in a remote mountain town with the strong possibility of being stuck there all winter. Since the only available living quarters, an unheated and bug infested room over the town’s sole bar, were less than pleasant, he had needed some place to stay. And, frankly, he was tired of traveling. So, thinking that he could always sell the place if he had to, he had “bought the farm”, mostly for the caravanserai, a castle like former caravan hostel. The “farm” was in the valley below, a fertile high-mountain pocket valley about five miles long and two in width stretching more or less north to south.

The farm came with tenants, the Six Families of the Keldara. The Keldara were, at first, a pretty mysterious group. They were said to be fighters but on the surface they were much like any similar group of peasant farmers Mike had encountered in over forty other countries.

The valley also came with problems. The farm had been terribly neglected for years and the Keldara still used, essentially, dark ages equipment: horse and ox drawn plows, hand scythes and threshed the grain by running oxen over it. The farm manager was a blow-hard who had all the farming and management skills of a rabid badger. And the Keldara had little or no motivation to improve things.

Mike had solved that problem early on by finding a new farm manager, a former Keldara who had been university trained as an agronomist and then “exiled” from the families for challenging the farm manager’s authority. The other fix was just throwing money at the situation: he had bought new equipment, tractors, combines, chainsaws and everything else a modern farm needs. Together with modern seeds, fertilizers, herbicides and farming techniques, the direct farming aspects were coming together. The fields below were yellow stubble from the largest bumper crop any of the Keldara had seen in their lives. The harvest festival scheduled for tomorrow was going to be a happy event.

The other problem, though, looked to be more intractable. Right over the mountains to the north was Chechnya, where the Russians were fighting an ongoing insurgency that had continued without relief for over fifteen years. The Chechen resistance used the Pansiki Gorge, less than sixty miles from where Mike sat, as their primary basing area. Technically part of the country of Georgia, Georgian forces, limited in number, under-trained and funded and with other serious problems to handle, didn’t even consider trying to contest it with the battle experienced and well-armed Chechens.

The battles spilled over to the region of the Keldara. The Chechens used the area as a transshipment point, sending drugs and kidnapped women out to be sold or traded for weapons and ammunition and bring the ammo and weapons back. The constant trade was a source of anger on the part of the Russians who regularly threatened the area with outright invasion.

The Chechens didn’t just wander through the area. They often extorted food and girls from local farms or, in some cases, raided and burned them. Whole towns had been raided within the last few years.

It wasn’t the best security situation in the world.

Mike’s response was simple: Turn the Keldara retainers into a militia. He had, in his time, seriously pissed off every terrorist on earth. If he was going to be right next to Chechen Central, he wanted some shooters at his back. He hired a large number of trainers from the US and Britain, shipped in top quality gear and set out to turn the “simple farmers” into a group capable of, at the very least, securing their own homes and his.

The Keldara had 120 males available between the ages of seventeen and thirty. Mike’s goal was to turn them in to a decent company of militia, period. He wanted them to be able to maneuver against an enemy force while the younger women, who were trained in positional defense, held the homes. That was it.

What he found out, as the training progressed, was that the Keldara were far from “simple farmers.” They took to military training as if they had been born with a rifle in their hands. Enthusiastic didn’t begin to cover it; he realized, quickly, that he had unleashed a monster.

The reason for their response trickled out, slowly. He still wasn’t sure he knew the whole story. But one part he found out even before the training began: the Keldara were not “true” Georgians; they were a living remnant of an ancient elite force called the Varangian Guard. The Varangians were Norse, mostly from Russia, hired by the Byzantine Emperors as their personal bodyguards.

In the Keldara, the fierce warrior spirit of the Viking was a present day reality. They had to survive as farmers, but at heart they were reavers and warriors that sought death in battle so that they could ascend to their heaven: “the Halls of Feasting”, Valhalla. They masked as Christians but practiced their ancient worship of “the Father of All”, Odin, in secret. Their preferred weapon was the axe and they trained with them as seriously as they learned to plow.

They were, in fact, born with a weapon in their hand. When a Keldara male was born, one of the ancient battleaxes the Fathers kept — axes handed down over literally millenia — was placed in his hands and the hands closed over the great hilt. The first thing they learned to grasp was a weapon.

The Keldara had always had a lord and that person had always been a “foreigner”, a mercenary who was not of the government that controlled them. Often they had been northern European adventurers, knights, cavalrymen, wandering bravos, over the ages the position and weapons had changed but not the pattern.

There was even a name for the person: Kildar.

Mike was but the latest in a long string of foreign mercenaries who had arrived, trained the Keldara in the latest innovations in bringing harm to an enemy and then used them to bring that harm.

That was fine with the Keldara. They just went on. As long as they had their beer, and incredible beer it was, and someone to kill in the name of their Kildar and for the glory of the Father of All, they were happy.

They were called by the locals, and even the Chechens, The Tigers of the Mountains. Simply saying those words to rural Georgians caused them to make the sign of the evil eye and shy away.

Mike swung the binoculars around the valley, idly wondering what the world would bring to the Keldara next. Chechens had come and been defeated, the Keldara being then right off their first day on the range. Another mission in Albania had started as a lie and been made truth by their burning spirit. The toxic result resided in the vaults of the caravanserai, a troubling burden he tried his very best to forget.

He looked down at the homes of the Keldara, low stone buildings with slate roofs and caught sight of a group of Keldara militia sitting outside their barracks, working on weapons and taking in the remaining light of the mild late-fall day. They seemed… happy. Why shouldn’t they be? It was a nice day, they had weapons in their hands and, for the moment, nobody was trying to kill them. Of course, they looked even more happy when people were trying to kill them and they were responding in kind.

Where, he wondered, would the Keldara descend next, following their Kildar aViking to bring fire and axe and ruin?

* * *

“I saw it, I tell you.”

Sion Kulcyanov was eighteen, just. Tall and more slender than the “standard” Kulcyanov look he had the Kulcyanov bright blond, nearly white, hair and blue eyes. He was considered probably the most handsome of the Kulcyanov’s with a squared chin that had a slight cleft, high Scandinavian cheekbones and eyes with a very slight epicanthic fold. His blue eyes were the most notable feature, though. “Striking” was the term that men usually used. “Piercing” was another. Women outside the Keldara girls normally just sighed.

Sion did not consider himself particularly handsome. And among the Keldara he really wasn’t. Oh, he was better than the average, perhaps the best looking among them. But the Keldara, male and female, were invariably so good looking people had a hard time believing it. He might be the “best” but in his general age group there were at least twenty guys that most women, internationally, would count as a “ten” for looks. And the low end was probably Shota, the great dumb ox, who would count as an “eight” in any normal society. A dumb eight. But an eight nonetheless.

Sion’s eyes might have looked nice but they had other assets. He was posessed of vision that was normally reserved for birds of prey. Far-sight was the term. Where other men had to use binoculars he simply… peered.

In America with his phenomenal reactions, high intelligence and incredible eyesight he’d have been a shoe-in for fighter pilot training.

In the Keldara he was spotter for the top team sniper, Lasko Ferani.

With his relative youth, few of the militiamen were much older but few younger, and his anomalous position, his status wasn’t the highest in the militia. Which was why he found the present argument slow going.

“The tigers have been gone for years,” Efim Devlich said, shaking his head. The machine-gunner was somewhat old in the teams at twenty-seven and well regarded. So his argument held more weight. “And there aren’t any anywhere around here. So, tell me, Pee-Boy, where did it come from and why hasn’t anyone else seen it?”

Sion had four kidneys, a not unusual, if unrecognized, mutation among the Keldara. It, perhaps, explained why they could drink so much beer without notable effect. That and the fact that they were given weak beer while still nursing. But one result of four kidneys was a tendency to have to urinate more often than normal. Sion had never quite lived down an accident he’d had when he was six.

“Well,” Sion answered, dryly, “it might be because I can see better, yes?”

The group chuckled and nodded. Just as everyone knew that Sion had peed his pants during Sunday Church when he was six, they also knew his eyesight was phenomenal.

“Well,” Efim said, shrugging, “I’ll believe it when I see it. Or hear it. They roar, you know, just like lions. We will know the tigers have returned when we hear their roar. Now, it’s time for dinner. I would suggest, though, that you keep this to yourself, Sion. Perhaps, if there was a tiger, he did not want to be seen. Not yet.”

“I will,” Sion said, shrugging. “But one day, Efim, you will hear the roar. Then you will know: the tigers have returned.”

* * *

Mike opened up the side gate of the harem garden and made his way through the dark yard, limping slightly. The path up the mountain was enough of a ballbuster but finding his way down, in the dark, was always tricky. The late summer blooms filled the air with a heady fragrance but he was concentrated on just making it to the back door. The trail down had been, as always, a ball buster. There was one spot on the trail that, no matter what he did, he slid. It was tough enough getting up, a slick portion of worn granite at about a sixty degree angle. There were a few finger and toeholds on the way up, but coming down in the dark the best bet was to just slide it. This time he’d done just that, taking his ruck off and letting it follow him down in a barely controlled slide. Fortunately there was a wide wedge of overlaying sandstone at the end of the section of granite and he and the ruck had arrived in one piece. If he’d slipped very far to the right, though, it was a fifty meter fall to the next more or less flat spot.

Very few of the windows were lit, which made making his way through the garden more a matter of memory than sight. Although the Keldara had ended up pulling more than two dozen girls out of the Balkans slave trade, Mike wasn’t about to bring them all back as part of his “harem.” They had been brought to the caravanserai, but only temporarily. He’d set the harem manager and Vanner on finding a spot for them and the two of them had tracked down a parochial girl’s school in Paraguay of all places that was willing to take them. Mike had also offered the girls currently in the harem the option of going and two of them had left.

He knew that most of the girls would be getting ready for bed as he walked in the door so he didn’t expect to see anyone in the circular “common room” but Anastasia was sitting on the settee, reading a book.

The harem manager was twenty-six, long-legged, blonde and beautiful with the darkest blue eyes Mike had ever seen. She was, however, “too old” to be in the harem of an Uzbek shiek that had “given” her to him. Mike, suddenly faced with having a harem of girls from the local area, had gone to Uzbekistan looking for someone like her. Well, he’d sought a manager. A young lady that spoke seven languages, trained as an accountant and manager and an extreme sexual masochist had been a bit of a surprise. As had her approach to the harem.

She had pointed out that the harem was for far more than sex. The girls of the harem were supposed to act as counselors, people on whom Mike could dump the problems and stresses of being, effectively, a feudal lord.

She admitted that it was going to take her a while to train the girls, but in the meantime she fit the bill perfectly. When Mike had a problem, he had learned to not hesitate talking to her about it. When she had a suggestion, they were generally very good, especially when it was about handling people. And when she didn’t even understand what he was talking about, she would still listen carefully and help him to fully “verbalize” the problem. All in all he decided that Anastasia had been one hell of a catch.

“Good place to read?” Mike asked as he negotiated the door. The rucksack was a standard Keldara combat ruck, Swiss-made with integral bracing, multiple sections and all the rest of the modern bells and whistles. But it wasn’t the easiest thing to get through a door.

“The light is good,” Anastasia said, flowing gracefully to her feet and clapping her hands. Petro, the son of the groundsman, came through the far door immediately. “But I was, in fact, waiting for you, Kildar. Petro will take your rucksack. I will have Tinata come up to your room with a light supper after your shower.”

“How long have you been waiting?” Mike asked, helping Petro, who was barely fifteen and overwhelmed by the heavy-ass ruck, to get the mother on his back. The boy’s knees barely sank; he was strong for his age. But he would have had a hell of a time getting the hundred and fifty pound ruck off the floor.

“About five minutes,” Anastasia said, smiling. “Not long.”

“I hate to think I’m that predictable,” Mike replied, rolling his shoulders. “I’m not a person who should be predictable. People can use that, you know.”

“I think that you are only predictable to those who love you and know you well,” the harem manager said, smiling. “And I know you well. Now, go take your shower and by the time you are done Tinata will be ready with supper.”

“Just as a question,” Mike said, “why Tinata?” He had to admit that the comfortable and placid Tinata was a good choice. He wasn’t really up for complex conversation at the moment. All he wanted was to get something to eat and maybe a quick screw then get some rest.

“Because she is right for you, now,” Anastasia said, shrugging. “I don’t question your military decisions or understand them.”

“And I shouldn’t question yours, huh?” Mike said, grinning. “Okay, Tinata it is.”

Chapter Two

Mike swung up onto the gelding and settled into the saddle.

He’d ridden when he was a kid and sort of enjoyed it but until he’d moved to the Valley he’d given it up for over twenty years.

However, due to the pressure of circumstances, the Rite of Cardane being the circumstances, Mike had decided that learning to ride again was a good idea. Reality was that horses were flighty, smelly, cantankerous creatures. But chicks dug them and the Rite was really about the lady, not the Kildar, in Mike’s opinion.

Since relearning, though, he’d started to ride a good bit. It was a reasonable alternative to driving around in an SUV when he was checking out the farm. He also preferred to use a horse for the Keldara’s various ceremonies and festivals. It just… fit better, somehow.

The Keldara were embracing aspects of the 21st Century with enthusiasm. On the shoulder of the hills to the south was a new brewery that, while archaic looking on the outside, was as advanced as anything to be found in Europe or the United States. Computerized temperature controllers and hydrometers, automated bottling systems, the works. In the bowels of the caravanserai, young ladies who a year before had been hand-weaving cloth for clothing and hand sewing same were using computers to analyze voice intercepts, running satellite communications gear and managing one of the most advanced battlefield networks to be found in the world. And those ladies weren’t just punching buttons; they were learning the basic theory behind the systems, how to fix them, how to trouble-shoot, how to repair. Programming and debugging. Cracking and counter-hacking.

Most of the real “smart-work”, Mike had to admit, was done by the women. The men…

The Keldara men had also embraced aspects of the 21st Century. The team members at least. But the aspects they’d embraced made him want to shake his head. Oh, they were just fine with thermal imagery scopes, vibration trackers and such. But show them a circuit diagram and they tended to scratch their heads.

On the other hand, put an Xbox controller in their hands…

But the reality was that in their souls, the Keldara were still very medieval, even barbaric. Give them a generation or two and they might go soft. Might. They’d survived Mongols and Ottomans, Russian Tsars and Communism and still kept their soul. They’d just have to see what the internet was going to do to them.

For now the seasonal ceremonies remained so true to an ancient core that, somehow, turning up in a Ford Expedition just didn’t seem… right.

On the other hand, there was the matter of dress. Mike had one really… uhm… fancy riding outfit. Fancy was the only way to describe it. But he reserved that for the Rite of Cardane. Otherwise he preferred to dress, an ride, Western.

Thus he was wearing a pair of jeans, nice ones admittedly, and cowboy boots, okay those were about six hundred bucks, to the festival. Everyone else would be in their “Sunday Go To Meetin`’ ” clothes so he’d be slightly underdressed. But anything was better than that damned riding costume for the Rite.

He tucked the reins into one hand and gave the gelding his head. He knew he didn’t have to kick or otherwise suggest the Braz Curly get going. The gelding liked going down the hill to the small hamlet of the Keldara. The younger girls of the Keldara tended to pamper him to the point where getting him to leave was the hard part. Irana Tsar, or as Mike preferred to call him “Dumbasss”, was really popular with the younger girls of the Keldara. They all wanted to mount Illyria — the “gray” palfrey that was currently eating hay in the stables — one day and follow Irana up to the caravanserai.

That damned Rite. Mike wished he’d never heard of it. He really wished he hadn’t worked so hard to make it “special.” Dumbass was getting fat from being plied with special cakes, apples, sweets and anything else the girls could filch to feed the pig.

Mike reined in on the road down. The road from the caravanserai was steeper than any similar road would be allowed to be in the US, very nearly a 9% grade. It was easy enough to ascend on a horse, you just leaned forward. Going down, through, was tricky. There was a technique for taking a grade like that fast, one that Mike hoped he never had to try. He could ride, he wasn’t a horseman. There’s a difference.

Dumbass, though, had gotten used to the grade and handled it easily. He wanted to trot — cakes and brushing was waiting — but Mike kept him to a walk.

There were two switchbacks on the drive — each positioned to be swept by fire from the caravanserai — before it reached the main road. The main road was fairly flat through the Valley, winding along the west side past the caravanserai. Going north it passed over the mountains and eventually swept west over some nasty passes to Tblisi. The drive was kidney-pounding once you left the Valley. Mike had actually driven improvements, all paid out of his own pocket, up to the pass to the north. But that was as far as he was paying for. After that he had to put up with the road. It was horrible but one of these days he was going to get a damned helicopter.

To the south the road ascended first to the town of Allerso, a pretty small town of about five hundred souls, then further up to a pass that led to the southern plains of Georgia. Tblisi was accessible in that direction, as well, but a bit further. And the roads were no better.

Not far south from where the drive met the road was the downslope to the homes of the Keldara.

The latter were on a slight terrace on the south side of the valley, not far from Allerso in direct line and at about the same level as the main road. However, Mike had to first descend to the Valley floor then back up to get there.

The drive from the road to the houses was gravelled, but well maintained. It was far better than any of the roads in the mountains outside of Mike’s control. The Keldara had their own gravel pits and ensured that all of the gravel roads in the Valley were maintained in top order.

Mike had considered paving some of them but it didn’t seem worth the bother. Since he’d brought in heavy equipment, the Keldara’s work-load had dropped so much that maintaining the roads was good “busy work” for the older men and the team members when they weren’t on deployment cycle. Pretty much every day one of the Keldara men would be out grading them or a group would be laying down new gravel. It was ritual at this point.

The Valley had one “major” river, about fifty feet across at its broadest, and five or six, depending on how you counted, streams that joined the “river.”

One of those streams had been damned, by a former SF engineer Mike brought in, and now provided hydroelectric power to the Keldara and the caravanserai.

During spring they could flood rather badly which was why the road, and the houses, were somewhat elevated. The river was glacier fed and the streams in spring would bulge with melt-water. That was good and bad. Flooding bogged the Valley for a few weeks every year, requiring replacement of bridges that got swept away and general fixing of the fields. But the floods also brought silt, rich with nutrients, the reason that the Valley was so fertile.

Hell, the way the weather looked they might flood tonight. The sky was overcast and strong winds, at times low gale force, were ripping through the region. The forecast, though, said that rain would hold off until about midnight, by which time most of the Keldara would be under cover.

When he hit the road, Dumbass started to shake his head. He wanted to go.

Mike gave him his head and the gelding broke into a canter almost directly out of the run. Mike was fine with cantering, it was a pretty smooth gait, but he drew the line when the horse tried to gallop. Galloping was for horsemen.

Many of the Keldara were already gathering in the broad, flat, area in front of the houses. Mike was pretty sure that the original reason for the higher ground there was a palisaded camp. There were even traces of a defensive ditch in front of the terrace. The open area would have been a marshalling area.

The Keldara used it for much the same reason, now. That was where the tribe gathered for the minor portions of festivals. That was where the kids ran screaming through the crowds and, in this case, people gathered to sample food.

The women of the Keldara prided themselves on two things: their beer and their cooking. Already trestle tables piled with special foods had been set up in the area and everyone was sampling the wares. Which meant there were plenty of young teen girls in the area, carefully ignoring their male counterparts. And Mike had been spotted as soon as he left the gates of the caravanserai.

So when Dumbass came cantering up the road into the area, Mike sawing on the reins to slow him down before he trampled some kid, he was immediately swarmed.

“God, girls!” Mike said, grinning against his better nature. “Give me a chance to at least get off the damn thing!”

The girls were a swarming mob, dressed in bright blouses and black skirts. The Keldara kept some very strict customs about dress which told an informed observer a lot. Girls who had had their first period wore “dhimmie” scarves, a legacy of Islamic occupation under first Magyar tribes then the Ottomans. Girls who were “available” wore their hair in braids. Girls who were married wore their hair unbraided.

Younger girls, those who hadn’t hit puberty, didn’t wear scarves. Younger ones their hair was generally pulled back but unbraided. The older ones, though, mostly wore braids.

Mike tossed his reins to one of the girls with a dhimmie scarf and braids and slid off the horse.

“Don’t overfeed him!” Mike said, sternly. “He nearly got colic the last time! You don’t want to kill him, you know.”

“Yes, Kildar,” the girl holding the reins said, bobbing in a curtsey. She had blonde hair and bright blue eyes. And, as always with the Keldara, was just fucking beautiful. Okay, so maybe the Rite wasn’t all bad.

Mike made his way through the mob as politely as he could, trying to avoid brushing against breasts or being groped. The Keldara were very strict about sex but there were some very odd aspects. If they could get away with it, if they thought nobody would notice, if, for example, they were surrounded by other girls who shieled the act from the Elders and who wouldn’t tell, the girls in the dhimmie scarves would grope him in an instant. And they had very strong hands.

They also weren’t above giving the Kildar a little tease with a quick brush of a breast against his arm. Or back or any other part of his body they could reach.

Mike finally broke through that throng and then hit the kids. He’d taken to carrying hard candies with him whenever he went down to the Valley and he gave it out to the children. Sometimes he was pressed for time and all but the youngest understood. But when he had time he handed it out.

“Gregor, that’s Stasi’s,” he said, pulling back a sweet and giving it to the younger girl by the boy’s side. He handed Gregor one, next.

Generally, he could just hold the sweets out in cupped hands. The Keldara kids had learned not to grab more than one, to let the younger ones go first. It had taken a while, but Mike had been firm and patient. By now the older kids tended to teach the younger the rules, sometimes with a slap on the hand or the back of the head.

The kids also didn’t drop their wrappers. Mike had instituted the almost purely US and Western European concept that “littering is bad.” The older Keldara still had trouble with the idea but the kids were learning. A child that just dropped his wrapper on the ground was, like as not, not going to get a sweet the next time around. Mike sometimes had trouble with names, there were nearly six hundred Keldara all told, but he rarely forgot a face.

Once the kids had their candy, Mike dropped the last few pieces into his pockets and looked up into a pair of blue eyes so deep they were very nearly purple.

There was one girl of the Keldara who, dhimmie scarf or no, didn’t braid her hair despite being all of fourteen. It fell long and fiery red past her shoulders in a titian waterfall. Heart shaped face and slightly Tartar eyes and that incredible blue.

“Hello, Katrina,” Mike said, smiling faintly. “How have you been?”

“Actually, not that bad,” Katrina said, walking up to stand far too close to him and looking up at him out of those huge, beautiful, eyes. “I’m working up at the brewery these days.”

The reason Katrina wore her hair unbound was simple. She, against every order, prohibition or curse, considered herself Mike’s primary partner. The Kildaran was the term. The fact that Mike had never laid a hand on her, that Anastasia effectively held that position, that Mike had stated he wasn’t going to have anyone with the moniker “Mrs. Jenkins” or children with that last name as potential hostages, didn’t particularly matter from her perspective. She’d set her sights high and she wasn’t taking them off the goal.

“Glad to hear it,” Mike said, trying not to gulp.

Katrina was the first Keldara he’d ever met. He’d gotten lost in a snowstorm headed for a ski resort in northern Georgia. Lost, in the middle of a blizzard, damned near out of gas, he’d almost hit a figure struggling down the road. The female, at the time he’d thought her an old woman, was carrying a bundle of sticks and wrapped up against the cold. He’d offered her a lift home and not really seen her face or figure until he entered the House Devlich.

Despite the difference in age, despite all the differences, Mike had to admit there was something that really got him about Katrina. Oh, there was plenty of lust there and a good bit of infatuation on both sides. But Mike hadn’t felt this way about a girl in a long time, if ever. Call it chemistry. In a few more years he’d have to make up his mind what to do about it. In the meantime, he tried very hard to keep his distance. But he wasn’t going to back up just because the girl had closed to a few inches.

“I’ve started working directly with Mother Lenka,” Katrina said, smiling secretly. “She is teaching me much of her magic.”

“Well, you’re the one to do that with,” Mike said, frankly grinning. “You and Lenka are two of a kind.”

Mother Lenka was the Keldara brewmistress. All of the Houses had their own brew but, hands down, Mother Lenka, who like Katrina was of the Devlich Family, was the best of an amazingly good lot.

Lenka was a Russian war-bride, originally from St. Petersburg. A force of nature, she was never willing to describe what role she had been in, exactly, prior to marrying Frederik Devlich and returning to the Valley to live out the rest of her days. Given her foul mouth, generally lewd approach to life and absolute bloody-mindedness, though, Mike was willing to bet she wasn’t displaced aristocracy. The term “whore” came to mind.

But she had carved a niche for herself in the Keldara, a position of respect equivalent to or even higher than the House Mothers.

All of which were reasons Mike had chosen her to run the new brewery. That beer was designed for sale and export. The first batch had just hit the American market and it was receiving rave reviews. Mike wondered what the drinkers would think if they knew the Keldara considered it less than third rate.

“You think so?” Katrina asked, tilting her head to the side. “And is that a compliment or an insult?”

“I think it’s a compliment,” Mike said. “A sort of sideways one. I don’t think that Lenka has had the happiest life.”

“Should life always be happy?” Katrina asked, her eyes still pointed at his face but now looking past him at some other place. “The world is a wheel, cycles upon cycles. Winter and summer, night and dark, good and evil, all spiraling together. Without pain there is no pleasure and without sadness no joy. All of life is a circle of balance on the wheel.” She shook her head and looked at him again. “Sorry. I… I guess… ” She looked down, clearly ashamed. The Keldara were, by and large, a pretty rock-headed lot when it came to philosophy. Katrina was not, by any stretch, considered a “good” Keldara.

Mike liked the Keldara for about a billion reasons. But that particular rock-headedness was not one of them.

“Don’t apologize,” Mike said. “There are some pretty good technical thinkers among the Keldara but I think you’re just about the only true genius. Genius is never easy to live with. Especially in a place like this. I know you want to be Kildaran but if I have my druthers you’ll get shipped off when you’re eighteen to someplace like the Sorbonne or Princeton to get turned into a nice little liberal.”

“Very funny,” Katrina said, shaking her head. “Look at what happened to the last Keldara to go to college.”

“He came back to be the farm manager,” Mike replied.

“I don’t want to get an agronomy degree,” Katrina snapped back, just as fast.

“No, I think you’re more the liberal arts type,” Mike said. “Semiotics, maybe?”

“I’ve read some Foucault,” Katrina said, shrugging. “Not interested. I think one rock dropped on his head would have adjusted the whole concept of relativism.”

“Where in the hell did you get a copy of Foucault?” Mike asked, surprised.

“Out of your library,” Katrina said. “I think it’s Colonel Nielson’s though. It was filled with notes, most of them consisting of foul-mouthed diatribes.”

“Yeah, that’d be Nielson’s,” Mike said, chuckling. The former War College instructor had very little patience with anything that smacked of “baffling with bullshit.” And people had learned not to say words or phrases like “Politically Correct”, “Marxist” or “Trans-National Progressives” around him unless they’d brought a chair, a lunch and some sort of poncho to keep the spittle off.

“Well, then, you can go to Texas A M and hang out with the Aggies,” Mike said. “You should get a kick out of that.”

“I don’t want to go to college,” Katrina said. “I want to be Kildaran. It does not require a college degree. The only training I need is from that blonde witch you brought in from Uzbekistan.”

“Oh, yeah, you two would get on like a house afire. Every been in a house that’s on fire, Katrina?”

“I actually get along just fine with Anastasia,” Katrina said, batting her eyes at him. “Who do you think gave me the book?”

“Katrina!” Father Devlich shouted, striding over. “Quit pestering the Kildar!”

Father Devlich was tall and broad with gray-shot red hair clipped above the ears and off the collar. Practically the definition of “rock-headedness” he had been landed a “daughter” that was his functional opposite. Perhaps it was the reason that he seemed to be perpetually angry.

“It’s quite alright, Father Devlich,” Mike said, smiling at the man. Of all the Fathers, Devlich was, hands down, his least favorite. And the feeling was mutual.

“Kildar,” Father Devlich said, nodding. “It’s just that the Elders are waiting.”

“I will be there momentarily,” Mike said. He was, after all, the fucking Kildar. If he wanted to talk to a pretty girl, the Elders could damned well wait. On the other hand, Father Kulcyanov was in the group and the old soldier didn’t deserve to be ignored. “Katrina, we’ll talk later. But you’re not in the running for Kildaran. That’s final. Not any time soon. So do good work for Mother Lenka. Get your education down, too. Okay?”

“Oh, I will,” Katrina said, licking her lips. “A very broad education, yes?”

“Oh, my God!” Mike said, shaking his head and walking over to the cluster of Elders.

* * *

“Katrina, I swear by the Father of All… ” Father Devlich ground out.

“You swear what, Father?” Katrina asked. “That you will beat me? That you will deny me food? That you will have me shunned? That you will cast me out and send me to town? You’ve done all of those but send me to town and the Kildar has forbidden that for any girl of the Keldara. I do my job at the brewery, do it well. And I will be Kildaran, bringing honor to the Family. Be it in a year or ten years, I shall be Kildaran. And as to the Father of All, blessings be upon his eye, you know that I now follow the other way. So cursing me by the Father is a weak threat, Father.”

“Very well,” Father Devlich said. “You feel that you are a woman grown? Then I give you into the hands of Mother Lenka. Let her handle you.”

“I have been for three years, Father, and you know that,” Katrina said. “I have been in the hands of Mother Lenka since I came of age. At this point, I am very close to being her designated Heir, Father. More status to the House, yes?”

“Much peace be it to you,” Father Devlich said, contemptuously. “Great honor, yes. The Goddess is so honored, no one will speak Her name. Her Priestess does not speak of Her except in the dark of the moon and the stillness of the cave.”

“She holds Her hand upon the Wheel,” Katrina said, smiling and looking into the distance. “It is She who brings the Spring.”

Chapter Three

“Father Kulcyanov,” Mike said, bowing to the Elder.

Although not the oldest Keldara Father, that would be Father Ferani, Father Kulcyanov was the Elder held in the highest honor. A highly decorated war veteran of WWII, what the locals called the Great War, the man was tall and broad but much of what was clearly formerly great strength was wasted by age. He must once have been as huge as Oleg, Mike’s primary team leader, but age had shrunken him.

He still, when he summoned it, had a commanding majesty. He was currently wearing a black broad-cloth jacket and fine wool trousers but Mike suspected that later in the day, as ceremonies approached, he would don the tiger-skin mantle of the High Priest of the Keldara.

“Kildar,” Father Kulcyanov replied, raspily. “You honor us with your presence.”

“I am honored by the Keldara,” Mike said. “But I’ll admit I wasn’t briefed on this day. I hope I’m not chopping wood again.”

The first season ceremony Mike had participated in had been the Rites of Spring, a twenty-four hour long festival that was the most authentic Spring Rite that might be left in the world.

Part of that festival involved cutting several types of trees for a great bonfire. They had to be cut over one night, starting near dusk. Only a special axe could be used and it wasn’t well suited for the task, being one of the ancient battelaxes of the Keldara.

Mike had ended up, through a desire to bond as much as anything, one of the designated wood cutters. What was worse, after the wood cutting and moving the logs up to the ceremonial area he’d been expected to participate in feats of strength and agility.

It was an annual ceremony to determine who was the best of the Keldara. Mike had realized that too late but, unfortunately, his competitive streak, which any SEAL has in full measure, kicked in. He ended up, effectively, winning the contest, even the bull wrestling. He’d refused the honor of being the winner, though. The position, the Ondah, was one of high honor in the Keldara and Mike wasn’t about to take that from the, in all honesty, second place, Oleg.

His argument was that the Kildar should be the best of the best but that Ondah was a position reserved for the Keldara.

The entire ordeal, though, had been as exhausting as a day in Hell Week. He wasn’t interested in repeating his previous triumph. If he could. The Keldara were in high training at this point. Mike wasn’t sure he could win if he had to do it again.

The summer festival had been another day straight out of a storybook. Held on the longest day of the year it was straightforward Lammas festival with the exception that the Keldara held the “bringing of light” portion in spring.

“Not today, Kildar,” Father Ferani replied, grinning.

At “somewhere around seventy-five” Father Ferani was the eldest of the Fathers of the Keldara, short for his race and shrunken from age. But he was one of those men that, as they aged, seem to harden like old teak. Like Father Kulcyanov, he was a veteran of the Great War, one of the handful of Keldara to return alive. But unlike Kulcyanov, he had spent most of the war in a supply depot well behind the lines.

He was one of the Fathers that Mike got along with very well. Mahona was in that category as was Makanee. Father Shaynav still treated the new Kildar with caution, being a bit hide-bound when it came to change. Father Kulcyanov simply went along with the changes of the Kildar but was always cautious, always watching, always considering exactly where the line might be that impropriety set in. Strangely enough, from Mike’s perspective of “impropriety”, it was Father Kulcyanov who originally suggested the Rite of Cardane.

Father Devlich simply hated Mike’s guts. He was the first Father Mike had met the night Mike returned Katrina to her House in the middle of a blizzard. Whether from the impropriety of a man being alone with one of his “daughters” or just because he was a bloody-minded bastard, it was Father Devlich that always presented obstacles, that carped and worried about all the changes.

“During this morning we will simply gather and enjoy the fruits of the harvest,” Father Mahona said. Mahona was medium height and heft with short-cropped blonde hair shot with gray and a graying beard. “In the afternoon, the brewmistress will choose which crop of barley is suitable for the beers of the House. The young men will then cut the field. For this ceremony we prefer to do that by hand.”

“Of course,” Mike said, nodding. Mike fully recognized that this was as much a religious ceremony as a get-together. It was a hell of a windy day to harvest, though. He hoped that wouldn’t fuck things up. He was pretty sure that if the ceremonial harvest was screwed up, all the grain and fat livestock in the world wouldn’t make the Keldara happy.

“And there is the bonding of Gretchen and Kiril,” Father Mahona added, grinning.

“Of course,” Mike repeated, trying to smile politely. That damned Rite. “What’s that consist of, exactly?”

“The Mothers bring them to Father Kulcyanov,” Father Mahona said, shrugging. “In front of the Six Families. They are promised to each other formally in front of the Families. That is, really, it.”

“I don’t have to do anything, do I?” Mike asked.

“Not today,” Father Mahona said, grinning more broadly. Everyone knew of Mike’s ambivalent position on the Rite. “I believe that would be tomorrow, yes?”

“Wood has already been cut for the fires,” Father Makanee said, politely changing the subject and pointing to the dun. Father Makanee — just about the youngest of the Elders being in his low fifties — was medium height with brown hair and eyes and broad shoulders. “We will hold the Harvest Feast on the dun. Given the night, though, I suspect we will break up shortly after. Rain, maybe snow, is on the way.”

The dun of the Keldara, Mike was pretty sure, was a morraine, a remnant of the glacier that had carved the pass. When glaciers carve their way through mountains they dig up masses of rock. Much of it is then pulverized into soil called loess, a super fine soil that can form clays or, when plants get in it, becomes some of the richest soil in the world.

As the glaciers retreated, through, they dumped their loads of soil and rock. Rivers running through the melting glaciers tended to form it into humps that could be hundreds of feet high in places.

The dun was about a hundred feet high and three times that at the base. Not the largest morraine in the world by any stretch of the imagination but pretty darned big.

“I can smell it,” Mike said, nodding. “And the forecasts say the same. Hopefully, it will hold off until midnight. Are the winds going to interfere with the harvest?”

“It will be as the Father of All chooses,” Father Kulcyanov said. “But for now, Kildar, the Mothers request that you sample the fruits of the harvest. Be at ease.”

“I am, Father Kulcyanov,” Mike said. “I am among my people. And I see one that I should greet,” he added, looking past Kulcyanov at a bald head by the buffet table.

* * *

“Figure you’d be anywhere there was free food and beer,” Mike said, picking up a plate.

“Hey, Ass-Boy,” Adams said, taking a bite out of a lightly spiced chicken leg.

Former Master Chief Charles Adams was Mike’s tactical second, a right arm for Mike when the bullets were flying. They’d known each other since both were SEAL candidates in BUD/S and both had survived the utter horror of Class 201, now an infamous SEAL legend. But when Mike had gone off to be a SEAL trainer Adams had stayed on the teams.

Tall, bald and blocky, Adams had divorced his sixth wife shortly before Mike contacted him, looking for trainers. Although it had, at the time, been a temporary contract, Adams had stayed on. At this point, Mike couldn’t imagine doing a mission without him.

Adams was also just about the only person in the world, outside of a very select group in Washington, who could connect the “Kildar” to a mysterious figure who had broken up a major terrorist plot and, worse, killed Osama Bin Laden by practically shoving mustard gas down his throat. Adams had been the team chief of the SEALs who dropped into that madhouse to extract the kidnapped co-eds and a vaguely defined “independent” who had found and rescued them. He’d found a very old friend, one he’d pretty much lost touch with, just about shot to ribbons.

Upon arriving in the teams, the two had immediately been dubbed “Ass-Boy One and Ass-Boy Two” a result of the horrors they had endured in BUD/S.

“Ass-Boy yourself,” Mike said, ladling some beets onto his plate. “Enjoying yourself?”

“Except for the weather,” Adams said. “I hope everyone recognizes that there’s a fucking storm on the way.”

“Everybody’s fully aware of that,” Mike said, getting a sudden chill. “I hope it holds off for a few days, anyway.”

“It’s going to hit tonight,” Adams said, looking at him quizzically.

Mike blinked and shook his head.

“Yeah,” he replied, confused. “I knew that. I don’t know why I said a few days… ”

* * *

“Sniper right,” Kiril Devlich said, ducking for cover. Kiril Devlich was just eighteen, medium height and heavy of body with jet black hair, blue eyes and broad cheekbones. One of the SAW gunners in Sawn’s team he had been born and raised in the Valley of the Keldara. He had had the axe placed in his hand in the birthing bed, he bore the scars of judgement from the year he came to manhood and had participated in his first Ondah contest only the year before. Today he battled for honor and glory and, of course, the flag.

“Got it,” Hadar Makanee said, calmly. The Team Sawn spotter was acting as sniper today. “Tango down. Go.”

Kiril darted forward, hunkering down behind a rock then tossing a grenade over the rock towards where the enemy had been previously emplaced. There was a screeching sound over the radio his armor clad opponents burst from cover, ducking as the frag grendade went off.

“Tango down,” Darin Shaynav said. He had taken a rear position and was covering Kiril’s flank with a heavy battle rifle. “Two tangos moving right.”

“Tango down,” Hadar said. “One more… ”

Kiril rolled around the left side of the rock and then came around in circle. The green clad enemy was just ducking around the rock, looking for him.

“Tango down,” Kiril said, putting a three round burst into the enemy’s back.

“I’ve got the flag,” Darin said, coming out of the green base. “Not much sense even bringing it back to ours.”

“Engagement… terminated… ” a deep voice announced and the green players suddenly started getting to their feet.

“That fucking sucked,” one of the green players said in a high voice. “We had you pawned, what the fuck did you do?”

“They cheated!” another of the green players said. “Cheaters!”

“We sucked you into a simple deception scheme,” Hadar said. He’d taken the teleport down to the ground level and now walked out of the fort carrying his sniper rifle. “We made it look as if the center was open. And you fell for it.”

“You sound funny,” the first green player said. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“If you mean the United States, no,” Kiril said, chuckling. “And we do this for a living. You’re not bad, for newbs… ”

“Noobs!” the green player screeched as the scene faded out.

“Making fun of babies, Kiril,” Hadar said, setting down his controller and taking off his headset. “It’s beneath you.”

“My name is Kiril Devlich,” Kiril said in a deep voice. “And… I… Hate… Babies!” He set the headset on the Xbox, still half giggling.

“You’ll have babies of your own, soon enough,” Roan Makanee said. He normally carried one of the M240s but had taken a submachine gun in today’s operation. He’d also agreed to act as bait, sacrificed as, supposedly, the only “defender” in the center of the attack route. The others had been arrayed and concealed to the side and had easily ambushed the less experienced green players. “Well, the Kildar’s baby.”

“Oooo, cheap shot,” Darin said. “Two points.”

“Well, you might,” Hadar said, looking at his watch. “If you make it to your handfasting.”

“Oh, holy shit,” Kiril said, scrambling to his feet. “I completely forgot!”

“Kiril, Kiril, you’re going to be late to your own funeral,” Darin said as the boy pounded out of the door to the barracks. “I suppose, though, that we should go along and lend moral support.”

“Why?” Hadar asked, picking up his headset. “We are training, after all… ”

* * *

“Who brings this girl before me?” Father Kulcyanov boomed.

“I, Mother of the House Mahona,” Mother Mahona said. She was holding Gretchen’s left hand. Standing behind her was Mother Silva, Gretchen’s “Body Mother”, the woman who had born her seventeen years before.

Gretchen Mahona was 5’ 10” tall with gorgeous blonde hair and a figure that made men want to follow her around like little puppy dogs. With high cheekbones, blue eyes and a beautifully heart shaped face, she was one of the most traditionally “Nordic” looking Keldara. Mike suspected that she had hellacious legs as well, but since she always wore a skirt it was hard to tell. There was no question about her upper body, though. Even the slightly baggy Keldara blouses couldn’t conceal that.

It was slightly after noon and the whole clan was gathered in front of the houses, watching the ceremony. A circle of pine branches had been laid on the ground and the two groups stood within them, presenting the two young people for Father Kulcyanov’s blessing.

“Is she pure?” Father Kulcyanov asked.

The Keldara set big store by virginity. At least to a point.

“She is. On my oath as a Mother.”

“Is she free of defect?” Father Kulcyanov asked.

“She is. On my oath as a Mother.”

Mike realized that he’d never been to one of the bonding ceremonies. That question begged a dozen others. But if Gretchen had any defects, he’d never noticed them. Okay, so maybe the Rite wasn’t all bad.

“Is she fit to bear child, to bring forth warriors and wives, to be a Mother of Tigers, to honor the Keldara?”

“She is,” Mother Mahona said, fiercely. “On my Oath as Mother Mahona.”

“Bring to me the boy,” Father Kulcyanov said, looking at the Devlich contingent.

Mother Devlich stepped forward, holding her son’s hand.

Kiril looked nervous. Any teenage male would being forced to hold his mother’s hand in public. Being called a boy wasn’t the greatest, either. And he’d nearly missed the thing, arriving at the last minute at a dead run. And from the direction of the barracks, by the looks of it. Playing Halo again. The boy needed to get out more.

“Who brings this boy before me?” Father Kulcyanov asked.

“I, Mother of the House Devlich,” Mother Devlich said. Short and dark she was as calm and pleasant as her husband was an asshole. Given that they’d been bound in a similar ceremony, possibly without any input from either side, Mike thought that it had to be an interesting marriage.

“Is he a warrior?” Father Kulcyanov asked.

Mike had to snort. The most important thing about the girls is that they be virgins. The most important thing about the guys is that they be warriors. He looked across the crowd at where Stella Mahona, recently married to Vil Mahona one of the team leaders, stood holding her husband’s hand. Tall, slender and as beautiful as her husband was handsome, the girl had unshed tears in her eyes. Oh, they were tears of happiness. But Mike remembered the girl dropping down a fast-rope in the middle of a firefight and had a hard time not wondering why the first question for both groups wasn’t the same.

Next to her was Jessia Mahona, the mortar team leader. Tall with long brown hair and… well one fricking huge chest, she wasn’t nearly as smart as Stella but Mike would take her at his back any time. He’d wondered recently, given her status, if he should bring her into his household. Now probably wasn’t the best time to ask but he could understand her less than thrilled reaction to the events.

“He is. On my oath as a Mother.”

“Is he free of defect?”

“He is. On my oath as a Mother.”

Same question. Mike felt there was an itch there he needed to scratch.

Various societies in history had had “tests” at birth to determine if a baby was pure. Inbreeding, especially in a group like the Keldara, was always a problem. Oh, with the Keldara the problem of fathers covering their daughters didn’t seem to be an issue. But it was a very small gene pool with minimal outside input. Mother Lenka was the only outsider Mike knew who had entered the society in generations.

Inbreeding meant that the normal “spread” of breeding, the famous “bell curve” tended to turn into a sort of “U” on a graph. At one end were exceptional specimens. And the Keldara were exceptional specimens.

What Mike had never wondered, until now, were where the normal and anticipated “defectives” you’d get in a normal population were. Much less one with a restricted gene-pool. There weren’t any Down’s Syndrome Keldara, no hydrocephalics, none of the usual birth-defects you’d expect. Okay, Shota was pretty moronic. But he wasn’t Ausbergers, autistic or the rest of the alphabet of potential birth defects.

He suddenly got the feeling there was a lot buried in that one little question.

“Is he fit to start a child, to start warriors and wives, to be a Father of Tigers, to honor the Keldara?”

“He is. On my oath as Mother Devlich.”

Father Kulcyanov took the two young people’s unrestricted hands and placed them together.

“Kiril Mahona, do you give your Promise to Gretchen Devlich, save only that agreements can be reached between your two Families?”

“I do,” Kiril said, grinning hard. He suddenly looked sideways directly at Mike and grinned harder. Then his head snapped back. “I do!”

“Gretchen Devlich, do you give your Promise to Kiril Mahona, save only that agreements can be reached between your two Families?”

“I do,” Gretchen said then swallowed, nervously. “I do.” She was nervous but she was also glowing. Then she looked over at the Kildar and smiled.

Yeah, the Rite with Gretchen wasn’t exactly gonna be awful.

* * *

It wasn’t time for the next major ceremony, the Choosing, yet, so Mike grabbed a mug of beer and wandered.

There were several contests going on but Mike avoided them. He’d be called in as judge and he had no clue how to judge most of them. The Keldara had a number of games based around pebbles and throwing sticks that he just couldn’t follow. Some of them were like marbles but so complicated they made his head ache. Others were easier, most of the young men were throwing axes and that he could figure out easy enough. He still avoided it. He’d participated in an axe throwing competition, once, and done well enough. But he also knew most of it was luck and he wasn’t going to try his hand again.

But, by golly, a deputation was catching up to him. He paused when he noticed Father Kulcyanov and the rest of the Fathers approaching. What this time?

“Kildar,” Father Kulcyanov said, nodding and gasping for breath. The old guy was looking particularly worn today. Mike hoped he’d make it through the ceremonies okay.

“Father Kulcyanov,” Mike replied, nodding back.

“I will let Father Mahona speak to this,” Father Kulcyanov said. “It is complicated and… ”

“I understand,” Mike said, nodding back. “And takes air.”

“Which I will much need later,” Father Kulcyanov said, nodding at Father Mahona.

“Kildar, we have a request,” Father Mahona said, nervously. “We wish to… to do a ceremony that we have not done for some time, the Beatai Leanah.”

“The ceremonies of the Keldara are their own,” Mike said, blinking. “Why did you stop doing it?”

“None of us were alive the last time the Beatai Leanah was performed,” Father Mahona replied. “But it was stopped in the late Tsarist period.”

“Does it involve human sacrifice?” Mike asked. “That’s about the only thing I’m not going to go for.”

“No, Kildar,” Mahona said.

Mike had asked the question in dead seriousness and it was returned the same way. Which meant there probably was a ceremony they had somewhere in memory that did involve human sacrifice.

“But it is the ritual slaughtering,” the Father continued, clearing his throat. “AS you know, at this time of year we need to start slaughtering the animals that we don’t wish to keep through the winter. This is a ritual that… starts that process.”

“You do it up on the dun?” Mike asked. “You’re going to just haul it all down again.”

“Some,” Father Kulcyanov said. “Some is burned there, some is left for the ravens.”

“Most is kept,” Father Mahona said. “It is considered special, used in specific dishes.”

“Kildar,” Father Makanee said, taking a deep breath. “It is a very… bloody ceremony.”

“Slaughtering generally is,” Mike said, frowning.

“Somewhat bloodier than that,” Father Makanee replied. “You… might want to change.”

“I’ve got other clothes,” Mike said, blinking. “But this sounds familiar, too. Every year the Ghurkas have a ceremonial slaughter of animals. One member of the individual tribe or unit, carefully chosen, does the slaughtering. Nobody but the Ghurkas, and their British officers, are allowed to witness it.”

“Then we will perform the Rite,” Father Kulcyanov said, nodding. “There are none in this Valley who I find it ill to be present at the Rite, but I… recommend that some not attend.”

“I can’t imagine who,” Mike said, dryly. “But why don’t I suggest to Anastasia and the girls that they retire early.”

“That would be best, Kildar,” Father Mahona said, thankfully.

“It is time for the Choosing,” Father Kulcyanov said, looking over at a similar deputation of women who were headed towards the barley fields. “We should go.”

“After you,” Mike said, gesturing the Fathers forward. “I will be along shortly.”

The rest of the Keldara were headed towards the Choosing but Mike grabbed one of the young boys who was running in that direction.

“Ivar,” Mike said, dredging up his name. “Go find Colonel Nielson, the Master Chief and Vanner and make sure they meet me at the Choosing.”

“Yes, Kildar,” the boy said with a gap toothed grin. “I shall.”

“Good lad,” Mike said, releasing him. He’d already spotted Anastasia. Some of the harem were mingling with the Keldara girls but a few were clustered around her. Good.

Mike made his way through the throng to the harem manager who was heading for the Choosing.

“Stasia,” he said, smiling as he touched her arm.

“Kildar,” Anastasia said, smiling back. “You have been keeping to yourself.”

“I’ve been avoiding deputations,” Mike said. “But a couple caught up with me. One concerns the ceremony this evening. I… strongly recommend that you and the girls not attend.”

“We are not welcome,” Anastasia said, nodding. “I had been surprised that we were permitted at the other festivals. We should leave.”

“That’s not it,” Mike said, shaking his head. “It’s a purely… It’s a blood sacrifice. Animals I’ll add. But it’s probably going to turn your stomach, and the girls’. The Father’s made it a recommendation. It’s based purely on that. Don’t go before the Choosing.”

“Very well, Kildar,” Anastasia said.

“In fact,” Mike said, taking her arm, “I think we should both go to the Choosing. Together.”

“That would probably be appropriate,” Anastasia said, smiling. “By the way,” she added as they made their way through the crowd, “I got a glimpse of your next Cardane girl. And you are bothered by this Rite why?”

“I’m still wondering that myself,” Mike admitted, sheepishly. “But I can’t think that it’s a good thing. I have to have these guys at my back. I can’t imagine that one day one of them isn’t going to get pissed about the Rite.”

“They seem to take it very well,” Anastasia said. “I mean, that is unusual but not unknown. There are other societies that practice similar rituals.”

“Yeah, but it still bugs me,” Mike said as they got to the stone wall of the first barley field.

Mother Lenka led the deputation of Mothers. She wasn’t one of the Family heads but she was the acknowledged mistress of brewing among the Keldar so it wasn’t exactly surprising.

The Mothers were wandering in apparently random order through the field, fingering the heads of barley and occasionally picking some of it and tasting.

“I have no idea how long this takes,” Mike said. “But it’s probably a long time.”

“We have time,” Anastasia said as the Mothers gathered on the far side of the field. They had their heads together, fingering handfuls of barley and apparently discussing it. Mike suspected they were just making a big show.

Mike sensed someone walking up behind him but didn’t turn around.

“You were looking for me, Kildar?” Vanner said.

Patrick Vanner a stocky, blonde, crew-cutted former Marine intel geek, handled commo and intelligence. He’d started off as a linguist, ended up in intercept then analysis and finally communications security and eventually spent time working with the NSA. A whiz with any sort of electronics, communications or information technology he filled the role of both commo officer and intelligence officer. Since he spoke more languages than Mike could count and was “into” cultures, he thought Vanner would really enjoy this evening’s ceremony, bloody or not.

“I need to talk to you, Adams and Nielson,” Mike said, turning around. “We’ll wait until they’re all here.” But he could see both of the other staff making their way through the crowd.

Colonel Thomas Nielson, USA, retired, slim, medium height with black hair gone gray and piercing green eyes was a former infantry and civil affairs colonel, the only “professional” officer in the group. He fitted in as sort of chief of staff. Nielson juggled the operations and training schedules when things weren’t “hot”, relieving Mike of the tedium of paperwork that was anathema to him. When things were hot, and they often did, Nielson managed the battlefield conditions — made sure there was supporting fire, argued with any higher, got the ammo forward — while Mike went forward to lead. He was a maniac for training but admitted that he wasn’t quite as happy doing the tactics.

Chief of Staff, XO, whatever, he handled the details, Mike led.

The Mothers had headed for another field so Mike waved for the group to follow.

“There’s a ceremony this evening,” Mike said.

“The Samman Latract,” Vanner said. “This is their version of the Night of the Dead. But I’ve been picking up on another one. The Beatai Leanah I think is what I’m catching. I’ve been brushing up on my Gaelic since McKenzie was here and I think the first is something like ‘Calling the Dead’ or ‘Waking the Dead.’ The second one… I think it’s some type of sacrifice.”

“Give the man a cigar,” Mike said as they reached the second of six fields. The fields were not designated for any particular Family but the Keldara tended to do things in sixes. “It’s a blood sacrifice, the beginning of the winter slaughtering. They haven’t done it in a long time. And it’s supposed to be pretty bloody.”

“Like the… What’s that Ghurka rite?” Nielson said.

“The ///Ghurka rite. Toni, If I screw up and never get this in here, you probably know the name and I know Hank does///,” Vanner said.

“I think so,” Mike said. “We’ll see. I’ve asked the girls to head back to the caravanserai, since I don’t think they want to get too splattered.”

“The top of the dun isn’t all that big,” Adams said, nodding. “Carotid blood does have a tendency to spray everywhere.”

“Thank you so much for that image, Master Chief,” Anastasia said, politely.

“And that, my dear, is why it’s suggested you not attend,” Mike said, grinning.

“And so I shan’t,” Anastasia replied. “I think some of the girls would take it just fine, but we’ll all retire when the group heads up the hill.”

Then it’s agreed,” Mike said as the Mother’s finished checking out another field. “And off to another field we go.”

Chapter Four

Mike hadn’t realized that they’d check all six fields but they did. Then, still standing in the last one, they held a meeting that involved a bunch of arm waving. Mike was surprised that Mother Lenka, who usually had an, often foul-mouthed, opinion on anything was standing listening to it with her arms folded.

The whole tribe had gathered around the last field, waiting to find out which would be chosen. Some had been gathering handfuls of the grain that nodded over the stone fences, arguing amongst themselves and Mike as pretty sure he saw some surreptitious betting on which field would win.

Mike was surprised, though, when he saw the harvester headed towards their position. He was under the impression the field for the Keldara’s beer was to be harvested by hand. But it was headed their way, driven by the farm manager, Genadi.

As the harvester neared, Mother Lenka waved to him and imperiously pointed at two fields. There were some mild groans in the crowd and Mike saw Sawn, one of the team leaders, collecting money.

As the harvester, which could rip through the five hectare fields in a few minutes, began to harvest the definite losers, the Mothers went back through the other fields.

“This is taking forever,” Adams finally muttered. “I’m gonna go get a beer.”

By the time Adams got back, Genadi had started on two more fields that didn’t make the cut. The mothers wandered back and forth between the final two and finally met near Mike’s position. This time there didn’t seem to be any argument, just a lot of nodding.

“The barley is chosen,” Mother Lenka shouted, very formally, holding up her arms. “Let it be harvested.”

Six young men, followed by four of the younger unmarried women, entered the field. The men were carrying scythes and working their shoulders, clearly preparing for the harvest. The girls were just giggling. Gretchen was among them and she broke off with Nikolai Mahona, one of the machine-gunners from Oleg’s team. Mike didn’t know the girls as well as he did the guys but he was able to pick out enough names to figure out that the teams were broken down by Families. Six families, six teams.

“It’s a race,” Vil said, coming over to lean on the fence by the Kildar.

“Hey, Vil,” Mike said. “We needed some cultural explanation.”

Vil was tall, slim and dark of hair. Very handsome as all the Keldara were, he looked just a tad like Omar Sharif.

When he first formed the militia, Mike had, with some “help”, chosen six of the younger Keldara to be the team leaders. He hadn’t realized just how carefully he had been steered until later. The six team leaders were the acknowledged heirs of the Families, the men who, when it was their time, would almost certainly be the Fathers of each family.

They, in turn, had chosen their team members in a process that reminded Mike of teams being chosen in school. He’d insisted that the teams have members from every house, spread as much as possible, so that if one team was badly damaged in a battle no one Family would bear the brunt. But, naturally, the team leaders had chosen people that they were most comfortable with. What had resulted were six distinctly different teams. Oh, each could do any basic job, but they each had specific vocation, a set of skills that leaned to one use or another.

Oleg was a big, “bull forward” guy and he’d chosen big, “bull forward” people for his team. If you needed something flattened, Team Oleg would do it best. Sawn Makanee was one of the more thoughtful Keldara and he’d chosen people who, like him, were a tad more intellectual. They talked about international politics and philosophy rather than beer. Oh, they could flatten stuff, too, but they would rather figure out if it really needed to be flattened. And so on.

Vil was a rapier to Oleg’s battleaxe. His team specialized in raid and ambush, hit and run, maneuver and feint. He had the faintly aristocratic air usually associated in old movies with British fops. But Mike would rather have him on a raid mission than any two of the other team leaders. And the guy was strong as hell, Mike had seen him lift twice his own weight in unwieldy rock before.

“When we used to do all this stuff by hand,” he continued, waving around the valley languidly, “the Chosen field would be left for last. The field is then harvested by six teams, chosen from unmarried men and women. When the last stalk is cut we make a sort of puppet which we call the sanbahn.”

“Old woman, probably,” Vanner said.

“That’s what we call it, yes,” Vil said, smiling faintly. “More books, yes?”

“Yep,” Vanner said. “Gotta love ’em.”

“The sanbahn is carried up the dun,” Vil continued, pointing to the hill, “and at the end of the ceremony it’s thrown in the bonfire. Then we get down to the real purpose of the whole thing which is drinking all of last year’s beer we possibly can. Can’t have old beer hanging around, can we?”

“Who carries the sanbahn?” Mike asked.

“Oh, the oldest girl of the losing team,” Vil said. “Why?”

“Just wondering,” Mike said, glancing over at Vanner and shaking his head as the intel guy started to say something.

Mother Lenka had reached the point where the six teams waited, the other Mothers leaving the field and now raised her hands. She looked at each of the men then dropped her arms.

The harvesters already had their scythes back and swung downward as one, cutting a swathe then stepping forward. As soon as they were clear the girls moved forward, gathering up armfuls of the grain and binding them in their own stalks.

To shouts of encouragement, and in some cases derision, from the Keldara the six teams raced down the field.

“Nikolai is going too fast,” Vil said, gesturing to the machine gunner. “Mahona is likely to lose.”

“He’s ahead of two of the other teams,” Adams argued.

“I know Nikolai and while he has plenty of strength and lots of strength in his legs, he doesn’t have much stamina for this sort of thing. He’ll start tiring about the last third. Bet you a hundred rubles he comes in second to or dead last.”

“You’re on,” Adams said.

But, sure enough, as they got into the last part of the cutting, Mike could tell he was flagging. His cuts were getting ragged and he, twice, had to overcut to get all the grain. That put him second to last and Georgi Makanee, who was last right up until the end, managed to cut his stand just as Nikolai was raising his blade.

“Halt!” Mother Lenka called. She’d gotten behind the team towards the end and now walked over. “Mahona is last,” she cried.

“Nikolai’s in for it now,” Vil said. “Oh, not as bad as the caillean, but he’ll be teased a good bit. And now Gretchen will be the ogbahn, the carrier of the sanbahn.” He frowned at that.

“And that means?” Mike asked.

“Oh, nothing,” Vil replied. “Nothing at all.”

“Come on, Vil, give,” Vanner said.

“Well,” Vil said, frowning. “It’s said that the ogbahn can never be the sanbahn.”

“The sanbahn is a puppet made out of straw,” Mike said. The last shief had been cut and Mother Lenka was already binding it into the figure. Mike shivered suddenly in the chill wind. You could smell the storm approaching.

“It also, as Mr. Vanner so astutely pointed out, means old woman,” Vil replied. “It’s the term for… someone. An old woman.” He turned and looked at the Kildar, frowning still. “It means Gretchen will never be old. If you believe in that sort of thing.”

* * *

“Of course, she’ll never be old,” Vanner said after Vil had wandered off. “She used to be sacrificed.”

“Yep,” Mike said. “A sacrifice to the old gods. The daughter of spring given to the god of the dead, the god of the underworld.”

“That’s terrible,” Anastasia said. “I can’t believe anyone would perform human sacrifice!”

“Oh, not these days,” Mike said. “Probably. But it used to be really common, even up to the time of the Romans. They got rid of most of it, after they gave it up. And that was by a vote of the Roman Senate not long before Caesar was born. They were the ones that stopped the sacrifices in Gaul, France now, and Britain. The Germans took longer. And even the Romans kept it up in some remote areas, right up until they started to become Christians. And the Russians only stopped around the time of the Mongols when Christianity finally had a firm hold. Outside Europe it was common right up until the colonial period. Given how… traditional the Keldara are, I figure they probably stopped around the same time as the Russians. Say… the 1300s.”

“They wouldn’t… start again?” Tinata asked. She’d been listening avidly.

“No, they won’t,” Mike said. “First of all… times have changed. I don’t think they could stomach it. Second, I’d put a stop to it if I even suspected it. But the choosing of the caillean at Beltaine or whatever they call it, and this thing with the ‘old woman’ an the ‘young woman’ those are all vestiges of human sacrifice. Be glad they only sacrifice animals now.”

“They’re headed to the dun,” Vanner pointed out.

“Well, then, we are headed for the caravanserai,” Anastasia said. One look at the gathered harem girls stifled the beginnings of protest. “I leave it up to you to ensure that your Cardane is actually alive tomorrow, Kildar.”

“Guaranteed,” Mike said, giving her a peck on the cheek. “And… you might make sure there are some clothes ready in the foyer. I suspect that we’ll have a bit of blood on us when we get back.”

* * *

“Kildar,” Father Kulcyanov said, as the Keldara began to gather at the base of the dun, “I would ask a favor of you.”

“Anything I can do,” Mike said. The old soldier had smoothed things over a lot and Mike knew it.

“We must Feed the Dead,” Father Kulcyanov said, sighing. “But I am aged. I have all I can do it make it up the hill and chant the words. I would ask you to take my place as Eater for the Dead. One of the other Fathers could do as well but… You are the Kildar.”

Mike smiled and nodded, his face blank. He wondered if that meant he was really supposed to be high priest. Pass, thank you.

“I hope you won’t mind if I ask a few questions,” Mike said. “I’ve learned, through painful experience, to ask about the hidden details of Keldara rituals.”

“Kildar,” Genadi said, coming up at his elbow, “there is no hidden trap. You must simply… eat your way to the top of the hill. Father, indeed all of us, will chant the dead. A girl will be by your side carrying a big platter filled with all good foods. Another will be by your side, carrying beer. At a certain point in the chant, you will take a sip of beer or eat some of the food. You take a bite of the food and then throw the rest to the side. You take a sip of beer and then pour some upon the ground. I will warn you, however, that we circle the mound three times. I hope you stopped eating a while ago.”

“I think I can do that,” Mike said. “As long as I don’t take big bites.”

“Thank you, Kildar,” Father Kulcyanov said. He lifted his eyes to the mountains and then nodded. “Soon, we will begin.”

The Keldara had gathered near the trail up the dun, a winding beaten down path that was reinforced with slabs of rock. It might have been a bad day for a festival but Mike was pretty sure it was a great night for a ceremony like this one.

The Keldara called the night Samman, very much like the Celtic Samhain. For them it was the time of ending, when the spirits of winter rose, the night when the unquiet dead could walk free. Many of the Keldara had made masks for the evening, most out of woven barley straw. Samhain was the origin of the holiday called Halloween in the US and England but it wasn’t always about children gathering candy. It was a time when the summer was dying and winter’s power rose, a time to battle the power of death and the old gods of evil and darkness. The masks were designed to frighten away spirits as was the chanting, dance and songs.

Father Ferani walked through the throng, carrying a large wooden case. Father Kulcyanov took a massive battleaxe from the case, turning to the trail and holding it in front of himself, upright in a two handed grip, the head at the level of his nose, as if in salute. Then he looked to the sky again, clearly checking the light level, and gave a great shout:

“Ay, Samman seaol Latrach! Uraim Na Mair Imakt!”

With that the drummers began tapping on their drums, a slow, asyncopated rhythm as Father Kulcyanov began ascending the hill.

Behind him walked Gretchen, carrying the barley effigy of the “Old Woman.” Stella and Lydia appeared at his elbows, quite suddenly, and Lydia nudged him to fall in next.

“Each third time that Father Kulcyanov says ‘Imakt,’ ” Lydia whispered, handing him a shallow bowl of beer. “Drink or eat then pour the rest on the ground. Try to get it off the path for the Father’s sake.”

The bowl was fired clay, with a handle on either side. Mike had read of one similar somewhere, probably the Golden Bough. He took a sip and tossed the rest to the side, narrowly missing Stella.

“Careful, there,” the tall brunette said, grinning and handing him an oat cake.

Mike took a bite out of the cake and tossed the rest down the hill.

“This seems awfully wasteful,” he whispered.

“The dead are hungry,” Lydia shrugged, handing him the refilled bowl. “Would we fail to feed hour honored dead?”

Mike took a sip at the appropriate point in the chant, poured it out a bit more carefully, then looked over his shoulder. All the Keldara had formed up in something like a conga line. At the front were six drummers, keeping the pace. The rest were repeating the refrain of the chant and on the “Latract” they’d stamp down, hard. The whole massive hill rumbled with it.

“Wake the dead, indeed,” Mike said. Bite, toss. “Father Kulcyanov normally eats, too?”

“Someone feeds him,” Stella whispered. “But it’s so hard for him to keep in time, now. And when the cake is dry… ”

It was all Mike could do to keep up with the eating and drinking; he couldn’t imagine leading the chant as well. But the two girls kept him supplied in time and he kept up with the group, eat a bite, toss, drink a bit, pour.

But even eating a “bite” — and they got smaller and smaller — and drinking a bit -and the sips got to where he was barely touching his lips — he had a hard time managing the entire climb. By the time they got to the top it was full dark, the wind howling, and he was more than a bit drunk. And, oh yeah, stuffed to the point of throwing up.

The turf on the top of the dun had been carved into seats and the two girls led him to one on the north side, directly behind where Father Kulcyanov was standing and still leading the chant. Gretchen, with the barley figure, was on the east, Mother Lenka with a flagon of beer was on the west and as the group gathered, still chanting, Oleg appeared out of the darkness on the south. He was barechested in the cold and probably appreciating the roaring bonfire in the center.

Mike’s senior team leader was a bull of a man, standing over two meters and broad of body with flax blonde hair cut into stubble. He looked, at that moment, very much like a Viking of old.

“… Imakt!” Father Kulcyanov roared, stopping the chant by raising his axe over head, still vertical. “The time has come. Let the Rite begin!”

He turned to the right and, marching in the goosestep he had undoubtedly learned as a young man in the Red Army, walked to Oleg’s position.

“Do you accept the responsibility of dummart?” Father Kulcyanov roared. “Do you stand ready to face the Gods?”

“I do,” Oleg answered.

“Then face the Gods in the name of the Keldara!” Father Kulcyanov said, handing over the axe.

He goosestepped back, completing the circle then raised his hands.

“Father of All, look down upon us!” he bellowed, holding his hands to the sky. “We bring food for your Son that he might bring back the spring!”

There’d been a lowing of cattle as he was marching back and out of the darkness they were led. Most were being led by the team leaders but they had a lot of help. The cattle were oxen, steers that were used for carting until Mike had brought in tractors. These had been fed-up, stalled was the old expression, and were fat and ready for the slaughter.

Vil was leading the first one, holding a pole that was attached to the ring through its nose and two more Keldara males followed with nooses in their hands.

“Ay, Samman seaol Latrach! Uraim Na Mair Imakt!” Father Kulcyanov started to chant, still holding his hands up.

The whole group joined in as the two Keldara fixed the loops around the oxen’s back legs and held it in place.

On the second repetition of the chant, at the “… Imakt”, Oleg struck downwards, severing the ox’ broad neck in one massive cut.

Blood from the stricken animal sprayed across the nearest spectators, who were on their feet chanting and stamping. The entire group let out a cry as one of the Keldara girls slid a basin under the slaughtered beast’s neck, catching as much of the blood as she could.

Another of the oxen was brought out of the darkness, taking up the western position by Mother Lenka. Again it was held in place by three men as Oleg slashed downward. Another group of Keldara, this time including Adams, was splashed by the blood.

On the south, Vil had been handed the basin filled with blood and with a cry splashed it in a circle, starting towards the fire and raising a fragrant smoke like cooking beef then out over the Keldara.

Mike was standing, now, but he was fighting what was going on around him because the Keldara, normally incredibly reserved, were descending into hysteric frenzy. The drums, the chanting, the stamping feet, was turning into a giant dance of ecstasy, fueled by the blood rite they had been denied for so long.

Pavel had collected the blood on the west and he sprayed it into the fire and through the group, liberally dousing Mother Lenka who raised her hand to taste of it, letting out a scream that sounded very like orgasm.

Now it was Mike’s turn and Sawn was leading this ox, who was fighting as hard as he could to get away. Oleg had come around the fire, his body covered in blood, eyes wide and staring and Mike winced as the axe came down.

It was like getting hit by a water from a spray-nozzle on a hose. As the ox twisted in death it sprayed the whole group which went absolutely frantic. The bucket of blood from Sawn wasn’t really necessary.

On the east it was Pavel and he made sure to liberally douse Gretchen, who was pretty wide eyed since all she could do was stand there holding up the effigy. She hadn’t gotten into the frenzy because she couldn’t but she had a very strange look on her face. It made Mike wonder exactly how long ago the Keldara had stopped comitting human sacrifice. She looked… fixed on the fire. As if psyching herself to be thrown into it.

A fifth bull was slaughtered on the south and a sixth on the north, splattering Mike again and then Father Kulcyanov shouted something Mike for the life of him couldn’t catch and people picked up both Mother Lenka and Gretchen and carried them towards the fire. The group was so frenzied Mike started forward and he could see Adams moving as well. He wasn’t sure either one of them could stop the hysterical Keldara before they tossed the two women in the bonfire but he was damned well going to try.

But at another cry from Father Kulcyanov, the effigy was thrown into the fire by Gretchen to another scream from the crowd. It was covered in blood so there was another smell of steak being overcooked.

Both Mother Lenka and Gretchen were dropped, rather unceremoniously, and the drums broke into a different rhythm. Father Kulcyanov stepped back, looking as worn as Mike had ever seen him, and settled onto one of the turf benches, holding his chest.

There was still a big pot of beer by Mike’s seat, courtesy of Stella who was now dancing around like a mad thing, covered from head to toe in blood, so he picked it up and poured some, holding it out to the old man.

“Thank you, Kildar,” Father Kulcyanov wheezed. “I think this may be the last year I can do the Rites.”

“Which will be too bad,” Mike said. “Because you do them very well.”

“It must be a warrior,” the old man said, taking a sip of beer and catching his breath. “One who had taken lives and seen the face of Fir. There are, were, so few left. I held on… ”

“And you’ve got a whole new crop,” Mike pointed out. “I’d hate to skip a generation, though. Talk about that another time. Do you have anything else you need to do?”

“No,” Father Kulcyanov admitted. “Except figure out a way to pry Culcanar out of Oleg’s hands before he kills someone with it.”

The ceremonial axes of the Keldara were named and Mike now recognized the axe he had wielded in the spring festival. The damned thing was a monster, a real man-killer.

Mike looked over at the team leader, who was apparently doing some sort of an axe dance and was pretty much out of it, and winced.

“Let somebody else handle that,” Mike said. “Me, maybe. I can stand in, right?”

“Yes, Kildar. I’d appreciate it.”

“Well, this looks like a party for the youngsters,” Mike said, standing up and gesturing to Adams and Nielson. He couldn’t find Vanner for a minute then spotted the intel NCO. HE was covered in blood and dancing with one of the female intel specialists. He pretty much looked like the Keldara, covered in blood and completely out of it.

“Get Father Kulcyanov down the hill,” he said to Nielson. “Ass-Boy, you and me got a job.”

“What?” Adams asked, trying to wipe some of the blood off his face. “When you said it would be bloody… ”

“Yeah,” Mike said, licking the back of his hand. Tasted like raw steak. “See Oleg?”

“Yeah,” Adams said, uncomfortably.

“We gotta get the axe out of his hands.”

“Oh fuck.”

* * *

“I’m not going to track this shit through the caravanserai,” Mike said, looking at the doors. He had a rather nasty cut on his arm he was ignoring. Pain is weakness leaving the body. Nobody was dead and that was the important thing. The next time, though, he was going to sit on the south and pry the damned thing out of Oleg’s hands right after the last sacrifice.

“Fuck it,” Oleg said. “It’s late. We just strip right here and head for the showers.” The Master Chief was unscathed. Well, except for a few hairs that had been cut slightly shorter when he ducked the axe. Given that he was damned near bald…

“Works for me,” Mike said, pulling off his shirt. “And we’ll just burn the clothes.”

“I think some of the Keldara were starting to strip when we left,” Adams said. “They probably had the same idea. Damn, these pants are stuck on!”

* * *

Mike walked into the great room of the caravanserai, holding his blood-soaked clothes under one arm and paused, froze really, at the sight of Daria and Anastasia playing chess.

Daria Koroleva was Ukrainian, blonde and nearly as beautiful as Anastasia with, if anything, a better figure. She had been kidnapped into the sex-slave trade in the Balkans where Mike had rescued her from a snuff house. Since she was a trained secretary, and he’d needed somebody to keep up with the administrative side of the mission, he’d dragged her along. And when he offered her a job she’d jumped at it. They’d been lovers from time to time as well. There really wasn’t much there but lust and some friendship but she was a great administrative assistant.

The two were both frozen, wide-eyed. Since they’d both seen him naked he could only presume that it was the blood.

“It got a little messy.”

“I can see that,” Anastasia replied.

“So we thought we’d just go take a shower,” Adams said, walking past.

“Good idea,” Daria said, tittering.

“So, I guess I’ll see you two tomorrow,” Mike continued, heading to the stairs.

“Okay,” Anastasia said. “Try to keep from tracking things up too badly.”

“I will,” Mike said. “Oh, and Anastasia?”

“Yes, Kildar,” the harem manager said, her hand over her mouth but the smile in her eyes.

“Could you make sure that before the Rite Gretchen has had a bath?”

Chapter Five

“You look perfect,” Anastasia said, picking a bit of lint off of Mike’s shoulder.

“I look like a fucking fruit,” Mike replied, frowning. “This get-up… ”

“You always say that the Rite is for the benefit of the young lady,” Anastasia said, playing with a curl of hair. “Not for you. And ladies like it when you dress up.”

“I know that,” Mike said, fiddling with the God damned lace ruff. “But, God, I hate this!”

The Rite of Cardane made virtue of necessity. The Keldara had long had the custom of dowry. Dowry was a poorly understood function of many early societies. The first year or so of marriage was a tough time for a new couple and women just had less economic worth in agricultural societies than males. Among other things, they spent a great deal of time pregnant and less able to do work than ever. Dowry was a response to this, providing the young couple with a starter fund.

In the Keldara, dowry was set at the approximate income of the male for six months. When it was first explained to Mike, the sum of five hundred rubles or equivalent in materials seemed laughably small. But it was a function of how very poor the Keldara had been before his arrival.

The issue had first come to light in regards to Lydia and Oleg. Lydia’s family simply did not have the available cash, at that time, to pay her dowry. Mike, therefore, offered to just grant them the funds, Lydia was a fast-coming intel specialist and Oleg one of his top team leaders; just handing them the cash, more, seemed like a natural action.

However, the Keldara also had a hatred of debt that was deep and abiding. Thus Mike simply handing them the money with in his eyes absolutely no strings attached, was out of the question. A debt of honor would remain. In a way the Keldara were more stuck on honor and propriety than Japanese giri and gimu.

There was, however, one clear alternative: The Rite of Cardane. In Western Europe, the term was “droit de seigneur.”

In most feudal societies, the very bodies of the “serfs” was owned by the lord. And many lords required that the first person to “open” a virgin be themselves.

The Keldara may have been tenant farmers, may have had various overlords over the years, but calling them “serfs” must have always been a stretch. But the pressure must have been there. The Ottomans, for example, were big on virgins. So were the Tartars, who had clearly been in the area. Hell, the Russian tsarist lords rarely left a lady “pure” for her marriage bed. However, at some point they had made a “virtue” of both problems; in return for a young lady’s “virtue”, she would be gifted with her dowry.

When Mike finally understood what they were saying he nearly had a heart attack. While Lydia was a… well a fucking hotty, the guy he was going to be leaving to sloppy seconds was… his top team leader. Oleg was going to be at his back with a weapon a lot. Not to mention being a fucking ox. Pissing him off was very low on Mike’s list of things to do. And Mike couldn’t imagine “The Rite of Cardane” not pissing him off totally and permanently.

Oleg, however, had been fine with it. His biggest worry was that Mike would turn them down. Mike got along with the Keldara incredibly well, they even had similar senses of humor which was unusual, but sometimes they could blind-side him.

He had, therefore, reluctantly agreed to the “Rite.” However, he put several stipulations in place. If he was going to do this he was going to do it right.

First, he insisted that she be given some classes. Riding horses for one. But he also insisted on, as he put it, “other riding classes” conducted by Mother Savina, his housekeeper, and Anastasia. He also insisted that there be a little ceremony. He wasn’t going to just yank her up on the horse without any “by your leave” and ride off. Among other things it got way to close to where some of his demons lurked.

On his part he did his best to make the night special and the dowry much more reasonable than the cost of a good pair of jeans. Lydia had walked away with about four thousand dollars, plus five one hundred ruble notes, a pearl necklace and matching earrings.

The result, once Lydia let loose some of the juicier details, was that the unmarried females now considered the “Rite” a Right. They wanted their evening with the Kildar, damnit, and the dowry had nothing to do with it anymore.

Anastasia had added a few details to his original plans. Mike had to agree that they were popular, but he didn’t have to like them.

Which was why he was dressed in a pair of polished riding boots, a short, tight, black velvet horseman’s jacket that made him feel like a waiter, a silk shirt with a ruffled front and skin-tight velvet pants.

A waiter, hell, he felt like a God damned gigolo!

“I would rather face a thousand deaths… ” he muttered, turning to the door of the caravanserai.

“Don’t give me that,” Anastasia said, grinning. “We’re talking Gretchen, Michael Whateveryourrealnameis.”

“Yes,” Mike said, looking at her for a moment. “There is that,” he added, grinning.

“Just remember to take your time,” Anastasia said, picking at another bit of lint. “Be a good boy.”

“I’ll try,” Mike said. “Now you need to go.”

“Yes,” Anastasia said with a sigh. “I have a date as well. But if you need any help… ”

Mike rolled his eyes and strode out the door.

Petro was holding Dumbass’ reins and bowed as the Kildar came down the steps followed by Anastasia. He also had a lack of expression that bordered boredom. At this point he no longer had to try not to grin. The first three or four were grin making, after that, well…

“Thank you,” Mike said, mounting then taking the lead rein of the palfrey. “Now scat. You’ve got duties as well.”

“Yes, Kildar,” Anastasia said, finally grinning.

* * *

The pouring rain of the night before had led to a cooler day but clear as a bell. The sun had just set, it was what the military called “early evening nautical twilight” and Mike referred to as “blue time.” He wanted to arrive at just full dark and visibility was already a bit bad so he took the road down carefully. But he had to admit it was a beautiful evening for riding.

Dumbass was getting used enough to the routine that he didn’t try to canter. This wasn’t a run where he was going to get oat cakes and apples. This was work.

Mike ignored the fire burning on the dun. It was smaller than the Samman bonfire but, to someone who knew the processes and practices of the Keldara, an announcement of a ceremony of a different type. A group of young men were clustered there, one of them Kiril.

There was a younger Keldara female waiting by the door of the Mahona House when he arrived. Mike had requested that the minimum possible males be involved in the Rite and now getting the horse-holding duty was a perk among the younger Keldara girls. That way they got to peek without any fear of retribution.

The girl was smiling fit to burst but he just nodded at her sternly. Taking a breath, he pulled down the front of his jacket, strode to the door of the house and pounded on it sharply.

The door was opened by Father Mahona who nodded at the Kildar.

“I request the privilege of entering the home of the Mahona,” Mike said.

“This roof is yours, Kildar,” Father Mahona replied from within. “These walls are yours. This home is yours to enter.”

Everybody at this point had the Rite down pat.

Everyone had been cleared from the main room of the House leaving only the principals: Mother and Father Mahona, Father Jusev the Orthodox Priest and Gretchen.

Anastasia had designed the wear for the Rite. While giving the girls some very graphic instructions, “theoretical” sex education in its true form, she had them measured. A renowned clothier in Paris cutom-made the outfit Gretchen was now wearing. It was white but it didn’t look like, in any way, like a wedding dress. Covered in seed pearls, the front was a deep v that, in Gretchen’s case, was almost too much of a good thing. The girl was threatening to spill out. The skirt stopped well above the knees revealing for the first time that Gretchen, yeah, had one hell of a set of legs. My God did she ever. Long, shapely and tapered they were works of art. On her feet were a pair matching white high-heels, also decorated with seed pearls and rhinestones.

The outfit was an invitation to rape and, to the Keldara, beyond scandalous, which was why Mike limited the number of people present to the bare minimum. He knew that the younger girls were probably peeking from every corner they could find, but he’d sworn not only vengeance but revocation of right to be in the Tigers for any young male who took a peek.

Having been a young male, he was pretty sure they were ignoring him. If he’d been as sheltered as the Keldara boys, he’d have given his left nut to see Gretchen in that dress. All the “bother” of the Rite of Keldane went straight out of his head and he knew he was embarassing himself if anyone looked at the front of the very very tight, unpleasantly tight, pants.

“I am come to take my rights as the Kildar,” Mike said, sternly, looking Father Mahona in the eye.

“The right of the Kildar is acknowleged by the Keldara and the Family Mahona,” the Elder replied. “The Kildar is reminded of his duty to the future family.”

“I acknowledge my duty,” Mike said, turning to Father Jusev, the priest. “I have come to take my rights as the Kildar.”

“The right of the Kildar is acknowledged by the church,” Father Jusev said. “The Kildar is reminded of his duty of teaching,” the priest added, swallowing nervously.

Father Jusev was an older priest, one who had started when the Soviets were at their height and a few of the Tsarist priests were still around. Back then you had to be committed to become a priest; it was a good way to get sent to Siberia. And there wasn’t any such thing as a “liberal” Orthodox, back then the only people willing to profess a faith in a God who was communism’s bitterest enemy were the true-believers. Those guys didn’t tend to be “new-age.”

Thus when the subject of the Rite had been brought up with him the first time, he’d just nodded. Not only was he aware that it was a tradition amongst the Keldara, it was a hell of a lot better than the way the tsarist lords generally treated it. Heck, the comissars hadn’t been lily-white by any stretch of the imagination. And then there was the fact that the Kildar, while he didn’t attend services much, was by several orders of magnitude his biggest contributor. He wasn’t going to tell him that this was “sin” and that it would violate any future marriage compacts in the eyes of the Church.

“I acknowledge my duty,” Mike said, turning to Mother Mahona. “I come to take my rights as Kildar.” His tone in this case was much less stern.

“The right of the Kildar is acknowledged by the women of the Keldara,” Mother Mahona said then winked. “The Kildar is reminded of his duty of gentleness.”

“I acknowledge my duty,” Mike said, then turned to Gretchen, dropping to one knee with difficulty in the tight pants and bowing his head. “My lady, I am come to crave a boon of you, one night of gentleness. May I have my time as is my right?”

“You may, Kildar,” Gretchen replied. She was clearly happy, her smile revealing deep dimples, but nervous as well. “May you remember your… duties in all things.” She stumbled a bit on that line but all in all it was pretty good. Had designed the ceremony so that the young lady, who was going to be worrying about other things, had the least to do.

“I shall,” Mike said, standing up and taking her hand. “I shall return with this daughter of the Keldara when the sun rises,” he said, looking at the three. “I shall render my duty as tradition fits and no shame is had in this Right.”

“No shame, only duty,” Father Mahona said.

“No shame, only duty,” the priest intoned.

“No shame,” Mother Mahona said, winking, “only pleasure.”

Mother Makanee had thrown that line in at the first ceremony and, despite Mike’s quiet protests, it had remained.

He tried not to sigh.

* * *

“You’ve seen the place, of course,” Mike said as they walked in the front of the caravanserai.

“I’ve been up here on cleaning duty,” Gretchen said, looking around with interest nonetheless. “But I’ve never been in your quarters.”

“Then I guess I’d better show you those.”

Mike had had a small kitchen installed off of his bedroom. It was separated from the bedroom — which was more like a small suite with a king-sized bed, sitting area and small desk hardly filling it — by a three stool bar counter. The counter had been set for two in china and silver. There were two candles burning and a long-stemmed rose in a vase.

When they entered, Gretchen just craned her long and shapely neck around for a quick look, as if determining she knew where everything was, then walked over and perched on a stool at the small bar.

“You girls talk too much,” Mike said, smiling and taking off his jacket. He donned an apron to keep any splatters off his shirt and trousers then pulled a bottle of champagne out of a bucket of ice. He opened it expertly, none of this silly blasting the cork into the ceiling, then poured a glass for Gretchen and one for himself. “Cheers,” he said, clinking glasses with her.

“Eyes of the Father,” Gretchen replied, then took a sip. “That is nice.”

“So are you,” Mike said, smiling. “All of the Keldara women are beautiful, but I’ve never seen one that looked so incredible in that outfit.”

“I think you said that to Stella,” Gretchen replied, but still smiled.

“Did not,” Mike said, frowning. “Did I? Besides, I hadn’t seen you, yet.”

“So who is the prettiest Keldara girl?” Gretchen asked, tilting her head to the side.

“That’s a dangerous subject on a night like tonight,” Mike said, walking around the bar to the cooking area. He’d had that built onto the back side of the bar so he could talk with the lady while he was cooking.

All the ingredients were laid out; thank God at least he didn’t have to prepare them. But he had to stop and think for a moment, looking them over.

Part of his regime in regards to the Rite was that it was a date. The Keldara girls did not date. Their husbands were chosen for them and they went to them from their father’s arm, very much in the original tradition. Outside the variable of the Rite, they were supposed to be virgins. Oh, some weren’t, Spring Festival was a time when some things went on that were generally overlooked. But they certainly did not date.

Mike, when faced by the necessity of the Rite, decided that it was going to be a date. The best date he could possibly manage. Of course, there was no real question how the evening was going to turn out, sexually. The girl in question was going to get laid, will she, nil she. So far it had always been “will she” but Mike was dreading the day that it was “nil she.”

Mike had been on a lot of dates in his time. And he’d been a “bad” date occasionally, but rarely in the last ten years or so. It was a social dance and had certain rules that had to be followed. There should be food of some sort, light if the evening was almost certain to include sex. There should be conversation, also light for the most part. Various “romantic” aspects had to be observed. And if the male wanted it to be a “good” date for the female, he had better get her to talk about herself for the most part and make sure she wasn’t playing serving girl the whole evening. If he wanted it to be good for the lady, he had to pay attention to her needs. And, generally, one of those needs was a day off from her “traditional” roles.

Women, even in modern societies, were traditionally viewed as the housekeepers. Especially so amongst the Keldara. Keldara males could barbeque but few could really cook. So, for the evening, Mike took over the cooking duties.

“You like Katrina the most,” Gretchen said.

Mike wasn’t going to look up to see what expression was on her face. He was busy trying to remember how to cook Shrimp St. Jaques.

One part of the Rite he was starting to have trouble with was the meal. He’d decided, early on, that every girl should have, at the least, her own “special” meal. But this was about his fifteenth “Rite” and he was starting to run out of easy dishes. His skills were mostly focused on the stovetop, stir fry and the various French equivalents. At this rate he was going to have to learn how to cook Lobster Thermidor or Chateau Briand.

“Actually, Gretchen,” Mike said, still not looking up as he started the pasta, “while I like Katrina, my physical tastes are somewhat elsewhere. If I was asked to describe my dream girl she’d be, oh, tall with long shapely legs, a firm stomach, good, high, firm breasts, a pretty face, blue eyes… ” then he looked up into hers and smiled, “and blonde hair.”

“Liar,” Gretchen said, shifting a bit in her seat and trying not to smile.

“Au contraire,” Mike said then considered for a moment. “On the contrary. That describes my dream girl. Well, she could be somewhat shorter and more rounded, that has its attractions. But the breasts, eyes and hair remain.”

“So I guess you like what you see?” Gretchen said, shifting again to lean sideways. She’d meant for it to be coquettish but one of her breasts damned near slipped out of the not particularly restraining dress and she straightened, pulling at the edges of the dress modestly.

“I like it very much,” Mike said, trying to give the impression he hadn’t seen as much of that lovely lovely breast as, in fact, he had.

“But that also describes Daria and Anastasia,” Gretchen pointed out.

“Neither of whom, my dear, were virgins when I met them,” Mike said, bluntly.

“What is it with men and virgins?” Gretchen asked, sharply.

“Do you really want to know or are you just finding something to be unhappy about?” Mike asked. He was busy getting the alfredo sauce ready but he looked up again, curiously. Gretchen was acting quite the handful and he wasn’t positive why.

“I’m sorry, Kildar,” Gretchen said, looking down. “I apologize.”

“Don’t,” Mike said, stirring in the parmesan cheese. “I’ve never been particularly happy about this… rite myself. As I’ve made plain many times.”

“You don’t like breaking in virgins?” Gretchen asked. “What, you don’t want to bed me? Didn’t you just say that I’m your ideal girl?”

“Yes, and I meant it,” Mike said. “But it’s supposed to be something the lady enjoys, not rape. And right now I’m getting the impression you’re less than happy. I think at me but I’m not sure.”

Gretchen looked away again and then sighed. Mike was trying very hard not to look at her body but the sigh was impossible to resist.

“Kiril is downstairs, isn’t he?”

“Oh, so that’s it… ”

* * *

Kiril closed his eyes as Anastasia ran her hands down his body.

She had turned up out of the darkness at the fire on the dun, as she had since the first Rite, and taken him up to the caravanserai.

Mike thought that both parties should be “aware” when they came to the marriage bed. As it was his job to please Gretchen and teach her what pleased men, it was Anastasia’s to do the same for her mate. Both were careful, however, to stay away from their actual interests which leaned, no hurled, in the direction of whips, chains and as much pain as possible. Mike to inflict, Anastasia to absorb.

“This is not the first time you’ve been with a woman,” Anastasia said, sitting down on the bed next to him.

“No,” Kiril admitted.

“So many lost their virginity on the Balkans trip,” Anastasia said, smiling. “Before that all of you were virgins. Since… ”

“So, you really don’t have to do this,” Kiril pointed out. “I mean, I’d love to, but… ”

“Do you think I don’t enjoy it?” Anastasia said, grinning. “For years in the harem all there was was Otayar and you don’t want me to describe what a thrill it was lying with an old fat man who cared only for his pleasure. But part of my purpose is to teach you how you can please your wife, not just to take your mind off of other things.”

“I really don’t need my mind taken off of that, actually,” Kiril said. “I’m probably more okay with the Kildar being with Gretchen than… anybody. Including, I know, the Kildar. I’m just saying, if you don’t want to… ”

“So thoughtful you are,” Anastasia said, running her hand down his body again. “But I do want to. It has a special thrill, yes?”

“I… yes,” Kiril replied as there was a knock on the door.

“Who in the… ” Anastasia said, her face reflecting fury as she stood up and walked to the door of the suite. Yanking it open she was confronted by the Kildar, holding an obviously embarassed Gretchen’s hand. Gretchen was pulling at her dress front, trying to cover more skin and looking anywhere but at the two people in the room.

“Kildar?” Anastasia, in English, raising one eyebrow. “I take it the Rite is going somewhat Wrong?”

“You are one of the few people I know that can change languages just to get in a pun,” Mike said, stepping passed her and closing the door, which was sound proofed. “Kiril! Come here!”

“Yes, sir!” the young man said, snapping to attention and practically marching over. He, too, was trying very hard to not look at his fiancee.

“Gretchen knows where my quarters are,” Mike said, putting Gretchen’s hand in his. “Get to it girl,” Mike added, slapping the girl on the butt.

“Kildar,” Gretchen said, pleading in her eyes.

“I like rape just fine, but I don’t do it,” Mike said, his face hard. “You two. Upstairs. That’s an order. I don’t care if you do anything or not, but if Kiril misses this opportunity, he’s over the line between hardcore and stupid. Nobody will know but the four of us.” Mike looked at the two of them, both wide-eyed and frozen, and sighed. “You’ll have to cook your own dinner.”

“I don’t know how to cook that!” Gretchen practically wailed. “I’d never seen a shrimp before in my life!”

“There are other ingredients,” Mike said, softening. “Go.”

When the two stunned youngsters were gone, Mike looked at Anastasia.

“So, doing anything this evening?” he asked.

Chapter Six

Gretchen stood, just looking around the small kitchen filled with devices she had no idea how to use, then picked up the Kildar’s apron and put it on over her beautiful dress.

“So what happened?” Kiril asked, picking up the glass of champagne and sniffing at it. He took a sip and swirled it around in his mouth before swallowing. “This stuff doesn’t half make your nose tickle, does it?”

“I don’t know,” Gretchen said, opening the unfamiliar refrigerator and looking at the contents. It was very well stocked for a spare kitchen. She looked in the freezer and recognized meat. She could probably do something with meat. Suddenly, she started crying.

“I didn’t want this to happen,” she said, sniffling.

“Well, it did,” Kiril said, taking another sip of champagne. “Nice dress, by the way.”

“It wasn’t the Kildar, it was me,” Gretchen said, looking over at him. “I just couldn’t… ”

“I guess I can understand that,” Kiril said. “I mean, sort of. But I thought all the girls wanted the Kildar?”

“Not that you idiot!” Gretchen snapped. “It… I… It… ” She stopped and shrugged.

“Oh,” Kiril said, setting down the glass with a clink that was the only sound in the room. “So… You did all this because you didn’t want me with Anastasia?”

“And did you want me with the Kildar?” Gretchen asked, angrily.

“Yes,” Kiril answered, expecting an angry reply.

“Do you have a reason?” Gretchen said. “I do, I was just angry you were with that woman. Now… ”

“You do?” Kiril asked, confused. “I mean, since the Kildar, okay, some of us have been thinking about our traditions, trying to pin down why they are. And we think we’ve got a handle on Cardane, but… You already do?

“Yes,” Gretchen replied, “but that is all I can say. It is part of… woman’s rites.”

“Oh… shit,” Kiril said, his face suddenly white. “The… ”

“Goddess,” Gretchen said, nodding. “Kiril, I must lie with the Kildar this night. But I have failed. I will be shamed if I do not. I… ”

“Oh, damn,” Kiril said, working his jaw. Guns he’d face, but not the vengeance of the Priestess. Not being able to marry Gretchen was the least of it. If she angered the Priestess, she’d almost assuredly be cast out, Kildar or no Kildar. He, too, might face the wrath. Oh, they hadn’t done the full Goddess Rites in a long time, but he didn’t want to be the person to break the trend. “Gretch, there’s only one thing to do, then… ”

* * *

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Mike said, lowering the whip at a knock on the door. Anastasia had indicated the need for a seriously hard whipping and for once he wasn’t holding back; the whole thing with Gretchen had been incredibly frustrating. He hadn’t had a date go that bad in years. And, okay, he hadn’t looked forward to the Rite that much in a long time, either.

“Mff, mgh, mff?” Anastasia asked through the gag.

“How the hell should I know?”

How long were they going to wait? Oh, the hell with it.

Mike walked to the door and opened it, shielding the view of the interior, and the whip, from whoever was at the door. Technically he shouldn’t have been here at all at this time. This was really going to screw things up. He wasn’t sure how bad, but bad.

He snatched the door open: “Wha… ” He paused at the sight of Gretchen and Kiril and took a deep breath. “Yes?” he said ground out as pleasantly as he could.

“Kildar, the Rite must be completed,” Kiril said, holding out Gretchen’s hand. “Please, Kildar, let’s just… try to start over.” He’d clearly rehearsed the words and gotten through them without really taking in what he was seeing.

Gretchen wasn’t saying much, she was just blinking.

Mike had changed clothes. He was wearing a skin-tight black leather cuirass, a leather g-string, chaps and a spiked leather collar.

Mike was tempted to do many things, swear, burst into laughter… but what he did was just nod.

“I’m going to need a few minutes,” he said. He looked at Gretchen and shook his head. “Gretchen, go await me upstairs. Kiril… front room.”

“Yes, Kildar,” Kiril said.

Mike shook his head and walked around to look at Anastasia.

“Think I should take the whip with me?” he asked.

Anastasia thought about it for a few seconds then nodded her head affirmatively. Very affirmatively.

“Think the kid’s up to this?” Mike asked waving around at the temporary bondage scene.

Anastasia shook her head, ruefully, in the negative.

“Yeah, I agree,” Mike said, frowning. “Good strong arms but then there’s the safety briefing and negotiation and all that time Gretchen’s waiting upstairs getting more and more nervous… ” He grinned evilly. “Okay, here’s a question. Want him to at least see you like this? That would be humiliating, right?”

Anastasia shook her head hard and Mike started to grin then stopped.

“Hell,” he said, pulling the gag out of her mouth. “We’re out of scene. Are you clear enough?” Serious bondage tended to get so many endorphins running in the submissive that it was very much like being drugged, one of its attractions for those who had the tendencies. For those who didn’t it was simply painful.

“I’m clear,” Anastasia said. “We had barely gotten started. While I would actually appreciate the humiliation, you know how I am, I don’t think it would be good for him. While I’m pretty sure the Keldara are more or less aware of your interests, I think that having it thrown in his face wouldn’t be good.”

“Damn, for a miserable little bitch of a sub who’s all tied up, you’re thinking pretty clearly,” Mike said.

“I thought we were out of scene?” Anastasia said.

“Your nipples still got all crinkled up which was the point,” Mike replied. “Okay, let’s get you down.”

Getting her down took less time than getting everything put away. But when Anastasia started putting her clothes on, Mike stopped her.

“I’m giving you to another man this night,” Mike said, roughly. “He will come in here and have his way with you. Don’t bother with any of the cutie training him, he’s here to take you and you will pleasure him well or you will answer to me.”

“Yes, Kildar,” Anastasia said, breathing hard.

“Await him on your knees,” Mike said.

“Yes, Kildar.”

It was the best he could do for giving her a good evening. It would have to do.

* * *

Mike left the whip behind but kept the bondage gear on. The hell with it.

Kiril popped to attention as he entered the front room, trying very hard to not look at how Mike was dressed.

“Kiril, I’ve got a question for you and I need a straight answer,” Mike said. “Do the Keldara talk about my sexual… adventures?”

“Yes, Kildar,” Kiril said after a long pause.

“About my interests?” he asked.

“Yes, Kildar.”

“And is it clear that Anastasia shares that interest?” Mike asked. “And that I don’t, normally, let it interfere in the Rite?”

“Yes, Kildar,” Kiril said on surer ground. “Both. That Miss Rakovich… shares your interests and that you don’t… do that sort of thing during the Cardane.”

“Well, Miss Rakovich, as you put it, is very put out. She was looking forward to an evening of ‘who’s a bad harem girl?’, given that the Rite had gone so awry, and now she doesn’t get to have one. Straight question: Do you lean that way?”

“Straight answer, Kildar: No, sir. I just don’t have that much interest in that sort of thing. That is not a… ”

“I didn’t take it that way,” Mike said. “I’ve had more sexual experiences than you’ve had hot breakfasts. But I’ve got a problem. Anastasia, who needs a certain amount of being called a little bitch and a slut and a bad girl to keep her sunny disposition and incredible efficiency is now in the position of not getting that when she expected it. So your orders, Kiril, are to get in there and do your very damned best. Don’t ask her if anything is okay. If you want to do anything to her except hit her in the face or something that is clearly unsafe such as choking or, notably, gagging her, then go in there and do it. Don’t ask, don’t even call her by name. Just do whatever you want and call her bad names. That’s interesting isn’t it?”

“Yes, Kildar,” Kiril said, his eyes wide.

“Good,” Mike said. “Now I have other things to do and so do you. And I promise to treat Gretchen with as much care as I possibly can. But I want this made quietly but abundantly clear. The ladies who are involved in the Rite from here on out had better know, up front, that they are going to go through with it and not panic at the last second because their boyfriend is satisfying my harem manager when I can’t. In case you guys hadn’t figured it out, part of the whole thing with you getting laid is that I’m with another girl and Anastasia isn’t getting laid. The harem girls don’t bug her. The Cardane girls bug the ever living hell out of her. So while I’m cooking, you guys had better get it through your heads that you’re my stand in. Is that clear, Keldara?”

“Clear, sir!” Kiril barked.

“Now get in there and do your best,” Mike said. “I’m going to just sit here and let your future wife sweat a little longer!”

* * *

It was about thirty minutes later when Mike yanked open the bedroom door and walked in. He was still wearing the dominance outfit.

Gretchen was sitting on the couch, her knees pulled up, hands wrapped around them, looking very very nervous. She’d also, clearly, been crying.

“Starting all over is out,” Mike said, walking over to the stove-top and looking at the pots and pans. “This alfredo is ruined. Just totally ruined. The shrimp is starting to look a bit off, too, and you really don’t want to go eating an off shrimp… ”

“Kildar… ”

“I should be the adult about this,” Mike continued, cutting her off and refusing to look at her. “I’m the one with all the experience. I am, in every way, the adult here. Hell, you’re barely legal where I come from. But what I am is pissed. Everyone knows I’ve been pretty down on this whole Cardane thing ever since it started. What happens in the Cardane is legal grounds for murder in a Texas. I like virgins as much as any guy. But not when they’re the fiancees of people who stand behind me with guns. And I was just managing to take out my frustrations about it when I get doubly frustrated. So, tell me, Gretchen, where does that leave us?”

“Kildar, I just don’t know,” Gretchen said, sniffling.

“As far as I’m concerned, it means we’re done for the night,” Mike said, turning towards her and crossing his arms. “Because right now, if we had sex, the term would be ‘grudge fuck’, meaning I’d be taking out my frustrations on you. Which is the last thing you need for your first sexual experience. So you hop in bed and try to sleep and I’ll go find one of the many other rooms in this place to bunk.”

“Kildar, please,” Gretchen said, shaking her head. “Don’t do that.”

“Because it would doubly shame you?” Mike asked, shaking his own. “I had that one trotted out on me one time already. When I suggested that Lydia just spend the night up here. Doubly shamed, once for being ‘with’ the Kildar alone and twice for being found wanting. Right now, Gretchen, dear, I’m not sure I care. I did mention being pissed, right?”

“Kildar, please,” Gretchen pleaded. “Please, for Kiril if not for me, lie with me this night. You can just take me as you wish. You can rape me as you would. You can do anything to me you wish. Beat me, strike me, take your anger out on me in any way you would care to. I deserve it. I admit it. But you must take me this night!”

Mike blinked. He knew a sub that wanted to be abused when he saw one and he knew the opposite. This girl wasn’t being submissive, she was just willing to do anything to “lie with him this night.”

The anger blinked off in a second as he realized he’d just stepped into ground that he didn’t understand. Lovers quarrels, those were all well and good. But this was some sort of much larger issue. Cultural, yes, assuredly. But something else, deeper and stranger. He could smell it.

He walked over to the couch and sat down next to the girl, far enough away to not be terribly threatening but close enough that he could really watch her reactions. And while when he arrived she had been nervous, she was now frightened. He was pretty sure that it wasn’t her begging to be hit that had changed things, either. Gretchen had the full measure of the Keldara physical bravery; she’d take a punch and keep on going. And likely punch back, harder. Whatever was bothering her was something that slipped in through other doors.

“Why?” he asked, quietly.

“Kildar, I would be doubly shamed,” Gretchen said.

“We covered that,” Mike said. “Why? Really why.”

“I cannot say,” Gretchen replied. “May not say.”

Keldaran had the same dichotomy of meanings and Mike knew the language well enough at this point to catch it.

“You are not allowed to say,” Mike stated.


“Okay,” Mike said, nodding. “How about charades?”

“Pardon me?” Gretchen said, blinking in puzzlement.

“Uh, the Alligator game.”

That was the local name for charades and while the game was old in the West, like bowling it was just catching on in the former Soviet Union.

“Wave my arms and you guess the words?” Gretchen said, finally smiling again. “No, I think that won’t work, either.”

“Then give me something,” Mike said. “Because I’m starting to realize that I might have been screwing up all along.”

“No, you have not,” Gretchen said, sliding over to grab his hand. “Kildar, the way that you accomplish the Rite is a joy. I am sorry that I was so stupid. I was more than willing, am more than willing, to come to your bed. Beyond the Rite, what you have made of it is wonderful. I am sorry.”

“Then give me something,” Mike said, nodding. “I accept your apology fully and equally apologize for not handling things better. But I need some idea of why you’re so terrified of me not taking you tonight. Anything.”

“Kildar,” Gretchen said, swallowing. “I… Kildar, the Cardane is a Rite. It is… It is a Rite of our religion. It is part of our Mysteries.”

“Of the Father of All,” Mike said, puzzled.

“No,” Gretchen said. “Kildar, I’m afraid if I say more it will be worse than if I you reject me. Please, Kildar, you must not speak of this, must not ever give any idea that I spoke of it to you. Not even this much.”

Not of the Father of All,” Mike said, musingly. “I’d bet not of Fir, Lord of War, either. Nor of… No, I’d bet Balor falls in there, somewhere… It’s a woman’s Rite.”

“Kildar,” Gretchen said then sighed. “Your damned books. Others have read them at this point so we realize that our mysteries are not so mysterious.”

“It is always the Kildar,” Mike said, wonderingly. “And the Kildar is always a foreigner; that’s part of the definition. A foreign warrior. Probably a good one. A woman’s mystery. Heh. I bet any ‘Kildars’ that didn’t measure up didn’t last long, yes?”

“Please,” Gretchen said, frowning.

“God damn,” Mike said, grinning. “That prize bull that Father Makanee asked me to import. Out of stock from America. It was expensive as hell but Genadi agreed that it was important. The local stock was too inbred.”

Gretchen was now looking at the floor, her hands clenched in front of her.

“I’d wondered how come the first three girls I lay with all came up pregnant, apparently by me,” Mike said, wonderingly. “It’s because they were ‘put to stud’ when they were at the most likely point to catch. I’m the Keldara’s damned prize bull, aren’t I? And all the Kildars before me. Age upon age, century upon century, the best soldiers of each generation, adding to the pool… You people have been breeding yourselves as warriors for centuries!”

And they have to be good looking,” Gretchen said, sighing. “Pure of form and… unill. That is, they cannot be of bad blood. What is now called genetic illnesses. If they are, the Keldara avoid breeding with them or if they cannot the women kill them, usually with poison, or the children are aborted. The Mothers know of ways to do both. I only found out when I was presented with the Rite.”

“Son of a bitch,” Mike said, shaking his head. “I just don’t know what to say.”

“Nothing,” Gretchen said, looking up pleadingly. “Please. You will say nothing. If the Mothers find out that I said as much as I have… ”

“Oh, your mysteries are safe with me,” Mike said, grinning. “But if I’m to be the local stud stallion, will you squeal like a mare being bred for me?”

“Oh, Kildar,” Gretchen said, laughing in relief. She slid over into his arms and tucked her face into his neck. “I will do that if you wish. But what I’d really like… I have been a very bad girl. Could you spank me? But not more, please?”

“Oh, I think that can be arranged,” Mike said, burying his face in her hair. She’d clearly been stressed, he could smell it on her. But she also had put on a perfume, something like apples. It was just begging for a bite. “But now I wonder if my pattern for this thing is a good idea… ”

“You mean this?” Gretchen said, sliding off the couch and getting on her knees. She ran her hand across the g-string and started to undo it. “So far, so good. Let’s not break tradition.”

His member was fully engorged when she pulled the g-string down. Between the anticipation, the frustration and, hell, the tits, he was about as ready to burst as he’d been in years.

Anastasia gave good classes but he wondered where Gretchen had been practicing. She ran her tongue down his dick just once then slid her mouth over it and began to fellate him. And, damn, she was good.

The girl had to have been practicing. You didn’t get suction like that naturally; the jaw and mouth muscles weren’t normally exercised that way. But she had purely unreal suction and immediately fell into a slow rhythm of up and down stroking, thumb and finger laced around his dick just right, no teeth, just lips, going in time with the mouth, slowly speeding up…

Mike normally had pretty good control but this time he couldn’t help it; he came in her mouth so hard some of the cum must have squirted all the way down her throat.

Gretchen choked, slightly, but kept sucking, getting every drop. Then she pulled back, swallowed and ran her hand, lightly, down under his balls.

“Is that what you were worried about, Kildar?” she asked, smiling. “Did that take the edge off?”

“What were we fighting about?” Mike asked. “That was… exquisite. You are exquisite.”

Gretchen had brought a refilled glass of champagne over and she took a sip, swished it around her mouth, swallowed and repeated. Then she slid up next to him, still fingering his dick and tucked back into his shoulder.

“Tell me the truth,” she whispered. “Do you really like me that much?”

“Ask yourself this question,” Mike said. “I know the girls talk. Did any of them get me off that fast?”

“No,” Gretchen admitted in practically a purr. “Can we see if I can get you off as fast other ways?”

“What about you?” Mike asked, sliding his hand up under the dress and tickling at her nipples.

“You always worry about us,” Gretchen whispered, breathing in his ear, lightly. “Now you know. We are here for us. For ourselves. I need you, now. I need you inside of me. I need you to be in me, filling me and coming in me. I want it inside of me and on me. I want to be fucked, fucked hard. I want to you fuck me and fill me and come on my beautiful breasts. Will you do that for me, Kildar?”

Mike was usually pretty good about recharge time. But that had been some sort of a record. He was stiff as a board.

Normally this was the point where he got really graceful and controlled, making sure that the girl with him either came before he did or, better, at the same time. But he was beyond thought at this point.

He reached up and tore, rather than unbuttoned, the single button that held the dress up and ripped it down, burying his face in those lovely breasts. He dragged the girl off the couch and onto the floor, pushed up the silk skirt, ripped off the lace panties and took her, hard.

And she was ready, not just moist but actively wet, and tight. God she was tight and hot. And they were perfectly sized. “Bigger is better” only goes so far. Mike wasn’t Long Dong Silver but he was “upper average.” Some of the Keldara girls had, Lord bless them, been a bit too small for him. Not Gretchen. As the fairytale went: Just right. Just tight enough that he knew he was filling her, fully.

The hymen ripped without notice by either of them and as he filled her she screamed, not squealing like a mare being covered but shrieked in pleasure and agony and fulfillment. Screamed like a tiger princess being taken by her striped mate.

Those beautiful long legs came up and wrapped him in yards of silk and flesh as her fingers dug into his buttocks and she pumped against him, rocking with every thrust and shrieking in joy.

Mike realized, immediately, that she wasn’t just having fun, she was coming for all she was worth, one continuous orgasm that had started as soon as he filled her. Making a women really feel was his greatest desire, whether pleasure or pain. And Gretchen was unquestionably feeling, wrapped in an ecstacy of Biblical proportions. He turned his brain off, gloriously, for once in sex, just turned it off and pounded as hard as he could. No coy games, no positions or different strokes, no who pleases who, just lost himself in glorious skin and hair and smell and that exalted rapture of every sense filled to overflowing…

Chapter Seven

“Carvanserai Kildar… No, I’m sorry, Colonel, the Kildar is unavailable… Colonel, sir, I recognize that, but he really is very very unavailable… For some times, sir… Sir, I absolutely cannot do that, the Kildar’s orders are very specific in this regard… Yes, sir, as a matter of fact that is the only person that he said could be put through… ”


“Caravanserai Kildar… Say again?… Yes!… Yes, sir… Immediately, sir. Yes, Colonel Pierson made that plain but… I must warn you, sir… Yes, sir… ”

* * *

Mike opened his eyes at the dawn light, looking at the girl, no the woman, by his side. She was lying with her beautiful blonde head on his shoulder an arm and a leg thrown over him posessively.

Both were naked, their clothes scattered across the entire suite. A pair of chaps dangled from the bar. The lovely dress, somewhat the worse for wear, lay on the floor by the door. A single stocking was across one of the sconces on the wall. A white shoe was at the head of the bed.

A quart container of chocolate mousse was on the floor of the kitchen in the middle of one hell of a mess. More marks of mousse led a winding trail, via the bar, the couch and the floor in several places to the bathroom.

Mike was, frankly, afraid to look in the bathroom.

He could move pretty easily which was odd. When he lay in one position for very long he tended to stiffen up, badly. Then he looked at the clock and realized he’d been asleep for maybe thirty minutes.

He licked his pinkie and wiped some chocolate mousse off her cheek, wondering if he should warn Kiril never to give this girl chocolate, then poked her in the side.

“Hey, you, wake up,” Mike said. “The dawn’s a breakin and birds a singin and all that.”

Gretchen’s eyes flew open, momentarily confused, then she looked up at him.

“Let’s do it again,” she said, rolling over on top of him and rubbing her breasts on his chest. “And again and again and again… ” she continued, leaning forward to rub them in his face.

“I… ” Mike said, only to have whatever he was going to say muffled by a nipple. Oh, hell, he didn’t have anything to do today…

The phone rang.

That should not have happened. The phone did not ring during the Rite of Cardane God damnit! The phone did not just…

It rang again.

“Shit!” Mike said, rolling over. If the phone did ring…

And it was the God damned secure phone! It went through the communications section. They knew better than to put anyone through to him unless it was an absolute emergency. For him.

“What?” he shouted as soon as he had the headphone on. Fuck checking the scrambler, he just didn’t care.

“Mike, it’s David,” President Cliff said. “I know that I’ve caught you at a bad time. I apologize. However, when they wouldn’t let Colonel Pierson through, I found it important enough to call direct.”

“Yes, sir,” Mike said, sitting up.

Fuck. Gretchen was already hunting for her clothes. By rights, the Rite should be over. He was just going to have to saddle up his horse and take her back and never ever…


“I need you to come to DC and see some people,” the President continued. “Colonel Pierson will call your staff and arrange the details. If there’s time, and opportunity, I’d love to have you over to the House.”

“I look forward to it,” Mike said.

“In fact, why don’t you just plan on staying here?” the President said. “Why get a hotel room when you’ve got friends in town? Pierson will arrange a cover.”

“Yes, sir,” Mike said, trying to clear his head. About thirty seconds before he’d had a gorgeous tit in his mouth. “I’ll make sure everything is arranged.”

“Great,” the president said. “And, again, I’m sorry for having to break in.”

“Not a problem, sir,” Mike said, watching the naked seventeen year old coming out of the bathroom with an armload of clothes. “No problem at all. Put it out of your mind.”

* * *

“I’m going to DC for a day or so,” Mike said as he polished off the last of his eggs.

Mike had passed around the word that he’d like most of the staff to be at breakfast for an “informal brief.” It wasn’t by any stretch the sort of staff the American military would recognize, fitting the conditions rather than making an American “staff” fit them.

Nielson now had the title of “colonel” back, although it was very unofficial. For that matter, Adams was a “Master Chief” and Vanner a “Sergeant.” The Georgian government did not officially recognize anyone’s military status except Mike’s, and even that was under a very old law that had been “put back on the books.” However, both of them had dealt with Georgian officers and NCOs in the last few months and even those carefully briefed on their equivocal status had treated them exactly as they’d have treated NCOs and officers of equivalent rank in the Georgian forces. Actually, with more respect. Over the summer, several Georgian National Guard units had trained with the Keldara and come away with their heads on a platter.

The Keldara had built a reputation as first-class mountain infantry and if their “command structure” was a little irregular the Georgian military — faced with an ongoing low-level insurgency in Ossetia and Chechen control of hundreds of miles of Georgian territory — was not going to look a gift horse too closely in the mouth. The Keldara had shut down the Chechens in their sector and held the back door. That was good enough.

Mike had waited until dinner to spring his surprise. It was the best time to get everyone together without putting too much emphasis on things.

“I’d wondered what the call was about,” Nielson said. He took a sip of coffee and pursed his lips. “A job?”

“Looks like,” Mike replied. “Something delicate and ‘right up my alley.’ ”

“Which means you’re gonna get your ass shot off,” Adams grunted.

“More or less exactly what I thought,” Mike replied with a grunted laugh. “Stasia, you up for a quick trip to DC? I don’t think I’ll be staying long but you can probably squeeze in some shopping.”

“I don’t have a visa,” Anastasia temporized.

“I’ll pull some strings.” Mike paused and considered her carefully for a moment. “If you don’t actually want to go you don’t have to. But I promised I’d take you traveling if it came up. This is traveling.”

“I would like to go, Kildar,” Anastasia said, swallowing nervously. “But I hope you are around most of the time.”

“Where we’ll be staying I’m sure we can find someone suitable to show you around,” Mike said, cryptically. “Trust me. You’ll enjoy yourself.”

“Thank you,” Anastasia said.

What was being cautiously ignored was what Anastasia, in her rare joking moments, referred to as “every harem girl’s friend”: agoraphobia. Anastasia had gone from her parent’s small farm to a harem. There, with the exception of occasional trips to nearby Samarkand she had spent over ten years immured in virtual purdah; the walls of the harem had become her world. When she was bartered away to Mike in return for future “favors” he had made clear that, from his point-of-view, she was a free agent. He had also promised to not only introduce her to visitors — she had been more like a mobile piece of furniture in the meeting he had attended at the sheik’s home — but to take her traveling. However, she had a very real fear of the chaos to be found outside of controlled surroundings. Intelligent, balanced, speaking seven languages, she could barely bring herself to go to Allerso, population fifty, within sight of the caravanerai, practically owned by Mike. Wandering around the District of Columbia on her own would be unlikely.

“Thanks,” Mike added. “That works. I think we’re done until I see what’s up. But I’ve got the feeling they need, or want, more than me. Make sure the teams are up and ready to go.”

“Am I going?” Vanner asked. “I mean on the op?”

“Don’t know until we know what it is,” Mike said.

“Well, if I do,” Vanner added. “Can I get a gun this time?”

* * *

“Mike, one more thing,” Nielson said after the others had left the dinner table.

“Yah?” Mike asked, contemplating how much he was not looking forward to this trip.

“I finally tracked down a HUMINT guy,” the colonel said. “Sorry it took so long.”

Mike pulled his mind back from DC for a second and considered that. Earlier in the year, as it became obvious that he had to think about more than just the Chechen threat, he’d asked Nielson to start looking around for a “human intelligence” — HUMINT — operator. Right now, other than picking a few things up in the village and using Katya for insertions, they really didn’t have a HUMINT side at all. And they needed one. They should have built a network among the Chechens long before this; the fact that they didn’t have one had been eating at him. And, frankly, he’d been willing to think “big” on the HUMINT side, depending on money. So far he, personally, had been in ops ranging from the US to Siberia and most places in between. He wasn’t sure he could create an “intelligence agency”, but he was willing to give it a very serious shot.

“Go,” Mike replied.

“Well, I thought it would be easy,” Nielson said, grimacing. “Did you know that during the Clinton Administration the HUMINT side in the Agency got cut by right on the order of 90%?”

“No,” Mike said with a grimace. “But it doesn’t surprise me. Al Gore’s ‘reinventing government.’ They cut a bunch of government employees, but they all seemed to come out of DOD and intel. I swear, every damned day I find another reason to lay 9/11 at Clinton and his ilk’s feet.”

“Anyway, with that many people on the street I figured I could find somebody good pretty quick,” Nielson said. “Until recently, though, no such luck. Most of them have put up the cloak and dagger and weren’t willing to go out in the cold again for any money. And some that were… well let’s just say that some of the people that got cut needed to be.”

“Nature of any bureaucracy,” Mike replied with a grin. “Let’s not get big enough to be called a bureaucracy.”

“But I finally found one guy,” Nielson said. “Or, rather, he found me. Only name I’ve got is Jay. At least, that’s the name that anybody knows. First I got sent an encryption code for e-mail then an e-mail out of the blue. He had heard I was looking, is sort of interested and had checked us out before calling.”

“Wonder what he found out?” Mike asked.

“I dunno,” the colonel said with a grimace. “He’s… pretty close to the vest.”

“Go figure.”

“I checked him out, though, as well,” Nielson continued. “As well as I could. As I said, maybe somewhere in Langley there’s a file that has his real name on it. But he’s a known player under ‘Jay.’ Very well known.”

“That could be bad,” Mike said with a frown.

“If he ever used the same name twice, except with higher, it might be,” Nielson admitted. “But the guys I contacted that knew him, or knew of him… Well, among other things, I couldn’t get a fixed description. He was, variously, blonde to black hair, every eye color you could name, pudgy to skinny as a rail, no chin, big chin… You get the picture. And these are people who have met him in person. Ever heard about the CIA switching around the men’s rooms and women’s rooms sign in the KGB headquarters?”

“No, but it sounds like a pretty good laugh,” Mike said, smiling.

“Yeah, well, he had a piece of that,” the colonel said, shaking his head. “In the intel community, he’s what spec-ops would think of as a Son-Tay Raider.”

The Son-Tay raid was one of the most magnificent failures in history. It was a large-scale raid, very late in the Vietnam War, intended to recapture a large number of prisoners of war from the North Vietnamese. It had been meticulously planned, expertly personneled and perfectly performed. The only problem being that when the raiders reached the objective, the prisoners had already been moved. They, nonetheless, slaughtered the guards with precision and “stacked them up like cord-wood.”

Son-Tay Raiders were legends in the spec-ops community. The failure had been at a much higher pay-grade than anyone on the op. They had performed a difficult mission flawlessly.

“That good,” Mike said. “Okay, if the mountain’s not going to come to Mohammed… ”

“He said he can meet anywhere in the DC area with at least a day’s notice,” Nielson said, raising an eyebrow.

“Get ahold of him,” Mike replied. “Arrange a meet.”

“Will do,” Nielson said, standing up. “If that is all, Kildar? I have a previously scheduled meeting with Flopsy.”

“Get out of here you old goat,” Mike replied with a grin. “But keep me updated.”

“Will do.”

* * *

“Captain Hardesty,” Mike said, walking up to the door of the Gulfstream.

“Mr. Jenkins,” the pilot said. “I swore the last trip was going to be the last, you know.”

Mike regularly chartered with Chatham Aviation, a small but select group out of England. And about half the time there were… issues. The first time he’d flown with Hardesty, a former RAF Tornado pilot, he had had to change names, twice, turned up with quite a bit of blood on him at one point and casually instructed the pilot, during a trip to Paris, France, that he might want to “deploy the plane a bit away from Paris, probably southeast given the winds… ” a day before it was revealed a nuclear weapon had almost gone off in the city.

But the last trip had really beat all. That time “Mr. Jenkins” had requested a “somewhat larger jet… about enough to handle a company of infantry… ” and had turned up with forty heavily armed retainers and a string of what could only be described as “ladies of the evening” in tow. The armaments, ranging from pistols to rocket launchers, had been casually but rapidly stowed in the cargo compartment and the group boarded somewhat hastily. As if, for example, they were being chased. And on take-off Hardesty had been pretty sure he’d caught a tracer flying by his windscreen. He’d seen a few in his time. But whoever was, possibly, shooting was pretty bad because they’d managed to miss an entire 737.

However, things had gone from bad to worse during a petrol stop in England. The English government had grounded his aircraft pending “inspection”, an inspection he was not looking forward to given the contents of the cargo hold, then several very senior members of the British government had boarded. Whatever was going on, however, had been resolved and they eventually got on their way. He’d sweated American customs but, as it turned out, the “inspection” on arrival in the US had been less than cursory. Given that he had a hold full of weapons and ammunition, what was a clearly a tactical team, a bunch of hookers and none of them had proper visas… Obviously the BCIS was slipping.

The experience had not been the happiest of his life. And he was not interested in a repeat.

That being said, generally flying businessmen around was… unsatisfying. Oh, it paid well enough, but it was a bit like being an aerial bus driver. Not quite like flying a Tornado balls to the wall down a Balkans valley filled with flak.

Flying “Mr. Jenkins” around was rarely boring. Bit too exciting at times, but rarely boring.

“No issues this time,” Mike said, grinning and slipping by him to board the aircraft. “Cross my heart. Just a quick trip to DC then back.”

“And Miss Rakovich,” Hardesty said, not deigning to comment. “Beautiful as always.”

“I did not think you’d remember me,” Anastasia said, dimpling prettily and nodding as she boarded. Her only previous flight had been on either this Gulfstream or one identical to it, with Hardesty piloting.

“I could never forget a lady so beautiful in both face and spirit,” Hardesty replied. “If we’re all loaded?” he continued, checking where the Keldara had been putting the bags in what he referred to as the “boot.”

“Think so,” Mike replied. “Only two rocket launchers and hardly any explosives at all this time.”

“You are pleased to jest,” the pilot said. “I’ve got a flight-plan filed for DC. Winds may be against us over the Atlantic but otherwise smooth. Flight time of about twenty-hours, mind.”

“Works,” Mike said. “I’m gonna flake out most of the trip.”

“And Miss Rakovich,” Hardesty added. “I will endeavor for a smooth take-off and climb-out.”

“Thank you,” Anastasia said, buckling herself in. She had rarely flown and did not enjoy the experience. Especially any “unexpected” movement.

“Off we go again,” Mike said, taking her hand as the engines started.

“At least this time I’ve got some idea what is going on,” Anastasia said. “And are we going to ‘play’ again?” she continued, coyly.

“Oh, a bit more than the last time,” Mike said, smiling but not looking at her. “Definitely. I’m not sure a blow-job counts for the Mile-High club. I want my stamp.”

Anastasia continued to hold his hand as the plane taxied to the runway and then took off at which point it clamped like a vice. True to his word, Hardesty was taking it smooth and easy. A Gulfstream, as lightly loaded as this one, could point darned near straight up and Hardesty loved to fly at the edge of the envelope. But he also was both professional and considerate. If Mike, who apparently didn’t care, was the only one on board they’d have taken off like a fighter climbing out of a bombing run. With “Miss Rakovich” on board, he took it easy.

Anastasia, nonetheless, kept her eyes tightly closed and hand clamped until they were at altitude and flying smoothly. Then she took a breath, opened her eyes and released her death-grip.

“You really don’t have to travel with me, if you hate it that much,” Mike said.

“I want to,” Anastasia said, shrugging. “I want to see. But I fear as well. I won’t say I’ll get over it but I’m not willing to let the fear stop me.”

“Hoorah,’ Mike said, quietly, smiling at her. “Take not counsel of your fears.”

“Yes,” Anastasia said. “And on that score… I want to talk to you about… Gretchen.”

“Oh, Christ,” Mike said. “I thought the hareem manager wasn’t supposed to get jealous.”

“I am not jealous,” Anastasia said, evenly. “But… You’re acting different. I can tell something happened. Beyond the slight… issues that occurred in the middle of your encounter. I have noticed. I’m not sure how many others.”

“It was the chocolate mousse that gave it away, wasn’t it,” Mike said. “I’d never waste chocolate mousse unless I really cared, right?”

“How badly are you affected?” Anastasia said, refusing to take the bait.

“Oh… pretty badly,” Mike admitted. “Pretty damned badly. Pretty fucking badly. Pretty much head over heels in love with one of my team member’s fiancee.”

“I was afraid of that,” Anastasia said. “How are you going to handle that?”

“Not much choice, really,” Mike said. “I just go on. Kiril and Gretchen get married. They have one of my kids. I try very hard not to treat her, him or it any differently than any three other Keldara. I just… try to forget.”

“You won’t,” Anastasia said. “There are other… ways.”

“Sure,” Mike said. “I could ask the Fathers to dissolve the bonding. I could throw my Kildar weight around and have her. No question. Then I’d stomp all over their damned culture and piss off a bunch of men with guns, one in particular. Kiril is as smitten by her as I am, you know. I, frankly, don’t know where Gretchen stands.”

“I didn’t have time to investigate that myself,” Anastasia said. “I suppose we’ll find out when we get back. There is… another way. David and ///, yes?”

///explain for the Biblically illiterate///

“Fuck that,” Mike said, blanching. “No fucking way. I’d rather piss the Keldara off honestly than dishonestly. They’d see right through that. No, I need to just keep keeping on. I’ll get over it.”

“Seeing Gretchen day after day, year by year?” Anastasia asked.

“Hey, she’ll get old,” Mike said, smiling with only his mouth, his eyes closed and his jaw flexed. “Probably gain weight. Tits will sag. I’ll get past it. In time.” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Say about a century.”

“Yes,” Anastasia said, her hand creeping downward. “I’m sure you will. But if it happens at all, I know only one thing to speed it.”

Mike tried not to shake his head in chagrin. He truly was in love. Probably for the first time in his life. It was true that that sort of thing could hit like a lightning bolt. But it was, also, apparently true that a stiff prick has no conscience.

Chapter Eight

“Where is my daughter,” Arensky said as the van drew to a stop.

“Nearby.” The man who had been “handling” him had not been introduced and had not offered a name. He just told Arensky where to go, or more often simply grunted and pointed. “And if you’d like us to send you some pieces it can be arranged. Or pictures of her being raped by a dozen men. Out. Into the building. Don’t look around. Don’t make eye contact if anyone is nearby. Just get out and go in the door.”

Arensky’s face tightened but he did as instructed, picking up the briefcase containing the “samples” and exiting the van. The “building” was shabby, made of roughly dressed stone with a slate roof and small, wooden shuttered, windows. The interior was dark since the shutters were closed. There was a trickle of light coming in from around the shutters and it took his eyes a moment to adjust. When they did his face tightened even more.

“Ah, Dr. Arensky, come in.”

“Sergei,” Arensky replied, walking to the table in the center of the room and setting down the case. There was the table with a couple of rickety chairs, two metal beds without mattresses and a gas camping stove. Other than that the room was bare. “Where is my daughter.”

“In a nearby town,” “Sergei” said, calmly. “She is unharmed, guarded by my men, tended to, I might add, by local women. Frightened, but I have assured her that as long as you cooperate she will remain that way. And I so assure you. I will arrange for you to talk to her, briefly, very soon. Not in person, you understand. We have, now, to wait. You will wait here. She will wait there. When the transfer is completed she will be moved to where you are going.”

“So she can be used against me by your employers,” Arensky spat. He started to take off his coat but refrained; the room was colder, it seemed, than the out-of-doors. Much colder than the stuffy van.

“My contractors, yes,” the man said.

“Sergei, this is madness,” Arensky said, again, with desperate resignation. “What is in there… ” he added, pointing to the case, “that is death as you cannot possibly imagine. If that gets out, if these Islamic black-asses use it, it is the end of the world. Not only their enemies will die, you will die, everyone you know will die. The fucking world will die.”

“Everyone dies,” Sergei said, standing up from the chair. “Everyone dies eventually. Societies die. Species die. The weak make way for the fit. If it is mankind’s time to die, then die it will. Besides,” he added with a grin, “I’ve been innoculated. And so have all of my men.”

“They won’t work with this,” Arensky said, slumping into one of the chairs. “Nothing will. And it lingers.”

“For what I am being paid for this job, I can retire to a remote island staffed entirely by willing women,” Sergei replied, shrugging. “I can restart the human race single-handed. Every man’s fantasy, yes? Gregor will see to your needs,” he added as the morose guard entered the room. “And in time, if you’re very good, you can hear that your daughter is well.”


* * *

Mike had to admit that he was ready to get out of Georgia. He enjoyed the various perks of being “Kildar” but he also missed modern civilization. He’d been “deployed”, as he thought of it, for over a year. It was time to get back to the World.

But as he considered the traffic outside the window he had to admit there were more benefits to being in Georgia than he’d remembered. Tblisi could get some traffic jams, but nothing like DC. And he was going to have to put up with all that protocolish bullshit and probably ritual dickbeating.

The car had been waiting for them at the airport, a discreet government luxury four-door, like a thousand others in the city. A “ride-along” had met them at the exit from security, handled the bags and whisked them to the car.

There wasn’t anything they could do about the traffic, though.

“Anastasia, honey,” Mike said, looking at his watch. “I’m running on short time. I’ve got a meeting at the Pentagon in about an hour. Given the traffic… ”

“Should you go directly there?” Anastasia asked. “I will be fine.”

Mike suspected that was true. A person doesn’t get dropped off at the White House and then just get left. Somebody would make sure she went where she was supposed to. If she looked as if she was wandering, at the very least the Secret Service was going to step in. But that was the last thing he wanted to happen.

“No, I’m going to the House,” Mike said. “I’ll make sure you’re settled. But I’m going to have to do that as quickly as possible and then scoot.”

He knocked on the divider, not knowing quite which control worked it, then leaned over the seats.

“Okay, I need some cards laid down,” Mike said. “Secret Service or just drivers?”

“DOD secure transport,” the rider said.

Fuck. Mike wasn’t sure what that meant.

“I know diddly about your group,” Mike said. “But I’ve got a problem and it’s a secure issue… ”

“Your cover is Mr. Michael Ford,” the rider said. “A businessman currently working a start-up business in Georgia and a former fundraiser for President Cliff. Also a personal friend from long back, something about baseball.” He reached back and handed Mike a folder. “I was wondering when you were going to ask.”

Mike flipped through the documents and nodded.

“Thanks,” he said. “My brief on this was lousy.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Ford,” the rider said. “We’re going to be driving you to your next destination. Given the traffic you’re on short time for the meet at the White House. I’ll ensure that Miss Rakovich has an escort but I’d suggest that you cut any conversation at the House as short as possible. And for your general comfort level, I’m former CAG, the driver is a Green Beanie and from your utter cluelessness and tan I’d say either SEAL or Recon.”

“Glad to finally be back in the warm,” Mike said, chuckling as the divider went back up.

* * *

They rolled up to a side entrance to the White House and the rider got out to open Mike’s door.

“Your luggage will be taken care of Mr. Ford,” the former Delta said. “You’ve just got time to shower and change if you need to.”

“Love to,” Mike said. “Even a Gulfstream gets kinda rank after a twenty hour flight.”

Mike took Anastasia’s arm and led her to the door where he was greeted by an aide and two uniformed Secret Service. He did the ritual dump of keys and spare change then walked through the scanner followed by Anastasia. He’d left all his knives and guns behind, much to his chagrin.

The aide nodded to them as soon as they were through the security screen.

“Mr. Ford,” the man said, smiling and shaking Mike’s hand. “Miss Rakovich? I’m Thomas Johnson. I understand you are in a hurry so I’ll show you to your rooms. I’m aware that Mr. Ford has a priority meeting but the First Lady would like to talk to you for a moment before you leave.”

“Of course,” Mike said. “I’d love a shower, though.”

“Not a problem, sir,” the man said. “We installed plumbing back in the early 1900s.”

* * *

Mike was surprised at the size of the room. He’d only ever stayed in Camp David which was cramped enough but this room wasn’t much bigger than one of the harem girls’ rooms at the caravanserai.

But then he had to think that the White House was built back in the days when large rooms weren’t made unless they were ballrooms. In summer, big rooms were not much cooler than small and in winter they were impossible to heat. Ballrooms were kept warm in the “season” as much by dancing bodies as by the roaring fires.

The service, though, was first rate. Somehow, the White House staff had managed to get their bags up to their room, unpacked, everything put in drawers or hung up and toiletries in the bathroom, before they’d gotten to the room. And probably every bit of it had been swept by the Service for threats.

“Honey,” Mike said, shaking his head, “you need to be taking notes.”

“I am,” Anastasia said, clearly just as impressed. “I wonder if I can hire anyone away.”

“I’m getting in the shower,” Mike said, stripping off the clothes he’d been wearing since yesterday.

“I’ll do your back if you’ll do mine,” Anastasia said, unzipping her dress.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Mike said. “But what the hell. Pierson can wait.”

“It’s not Colonel Pierson I’m worried about,” Anastasia said. “You’re supposed to mee the First Lady.”

We are going to meet the First Lady,” Mike said. “So do your makeup fast.”

* * *

The shower had, alas, involved a minimum of grab-ass and Anastasia could dress and put on makeup fast when she had to.

So in no more than thirty minutes they were back out of their room, Mike in a suit and carrying a briefcase while Anastasia had changed into a different dress, this one a light blonde color just a shade darker than her hair.

“This way, sir, ma’am,” Johnson said. “The First Lady is in the ///drawing room.///”

“Amanda,” Mike said when they walked in the room.

The ///drawing room was ///.

“Michael,” the First Lady said, smiling and shaking his hand then giving him a hug. “It’s so good to have you in the House at last. You really shouldn’t stay away so much.”

“It’s Washington, ma’am,” Mike said, shaking his head. “I really shouldn’t come here at all.”

“Nonsense,” Amanda said. “And this must be Miss Rakovich.”

“Ma’am,” Anastasia said, shaking the First Lady’s hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“And you,” the First Lady said. “I know that Michael has to go to an appointment and I won’t keep him longer. But you are my guest and I’d like to talk for a bit if you don’t mind. I know you’ve been flying for a while so if you’d prefer to rest… ”

“I’d love to sit and chat, ma’am,” Anastasia said, smiling. “I got some sleep on the plane. Quite a lot, actually.”

“Then, Michael, I look forward to seeing you when you get back,” the First Lady said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Mike said, wondering just how bad this was going to be. “I look forward to it as well.”

* * *

“You are Russian, Miss Rakovich?” the First Lady said, sitting on the divan. “Please,” she added, gesturing to one of the antique chairs.

“Yes, ma’am,” Anastasia said, easily. The door opened and a small, thin black lady came in with a tea service.

“I made the assumption that tea would be acceptable,” the First Lady said, nodding at the maid in thanks and pouring for both of them.

“Yes, ma’am,” Anastasia said.

“Please call me Amanda,” the First Lady said, smiling. “Ma’am and First Lady grow tiresome quickly and I consider Michael a friend. Sugar?”

“Then could you call me Anastasia?” Anastasia said. “Or even Stasia if you wish. Two lumps.”

“Stasia it shall be,” the First Lady said, proferring the cup. “Russian? Or perhaps Ukraine?”

“Russian, Amanda,” Anastasia said. “But I hardly remember it. I left when I was twelve.”

“And then?” the First Lady said, sipping her tea.

“Uzbekistan,” Anastasia said, picking up her own.

“You waited until I took the first sip,” the First Lady said, smiling. “Where did you train?”

Anastasia paused and then set down her cup.

“In a harem,” she replied. “I was married, an arranged marriage, to a sheik in Uzbekistan at the age of twelve.”

She had expected at least mild shock. The First Lady just nodded and took another sip.

“Not exactly what I’d expected, but close,” she said. “I would say something like ‘I’m sorry’ but that doesn’t quite cover it, does it?”

“It’s not really that bad,” Anastasia admitted, picking up her tea again. “I was raised on a small and very poor farm. Given the conditions, then, and my looks, I would probably have ended up as a prostitute if I hadn’t been noticed by one of the sheik’s scouts.”

“But far outside my own experience, and therefore fascinating,” the First Lady said. “For one thing I had not expected that harems trained quite so precisely in manners.”

“I was, among other things, Sheik Otryad’s harem manager,” Anastasia said. “I was given advanced training. But there is a good bit of what can be called ‘manners’ to being in a well run hareem. It is not all about… that. It is about creating a quiet and comfortable place for the sheik to retreat to.”

“Now that I can understand,” the First Lady said. “One reason that it’s wise for presidents to have a really good spouse is to create that refuge.”

“Yes, for Presidents that would be vital,” Anastasia said, nodding vigorously. “The pressures of such a position are very nearly killing. They need that one place where there is no pressure, where they know that they are accepted just as they are. That is the true purpose of the hareem and I have the hardest time explaining that to anyone. It sometimes drives me nearly to distraction, yes?”

“I believe I touched a nerve there, Stasia, sorry,” the First Lady said, grinning. “But I think you are good for Michael as well. He has some of the same problems, I think.”

“Yes, he does,” Anastasia said, calming. “In a way he has no one that tells him what to do but there are so many politics, yes? He has to keep his Keldara on his side. He must deal with the Georgians and the Americans and the Russians, friend to all but never so close that any own him. I try to give him that quiet place. But even there he puts so many pressures on himself sometimes I want to tear my hair out. He is so… American.”

“That he is,” the First Lady said.

“I am sorry to be so strong,” Anastasia said, shaking her head. “I am not normally like this.”

“I tend to cause people to talk,” the First Lady said. “It is one of my talents. Very useful in politics, I might add.”

“Where is your place?” Anastasia asked. “Where do you go for comfort?”

“Oh, books,” the First Lady replied. “And David. We are very good for each other. And I think you are good for Michael. Michael Ford this time. It’s always so cloak and dagger.”

“I think that the idea is that if his normal name ever comes up in connection with something, no one will connect it to the White House.”

“That is to be hoped,” the First Lady said. “But I’ve wanted him to come to the House for some time. We had him at Camp David, of course, but he’s never made it to the House. Of course, officially, I don’t know why he was at Camp David. Or why my husband thinks that he walks on water. But it was rather easy to determine, given the timing.”

“I would not know,” Anastasia said. “I have only known him as the Kildar. The years before… ? I know he is American. I surmise, from his friendship with Master Chief Adams, that he was in the Navy commandoes, the SEALs. Other than that I know very little. I know not to ask.”

“Smart girl,” the First Lady said, leaning forward and patting her on the leg.

“And that explains,” Anastasia said, smiling.

“Yes, it does,” the First Lady said. “That was why I made sure someone passed the word that I wanted to meet Michael’s ‘assistant.’ But I’ll say that that is no longer the reason. I like you, Stasia. I like you very much. Mi casa is su casa as we say in Texas.”

“Gracias, Senora,” Anastasia replied, smiling. “Usted es bien amable.”

“¿Usted habla español?” the First Lady said, smiling back.

“Si,” Anastasia said. “Dominó en Español. Tambien Deutsche, Russkiya, Arabi, Francais y Uzbek.”

“And English,” the First Lady said.

Anastasia just shrugged and held up one hand, palm up.

“I’m glad we’ve met,” the First Lady said. “David holds him in such high esteem, I felt it was vital that he, and you, come to visit.”

“I’m just his assistant,” Anastasia pointed out.

“If you were just his assistant, Stasia, the protocol recommendation would have suggested two rooms,” the First Lady said. “But I am glad to meet you. I wanted to know who the woman was in his life.” The First Lady paused then smiled. “Or should that be ‘women’.”

“Oh, most definitely ‘women’,” Anastasia replied. “But for the purposes that you mean, the woman that he looks to for most such things, that would be me.”

“There are arrangements into which, I have learned, it is unwise to pry,” the First Lady said, smiling disarmingly. “Has coming out of the hareem been difficult? Do you find it hard to deal with cities and people?”

“Very,” Anastasia admitted. “I can attend a formal function with ease. But put me on the street of even a small town, much less a city, totally on my own and I am at a loss. I am to do shopping while we are here. The Kildar has given me a credit card with… too much money available on it. What I did not wish to tell him is… I have never used a credit card except online. I can barely haggle with the merchants in the small town near where we live. It is all very confusing. A new world. One I want to enter, to enjoy, to understand, but, yes, it is hard. Even frightening.”

“When were you planning on going shopping?” the First Lady said.

“I’d hoped to do so this afternoon,” Anastasia said. “I had hoped that Michael would be back but he has another appointment this afternoon, after his meeting. We are definitely committed to spending the night, but given the urgency with which he was summoned, I doubt we will have more time. So I think I’ll need to go out on my own.”

“Not to be born,” the First Lady said, firmly. “Amelia Weston.”

“Pardon me?” Anastasia said.

“Even if Michael was available, men rarely enjoy shopping,” the First Lady said. “And they’re never good at it unless they are gay. So. Amelia Weston is the wife of General Weston, commander of the Military District of Washington. Which should mean, frankly, that she is the compleate bitch. But she’s not, she’s a very gracious lady of the old Southern school. Hard as nails, mind you, but very gracious as long as no one is trying to stick a knife in her or General Weston’s back. I will call her, we’ve become friends, and ask her to take another friend shopping. She knows just where to go.”

“Thank you, ma… Amanda,” Anastasia said, blinking.

“You are most welcome, Stasia.”

Chapter Nine

“Mr. Jenkins?” the major said as Mike got out. He was carrying the only the briefcase he’d ever owned. He kept it just for such occasions. The calf-leather case had come from the same haberdasher’s as the suit and said: “I’m a rich and powerful asshole” in full operatic splendor.

“What day is it?” Mike asked, pulling out his passports, checking them to find the right one and handing it to the MP.

The MP smiled slightly as he checked the name against his roster and nodded as he checked it off.

“You’re cleared, Mr. ‘Jenkins’,” the MP said handing over a visitor badge with his name and a very bad picture already on it.

“Major Pauley,” the officer said, sticking out his hand.

“I read it on your nametag,” Mike said, shaking his hand. “Sorry I’m so grumpy; I hate visiting this place.”

“You ought to try working here,” the major said. “You don’t know what hate is until you’ve been stuck here for a couple of years. But we’ll try to make you feel at home. This way, sir.”

One of the reasons Mike hated the Pentagon was that it was one of the few buildings that could cause him to lose his spatial awareness. It was like the place was some sort of intentional puzzle, designed to get people lost. And it happened to him again; they’d only been walking the corridors — which were literally infinite if you considered they were concentric pentagons — for five minutes and he was totally lost.

Finally, though, they arrived at another MP post, the fourth they’d had to clear, beyond which was a small door marked “Office of Special Operations Liaison.”

Mike had never actually visited the office that “controlled” him, to the extent that he was controlled at all. He’d spoken to various officers besides Pierson over the years, but he’d only ever met Pierson, and that only when Mike was shot up in the hospital.

He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but this wasn’t it. The main room was filled with cubicles, most of them overflowing with papers, most of which had “Top Secret” cover sheets and all manned by officers. With the exception of the MPs outside and a couple of very senior NCOs who appeared to be pushing even more paper than the officers, the place was staffed with nothing but O types, and Major was the lowest rank Mike saw. There also wasn’t anything along the lines of a receptionist; apparently if you made it past the MPs you were supposed to know where you were going.

To a former Petty Officer it was a wonder the place worked at all.

Pauley led him past the ranks of cubicles to the far end of the room where there were three offices and a small conference room. Mike wondered how they had staff meetings; there was no way to fit eveyrone in this room. He also wondered how secure the damned area was; there were none of the trappings of secure rooms about either the office or this conference room. It appeared to be very standard construction. He’d seen more secure rooms in a battalion headquarters.

Mike sat down at the conference table and cooled his heels for a couple of minutes, internally grousing. Right about now… he’d probably be taking one of the girls to bed come to think of it. Depending on what time it was in… Yep.

“Sorry to make you wait, Mike,” Pierson said, opening the door and sticking his head in. “Wander with me?”

“Sure,” Mike said, getting up and following Pierson back down the line of cubicles.

“I’d have met you outside but it’s the usual cluster fuck,” Pierson said. “We just got tasked with briefing the OMB on SOCOM budgeting and procurement. Since that’s as far out of our usual line as you can get, we’re all hopping around like fleas on a skillet. And then we got this dropped in our laps.”

“I guess I get to wait to find out what this is?” Mike said.

“Yep,” Pierson said, grinning as he turned into the main corridor.

They walked down the corridor a short distance and turned inward, as far as Mike could tell.

“The deal around here used to be ‘who’s closer to the E ring’?” Pierson said, making another couple of turns. “These days, being on the E-ring makes you important. But after that it’s ‘how deep are you?’ Which means how close are you to the Tank and the other really secure rooms?”

“So, how deep are we?” Mike asked, raising an eyebrow.

“In just a second,” Pierson said as they made their way through another checkpoint and entered a stairwell, “we’re going to be about as deep as you can get. Of course, it’s in bullshit. But even deep enough bullshit has an allure.”

“I can tell I’m going to love the fuck out of this,” Mike said. “Aren’t I?”

“Absolutely,” Pierson said, grinning evilly.

The stairs opened onto a very short corridor and another damned checkpoint at which Mike had to fish out his, totally false, passport in addition to his visitor’s pass. But on the other side of the checkpoint they entered a shield room. It was the real deal, full Faraday cage, soundproofed, no electronics in or out with hard-eyed guards with wands to ensure same.

Three men were already waiting in the room and Mike could tell that, yes, he was going to love the fuck out of this mission. All three were in suits, but unlike Mike they wore theirs as if they were daily clothing. Including the guy who looked like a tennis pro that Mike pegged as Agency. And not the covert-ops side, this guy was “old agency”, the group that gave the OSS the moniker “Oh, So Social.” Northeastern Liberal WASP, one each. Bred with a silver spoon in his mouth which was why he had to keep his teeth clamped all the time. The other two were pure “GS”: civil servants. They could have been anything from Agency to NSA to… Office of Management and Budget. A bureaucrat was a bureaucrat was a bureaucrat.

“Mr. Jenkins,” Pierson said, waving at Mike.

“Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Jenkins,” one of the bureaucrats said. “I’m Mr. Mannly.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” Mike said, shaking the man’s hand perfunctorily and sitting down.

“Mr. Jenkins,” Bureacrat Two said, sliding a folder across the table. “We have detected what could be called a business opportunity.”

“I don’t work just for money, guys,” Mike said, darkly. “And I have plenty. So let’s cut the horseshit fast or I’ll just go home. Got it?”

“Got it,” Mr. Mannly said, his forehead wrinkling. “The situation involves the Pankisi Gorge… ”

“I told the Russian military attache,” Mike replied, starting to stand up, “and I’ll tell you. The Pankisi is Georgia and Russia’s problem, not mine. See you… ”

“Sit, Mike,” Pierson said, waving at the chair. “Seriously. Listen.”

“Shit,” Mike said, sitting back down. “I do not want to take the Keldara into the Pankisi. They’re not ready by a long shot.”

“Understood,” the colonel replied. “But listen anyway.”

“This is all your fault, anyway,” Pierson said. “You remember that Russian you picked up just before the Balkans op?”

“Mikhail or something,” Mike said, frowning. “What did we ever do with him?”

“I love your prisoner management technique,” Tennis Pro said, shaking his head. “While you were gone some of your people called Colonel Pierson and asked him what to do with the guy. He had no earthly idea, so he called us. We got him to the Russians who bled him dry and got everybody on the trail of this mission. Boss?” he added, looking at Mannly.

“This is a picture of Doctor Tolegen Arensky,” Mr. “Mannly” said, sliding a pic across the table. It had been taken from a distance with a telephoto by the looks, maybe digitally enhanced. Dr. Arensky wasn’t much to look at, short, dark, balding, graying and fat with long side-burns that made him look vaguely like a hobbit trying to look like Elvis. “Dr. Arensky is a Russian scientist who recently dropped off the radar screen. We thought, at first, that the Russians had just taken him fully ‘black’, but then sources indicated that they were looking for him as well. About the same time, technical means picked up the Chechens talking about a weapon that would win the war for them in one blow. The intercept actually used the word ‘world-wide jihad.’ ”

“That’s a phrase,” Mike pointed out. “Even in Arabic.”

“So you’re an Arabic expert?” Tennis Pro asked.

“I can hum the tune and dance a few steps,” Mike replied. “What does this have to do with me? And why the Paniski, which is a bitch and half of an area. I mean just the environmental conditions suck, not to mention the fact that it’s crawling with bad-guys with guns.”

“We’ve been able to build some Humint contacts among the senior mujaheddin,” Tennis Pro said in a pure Cambridge accent. “It hasn’t been easy, but we get information, finally. The information that we got is that Dr. Arensky is providing the Chechens with three back-pack nukes in exchange for sixty million euros in cash, bearer bonds and gems.”

“Woohooo,” Mike said, whistling. He suspected that “Tennis Pro” was better than he looked, he clearly was part of the team managing the Al Qaeda penetration. “That’s an ugly scenario. But backpack nukes… aren’t exactly backpack. Not the Russian ones. They’re in a damned big container, if I remember correctly. Two containers.”

“Not any more,” Manly sighed, sliding a picture across the table. It was of a small tubular device with a ruler for scale. “That’s what we’re looking at. Not huge yield, about ten kilotons, but… ”

“But that’s the same size as Hiroshima,” Pierson pointed out. “And the damn things are easy to smuggle.”

“So this Russian scientist is selling the Chechens nukes?” Mike said, incredulously. “And the go betweens are in the Russian mob? Last but not least: Sixty mil isn’t chump change to the muj. I smell a rat. Is it plausible?”

“The Chechens didn’t have that kind of money,” Bureaucrat Two said. “So they have contacted senior Al Qaeda to try to raise the money. They have finally done so and the trade is scheduled for a month from now. In the Pansiki, which is their most secure area.”

Okay, that placed Bureacrat Two. Some of the discussion had to have been electronic and he was from the National Security Agency, the group that handled electronic intercepts and analysis. It had once been so secret it was called “No Such Agency” but had come a bit more out of the closet in the last couple of decades. They still were very low profile, but very very good.

“The Georgians can’t or won’t get troops into the area,” Mr. “Mannly” said. “And they freak out if Russian troops violate their border.”

“Can’t,” Mike said, definitely. “They’ve tried and gotten handed their ass every time. And I think Svasili would probably turn a blind eye to Spetznaz over this. Spetz might be able to penetrate.”

“They won’t,” Pierson said, unhappily. “We asked. At the highest level. Nor will they let us take care of it.”

“Did you ask about this thing in particular?” Mike asked, frowning. “Svasili is not, in my experience, that much of an asshole.”

“No, just to let us quietly send some spec ops into the Paniski,” Mannly said. “Or let the Russians go in. We were willing to let the Georgians have all the credit if it worked and we’d go black if it went south.”

Which made “Mannly” the CIA case officer managing the investigation. There were various covert ops groups that “Mannly” could use for this mission, but clearly they’d been ruled out. Probably at the level of the White House. The problem would be inserting and extracting them without the Georgians even knowing they were there. Things were too touchy in the area to piss off the Georgians. Among other things, they had gotten close to the US over the Russians for various reasons. And what with one thing and another, nobody wanted to drive them back. Whether it would be worth it over nukes was a question much higher than Mike’s paygrade.

“And they didn’t bite,” Mr. “Mannly” said. “But we just happen to have the precise rendezvous point and time,” he added, removing a CD crystal case from the folder and sliding it across the table.

Mike looked at the CD as if it was snake then picked it up.

“Two questions and a comment,” Mike said, flipping the crystal case open and looking at the unmarked CD inside. “First the comment: There’s a reason that I created a tiddly little militia in the first place. It’s called ‘security.’ Who’s going to watch the store while the Keldara are gone for from a week to a month?”

“This shouldn’t take a month,” Tennis Pro protested.

“I wasn’t asking you,” Mike said, looking at Pierson.

“We can do Rangers again,” Pieson said. “The usual company. Good enough?”

“That should do. Now for the questions: Was this discussed at a higher level? Specifically, at a high enough level?”

“Yes,” Pierson replied, definitely. “It was.”

“Question two: what’s my take?”

“Standard recovery on a nuke is five mil,” Mannly said. “If you recover the full shipment, the vig is twenty-five mil.”

“Okay,” Mike said, blowing out his breath. “I hate to sound mercenary but this is going to cost like crazy; that will do nicely. Nice to have never met you, gentlemen.”

* * *

“The shipment of copra is ready for delivery,” Rashid said, slipping into a chair.

The coffee shop in Docklands — a recently gentrified section of London — was a multi-ethnic stew of “traditional” English, islanders, Africans and every version of “brown” from Hindu to pale Berber North Africans. Set close to a major financial district, most of the patrons were business clothes but a few college students from nearby UEL in distressed chic added color. As did the occasional flash of “native” dress.

Two vaguely “Arabic” gentlemen in business suits were hardly out of place.

Mohammed Al-Kariya looked up from his laptop and tapped pudgy fingers together thoughtfully.

“Allah is benevolent,” he replied. “The copra is first quality?”

“Impossible to tell until we examine the shipment,” Rashid replied. “I have the proper reagents They were difficult to obtain. But I found them.”

“As Allah wills,” Al-Kariya breathed. “The umah shall be secure. Forever. The payment side is arranged, all as agreed. Arrange the transportation. With all due care.”

* * *

“Copra?” The technician leaned back in his chair and looked around. “We got a code-link for copra?”

“Situational,” the analyst across the van said. “Could be anything. He’s bloody happy, though. Hard to tell with Kari-Lad but he is. Whatever it is it’s big. And Rashid is not one of his usual middle-man. Says he mostly works with KLA and sometimes the Chechens.”

“I hope somebody has a clue,” the tech said, spinning back around and fiddling with the filter on the shotgun mike. “Because I’m sodding clueless.”

* * *

Mike took a sip of his mocha and then flipped a page without looking around.

He wasn’t sure if it was good trade-craft or lousy but he was, as instructed, sitting at an outside table at the Perk’s Coffee Shop on N. Fairfax Street in Alexandria, Virginia, reading a book called “Spy Dust” about intelligence operations and methods during the Cold War.

As far as he could tell from the book, the tradecraft was lousy. On the other hand, he didn’t expect the KGB to come arrest him. Or the FBI for that matter.

“Mr. Jenkins?”

Mike looked up and nodded as the businessman sat down. Nice suit, good shoes, great tie. Middling height, thin, ascetic face, brown eyes, light brown hair. Could be anywhere from forty to sixty. He looked like a thousand other guys wandering around Alexandria. The eyes really got caught by the tie. Bright yellow. Silk, for sure. Probably Thai. And one purchased overseas. Not the sort of thing you could pick up even in an expensive shop in the US.

“Mr. Jay?”

“Just Jay, please,” the man said with a winning smile. “And may I call you Mike? Or would Kildar be more appropriate?”

“Mike works,” he replied. “The whole Kildar thing is a little strange.”

“Not really,” Jay said with a shrug. “An international security specialist needs shooters. I understand that the Keldara are coming along nicely. I suppose you could hire Ghurkas, but the really good ones are getting very expensive these days. But I understand that Vanner isn’t getting the job done.”

“Not the way I’d say it,” Mike said with a frown. “Vanner’s sigint. I need humint. Vanner is probably at your level on sigint or very close. Less of a rep, admittedly, but he’s very good.”

“I accept the clarification,” Jay said. “I take it, though, that if I work with you I won’t be working for him.”

“No,” Mike said. “I’m not even sure exactly how a chain would look. I’d suggest that you two work it out. Frankly, I’m sure that there are plenty of times Vanner would prefer somebody with more experience around. But try to work together. If you start working at cross purposes we’ll have a problem.”

“Agreed,” Jay said. “Payment?”

“Hard to say,” Mike replied. “I can give you a salary number if you wish, but what I think would work better is to just say: Tell me what you want. That is, besides your salary, you’re going to have expenses. I’m not going to nit-pick those. All I ask for is results. You tell me what kind of money you need and if I can’t afford it I’ll lay out my books and show you why. I’m running a very expensive operation. I make quite a bit of money on ops, enough to run it so far, but there’s an upper limit. However, I’d put the upper limit on a million a year. I’d prefer that you tell me what you want to get paid, but understand that that is part of the budget. And if you don’t use it all, that’s fine too. I’m not going to ask why you paid some guy twenty-grand. You’re not doing this for the money, anyway, or I wouldn’t be talking to you. You’re doing it for the fun, the excitement, the professional challenge and because you’re a patriot.”

“I am, am I?” Jay said with a slight smile. “You’re sure.”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Mike replied.

“Very well,” the man said, smiling more broadly. “What are the parameters? Be aware that there are reasons DC hates humint. For one, it’s slow. You have to take time building networks. For another, it’s uncertain. You’re depending upon what people tell you. People lie. Everyone lies all the time and especially in the intelligence world. So I may get a piece of information that looks good and it will be terribly wrong. For a third, any intel is a two-edged sword. If you use it, you’re often going to burn a source. That, in fact, was why I quit. I got tired of the State Department under our last president using my intel in negotiations and burning my networks.”

“You ought to hear Vanner some time when he’s going on about Clinton revealing we had OBL’s satellite phone number and were listening in every day. I mean, the guy called his step-mom every damned day he could. And naturally she wanted to know what he was doing to further the jihad. And then our lovely president goes and talks about it on national TV.”

“And, of course, there was the Chechen attack because the Russians revealed you were intercepting their calls,” Jay said, nodding.

“You have good sources,” Mike replied. “You going to stay out in the cold or you want to come to Georgia?”

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that Georgia is in the warm,” Jay replied.

“You’d be secure,” Mike pointed out. “As secure as anywhere forward and arguably more secure than here. You’re also going to need support. I’m not sure how much the Keldara can do along those lines, but they’re there. I don’t know what kind of support, exactly,” he added, holding up the book, “but I keep realizing how much I’d depended on support staff back when I was working for Uncle Sam.”

“But there’s that long damned drive to the airport,” Jay pointed out, smiling very slightly and quickly. The smile was just with the lips, not the eyes, and come and gone so quickly it was almost invisible. “However, I understand that the perks are great.”

“I’m eventually going to get a helicopter,” Mike said. “I don’t like the drive, either.”

“Oh, yes, now that would be covert,” the man replied, snorting. “But your comment about support staff is germane. I don’t suppose they sew?”

“All their own clothes,” Mike said, nodding.

“I’ll need to get some stuff to set up a shop,” Jay replied. “Initial outlay may be high.”

“I’ve spent better than four million outfitting the Keldara,” Mike said with a grimace. “Higher than that?”

“Uh, no,” Jay said with another fleeting smile. “I see a vast number of issues, however. I know just about every skill or task related to supporting my job. Except some of the more esoteric chemistry. However, passing those skills on will require time on my part.”

“You want another body?” Mike asked.

“Again, no,” the man replied. “I know a number of people who could provide support but none I would care to actually put my life in their hands. For the time being, I’ll simply provide my own when necessary. There are professionals, as well, I can call upon for individual items.”

“How’s your Rolo-dex?” Mike asked. “Those tend to get out of date fast.”

“For the technical items it is, in fact, up to date,” Jay said. That smile again. “There are even a few… associates, a very few, on it that were not burned during my tenure or after I left. Notably in Iran and Syria. I’m not sure I can reactivate those networks, but I can look into it. Alas, I haven’t anyone on the Chechen side. Those I had were all rolled by either the Russians or, in two cases, the Chechens. Okay, I just wanted to check you out in person. I’m in. Three hundred kay for me. And budget up to a million a year. I’ll try to keep it much lower than that. Most of the time it will be well under. Works?”

“Okay,” Mike said, shrugging. “I’m planning on going back tomorrow if you want a ride… ”

“I’ll make my own way,” the man said, standing up.

“I’d be surprised if you didn’t know this,” Mike said, frowning, “but the valley is in a Georgian military controlled zone. You can’t just waltz in and out. There are a slew of checkpoints to get through.”

“Excuse me?” Jay said, the smile reaching his eyes this time. “Exactly why are you hiring me?”

“Oh,” Mike replied. “Brain fart. Good point.”

“I’ll see you in Georgia,” Jay said, walking into the shop.

Mike just had to do it. He sat out in the Alexandria sunshine for the next two hours, flipping through the book and not really reading while keeping an eye on the only entrance. But Jay never reappeared.

Chapter Ten

“At a certain level, there is no such thing as a storefront; the people it pays to shop with simply do not advertise.”

Mrs. John J. Weston was a spare woman in her late fifties, much shorter than Anastasia. She seemed to never hurry, but made her way through the crowds like a lioness parting gazelles. People simply, instinctually, stepped out of her way.

Anastasia was simultaneously trying to take in the city, trying not to get overwhelmed and simply absorb Amelia Weston. She hoped that by the time she was a hundred she might have half the grace and just amazing aura the woman exuded.

Mrs. Weston was definitely not “Amelia.” The First Lady, despite the fact that they were clearly friends, referred to only as “Mrs. Weston.” That was fine by Anastasia; having to call the wife of the President of the United States “Amanda” had nearly killed her. She was much more comfortable with Mrs. Weston. She was not going to think of telling her, but Mrs. Weston reminded her, very much, of the first manager of Otryad’s hareem she had served under, Salah. But Salah with a cosmopolitan background.

Samarkand? That had been a lovely stationing. Mrs. Weston named shops that Anastasia knew, and a list of shopkeepers, by name, that she only vaguely recalled. Details of meals and meetings in a calm, unhurried voice.

Tblisi? Only for a short time when the General, capital letters, was an envoy. Lieutenant Colonel, then. Still Soviet, of course. Pleasant town but… gray. She understood from friends who wrote her that it was much more gay now.

No name dropping, no one upping, no “well, when the General was running arms negotiations for the SALT II Treaty… ” No, all the mentions were small things to put Anastasia at her ease, to make her feel as if she had found a friend, a confidante. A highly formal one but a friend nonetheless.

In a hundred years… maybe.

“You have to know where to go,” Mrs. Weston said, nodding at the bellman of what looked very much like a sprawling hotel.

“And here is where to go?” Anastasia asked. “This is a hotel, yes, Mrs. Weston?”

“It is indeed,” Mrs. Weston said. “The Watergate of infamy and legend. But it has some places worth visiting as well. David has his hair cut here. All Good Republicans do.”

“I am unfamiliar,” Anastasia said. “I apologize.”

“Oh, water under the gate, my dear,” Mrs. Weston replied. “But quite famous.”

The lady made her way to a back elevator, nodding to various people who obviously knew her and chose the fourteenth floor.

“It helps,” she said, “if you think of it as a very large souque. I have to make the assumption, you will forgive me, based on the First Lady’s request, that you have not done significant travel in cities.”

“I have not, Mrs. Weston,” Anastasia admitted. “I think you have seen more of Samarkand than I have. And Tblisi, for that matter. I have not even been in the souque very much. Only twice that I recall.”

“Hmm, hmm.”

Anastasia wasn’t sure exactly what “Hmm, hmm” meant but she suspected that a very sharp and cosmopolitan mind was putting some clues together.

They exited the elevator and turned down the corridor, stopping at a door that looked very much as if it went to a hotel room or possibly suite. It had a number but below that was a discrete brass plaque that simply said: G. Groome, Clothier.

Mrs. Weston didn’t bother to knock. She just opened the door and swept in.

“George,” she said to a gray-haired black gentleman. He was seated on a chair looking at a ledger, wearing a striped silk shirt and exquisite wool trousers held up by bracers. “It’s been simply ages.”

The room looked a good bit like a suite, albeit the living room, and was tastefully and expensively decorated. Anastasia was taking more notes.

“Mrs. Weston,” the man said, smiling and revealing very white, very straight, teeth. “As I live and breathe.”

“George, I have a bit of a problem,” Mrs. Weston said, pulling Anastasia forward. “This is Miss Rakovich from Georgia, note that’s the country, George, not the state. Her friend, a Mr. Ford, is visiting the House. Only in town for a day. Old friend of David’s or something. No decent shops in Tblisi as you know and his wardrobe’s gotten quite threadbare. Hawaiian shirts if you can believe! The staff is simply clucking.”

“I understand,” George said, throwing a wink to Anastasia.

“So Miss Rakovich and I would like a spot of tea,” Mrs. Weston said, walking to the divan, hand on Anastasia’s arm. “And perhaps you could show us what London and Paris are messing up this year?”

* * *

Mike arrived back at the White House in a taxi. He paid the driver then went up to the side gate. This time he was careful to have the right passport ready.

“Mr. Ford,” the uniformed officer said, nodding.

“I’ve got a bit of a problem,” Mike said, taking back the passport. “I can’t recall exactly how to get to my room, I don’t know where my girlfriend has gotten to — the last time I saw her she was about to get grilled by the First Lady — and I need a shield room with a computer that can run a PDF file.”

“Why don’t I call an escort?” the officer said, trying not to grin. “And Miss Rakovich left about an hour ago in the company of Mrs. Amelia Weston, wife of General Weston, the MDW commander. I believe they were going shopping.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

* * *

Mike slid the CD into the computer and opened the single PDF file. It contained photos of the seven known or suspected players on the operation as well as an estimate of opposition forces.

The Chechens had about three hundred fighters in the area, organized in another “battalion” like the one the Keldara had wiped out a few months back. The leader was Commander Bukara, another of the organizers of the Beslan attack as well as others on the Russian heartland. The Russians seriously wanted his ass but had never been able to localize him. It was probable that he’d be at the rendezvous. If Mike could bring back his head the Russians would be very happy.

Person of interest two was Mohammed Al-Kariya. He was a money man for Al Qaeda with fingers in various sources of supply. He was technically “white” although he was on the State Department list of terrorism supporters. Nobody had ever pinned anything on him, though, and the Europeans let him come and go. His “white” identity was as an international banker and fundraiser for “Muslim Charities.”

Mohammed had required Muslims to support the poor and thus it was the duty of good Muslims to donate to charities. A large number of Muslim “charities” however were funding channels for international terrorism. The money traveled mostly through a closed banking system among Muslim groups that was surprisingly hard to crack. But plenty of it got to Al Qaeda and similar groups. And Al-Kariya was one of the main men handling it. If the Chechens wanted that much money, he was going to be around keeping an eye on it.

Al-Kariya was, to say the least, heavy-set. He wasn’t going to be running very fast.

Then there was Arensky. The data on him was surprisingly sparse. He’d gotten a Ph. D. from Moscow University back in the Soviet days and then disappeared into the Soviet and then Russian “Advanced Research Agency.” ARA was something like America’s DARPA, a clearing house for various high tech research projects. What bothered Mike was that as far as he knew, ARA didn’t play with nukes. That was under an entirely separate agency and the two rarely interacted. And although it said that Arensky had gotten a Ph.D. the document didn’t say in what.

Arensky had a daughter, Marina, who had apparently disappeared with him. Twenty-two, blonde, green eyes. Pretty thing. But not a security issue on the op.

Arensky was probably going to have security with him. The number one probable provider was Sergei Rudenko. Former Spetznaz colonel, fifty-three and started under the Soviets. Described as “tall and broad” with gray shot black hair. The photo was from his official dossier and Mike mentally added “seriously cold eyes.” Russian mobster but not a member of any particular group, known hitter. He had a group of former Spetznaz that he picked and chose from for missions. There would be at least fifteen to twenty of them. Mikhail had been one of his usual guys which was had made the first connection.

Another “person of interest” was one Kurt Schwenke. Often worked as Rudenko’s second-in-command. Former East German Stasi specializing in “wet work.” Got into the game late but made something of a name for himself in his brief period before the fall of East Germany. Forty-seven. There was a photo but it was old and had the notation that Schwenke was “an expert in disguise and deception.” The list of kills, culled from the Stasi archives found after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was impressive as was the variety of techniques from pistol to sniper to small explosives. Wanted by Germany for “crimes against humanity” and by just about every government in Europe for that matter; he was tied to most of the former Western European communist terrorist groups. He’d been around. Like Mike himself, he was an expert at infiltration and silent kill.

The Al Qaeda guys would have their own security and then there was the Chechen “battalion.” The Keldara had tangled with them once, but it was from prepared defenses. Unless he got brilliant, that wasn’t going to happen this time. The correlation of forces was adverse.

If he had full support, say a B-52 loaded with JDAMs or a Spectre gunship, this would be dead simple. But using just the Keldara it was going to be tough.

Not as tough, however, as simply getting into the Pansiki. The last Georgian control post stopped nearly sixty miles from the site of the rendezvous. And it wasn’t a straight sixty miles; the area was nearly vertical Alpine mountains. The Chechens had patrols and logistics groups moving all through the area so even flying in would be tough. The closest they could get was maybe thirty miles from the rendezvous. Then they’d have to hump in, hit the site and hump back out. It was hard enough to carry food for a thirty mile hump through that sort of terrain: carrying ammo, weapons and commo was going to be a stone bitch.

Where’d they put those mules from the last Chechen supply-train they’d hit?

If they brought mules they’d raise their profile significantly. However, they could probably mask as a Chechen train. That had an upside and a downside. There were Spetsnaz working the other side of the border, covertly. They were likely to get hit by “their” team. And the Chechens had control teams on the routes in the area.

Okay, he knew a group that had the helos to get them into the area. And they could handle the mules; the Keldara weren’t that far from their farmer roots. The last thing they didn’t have was good intel on the area around the rendezvous. But he knew how to get that, too. It would mean a preliminary covert insertion and some way to set up short range commo. But that could all be arranged. Come to think of it, Vanner was airborne qualled.

Mike started to grin evilly.

* * *

“Did you have a good day, Stasia?”

The dinner was the definition of “intimate.” The room was, like most of the White House, small, tucked away in a corner of the East Wing. The only diners were Mike, who had seen his “assistant” for about three minutes since he’d left, Anastasia, the President and the First Lady.

Mike was still having a hard time figuring out which fork to use.

“Both good and interesting,” Anastasia said, cutting a bit of her salad and taking a small bite. “Mostly because of Mrs. Weston.”

“Didn’t I tell you Amelia was a treasure,” the First Lady said.

“A force of nature,” the President added. “There don’t seem to be many like her, anymore, present company excluded.”

“I must exclude myself, Mr. President,” Anastasia replied. “I thought many times, today, that if I live to be a hundred I might come close to being Mrs. Weston.”

“I think I need to meet this lady,” Mike said, smiling.

“You’d probably get along well,” the President said. “She’s far more steely than she generally lets on.”

“You should hear her talk about the first attack on the Embassy in Mogadishu,” the First Lady said. “The Embassy Marines beat it off, with some help from the Embassy staff and… others. The General being then a military attache he was in the thick of it.”

“And according to General Schnorer, so was Amelia,” the President added. “On the roof with a sniper rifle taken from a wounded Marine. I understand your meetings went well, Mike.”

“Yes, sir,” Mike said. “Well enough.”

“All the issues resolved?” the president asked.

“More like in the process of being identified,” Mike admitted. “But it’s doable. Marginally.”

“If it was easy, we wouldn’t be talking,” President Cliff noted, smiling.

“The difficult we do immediately,” Mike responded. “The impossible takes a little longer.”

“Take all the time you need,” the President said. “As long as you make the train.”

* * *

Mike shook the hand of the pilot then stepped out of the Blackhawk. Petro, son of the houseman Uncle Latif, was already there, grabbing bags from the crew-chief. Of course, with what Anastasia had bought the kid couldn’t carry it in one load.

“Lemme get that,” Mike said, hefting both of his bags as well as one of Anastasia’s and the big case he’d bought to carry her purchases. And apparently most of them were going to be shipped. Shit. He was seriously getting heavy in the clothes department.

“I told you not to let her go shopping,” Adams said, grabbing bags as well. “What’s up?”

“Command room,” Mike said. “Combat staff. Daria. Thirty minutes.”

“Got it,” Adams replied.

* * *

“We got ourselves one colossal fuck-up in the making,” Mike said, sighing.

Adams, Vanner, Nielson and a somewhat nervous Daria were gathered around the staff table all of them wondering what was up.

“Methinks I hear distant musketry,” Nielson replied.

“Not so distant,” Mike said, rubbing his eyes. “The Russians, the mob in this case, are selling nukes again. And this time to the Chechens.”

“Get out,” Vanner said. “Why in the hell would the Russians sell the Chechens nukes?”

“Money?” Mike said. “Sixty mil in this case. We recover them, we get twenty. There are supposed to be three. I hope even NSA can count that high. It’s not something you want to diddle with. A nuke here, a nuke there… The problem is time and location. We know the time but it’s just a couple of weeks away. And we’ve got minimal intel. I’m planning on sending Katya in to get some more, but that has problems, too. And getting there… it’s right in the middle of the Pansiki.”

“Gods,” Adams said, rubbing his eyes. “We could walk there in a couple of days. Drive there… about the same time as getting to Tblisi. That is… ”

“If there weren’t a few thousand Chechens in our way,” Mike said. “We can’t use any of the regular passes or trails. They’re all watched.”

“High,” Nielson said. “Way high up. Don’t take the low passes. Hell, in some cases don’t take passes at all, go right across the shoulders of the mountains. Serious alpine. Winter’s already started up there. It’s close here. It’s gonna be a bitch.”

“More or less my thinking,” Mike said. “Daria, darling?”

“Yes, Kildar?”

“Order climbing gear from Arctic Outfitters in Alaska,” Mike said, sliding over the list he’d made up on the way back. “We’re going to need everything from soup to nuts. Clothing, crampons, ice axes, the lot. Express ship. Make sure they know we need it now and I don’t care how much it costs. Charter a plane if you have to.”

“Yes, Kildar,” she said, making a note on the list. “I’ll match this to the Keldara teams. But you’ve got two sets of female gear. Who?”

“That’s up to Vanner,” Mike said, turning to the intel specialist. “Katya’s going to need commo. Her implants are short ranged. Which means sending in a commo team in advance.”

“Well, it’s the same problem, isn’t it,” Vanner pointed out. “Getting there. I mean, the girls are strong and I think they could make the walk. But they’re going to need the gear, first. Getting there ahead of Katya, or even ahead of the teams to pick up intel, that’s going to be tough.”

“Sure would, if they were walking,” Mike said. “I seem to recall you mentioning you were airborne qualified. Ever done any freefall?”

“Kildar… ?” Vanner said, warily.

“See, HALO makes so much more sense,” Mike replied, grinning.

“Oh, you have got to be out of your mind,” Vanner said, his eyes wide.

“I like it,” Adams said with an evil grin.

“Daria, another list,” Mike said with just as evil a grin. “Five sets of high altitude jump gear. Parachutes. Freefall trainer. The works.” He slid over another sheet of paper and grinned, again. “I’ve actually got both lists on files. I’ll give them to you.”

“Good news,” Adams added. “He’s a fully trained HALO instructor. Got thousands of jumps. Jumpin’ fool.”

“Great,” Vanner said. ” You go.”

“You know why I can’t,” Mike replied. “Two of your best commo girls, at least unmarried ones. I’ll assign a couple of shooters for security. And then we start training. Piece of cake. All you have to do is fall. You can fall, right?”

“All the way to the ground,” Vanner said with a sigh.

“It’s fun,” Adams said. “You’ll love it. Oh, prebreathing sucks and I imagine that the DZ is probably going to be a little small. Then there’s all the problems of where, exactly, ground level is and winds in mountains and… Actually, it’s going to suck. Glad it’s you and not me.”

“We gonna try to use any special weapons or techniques on this?” Vanner asked, ignoring the Master Chief. “With the support we’re getting we could probably get anything from the US government.”

“I don’t think so,” Mike said after a moment’s thought. “Trying to integrate special weapons at this point would really set us back. Let’s go with conventional approach. But, out of interest, what were you talking about?”

“There are some interesting sound weapons that are being developed,” Nielson said. “And the new thermobaric system the Marines are using.”

“Too much overkill on that for this mission,” Adams said. “Those things are used for flattening houses.”

“Be useful for interdiction,” Mike said. “But it takes coordination from what I’ve read. You have to penetrate the wall of the structure with a standard rocket round and then put the thermobaric through the hole. That is if you don’t have a window as a target.”

“How fast can we get some?” Adams asked. “I can set a few of the Keldara to training on them. Run everybody through, but Shota’s shown a real knack for the Carl. Which is good given how big it is.”

“I’ll check into it,” Nielson said, making another note.

“First thing is to call all the troops in,” Mike said.

“Already done,” Nielson said. “It will take about another day for Team Padrek to get back to pickup points.”

“Get with the Georgian military,” Mike said. “I’d rather that they not get back worn out from humping. See if you can get helicopter support to pick them all up.”

“Will do,” Nielson said, making a note.

“Call General Umarov,” Mike said, referring to the Georgian military chief of staff. “I don’t want any petty bullshit getting in the way. He should be up on this, if he’s not, wake him up.”

“Will do,” Nielson said.

“Vanner, we need to get the insertion of Katya as a high priority. Her primary mission is similar to Albania; find Marina, localize her for extraction and assist in assuring her safety during extraction.”

“Will do,” Vanner said. “You’re seriously planning on inserting me?”

“I’ll even let you have a weapon,” Mike said, grinning. “Set up the insertion on Katya as soon as we get the data dump from Chechnik and you run through it.”

“Will do,” Vanner said. “Does Katya know she’s being inserted?”

“That’s my next meeting,” Mike admitted, grimacing.

Chapter Eleven

“You wanted to see me, Kildar?”

Katya was, if anything, more beautiful than Anastasia and in the same mold, blonde, blue-eyed with a slight Tartar tilt. Great tits and a fine ass, delicious lilt to her voice and hips that swayed in a way that was truly extraordinary. The blue eyes could look as innocent as a child but she had long before discovered that Mike saw right through her. So the eyes he looked into, now, were as cold and dead as a shark’s.

“I need another insertion mission,” Mike said, waving her to a chair. He’d considered doing some chit-chat but it usually was pointless with Katya. “Into the Pansiki. The vig is fifty thousand dollars. Pretty much the same as Albania; localize a hostage and support the extraction.”

“One hundred,” Katya said. “Up front.”

“Ten up front,” Mike said. “Sixty on completion. If you do as well as Albania a forty bonus. You did a damned good job in Albania. If you sit on your ass and just feed us intel, seventy total.”

“I nearly got my ass shot off in Albania,” Katya said, scornfully. “Your perfectly planned mission was a disaster.”

“No mission survives contact with the enemy… ”

“That’s why they’re called the enemy,” Katya finished. “What’s so special about this girl?”

Katya had revealed a very definite chip on her shoulder over the Albanian op. As she put it: “Nobody ever came to rescue me.” She’d been horribly abused in the process of being broken in as a hooker. Whether that had caused her current mental condition or if it had been there before, she was now as sociopathic as anyone Mike had ever met. And she actively enjoyed killing people, especially men.

To make matters worse, in preparation for the Balkans op the US government had offered some very advanced “upgrades”, upgrades that even their own agents had been unwiling to have installed. Katya was now, arguably, the first generation of a sort of science fiction super-assassin. She had an internal system to dump combat chemicals that sped up her reactions and caused a “slow-time” effect, video and audio connections built right into her brain and poison glands connected to her long, and sharp, nails.

Mike, and all the rest of the men in the house, were now absolutely unwilling to sleep with her. Not that Katya cared; she found the situation amusing.

“She’s the daughter of a Russian WMD specialist,” Mike said. “She’s being used to force him to work for the target group.”

“She’s not going to be in with the whores, then,” Katya pointed out. “How in the hell am I supposed to help secure her?”

“Try to figure out a way,” Mike said with a shrug. “Be your usual helpful self.”

At that, Katya let loose one of the few real laughs Mike had heard out of her. She was about as helpful in the harem as a snake, which was why Mike had been spreading her around to keep her busy. When she was busy, and interested, she wasn’t nearly they problem she was when bored. But she was never really “helpful.” She’d do a job until she mastered it to her satisfaction and then start causing problems. Vanner pulled her out of intercept after she started calling up the Chechens she was supposed to be monitoring and taunting them.

Mike sometimes thought that her natural spot was psychological operations. Or maybe the Mafia. Hopefully “Jay” would be able to ensure her functionality at the very least.

“Very well,” Katya said, still chortling. “I will go into the lion’s den, again. And for the bonus I will try to be very helpful. I’m going to need you to get me some more ‘medications.’ I used up most of my stores in Albania.”

“Will do,” Mike said. “Can I ask you a question? You’re still hanging around. I’m, frankly, surprised. Why?”

“Because I am learning much here,” Katya said, cold again. “From Anastasia I am learning languages, accounting, business. From Vanner I am learning electronics, computers and programming. He has even shown me some hacking and I am working hard on that; I like it very much. From you and Adams I learn combat skills, yes? Now there is Jay, who is teaching me so many new skills. When I feel there is nothing left to learn, then I will leave. But in the meantime, you feed me and keep a roof over my head while I learn. You even continue to pay me a stipend. And then there are these occasional ‘jobs’ which pay quite well. Why should I leave? Yet.”

“The usual goes,” Mike pointed out. “If you’re burned, we’ll try to extract you. Try rather hard I’ll add. We owe you that. You may not consider yourself part of the team, but I do. But if you burn us… ”

“Run far and fast,” Katya said, smiling coldly. “This, also, I am learning. How to run far and fast.”

* * *

“Come,” Mike said at a knock on the door of his office.

He looked up from his computer screen, rubbing his eyes and frowning. He was doing more reading than doing these days and it was killing his eyes. He was afraid he was going to need glasses soon.

The man who came through the door was dressed like any of the Keldara, if a bit short for one. One of the older guys, not one of the ones on the teams. Gray-shot beard and mustache, getting the “beer gut” that some of the older Keldara had. But when Mike rapidly ran a file of the faces of the Keldara, he couldn’t place him to save his life. He figured he’d play that off. It wasn’t like he could remember all the Keldara.

“You know,” Jay said, walking over and flopping onto the chair in front of the desk, “if I was an assassin you’d be so dead right now. You’ve got lousy security.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Mike replied, leaning back and trying not to let his surprise show. “Good trip?”

“Fair,” Jay said. “First class as far as Prague. It got a little rougher after that.”

“I can imagine,” Mike said. “Can I show you around or do you already have the whole place mapped out?”

“I will say that your security on whatever is in the basements is better than getting to your office,” Jay replied. “Doors are solid and the guys you’ve got on them weren’t fooled. I’ve seen the rest. Nice harem quarters. Who’s the blonde?”

“Well, the basement is where your shop will be,” Mike said. “So maybe I ought to show that to you. And depending on which, the blonde is your sole ‘employee.’ ”

“Oh, great,” Jay replied. “If ever I saw one stone psycopathic bitch of a killer… ”

“That would be Katya,” Mike said with a laugh. “You can handle that, right?”

“Oh, yeah,” the intel specialist said. “I like psychopathic bitches. It describes every girlfriend I’ve ever had.”

* * *

“Intel room here,” Mike said, nodding at the Keldara guards. They were regarding Jay with puzzlement in their eyes. They did know every single Keldara. “Commo room across the hall. Headquarters in a larger room at the end. Other way there are four more or less empty rooms and two sub-levels. There are two remaining really good apartments upstairs, although the view is of the mountain. Pick which mountain view you prefer.”

“Any problem with getting one down here?” Jay asked, walking down the corridor and opening up one of the doors of the “more or less empty” rooms. More or less empty because they still had some left over trash from the Soviet occupation. “An apartment I mean?”

“I don’t think so,” Mike said. “Kind of… claustrophobic.”

“Yeah, but very secure,” Jay replied, opening up another door. “Can I get better doors and locks?”

“Your budget,” Mike said.

“What’s the sub-basement like?”

“There’s a reason we call it the dungeons.”

“I’ll stay here.”

“Come on in the intel shop,” Mike said, opening up the door. The door was sound-proofed and the corridor immediately filled with the sound of printers and computers running at max.

“Vanner, this is Jay,” Mike said, waving the sergeant over. “Just… Jay.”

“It’s actually just an initial,” Jay said, shaking Vanner’s hand. “Just the letter.”

“Very James Bond,” Vanner replied, warily. “You’re the humint guy.”

“Spy works,” Jay said. “And I checked you out. You have a very good rep.”

“Thanks,” Vanner said. “Can I ask with whom?”

“Admiral Kinnison. We’ve got history.”

“How’s his dog?” Vanner said, nodding.

“Cat,” Jay replied. “Ginger tabby named Halsey. Died. Cancer. About six months ago. And JC was in a car-wreck with her kids. They all made it but she got really banged up. Grand-kids were okay. Well, Bobby broke his arm but I signed the cast and he was grinning at the time. Jim’s had a bad year. You should write him. I’ll give you his e-mail address.”

“Thanks,” Vanner said, blinking.

“We straight?”


“Jim said you were good with micro. I’m a gadget guy when I can use them. Are you going to have time?”

“Some,” Vanner admitted. “If it’s really complicated, we might have to shop it. I’ve got two sources.”

“I’ve got more than two,” Jay said. “But I’d prefer to keep it in-house. We’ll manage. I ran across a new microwave design… ”

“I’ll just go tell Anastasia that we’re going to have a guest,” Mike said. “She’ll take care of your housekeeping arrangements. Daria handles budget, I’ll speak to her as well.”

“Thank you,” Jay replied. “What would you like me to do next?”

“Just hang out,” Mike said. “We’ve got a mission in the planning stages. Vanner’s going to be very busy. You’re going to have to develop and do most of you tasking in your own. But that’s why I hired you.”

“What about Katya?”

“Katya will be on the mission,” Mike replied. “I’d bring you in on it but it’s a snap-kick. I don’t see an insert point for you.”

“Understood,” Jay said. “Well, I’ll just pick Vanner’s brain for a bit until Anastasia’s up to speed and then start with my self-tasking. I’d like to talk to Katya about her mission, if you’re okay on the need to know.”

“Works,” Mike replied. “Just ensure she’s got her mission face on when she’s out the door. Vanner, as far as I’m concerned, Jay has choice on his need-to-know. If you have issues, bring them up with me.”

“You’re very trusting,” Jay said, frowning slightly.

“You were vetted by good people,” Mike replied. “I can’t, won’t unless something comes up, second-guess that. In for a penny and all that. So… if you are afraid something will be compromised, don’t ask.”

“Yes, Kildar,” Jay said. That smile again.

* * *

“Who’s the visitor,” Nielson asked as Mike was headed to his office. “The Mother Savina came in asking me who he was.”

“That was Jay,” Mike repiled. “You found him. I almost want to say ‘You keep him.’ The guy gives me the creeps. I’m pretty sure I still don’t know what he actually looks like. If he burns us, there’s nobody really there.”

“He’s as good as they come,” Nielson pointed out. “And very much a patriot. As long as we don’t screw the US… ”

“Let’s hope we never have to,” Mike said. “I’d prefer not to myself. You were just asking about him?”

“No,” the colonel said. “I just got word. A Colonel Erkin Chechnik, Russian Army, is on his way to see us. I was informed you know him.”

“I do,” Mike said, shaking his head. “Russian spook. Pretty good. Pretty much Pierson’s equivalent; briefs the President on Russian black-ops. He’s probably going to brief us on the Russian side.”

“More or less what I guessed,” Nielson said. “So… You wanna talk?”

“About what?” Mike asked.

“Gretchen,” Nielson said, raising an eyebrow. “And you. And Kiril.”

“How about just saying I didn’t like this entire Cardane thing from the beginning,” Mike said, shrugging. “I’ve got it handled. I’m not going to do a King David on Kiril, I’m not going to lay another hand on Gretchen.”

“And you are… where in there?” Nielson asked.

“How about ‘I’m not going to lay another hand on Gretchen, damnit to hell’?” Mike said, grimacing.

“Been there,” Nielson said. “Prior to my wife dying I had some… encounters with other ladies. All by agreement with my wife. The agreement was I could screw around as much as I liked, as long as I didn’t fall in love. And then… ”

“You fell in love,” Mike said, sitting down and listening.

“I did indeed, laddy,” Nielson said, leaning back in his chair. “Lady named Sharon. Very much a lady. I was her first. Very strange circumstances. I actually passed on the honor. She later found other men, none of them particularly good for her. We eventually lost touch, half by purpose. But… She’s still there in my heart. And Gretchen?”

“It fucking sucks,” Mike said. “I’ve been married but I never felt this way about a girl, ever. I never believed in love at first sight and it wasn’t even that. It… I don’t know. It just snuck up on me.”

“And clobbered you over the head,” Nielson said, nodding. “That is the reality far more than ‘love at first sight.’ A friend, a companion, someone you knew casually and then one day… Wham! All of a sudden, they’re something different. Any idea how Gretchen feels about the situation?”

“Not sure,” Mike admitted. “The Cardane girls… generally have a pretty good time. But it was an unusual enounter in both directions. I haven’t really spoken to her since and… ”

“And you’re the Kildar,” the colonel said. “Big attraction right there. It would be hard to be sure what she actually thinks. I’m not sure that even if she was as honest as she could be that it would be clear what she really thinks. For general Kildar’s Ears Only, I think that Cardane is a damned bad idea. I haven’t said anything but… you don’t screw the wives or girlfriends of your subordinates. Period. The Keldara take a different tack on that but… It’s just been a damned bad idea. This is only one of a dozen reasons why.”

“Thought of all that,” Mike said with a sigh. “But right now we have other things to think about. The whole thing with Gretchen, and the Cardane, needs to be tabled for the time being. Bigger fish to fry.”

“Such as the Russian,” Nielson said. “I’m surprised that he’s coming in person. No read at all on why?”

“Only that it can’t be good. I’ve never seen Chechnik turn up when things are going well.”

* * *

“Erkin, what a pleasant surprise.”

Mike hadn’t seen Colonel Chechnik in about a year, not since the Paris mission. But he hadn’t changed much. The Russian intel officer was short and broad as a house. He looked more like a member of the Olympic wrestling team than a highly qualified intel officer. Mike was sure that he’d used that to his advantage more than once.

“Mikhail,” the colonel boomed, clasping Mike close and kissing him on both cheeks. “Or should I call you Kildar, now?”

“Mike will do,” Mike replied, grinning. He’d arranged a formal reception line for the visiting Russian and now waved him further into the foyer of the serai. “May I introduce Colonel Nielson, my operations officer?”

“Colonel Nielson,” Chechnik said, shaking his hand. “I read your paper on IED patterning as they related to street crime incidences in Iraq. A very interesting premise.”

“I had to think of something,” Nielson said, nodding. “And my original paper was rejected.”

“And what was that on?” Chechnik asked, smiling quizzically.

“The utility of crucifiction as a means of control,” Nielson replied, smiling thinly.

“I think we need you in the Russian Army, colonel,” Chechnik said, smiling in much the same way. “We could use you in Chechnya.”

“My field operations number two, Master Chief Adams,” Mike said, shaking his head.

“Master Chief,” the Russian replied, shaking hands again. “I’ve only been able to see a portion of your confidential files, but I must ask a question: What in the world does your first team nickname, ‘Ass-boy One’, relate to?”

Both Adams and Mike flinched at that and Adams shook his head.

“Colonel, I doubt that you have the stomach for the full horror of that story,” Adams said. “But if you have to know, you’ll have to ask… ” He suddenly stopped and shook his head. “Ask someone else.”

“Sergeant Vanner, my intel specialist,” Mike said, moving on rapidly. What Adams had nearly said was “Ask Ass-Boy Two” referring to Mike. He and Adams had been through Basic Underwater Demolitions and SCUBA training together in Class 203 where they, and others, had picked up the moniker “ass-boy” due to an unfortunate test the then commander of BUD/S had insisted upon. However, if Chechnik knew that team name, then he also had access to Mike’s other team name, Ghost. And since “Ghost” was known as the man who had broken up the Syrian operation, and thus drawn the ire of virtually every terrorist on the face of the planet, Adams had nearly handed Chechnik a piece of information worth both money and power.

“I sincerely apologize for the lapse in our own security,” Chechnik said, shaking Vanner’s hand. “The leak to the Chechens has been closed.”

“That one,” Vanner said. “But you ought to know that at least one of your people has been having regular sat-phone contact with Kamil Resama. All we’re picking up are the externals, some side-band waves and scattering, but whenever that one phone, coming from your Stalin Base in Subya, starts sending, Kamil’s phone’s duration is dead on for receiving quite a few of the calls.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Chechnik replied, stone faced.

“Last but not least, my manager of internal matters, Anastasia Rakovich,” Mike said. He’d promised Anastasia that, unlike her former employer, she’d get introduced and not treated like a piece of furniture.

“The picture in your file does not do you justice, Ms. Rakovich,” Chechnik said, bowing over and kissing her hand.

“I have a file?” Anastasia asked, raising one eyebrow.

“You’ve had a file since you became the harem manager for Sheik Otryad,” the colonel replied. “It has simply been moved up in precedence since you’ve become the Kildar’s.”

“Oh,” Anastasia said, her face blank.

“It is a pleasure to meet you all,” Chechnik said, nodding to the group. “I hope that we can talk at length sometime soon.”

“Meaning that right now you’d like to talk at length with me,” Mike said.

“Alas, yes,” the colonel replied. “If you don’t mind, I would like to have the talk in private.”

“Not at all,” Mike said. “Guys, I’ll see you later.”

Chapter Twelve

“Sit,” Mike said, collapsing behind his desk. His office was in one of the older parts of the serai, with thick stone walls and no windows. Vanner had checked it for emissions and it was damned near as good as a professional secure room. That was probably because of the high olivine content of the local granite, dolomite actually. Mike still had it swept once a week and Vanner had insisted on “touching up” with some impossibly expensive paint. The stuff was a nice light blue but apparently it was opaque to transmissions.

“What’s on your mind? And are you an emissary from Vladimir?” he asked, meaning the president of Russia. Chechnik’s position was much like that of Colonel Pierson, he was a briefer to senior non-military members of the Russian government. One of the people he regularly briefed was the Russian president who occasionally used him as a very covert conduit.

“Among others,” Chechnik replied, sighing. “In fact, it was I who convinced the president, and others, that I should come. I have some information that you need about your mission.”

“So give,” Mike said, frowning.

“Yes, that is the problem,” the colonel replied, sighing again. “Kildar, Mikhail, I believe that you are an honorable man, a man of your word.”

“He said, just before ripping the honorable man off,” Mike said.

“Nonetheless,” Chechnik said. “I must ask you this. I cannot give you the information unless you agree that you will not, in turn, give it to your government or the government of Georgia.”

“Oh,” Mike replied. “I could go for that, but it depends. Does this information have serious strategic or tactical bearing on the United States?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Chechnik said. “But my masters have determined that they are unwilling to share the information with the Ami.” The Russian paused and grimaced. “It has to do with an area that the Americans have chided us on. In my opinion with good reason. But it… this situation is extremely embarassing for our government. And we can only take so much embarassment. That thing with Paris last year, My God, the ripples are still refusing to settle. Then the Albanian thing that you turned up!”

“Every government had problems with that,” Mike pointed out. “That’s why it’s stayed so damned quiet.”

The Albanian op had turned up a load of files on a sex ring that had “honey trapped” dozens of officials in nearly as many countries. The worst part about the honey-trapping was that the officials, ranging from minor military officers all the way to one Assistant Home Secretary, had abused, raped and even killed the prostitutes involved. The files were still sending very quiet shudders through more than a dozen governments, including every major world power. And in the end, Mike had ended up holding all the originals. The thought on that went something like this: None of the governments trusted the others with the information. But somebody had to hold it. Mike was the easiest to wipe off the face of the earth if it came down to cases.

The DVDs, paper files and hard drives were buried in the basement of the caravanserai. The information in those documents was power in a very real sense; one person privvy to it had referred to it as “the blackmail equivalent of a nuclear weapon” with good reason. But it was a dangerous power that Mike intended to invoke as cautiously as possible and only in an extreme situation. It was a power that could topple governments. If he used it, he was going to be immediately targeted by some very pissed off, and hugely powerful, people.

Mike was far less worried about the Russians, for example, than the Japanese yakuza. Some of the files referred to actions of senior Japanese businessmen. They’d all, at this point, comitted suicide, even if some of them had to be helped with the knife. But the Japanese would not care for the loss of face if the information surfaced. Nor the French, Chinese… The list was very long.

“Yes, but most governments are not still recovering from the embarassment of one of their nuclear weapons almost vaporizing Paris,” Chechnik snapped. “If this got out on top of everything else… Please, Mikhail, I must have your word. If your mission is successful, let us hope to God, even then I hope I can persuade you to keep the exact nature of this secret.”

“That’s a hell of a lot to ask, Erkin,” Mike replied. “What’s so damned important? I mean, yeah, nukes are a big deal. But we already know about those.”

“Dr. Arensky is not carrying nukes,” the Russian replied, softly.

“Then what the hell is he carrying?” Mike asked, just as softly.

“Your word.”

Mike sat back and looked at the Russian for a long time. The colonel was a professional intelligence officer with a long track record. He’d been in a lot of hairy situations from what Mike had gleaned; he hadn’t always been a desk officer. But as Mike watched, a bead of sweat formed on his forehead and started to trickle down.

“You’ve got it.”

“Dr. Arensky is not a nuclear scientist,” Chechnik said, leaning back in his chair with a sigh. “He is our premier expert at biological and chemical weapons.”

“Biological,” Mike said, softly.

“Dr. Arensky walked out of the Novy Birsk Biological Weapons Research Facility with four viles of weapons grade smallpox.”

“WHAT?!” Mike shouted, then clutched his head. “How in the FUCK!?”

“The security on our facilities has… much to be desired, yes?” Chechnik replied, shrugging. “This material was kept in Category Five quarantine, the very highest level. It was surrounded by guards. Everything in and out was carefully controlled. As far as we can determine, he moved it out slowly. First from Cat Five then to Cat Four and so on. The missing material was not discovered until after he left. Left does not cover it. The offices of the facility were destroyed by a special operations team that took down the entire guard force. Then we did a very thorough survey of the materials and, lo, the smallpox was missing. Only that. And it was the only sample of that particular, particularly vile, weapon.”

“Jesus Christ,” Mike said. “Smallpox. That shit is nasty. And you go and let him waltz out with… ”

“Yes, it is nasty,” the Russian said. “Also eliminated from the face of the earth. But this is not just any smallpox. This was developed very late in the Soviet era, when genetic technology was fairly advanced, far enough advanced that our scientists could really begin to tinker, yes? They made a breakthrough, then. May I lecture?”

“Go ahead,” Mike said, sighing.

“There are three strains of smallpox,” Chechnik said. “Standard, hemmorhagic and macular, you understand this? Standard has about a thirty percent death rate, but it has a slow onset. So if you are innoculated against it, only those with very weak immune systems die. Often innoculation will stop onset even in those showing symptoms. Hemmorhagic and macular are quite different. They strike very very fast and kill even faster. And almost everyone who gets them dies. The one clinical study showed ninety-four percent for hemmorhagic and one hundred percent for macular, each with over a hundred cases.”

“So this is, what? Hemmorhagic or macular?” Mike asked.

“Wait,” the Russian replied. “It is worse. The problem with hemmorhagic or macular as a weapon is that they are infectious for a very short period of time. Then the carrier dies and is no longer spreading them. From a bio-weapons standpoint, that is termed a ‘sub-optimal carrier.’ Standard, in many ways, is better because the onset is slow.”

“You figured out a way to spread it out,” Mike said, tonelessly. “Or you upped the fatality level of standard.”

“This is a modified form of macular, the very most deadly,” Chechnik said, nodding. “The infected person lives for up to five days while being infectious and then dies, nearly one hundred percent of the time. And that is even if they have been given the vaccine. There is no vaccine, no antidote, that will save anyone who is infected. If this gets out, it will kill the whole world. Your writer Stephen King wrote a book, yes, ‘The Stand.’ This is Captain Trips. At most a few thousand people left in the whole world. That cannot even restart the human race. And it was modified to be very… latent. That is it will survive for a long time even if there is not a host. It will wait for years if necessary to find a host.”

“You evil motherfuckers,” Mike whispered. “You couldn’t just destroy it, could you? We turn our nukes away, you turn your nukes away, but you keep this… this fucking doomsday device? Why?”

“We see as one on this,” Chechnik said, shrugging. “Vladimir swears that he was unaware of this weapon, but I don’t believe him. However, if you recover it… ”

“If I recover it it’s going straight to the US,” Mike said, savagely. “I don’t know if they’ll destroy it or not… ”

“No,” Chechnik said. “Please. This is exactly what we cannot allow.”

“What? You think I’m just going to give it back?”

“No, I don’t expect that,” Chechnik said. “No one expects you to give it back, although I have been assured if you do that we will destroy it.”

“Right,” Mike scoffed. “Just like you did for the last, what? Twenty years?”

“But Dr. Arensky knows the proper protocols for destroying it,” the Russian continued as if he wasn’t listening. “He will show you how to destroy it. You must recover Arensky, alive.”

“I’m tempted to put a bullet through his head,” Mike snarled.

“Don’t,” Chechnik said, shaking his head. “Arensky is very much a victim in all of this.”

“Huh?” Mike replied, frowning. “More stuff you haven’t told us?”

“Arensky is a patriot,” Chechnik said. “A good man. Yes, he works on biological and chemical weapons. But he has come up with more cures, more defenses, than assaults. He also is a… a universalist, yes? He thinks of his country first, but then of the good of the world. He prefers playing the defense, yes? You have people in your own military who work on these things. Are they all evil?”

“So why’d he defect?” Mike asked. “And take this shit with him?”

“Probably his daughter,” Chechnik said with a sigh. “He dotes on Marina. We now believe that Marina disappeared well before Dr. Arensky. It is probable that she was kidnapped and used to force him to do this. Arensky is also a genius in the entire field. He is expert on chemical and biological production methods. He even has much knowledge of details of nuclear weapons production. We believe the smallpox was only the tip of the iceberg. He took discs with him with details on various forms of production, including nuclear. We believe that he is being traded to a major country. They probably were the funding source for this operation. One assumes that they can continue to use Marina as a method to force him to assist them in their WMD efforts. And the smallpox is probably not for use. Some country, Iran, yes? They will get it, prove that they have it, and hold it to prevent the Americans from taking action against them. Mutual Assured Destruction, yes? If you over throw the mullahs, they destroy the world.”

“Your security is a nightmare,” Mike said. “You know that, right?”

“We are aware of that, yes,” the Russian said with a frown. “In this case… we are aware of this, yes. We are, as they say, working on it.”

“Work faster,” Mike replied. “I’m getting tired of cleaning up your messes for you. The Keldara are not prepared to handle chem-bio. Hell, we haven’t even trained them on MOPP gear!”

“If this gets loose, it won’t matter,” Chechnik said, shrugging. “But the vials are in very sturdy containers. As long as those are not breached, and you cannot do that with a rifle or even an RPG, then everything will be fine. He took containers as well. They are about ten centimeters high and eight across and made of steel and depleted uranium, yes? You cannot even penetrate one with one of your Barrett sniper rifles. But you must recover Arensky, yes? It would be good if you could recover Marina. Then destroy the vials and this nightmare is over.”

Mike thought about what was being asked of him for a moment and then shrugged.

“I’m going to do this anyway,” he said, carefully. “And I don’t want to sound mercenary. But… Bob pointed out that if I recovered nukes, I’d get the vig on those. If you guys don’t even want me to tell the US what I got… ”

“How are you going to get paid?” Chechnik asked.

“That and… They’re going to want to know what I got,” Mike pointed out. “If I turn up empty handed, there are going to be lots of unpleasant questions.”

“We will give you two nukes,” Chechnik said. “If you destroy the smallpox and… ”

“Keep my mouth shut,” Mike finished for him.


“So… ” He started to chuckle and just couldn’t stop for a second. “So what you’re telling me is that you’re going to hand me nuclear weapons? Atomic bombs? Da Big Ones?”

“Well, we’re pretty sure you won’t use them,” the Russian pointed out. “And then you can sell them to the Amis and everyone is happy. Also, they will be very small nukes,” the intel officer added with a grin.

“Four,” Mike said. “For this op, I’d better be paid a pretty penny. And it’s not like you don’t have a shitload lying around.”

“Now that was mercenary,” Chechnik said, frowning.

“I’ve got a very high overhead,” Mike replied. “Welcome to capitalism.”

“Four,” the intelligence specialist agreed.

Mike suspected by the quick capitulation that he could have gone higher. But, hell, he was going to get that damned shipment even if it meant expending every last Keldara and no payment. On the other hand, if the Russians stiffed him they weren’t going to like the repayment. That assumed that he wasn’t being handed another bill of goods.

“We will get the nukes to you, here, as soon as you send word that the material has been captured and eliminated. The Georgians have agreed to let an American team pick them up. We can sneak the nukes in easily enough.”

“Got it. Do I need anything special to destroy this stuff?” Mike asked.

“There are various ways,” Chechnik said with a shrug. “But I would suggest carrying some carboys of acid. Very strong acid.”

“Great,” Mike grumped. “Just what I need to be carrying on a combat op.”

* * *

“Katya,” Anastasia said with a slightly malicious smile, “this is Mr. Jay.” She’d called Katya into her office to introduce the Kildar’s newest associate.

“Just Jay, please,” the man said, looking the girl up and down. “Just… Jay.”

“Hello, Jay,” Katya said, looking the apparent Keldara up and down. She was smiling and ducking her head, coquettishly. “I’m Katya. How are you?”

“English, please,” Jay said in British accented English. “Anastasia, could I borrow your office for a moment?”

“Certainly, sir,” Anastasia replied, getting up and going to the door. “You two have fun.”

“Could you say that for me again?” Jay said, walking up to the girl and starting to circle her from just beyond arm’s reach.

“Who are you?” Katya asked, still smiling pleasantly. “And could you stop circling me? It’s making me nervous.”

“Then you need to learn to use more than your eyes to track me,” Jay replied. “Say it again. In English. I will choose the language, you will reply. And you are my padwan, and I am your Jedi Master. You may call me Jay.”

“I do not have a master,” Katya said, somewhat less coquettishly. But it was in English.

“Well, in this case, it’s an honorific,” Jay replied. “And we’ll need to work on the accent. You should be able, at your age, to learn to turn it on and off. After nineteen, for some reason, it becomes nearly impossible. Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

“Nur Bisschen,” Katya said. She’d taken to looking straight ahead rather than following him in his circling.

“Definite accent there,” Jay said in Russian. “Try something a little longer.”

“Gottverdammte teilzeit schmierfink,” Katya said, smiling pleasantly.

“Yes, we’re definitely going to have to work the accent out,” Jay continued, ignoring the rather personal curse. “There are only three major remaining regional dialects in German. At least in Deutschland. Austrian and Swiss German are slightly different. We’ll see how many you can absorb. And Arabic, well, there are so many variants of that it’s funny.”

“I can’t pass in Arab countries,” Katya said, lifting up her hair. “Blonde, see?”

“There are some blondes to be found,” Jay replied. “And there’s this thing I don’t think you’ve ever heard of called ‘hair dye.’ Oh, no, I take that back. You’re not nearly as light a blonde as you would like to appear. Closer to dishwater than platinum, babe. Your dye job’s showing through at the roots. Nice touch making sure the carpet matches the drapes, though.”

“You’re a spy master,” Katya said in English, dropping the coquettishness.

“No, I am a master spy,” Jay replied. “There is a difference. A spy master runs multiple spies but is not necessarily a good spy. A master spy is a master spy. Part of my job will involve training you. Part of that will be teaching you to see what is really in front of you instead of what you want to see. There are two main purposes to that; reporting accurate information and developing the ability to recognize and assimilate every detail of a culture so that you can disappear into that culture in an instant. You’d like to learn to disappear in an instant, wouldn’t you, Katya?”

“Yes,” Katya admitted.

“So I’m not going to threaten you with anything but this,” Jay continued, leaning in from behind so he was right by her left ear. “The moment that I think your attention waivers, the moment that you don’t give me every particle of your being, I will simply stop teaching you. When you know it all, feel free to leave. Please. Because it will no longer be worth my time and I will no longer waste my time. There will be no threats, there will be no warnings, there will be no appeal and there will be no more lessons. Do you understand me?”

“Perfectly,” Katya replied.

“Then let us begin… ”

* * *

Mike had arranged a meeting with the rest of the command group after the private meeting. He could tell that Adams, Nielson and especially Vanner were alive with curiosity about what had been discussed. But he was still trying to figure out how to handle the information so he ignored their curiosity.

“Baseline:” Mike said as soon as the group was assembled in his office. “I trust Colonel Chechnik with any information we give him. On the other hand, he’s also required to report it to his superiors. And since we got burned by leaks in the Russian military one time, you can ask him any questions you’d like but we’re not giving him our mission plan. You okay with that, Colonel?”

“Perfectly,” Chechnik replied.

“So, besides what you gave me, which is not open for discussion at this time, why are you here?” Mike asked.

“My job is to find out what you need to improve the likelihood of this mission’s success and then get it to you,” Chechnik said. “I have the full support of the Stavka as well as the office of the president. We want these nuclear weapons stopped. But we ask that it be quietly.”

“Also, Arensky is no longer to be considered a bad guy,” Mike noted. “And we need to raise the profile of recovering his daughter. It’s now believed that she was kidnapped to force him to defect with the… materials.”

“Okay,” Nielson said after a moment’s pause. “You realize you just said we’re going to have to do a split mission. And it was already hairy as hell.”

“I’m aware of that,” Mike said. “For various reasons I’m going to handle the side with Arensky and the WMD. Adams will lead the strike team to try to recover Marina. So what do we need, want or desire from Colonel Chechnik.”

“Sucks to be a hostage,” Adams said, repeating a common SEAL mantra. In most hostage rescue training missions, the “hostage”, invariably a dummy dressed as the hostage, was killed either by the rescuers or the holders.

“Try to make it suck less,” Mike said. “Anything else?”

“Well, I could use some better satellite intel,” Vanner said. “Specifically, better than one meter scale shots for the entire area.”

“You need them for map generation, yes?” the Russian officer said. “Would maps be better? We have high resolution maps for the area.”

“You do?” Vanner said. “I’ve been looking for maps for forever for this area.”

“What do you think our Spetznaz use?” Chechnik replied. “We can get you maps, in standard map file systems if you wish. Also the satellite photos. And we can provide real time satellite tasking during the mission.”

“I was going to ask Washington for that,” Mike admitted. “I’d like a Predator on station in support.”

“I have been made aware that the US is willing to supply such support,” Chechnik replied.

“Christ, talk about cooperation,” Adams snorted. “Am I the only one that’s having weird reality distortion here?”

“I’ve seen it before,” Mike admitted. “Once.”

“Paris,” the Russian said, nodding. “Yes, when one of our nuclear weapons becomes, as you American’s say it, ‘in play’, we become very cooperative.”

“We need everything you have on the players,” Nielson pointed out. “And the correlation of forces. Everything. Names of individuals in the battalion in the area if you have it.”

“Of course,” Chechnik said, opening up his briefcase and sliding a DVD onto the tabletop. “All of what we have is in here. It is everything that my office was able to find, at least. As with your American intelligence agencies, there is often something out there that one group knows that the rest do not. But I swear this is everything that the president of Russia could put his hand on in less than a week. It is in Russian, but I understand you can handle that.”

“One thing that might or might not be in there,” Mike said, musingly. “We need the name of a slaver that works the area. Preferably one that’s not terribly brutal. I’d prefer one that if he has a good worker doesn’t punch her around just to show her who is boss.”

“I only reviewed the information,” Chechnik said, cautiously. “And it focuses on the military groups in the area. I’m not sure what it has about the sex-slavers. Some of them are both, of course.”

“Everything you can get in a couple of days,” Mike said. “We are getting on short time for this op. And that request for info stays very close to the chest, understood? You don’t even pass it to Vladimir. Just inside your group on a need-to-know basis.”

“I will do it,” Chechnik said.

“I think that’s it for now,” Mike continued. “Colonel, we have a lot of planning and prep to do for this mission. I hope you won’t find it remiss if we cut this short. I’d appreciate it if you’d stay for dinner and overnight. I can have Anastasia show you around the area. I’d do it myself but I’m going to be pretty busy.”

“Of course,” Chechnik said. “I will leave you gentlemen to your business.”

Chapter Thirteen

“Okay, Ass-boy, why’s he really here?” Adams said as soon as the door was closed.

“I’m still assimilating that,” Mike said, looking at the wall. “Among other things, I had to promise to not tell the US government what he told me to get their cooperation. And that goes for you guys, too. I’m willing, not happy but willing, to go along for the time being. But… ”

“How serious is it?” Nielson asked. “I won’t ask what it is, but how serious?”

“Not sure I can say even that,” Mike replied. “But there’s a reason that I’m taking the mission to recover the WMD and Arensky. I know the Keldara will keep their mouths shut.”

“Well… ” Vanner said, uneasily. “I hate to say this, but at this point, American and all that, my primary loyalty is here. If you think we should keep this from the US government… ”

“I’m pretty sure I should be on the phone to Washington right now,” Mike said. “And I’m going to call them and ask them for a special tasking in case we fail. Put it that way.”

“Special tasking?” Adams said. “You mean you want them to bomb the area if you can’t get the materials?”

“Sort of.”

* * *

“This is rather unusual, Mike,” the president said over the video connection.

The secure room in the US Embassy, Tblisi was a windowless shield-room. But it had a video connecton on the securest possible system connected to the American military communications system. Mike simply didn’t have time to go to Washington for the conversation; this was the best compromise under the circumstances.

“I agree Mr. President,” Mike said, looking at the other connections. The Secretary of State, the former NSA, was on one of the screens, the Secretary of Defense on another. “And thank you for your time. But this was something that only you could decide upon.”

“Go ahead,” the president said.

“Yes, sir,” Mike said, trying not to swallow nervously. “I have been given some additional information by the Russians. However, I was given the information on the agreement that I would not pass it to the American government.”

“So why are we here?” the Secretary of Defense asked, angrily. “And how the hell could you agree to that?”

“Because Colonel Chechnik said I needed it,” Mike said. “And because I hope that I can convince you of something very serious without, in fact, divulging the information.”

“Do we need the information?” the Secretary of State asked.

“Probably,” Mike replied. “I’m playing a very hard game here, balancing a wire that’s damned thin. I will say that if my mission succeeds you probably don’t need it anymore. It will be history. And if I fail, well, that’s why I’m here.”

“Mike… ” the president said then paused. “Mike you’ve done a lot of good things for your country, for the world. I’m not about to sit here and question your patriotism. But I have to wonder about judgement.”

“So do I, sir,” Mike admitted. “But if my judgement was incredibly hot, I never would have made it to Syria.”

“Point,” the president said, grinning. “What do you want?”

“I think it’s what we all need, instead,” Mike replied. “I’m going to insert the Keldara, and an agent, into the area then attempt to intercept the transfer. One of the items I don’t feel bad about passing is that the Russians now think that Arensy is being forced by the terrorists. His daughter was probably kidnapped to get him to go along. That means we’re now trying to intercept the shipment, rescue Arensky and his daughter. With a very small force. The only thing that matters, though, is the shipment. In the event that we are unable to secure the shipment, I’m asking that you task a nuclear weapon to take it out.”

“You want us to drop a nuke on Georgian territory?” the Secretary of State said, evenly.

“Yes, ma’am,” Mike replied. “Here is my thinking on this. The Georgians are aware that there may be a passage of a weapon through their territory; that’s why I have the mission. If there is a nuclear event, we can say that it was a detonation of the package due to the terrorists. Just like the Bahamas. Put up a B-2 on station with a steerable special munition. If the package goes into play, if we fail, the B-2 takes out the package. It looks as if the terrorists set off the nuke rather than have it fall into our hands. I’d also like to request Predator tasking in support.”

“Mike… ” the president said then paused again. “How far do we let it run?”

“No where,” Mike replied. “Hit it the moment it goes into play. Right then, right there. If I am still in play and on site, I will specifically request it.”

“That’s your own position,” the Secretary of defense pointed out. “Close counts with nuclear weapons, Mike. I’d hate like hell to have a nuke in play, but I’m not sure it’s worth taking you out. We’ve got strategic room to stop it.”

“Sir, as I said, I have information that you do not,” Mike replied. “My… judgement is that if we cannot absolutely secure this weapon at the point at which we know it is going to be, that a special munition be used to ensure that it does not go into play. And it has to be a special munition. It can not be a standard munition. That would be worse than not hitting it at all.”

“You said ‘weapon’, not nuclear weapon. It’s not a nuke,” the Secretary of Defense said, definitely. She had cut her teeth on Soviet disarmament negotiations and knew WMD backwards and forwards.

“Neither confirm nor deny,” Mike replied with a death’s head grin.

“I’ll get back to you on this,” the president said, looking at his own monitors. “With either a yes or no. If it’s a no, it’s a definite no. Who’s going to coordinate for the predators and such? That we can guarantee.”

“I’ll work that through our CIA liaison,” the Secretary of Defense said. “Based upon Mr. Jenkins’ recommendation, though, you have my assent and recommendation. His argument about the cover story is a valid point. We can blame it on the terrorists. And if he is willing to nuke his own position, and his own people, to stop this ‘weapon’ then he has thought this through carefully.”

“I’m not worried about blame,” the president said. “I’m worried about killing a friend.”

“Don’t, Mr. President,” Mike said. “Make that the last thing on your mind. Because no decision you’ve ever made is as important as this one.”

* * *

“Minuet?” the president said, as soon as Mike cut his connection. “You have a clue what he is talking about I’d guess.”

“I think the Russians let a biological out of their labs,” Minuet said, thoughtfully. “An infectious one and deadly. That is his point about not using a standard weapon. As standard weapon would have the possibility of breaking containment and spreading the biological. A nuke will sterilize the area.”

“That’s what the Russians don’t want us to know,” the Secretary of Defense said, angrily. “I can see why. Those stupid bastards.”

“And if Mike wants to keep his relations with the Russians we can’t let them know that we even guess,” Minuet pointed out. “However, we don’t know that that is actually what is going on.”

“Explain,” the president said.

“It is probably accurate,” Minuet pointed out. “But it is what Colonel Chechnik knows or has been told and then what he has chosen to tell Mike. Probably he was told we’re looking at some sort of infectious biological. Mike, from his SEAL training, is well versed in biologicals. If it were, say, anthrax, he would not react this way. However, he is also a well known personality within a small group. The Russians may have anticipated his reaction and told him it is a nasty bio weapon so that he would, in turn, scream to us for help. They may be simply interested in ensuring that Dr. Arensky is taken out of play. A nuke would certainly do that.”

“For now, I am giving provisional authority,” the president said, tightly. “But when this mission goes down, I want all three of us up and alert. I am going to have to make moment to moment decisions on release. Ensure that all the communications are in place for that.”

* * *

“Shota, I want you to listen to me carefully this time,” Adams said, trying not to sigh.

Shota was probably the biggest Keldara there was and just about the most massive guy Adams had ever known. He was even bigger than Russell, the former Ranger who had been a trainer up until he went back to the World. Shota was over two meters in his stocking feet, broad as a fucking house and most of it slabs of heavy muscle. The guy had shoulders that, literally, filled a door. Unfortunately, while not all big guys were dumb, Shota typified the stereotype. At least Russell had had two brain cells to rub together. Not more than two, mind you, he was a Ranger, after all. But two. Shota would be a perfect point guy for entry if Adams could ever teach him to count as high as five.

“It’s really really easy,” Adams said, slowly. “You go through the door and take five steps. Not four, not six. Definitely not one. Understand? Five. Count them with me. One… Two… ”

“One… two… three… f… ” Shota said, his brow creasing.

“Okay, try it this way,” Adams said, turning him to parallels the wall of the shoot house. “Walk with me. One… two… three… four… five steps.”

Shota nodded and looked around. “I stop here? Room’s over there.”

“NO, you’ll be in the room,” Adams said. “Just do the steps again. One… two… three… four… five! Got it, do it again… One… two… ”

Adams had him take five steps, his weapon forward, over and over again. Then he had him trot it. Finally, he was pretty sure the big ox had got it.

“Okay, now we’re going into doctorate territory,” Adams said. “You point your shotgun at the lock of the door. When I give you the word, you blow the lock off. Then you kick the door open. When it’s open, then you take your five steps, got it?”

“No,” Shota admitted.

“Follow my actions,” Adams said, pointing his M4 down as if at a doorknob. “Follow me.” He ran through the sequence seven times with the massive Keldara following his moves. He’d ensured Shota’s weapon was unloaded before they started so he even had him dry fire.

“When you get to the end of your five steps, then you look for valid targets. What’s a valid target?” They’d drilled this one mercilessly in training, so Shota got it right off.

“He got a weapon in his hand,” Shota said. “You shoot the guys with the weapon.”

“In your sector,” Adams added.

“In my sector,” Shota said. “I do my sector. Padrek, him do his sector.”

“What don’t we shoot?” Adams asked.

“We don’t shoot no girls,” Shota said, carefully but fast enough it was clear he understood. “Less them got weapons. We don’t shoot no kids, even if them got weapons. We don’t shoot no men not got weapons.”

“By George, I think you’ve got it,” Adams said. “Okay, troops, let’s load ’em up and try this! Through that door at a run!”

* * *

“The Keldara are a fascinating people,” Jay said.

He and Katya were parked on a wall watching the small Keldara village. Both were dressed in local clothes and to a casual observer blended in. Jay was not a casual observer. As Katya reached a hand up to fiddle with her top he held up his hands with index fingers crossed.

“You’re dead,” Jay said. “You are a Keldara woman. You have worn those clothes your whole life. There is no reason to fiddle with them. Very few women will adjust anything in public unless they are very uncomfortable with the clothing. Street whores will, I’ll give you that. And if you’re at a formal dress dinner with a large number of women unaccustomed to formal dress, you must fiddle from time to time. And walk badly in heels. Very important. Walking badly in heels, if you normally don’t, is a very difficult skill to learn. But you are not playing the part of a street whore or a female more accustomed to jeans than gowns. So you’re dead.”

“Yes, but I can play the part of a street whore,” Katya said, bitterly. “I have that down to an art.”

“As the Kildar has the bluff warrior down to an art,” Jay sighed. “Because he lives it. But you cannot play a Keldara woman, yet, nor the slightly different version you’ll find in Chechnya. And you must. This is the first part you must learn if you want to survive this mission.”

“Why?” Katya asked. “I go in, find the target, do what I can to prevent her being taken out and then we extract with the strike team.”

“And if anything goes wrong?” Jay asked. “The strike team gets intercepted? The mission is blown? Your cover is blown? What then? You’re out in the cold, honey. And they’re looking for a blonde whore.”

“Lots of blonde whores,” Katya pointed out.

“Then you know it all?” Jay asked, carefully.

“No, I do not, o master,” Katya replied. “Enlighten me o font of wisdom.”

“Sarcasm I can take,” Jay said. “Mulishness I can’t. You are out in the cold. The enemy is looking for a street whore. You cannot, yet, become a man in an instant. Who do you become?”

“One of the local women,” Katya replied. “They speak Georgian and Russian.”

“Can you mimic the accent?” Jay asked.

“Oh, yeah, sir, that I can,” Katya said in a provincial southern Russian.

“But you are not them,” Jay said. “You are not a teenage girl, frightened of these problem men all around. Probably raised Eastern Orthodox but surrounded by Muslims who consider her not much more than a whore because she doesn’t wear a burkha. At least her head will be covered. Flinching and skulking to get to market and back to the farm without being beaten or robbed or raped. Born on a farm, hardly seeing a town her whole life. Not even knowing what sex or rape really is most likely unless her father or uncle has broached her on a long winter night. Just that she can’t have either one happen or she’ll end up as… a street whore. You were born in a city, weren’t you?”

“Yes,” Katya said. “How did you know?”

“Ask me again in two or three years,” Jay replied watching with interest as several of the Elders of the tribe gathered outside one of the houses. “But you won’t have to. Orphanage. First sexual experience there when you were… ten? The guy who ran the orphanage, the ‘orphan master.’ Somewhere in Siberia. Not Novy Birsk but close. Killed someone in the orphanage. Made it look like an accident. Probably not even someone who had hurt you, just someone you knew you could kill and get away with it. Tossed out at thirteen or possibly just sold straight to your first pimp. Shuffled south and east towards the Balkans. Left here because the whoremaster in town couldn’t find anyone stupid enough to buy you, no matter how pretty. Picked up by the Kildar as a necessity and he made a virtue out of it by using you as a spy. But he’s just another user to you, isn’t he?”

“How?” Katya said, softly.

“Again, ask me in about ten years,” Jay said as the Elders filed into the house. “But if you’ve been my pupil for that long, and you won’t be, you won’t need to ask. I doubt you’ll stay for more than a year more. If, when, you go out on your own, if you keep studying in about twenty years you will know. If I can get you to even mimic a Keldara in six months, really mimic, so I can find no flaw, cut six years off that time. Either one. But I’m not sure you’ll ever be good enough. You’re missing one very vital component for being a really good spy.”

“What?” Katya asked, confused.

“Empathy.” Jay said, looking at the house then up at the caravanserai. “Very important to a spy. Empathy gives you the ability to read below the surface. So see not only what is there but what is hidden.”

* * *

“There is no way to hide it,” Mother Mahona said. “She is smitten.”

“As is the Kildar,” Father Ferani said. Ferani was the oldest of the Fathers, somewhere in his seventies, shriveled by age but very hard. “Which is a pity.”

“I have always felt that this Kildar was… not good,” Father Devlich said. Tall and broad as Ferani was short he had dark red hair and a face lined by frowns. “He is not true Kildar.”

“He has proven his worth again and again as a provider and as a warrior,” Mother Makanee snapped. “The Kildar must, by rights, have both strength and the Soul of Battle. The Soul, though… ”

“Makes them vulnerable,” Father Kulcyanov wheezed. Though younger than Ferani he had led, if anything, a harder life and it showed. With lips and fingertips blue from congestive heart failure, everyone wondered how many more winters the old warrior would last. “I saw it in many of the best of my commanders. But it is what makes them the best. Without the Soul they are brainless bulls, unfit to lead a squad much less the Keldara. As much as we need the strength and spirit that the Kildars bring, the Soul has always been the hardest to find. This is a True Kildar. Whether he can manage to survive his trials, though, that is another question.”

“He is weak,” Ferani argued. “This… infatuation proves it.”

“What of Kiril in all this?” Mother Devlich asked.

“If need be, Kiril will be sent forth,” Father Kulcyanov said. “But I do not believe this Kildar will force that necessity. He has honor, this one. Strength, fierceness, honor and the Soul. It is a rare combination.”

“A weak combination,” Father Ferani said. “You will see. Every man has his weakness.”

“Just because you have them, does not mean the Kildar does,” Father Devlich said. “Some of us can keep our hands off other men’s wives.”

“Baaaaa,” Father Ferani replied.

“Do not start that again,” Mother Kulcyanov snapped. “Either of you. We must wait and see. If it is necessary, Kiril will be sent forth. We will speak to Colonel Nielson and ensure that he is sent to a proper place for a trained warrior. This is Tradition.”

“Agreed,” Father Devlich said, nodding. “Kiril is young. He will survive and even prosper. And a Keldara as Kildaran… ”

“Oh, yes, leave it to me to break it to Katrina,” Mother Ferani said, shaking her head.

“Katrina will be the least of our worries,” Mother Lenka said. She was not usually included in such Councils. She knew why she was here for this one. “If you send Kiril forth and present Gretchen to this Kildar, he will probably send you all forth. Bide your time. The final toss is yet to be played in this game.”

* * *

“Okay, I’ve briefed you on this,” Mike shouted over the roar from the freefall simulator. “Now I’ll show you.”

The vertical wind-tunnel was a fairly massive structure. Mike had had one hell of a time getting one in any sort of short timeframe; they usually were built in place over a couple of months. As it was it had taken three precious days, and damned near a half a million dollars, to get it to the valley of the Keldara. And that didn’t include the Georgian military heavy lift chopper that brought it from the airport.

Designed to be loaded on a trailer, the system was hardly state-of-the-art. The enormous sound generated by the older style trainers had become an issue in all developed countries so they were going relatively cheap. If you could call two hundred thousand dollars cheap.

But it was the one that Mike could get, in a hurry, cash on the barrel, no questions asked. So it was what he had to work with.

The system consisted of a catwalk that led to a wide platform. The catwalk and platform were supported twenty feet in the air. Under the platform was a heavy duty fan, a wind generator. Around the platform, which was heavily padded, was a steel cage in case the “flyer” got lifted to high or off to the side. In the middle of the platform area was a ten foot hole through which the wind entered.

The whole thing, fortunately, had fit in an Russian Antonov heavy lift aircraft. Mike had had to rent time on the private aircraft for the lift, which was hardly cheap. But with the generator he could speed up the training of the insertion team to the point that they’d be marginally qualified for one hairy damned mission in time.

Besides Vanner, he’d chosen Julia Makanee and Olga Shaynav, two of his best radio operators. To backstop them there were four Keldara “hitters” from Team Sawn. The seven were his charges for the next week. He had exactly seven days to get them not only HALO qualified but comfortable with the idea. The standard military course was five weeks, not one. And on any conceivable mission that the US military would send green HALO jumpers on, they’d be accompanied by trained and experienced personnel. In this case, the entire team would be green jumpers.

Given that a few people always balked at actually jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, that was going to be interesting. He’d considered picking a few stand-bys, just in case one of the group was absolutely unwilling to actually jump or couldn’t handle the training. But he really didn’t have anyone to spare.

He’d used the three days to advantage, giving classes in freefall maneuvers, having everyone practice body positions while lying on their stomachs and going over the theory of freefall, steerable parachutes and HALO. The classes had run from early morning until he could tell everyone but Vanner’s brains were cooking.

Now it was time to start working on freefall techniques. He wanted all seven to be comfortable with that before their first jumps; he just didn’t have the time for tandem training.

Everyone was wearing jump coveralls, which were easier to train in. The coveralls were loose but Mike had to admit that Oleg and Julia still looked hot. Mike looked around at the group, grinned and then jumped into the rushing wind.

The enormous force of the wind picked him up out of his leap and lofted him up to about head-height. He hung there in a box man position, arms and legs spread, then used his fingers to carefully spin in place, without moving out of the wind. He was pretty rusty — his last freefall was more than two years ago — but the moves were coming back pretty quick.

“What’s this position, Largo?” Mike shouted.

“Box man, Kildar!” the shooter replied.

“Exactly, full box man,” Mike said. “Now, if I pull my arms and legs in… ” he said, matching actions with words, “I sink. That will mean you fall faster. Olga! Why would you want to do that?”

“I’m lighter than the men,” the girl shouted back. “I might have to speed up to maintain formation!”

“Right!” Mike yelled then assumed another position, the quickly snapped out of it as he started to fly out of the windstream. “What was that position, Jeseph?”

“Delta!” Jeseph shouted back. “Useful for dropping fast and short, fast, maneuvers.”

“Got it!” Mike yelled then got back in the box man position, but with his hands out of position. Suddenly he started moving away from them, slowly. “Julia! What’s happening? What’s happening?!” he shouted as if panicked.

“Kildar!” the girl shouted back, nervously, then stopped, grinned and shook her head. “Slide? Yes? You try to scare me!”

“Slide,” Mike said, reconfiguring to get back in the middle of the windstream. “When you use this at first, you’re going to slide! I’ll be shouting instructions at you on how to stop slideing. But you’ll go back and forth, side to side,” Mike said, adding motions to the explanation. “But even if you get thrown all the way out!” He moved his arms outward and was suddenly thrown backwards out of the wind-stream, hitting the padding hard and then rolling to his feet. It was an effort, but he needed to demonstrate. “You’ll be fine! That’s what the padding is for! Besides, when you start you’ll have on a harness,” he added with a grin. “Vanner! You’re up.”

“Urrah!” the Marine shouted. “Let’s do this!”

Chapter Fourteen

“Master Chief?” Greznya said as Adams was walking out of the shoot house. He looked ragged and she wasn’t sure if now was the best time but the intel was very hot.

“Go,” Adams said, stripping off his balaclava and taking a deep breath. “Christ. I swear shoot houses take a year off your life every time you go in one. If it’s not the propellant fumes it’s the gaseous lead.”

“Yes, Master Chief,” the girl said, dimpling prettily. “We have a new download from Washington. They’ve gotten ground penetrating shots of the buildings in /// as well as the two buildings near the agreed meeting place. There is no guarantee that Marina is in any of them, but… ”

“But it’s good intel,” Adams said, rubbing a bright red mark on his cheek that looked something like the imprint of a gun-barrel. Greznya could tell that it was fresh and couldn’t imagine where he’d gotten it. “Can you convert… ?”

“I’ve already converted the shots into two dimensional maps of each of the buildings that are probable for holding the hostage,” Greznya said. “However, Creata has an interesting idea. She is pretty sure that she can create 3-d imagery for Unreal for some of the buildings. That will give an internal map of the building that we can load into the game packages. We could even run scenarios with it. Perhaps when we find where Marina is, if Katya can… ”

“We’re looking at nearly a week for insertion,” Adams said, rubbing his chin. “Do it if you have time. Good work. I need to look at those maps as soon as I’m done with reviewing this exercise.”

“Very good, Master Chief,” Greznya said. “I’ll have them in your office by the time you get back.”

“Okay, now let me go speak to the children,” he said, turning back to the entry team. “SHOTA, WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU THINK YOU WERE DOING? FIVE! FIVE, FIVE, FIVE! NOT FUCKING ONE!”

* * *

“Okay, Julia, hold that,” Mike yelled over the wind noise.

A couple of day’s hard training and while the group weren’t exactly masters of the air, but they had the basic moves. They’d all managed to learn to hold position in a box-man, maneuver slightly from that position and work in a delta, with the arms tucked in for more rapid descent and maneuvering.

Now it was on to tougher processes.

“Bring your arms in in front of your face, carefully,” Mike said. “Now, check your direction and distance.”

At least Mike had managed to get top line equipment. Each of the team was outfitted with a GPS based navigation system. Punch in a GPS coordinate and it would give them current altitude and a direction and distance to the target.

Julia slowly brought her arms in front of her face and then glanced at the GPS.

“That way,” Julia said, gesturing to her right with her chin. “I’m at ten thousand AGL.” She referred to Above Ground Level. Height above sea level doesn’t matter to a parachutist; the only thing that matters is height above what you’re going to smack into.

“I’ll give the distance as two kilometers,” Mike said. “Okay, slowly rotate in that direction. Rotate a bit, check position, rotate a bit, check position. Carefully. Don’t worry if you overshoot, just rotate back.”

Julia followed the directions, occasionally bobbling in the air and sliding to the side but always getting back in position. It was hard work, fighting the blast stream the whole time while trying to keep in position three-dimensionally. But finally she was lined up.

“Do a ground check,” Mike said. “Can you see the ground?”

“You said the weather report said clear,” Julia replied. “I can see the ground.”

“Do you think you have the DZ in sight?”

“I have the DZ,” Julia said. “I think so. It’s right there,” she added, pointing to a mark Mike had made on the wall.

“Could be the wrong DZ,” Mike pointed out. “Wouldn’t be the first time. But you don’t have a lot of margin for error; most of the area is vertical. It’s the only potential landing spot you’ve got if you don’t want to be kissing a cliff.”

“It’s the right DZ,” Julia replied, grinning. “I recognize it from the satellite shots.”

“Good,” Mike replied. “Check your team-mates, now. Where are they?”

“Most of them are below me,” Julia said, looking around. “Even Olga; she’s been putting on weight.”

“Have not!” Olga yelled.

“Okay, slide over so you’re clustered, but don’t get too close. You don’t want their air-stream interfering with yours. Do a ground check. You’re off course to the left. What’s happening?”

“Wind sheer,” Julia said. “I correct.”

“Check your GPS,” Mike said. “Your distance is now one hundred meters to the DZ. You are at four thousand AGL.”

“How did I get there so quickly?” Julia said, confused.

“You tell me,” Mike replied, raising an eyebrow.

“The wind,” Julia said after a moment. “It’s pushing me across the DZ.”

“Three thousand AGL,” Mike yelled. “You’re going to be popping any second. What do you do?”

Julia’s mouth opened and closed for a moment and then she shrugged.

“I don’t know!”

“Out of exercise,” Mike said, waving her to the side. The Keldara girl slid sideways in the air-stream until she was at the edge of the tank and then slid off into Mike’s arms.

“It wasn’t really your call to make,” Mike admitted. “But… dropping is strange. You think you have all the time in the world and then all of a sudden you’re out of time to make decisions. Vanner, you’re team is overshooting the drop-zone. Enough that you’re not going to be able to para-glide back to it. What do you do?”

“Rotate the formation into the wind,” Vanner said, quickly. “Go into a delta-track and head as much into it as possible. It increases our rate of drop but increases our horizontal velocity. I trade height for distance.”

“Good enough answer,” Mike replied. “And that is the answer to Julia’s question as well: You follow your team leader. That’s why he should be lined up at the bottom of the stick. He is responsible for ensuring that you all get close enough to the DZ that you can all make it. Even if you think he’s wrong on his approach, you follow your team leader.”

“What probably happens is that you miss the dropzone,” Mike admitted. “If the winds are that high, that they push you that fast during the drop phase, you’re going to be all over the map in the para-glide phase. Where you’re dropping, most of you are probably gonna kiss a cliff or slam into a mountainside. In which case, Vanner, you’re going to have four or more out of your team with broken bones or worse. Who takes over if Vanner is killed?”

“I do,” Julia said.

“Right, then Olga. And if both of them are out?”

“I take over,” Jeseph admitted. “But I’m not as up on the commo end.”

“Set up the commo, report in and then do what you can to hold on until I can get someone in to replace and support you,” Mike replied. “We will get somebody in there, I promise. But you have to be ready for worst case. Worst case is you disappear into a black hole from my side. Worst case for you as well, but second worst is serious injuries in multiple on the drop. Keep an eye on your height and distance… ”

Mike paused as the door to the simulator opened and Nielson stuck his head in the door.

“Kildar, got something, can’t wait.”

“Okay,” Mike said. “Crap. Vanner, take over. Just work on positions and air-feel. I’ll be back… ” He looked over at Nielson and raised an eyebrow.

“Not soon,” Nielson said, frowning.

* * *

“What you got?” Mike asked as soon as he was out of the simulator and the ensuing racket was somewhat quieter.

“We’ve got a problem with the helo transport,” Nielson said, his upper lip twitching angrily. He probably didn’t even realize he had that tick, but Mike knew when he was really REALLY pissed and the retired colonel was definitely pissed. People dying pissed.

“The Georgian government is balking at letting us use that heavy lift company we used in Albania,” Nielson said. “Guess why.”

“No guesses,” Mike said with a sigh. “They’re Russians.”

“Bingo. I just got off the phone with General Umarov. They’re, barely, willing to let us use them to lift us part way in. But the group can not be used inside the Pansiki military zone. They can neither be used to extract us nor for dust-off of wounded. No entry. Period.”

“What the fuck do they want us to do?” Mike snapped. “Walk out? With our wounded? We are going to take casualties on this one.”

“I, as calmly as I could, asked the General the same question,” Nielson said, his lip really going now. “And he suggested that he speak with the Kildar.”

“Actually said it that way?” Mike asked, trying not to grin.

“Yep,” Nielson replied.

“Okay,” Mike said, shrugging. “I guess I go put on my Kildar hat.”

* * *

“General Umarov,” Mike said leaning back in his chair. “How good to speak with you again.”

“And you Kildar,” Umarov replied, his voice a bit taut. “I’m sorry I had to disturb your training schedule: I understand it is rigorous.”

“More so, lately,” Mike said with a sigh. “I think we need to talk but I’d prefer not over the phone. However, time is tight. Is there any way you could free up a bird so I’m not on the road four hours in each direction? And, of course, some of your time which is also precious.”

“Of course, Kildar,” Umarov said. “I’ll have it dispatched immediately.”

“I’ll be ready,” Mike said. “We have an LZ set up, now. Down by the Keldara houses. I’ll be there.”

* * *

Mike opened up his closet and contemplated. He’d never had so many clothes in his life. Not only had he, perforce, gotten suits, variously graded depending on who he was meeting with, Anastasia had been shopping for “informal” wear for him. He contemplated the array, reached for his second best suit, then his best suit, then reached all the way over to the side and pulled out a set of digi-cam.

This wasn’t his field wear, though. This was the set of “dress” digicam he’d set up more or less on a whim. Modern “developing country” militaries had started to treat camouflage field uniforms as if they were dress uniforms. This probably came from the habit American generals had of almost always appearing in field uniforms. An American general, though, would only wear a couple of his qualification badges, name and branch tags and a shoulder patch on a plain, if well pressed, digicam or BDU uniform.

Filtered through the medium of culture in developing countries, though, and you ended up with something different. The worst had to be “Syrian Commandoes” who had a purple camouflage uniform that would make a peacock go “OH MY GOD!” And, of course, it had to be bedecked in metals otherwise nobody would realize you were a general, right?

Mike had realized at some point he was going to have to tread a fine line. While there were times he was going to have to wear a cammie uniform for more or less “official” reasons, as a SEAL he had a problem. When SEALs wore field uniforms they might have a nametag. Otherwise they tended to be pretty bare. For one thing, everybody on the team knew who you were and what you’d done so you didn’t have to cover the damned uniform in qualification badges and gee-gaws. You were a SEAL, who cared if you’d gone to another school, BUD/S was all that mattered. And you didn’t have to wear some stupid subdued SEAL badge. You were on the team. Ergo, you’d passed BUD/S. Point, set, match.

But if he turned up in a set of sterile cammies, that would send the wrong message. It all came down to politics, something he’d hoped never to have to play. But in his current situation, it was a daily grind.

So he’d set up a set of “dress” cammies, most of it stolen lock-stock-and-barrel from the US Army.

On the right and left shoulders were the snarling tiger face that was the Keldara patch, the left shoulder because he was, by God, a member and the right because he had, by God, been in combat ops with them. Over the right one was his Ranger badge from that extended version of hell: a fraction as bad as Hell Week but five times as long. Under it was a US flag because he was, by God, still a US citizen. He’d found a subdued SEAL badge and that was on top of his qualification badges. Below that was his HALO badge flanked by Pathfinder. He could put on airborne wings if he wanted, master jumper given the number of times he’d jump-mastered drops.

Figuring out which to put on the velcro patches had been hard. He’d sat down when he was contemplating the uniform and tried to figure out how many schools he’d gone to, on the side, that would qualify for badges on an Army uniform. In the end he realized that he could basically cover the damned thing. Sometimes he put on the Marine Sniper badge instead of Pathfinder, sometimes he switched both out for Sapper or for SCUBA, having cross-trained in all of them. Hell might as well put on French Commando school, which was a joke so bad it should be run by Cub Scouts, or Special Boat Squadron which was one kick-your-ass motherfucker of a school that should be outlawed under international treaty.

SEAL instructors were supposed to be “broadly and comprehensively trained”, said so right in the documentation. And their schools budget was huge, comparable to an entire Army division. In every department of the government budgets were the same: Use it or lose it. So the SEALs, especially the instructors, tended to spend two thirds of their time training and the other third… burning off budget. It was amazing how many courses you could pack in in a sixteen year career that had covered most of the time the US was at relative peace.

The toughest part had been figuring out the branch tape and nametag. In the end, the branch tape, where it would say “US Army” or “US Navy” or whatever, simply read “Mountain Tigers” in Georgian. The nametag simply read: Kildar.

He looked at the suits, looked at the dress-cammies and tossed the latter on the bed. Sometimes you just had to dress for success. Politics. What the fuck had he done to earn politics?

* * *

Mike got out of the Expedition and was surrounded by a smaller than normal contingent of children. From the looks of it most of the older ones were up in the hills picking tiger berries.

It was the time of year that the “secret ingredient” in Keldara beer reached full ripeness. Some of the shrubs had been planted to harvest for the brewery but they hadn’t matured enough to provide more than a pittance. There was less than a week when they were ripe and for the Keldara the picking was an all-hands evolution. With the preparations for the mission, they had to be hard pressed to have enough bodies. From the looks of things the kids, down to six or so, had been sent up into the hills.

“Dimi,” he said to one of the few of the younger children he recognized. “I need you to find someone to drive the truck back. Can you do that?”

“Yes, Kildar,” the boy said, tucking the sweet in his cheek and dashing off.

Mike had about finished passing out the candy when he heard an indrawn breath and looked up into Gretchen’s face.

“Ah, Gretchen… ” Mike said, clearing his throat. “I don’t suppose you know how to drive an Expedition?”

“Yes, Kildar, I do,” Gretchen said. She was carrying a baby and looked positively beatific despite the thoroughly pissed expression on her face. “But there is only one adult here for each Family to watch the children.”

“I don’t think all the girls up at the castle are fully… ” Mike stopped and thought about it. “Yes, they are. Damnit. We need more Keldara,” he added with a grin.

“Here they are,” Gretchen said, gesturing to the children. “Pick the one to drive the car.”

“Pass,” Mike said. “I’ll pick it up when I get back.” He paused and frowned. “I hate to be… How you doing?”

“I am fine, Kildar,” Gretchen said. “Except for having twenty brats to keep an eye on.”

“How come you got stuck with the duty?” Mike asked.

“Some of the teams are training in the same area as the berry picking,” Gretchen said.

Mike had to process that for a second then shook his head.

“And if I was going to be doing anything with my little spare time it would be checking on the teams,” Mike said. “Not coming down to the houses where I might run into you? And if I’d picked anyone but one of the little kids to go find a driver… They’d have found anyone but you, right?”

“Did I say that?” Gretchen said, relenting. “It is… good to see you.”

“Same here,” Mike said, flexing his jaw. “Care to let me in on any of the Mysteries surrounding this? I take it there has been… talk.”

“Much,” Gretchen said. “And, of course, I’m the last to be informed of any of it. Well… ”

“Except for me,” Mike said. “What have you heard?”

“Let me see… ” Gretchen said, tapping her finger on her lips. “The Kildar is honorable and will not violate the contract between myself and Kiril. The Kildar is human and therefore can only be expected to violate it. I should be sent away, so as to prevent the offense. Kiril should be sent away, there is a group called the… Legion Etran… ”

“The Foreign Legion,” Mike said, translating it into Keldara. “Over my dead body.”

“And then I would be Kildaran,” Gretchen said, shrugging.

“Anybody ask you what you want?” Mike asked. “I know nobody has asked me.”

“It is not the Keldara way,” Gretchen said, shaking her head. “The Keldara’s fates are chosen by the Elders, not by themselves. Our spouses are chosen, our lots in life. I was picked for neither the intelligence teams nor the mortars. I am one of the few women of my generation who is not contributing, directly, to the teams.”

“Why?” Mike asked, frowning. “You’re not exactly… dumb.”

“Thank you so much for the compliment!” Gretchen snapped.

“That wasn’t what I meant and you know it,” Mike said. “Why weren’t you… You are, in fact, quite bright. You’d make a good contribution to the intel section. What am I missing?”

“I am… ” She paused and frowned. “The Mother of a Family is not necessarily married to the Father. There are some in the Keldara who are spotted for… other needs. Stella… Stella and Lydia, yes, I could see them being Mothers. But it is less likely with Shariya, who is promised to Yosif… ”

“Shariya is a mortar girl,” Mike said, frowning. “One of the ammo bearers… She’s… ”

“Sweet,” Gretchen said. “Also very simple. Yosif, on the other hand, is very smart and capable. He is the man most likely to be the Devlich Father when his time comes but… ”

“Shariya wouldn’t make a good Mother,” Mike said. “So… you’re getting married to Kiril who is a Devlich so you transfer to that Family… ”

“And I train as a Mother,” Gretchen said, shrugging. “Instead of, you know, something fun or exciting. And I get to take care of the babies.”

“Except that is so that you wouldn’t meet me,” Mike said, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. I appear to have really fucked up your existence.”

“And have I had no effect on yours?” Gretchen asked.

“If you hadn’t, would any of this be going on?” Mike replied at the sound of rotors in the distance. “Spread the word, quietly. The Kildar is going to be a very good man. He can look you in the face and walk away. He can watch your children grow. He admires Kiril and hopes the best for both of you. Nobody should be sent away. Except these children because there is a helicopter about to land on them.”

“Yes, Kildar,” Gretchen said, frowning slightly.

“I don’t think we talked, did we?” Mike asked as the helo descended.

“I don’t think so,” Gretchen shouted. “But I wish we could… ”

Chapter Fifteen

“General Umarov, good to see you again,” Mike said as he was ushered into the general’s office by an aide. He hadn’t had to wait which he took as a sign. A sign of what, he wasn’t too sure.

“And you, Kildar,” the general said, walking around his desk to shake Mike’s hand. He gestured for Mike to take a seat, ordered coffee and did everything but check to see if Mike needed a blow-job from the secretary.

It was going to be bad.

“How are Galiko and the kids?” Mike asked. Mrs. Umarov had passed away before Mike arrived in-country. Galiko was their sole child. She was married to a major in the Georgian National Guard and they had two children that the general doted upon.

“All are well,” Umarov replied, nodding. “I will send them your regards.”

“Please do,” Mike said, taking a sip of coffee. He’d actually become a pretty big tea drinker but since he was American it was assumed he’d prefer coffee. It wasn’t bad, by Georgian standards. “General, we need helicopters to get this plan to work.”

“In that you and I agree,” Umarov replied with a sigh. “But there are… problems.”

“Politics,” Mike said. “Is it that they are Russian? I don’t, off the top of my head, know of a group besides Birusk Flying Services that can, and will, pick up a company of infantry and take them anywhere close to where they might be shot at. And Birusk is not Russian government, any more than I am US government.”

“And again, you and I agree,” Umarov said, shaking his head. “Others do not.”

“What others?” Mike asked, blanching. “General, this is no insult to your armed forces but we have to keep this information very confidential!”

“That is not a problem,” the general said, making a placating gesture. “It is, as you would say ‘very tightly held’. But the president and the defense minister had to be told of what was going on, you know that, yes?”

“Of course,” Mike said, nodding. “I cannot disagree at… Oh, crap. The defense minister?”

Vakhtang Gelovani was a strong Georgian nationalist who had risen to the rank of major in the Red Army before the fall of the Soviet Union. Of course, that had been over a twenty-five year period. Ethnic Russians had controlled the upper ranks of the Red Army even under Stalin, who was a Georgian. Anyone non-Rusk rising above colonel was exceedingly rare. He clearly felt that he should have been a general and it was rumored that for that reason he hated and despised all things Russian.

From Mike’s perspective, the reason he’d never made general was that Gelovani would barely tie his own shoes. The man was a classic case of “active/stupid” if Mike had ever seen one, a micro-manager who had a strong tendency to choose exactly the wrong course of action and enforce it on subordinates. And then, as often as not, blame them for the failure.

The fact that he was frequently bruted as a possible successor to the current president, who while not great was head and shoulders over Gelovani, was good reason to contemplate the stupidity of settling down in Georgia. And Mike had heard quite a few rumors about clashes between Gelovani and Umarov. Given that Umarov wasn’t an idiot, Mike didn’t find that surprising.

“I will neither confirm nor deny that the defense minister has raised objections,” Umarov said, grimacing. “I will however say that the president has also stated his objections.”

Which meant that the president did not want to give Gelovani an excuse to paint him as in the pocket of the Russians. Even over a black op. Of course, Gelovani would not care that it was a black op if he went babbling about it to some group of faithful or supporters.

Taking Gelovani out was looking better and better.

Mike lowered his face and rubbed his forehead for a moment then looked up.

“Okay, then can I have Georgian helicopter support? You’ve got a couple of Hips and those Blackhawks from the US. I don’t know if we can make it in one lift, but… ”

“No,” Umarov said with a shake of the head. “And that is my objection, solely. We have very few helicopters. Not only are most of them busy, most of the time, but the loss of even one, and there is a good chance of losing one on this operation, would be… very bad. Unlike the US military, we could not hide the fact that we’d lost one or where we’d lost one. Given that, it would be apparent that we’d lost it to the Chechens or at least in operations against them. Call it ‘face’ if you will, but with everything that is going on in this country, making it truly apparent that we cannot control actions in that area would be very bad, politically. Let me ask: Would you prefer that Gelovani replace me with one of his hand-picked cronies?”

“No,” Mike said, grimacing.

“If we lost a helicopter in this operation, I would grade that as ‘likely,’ ” Umarov said, placidly. “Also, the loss would be a capital loss to my military, both in the loss of the helicopter and the pilots. We would have to send our very best pilots, yes? And we have very few who are of the caliber you would need. I would be, in your American phrase, eating my seed corn if I lost them. We guard them very preciously, the helicopters and the pilots. I cannot justify using them in an operation with this great a risk factor.”

“So that gets me back to square one,” Mike argued. “I have to have helicopter support. If I don’t use it, I’d have to have already left to do the whole thing on foot. I need birds to get me in striking distance. And I really need dust-off. We’re going to take casualties. I’ll walk out if I absolutely have to, carrying the damned items if I must, but I’m not going to do this mission if I have to pack my wounded out on litters. Not.”

“I have argued the same,” Umarov said, holding up a hand to forestall an angry rebuttal. “I have also managed a small, not large enough, compromise. You may use the Russian company to fly to your drop-off point. I got that concession because I pointed out, as you did, that you could not do the mission in time without having already started your ‘hump’, yes? But they cannot enter the Pansiki military controlled zone, absolutely not. That is from the president. And they must enter on a controlled route, pick up your forces, drop them off and then leave.”

“So no pick up and no dust off,” Mike said, angrily. He took a deep breath and then thought, hard. “What if… Look, I need dust-off and I need some helo support in the background. Among other things, both the US and the Russians are very interested in retrieving Dr. Arensky, alive.”

“So I was informed,” Umarov said, nodding. “But, frankly, I had not put together that he, and his daugther, would have to walk out. Not a very pleasant trip.”

“We’re planning on something on the order of Hannibal’s March across the Alps,” Mike pointed out, sourly. “No, not a pleasant trip. High elevation, low temperatures, nasty terrain. It’s going to be hard enough on the Keldara. I can’t imagine getting an out-of-shape scientist and his daughter through it. But I’m really worried about getting casualties out of there. I need a helo. And I have an idea.”

“Go ahead,” Umarov said, nodding.

“What if they weren’t Russian and they weren’t temporary hires?” Mike asked, putting a plan together just ahead of his words. “I’ve been saying that I need a helicopter, and some pilots, for quite some time now. So… I get a helicopter and some pilots. Possibly two helicopters and some pilots. And they are my support.”

“I presume you’re talking about American or European,” Umarov said, carefully. “Can you get them? On short notice? And that will be willing to do this mission? I could see a pilot that was willing to fly back and forth to Tblisi, yes? But to fly on this mission?”

“I don’t know,” Mike replied, honestly. “But I can try. If I can get them, can I use them?”

“I am not sure what you mean,” Umarov said, lightly. “You wish to get a helicopter for transportation, yes? They will not be armed, this is a simple business transaction, a bit of paperwork. I’m sure it would entirely escape my notice, I’m not sure why you even bring it up.”

“Gotcha,” Mike said, nodding. “Well, then, I think that’s settled. And I need to make some very fast phone calls.”

“Don’t let me slow you down,” Umarov said, nodding. “But since you mentioned this simple business transaction, I’ll make a few phone-calls, for a friend, and make sure that all the paperwork is… smoothed out.”

“I appreciate it,” Mike said, knowing that the Georgians could be byzantine, and greedy, in processing such paperwork. He’d smooth palms if he had to, it was a standard part of doing business in the region, but the fewer he had to, and the faster they worked, the better. The chief of staff knew just what butts to prod to get them in gear. “I’ll be going, then. Give my regards to Galiko and Captain Kahbolov.”

“I shall,” the general said. “I’ll also note that if I was to send a group of highly qualified pilots, one of them would have to be my son-in-law. But, no, that is not why I declined.”

* * *


“Bob, it’s Mike,” Mike said, sighing over the secure sat-phone. He could barely hear the colonel over the sound of the rotors from the helicopter but, on the other hand, short of a very capable and sophisticated intercept that could crack US satellite transmissions, he wasn’t going to be overheard. “We have a situation. No, we have an issue. No, we have a mission killer.”

“Helicopters,” Pierson said. “I was going to call you. We already got the word.”

“The Georgians are not going to let me use my Russki friends for anything more than lift into the nearby area. I’m not going to have dust-off, I’m not going to have support and I can’t exactly evac Arensky and his kid through those fucking mountains.”

“They’re also not going to let us do it,” the colonel replied. “That has been discussed. Not at ‘the highest levels’ but at a level high enough that it’s damned firm.”

“I’m not going to stick the fucking Keldara out on a limb over some jackass’ bigotry about Russians,” Mike said, bitterly. “But there’s one slender loophole. I can buy my own god damned bird and hire my own goddamned pilots out of my own goddamned pocket and as long as they’re not Russian I can use them for ‘non-combat’ missions. Including into the Pansiki zone.”

“So you need pilots,” Pierson said. “And birds.”

“I’ll get my own birds,” Mike replied. “The Czechs make a very nice Hind variant that is available off the shelf with a high altitude package. And not only does it cost way less than a Blackhawk, most of the parts are compatible with other Hind variants. But I need pilots. ASAP.”

“We’re not an employment agency, Mike,” Pierson replied with a humorous tone.

“You are if you want me to do this mission,” Mike responded with absolutely no humor in his voice. “I need pilots. I’m up to my ass in alligators and so are all my people. None of us have time to go looking through the want ads. I haven’t slept in three days. I don’t have time to be having this conversation. I need two highly qualified and technically excellent pilots in recent training who can cross-train to a Hind on short notice and are willing to go in harm’s way for a sizeable cash bonus and love of the thrill. I’d prefer no dependents. As Umarov pointed out, the risk of this mission, to everyone including me, is high. That includes the pilots. I need them on a plane within the next two days. Call Anastasia to make the travel arrangements. And I don’t care who you have to know, blow or glow, I need them now or this mission is a scrub. I am totally fucking serious. I will scrub this mission and the president can then consider… other options.”

“Oh,” Pierson said, thoughtfully. “In that case, I’d better start making some calls.”

* * *

Kacey flipped through the mail angrily.

“Junk mail, bill, bill, overdue bill… ”

Kacey J. (Jezebel) Bathlick, formerly Captain Kacey J. Bathlick, USMC, was five foot four inches tall and weighed in at a respectable one hundred and thirteen pounds, as of that morning, after her morning run, according to the bathroom scale. With brown hair that reached to just shoulder length and brown eyes, she had generally been described as “solid” in her officer evaluation reports. That is because nobody was going to put “stacked, packed, hot and ready to rock” on paper.

“Face it, Kace, we’re gonna have to find a job.” Tamara opened the refrigerator and removing broccoli, onions and red peppers. “I mean, we’re talking 7/11 time here.”

Tamara Wilson, also formerly Captain, USMC, was not incredibly taller than Kacey standing just a bit over five feet seven inches. However, with noticeably longer legs and torso, she seemed to positively tower over her long time friend. Also with brown hair and eyes her grading officers had often found themselves at a loss to describe her in militarily acceptable terminology. “Erect of carriage” was usually what the reviewers settled upon. That was because, in the case of her male reviewers, they felt that forms covered in drool with incoherent phrases like “Yowhzah!” and “Babe-a-licious!” would not have told the review boards much.

When, as had often happened until recently, the two were sharing a cockpit units sometimes came to blows over who got to fly in the bird.

“I can’t believe we didn’t get hired with Blackwater,” Kacey said, tightly. “They’re screaming for pilots.”

“Male pilots,” Tammie noted, starting to chop up the vegetables. “They do not want to be the first company to have a female civilian killed in action. Wouldn’t look good on CNN.”

“Which means that everyone else who needs pilots in the states should be screaming for women,” Kacey noted. “So why aren’t we getting any calls?”

“It’s only been two months,” Tammie pointed out. “And we really didn’t start hunting until we got back from the islands. Of course, we thought somebody would be banging down our door but… ” She paused at a knock on the apartment’s door. “Okay, now that would be too… ”

Kacey looked through the peephole and turned back to Tammie. “Military. Army. Major.”

“Pro-face,” Tammie said, nodding.

“Yes, major, what can I do for you?” Kacey said as she opened the door.

“Ms. Kacey Bathlick?” the major asked. “Captain Bathlick?”

“Up until a couple of months ago, yes,” Kacey said.

“And is Ms. Wilson present?” the major asked. He was black, medium height and heavy build. Kacey had done an immediate check of his uniform and she suspected that there were some ribbons missing from his dress greens. But there was an SF patch on his right shoulder to counteract the Military District of Washington patch on the left. And he was wearing the “Tower Of Power”, Ranger, SF and Airborne tabs stacked. No CIB but a two year Pentagon service badge. And his highest medal was an Army Commendation Medal. Either this guy was a washed out Green Beret who had been shuffled off to Washington after being found “unfit for combat” or he was deliberately understating his experience and leaving off merit badges. From his look it was probably the latter. Which in the five sided Puzzle Palace was… weird. Everybody wore every possible doo-dad so they could look more military than Napoleon.

“Yes, I am,” Tammie said, walking over while wiping her hands on a towel. “Pleasure to meet you Major Stang. What can we do for you?”

“I was told… ” the major said and then paused. “Could we do this somewhere other than the doorway?”

“Of course,” Kacey said. “Sorry.” Of course, he could be a rapist dressed up like an Army major, but he had all the badges in the right place which would be unusual for a “wannabe.” And between herself and Tammie they could probably handle him, weight lifter or no. Tammie had been studying karate since before she was really walking well. Kacey’s fighting style was a bit more eclectic running in the direction of beating the hell out of people she didn’t like.

She stepped back and then to the side so that she had him flanked as he entered the room. The brief, amused, glance over his shoulder told her that he’d noticed, knew why and found it both tactically correct and funny.

“Take a seat if you’d like,” Tammie said, smiling.

“Nah, I’ll be quick,” the officer said, dipping into his blouse pocket and pulling out a slip of paper. It appeared to be cut out from something, possibly an e-mail. “I was told that you two are looking for a flying job, preferably as a matched set.”

“Yes,” Tammie said, frowning but taking the paper.

“I’m also told that you were very pissed off when the Marines pulled you both out of combat slots,” the major added. “That’s the name of a guy who needs some helo pilots, yesterday. He’s not in the US, though, the country of Georgia. But he doesn’t have the time to come to the States and do an interview. So he’s willing to pay appropriate pilots five grand just to fly out there and interview, as long as they don’t dawdle. The flip side is that while it’s intended to be a permanent gig, he needs them for a mission that… Well that involves a certain amount of risk. The pay, I’m given to understand, will be commensurate.”

“He’s a merc?” Kacey asked. “The US government is death on mercs.”

“Mercenary, security specialist, the US government hires out a lot of stuff these days,” the major said with a shrug. “I have it on very good authority that this is one of the good guys. I will mention that the US government is, effectively, being his hiring and screening agent for this. I’m not here on my own, I’m on government time.”

“That’s odd,” Tammie said.

“Yes, it is,” Stang said. “But I get a lot of odd jobs. I’ll add that while you’re not covered by the UCMJ or USC 18 on this, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t pass on the fact that you were contacted, and in this way. More to be the point, Uncle Sam would appreciate it. I don’t know what’s going on, so don’t ask. All I was told was go tell you two and get your answer on whether you’d go interview.”

“He’s going to pay five grand just to fly out and interview?” Tammie said. “That’s not a signing bonus. That’s just to interview.”

“And your transportation,” Stang said with a nod. “If you say yes to the interview, we’ll have you on a plane headed towards Georgia, and I quote as fast as you can pack end quote.”

“What’s the mission?” Kacey asked, taking the paper from Tammie and glancing at it. All it had on it, though, was a name “Michael Jenkins” and a number. She did recognize that it was a sat-phone number, though.

“I have no idea,” Stang admitted, grinning. “I will say, though, that some very senior and connected people have been running around lately like there’s a monkey gnawing on their neck. And we’re not expecting an IG inspection in simply ages.”

“So who do you… ” Tammie stopped at his expression and grinned. “Classified?”

“Got it in one,” Stang said. “If I told you I’d have to find a place for the bodies.”

“So do we call this guy or what?” Kacey asked.

“Got a cell phone?”


“Call him on the way to Washington National?”

* * *

“You look all in, Master Chief,” Mike said, sitting down to breakfast in the kitchen. The coffee was already on the table and Mother Griffina was frying up the eggs. Life was good. Some sleep would be nice.

“So do you,” Adams said. “When’s the last time you slept. Never mind. I gotta use Shota for entry. Every single other position is tasked. And they all require more sense than blowing a door then taking five god damned steps! The way I got it set up, all he has to do is this simple task. The guy has at least learned to shoot, and what to shoot and what not to. But he can’t seem to get the concept that just because there are bad guys in the room, he still has to take five steps to clear the door.”

“Sucks to be you,” Mike said, taking a sip of coffee. “Try teaching HALO to a bunch of newbies in a week. Not to mention all the other prep for this damned mission. On the other hand, it’s going pretty good. First real jump today.”

“You know you don’t have to be busting your ass as hard as you are,” Adams said. “Nielson can handle some of it.”

“I have reasons to stay busy,” Mike pointed out.

“Being all bleary before a mission isn’t good for anybody, boss,” Adams pointed out. “Or are you talking about your latest slash?”

“You’re so eloquent about these things,” Mike said.

“Nielson is eloquent about these things,” Adams said. “I’m from the Teams, remember? The list starts: My wife, sure… ”

“My toothbrush, maybe, my knife, never,” Mike finished. “And you’ve been through how many of those wives?”

“Enough that I’m glad to be out of the States,” Adams admitted. “They can get my pension but they can’t touch what I’m making over here.”

“Then let me just suggest that you’re out of your league, Master Chief,” Mike said with a sigh. “Except, maybe, on one question: Think I should talk to Kiril about this?”

“No,” Adams said. “I already did.”

“Thanks,” Mike said.

“I told him you weren’t nearly the cockhound everybody made you out to be. Hell, you hardly knew where to put it. There was no way that Gretchen was going to go for a guy as bad in the sack as you are.”

“Let me repeat my thanks,” Mike said, chuckling.

“He was really weird about it,” Adams said, frowning. “Resigned, maybe. He just said that his fate would be decided. What’s this I hear about him being sent off?”

“Isn’t happening,” Mike said. “They’re talking about sending him off to the Legion and me hooking up with Gretchen. I’m putting my Kildar boot on that. He marries Gretchen.”

“Ain’t like you’re short on pussy,” Adams admitted.

“Eloquence, thy name is Ass-boy,” Mike said. “But, to reiterate, pussy is not the issue. However, changing the subject, we may have helo pilots.”

“That would be great,” Adams said, nodding. “We’re seriously fucked without pilots. I mean the bad kind of fucked. Not the fucking Gretchen kind of fucked.”

“Pierson said that quote some candidates end quote are on the way,” Mike said, shaking his head at Adams’ aside. He knew the approach, it was the specialty of the Teams. Call it “tough love.” As in “go cry in somebody else’s beer.” On the other hand, Adams didn’t actually have to deal with the management of the Keldara’s morale. “So, so far the rest of us are on track. Sucks to be you, though,” he added with a grin.

“You want this girl alive or not?” Adams grumped.

“Be nice,” Mike said, taking another sip. “That’s why I detailed you to it. But the most important thing is getting the package. And that means getting eyeballs on the target and into commo with Katya.”

“She in place, yet?” Adams asked.

“Should be.”

Chapter Sixteen

The first thing Dmitri told her was: “You’re going to need to change clothes.”

Katya didn’t see what was wrong with her clothes. She’d carefully chosen them based on her cover as a new hooker in the trade: hip-hugger jeans, a tight, low-cut blouse, black patent leather high-heels and a fake fox coat. All of the clothes were well worn, the coat actually a bit ratty. Most of what she had packed in her small bag was the same.

“The Chechens, well… ” Dmitri had sighed and shrugged. “They move the whores, they use the whores. But if you look like a whore they’re going to make your life hell.”

Katya didn’t know what Dmitri’s connection to Russian intel was. The one thing she’d insured was that he did not know she was “connected.” Another agent had handed her off to him without any suggestion she was working for Russian intel. What she had come to realize was that he was an expert in the trade. He’d treated her with polite disinterest, not even trying to cadge a “freebie.” And he knew all the guards at the crossing points. So by the time they reached Gamasora she’d changed.

Full coverage sweater, slightly tight but not even vaguely sexual, a skirt she’d picked up on the road that hung to well below her knees, flats, the hardest to find. Her makeup was dialed way back. She looked… drab.

Looking at the women of the town, many of them in Islamic dhimmi scarves that covered their hair and ears with skirts that went all the way to the ground and heavy coats that gave little if any indication of their figure, she had to admit she looked more the part.

“You’re not going to get as much for me looking like this,” Katya pointed out.

“The buyers know what they’re looking at,” Dmitri replied as they pulled into the town. “This isn’t a market, it’s a trading point. You know you’re headed for Turkey on this route, right?”

“Yes,” Katya said then shrugged. “Turkey or Europe, what’s the difference. A whore is a whore.”

“With your looks you’d do better in Europe or the East,” Dmitri said then shrugged in return. “But if you want to go to Turkey, that’s nothing to me. I already have you contracted to Georgi Torshin so I’ll just drop you and be gone.”

Dmitri pulled the antiquated Lada to a stop in front of a coffee shop and gestured at the door. “Last stop. For me, anyway.”

Katya was glad for the rest. The roads to Gamasoara had been atrocious and the Lada had apparently lost all of its springs decades ago. She felt as if her teeth had been rattled loose by the long journey. But they were finally at the area of operations. Now to see if she could find the target.

She got out, grabbing her bag, and, head down and posture slumped, followed Dmitri into the café. She still was cataloguing her surroundings. The café had a small stream behind it and a patio to one side. In fact, it was practically identical to the one in Allerso. However, the design was so common in this region it wasn’t particularly surprising.

The town was a bit larger than Allerso, maybe a thousand people. She wasn’t sure what the local industry was but it didn’t appear to be booming. Most of the people in the town seemed to be selling things to each other, most of it old and worn. There were two food vendors on the street and they didn’t seem to be doing much business.

The interior of the café was hot and stuffy, the windows and doors closed against the late fall chill. All of the patrons were male and most of them watched her as Dmitri led the way to the back of the room. They had the look that said “Islamic” to her, automatically. She had never really understood how you could spot an Islamic, or an American or a European, immediately. Jay had explained some of it to her. Islamics followed certain laws that affected their dress and demeanor to a degree most of them didn’t realize. For example, when you had to regularly take your shoes off for prayer it just made more sense to step down on the backs so you could slip them on and off like slippers. But when you did that you had to shuffle as you walked or they’d slip off. Thus Islamics tended to shuffle their feet and take small steps.

There were a thousand such minor cultural clues about personal behavior and body language that subconsciously, to most people, screamed what culture a person derived from. The job of a spy, or an actor, was to learn them and copy them slavishly.

“I will see where Georgi has gone to,” Dmitri said as soon as she was seated. “He is usually in here this time of day. Talk to no one.”

Dmitri went to the counter that served the café and it quickly became obvious that something was wrong. Not quite an argument but Dmitri was clearly unhappy when he came back to the table.

“Well, there is a problem,” he said with a sigh as he sat down with two cups of strong coffee. “Georgi is dead.”

“How?” Katya asked, wide-eyed. She was playing the biggest innocent a new whore might be and wide-eyed was the right reaction to sudden news of death.

“Heart attack,” Dmitri spat. “There is a man called Yaroslav has taken over his business. He will come.”

“Do you know him?” Katya asked, nervously. Again, the nervousness was right for the character. Of course, there was some true nervousness to it. Things were going wrong, which was always bad for a mission. The intermediary, Dmitri, and the primary, Georgi, had been carefully chosen. Georgi normally held his “girls” for a few weeks, setting up someone to move them to further down the line. He also was reputed to be easy with his girls’ time as long as they brought in a few rubles while they were waiting. Katya needed that time, and the freedom, if she was to have any chance of finding the target.

“No,” Dmitri replied. “He’s a sweetmeat vendor of all things. When Georgi died he bought all of his stock. He’s trying to unload it now, but is willing to buy some more.”

Katya didn’t bother to ask where a sweetmeat vendor got the money to buy a string of whores. Obviously he was more than a sweetmeat vendor.

Yaroslav, when he finally made it to the café, turned out to be a pig. The man was grossly obese. If she had to service him it was going to have to be from on top; the man would crush her otherwise. Short and at least two hundred kilos, maybe more. He wheezed his way across the café and collapsed in the chair, which creaked ominously, then leaned back, interlacing his fingers across the top of his huge belly.

“She is pretty,” Yaroslav wheezed. “But I already have too many girls. I cannot afford to pay more than a thousand euros… ”

Katya had gotten used to it a long time ago and now that it wasn’t, at some level, real it was easier. But it was never fun to be bartered over. Fucking men treated women like a piece of meat to be dickered over.

Finally a price of five thousand euros was settled on and Yaroslav hoisted himself to his feet.

“I will return with the money,” he wheezed, stopping to breathe deeply at the effort to get to his feet. “I of course don’t carry that much on me. I will return. Soon.”

“Well, if you decide to run you won’t have much trouble,” Dmitri said, bursting into laughter as soon as the door to the café shut.

It was much the same thing Katya had been thinking but she just shook her head.

“I won’t run,” she said with a shrug. “What do I have to run to?”

Besides, she had a mission to complete. There were men to screw over and, with luck, a few to kill. Why should she run?

* * *

“This is… where you… will be sleeping,” Yaroslav wheezed, gesturing at the room.

It wasn’t… yes it was. This was definitely the worst place she’d ever been bedded down in her long career as a whore. The stone building was one large room, about the size and general shape of the Keldara homes, but open and filled with beds lining the walls. The beds were springs, no mattresses, and the room was unheated. Cracks in the walls let in drafts that were virtually gales in themselves. The floor was packed dirt, so stained with unnamed fluids and garbage that it brought a new meaning to “dirt.”

Arguing or complaining had never gotten her anywhere, though.

“Is there a blanket?” she asked, meekly.

“I will try to find you one,” Yaroslav said. “I am doing this practically out of the goodness of my heart. When my good friend… Georgi died his ladies were left with no protector.” He paused to breathe deeply and wiped at his eyes as if there were tears. There weren’t. The pause indicated that he’d had to dredge the name of his “good friend” from unsure memory. If he wasn’t such a slob, Katya would have suspected him of offing a competitor just to buy up his stock at a discount. “It was from the goodness of my heart that I took you girls in. I will have no complaints as to the quality of the lodgings.”

“I’m not complaining,” Katya said, hastily. The man might be a pudge-monster, as the Kildar would put it, but he could still probably smack the hell out of her. And in her current cover, all she could do was try to move so it didn’t hurt too much. She’d have to take the punch with barely a flinch.

“All the other girls left yesterday,” Yaroslav said, puffing. “I had hoped to return to my simple life of a sweetmeat vendor. Then you were dropped on me. So you must make the best of it until I can find someone to take you on to Azerbaijan.” Pause. Wheeze. “There may be some blankets the girls left behind.” Pause. Wheeze. “Check the cupboard. I must return to my money-making ventures. I do not have time for this.”

“Yes, sir,” Katya replied. “Should I work?”

“Of course you should work!” Yaroslav thundered. “There is little enough money to be made in this town, I cannot afford idle hands, or pussies in your case. Get out there and make my money!”

“Yes, sir,” Katya said, smiling nervously. She so wanted to give this prick a heart attack.

“I may have another job for you, besides on your back,” Yaroslav admitted, more gently. “Not that it pays anything but nothing in this town does. The Chechens have a woman they are keeping. They, of course, cannot defile themselves with dealing with her. They had hired one of the girls to tend to her needs. Perhaps you can do that.”

Katya kept her face puzzled but let nothing else showed. But what went through her mind was: It can’t be that easy. There was only one girl that could possibly match that description. Surely she wasn’t being handed the fucking target on a platter.

* * *

It was that easy. Fuck.

It was Marina Arensky. From what Katya could see past the blindfold anyway. And the small scar on the chin was a dead give away.

The girl was tied to a chair, a padded one Katya noticed, blindfolded but not gagged. Nonetheless she was silent as if she had been gagged.

The men holding her weren’t Chechens, either. They were Russians and if she hadn’t been on this mission for a specific reason she would have wondered what Russians were doing in a Chechen held town. There were quite a few of them, too. The building was much larger than the barn for the girls with several rooms off a corridor. The doors of most of the rooms had been open as she and Yaroslav past and there were men, heavily armed, in all of them.

Marina was held in a room at the very back of the building. It backed on a rock wall; there was no entrance at the rear and no windows. Conceivably the assault team could come through the wall if they used enough explosives. That wasn’t for her to figure out, though. All she had to do was look around as they walked through and make sure the video was going to the, unfortunately small, memory chip installed in her skull.

“This is the new girl,” Yaroslav wheezed. “All my other girls I had to sell. I will sell this one as soon as I can. Then we are done.”

“We don’t need her for long,” the man said. He was a cold one, Katya could tell. About 175 centimeters, cold gray eyes, slim face. She ran through the dossiers she’d been shown and tried not to blanch. Kurt Schwenke, the former Stasi agent and terrorist. She was going to have to be very careful around this man. He was a trained agent which meant that anything she did out of character was going to give her away. She instantly decided she was going to switch roles as soon as Yaroslav was gone. Just enough that Schwenke would catch it. It was a fine line to run. She had to show her hard side without in any way making him think she was an agent.

“I go now,” Yaroslav said. “She will work for you. She is very biddable.”

After Yaroslav had waddled out of the room Schwenke walked around her, looking her up and down.

“Biddable?” the German finally scoffed. “Is he blind?”

“Most men are,” Katya said, coldly.

“I am not, bitch,” Schwenke stated, stopping in front of her and then slapping her, hard.

With the change in demeanor Katya could have, would have, avoided the slap as much as possible. She couldn’t have used a trained block, that would give too much away. But she could have lifted her arms, turned away, flinched, something.

If she’d had time. The man was faster than a snake. All she could do was spin away from the powerful slap and try to remain conscious.

She found herself on the floor, propping herself up with her hands and trying to breathe just before a boot crashed into her side.

“I am not,” Schwenke said, just as coldly. “So let us not play games, yes? What are you?”

“A whore,” Katya said, curled on her side. “I was born in an orphanage in Novy Birsk. I was raped by a man like you when I was eight. If I could press a button and kill every man on earth I would. But I know better than to cross you. Good enough?”

“Perhaps,” Schwenke said, kicking her. “And perhaps too pat. Why are you here?”

“Because I killed my last pimp,” Katya spat. “Veniamin was a bastard. But he has friends. He knew too many of the men in the Balkans trade and too many in Russia. If I stayed, I’d be as dead as the pig. Turkey, though, there I could disappear. So kill me or beat me or fuck me, I don’t care. But if you piss me off too much, you’d better kill me.”

Schwenke paused and then laughed. Shrilly.

“Better bitches than you have tried to kill me,” he said, still chortling. “But I like your spirit. Feel free to try. We can make a game of it, yes? You try to kill me, I try to kill you. Nothing obvious. Shooting you, beating you to death with a lead club, these would be too easy. Fun but too easy. Poison? Do you know poisons? I know thousands. Shall we play the poison game, bitch?”

“Teach me a few and I’ll gladly give you a blowjob that will curl your toes,” Katya said. It was pure honesty and that shown through.

“Perhaps,” Schwenke said. “Perhaps. But you would probably not enjoy bedding me. I am a master of pain.”

“I have been hurt,” Katya said. “Plenty of men have beaten me.”

“Who said anything about beating?” Schwenke asked. “I prefer to simply give them a little cocktail. That way they scream and scream in pain as a fuck them. Then the pain passes and they are so grateful. Until I brew the next cocktail. I make them watch as I prepare the syringe. They begin to scream before the needle even touches them. Would you like to scream?”

Katya was stunned. She’d run into some real bastards, absolute sadists, as pimps. But this guy was just fucking nuts. More around the bend, if possible, than Katya herself.

“I’ve screamed until I was hoarse, plenty of times,” Katya said. “But if you’d settle for fake screaming and just teach me your recipe, I promise you won’t know the difference.”

“Oh, but I would,” Kurt pouted. “But for my recipe, would you take my little cocktail? Voluntarily?”

“I don’t know,” Katya temporized. “How much am I getting paid? I’ll fuck you for the recipe. For the pain… seven hundred euros. And Yaroslav doesn’t find out. For that much pain I’m not going to cut in the pimp.”

“What a delightful child you are,” Schwenke said. “We’ll talk about it, yes? In the meantime, you’ve been hired for other reasons.”

“Who’s the bitch?” Katya asked. “Your newest playtoy?”

“No,” the German said. “Alas, I’m not permitted to play with her. Not as long as her father cooperates. She stays in the chair except for two exercise periods each day. That is when she craps or pisses or whatever. Her hands are never untied. Her feet are shackled whenever she is out of the chair. You have to feed her, get her to the latrine, get her on the pisser. The men are not permitted to talk to her. You will only talk to her as little as possible. If any of the men try to see her, to touch her or rape her, you will report it to me. They won’t, though. They know the penalty. They start with my little cocktails. At night she lies in the bed. She must be shackled then, as well. You will shackle her and then return to whatever pisshole you call home here. I will check to make sure they are tight. In the morning you return. If I am unsatisfied by the tightness of her bonds the night before we will have another little chat.”

“I won’t let her go,” Katya said, chuckling. “I’d just as soon watch her raped.”

“You don’t want to know why we are keeping her?” Schwenke asked.

“I assume for ransom,” Katya replied with a shrug.

“Ah, and such a ransom,” Schwenke said. “You will not ask her her name. If I find that you discover her identity, you will be killed. I may play with you first, but you will definitely be killed. She does not want you to be killed, I’m sure, so she won’t tell you. But if you piss her off enough, she can kill you by simply mentioning her name. She did so to one of the girls who was… unkind to her.”

“I will be kindness in itself,” Katya promised. “What if she is a problem?”

“Then bring it to me,” the ex-Stasi said. “Here you are, the two of you trapped like a proton circled by an electron. Unable to escape each other short of the death of either. Or, of course, she being moved on. So I would suggest that, despite your nature, you become the very best of friends.”

* * *

“Hello, ladies,” Mike said, looking around the room. “Thanks for staying up until the middle of the night to meet with me.”

“You are very busy, Kildar,” Mother Ferani said. “We are at your disposal.”

“Here is the situation,” Mike said, gesturing at the pile of recently received steerable chutes. “As you know, a team is being inserted by advanced parachute techniques to set up a radio center. I’ve got all I can do just training them to minimal standards. And we all want Julia, Olga, Jeseph, Ivan and Pat well trained. But that will require that, towards the end of training, they do multiple jumps per day. The Master Chief and I are the only qualified parachute packers in the area. I won’t have the time to pack thirty chutes a day. That’s the six of us doing five jumps per day, which is what I’m shooting for. Sombody is going to have to pack the chutes.”

“Us,” Mother Ferani said, her eyes wide.

“Yes,” Mike replied, simply. “These days either specialized members of the military who use the chutes, riggers they’re called, or the users themselves generally pack the chutes. Because the very lives of the users depend upon them being packed right. On the other hand, I don’t have the time to train the team on HALO and packing. Nor do they have the time do do their own packing even if I did.

“However, four of the Six Families are represented on the jump. And a mother, sister or cousin of each of the team members is represented here. If they cannot trust their own mother, sister or cousin, who can they trust? Anyone who really feels they are not prepared to hold the lives of their son, brother or cousin in their hands after this training can opt out. There are actually about twice as many of you as I need. There’s a reason for that too, but I won’t get into it. However, if you don’t think you want that responsibility, you can opt out. After you’re trained.”

“Very well, Kildar,” Mother Ferani said. “We are at your command in things such as this. And I find it to be an honor.”

“Great,” Mike said, tiredly. “Let’s get started. But just one thing I’ll add: It’s pretty apparent that the Keldara are going to get used for more and more ‘special’ missions. And the Keldara don’t seem to mind, even when there are losses. So it makes sense to make sure they’re all as prepared as possible… ”

“You’re going to extend the training,” Liza Mahona said from the group.

“After this mission is over I’m going to institute unit-wide training in airborne and HALO techniques,” Mike said with a nod. “We’ll work on SCUBA later.”

“What is SCUBA?”

Chapter Seventeen

Kacey yanked back the door of the Blackhawk and stepped out fast, carrying her flight bag in one hand and a carry-on in the other. Tammie, similarly encumbered, followed fast behind but paused to wave to the crew-chief and slide the door shut.

Their greeting party was a middle height man dressed in casual clothes, more or less ignoring the rotor wash, and a bigger guy that had a look that Kacey somehow tagged as ” local” wearing a digi-cam pattern she’d never seen before. The guy in digicam was wearing a sidearm of some sort in fast-draw holster. It might have been an H K USP, but Kacey wasn’t enough of an expert in side-arms to be sure. The odd thing about the local took a second to sink in: he was so damned good looking it was scary. He looked like he could have stepped off a Hollywood set but she was sure he was a local.

The landing area was a farm in a valley just about surrounded by really high mountains, pretty prosperous with some new tractors working the fields and an SUV or two in sight. But the houses looked pretty much like the ones she’d seen in the Kurdish area in Iraq: dressed stone and slate roofs. They looked like they might have electricity.

“Captain Bathlick?” the casually dressed man asked. “I’m Mike Jenkins. Thanks for coming out here just to talk.”

Up close it was clear that, while casual, the clothes were not cheap. The black comfortable shoes had that look that said “Italian leather”, the pants were exquisite and the golf shirt looked as if it was silk. He’d fit right in at a Palm Beach golf-course. But just as she thought that she heard a crackle of gunfire over the sound of the spooling up rotors. It was the crackle that said “ranges” though, to her ear, not “firefight.”

“That would be me,” Kacey replied, setting down her case to shake his hand. The local immediately grabbed it and the nearly matching one from Tammie and trotted over to the waiting Expedition. Jenkins quickly shook Tammie’s hand as well and then gestured at the Expedition.

“Let’s get out of the rotor wash,” Mr. Jenkins yelled, heading for the SUV. He got in the driver seat after waving them to the back. Once they were in he turned around and grinned. “Welcome to Never Never Land. I’d give you the cook’s tour, but I’m pressed for time. We’ll talk then you can tell me to stuff it or look around and make up your mind.”

“Can we get a vague idea what we’re here for?” Tammie asked.

“I’ve been asked, as a favor, to do something for the US government. And the government of Russia. And the government of Georgia.” Mr. Jenkins put the SUV in gear and headed up towards the road. It was only then that Kacey noticed what could only be described as a Turkish castle straight out of Arabian Nights up on the ridgeline. “To do that favor, I need at least two helicopter pilots. The rest can, has to, wait.”

“The US, Russia and Georgia?” Kacey asked, leaning back in her seat and looking around. Most of the people in the valley were in “local” clothing but here and there there were more people in digicam. A couple were carrying sub-guns, M4s, on friction rigs. Most of them Kacey still tagged as “locals” but a couple had a look that she knew made them Western military. Not sure how to say the difference but it was there. But they clearly weren’t an SF team, they looked more like “security specialists.” What in the fuck was going on? “I guess we should at least stick around long enough to find out why.”

“Oh, yeah,” Mr. Jenkins said, opening up the center compartment and pulling out two envelopes. “Your ‘I’m willing to travel’ money.” He held the two envelopes over his shoulder as he steered onto a winding road that looked damned near vertical.

Kacey quickly snatched the envelopes so he’d have his hands free to drive and handed one to Tammie. She didn’t want to count it, it seemed rude, but it sure felt like what five thousand dollars should feel like. It was heavy. Bills could be paid and that was good. Whatever came from the “interview.” It sounded like Jenkins would be willing to hire anyone who could fly. That meant they’d have to be interviewing him.

The castle turned out to be their destination. There was a curtain wall with some really huge doors on the gate and an interior keep, she’d guess that was what it was, that had been converted into a house. Again, it looked really Turkish, Ottoman was probably the right term. It had a couple of little towers like minarets on it at least.

“In case you’re wondering, this is my house,” Mr. Jenkins said. “And farm. The people who work the farm are called the Keldara. The full explanation of the Keldara is a long discussion. We’ll have to shelve that one, too, for the time being. If you’ll follow me, your bags will be taken to your rooms.”

“We’d like to keep our flight bags with us,” Kacey said, uneasily.

“If it makes you comfortable,” Mr. Jenkins said, smiling. “But they’re only going to your room. Whether you take the job or not you’ll probably prefer to stay overnight.”

“Okay,” Tammie said, handing over her flight-bag with a shrug. She still had a purse. “Lead on.”

Kacey gave up her flight-bag somewhat more reluctantly but then followed the two into the house.

The first thing she noticed wasn’t the décor, it was the women. There were three rather good looking teenage females in school uniforms in the front room of the castle. All three popped to their feet as Mr. Jenkins walked in and giggled then one gabbled at him in what was probably the local language.

Jenkins replied shortly, but in a friendly tone, then turned to Tammie and Kacey.

“These young ladies are Tinata, Lida and Klavdiya. They would like to make your acquaintance.”

“Of course,” Tammie said, grinning and walking over to shake hands. “Hello.”

“Hello, I am pleased to meet you,” one of the girls said, very slowly in English.

“Thank you,” Tammie said, nearly as slowly. “I am please to meet you, too. What is your name?”

“I am Klavdiya,” the girl said carefully.

“Hello, Klavdiya,” Tammie said, smiling. “I am Tammie.”

Mr. Jenkins said something briefly in the other language and the girls then cut the greeting shorter. When the ritual was all over, he waved the two pilots towards the back of the castle.

“To be brutally honest, the girls are members of my harem,” Jenkins said without looking over his shoulder to gauge their reaction. “And, no, none of them are over eighteen. The story of how I ended up with a harem will… ”

“Have to wait,” Kacey said, snorting. “I can tell there are a lot of stories here. But if you’re trying to shock me, or Tammie, we’re pretty much unshockable.”

“Good,” Jenkins said, reaching a heavy wooden door and gesturing them into the room. It was set up as an office but there were no windows and only the one door. The first word that came to Kacey’s mind was “cozy.” There was a nice fireplace, currrently unlit, on one wall. The second word that came to mind, though, was “secure.” Bugging it would be hell except maybe through the fireplace. There was a couch and three overstuffed chairs arranged on one side in a “seating area” a desk and advanced desk chair. No filing cabinets, though. Mr. Jenkins grabbed one of the overstuffed chairs and swung it around so he could face the couch and waved them to it. “Sit, please. I know you’ve been doing a lot of sitting, but I’ve got to go back to teaching HALO as fast as I can and I’d like to get this over with.”

“And that’s another one that begs the question ‘what is going on?’ ” Tammie said.

“Before I get to that, I need to lay out a few ground rules,” Mr. Jenkins said. “Obviously what I do isn’t covered by US security regs. So I can’t throw that at you. But if you’re going to talk, in the military or out, you talk. From what I’ve been told, you’re very good at keeping your mouths shut. It’s one of the requirements I laid on the people I set to finding me some pilots. I didn’t expect females, frankly, but I don’t really care, either. I’ve got females going much more in harm’s way than you’ll be. I’ve got a green intel team that’s going to be doing their cherry combat drop with nothing but green jumpers on their team into nasty terrain in the middle of absolute Injun Country. Two of them are female. So you can see that I don’t hold your sex against you. I’ll use whatever tools come to hand. In this case it is, potentially, you two.”

“We don’t talk,” Kacey said. “But I take it the US government doesn’t want this talked about, either?”

“Not a bit,” Mr. Jenkins said, leaning back. “This is as black as it comes. So black they can’t even use their black ops boys. The term is ‘deniability.’ I don’t work for the US government, they just occasionally let me know about issues that need attending to. If I successfully attend to them, I get some money from that.”

“Enough to maintain your own army,” Tammie said with a snort.

“Enough to train, build and so far maintain it,” Mr. Jenkins said with a slight grin. “So far.”

“That’s expensive,” Kacey said, regarding him closely. “So are helicopters and pilots.”

“I only get called in on very expensive operations,” Jenkins said with a shrug then leaned forward and locked his eyes on first Tammie’s eyes and then hers. “So here is the deal. I have to take my team into Injun Country, which is surprisingly close but also very hard to get to. I have helo transport for part of the trip but for political reasons that is as far as it can go. Once in Injun Country I’m going to need helo support. I’m going to definitely need evac for two people of interest. I’m probably, almost certainly, going to need dust-off and probably resupply. The LZs might be warm, they might be unknown or they might be hot. I’m going to need pilots who really don’t give a rat’s ass; they’re going into the LZ if they’re asked. I don’t say ‘told to’ I say ‘asked.’ If one of my teams is on the horn screaming for ammo or dust-off, I need pilots who are going to be willing to take the same risks as the rest of us. I need pilots who have balls, in your case ovaries, the size of mountains. Because every single person I’ve got has those size balls or ovaries. And because otherwise, well, I hope it was a nice trip but you don’t want to be associated with me.”

“Okay,” Tammie said, half wonderingly. “That’s an interesting proposition.”

“I hate to ask this,” Kacey said. “But I was raised to be practical… ”

“I’d like you as permanent, or semi-permanent anyway, additions,” Jenkins said, leaning back again. “The vig is two-hundred fifty grand per year and combat bonuses. The bonus on this mission is fifty grand. If you don’t make it, a half a mil goes to your beneficiaries. And let me be clear, there is a chance you won’t be around to spend the money. There is a chance that I won’t be around but there are other people to cut the checks.”

“You’re going on this op?” Tammie asked, still with that vague sense of wonder in her voice. Kacey could comprehend it; she felt like she’d stepped through the looking glass ever since the visit from Major Stang.

“This mission is tight any way you look at it,” Jenkins said, shrugging. “I’m taking everyone I’ve got, including me. It’s… very hairy. This area is going to be secured by a Ranger company in our absence.”

“Well, the money’s right,” Kacey said, shaking her head. “But you’ve really got to work on your sales pitch.”

“I’m not out to pitch you,” Jenkins said, shrugging. “I want you here because you want to be here, because you love flying, because you love flying right at the edge of your ability and are hard, cold motherfucker combat fliers. I was told that was what you were, that you bitched unmercifully when the Marines pulled both of you off line duty and that you’d had serious experience in hot, hard, nasty flying conditions so you knew what you were going to be missing. I need that. But I don’t want you here if you’ve lost that edge or you’re not really what you seem.”

“Well, we both ditched a bird in the Carribean and that was about as hot, hard and nasty an operation as you could ask for,” Tammie said with a chuckle. “I’ll add that the bird going down really wasn’t our fault. There were… extenuating circumstances.”

“Oh, crap,” Jenkins said, really leaning back and then grinning, hard. “Wait, were the extenuating circumstances a nuclear blast?”

“I can neither confirm nor deny… ” Kacey started to say and then really looked at him. “Oh my Fucking God.”

“I said I get paid well,” Mr. Jenkins said with a grin. “And that’s because I usually get my ass shot off and I’m very attached to it.”

“That was you,” Tammie said, really grinning now. “I figured you for dead; I’ve only seen that much blood one other time and that guy didn’t make it even with a medic and a defibrillator in the bird. He wasn’t unconscious and strapped into the seat of a cigarette boat.”

“I’m a hard person to kill,” Jenkins replied. “As any number of dead people can attest. I’ll go ahead and add, since it’s really germane and I’ve got to trust such sterling characters as yourself, that we’re on the same track. Three or four Russian nukes. They’re being traded to the terrorists, through the Chechens, for a sizeable sum. We have a location and time of the transfer. But it’s right in Chechen territory. There’s also a scientist, probably working under duress, involved. We need to get the nukes, the scientist and his daughter out, all in more or less functioning order. And, of course, this time keep them from detonating. I’ve got a hundred and twenty shooters and the Chechens have about four hundred, that we know about, in the area. From your POV, they have heavy machine-guns, 12.7 milimeter and possibly some MANPADs. No solid evidence on the MANPADs but it’s the way to bet.”

“That is kind of adverse,” Tammie said, shaking her head. “Blackhawks will take a fair amount of damage, but not a whole hell of a lot, trust me.”

“Oh, that’s one thing I forgot,” Jenkins said. “We’re not using Hawks, we’re using Hinds. That’s why you were chosen. You both did a transition stint with the 6th SOS. Frankly, I was delighted to get someone Hind qualified.”

The 6th SOS was a multi-service squadron under Air Force control that flew several non-US helicopter systems, including the Hind-D a Russian attack helicopter. Unlike US attack helicopters, however, it had a crew/cargo area in the rear that could carry five personnel plus a crew-chief or be reconfigured for aerial-ambulance duty. The Hind was heavily armored and generally referred to as a “flying tank.” During the Afghan wars the quote used about the Hind by the mujaheddin was “We do not fear the Russians, but we fear their helicopters.”

Kacey started to reply and then couldn’t help bursting into a half hysterical laugh.


“I’m getting Hinds,” Jenkins said with a shrug. “They’re cheaper than Hawks, more robust and I can get them, fast. Two birds are being retrofitted in Czechoslovakia, sorry, ‘The Czech Republic’ at the moment for high altitude conditions. If you agree, and I’ll give you the rest of the day to think it over, you’re on a plane tomorrow for the CR. You’ll go to the factory, refresh and then, in the company of a couple of the company’s pilots, ferry them back here. That will give you just enough time to brief in on the details of the op, get used to the local flying conditions and then do the op. We’re on short time here.”

“Look, you already said this was going to be tough flying,” Tammie said, exasperated. “And you’re talking about birds we’ve got no time in! We transitioned two years ago! I can barely recall where the controls are laid out!”

“You’re going to be ferrying them over a thousand miles,” Jenkins said, shrugging. “Practice.”

“There’s… ” Kacey said then paused. “We’ll have to think about this. But there are a few things that any helo pilot is going to need in this sort of situation.”

“Go,” Mike said, leaning back.

Kacey suddenly realized that despite the strong appearance of focus and animation this guy was tired. Desperately tired. He didn’t show it much, but something about the way he leaned back told her he hadn’t been getting much sleep lately.

“We need ground crew,” Kacey said.

“The Czechs are supplying a crew initially,” Mike said, nodding. “I’m not sure if they can teach the Keldara women everything they need to know. They’re going to be very much starting from scratch and I’m even running out of labor on that side. I may end up hiring some outside personnel. But for this mission you’re going to have a supplied Czech ground-crew, the team leader at least speaking good English.”

“Well we’re going to need a good crewchief,” Kacey said. “What the Air Force calls a flight engineer. Somebody familiar with the birds. More familiar than we are would be best.”

“That’s going to be harder,” Mike said with a sigh. “If you know anybody hireable I’ll hire them, gladly. And if you can’t find somebody, if I have to I’ll tap the Uncle Sam well again. I’d prefer you find them. If you take the job and head to CR you’ll be taking a sat phone. Feel free to use it extensively. Get two. You realize that it might become necessary to solo fly on one or more missions.”

“Solo,” Tammie said. “On a hot mission?”

“Two birds, two pilots,” Mike said, stone-faced. “But I won’t tell you to. If the moment comes you’ll just do it. Or I’ve got the wrong pilots.”

* * *


“Colonel, this is Major Fowler in USAF Missions Tasking.”

“Go,” Pierson said with a sigh.

“Sir, your office has placed a tasking on us for two C-17s to loft a Ranger company to the country of Georgia and perform an airborne insertion.”

“And we’ve got a high level tasking number on it,” Pierson said. “What’s the problem.”

“The problem, sir, is that we’re flat out of birds for that period,” the major replied. “Sir, you can go through a general or the USAF Chief of Staff or the president, but the problem is that the tasker is in too quick of time. We don’t have birds we can redeploy that fast that aren’t on equal high level taskers.”

“Major, that was a JCS level tasker,” Pierson said, confused.

“Sir, you can look at my board if you’d like,” the major said. “We shot this around for quite a while because it was such a high tasker. But you’re talking about six day’s time and most of our -17s are deployed over in the AOR. And if we turn two birds we’re going to fail on equally high-level taskers. Sir, we’re scheduled out two months not two weeks. Bitch about not having enough lift or whatever you’d like, sir, I fully agree. But we’re out-tasked at the moment. The only birds we could recall would be on the Azerbaijan relief missions and I note that you’ve already taskered one of our birds from that.”

“Time to pound your nuts flat and find me two birds,” the colonel said.

“Sir, I already got out the brick,” the major said with a sigh. “You’re not the first person I’ve had this conversation with today, just the highest tasker. We did come up with an OTB idea, though.”

Pierson, who thought of himself as a master, even if he hated to admit it, of Pentagon speak locked up on “OTB” then managed to parse it. “How ‘Out-of-the-Box?’ ”

“Sir, we can fly them commercial to Ukraine. The Ukrainians finally have those new AN-70s which are essentially identical to C-130s from a jumper’s perspective. They fly and drop about the same, they just carry a bunch more troops.”

Pierson rolled that one around in his head for a moment. It had a certain allure but a dozen problems jumped up immediately in his mind.

“Ukraine is registered as a friendly country, not allied,” Pierson said, musingly. “They’re going to want to get paid for the bird time.”

“There’s a coding for payments for air-time to friendly nations,” Major Fowler replied. “We already checked. The problem from our perspective is that their aircraft aren’t mission certified. The AF mil attache in Ukraine is a former cargo pilot. I contacted him off-record and he says that he’s seen enough of their ops to be able to do a prelim cert but he’s not he could full cert them for airborne ops. He doesn’t have a problem with them being able to do airborne ops, the cert paperwork is pretty complex, though. There’s a way around that, though.”

“Don’t keep me waiting, major,” Pierson said, dryly.

“For TS ops, and I note that this op has has a codeword class over the confidential attached to the op, there’s a point at which we can skip the cert requirement due to mission confidentiality.”

“That sounds like following the letter while violating the spirit,” Pierson said. “I like it.”

“Yes, sir, I thought you might,” the major replied with a chuckle. “But here’s a stranger one, sir. Brace yourself.”


“How about a press release? ‘Elite US military force uses Ukrainian Air Force for training operation.’ ”

“Major, you just noted that this operation is TS codeword,” Pierson pointed out.

“The drop, though, is Confidential. We can get low-level permission to open it to the PIO with certain mission data left out. We think it would be good press and the Ukrainian government would probably appreciate it. They’ve got problems with Russia and showing that their planes can carry American special-ops… ”

Pierson really had to pause at that one. The major in tasking didn’t realize, because that side of the mission was totally black at a very high level, to just what extent it might tweak the Russians.

“Major, begin the tasking but final authority is probably going to have to come after consultation with higher,” Pierson said after a moment’s thought. “Certainly the press release will have to hold. I’ll get back to you. But get working on the tasking and I’ll get back on the rest.”

“Yes, sir,” the major said, deflated. He clearly was enjoying playing at that level.

“Major, I’m not just being an asshole,” Pierson said. “There are parameters to this mission, the reasons that it is codeworded at such a high level, that may be risked at a higher level by some of these actions. The truth is, I’m not qualified or knowledgeable enough to decide. But I can contact those that can better eval the risks and rewards.”

* * *

“They want to do what?” the Secretary of State said.

“Mike needs the Rangers to ensure security and for a maskirova,” Pierson said, sighing. “Rangers or somebody like them. I’d actually considered Polish GROM commandoes, but that was just too complicated to set up. So the Rangers are going. But then SOCOM noted that the entire company is just about out of jump pay status due to deployments, one of the reasons they’re back in the States besides to get some down-time. So we were going to throw a jump in as a sweetener and to keep them on status. But we are tasked out for birds. I double checked that one and we really are flat tasked out. There are actually a couple of ARNG units we could call up for it, but they’re out of cert on airborne ops and damned near undeployable or they’d be tasked. So that left looking outside the box. Which means the Ukrainians. They have indicated a willingness, hell an eagerness, to do a drop with our Rangers. But then I got to thinking about how the Russians would react, given what the op is all about… ”

“Vladimir Putin is going to be livid,” the Secretary of State said. “We’ve been tredding very carefully on military contact with the Ukrainians because the situation is so delicate. And this jumps right past half a dozen normal steps. The press release… Brilliant. Just brilliant.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Pierson sighed. “We’ll just fly them commercial to Tblisi, then. Mike has ammo; they can draw on him. The mission won’t be all that long and by the time they’re on their way back we’ll probably have taskable birds so they can get their jump in… ”

“Colonel, at what point did I indicate that I don’t want Vladimir Putin livid?” the SecState asked. “You were right to bring this to my attention. Here’s what we’ll do… ”

Chapter Eighteen

As soon as the door closed to the office, Kacey shook her head.

“That man is insane,” she muttered. “Totally, completely and utterly insane.”

“Yep,” Tammie said, still in that strange voice. “So insane that he’d swim ashore on an island overrun by terrorists, kill them all and still come rescue us and the Marines with a boat. Even though he looked like a colander at the time.”

“Sure, but that doesn’t mean I want to attach myself to his coat-strings,” Kacey said, biting her lip. “I mean, he survives but what about the body count around him. Doing this sort of shit for SAR, with FAST, that’s one thing. God and country and all that. But we’re doing it for money, Tams. Is that worth getting our ass shot off?”

“Okay, great,” Tammie said. “We say ‘No thanks’ take our showing up bonus and head back to the States. Wait on one of our many solicitous phone calls. Eat high until the money runs out and then get a job at the 7/11. What are we waiting for? Sounds great. Get a cat.”

“Very funny.” Kacey was allergic. “I’m serious, Tammie. This is serious. I mean, so we don’t get a flying job. We’re both Naval Academy graduates. We don’t have to work at the 7/11.”

“Sure,” Tammie said, her eyes wide. “You’ve got a creative writing degree, I’ve got one in English lit. You write them and I’ll critique them and we’ll make a mint.”

“Oh, God,” Kacey groaned. “The guy’s obviously American military of some sort, although you notice he didn’t mention what sort. But if he’s got a harem, he’s bound to have a bar. We’ll find it. You get drunk. I’ll watch.”

“I’d rather check this place out,” Tammie said. “It’s really cool.”

“You’re in love,” Kacey said. “Mystery and romance and castles in the sky. As always, I’ve got to keep you grounded.”

“Which is just what we’re both going to be if we don’t take the gig,” Tammie pointed out, walking down the corridor. “First we find the harem girls. They’ll lead us to somebody who speaks English. I mean, they’ve been taking classes.”

“Pillow classes,” Kacey snorted but she followed.

When they got to the front room, though, the cluster of girls had disappeared. Tammie was standing with her hands on her hips when the front door opened and a big bald guy in digicam, clearly directly off the range from the smell, stepped into the area and paused, looking them over.

“Oh, Christ, not more harem girls,” the man muttered in an annoyed tone. “That boy’s got a serious problem.”

“Fuck you, asshole,” Kacey snapped back.

“We’re not harem girls,” Tammie replied at the same time. “We’re pilots.”

“Pilots?” the man said, his eyes flying wide in joy. “We’ve got pilots? Halle-fucking-leuia! We’ve got PILOTS!”

“Not yet,” Kacey said, angrily. She was still pissed about the Harem Girl crack. She also wanted to know more about the “harem.” She was hoping, at a certain level, that it was a joke but she suspected it wasn’t. “We’re still considering it. Carefully.”

“Oh, well, in that case you definitely want the job,” the guy said, fullsomely. “The living conditions are great, the food’s excellent, the beer’s outstanding and the pay is awesome. What more could you ask?”

“I don’t drink,” Kacey said. “And a guarantee that we’ll survive would be nice.”

“Nope, can’t do that one,” the guy admitted. “Can’t guarantee I’ll survive. But the missions are worth it and the people are top-notch. If you end up taking the Valkyrie ride you’ll be in plenty of bad company. We will guarantee that.”

As he said that a side door opened and an absolutely beautiful woman walked into the foyer. Kacey wasn’t kinked that way but she knew fucking beautiful when she saw it. Neither she nor Tammie were slouches in the looks department, but this lady put them both to shame. She looked like a supermodel. Blonde, blue eyes, low to mid-twenties, stacked and an absolutely gorgeous face. She was wearing a lot of make-up but so artfully applied it looked almost as if she wasn’t wearing any. Blue, probably silk again, pant-suit that looked as if it was a Paris original. And graceful as hell. Probably Russian at a guess, definitely not American. She reminded Kacey of a young duchess character in an old movie. The lady had that look about her, like Zha Zha Gabor when she was young.

“Master Chief,” the woman said, nodding. “I see you have met our visitors.” Her English was impeccable but there was a definite slavic accent. “I zee you haff met our vizeetors.”

“Christ, I hope they’re not just visitors,” the “master chief” grunted. “We are screwed without pilots.”

“We’re still considering,” Tammie said, much more gently than Kacey. “And we haven’t been introduced.”

“Ah, this is my fault,” the woman replied. “I was supposed to be your tour guide but I expected your meeting to be longer. I am Anastasia Rakovich, the Kildar’s administrative manager. This is Master Chief Adams, late of the United States Navy Sea Air and Land commandoes, the Kildar’s field tactical manager. Master Chief Adams, Captains Bathlick and Wilson, late of the United States Marine Corps.”

“Who’s the Kildar?” Tammie said at the same time as Kacey said: “SEALs?” and Adams said: “You’re Marines?”

“I am given to understand that they have combat experience with the United States Marine Corps,” Anastasia said, answering the Master Chief first. “The Kildar is Mr. Jenkins. It is his title. I will explain. And, yes, Master Chief Adams is a former SEAL as they say. I understand that ‘ex’ is looked upon poorly.”

“Yeah, we’ve got experience,” Tammie said with a snort. “We pulled your boss out of the drink one time. Or… Well, he sort of pulled us… It’s complicated.”

“You’re the two that crashed that helo in the Carib,” Adams said with a snort. “Oh. Great. I take it all back.”

“We took a short range EMP blast you moron,” Kacey snapped. “What the fuck were we supposed to do without God damned engines? We were lucky to set it down light enough most of the FAST made it off!”

“I was yanking your chain,” Adams said evenly. “Anybody that’s willing to fly towards an LZ that has an active nuke on it gets my vote. You guys want a beer?”

“I’d prefer tequila,” Tammie said, happily. “But I’ll settle for beer.”

“This isn’t beer you settle for,” Adams said. “This is beer you kill for.”

“I was going to show them around, first,” Anastasia pointed out.

“I’d say take the cook’s tour,” Adams admitted. “This is a pretty interesting place. And I really need a shower. To answer your unspoken question, Anastasia, no, it is not going well. I think that Shota’s mother dropped him on his head as a baby. I asked her, point blank, if she had and she said she had not. But apparently he had a hard time finding his way out when he was birthed, so maybe it’s pre-natal.”

“You asked a woman if she’d dropped her son on his head?” Tammie asked, amazed.

“Yeah, but you’d have to understand the set-up here,” Adams said. “It wasn’t even a particularly unexpected question. Shota’s well known among the Keldara. Big as an ox and just about as dumb. Really good shot with a Carl Gustav, though. I think I need to just switch him out but if I can get him to learn to count as high as five he’ll be awesome for door-kicking. I mean, he’d kick down a bank vault. But, God, he’s dumb.”

“Well, we’ll go take the cook’s tour,” Tammie said, “while you’re having a shower. Then I’ll get you drunk and pry all your secrets out of you.”

“The day a woman can out-drink me I’ll turn in my trident,” Adams said, chuckling but then his face cleared. “Except this one bartender at Danny’s. But that girl was a fucking pro. I saw her drink a whole platoon under the table one time. That’s a professional. Admittedly, one without a functioning liver, but a pro nonetheless. You guys go take the cook’s tour, I’m gonna go grab a shower and try to figure out a way to teach Shota to count as high as five. I mean, if they can teach monkeys sign language, I should be able to teach him to count to five for fuck’s sake. Maybe a little rhyme or an advertising jingle… ”

The former SEAL wandered off, muttering.

“Where would you like to start?” Anastasia asked, lightly. “Or are you fatigued from your trip? You could rest. Jet lag is very debilitating.”

“I don’t, honestly, know what time my body thinks it is,” Tammie replied. “This is an interesting place. Ottoman?”

“The caravanserai was extensively renovated by the Ottomans, yes,” Anastasia said, walking over to one of the carved buttresses that held up the ceiling of the room. “But the original work is believed to be from the period of the Byzantine Empire. These buttresses have faint markings that are indicative of Byzantine construction. You see here the faint indications of lacework patterning which is a Byzantine motif and the gouged out portions were probably crosses which the Ottomans, or other Islamics, removed. And much of the lower stone-work shows similar signs in that it is very similar to Roman construction, which the Byzantines used extensively for their castellation. The serai was probably rebuilt at least once under the Byzantines. The next clear work is Ottoman but the period between those two holders, probably close to a thousand years, is unclear.”

“Oh,” Kacey said, looking at the patterns. Lace did seem to fit the bill. She’d have to take the manager’s word on that being “indicative of Byzantine construction.” She knew about zero about architecture and not much more about the Byzantine empire. “I’ve got one question. No, I’ve got a billion questions. Could you start at the beginning?”

“In the beginning was the Word,” Anastasia said, lightly. “But I think you mean something closer in time. Let us sit, this will be somewhat long.”

“Good,” Tammie said. “I could do with some ground-work here. I’m pretty confused.”

“A moment,” Anastasia said and disappeared through the door she’d entered by. After a moment she came back out with another young lady who walked off in the opposite direction. This one was really young, 14 if she was a day and wearing the same “school-girl” outfit as the harem girls. Which raised other questions. The earlier girls had been… okay, “old enough.” Not old enough in the States to be fucking a guy in his thirties, but “old enough” for a developing country, whatever the liberals at home would wish. That one looked as if she should be playing with dolls. “Martya will bring some drinks. I wasn’t sure what you’d like so we’ll have tea and if that doesn’t suit your tastes there are others.”

“We can get it ourselves,” Tammie protested.

“You could and in some conditions you will,” Anastasia said, nodding. “But there are servants in the house for a reason. I will try to inform you, brief you, sufficiently that you can have a firm overview of what you are potentially joining. That will take time. If you are fetching drinks that interferes. When you are entirely free with your time you can choose to fetch or be fetched. But the servants are there for a reason. The Kildar does not have time to get drinks for himself, cook for himself, do his laundry. His time is much better spent managing the resources of the Valley or, as he puts it, ‘killing people and breaking things.’ This is, among other things, what pays for our surroundings. The girls are in free-study at the moment and, thus, not particularly busy. I asked which of them was least busy and Martya said she was. Given that she is intelligent and quick at her studies, she could be bored trying to act like she was studying or fetch us a drink. Which is the better use of her time?”

“You just used up more time explaining that than I would have getting myself a Coke,” Tammie pointed out as Martya reappeared, accompanied by an older woman, bearing a couple of trays.

“Yes, but it is part of your briefing,” Anastasia replied. “I hope you enjoy tea. Since we were taking this time to be acquainted I asked Mother Griffina to prepare tea.”

“Tea” turned out to be in the English manner, which mean a hearty snack as well as the drink. There were croissants, scones and various other baked delicacies to accompany. The total covered the table.

“Pour, Martya,” Anastasia said, sitting back in her chair.

“Miss Bathlick? Cream or sugar?” Martya said, carefully but clearly.

“Sugar,” Kacey said, blinking. She’d been practically dragged to the airport, cleared customs without a visa, thrown into a Blackhawk piloted by a local and now she was having an English tea in an Ottoman caravanserai, complete with harem. It was a bit much to take. “Two lumps.”

Martya picked up the lumps with a pair of silver tongs, placed them in the cup then poured tea in, placed a small spoon on the saucer and handed the whole collection to Kacey. The movements had been as smooth as a dance, clearly practiced.

“Miss Wilson? Cream or sugar?”

“Sugar,” Tammie answered, smiling. “Two lumps.” She paused and then glanced at Kacey before blurting. “And cream!”

Kacey tried not to chuckle. Tammie was the health nut of the two of them, at least in certain ways. Kacey didn’t drink and Tammie did which was one divergence. The other was that it was Tammie who had the big sweet tooth, not to mention things like cream in her coffee and tea. At least in part to make up for it, Tammie was always pushing vitamins and, otherwise, healthy eating.

“Miss Rakovich? Cream or sugar?”

“Both, please,” Anastasia said. It was clear that Martya knew her preferences, she’d already been reaching for the tongs, but just as clear that you weren’t permitted to assume in this particular dance. Kacey suspected that at a later time, Anastasia was going to grade Martya on her performance.

Kacey realized as she watched that Anastasia never wasted a chance. Martya, who was “intelligent and quick at her studies” was being given an opportunity to hear English being used in casual dialogue and practice her social skills. And she and Tammie were being presented by a remarkably calm and well balanced teenager who was, nonetheless, a member of a fucking harem. Two birds, maybe more, with one stone. Talk about a fucking pro.

Then she really thought about it. Adams was the classic SEAL master chief, a total pro at “killing people and breaking things.” They didn’t have to “ooh-rah!” about their time in service; they just had to say “I’m a SEAL Master Chief.” Pro. The men she’d seen in uniform weren’t swaggering around with their guns. They were clearly on some mission with a purpose. They might not be pros, yet, but they were going there with a purpose. And “Jenkins”, if that was his real name, well he was a guy who had walked onto an island with over thirty armed terrorists holding it, walked off it having killed every one and survived the resulting nuclear blast. Pro.

She suddenly let out a mental breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. She was dealing with professionals. Experts. Since she’d gotten out of the military, and most of the time in the Marines, she’d had so little opportunity to deal with really expert professionals she hadn’t realized how much she’d missed it. And this harum-scarum hiring procedure had scared something deep in her soul, because it didn’t seem professional. But the whole movement had been greased. She and Tammie had moved from one prepared position to the other. She wasn’t even sure what the visa entry requirements were for Georgia; there had been a polite man at the airport who had whisked them past customs and into a car, driven by a polite and professional English-speaking driver that had the look of “distinguised persons protection” all over him. That driver had brought them to the bird which was flown by guys who, while not at her and Tammie’s level, were good, competent, bird drivers.

It also said something about their being hired. If that was the caliber of people that “Jenkins”, the “Kildar”, surrounded himself with, then he obviously considered them in the same league. That was actually a bit daunting, but she wouldn’t be a pilot if she really was challenged by it. She knew she was a fucking pro. And so was Tammie. It would be nice to work with competent people again.

The dying part would suck, admittedly, but she’d just have to make sure she didn’t.

“Now that we are settled,” Anastasia said, “I will tell you a bedtime story, yes? It is the story of how the Kildar came to be the Kildar.”

“I’d assumed he was knighted or something,” Tammie said, smiling at the small joke.

“No, he simply bought the farm,” Anastasia said, smiling in turn. “The idiom has been explained to me, yes? It is a euphemism for dying. What happened was that he got lost. Very simple, no? And he found the Valley of the Keldara. He was looking at possibly being caught here all winter; the snows are very bad and the roads… not so good. So he inquired about some place to stay. There were no rooms for let so it was suggested that he consider buying the farm of the Keldara. That was a large item, but he did so. I have never asked him why, but he bought the farm.”

“Which is?” Tammie asked. “I mean, how big is the farm?”

“The entire valley,” Anastasia answered, taking a sip of tea. “It is a very large farm.”

“I can actually guess where he got the money,” Kacey said, sarcastically. “It turns out we’ve met before. When he set off a nuke in the Caribbean.”

“I have heard something of this,” Anastasia said. “He is… quite extensively scarred. He does not flaunt them, you understand. But I sometimes ask ‘Where is this from?’ Sometimes he will tell me something. ‘That is from my Caribbean vacation. Fortunately the hair grew back.’ I later pick up that he was shot and a nuclear weapon was detonated. Others… he does not answer. Or he says ‘Here and there.’ Yes, he has made his money from ‘killing people and breaking things.’ Sometimes he finds someone that needs killing, something that needs breaking, and then he informs the appropriate government that their problem has been erased. And they pay him money for solving their problems. Sometimes governments tell him about a problem. And when he solves it for them, they pay him money. They do not tell him, ‘There is a man named Boris. He lives on such and such a street.’ Unless this Boris is such a bad man that he is worth millions of dollars and he is somewhere they cannot reach. What is the reach of the United States, yes? What is the reach of Russia? But the Kildar can reach where they cannot.”

“I get the picture,” Tammie said. “Freelance James Bond.”

“Including the women, yes?” Anastasia said and then really smiled. It turned out that she had dimples, the perfect bitch. “He has a harem, yes. But he could have a harem anywhere, I think. He is very much all man, but not stupid in bed. Very not stupid. I will explain about the harem in a bit, but I must add that recently, due to some other things I will not talk about without his specific permission, he had to find somewhere for a fairly large number of… call them ‘fallen women.’ He did so, a school in Argentina, and paid for them to go there and for their education. Since he had this school available he asked the girls who were in the hareem if they wished to leave. Two did, one who was younger than he was willing to broach and another who… well she did not have any interest in sex at all. I then, at the Kildar’s insistence, pressed the other girls for why they wanted to stay. And they were definite about wanting to stay. All of them said that they liked it here and ‘why should I go to some school where I will be forced to hide cucumbers from the kitchen when I have the Kildar?’ ”

“Gotcha,” Tammie said, chuckling.

“I tell you this not to… pander for the Kildar, you understand?” Anastasia said, for the first time hurriedly. “But so that you can feel more comfortable with the situation. The Kildar is… How was it said: Neither fish nor fowl nor red meat. He is in a condition, a situation, for which there is no American custom or rule. He has to find his own middle ground in everything. I think, had things not happened the way they did, he would have just used local prostitutes for his needs. But… ”

“He saved my life,” Martya said, quietly. “Perhaps I would not have died, but my life would have been gone. For that I owe him everything. But I would leave but for one thing: In one more year I can also have the Kildar. For that I would give much. Shana was barely thirteen, too long for her to wait. And she told me that she was scheming of ways to get back when her time was up.”

“Martya was part of a group of girls from the local farms and villages,” Anastasia said. “She and the others had been sold to, or in one case kidnapped by, the Chechens. They Chechens made the mistake of also stealing a Keldara girl. The Kildar killed them for their mistake. But he then had seven girls with no place to go. Their families did not want them back. So they had no where else to go. The Kildar was unable to find a school for them at the time so he brought them into his household as concubines. They are not whores, they serve only the Kildar. And in more ways than sex and fetching and carrying, but that is too complex a subject for today. Know that they are all volunteers and while your society considers them young, in this society they would mostly be already married. The fact that they were not was what caused them to be as the saying goes ‘sent to town.’ ”

“That had to be tough,” Tammie said, looking at Martya.

Kacey thought that either was Tammie being brain dead or the understatement of the year.

“It was,” Martya admitted with what Kacey thought was remarkable calm. “But things turned out very well. I have learned enough of American attitudes and lives to understand that you may not think that. Know that, for me, this is a very high honor. I am from not far from here, I have even seen my parents and forgive them for what they did. I understood it at the time and now I understand some of the cultural and economic underpinnings, yes? But while I am not Keldara, the Keldara influence a wider area than they knew. The Kildar was a legend, like your King Arthur, yes? ‘Things would be better if the Kildar was here. The crops would grow better, the sun brighter, the winter shorter, all the children would be more respectful of their elders.’ And now the Kildar is returned and things are better. The money he brings in helps, but so does the hope. Everyone sees how things are going for the Keldara and hope for similar changes in their own lives. People are much more reluctant to sell their daughters so that they have enough money to survive the winter. There is more money everywhere. The Keldara are gone so often that many times they have to hire laborers to take their place. The Kildar treats women as special, even though he has a harem. Much more special than they had been in this society. So other men wonder if they should treat their women better. He ‘leads by example’ even when he knows it not. Things are better. And I am one of his women. That makes my status, in this society, much higher than if I had married any of the potential men around my farm. Much higher than my mother’s. My family, who sold me, now have a higher status than they could even dream. Because their daughter is one of the women of the Kildar.”

“I think that should adequately cover the issue of the harem,” Anastasia said, smiling again and showing those damned dimples.

“I’m… bemused,” Tammie said. “But, yeah, I think it covers it. With one teensy-tiny question on redirect. Martya, you said that you only had to wait a year to… I guess be ‘broached’ as Anastasia put it, by the Kildar. How old are you?”

“The Kildar put the ‘cut-off’ at sixteen,” Anastasia answered for her. “Martya is fifteen. She only looks a bit younger because she tries so very very hard.”

“And I love to tease him,” Martya added, grinning. “I like to bend over so he can see down my shirt, quite innocently, of course. I want him to want me so badly that I get him as a birthday present, like a new pair of earrings. Unfortunately, I never needed braces, damnit.”

“I won’t even ask about that,” Kacey said. “Okay, so he bought the farm and shot up some terrorists and got a harem. Where do the Keldara come in?”

“The Keldara have been around… for a very long time,” Anastasia said. “The Kildar believes that they first came to the valley as guards for the caravanserai during the Byzantine period. They show signs, cultural hold-overs, that indicate that they were part of a group called the Varangian Guard.”

“Holy shit,” Tammie gasped. “You’re serious?”

“Don’t get the reference,” Kacey said. “Who were the Farenghi or whatever?”

“Varangians,” Tammie said, chuckling. “Although the root of both names… Oh never mind. The thing is they were Vikings that were guards of the Byzantine Emperors, an elite force. But that was fifteen hundred years ago or so. I can’t believe there’s any remnant.”

“The Kildar believes that this is the case, nonetheless,” Anastasia said. “There are old songs that have been partially translated that indicate that this is so. But all records have, of course, been lost over the millenia. They have been the tenant farmers of the valley from before the records we’ve found from the Ottoman period. They also, however, supplied fighters to the Ottomans including for the local area and the caravanserai. The Ottoman Empire was, of course, made up entirely of ‘foreigners’ but in the case of the caravanserai it has always, in our studies, had a foreigner as the commander. Under the Ottomans they came from all over the far flung empire and even from non-Ottoman Europe. Under the Tzars they were almost invariably European adventurers, mercenaries that worked for the Tzars. And the holder of the caravanserai has been called ‘The Kildar’ from at least the time of the Ottomans. It is probably held as a motif by the Keldara and picked up over time. The Keldara were not entirely Norse at least according to the songs. They appear to be a mixture of Norse and some Celts from Ireland or Scotland.”

“Now even I recognize that as an odd mix,” Kacey said.

“But mixed they are,” Anastasia replied. “And they have managed to hold on to a warrior tradition even under various empires. Now, of course, the Kildar is an American, the masters of the current world empire, yes? An elite warrior of high training, currently for hire, very much in tradition. He is their perfect Kildar, their Arthur returned to bring the Keldara back to their glory. They don’t just follow him, they worship him as if he was one of their odd old gods, for they are only very superficially Christian. I am surprised there are not secret shrines to the Kildar,” she added, chuckling.

“Well, that’s got to be kind of heady,” Kacey said, a tad bitterly. “I mean he’s got women throwing themselves at him and his ‘retainers’ worshipping him. Sucks to be him, right?”

“I will let you make up your mind about that as time goes by,” Anastasia said, tilting her head to one side and regarding the pilot calmly. “I will try to give you a hint as to what ‘sucks to be him’ as you put it. One of your presidents, I was told, had a plaque on his desk that said: ‘The buck stops here.’ ”

“Harry Truman,” Tammie replied, nodding. “Your point?”

“When you were in the Marines, you were given orders to go here and do this,” Anastasia said. “And the people giving you orders were given orders all the way up to the president. You simply followed those orders; you did not live with the responsibility of their effects. With the Kildar, where does the buck stop?”

“Oh,” Tammie said.

“He is very attached to the Keldara and he is a man who cares about not only his people but, in a way, the whole world,” Anastasia said, gently. “And even the slightest mistake could destroy all he has built either through violence or politics. Consider that burden upon your own shoulders then look around. Does a harem and a nice house compensate for that?”

* * *

“Lasko, a moment of your time,” Mike said, his head ducked through the door of the armory.

Lasko Ferani was the oldest member of the Mountain Tigers. One of the Keldara’s designated “hunters” before the arrival of the Kildar. Now, he was still a hunter, but of men, the acknowledge leader of the Keldara team snipers.

Medium height and whip-cord thin Mike was never sure how old he was. At a guess about 40 but he looked about 70 from years of hard out-doors work. Lasko was no runner as had been proven several times but he could go all day long with a ruck on his back and had that maximal sniper requirement: he could stay incredibly still for literally days on end waiting for a shot.

Mike had introduced him to the world of computers after the Albanian mission and given him a credit card to order gear. Snipers, due to the nature of their mission, used highly irregular gear compared to regular infantry. Lasko had learned just enough written English to read the posts on sniper boards and begin exploring the world of gear then started ordering. Some of the stuff he discarded after testing it but Mike didn’t mind and had made that clear. He wanted the Keldara snipers professionally outfitted with gear that really worked. And the final determinant of what did and did not work was Lasko.

But Lasko’s approach to webboards was the strangest Mike had ever seen. One time Mike had walked past when Lasko was on-line and just had to pause. He’d seen him three times that day and each time Lasko was just sitting in front of the computer, not doing a damned thing. Just… sitting, one hand on the mouse, the other on is thigh, perfectly still.

“Okay, Lasko, what are you doing?”

“Waiting for someone to post,” Lasko had answered, coldly.

Mike had visited sniper boards like Sniper.com before and noticed that there were very few “regular” posters, most of them pretty clearly not operational snipers. The regulars were always posting and chatting and debating about techniques or equipment or what their dog had eaten that was really disgusting.

But then you’d see the occasional really bizarre post. It would go something like:

Afghan Sniper: Eagle 415.

AirborneSnipe115: Good.

SFSnipe22: Strap weak.

And so on.

Lasko finally made it all clear and Mike had a sudden mental image of serious operational snipers, all over the world, sitting there waiting for the first guy to make a move. Dozens, hundreds, of hard faces waiting for the guy who made the first mistake.

Snipers were natural lurkers. That was Lasko in a nutshell.

“Aircraft’s coming in at 2230 day after tomorrow,” Mike said when they’d stepped outside. He handed Lasko a slip of paper with coordinates on it. “Six LZs. That’s where we’re inserting. The pilot is the Chief of Staff’s son-in-law. Now you know.”

“I’ve got it,” Lasko said and nodded.

“Recon only,” Mike pointed out.

“Taken care of, Kildar.”

That was what he liked about Lasko. Tell him he was going to go sit in place for a week, looking at a hopefully empty field and he was positively happy. Not quite as happy as a field full of targets and a full magazine, but close.

* * *

“Colonel, this is an advisory on an upcoming mission.”

Lieutenant Colonel Peyton Randolph, commander 1st Battalion 75th Infantry (Ranger), hated video-conferencing and wished the geeks that invented it had been still-born. Why not just use a simple telephone? It wasn’t like anybody looked you in the eye. They were always looking down at the monitor!

“Yes, sir,” he said, sitting up for the call from the SOCOM weenie. He’d been told he was getting a call from some Pentagon SOCOM bureaucrat and to just “do what you’re told.” Instead of staring at the stupid monitor, though, he looked right at the camera set on top.

“Your Bravo company is going to be going over to the country of Georgia to train with some mountain infantry over there,” the colonel said. “Because Bravo Company is jump-short they’ll jump insert but the jump will be purely administrative; the DZ will be in a secured area. The catch is that they’re going to be using third country transport due to current transportation shortages. The good news is that they’re going to be able to add an Antonov to their jump sheets and we’ll see if we can arrange Ukrainian jump wings as a bonus.”

“You’re shitting me,” Randolph said, chuckling. “Maybe I ought to strap-hang.”

“Well, if you do you’ll have to find your own way back or stay in-country for a couple of weeks,” Pierson sighed. “Air Force is really tasked out. The Bravo company commander will be given further orders but those are code-word classified. The mission may entail engagements but it is not believed that the risks on the operation will be high.”

“I just hope we’re not helping the Georgians beat up on the Ossetians,” the commander said. “That’s pretty much an internal matter, Colonel.”

“The area they are going to has some threat from the Chechens but is outside the Ossetian area,” the “Pentagon weanie” replied. “And the orders are from higher so who cares? Ours but to do or die and all that. This is only an advisory. But please recall your personnel at this time; we’re getting on short time for this.”

“Will do,” Lt. Colonel Randolph said and finally looked at the monitor. To his surprise the Pentagon weanie was looking at him out of it.

“Tell them good luck and good hunting,” Colonel Pierson replied. Then the monitor went dead.

* * *

Kacey put down the -1 for the Czech Aeroframe Corporation Hind-J “aerial ambulance” and rubbed her eyes. -1s were the manual for an aircraft discussing not only design and engineering but flying characteristics. They were the pilot’s Bible and she and Tamara had been doing their best, with a lot of assistance, to practically memorize them.

That Kildar character hadn’t been joking about “cramming.” The Czech instructors were being paid to shove as much knowledge of the Hind-J into them in as short a time as humanly possible. And her head was about to explode.

The J variant was slightly different than the D variant they’d flown lo these many years ago. It had an additional super-charger on each engine for high-altitude operations, an oxygen system, pressurized flight and crew compartment and various other bells and whistles. But what was seriously different were the engines, modified Bells built by the Czechs on contract that were 30% more powerful than the originals while being a tad lighter and smaller. That was good, in general, since the Hind-D was a bit of a pig in the air. But that also meant the aircraft had different flight characteristics. The ground training portion of the transition was about over. Since the one thing the Czechs did not seem to have was a good simulator for the craft they were going to be taking their first “familiarization” flights tomorrow. And she didn’t want her eyes bleary for that.

But she had one thing to do before she went to bed.

The Kildar had, as promised, supplied them with a satellite phone. It was a desk-top model, sort of bulky but capable of not just telephone connection but video and a limited internet pipe. For that matter, there was a whole set of controls that had something to do with a scrambler. Where the “Kildar” had gotten military grade scramblers she wasn’t going to ask, but given their mission it wasn’t too weird.

She didn’t need any of that, though, all she needed was the phone.

“Calling Chief D’Allaird finally?” Tammie asked, setting down her own -1.

“About that time,” Kacey said, dialing the number she’d finally managed to find in her address book. “Hopefully he hasn’t already left for work.”

“Hopefully he’s awake,” Tammie pointed out.

Kacey listened to the phone ring then pick up.

“837-4159. How may I help you sir or ma’am?”

Damn. Good to see some things hadn’t changed.

“Mr. Timothy D’Allaird? This is Air Force Bureau of Personnel. This is to inform you that you’ve been selected for a recall tour to points in the AOR. Further information will be arriving by mail at your home of record. Are you still resident at… ”

“Kacey, is that you?” the voice said. “God, damn, girl you almost gave me a heart-attack!”

“Hi, Chief,” Kacey said, grinning. “How they hangin?”

“Still one below the other,” D’Allaird said. “To what do I owe the honor of a call from Miss Snot-nose?”

“Oh, all sorts of reasons,” Kacey said. “So, how’s the wife?”

“Divorced these last two years,” D’Allaird said. “Which is why I’m working about sixty hours of overtime a week. You’ll understand if I need to get ready for work. I’m with that comedian guy; next time I think about getting married I’ll just buy a house for some woman I can’t stand.”

“Why aren’t you contracting?” Kacey said, quizzically.

“I got really tired of the sandbox,” D’Allaird said. “Tired enough I’m willing to work lots of hours to avoid it. I keep asking… ”

“Business call, honestly,” Kacey finally admitted. “I know someone who needs a contractor. Aircraft engineer. Not in the sandbox. But I’ll also be up-front that whoever takes the job has to be Hind qualified and aware that it may involve getting their ass shot off. The flip side is that the money is good and so are the conditions.”

“Where?” D’Allaird asked.

“You did hear the part about getting your ass shot off, right?” Kacey asked.

“And let me guess who’s flying the bird: the Bobsie Twins.”

“The same,” Kacey admitted.

“Well, now I got to go,” D’Allaird admitted. “If for no other reason than to keep you two out of trouble. I mean, does this place have a brig?”

“Hey, we weren’t going to go to the brig over that,” Kacey said.

“Yes we were,” Tammie replied, not looking up from her manual.

“The most was going to happen was off flying status for a while,” Kacey protested.

“Tammie doesn’t think so,” D’Allaird said. “And I keep asking… ”

“The country of Georgia,” Kacey replied. “Out in the boonies but nice facilities. A general contractor. I have the feeling it’s a good idea to keep a bag packed. I’m not sure of the pay for you, but they’re paying us great and we said we had to have a chief, a good one. We actually need two. We may be flying solos. And it’s Hind Js.”

“The new Czech bird,” D’Allaird said with a whistle. “Sweet. I’ve been reading up on the specs. I’m in. I’ve been wanting to get my hands on one of those. Screw these damned Lynx and Rangers, I’m sick to death of Lynx and Rangers.”

“Hope you’ve got a passport,” Kacey said. “I’ll have somebody contact you about travel arrangements. And keep an eye out for another body.”

“Male or female?” D’Allaird asked.

“Makes no diff,” Kacey said. “The guy who’s hiring us, a Mr. Jenkins also called ‘The Kildar’, doesn’t seem to care. But who ever it is had better be open-minded. The arrangements are kind of… odd.”

“Better and better,” D’Allaird said. “I’m tired as hell of same old. I’ll be waiting for the call.”

“See you soon, chief,” Kacey said, cutting the connection.

“Another lamb to the slaughter,” Tammie said. “This thing is either sweet as hell or the Czechs let their marketing department write the -1.”

“Marketing departments always write the -1s,” Kacey said. “Tomorrow we just get to find out if it’s an honest marketing department.”

* * *

“Power up, softly, softly… ”

Kacey didn’t know if the Czechs had intentionally supplied one cute as hell instructor pilot or not, but Marek Kalenda was hot. Older than she usually liked, probably pushing a very in-shape fifty, but still hot. Nice voice, too. Resonant. Of course, it would help if she paid attention to flying.

“Good, hold it,” Marek said. “Feel her. Nice isn’t she?”

“I’m only at 23% power,” Kacey replied. “This thing is, if anything, over muscled.”

“There is no such thing as too much power in a helicopter,” Marek said. “I was asked when they were looking at the new Bells if, perhaps, that was not too much power for the Hind. No, I told them. What is that American show, the man is always saying ‘More power!’?”

“Home Improvement,” Kacey said with an unseen grin. The Hind, unlike Hueys and Hawks, was a tandem rig. The pilot sat back, the co or gunner sat forward. Currently, Marek was forward. “Tim Allen.”

“Yes, More Power,” Marek agreed. “That was also a command. Bring her out of ground hover if you please. Slowly.”

Kacey poured on more power without disturbing any of the other controls. She, of course, had to tap the rear-rotor controls to keep the aircraft straight, but otherwise she kept it “as is” with the exception of power. The helicopter went straight up with only a slight side-to-side yaw as she got the feel for the rear rotor.

“Very nice,” Kacey said. “I’m at forty percent. And out of ground effect, unless I’m much mistaken.”

“Yes, but of course we are empty,” Marek pointed out. “At height, with a full load? You will be pushing the red-line. But I will tell you something that is not in the -1, yes? I have force tested this bird and engines. The red-line on the engines is conservative. You have about twenty percent more power when you are red. But you must yank the engines after the mission, yes?”

“Twenty percent’s a lot of power,” Kacey said. “Why’d you do that?”

“Because we have some customers who, shall we say, are not as professional as you,” Marek said with a sigh. “If some son of an Arab sheik goes down we like to be able to point out that he was not supposed to redline the aircraft’s engine continually. Better still if he has the smidgeon of sense to only touch the redline and still survive. At absolute full power the engines will eventually fail. But for an emergency… the power is there.”

“Good to know,” Kacey said.

“Now that we have taken this time for you to feel the bird and prove you can talk at the same time, you may push forward slightly on the stick. Your bird, ma’am.”

“My bird,” Kacey replied, pushing forward on the stick and increasing power to the engines unconsciously. She started to grin as the bird slid forward like it was on greased rails and lifted into the air. The mass of the Hind had always made it fly like a pig and they usually didn’t hover for shit. Now, with the overpowered engines, it was like driving a really nice sports car, one of the ones that hugged the road like a limpet. Smooth didn’t begin to describe it. “Oh. My. God.”

“I thought you would like this, yes,” Marek said with obvious satisfaction in his voice. “We at Czech Airframes like satisfied customers. Satisfied customers are repeat customers.”

“Oh, I’m satisfied,” Kacey said. “This bird can fly.”

Chapter Nineteen

“USAF Flight 1157,” Second Lt. Kevin Ferlazzo said when the “incoming satellite call” light started blinking on his console.

USAF Flight 1157 was a MC-130 Special Operations (Electronic) aircraft Tail Number ///number/// from the 47th Squadron out of Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia. 1157, crew of five, was currently on a compassionate mission delivering relief supplies to Azerbaijan, motoring along on cruise control over the nation of Ukraine, which from 30,000 feet looked a lot like Kansas. A recent earthquake had left dozens of mountain villages in Azerbaijan devastated and cut off with winter on-coming. About half of the cargo consisted of cattle feed donated by the American Cattleman’s Association. The rest was general relief supplies including MRE style “relief meals”, tents, blankets and clothing.

Lt. Ferlazzo, the electronics warfare officer of the aircraft (and as he thought of it “designated receptionist”), hadn’t planned on becoming a relief worker when he’d graduated from the United States Air Force Academy and wondered about the efficiency of using a top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art, special operations, electronics warfare aircraft that cost $8000 per hour to run to deliver hay-bales. However, nobody but nobody asked a second lieutenant what he thought except his mother.

“1157, this is Four-Seven Actual. Put the 1157 Actual on. Then get off.”

“Roger, sir,” Lt. Ferlazzo said, hitting the hold button and switching to intercom. “Pilot, Four-Seven Actual wants you.” He didn’t ask the pilot if he wanted to take the call. Unless you’re in the bird’s pisser or a declared emergency, if the squadron commander calls you say “Yes, sir!” and pick up the horn.

Captain Richard C. “Casey” Moore sat up out of his half doze and looked at the co quizzically. “Okay, what did you do now?”

Casey Moore was 26, brown of hair and eye, just below medium height with “an erect carriage and firm demeanor.” Said so right on his Officer Evaluation Reports. That’s because his various squadron commanders hadn’t wanted to say “who is a wise-ass that likes to tease PJs until an incident occurs.” Among other things, he was one hell of a C-130 driver and it wasn’t like anybody ever got hurt.

Without waiting for an answer he hit the accept button. “1157 Actual.”

“1157 Actual, Squadron Actual,” the squadron commander replied. “Divert Tblisi Military Airfield for refueling and pick-up of quote Friendly Nation relief workers end quote. Coordinate with military attache, United States Embassy, Georgia, Colonel Randolph Mandrell. Transport of relief workers classified Top Secret Ribbon Blade. Obtain vocal orders Colonel Mandrell re Operation Ribbon Blade. Colonel Mandrell has full operational control 1157 in re Ribbon Blade. Do you copy?”

Casey blinked for a just a second and then stared at the windshield as if looking for divine aid.

“Four-Seven Actual, 1157. Copy divert Tblisi Military Airfield, contact Georgian mil attache, Colonel Mandrell re pick up of Friendly Nation quote aid workers end quote. Pick up classified Ribbon Blade. Operational details via mil attache. Mil attache has operational control. Verification code, over?” He easily recognized the squadron commander’s voice and the orders were coming over an encrypted satellite link. But he also knew that if he didn’t verify Four-Seven Actual, who was a real prick, would jump his ass.

“Verification, code Four-Delta-Five-Niner.”

“Ferz,” Casey said, hitting the hold button. “I need a verification on order changes, Four-Delta-Five-Niner.”

“Yeah, confirm,” Ferlazzo said after a moment. “It’s an updated code.”

“Four-Seven Actual, 1157. Verification confirmed. Diverting to Tblisi at this time.”

“Roger, out.”

“We’re going where?” the co-pilot asked. Captain Jim Sanderson was a regular co-pilot for Casey but not because Casey trusted his driving. Quite the opposite. In fact, he sometimes suspected that Casey dragged him around the world on one weird-assed mission after another purely to take his monthly pay at poker.

And in that he would be right. He also was a great pawn to use in Casey’s ongoing low-level war with the entire Para-Jumper corps. When Casey knew they were hunting a hostage, say because somebody had casually walked off with one of their damned gnomes, he could usually arrange for the co to be in the “wrong place at the wrong time” to get picked off by the PJs. Hell better than giving up his nav.

The 47th was a “multi-mission” squadron. They had a variety of transport aircraft ranging from Beavers to C-17s with multiple variants and a group of pilots that were just as ecclectic. Most of the pilots were cross-trained in special operations missions, however the squadron, since it wasn’t a dedicated special ops squadron, tended to do mostly grunt hauling work. However, because it wasn’t listed as a primary trash-hauler squadron they weren’t first on the list for that, either. In fact, in the increasingly overtasked cargo aircraft field, it was the one squadron that had a relatively low operational tempo. That meant, however, that the pilots could get more training on more different missions than most of the overtasked squadrons. Even the spec-ops squadrons had a hard time digging up HALO drop qualified crews; the 47th had seven including Flight 1157.

“Tblisi,” the navigator said. Captain Cassandra “Cassie” /// could have been Casey’s sister. 5’ 5”, brown of hair and eye, there was even a slight facial resemblance. But features that were handsome on Casey came out as beautiful on Cassie. “Capital of the country of Georgia. It’s not far off our flight-path anyway. If we hadn’t tanked in Kiev we’d have had to land there and tank. Come to heading one-three-zero. Tblisi Military Control is on frequency 1957. Notation says that it’s closed to unauthorized birds, though and ‘limited English.’ ”

“Oh, joy,” Casey said. “Co, freq.”

“Roger,” Bill said, leaning forward to switch the radios.

“Just another day in paradise,” Casey said, taking the plane off of auto-pilot and banking slightly to the left. “Oh, somebody ought to tell the load-master we’re picking up some passengers.”

“They can sit on the hay bales,” Cassie said.

* * *

“How’s the company?” Captain Jean-Pierre “J.P.” Guerrin asked the First Sergeant as he came into the CP.

“Pissed,” First Sergeant Michael Kwan replied, shrugging. Kwan was a short-coupled Chinese-American with eighteen years and a bit in uniform. He’d started off in the 82nd Airborne, transferring to the Ranger Batts when he was a staff sergeant. He’d spent the next fourteen years doing the “Ranger Thang” all over the world. Nobody but his very very close friends dared use his early nickname, “Gook”, to his face. “They’ll get over it. But they’re getting pretty damned sick of the sandbox. They’d been looking forward to some time on River Street.”

“Aren’t we all,” the CO said. “The good news, what I have so far, is that we’re not going to the sandbox. We’re going to Georgia, the country just to avoid confusion, and doing some training with a local mountain infantry group. That’s all I have right now, but feel free to spread it around. Mountain ops, about like New York this time of year. Pack snivel gear even if we’re not going to use it. There is a threat in the area; the Chechens move around in the same mountains. Current plan is an airborne op into a secured DZ that’s where we’ll be basing. I’m told there are basing facilities.”

“So it’s a training op?” Kwan asked. “Rumor was that we were dropping hot.” Carrying live rounds instead of training ammunition.

“We are,” Guerin said with a grimace. ” Good training. Either somebody wants to see if we can really do it or the Chechen threat is worse than anticipated. I’ll do an op-order this evening at 1730. Birds will be at the airfield at 0430, civilian. We’re flying to Ukraine.”

“And then?” Kwan asked.

“That’s apparently still being debated by higher,” J.P replied. “We’re going to Georgia. How is still up in the air. So an all nighter and a long flight with who knows what at the end.”

“We can sleep when we’re dead,” Kwan said, grinning. To be a Ranger for fourteen years you had to positively enjoy misery and Kwan was a legend on that score.

* * *

“Tblisi Military Air Field this is USAF Flight 1157, C-130, requesting clearance and approach.” Casey switched to intercom and looked over at the co. “Now to see if they speak English.”

“Better than that landing in Indonesia,” Sanderson said, shuddering. “He was damned positive he spoke Eeengeesh.”

“USAF Flight 1157, Tblisi Military Air Field Control.” The voice was accented but fully understandable. “We have you are cleared to land Tblisi Military Airfield Runway Zero-Niner. Turn to heading Zero-Five-Five and descend to Angels Eight, descent ratio one dot five hundred meters per second. Conditions overcast at Angels Three to Angels Seventeen. Visibility below Angels Three seven kilometers. Civilian jet aircraft your vicinity at Angels Five, heading one-two-seven, five kilometers, direction zero-five-five. Note all pertinent flight advisories.”

“Cas?” Casey said, taking the bird off autopilot.

“They’re bringing us in from the east,” Cassie said, looking at the flight advisory bulletins. “Not only is there a note about potentially hostile activity in that general direction, you’re going to have to come in over some mountains then drop it down hard. You wanna look?”

“Co has the bird,” Casey said. “Maintain bank to zero-five-five, descent ratio one hundred fifty meters per second.”

“I have the bird,” the co said, taking the controls.

“The security area is way off to one side,” Casey said after a second and a slight lurch from the plane. “The descent over the mountains is pretty steep but nothing much. Nasty approach, though. But that’s it, thanks, Cass.”

“You got it,” Cassie said, taking the chart back.

“Commander has the bird,” Casey said then glanced at the instruments.

“You have the bird,” Jim said, leaning back and crossing his arms.

“One hundred fifty meters ratio,” Casey said after a second, sighing and reducing the bank. “One fifty, Jim. Definitely not three.”

“Understood, sir,” Jim said, his face blank. “Sorry, sir.”

“Not as sorry as you would have been,” Casey said with a sigh. “Look at the ground radar.”

Jim took his eyes off the glide ratio indicator and looked at the radar then blanched. A quick glance out the window revealed, even through the heavy clouds, a mountainside flashing by.

“Use caution when approaching the edges of the air,” Casey said, pompously. “And how can these be defined, Jim?”

“Ground, water or outer space,” Jim said, hangdog.

“Because it is very difficult to fly a plane in all three. Even harder to fly through mountains, Jim. You would have been very disliked by what remained of the crew.”

“Commander, this is the load master,” a female voice said somewhat nervously over the intercom.

“Go,” Casey said, grinning.

“Sir, did we nearly just hit a mountain? Because I can see some out the window. And they’re… kinda close, sir.”

“Not at all,” Casey replied, his eyes glued on his instruments. “We were just looking for mountain goats. Wait! There’s one, out the right side!”

“Really? Where?” the girl asked, happily.

Man, she’s easy,” Casey muttered. “Ooooo, sparkly!”

* * *

Lasko stepped out of the door of the helicopter and took a knee as Sion Kulcyanov stepped out next to him. Both paused and scanned the nearby woodline through their NVGs as the blacked out chopper lifted into the air. The helo turned out to not be piloted by the Chief of Staff’s son-in-law, who was instead the co-pilot, but by the commander of Georgia’s helo squadron. The crew chief was one of the senior most NCOs in the Georgian National Guard.

General Umarov was taking as few chances as possible on this mission being blown due to leaks.

Lasko didn’t let that worry him; that was the Kildar’s problem. His was making sure that the landing hadn’t been observed and finding a good spot to overlook the actual LZ which was about ten kilometers away.

“Clear right,” Sion whispered.

“Clear left,” Lasko said, switching to thermal for a second view. “Deer at ten o’clock. Bedding. Right.”

“Moving,” Sion said, standing up and heading for the woodline.

They had all of tonight and tomorrow to reach the LZ and get a good overlook point. Which was about how slow Lasko liked to move. Sitting perfectly still was better, but ten kilometers in a day or so was close enough.

Chapter Twenty

“Jim, the idea when landing is that you’re going slow enough that you can actually stop before the runway does,” Casey said, making his way past the hay-bales towards the rear doors of the fuselage. When he’d been a kid his family would go visit his mom’s parents on their farm in the summer. He’d never expected his aircraft to smell exactly like grandpa’s hay-loft. On the other hand, that hayloft had some really nice associations so it wasn’t all bad.

“Sorry, sir,” Jim said, stone-faced.

“I think Tblisi control just thinks we’re idiots for not asking for two touch-and-gos before we landed,” Casey continued. “I’m really hoping they aren’t thinking the truth, which is that one of us, and I won’t say which of us because I’m kind, is unable to land a C-130 if his life depends on it.”

“Sir, were we planning on two touches?” the load asked as the two officer approached. The load master, Sergeant Lisa Griffitts, was a short, pretty blonde that, to his great chagrin, brought up all sorts of associations with hay-lofts in Casey’s mind. Unfortunately, she was a subordinate and, thus, very much off-limits. Even if there were all these convenient hay-bales stacked in the hold.

“Absolutely,” Casey said, nodding. “Certification stuff.”

“Oh,” Lisa said, nodding. “So it wasn’t that Captain Sanderson couldn’t find the ground?”

“Look! A Doggie!” Sanderson said, pointing out the window.

“Actually, that’s an Alsatian, sir,” the load master said, not turning around to look out the porthole. “And the guy controlling it is part of a security contingent that just surrounded our plane.”

“Really?” Casey said, bending down to look out the porthole.

“Really, sir,” Lisa replied. “And not a mountain goat to be seen.”

Before Casey could reply there was a banging on the troop door.

“I guess we need to see what they want,” Casey said.

Lisa opened the troop door and, at the sight of an American colonel, dropped a step-ladder out.

“Where’s Captain Moore,” the colonel said, swarming up the ladder.

“Captain Richard C. Moore, sir!” Casey said, saluting. He didn’t quite snap to attention but close enough for an Air Force pilot. “Commander Flight 1157.”

“I’m Colonel Mandrell, Military Attache for the Embassy,” the colonel said. “Get your crew down here, Captain. I’ve got a briefing to lay out and this is as secure as we’re going to get in Tblisi Airport. And we’re going to be joined in about five minutes by some other people. They’ll be in on the briefing. Drop your ramp; they’re bring on some gear. About nine hundred pounds plus five personnel. You’re probably going to have to dump some hay.”

“Yes, sir,” Casey said, blinking at the abruptness mostly. “Sergeant Griffiths, if you could… ”

“Done, sir!” Lisa said, practically popping her heels together. “Drop the ramp and alert the goats, sir!”

“Goats?” Mandrell asked.

“Nickname for the crew, sir,” Jim said, quickly.

“I’m so not going to ask,” the colonel muttered.

* * *

“Okay, let’s get this done,” Colonel Mandrell said then paused. “Issues, captain?”

Casey was trying not to stare. But the group of “relief workers” was… a little odd. As was their “gear.” Two were big, unsmiling men, clearly locals, who looked more like bandits in a movie than relief workers. Especially the movie part; both were at least as handsome as he was and that pissed him off.

On the other hand, the two ladies with them more than made up for it. Youch! Lisa was hot, Cassie was hot, these two put both of them to shame. They were, clearly, locals also in black skirts and colored tops that looked like they’d come right off a National Geographic cover. But… Oh. My. God. Hot. His brain would have been stuck on hay-bales if it wasn’t for the last person in the group.

The last guy was shorter than the men and damned near shorter than one of the women but stocky and clearly in shape. Erect frame with the look of having recently left the military and Casey would put odds on Marines or something “elite” in the Army. Hair cropped on the side, glasses and… Okay, he had to be an American. Only an American would go around in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts with Birkenstocks. At least in Tblisi. Admittedly, the temperature had come up a little, but, still…

“No, sir!” Casey responded, looking at the “gear” that had been loaded which was a huge fucking mass of black ballistic nylon bags. Some of them had been really heavy and from time to time there was a clink or two of metal on metal while loading. The two big locals had done it with the help of four more that must have been related. The four hadn’t even said goodbye, though, just dumped the stuff on the deck, piled into a couple of SUVs and driven off without a word. In fact, the entire loading had been in silence. “Just thinking about redistribution of the materials, sir!”

“Bit more complicated than that,” the colonel replied with a sinister smile. “Let me get your basic mission orders out of the way then I’m gone. Before I begin, you’re all TS cleared so I won’t do the spiel. But this mission is classified Code Word Ribbon Blade. Ribbon Blade is a sub-classification under Ultra Blue. I personally hate the new classification system but that that means it that you cannot discuss any actions under Ribbon Blade with anyone who asks you up to and including the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The term Ultra Blue itself is classified Confidential and Ultra Blue information can only be declassified by the President of the United States or persons so tasked to declassify Ultra Blue information. Are you clear on this? Let me make it very clear. This is not a mission you can bitch about in the O Club. It is not a mission you can tell your squadron commander about or the wing commander or even the Chief of Staff of the Air Force even if directly asked. Even with other persons that you know are cleared under Ribbon Blade. The only person you can discuss this mission with are the President or his designated representatives. I’m going to give you some specific information then I’m going to leave. All further information will come from this gentleman,” Mandrell concluded, pointing at the guy in the Hawaiian shirt. “Are we all clear on this? Load master? Are you clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Lisa replied, swallowing. “Top Secret, sir. Don’t talk about it.”

“Try not to think about it,” Mandrell said. “Lieutenant Ferl… How do you pronounce your name, Lieutenant?”

“Fur-Laz-zo, sir,” Ferz replied. “I understand, sir.”

“Captain ///,” he asked Cass.

“Understood and comply, sir,” Cass replied.

“Pilots? Is this clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Jim replied.

“Absolutely, sir,” Casey said. “Do we ask names?”

“Go ahead,” Mandrell said. “But here’s the mission. These people are not going to Azerbaijan. You will take off with them then proceed through normal HALO depressurization procedures. Vanner here,” he said, gesturing at the guy in the Hawaiian shirt, “will give you the insertion point. You will calculate the drop point and altitude and so drop them. Then you go to Azerbaijan and your regular mission. Is this clear?”

“They’re a HALO team,” Casey said. It was not a question, more a statement of unbelief.

“If it makes you feel any better,” “Vanner” said, “we’re not all that sure of the answer to that question.”

“I’m done,” Mandrell said. He shook “Vanner’s” hand and then the other members of the team. “Good luck.”

“Thank you, sir,” Vanner said. The two men just nodded but the females both said: “Thank you” in clear if accented English. Delightfully accented.

“I’m gone,” Mandrell said, stepping to the troop door and opening it without help. “Captain, get this done.”

“Will do, sir,” Casey replied. “Sergeant Griffitts, close the door.”

“Yes, sir,” Lisa replied.

“I’m Pat Vanner,” Vanner said when the door was closed, shaking Casey’s hand. “Former Marine, former other things, presently what my boss calls an ‘International Security Specialist.’ The ladies are Sergeants Julia Makanee and Olga Shaynav and the men are Corporal Jeseph Mahona and Private Ivan Ferani of the Keldara Mountain Militia. Julia and Olga speak English. Jeseph and Ivan sort of understand some but they don’t talk much anyway.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his breast pocket and looked around. “Who’s the nav?”

“I am,” Cassie said, taking the paper. It had a set of coordinates on it.

“That’s where we’d like to land,” Vanner said with a grin. “It’s at twelve thousand feet above sea-level, mind you. Captain,” he continued, looking at Casey, “we’d like to get partially rigged before you take off. Then, of course, we’ll have to depressurize. There’s nothing in your materials that’s going to have trouble with that, is there?”

“No,” Casey said. “I’ll have the load-master rig the oxygen.”

“Okay, I guess we’re good,” Vanner said. “Is there anything?”

“No, sir,” Casey replied, bemusedly. All this hay…

“Sergeant, actually, Captain,” the “security specialist” said. “Then I guess we’re good. Is there anywhere the ladies can get into their uniforms?”

* * *

As the aircraft crew started to disperse and the Keldara started getting the gear out of the bags, Vanner let out an entirely mental sigh. There was nothing that could take apart a small team like this like lack of confidence in their boss, that being him. He thought he’d handled that little interplay professionally, but he desperately had wanted to go “Look, Captain, Colonel, we’ve never done a HALO jump for real before. You probably know a lot more about it than we do. HELP!!!

Which wouldn’t have been good on any number of levels. Tempting but not good. It was all about psychology. In part, he thought, through the help of the Kildar he had maintained the illusion throughout training that, while he was as unexperienced as any of the rest of the team, HALO and, hell, the whole damned mission, was no big deal. “Sure, we’ll get it done. Yawn.”

Which wasn’t what he felt at all. First of all, he was afraid of heights. He’d never realized, though, what “afraid of heights” meant until that first time in the door of the plane. Looking out the window of an airplane at 30,000 feet was one thing. Standing in the open door of one was another. He’d played off being totally frozen, but he knew the Kildar knew it. And he was fully aware of the synergistic effect of stress. One stressor was minor, two stressors weren’t just cumulative, though, they multiplied each other. Add enough stressors and you hit a break point in anyone. The only question was how many stressors it took. And right now he was dealing with a crap load. Including wondering where his break point was.

At that thought he gave a small smile and shook his head. Talk about over-analyzing.

“Something humorous, sergeant?” Julia asked.

“If you have the right sense of humor, everything is funny,” Vanner said, grinning. “And the current situation is hilarious. Get with that blonde girl that was down here. She’s the equivalent of a sergeant, not an officer. She’ll know where the bathroom is. You can change in there.”

“Where are you going to change?” Olga asked. She and Julia had gotten out their uniforms, standard Keldara “sterile” digicam and were starting to pull out the various bits of clothing and gear that were necessary to survive riding in an unpressurized, unheated, plane for several hours as they depressurized.

“Right here,” Vanner said, starting to unbutton his shirt. “So you’d better get going.”

“Is a question permitted?” Julia asked, holding up a hand.

“Always,” Vanner replied.

“If we were American women doing this mission, where would we change?”

“Woosh! Good question,” Vanner said. “Depends on the situation. If there were base facilities and stuff then in private. But there are plenty of times when women and men have to get undressed around each other in the field. Especially if they’re in a hurry.”

“It is as I thought,” Julia said, undoing the ties of her blouse and stripping it over here head. “We are in a hurry, yes? So let’s ‘get it on.’ ”

“Julia Makanee!” Jeseph snapped as Vanner’s mouth dropped. Of course the latter was unnoticed by anyone, including Julia who was fixedly concentrated on her task.

“Shut up, Jeseph Ferani,” Julia replied, reaching for the ties of her skirt. “First of all, I outrank you. Second, we don’t have time for your complaints. Now start getting undressed. We have an insertion to make.”

Vanner’s brain kicked in just enough for him to want to point out that both “get it on” and “insertion” had dual meanings but paused and started taking off his clothes.

“Move, Jeseph, Ivan, the lady’s right: we don’t have the time to play nice,” Vanner said. “But just one thing: What happens on the mission… ”

“Stays on the mission,” Olga said, starting to take off her own clothes. “Unless it’s really funny and doesn’t violate OPSEC. It’s not like we talk about you lying with that Slovak whore in Romania, Jeseph.”


“I am hereby classifying all aspects of this mission that have cultural complications TS Codeword material,” Vanner said, pulling out his “snivel” gear.

The “snivel” gear, in reality high-altitude climbing gear, was a necessity not an option. Due to the altitude they were going to have to jump from, they would first have to ascend slowly to prevent decompression sickness, the “bends” more famous in SCUBA diving. And while the day presently at Tblisi was a more or less comfortable sixty-five degrees farenheit, by the time they got to fourteen thousand feet, much less the twenty-three thousand they were jumping from, it was going to be below freezing.

“Would that codeword be ‘Peaking Fly’?” Olga asked with a slight giggle, opening up her own bag.

The reason for the heavy gear they were changing into was two-fold. First they were going to be jumping from way up high where it got very fucking cold. But HALO gear wasn’t normally as heavy as what they would wear. The fact was that very few teams dropped into 14,000 foot mountains in the beginning of winter. And while it was sixty-five today in Tblisi, that was a fluke. There was a nasty front on the way in, arriving early in the evening and continuing into the night. They would be jumping just before it reached their AO and almost immediately in one of the first snow-storms of the year in the high mountains. Between the temperatures on the jump and the predicted temps in their insertion area, well below zero Farenheit by midnight, they had to dress for success.

“I guess I should have briefed you guys on this sort of thing,” Vanner said, apparently ignoring the comment and continuing to “get it on.” “One of the little cultural things to it is that nobody comments. Nobody. The guys don’t oggle, the women don’t giggle, they don’t trade barbs about relative physical merits. Not at the time. Later, maybe, they might make some passing comment. But at the time you act as if it’s no big deal. Don’t take that as a slap, by the way, it’s just information. Now, teams that have spent a lot of time together and ‘seen’ each other a lot, and there’s a lot of trust, that’s different. Then they joke. But not without the understanding and trust.”

While he’d been talking, Vanner and the rest had been “getting it on.” First came thin, slippery, polypropylene socks. The polypropylene would wick moisture away and, by adhering to the feet and not slipping, prevent or reduce blistering. Next were light polypropylene long-johns and long-sleeved top made by Spyder gear, rolled down over the socks. Next were Smartwool socks and a polypropylene mid-layer top tucked into Keldara field pants. Then the “farmer-john” insulated bib, boots, Keldara field blouse, body armor and over the whole thing an insulated down parka. Each had a balaclava, presently pulled down, and would don a helmet on the way up. If their face got too cold, there was an additional “gator”, a circular neck warmer, that could be put on and pulled up over their mouth and nose. Heavy gloves would later be slipped on over the blouse sleeves but under their parkas.

“Got it,” Julia said, standing up. She was the first one dressed and had gone from one very svelte hottie to something that looked like the Michelin Man. “But if what happens on the mission stays on the mission… ”

“There will be times,” Vanner noted, unzipping his jacket and opening up his body armor to get some circulation. “Spring festival. The elders and kids have gone to bed. People are talking about their part of a mission. ‘Oleg, you were over on Vasho Street so you didn’t see when Jeseph really screwed up…’ Jesesph will say something like ‘At least my nipples are the right color…’ Everyone will go ‘Oooo, zinger!’ And then everyone who needs to know and can understand will know. If they’ve got questions about under what conditions Jeseph saw your nipples, they’ll ask, quietly. Or they’ll already have heard. You keep it low-key or it doesn’t work at all. Feel free to pass that on, by the way.”

“Julia, sorry,” Jeseph said, zipping up his boots.

“Not a problem,” Julia replied. “What’s that term the Kildar uses?”

“Culture shock?” Olga asked, tucking in her t-shirt.

“I was thinking more of cultural conditioning,” Julia said with a grin. “But ‘shock’ works. Sergeant Vanner, are we close enough a team for a little joking?”

“Maybe,” Vanner said.

“In that case, Jeseph’s hung like a bull,” Olga said, grinning. “Ivan’s not bad, either.”

Chapter Twenty-One

Lasko eased forward through the screen of low bushes with all the speed and daring of a snail.

The ridgeline overlooked LZ 1, the Kildar’s LZ, which was a small upland clearing, probably the result of a recently silted up pond, at about 3000 meters above sea-level and some 40 miles from the valley of the Keldara.

The trees in the region had already begun to shift to upland coniferous, primarily firs, instead of the deciduous growth found down in the Valley. The understory was thigh-high heather, tough, wiry and prickly as hell.

Lasko ignored the tugging of the heather and the bits scratching at his face as he brought up the thermal imagery site with geologic speed. Lasko was capable of moving faster. He’d proven that several times. But he much preferred moving at about the speed of growing grass.

A long, careful, scan with the thermal imagery scope showed nothing hostile in or around the LZ. The LZ was away from the major routes the Chechens used and well away from the few farms in the region so there was no particular reason anybody would be there. Unless the Chechens were staking out good LZs on the off-chance the Keldara were going to start flying in.

So far, it didn’t look that way.

Lasko looked over is shoulder at Sion and made an oval motion with his hand, indicating that this was where they were going to construct the hide. Then he started, ever so slowly, removing branches of heather. Removing vegetation was an art more than a science, for the sniper it resembled a form of bonsai. The vegetation had to appear as if it had naturally broken away or grown into that form. It could be tied down with small bits of vegetation colored string, broken away at the base or even propped up by another plant. Anything that looked natural. In the three cases where he simply had to break a branch off, he removed it right at the “trunk” and then wiped dirt onto the broken spot. Nothing could give the indication that someone or something had been ripping up vegetation.

As he did this, Sion had started on the hide. Since they were going to be there for a few days, this would be a full “bunker” hide position, a small underground shelter. Very small, about the size of a two man tent. Whereas any infantryman in the world, given that the enemy was no-where around, would have stood up and begun stuffing the shovel in the dirt and tossing earth around, Sion was slowly and painfully learning to be a sniper at the very core. He was still stomach down, his German entrenching tool only half extended, lifting up shovelfulls of dirt and carefully placing them on a tarp.

By morning the two would be tucked away in a hide that didn’t have much more signature than a rabbit hole. They would spend the rest of the time, until the flight arrived, living there. They would eat, sleep, pee and crap in the hole. Fortunately, the Keldara had provided them with American MREs so they wouldn’t be doing much of the latter. Nothing jammed you up like MREs especially if, as Lasko had done, you left behind all the fruity stuff.

* * *

“Ivan Ivanovich!” Mike said, shaking the hand of the man descending from the Kiowa helicopter. The Kiowa was a new addition to the Georgia’s expanding air-craft fleet.

“Kildar.” Ivan Ivanovich “Son of Ivan” Markovsky was a former Russian helo pilot who had turned one beat up Hip transport into an international heavy lift company over the course of ten or so years. Mostly the company supported oil production around the world — Ivan’s motto was “no job too remote” — with some paid assistance for disaster relief and other missions where people were willing to pay through the nose to move a lare volume of heavy cargo somewhere that roads didn’t reach. His most famous job was lifting an entire mammoth out of the frozen tundra of Siberia and transporting it nearly a thousand miles to the nearest railhead.

However, those operations more or less “paid the bills.” Markovsky’s other operations, those that most certainly did not make the press, was where he made his real money. Markovsky was honest about being the purest of mercenaries. He didn’t care if he was carrying American black ops or Al Qaeda. The only group he would not support was the Chechens and that was probably because his pilots, almost all Russian, would balk.

He also was very closed mouth. Mike had never tried to pump him but others had. If he talked to Al Qaeda nobody had ever been able to find out. He seemed to be an “honest” mercenary in that way. Mike was never sure whether to admire him for that or not, but he was more than willing to use him for it. And because Markovsky had proven that he was one of those mercenaries that recognized that “loss is part of the job.” In Albania Markovsky had lost an entire helo, and crew, and had two more shot up. He’d just taken his pay and agreed that it was bad luck. Admittedly, the loss costs on the contract had been huge but Mike had gladly paid them; the pilots on every portion of the op had been as good and brave as any he’d ever seen.

“I understand that there are political issues with this op?” Markovsky said, as they walked to the house. The pilot had come down on the caravanserai’s helo-pad which was on Mike’s old firing range, just beyond the harem garden.

“The Georgians won’t let me use you for the whole op,” Mike said. “Only for the insertion period. And you have to fly a narrow route to and from. Sorry.”

“Given the way that Vladimir has been pushing all the CIS countries it is not surprising,” Markovsky said. “I am starting to run into such problems elsewhere. It’s a pain but what can one do?”

Mike led him to the office and then turned on the projector on his computer. The projector flashed the map of the insertion area up on a white-washed portion of the wall.

“Six teams, six LZs,” Mike said. “One Hip per LZ. You got them?”

“I may have to substitute two Alouettes for one of them,” Markovsky said, musingly. “Depends on if one of my Hips gets out of the shop first. But I have the lift.”

“Insertion will be night and full tactical,” Mike said. “The Georgians require that you either enter through a narrow corridor and pick us up here then do the op or go to Tblisi Military, tank there, then do the op. Your choice.”

“I’d prefer to tank at Tblisi military,” Markovsky said. “If we have to tank in Russia we’ll be all the way over in Krasnodar. I’d have to bring tanks for the turn. And I don’t want to FAARP here, if possible.”

“Actually, by then we’ll have the beginnings of a helo-port here,” Mike said. “I’m bringing in two of my own choppers to support the op. Czech Hinds. I can get the fuel here for sure. What about aborts?”

“That was why I wasn’t sure about all the Hips,” Markovsky admitted. “I’ll bring a spare but if one of them goes down, then it will be the Alouettes. If you’re going to have actual ground support, I’ll tank here.”

“That works,” Mike said, grinning. “I won’t even charge you for the fuel.”

“Why thank you,” Markovsky replied.

“Keep the coordinates of the LZs close until the op,” Mike said, sliding over a file. It contained details about the LZs as well as maps. He deliberately didn’t mention the reconnaissance teams. He trusted Markovsky but trust only went so far. “Please get with Nielson on details of refuel, support and payment. Usual terms?”

“That’s fine,” Markovsky said, looking at the contents of the folder then closing it and standing up. “I’d ask why you’re only flying a few miles, but… ”

“Training mission,” Mike said. “Just getting the troops acquainted with air ops.”

“Which is why you are using me and not the Georgians, yes?” Markovsky said, smiling slightly. “Have a good training mission.”

“Well, I’ll say it will be good training,” Mike said. He’d checked the long-range weather forecast. It was going to be very good training.

* * *

Vanner unplugged consul hose from his AIROX VII connector and switched to the bail-out bottle on his gear, waving to the team to switch at the same time.

The pre-breath had been a pain in the ass. A necessary one but a pain all the same. They had to stay continually on the supplied oxygen or they’d get the bends when they started breathing much thinner air all of a sudden. The O2 flushed the nitrogen out of their system but it wasn’t the most fun in the world. From as high as they were jumping they had to stay on it for an hour, minimum.

He’d had a feeling the whole time like he wasn’t getting enough air, a claustrophobic, strangling sensation that had bugged the hell out of him.

Worse, in a way, was the sweat that formed inside the mask. It tickled like hell and he desperately had wanted to pull the mask away and wipe at it. But if he did that, everybody would have to start the pre-breath all over again. One gulp of “real” air reset the whole thing.

Pain in the ass didn’t begin to cover it but now it was show-time.

The loadmaster stood in front of him and reached down to her waist, miming pulling something forward. All the cute had disappeared behind the oxygen mask, helmet and heavy clothes.

Vanner, for the third time, checked to make sure that the chute was “armed” and the safety-pin had been removed from the AAD. In the event that a jumper was knocked out, either by the O2 failing or from some impact, the arming system would automatically open their chutes at 700 feet above ground level or 700AGL.

Now, in the case of the team, that was adjusted to 700 AGL above their planned DZ or right at 13,000 feet. If the jumper was unconscious he or she probably wasn’t going to hit anywhere near the DZ. And almost everything around the DZ was higher than the drop zone meaning that they were probably still going to splat into the ground at a high rate of speed. It also, mostly, was vertical. He’d pointed this out to the team and also pointed out that not passing out, for any reason, nor failing to track to the DZ nor failing to pull their chutes on time were all very good things.

Frankly, Vanner had on the ascent come to the conclusion that the Kildar, he barely could think of him as “Mike Jenkins” anymore, was insane. The Kildar, whoever he really was, whatever he’d done before he turned up in Georgia, was clearly highly-trained in HALO. He had, after all, trained them and done it in record time. Which means he had to know what a shot-in-the-dark insanity it was to send five totally green HALO jumpers and drop them into some of the worst conditions ever created by man for airborne operations: alpine mountains with a drop zone the size of a postage stamp. Just fitting all five of them onto it was going to be interesting.

Vanner tried to show none of that as he lurched to his feet and waved to the other four.

The lurch was necessitated by their gear. Besides their clothing, bulky and heavy enough, they were all wearing combat harnesses, their chutes, helmet and oxygen mask and last, but most certainly not least, their rucksacks which were slung forward and down, making it nearly impossible to walk. The long, and heavily packed, rucksacks dropped very nearly to the ground in the case of the two women. They simply had to be helped by Jeseph and Ivan as the fivesome shuffled towards the ramp.

Currently the ramp was still up and that was just fine by Vanner. It had, however, been cracked to depressurize the cabin and the sound of the rushing wind filled the interior of the aircraft making communication, already difficult with the oxygen masks, nearly impossible.

Which, of course, was what hand signals were for.

Vanner slapped the front of his harness and then gestured for the two pairs to check each other’s equipment. He carefully ensured that they followed the memorized checklist then had Olga check his. As well as any of them could tell, everything was good to go.

Equipment checked they shuffled towards the rear of the bird as the load-master, who was suited up in a similar manner but tied off with a safety-rope, lowered the ramp.

This occasioned even more roaring but very little actual wind movement. Vanner had expected the strong circulation they’d experienced during training but the air inside the bird was strangely calm. He could only think it was due to the entire rear of the plane being open instead of just side doors.

Vanner paused at the edge of the ramp and looked over at the load-master. She, in turn, pointed to the red light mounted by the door which was solid. Blinking meant more than five minutes from the drop. Solid meant less than five.

The loadmaster gestured with her right arm straight out, palm up then bent it and touched the top of the helmet. Thirty seconds. Time to move to the ramp.

Vanner shuffled forward as Olga grabbed the top of his chute from behind. The entire party then followed, shuffling towards the edge of the ramp but bound together in case one of them slipped.

The loadmaster had moved to the base of the ramp on the far right and was now on her stomach, looking down and forward. She hit the ramp with a closed fist then raised it. Stand by; the DZ was in sight.

Green light.

Vanner stepped forward and then threw himself outwards. Strangely enough, it was easier than it had been in training. Part of that was that it was dark. There was nothing to give perspective, even the clouds below them were far enough away they didn’t look like clouds.

Fear of heights is all perception.

He took a box-man formation and counted to ten then looked over his shoulder. Everyone was out with Olga and Julia delta tracking to get in better position. The team was spread out in more or less a v formation. Nobody was trying to hold a solid position, just trying to both keep out of each other’s airstream and keep an eye on Vanner.

Which told him it was time for a position check. He looked at his GPS and banked right towards the DZ. Another check over his shoulder and everyone had followed the turn, still keeping spread. He went back and got a better fix on their position and the position of the DZ then had to wonder. They had been slightly north. They were still slightly north but closer, in vertical they were barely two hundred meters north. He wasn’t positive, but he thought they’d moved about thirty meters in a thousand feet of drop.

Which meant there was, like, no wind. Which didn’t make sense. There was always wind at altitude. Always.

The clouds below did have the DZ obscured which was really gonna suck. He didn’t know if they even broke at all; they could go all the way to the ground. They seemed kind of broken though… As he thought that they broke up enough so he could see the DZ. And it was right there, the tiny silver of the stream shining in a brief flash from the moon.

They were right on top of it, there wasn’t any wind. Something was bound to go wrong!

He took up a creep position, though. They might overshoot just a bit. He looked back and signaled with his thumbs to creep back then checked his position again. The clouds were breaking up a bit more and the DZ was like looking at a darkened sat-shot. Everything was there.

He signaled to stop the creep, checked their position, checked the team — still with him — and then looked around. The cessation of wind finally made sense. To their north there was a wall of clouds. Sometimes in advance of a front, just before it hit, the winds dropped to absolutely nothing, even at altitude. “The calm before the storm.”

Of course, that much “calm” often meant one hell of a storm.

He looked back and realized that the ground was suddenly rushing at him, seemingly faster than a train. And there were mountains all around, by trick of optical illusion apparently rocketing into the sky. He signaled for the team to spread out, waited one second and then pulled.

After he felt the canopy open, right on time, he looked up, grabbed the control toggles, did a quick check and then looked around. Five chutes, one, Julia he was pretty sure, just opening. She’d pulled so that she was barely four hundred feet off the ground by the look of it. Damned close. High altitude, low opening indeed. But even as he watched she banked east and then north, lining up for a landing. Banked and lined like she’d been doing it her whole life. She’d barely corrected before she back-filled and her feet touched the ground. He saw one side of the chute flutter away as she popped her riser then she was waddling off to the side, getting out of the way, in no more than two seconds. Olga came in right behind her.

Damn, he had good people.

But it looked as if their fearless leader was going to be the last one down.

* * *

“What the fuck, over?” Adams said as his head peeked around the door of Mike’s office. “I thought I was working late.”

It was nearly three AM and Mike was sitting in front of his computer peering at it as if it were a snake.

“Route planning,” Mike replied, distractedly. He clicked the mouse and then snarled, clicking again. “There’s no way that the Keldara can plan their own routes through the mountains. So I’m having to flip between these topo maps Vanner made and the actual satellite shots to find the best route. You realize most of the ground we’re going to cover has never been explored in known history.”

“Point,” Adams said, opening his mouth again and the closing it. He could turn a computer on, surf the internet for porn and sort of use Microsoft Word. He had trouble with e-mail. There was no way he could do… whatever Mike was doing. Or help.

“I’m doing this on the nights I’m not training or supervising packing,” Mike continued, exasperatedly. “There’s just shit in the way of every single insertion route. Cliffs, scree… The Keldara hump these mountains but we’ve never trained them in real mountaineering and I can’t expect them to tackle a Class Five slope without training. I’m not even sure they can do a Class Two. And every time I find what looks like a good route, there’s shit in the way that I can see on the satellite views but doesn’t show on the topos. Then I gotta back up and find another way. I’m getting about one done a night. I’ve got three more to go. We’ve got five days left. Do the math.”

“The math is that the mission commander is going to be totally wiped at the beginning of a tough mission,” Adams said.

“The ladies are off packing duty so I’ve got all five nights,” Mike pointed out. “If I can get these three done tonight and the next two days that’s two nights of rest. I’ll be mission capable. But fuck this is frustrating.”

“Get some rest… ”

“If you haven’t got your health… ” Mike continued. “Yeah. I will. You just make sure the teams are dialed in. I’ll be there with bells on. And solid routes.”

* * *

“… And set the autopilot,” Marek said over the intercom. “There. Now we can go to sleep until we reach ///.”

The Hinds had been outfitted with auxiliary fuel tanks slung under the dual pylons. With those and the improved engines they had a range of a bit over a thousand kilometers. Plenty of range to reach ///. And at 310 kilometers per hour cruising speed, it was going to be a bit over three hours to get there. Have lunch, refuel, back in the bird, repeat as necessary. Two and a half days to get to the Valley of the Keldara.

Two and a half days, and two nights, mostly alone with Marek. Crap.

“I think I’m going to stay up,” Kacey replied, smiling. “Just in case any big birds decide to hit us.”

“The intakes are armored,” Marek said with a grin in his voice. “It will take more than a goose to crash one of these.”

“How about a Cessna?” Kacey said. “Nearly hit one of those one time. Guy was in a no-fly zone. No civilians, anyway. He nearly got taken down three ways, me, a SAM site and an F-16. They eventually had me fly back and explain to him that he needed to land. I don’t think he even got jail time. I hope they at least pulled his license.”

“I had actually wondered if you wished to work the bird a bit more,” Marek said. “Your employer is, after all, paying me for instruction time even now.”

“Love to,” Kacey replied, taking the Hind off auto-pilot. “My bird. I need as much stick time as I can get.”

“I take it you mean flying,” Marek said. “But, yes, there is no such thing as enough ‘stick time’.”

“Especially this time,” Kacey said, raising an eyebrow at the comment. So far Marek had been the sans pure instructor pilot. “When we get back we have to go straight into ops. High altitude, most of it night, most of it tactical. Training ops with the Georgian military.”

“You’re kidding,” Marek said, seriously. “You are very good with the bird but… That is not easy flying. I take it you told your employer to blow it.”

“Actually, I said ‘Yes, Kildar,’ saluted and flew to the Czech Republic,” Kacey replied.

“For a training operation?” Marek said, sarcastically. “He wishes to buy two new helicopters, and training for new pilots, so soon. And I would have thought you had more sense.”

“I do,” Kacey said. “Marek? Let’s just fly the bird. I think we need to get Tammie and Dominik on the horn and do a little follow the leader.”

“I agree,” Marek said. “Slowly at first, though. Later I will show you just what this bird can do. Perhaps we play hide and seek, yes?”

“What you planning on hiding?” Kacey said, making sure the intercom was off.

Chapter Twenty-Two

“Sergeant Vanner,” Jeseph, his voice pitched low, “I have found a hide point for the jump gear.”

“Good,” Vanner said, bent over Ivan’s ankle. The shooter was the only one of the five who had managed to find a bad spot to land, a rock he hadn’t seen until the last moment. It looked like it was only a sprain, but it was a bad sprain and they really needed to unass the DZ. Fortunately, Vanner had just gotten done wrapping it. “Julia, you, Jeseph and Olga get started on cacheing the gear then catch up with us. We’re going to get off this DZ. I’ll help Ivan.”

“I can walk,” Ivan said, his face working with pain.

“Yep, and you’re gonna have to,” Vanner said, raising his voice against a rising wind. ” With your ruck. I’ll just be trying to take some of the weight off. Jeseph, give me a hand getting him up and the ruck on his back. Then we’ll move out. Follow the route on your GPS. We’re moving to point 478. We’ll set up camp somewhere around there. And hurry. That storm’s nearly here.”

“Yes, Sergeant,” Jeseph said. The wind threw his parka hood up and he pushed it back, looking around nervously. “This storm is going to be bad, Sergeant. I can smell the snow.”

Don’t lose us,” Vanner said. “Walk in through the beginning of the snow if you have to. I’ve got the dome tent, worse comes to worse we can all bed in there.”

* * *

“Fortunately, it’s all downhill from here,” Vanner said as they crested the ridgeline. Getting the Keldara up from the small valley that had shielded the DZ from observation had been no joke. “There’s some rocks I spotted on the sat map for a possible assembly area. We’ll take a hide there.”

“I am not sure which is worse,” Ivan said, wincing and grabbing at one of the spindly fir trees that covered the slope. They were right up at the woodline, and the ground was already covered by a thin dusting of snow. Some of it had melted away but there were plenty of patches to slip on in shadow. And they were hard to see with the night vision goggles. Unfortunately, the clouds preceding the storm had already arrived and the night was black as pitch. NVGs were a necessity.

“Uphill,” Vanner said.

He paused and let the Keldara lean on one of the trees then picked up the thermal imager he’d left hanging around his neck and swept the slope below. He’d gotten over the crest as fast as possible and now hunkered down to make sure they were alone in the area. He saw a couple of heat forms, but they had the look of animals. He didn’t see any heat coming from the cluster of boulders and that was the important part.

“Let’s move,” Vanner said, taking Ivan’s arm again.

The Keldara shuffled forward at his maximum safe speed and they began their creep down the ridge.

“Almost there.”

* * *

“Careful cresting the ridge,” Jeseph said. “Go across low and sideways. Less silhouette.”

“Okay,” Julia said, sliding forward.

She could barely see anything in the night vision goggles. The lenses had gotten fogged and then frozen so she was looking through a distorted foggy picture. For that matter it was starting to snow, big, thick, flakes. Something about the wind, though, the smell and the size of the flakes told her that it was about to storm like mad. They needed to get to shelter, fast. She slid on a patch of snow and went down on her butt just as she reached the far side of the ridgeline.


“Up you get,” Jeseph said, lifting her and the pack. “No lieing down on the job. That’s for after your wedding night.”

“Like you’ll ever know, Jeseph Mahona,” Julia said, quietly, but she let loose a half stifled giggle.

“Take a knee,” Jeseph said. “Face east. Olga, west.” He pulled his thermal imagers out and looked down the slope. “There’s the sergeant. They made good time.” He paused and looked around some more. “Nobody else.”

“Then let’s… ” she said just as a gust of wind caught them. The wind tore the words out of her mouth it was so strong and in a second Jeseph, only a meter or two from her, disappeared in a wall of snow.

“Julia!” Jeseph screamed.

“Stay there!” Julia yelled back. This wasn’t just a snow fall, this was a blizzard, one of the fast moving ones of the early winter. The snow might all thaw tomorrow but tonight it was going to drop a ton. And they were caught in the middle of it. She had been living in these mountains her whole life but she’d never been this far from any shelter as she was right now. One of her cousins had been caught out in a storm like this and died. They had to get to Vanner and get some shelter set up. Or, possibly, just set it up right here, she wasn’t sure which. She suddenly realized, to her horror, that the decision was hers.

She shuffled in the direction she remembered Jeseph being in and felt his body through the thick gloves. At that range, even through her fogged glasses, she could see him.

“Olga?” she shouted in his ear.

“There!” Jeseph said, pointing then looking through the thermal imagers. “Yes, there!”


Olga had hunkered down and waited. Smart girl.

“Thought we’d lost you for a second,” Julia yelled.

“I was going to give you twenty minutes,” Olga yelled back. “What now, Jeseph?”

“We move,” Julia yelled.

“Agreed,” Jeseph replied. “Julia’s call and I agree. We have the GPS, we have the thermal imager. We can find them.”

“Jeseph, you lead,” Julia said. “I’ll take the GPS. Olga, check me. Hold onto my pack, I’ll hold Jeseph’s. Let’s roll!”

* * *

“I’ve got it, Ivan,” Vanner shouted. “You just keep checking for the rest of the team.”

“We could call,” Ivan yelled.

“Not on your life!” Vanner shouted. “We’d have to broadcast. Now shut up and watch!”

Vanner had set up a dome tent before, but never on solid rock and in a howling blizzard. He’d gotten the damned thing unrolled but it had nearly been snatched out of his hands twice so far. If they lost it it would have a number of bad consequences starting with the possibility of the Chechens finding it and continuing through “lack of shelter.”

He finally managed to get one side tied off to one of the boulders that they were sheltered in. With that side tied off he could manage it better. One bit of ground would take a stake. Another tie off. Finally he got all six points anchored and added a couple of anchors, groping through the driving snow, to make sure it stayed in place.

That done he started threading the poles. The snow was piling up so fast he nearly lost one of them but groping finally dredged it up. When the last one was stuffed into the loops and the tent up he grabbed his pack and tossed it inside then went to approximately where he recalled Ivan being.

“It’s up!”

“I still don’t see them,” Ivan shouted back.

“They’ll make it or they won’t,” Vanner said. “They’ve got gear for this, too. We need to get in the tent!”

Vanner got Ivan up and over to where he recalled the tent being. But it wasn’t there.

“Oh, tell me it didn’t already blow away,” Vanner said then shook his head. He’d tossed his pack in it on purpose. It had to be here somewhere.

He and Ivan shuffled forward carefully and then Vanner sprawled on the ground, fortunately not taking Ivan with him.

“Found one of the tie-downs!” Vanner yelled. He felt along the tiedown and then saw the ghostly outline of the tent. “Here!”

When they were finally inside, Vanner let out a breath of relief.

“Safe, by God.”

“Sergeant,” Ivan said, diffidently. “My pack is back where you found me. I only say that because it has my fartsack in it. I don’t think you want to share.”


* * *

Jeseph saw the boulder before he hit it with his nose, but only just.

“What?” Julia yelled.

“I think we’re there,” Jeseph said, scanning with the thermal imagers. It seemed to him that the picture had gotten dimmer, but it might be the snow. “I don’t see them, though.”

“Move into them,” Julia said, trying to look around through the spotty NVGs. “They have to be here somewhere!”

“They could have gotten lost as well,” Olga noted helpfully.

They wandered into the rock pile and after tripping several times and nearly slipping off a boulder they hadn’t even realized they were climbing Julia let out an exasperated sigh.

“Where are they?”

“I don’t know,” Jeseph yelled back. “But we have to do something!”

“We make camp,” Julia said after a moment. “Try to find a reasonably flat spot! We’ll put up one of the tunnel tents! We need to find somewhere to tie it off!”

“Where am I going to sleep?” Jeseph yelled.

“What happens on the mission… ”

* * *

“The wind has died,” Jeseph said, nudging Vanner.

“I noticed,” Vanner said, quietly. It was what had awakened him.

He and Ivan had taken two hour shifts, sleeping and waking, hoping against hope that the rest of the team would show up. It was pre-dawn and the howling blizzard had finally started to die. Now if the rest of the team just hadn’t. But, they were smart and had nearly as good gear. The only difference was they had the tunnel tents.

Vanner kicked at the front of the tent where he could see snow had mounded up and then stuck his head out. The snow was still falling thickly but mostly straight down. It had dropped about a foot and a half overnight, with more drifted up against the rocks. The tent had a drift up against the side and front that was nearly three feet thick.

Vanner looked around cautiously then ducked back in and pulled out his NVGs.

“Nothing,” he said quietly.

“They might still be on the back-trail,” Ivan said, just as quietly.

Vanner sighed and shrugged on his heavy coat; he’d kept most of the rest of the gear on. The temperature had dropped precipitously but he left the balaklava and hood down. He needed his ears as well as his eyes.

He slid out of the tent, negotiating the snowpack, and stood up with the snow up to his waist. Another look around with the NVGs then he reached in and pulled out the thermals. Looking on the backtrail he couldn’t see any sign of the team.

“Fuck,” he muttered. He did not want to broadcast.

He walked back the way they’d come, stumbling over Ivan’s pack in the process. He’d dragged it over to the tent, gotten out the Keldara’s rucksack and then left it near the entrance. It was so covered in snow he hadn’t seen it until he tripped over it.

“Found your ruck,” he called, turning around.

“I was wondering when you’d look behind you,” Julia said, grinning. She had a set of thermals hanging around her neck.

“How’d you get past us?” Vanner asked.

“I really have no idea,” Julia admitted with another grin. “But I’m just about standing on our tent. We’re set up about three meters from each other.”

“Our tent?” Vanner said. “Where’s Jeseph?”

“Asleep,” Julia said. “In the tent. With Olga.”

“With… ”

“Hey, don’t ask, don’t tell… ”

* * *

Kacey drove the Hind down the twisting river valley so close to the surface that the rotors were kicking up spray on the banks.

“Hoo-rah!” she shouted.

“I don’t think Dominik is keeping up,” Marek said, a grin in his voice. “Drive it, girl.”

They were in the second day of the ferry flight and, given that they were making good time, Marek had declared a one hour game of hide and seek. Kacey was given a box she had to stay in and a three minute head start. The kicker was that it wasn’t Tammie driving the search bird, it was Dominick, the other IP.

“This is like flying a fucking Kiowa,” Kacey said. “These things used to be pigs. This is awesome.”

“We are low,” Marek pointed out. “The air is thick. Higher… less maneuverability.”

“Got that,” Kacey said, glancing in the rearview. “I still don’t have him.”

“Twenty minutes until we’re done with the exercise,” Marek said. “But he’s not necessarily following. He could have cut one of the bends.”

“Yeah,” Kacey replied, looking ahead. There was a fork in the river that went left. “Marek, what’s the chart say about that turn?”

“Narrow,” Marek said, tersely. “But still inside the box. Want me to take it?”

“My bird,” Kacey said, banking into the tributary. She instantly recognized that it was much narrower than the main river: the trees that overhung it barely cleared her rotor cone. “Crap.”

“As I said. Narrow.”

Kacey pulled the helo into an in-ground-effect hover and looked forward. The damned channel only got narrower. Looking up she realized she’d drifted under the trees in slowing; the branches now extended over her rotor cone.

“Double crap. Marek?”

“Your bird, hotshot,” the IP said, easily.

No way to go up. No way to turn around. No way to go forward. That only left two choices; ditching the bird in the river or backing up. Of course, the channel twisted slightly so it wasn’t exactly straight back. Fortunately, Hinds had a rear-view mirror.

She pulled back on the stick and tilted the rotor gently to the rear. The increased angle had her chipping some branch-tips, but nothing unsurvivable.

Backing down to the joining she got enough room she could go up or turn around. So she carefully spun in place then looked at the main river. The other Hind had a five hundred foot maximum so they could run down the river at height, looking for them. But they couldn’t just perch like a falcon.

Which gave her an idea.

“Kacey?” Marek said as the helicopter started sliding backwards. “Where are we going?”

“Under the trees,” Kacey said. The trees were evergreens; there was some solid concealment to be had. With the gray-green camouflage of the Hind, they would be hard to spot.

“Okay,” Marek said. “Your bird.”

“And now… we wait,” Kacey said as she reached the spot she’d been “stuck” in before. She could see the main river, barely, through a small gap in the trees. They were making a hell of a signature but that would be, partially, masked by the trees.

Sure enough, about ten minutes later, Tammie’s Hind came sniffing down the river about a hundred feet up. But the trees and the camouflage of the Hind kept them from noticing the bird hidden two hundred meters up the tributary, despite the massive “signature” from their rotors. She’d have thought they’d notice the waving treetops at the very least.

“Very nice,” Marek said. “I would have stayed higher.”

“They probably did and couldn’t see us,” Kacey said. “This river was the only place to hide. So we had to be on it, right? Start at one end, go to the other and trap us at that end of the box. Nobody would be stupid enough to come up this tributary.”

“If it’s stupid and it works… ”

“It’s not stupid,” Kacey said, sliding the bird forward.

The other Hind had continued up the river so it was out of sight when she got to the joining. She pivoted to look up-river and then popped up. Sure enough, there they were, just going around the bend to the right.

She dropped down and slid out into the main river, sidling towards the opposite treeline and then popping up again. The Hinds had a rear-view but there was a solid blind-spot at about four and seven o’clock. Only by craning way over could you see into it. As planned, she was right on Dominick’s four o’clock. She pivoted again and flew along side them, keeping more or less parallel, in the four o’clock position and sidling closer. When she was about a hundred meters away she pivoted again so she was pointed right at them and pushed the bird as hard to the side as it would go so that she had her nose pointed right at them as she came into peripheral vision.

Tammie, scanning left and right, was the first one to see her and she shook her head and said something in the intercom.

“Where in the hell did you come from?” Dominick said over the radio. The disgust was clear in his voice.

“I’m a woman,” Kacey replied. “We’re tricky. Ask any guy.”

* * *

“I still want to know where you went,” Dominick said, picking at his fish.

They’d continued down through Ukraine and stopped at a small airport near Yalta on the Black Sea. Tomorrow was the last day of the ferry, a short overwater hop into Russian airspace, one refueling in Russia hopping down the Black Sea coast and then cut into Georgia near the port of Sokhumi. After that it was free-sailing.

“How’s it feel to want?” Kacey said with a grin. “Seriously, I was hiding. If I tell you where I was hiding, it ruins the fun. And it was probably Tammie’s fault anyway. She was the one that was supposed to be looking for us.”


“Ah then, I am satisfied,” Dominick replied. “As long as my delicate pilot ego isn’t damaged.”

“You still got your ass kicked by a girl,” Marek pointed out.

“Yeah?” Dominick replied. “Then tomorrow I will have you try to find Tammie. See whose ass gets kicked then!”

* * *

“Hey, Marek,” Kacey said as the pilot opened the door to his room.

The Kildar had paid top billing for the training and hadn’t stinted on the travel budget; the pilots didn’t have to share. And the small seaside resort they’d found was more than willing to provide lodging; the hotel was practically empty.

“Kacey,” Marek replied, raising an eyebrow.

“I was going to say that I wanted to go over something in the -1s, but why be coy?” Kacey asked. “Frankly, I’m really hoping you’re straight. I didn’t see a wedding ring and hard flying always makes me horney.”

“No ring, no wife, please come in,” Marek said, stepping back. “I am very much ‘straight.’ ”

* * *

“You’re a good cook,” Gregor grunted, spooning up the stew.

“Thank you,” Dr. Arensky said, scraping up the last of his and taking the bowl to the sink.

They had settled into a routine. Arensky cooked and cleaned. Gregor sat in the corner most of the time apparently asleep. But if Arensky went near the door, his eyes flickered open. When Arensky had to have a call of nature Gregor would lead him outside to the nasty, stinking, spider-filled outhouse that provide relief. The house at least had running water and a kitchen sink, but no indoor shitter.

They had been provided with food, cans of potted meat and vegetables as well as some old bread that had seen better days. Coaxing decent meals out of the stuff had been tough.

“Since my wife died, I’ve done most of the cooking for Marina and I,” Arensky continued, slipping the bowl into the sink. He lifted the cloth cover on a bowl by the sink and nodded at the mess within.

“What is that stuff?” Gregor asked. “I looked at it the other day. It’s… crap.”

“It’s not ‘crap,’ ” Arensky replied. “Do you know what makes the alcohol in vodka?”

“No,” Gregor admitted.

“Yeast,” the microbiologist replied. “A microorganism that excretes alcohol as the same sort of biproduct as urea, the stuff that makes the strong ammonia smell, in human urine. So what you’re drinking is, in effect, yeast piss.”

“Ugh,” Gregor said, dropping his own dish in the sink. Arensky also did the washing up. “Thanks so much for pointing that out. I’m never going to look at another bottle of vodka the same again.”

“But yeast is only the best known of many microorganisms used in food preparation,” Arensky continued. “Cheese is produced from a mold, several strains in fact. It is, basically, spoiled milk. Yogurt is the same. These are similar microorganisms. I’m attempting to capture some of them for… piquancy. They can be used as a spice, in other words. The problem, of course, is spotting the right ones without special tools. Fortunately, I am very experienced in doing so. Hopefully, I can get a crop of fistanula going. That will add a dash of tanginess to the next soup.”

“That is really weird,” Gregor said, chuckling.

“I’m bored,” Arensky said. “As your hands are your main purpose in life, my mind is mine. I have nothing to read, no TV to watch, no internet to surf and no experiments to conduct. So I find experiments where I can. This is the sort of thing I did when I was in grammar school. I made my first cheese, from a raw native culture, when I was nine. It’s a way to pass the time.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Gregor said with a shrug. “No harm in a little mold… ”

Chapter Twenty-Three

Mike leaned on the butt of his SPR and wondered how many hours he had in helicopters. A lot was all he could come up with. Of course, since Master Chief Adams had stayed in the teams longer, he probably had more by an order of magnitude. If either one of them had been flying, they’d both be master aviators. Which made him wonder if maybe he could get some bootleg time after the mission was over.

He was doing it again. Woolgathering. He could focus like a laser during a mission and during planning. But right now, he just wanted to think about something else. When they got the word they were almost at the LZ, his mind would kick automatically into gear. But right now… anything but the mission.

He wasn’t sure it was a good thing. Probably real commanders thought about what might go wrong, what was supposed to go right, what the actions of each sub-team should be on landing, all the way to the LZ. It seemed like his Team commander back when, that was how he thought. Hell, Nielson was probably that way. It was one of many things that Mike was unsure about. Because, basically, he was an NCO that just got caught up in the game. He’d never set out to be an officer or a commander. All he’d ever wanted to be a was a shooter on the teams and, maybe, buck for Master Chief. Not be a commander. Real commanders probably thought about what Lee should have done at Gettysburg at a time like this or who the weak link on the team was. All Mike could think was how good a beer would taste about now.

The Russian crewman held up a hand with two fingers extended and Mike was instantly in the game, beer, and doubts, forgotten.

“Game face!” he shouted. “Get it on!”

“FATHER OF ALL!” the Keldara shouted back in unison. In nearly the same unison they cocked their weapons and placed them on safe.

Mike jacked a round then undid his safety harness. Last he pulled down his balaklava. The LZ was almost certainly cold. Lasko would have called in otherwise. But you never took an LZ as guaranteed to be cold unless it was your home base. And only then if you got the word ahead of time.

He probably shouldn’t be the first one off the bird, either. But be damned if he was going to let the Keldara lead. But he took the lead in the door as the helicopter flared out and dropped to a soft landing.

As soon as the crewman yanked back the door he was out, running forward about half way to the treeline and then taking a knee, checking his sector. Clear.

He looked back over his shoulder as the last of the Keldara unassed the bird and took a knee. Catching Sawn’s eye he made two gestures with his hand and then turned and took his position in the teams. He wasn’t stupid enough to take point.

The point team moved forward at Sawn’s gesture and the trailer took a knee right at the edge of the woodline as the primary penetrated. After a moment the trailer stood up and moved in followed by the rest of the Keldara and Mike.

Once inside the woodline, the point moved forward to the first high-ground, cautiously, as the Keldara spread out in a cigar shaped perimeter. It took about ten minutes for the point to reach a position where they could observe a fair bit of the route ahead and another five for them to ensure there wasn’t anybody on the route and move out. As soon as they did the teams got up and started moving forward to their previous position. When the lead of the team got there he took up the same spot, maintaining observation, as the team took a knee.

That set the pace. The point team would bound forward, find a good observation point and hunker down to check. When they were certain they weren’t being observed, they’d move out again, slowly as if in a stalk. It was a slow, tedious, form of movement but very stealthy. And the mission depended entirely on stealth. Since it was the Keldara’s normal form of movement, they did it so automatically they’d become damned near perfect.

The woods were deciduous, mostly, and pretty old growth so there wasn’t a whole lot of understory. There was enough, though, that the Keldara had to maneuver through it. But they’d gotten used to that, too, and eeled through the brush as quietly as as many deer. Probably more quietly, deer could be noisy animals. The night was pretty clear so at the second stop Mike flipped up his NVGs and let his eyes adjust. Plenty of light to go by Mark One Eyeball.

Mike paused at the third observe point and clicked his radio twice. A brief burst indicated that Lasko had received the communication and was moving out. The sniper team would bound far forward, probing for a good sniping point, one where they could observe both flanks of the teams. Mike would have liked to have another sniper team on their right flank, Lasko probably being on the left. But they’d arrange that after the first stop.

They had fifteen klicks, and a supply drop, to make before dawn. They weren’t going to stop to deploy another team. If they did they’d have to hurry. Hurrying was bad.

Worrying was bad, too. He couldn’t help but wonder what was happening with the other teams. He was with Sawn and Adams was with Vil. But that left Oleg, Pavel, Padrek and Yosif on their own. He had four other teams out there without “adult leadership.” Now that he had time to think about it, he probably should have co-located with Yosif. Yosif was a great guy but if anything his team was the least… something. Motivated didn’t quite fit it. They just hadn’t seemed to find their niche, yet. All the other teams, while being all-around players, had sort of settled into a niche. The way the teams had been “chosen” was something like a pick-up football game. Mike had required that each team be made up of members from across the Six Families, but had let the Keldara decide who went with which team. It was only later that he realized the team leaders had ended up doing most of the picking and choosing.

Oleg was a bull. He’d chosen mostly bulls. Team Oleg was the go-to team for smashing something. Vil was a rapier to Oleg’s battle-axe, his team was mostly lighter, faster guys. The kind of guys who ran track instead of playing football. But Vil was a natural feint and flank guy; his team quite often totally screwed Oleg’s in exercises by feint and flank. Sawn was slow, cautious and hated to attack a frontal position. He was a “kill them all as quietly as possible and leave no trace” guy. Padrek was the best Keldara at devices, including ones that exploded. Given his druthers, he’d hit a position with grenades and satchel charges and wait for the opposition to surrender. Pavel’s team actually had some climbers in it. When Mike had realized somebody had to have a totally screwed route, he’d chosen Pavel even over his own or Adams’. Pavel was the kind of guy who always had a spare rope and if he had the choice of going around a cliff or up it, he’d go up. If he’d grown up in a middle-class household in the US he’d be on a climbing wall, or a building side, every weekend. Call his team “moutain ops” to a greater degree than any of the others.

Yosif, though, he didn’t seem to have a niche. And he seemed to know it. His team just didn’t have the same… oomph as the others. Mike should have put himself with Yosif. He realized, now, that he’d come with Sawn because at a level they were the most compatible. Sawn was a ghost.

If any team was going to blow the op, though, it had to be Yosif’s. And he couldn’t even check on their progress.

It was going to eat him all the way to the rendezvous, damnit!

* * *

Adams followed Vil out of the bird and took a knee in the middle of the V the Keldara had formed. As soon as the birds started to lift up he waved the point forward. When they gave the all clear he moved out.

The Keldara were moving well. They’d done this shit a thousand times already so except for the high alpine stuff they were dialed in. If any of the teams had problems in the high up, he’d find out at the rendezvous.

In the meantime, he let his brain go blank and soaked up the night. Thinking at a time like this could get you killed.

* * *

“I think this is good,” Vanner said, looking at the cluster of boulders.

It had taken them most of the night to descend from their hide to the area of the op. The questions, once there, were: were they close enough to receive Katya and could they remain undetected.

They were practically on top of the town of Gamasoara; they could see it clearly from their position. But they still had about a thousand meters of elevation over it and straight line distance was nearly four thousand meters. Nearly three miles away. If they could find a good hide they should be golden.

And it looked to be a pretty good hide, a cluster of boulders with enough soil around them to dig in.

“Ivan, have a seat,” Vanner said, lowering the Keldara to the ground. “And hand me your e-tool.”

The entrenching tool was a folding shovel. This one was a German design with a larger, broader, head than the standard American one. But it was still a little folding shovel. Building a hide big enough for all five of them was going to be a stone bitch; Vanner hadn’t done any serious digging since boot camp in Parris Island.

“Olga, see if you’re getting anything from Katya,” Vanner added, checking the time. They weren’t going to finish the hide before dawn but they could build something for concealment. “And if you do, give her a tickle and tell her we’re here.”

* * *

For Katya, the burst ping was like a sudden flash of coldness in her brain.

The Amis had wired her for sound and video, literally. In an experimental operation they had installed implants in her head that picked up both whatever she saw and whatever she heard.

She could receive transmissions as well. But a conversation was a bit much given that the Chechens could have intercept capability. So the brief burst, no more than atmospheric static to any but the most sophisticated intercept gear, didn’t even have any content. There was no “internal” for anyone to find. It was just the eqivalent of “we’re here.”

Katya’s transmission systems were even more advanced than those available to the Keldara, absolutely state of the art in communications. It is said that anything in the commo field is obsolete before it’s fielded but the only thing more advanced than the transmitters in Katya’s mastoid bone were gleams in scientist’s eyes.

Katya didn’t know much about communications, but Vanner had admitted that, except with the gear designed to pick it up, he couldn’t detect Katya’s stuff even when in the same room. So she had no problem “opening up” the transmission, a mental exercise like moving a muscle that wasn’t there.

“So, are you well?” Katya said, crossing her legs and looking steadily at the girl on the bed.

“What do you care?” the girl asked.

“Just checking,” Katya replied. “If you die I suspect I will as well.”

“I’m fine,” the girl said. “I’d guess from your conversation with the Asshole-in-Chief that you, personally, could care less.”

“More or less the case,” Katya said. “Your exercise period is coming up. Be glad.”

“I’d be glad if someone would read to me or something,” Marina replied. “Even play some music. Something.”

“Well, I don’t have a book and wouldn’t read it to you if I did,” Katya said. “Nor do I have a music player. So I guess you’re stuck.”

“Okay, you can’t know my name, but what’s yours?” Marina asked.

“Katya,” the agent replied after a moment.

“Hello, Katya, I’m the girl in the mask,” Marina said. “I know you’re a… ”

“Whore, prostitute, hooker, street-walker, take your pick,” Katya finished for her.

“Hetaera,” Marina said.

“A what?” Katya said, laughing. “Never mind, I’ve heard the term. And I am anything but a hetaera. I am a whore.”

“Fine, be a whore if you wish,” Marina said, sighing. “Why?”

“Well, unlike some people I don’t have a rich father to keep me,” Katya said.

“Hah!” Marina snorted. “Rich. The Russian government pays as if it was still 1980 and true communism was just around the corner. Our rent was paid by the institute but much of the time we couldn’t afford food. I had a vegetable garden in the summer; that was much of what we ate. Rich. Katya, will you keep a secret?”

“If possible,” Katya said. “I’m not going to withstand torture to get it. And I can’t guarantee that we’re not being… bugged or something.”

“Oh, I don’t care what those men know or think,” Marina said. “They’re pigs. But I have been a whore. I have taken money to… do it.”

“If you use a term like ‘do it’, you have never been a whore.”

“It was when I was at college,” Marina continued. “Sometimes I would go to the bars and pick up men, Americans or Europeans of course, and ply them for money. I was using my body, screwed men, for money. That is being a whore, yes?”

“No,” Katya said. “That’s like saying that one of these Chechen pigs is a soldier. A whore is someone who is beaten twice a day by her pimp. Who is beaten until she pees blood but goes out to make his money anyway. A whore licks out toilet bowls because it is the choice of that or die. A whore has no choice. None. At best you were a prostitute.”

“You have a point,” Marina replied. “I guess being a whore is sort of a badge of honor for you.”

“I hadn’t thought of that, but, yes,” Katya said. “It is what I am. If you do something for long you had better become proud of it or find a way, any way, to change.”

“Katya,” Marina said.


“Don’t take this wrong,” Marina continued. “But I think you are probably a very good whore.”

“The best you’ll ever meet,” Katya said. “And because we are such good friends you can call me Cottontail.”

“That is a very strange name,” Marina said, nervously.

“I am a very strange person.”

Chapter Twenty-Four

“Hey, Chief,” Kacey said, stepping out of the Expedition. It was being driven by one of the older Keldara and she wondered how he felt about that. The Keldara women seemed more independent than some of the third world types she’d been around but they were definitely second-class citizens. He had to be a bit put out chauffering a woman. But if he had an issue with it it wasn’t apparent. On the other hand, the Keldara were pretty stone-faced. They’d make great poker players.

“Hey, boss,” D’Allaird said, closing a hatch on the Hind.

“Everything good?” Kacey asked.

“Yeah, just looking at one of their junctions,” Tim replied, grinning. “God damn those Czechs are some fine ass engineers. Call this a Hind if you want, but it’s practically an entirely different bird. All the connections are better, all the systems are more robust and they’re way better quality manufacture than anything I’ve seen out of the Russians. And they did all that without actually changing anything. Most of their parts can be switched out for standard without a hitch. The Czech ones are just better designed and made. Cool ass shit.”

“Glad you like it,” Kacey said. “How are the Czechs working out?”

“Well, saying they speak English is a stretch,” D’Allaird said. “But engineers all speak the same language if you know what I mean.”

“Good,” Kacey said. “But, we’ve got another personnel problem.”

“No crew,” D’Allaird said. “No problem, I can toss supplies.”

“I don’t want you tossing supplies,” Kacey said. “I want you back here making sure the back-up bird is golden. And I want you ready to take care of anything wrong with this one when we land. We need a body. Two, really. Cause we’re going to be unassing these supplies as fast as possible and I’d like to get people trained in so we can operate both birds.”

“Uh, there’s a personnel shortage, ma’am,” Tim pointed out. “Most of the younger males are up in the hills, you know. I suppose some of the older guys, like your driver, could… ”

“I was thinking something different.”

* * *

“That’s an interesting suggestion,” Nielson said, rubbing his eyes. “I wish the Kildar was here to pitch it, though. I don’t have a problem with responsibility, mind you. It’s just the Kildar can say ‘This is how it shall be done’ and the Keldara, in general, just do it. He’s the Kildar. That’s big mojo. I don’t have the same mojo.”

“We need the bodies,” Kacey said, ticking off the items she’d thought of on her fingers. “We’re probably going to need them in the future. The older males all have day to day responsibilities, especially with the young men gone. That’s not going to change. And there’s nothing they can’t do in the field. The US military has, sorry, proven that over and over again. It’s not field combat.”

“Let’s go talk to Father Kulcyanov,” Nielson said with a sigh.

* * *

“Father Kulcyanov, thank you for meeting with us,” Nielson said, nodding to the Elder. He realized he was going to have to translate since Father Kulcyanov had damned little English and Kacey even less Georgian.

“You are the castellaine of the Kildar,” Father Kulcyanov said, nodding. “In his absence, you are his Voice. I should have met you at the caravanserai. I am at your command in the absence of the Kildar. You honor me by your visit. I drink to you.” He took a sip of beer and then lowered the mug. “May the Father of All give us wisdom in this council.”

“The Father of All,” Nielson said, taking a sip. “He just blessed this ‘council’ to the Father of All. I’ll have to give you more background on the Keldara. They play Christian only when it suits them; they’re actually pagans.”

“I’m afraid I can’t drink,” Kacey said, uncomfortably. “Not before flying. But I, too, honor this… council by the… Father of All.”

Nielson translated and then added with a wry grin: “And Captain Bathlick does not drink alcohol anyway.”

“I shall call for water,” Father Kulcyanov said, nodding and calling for it. “I did not know of your customs. My apologies.”

“He said he didn’t know your customs and apologizes,” Nielson said. “He’s getting you water.”

“It is not meant to dishonor you in any way,” Kacey replied, uncomfortably. “I just don’t drink anymore. Also, it is very unwise to drink anything within twelve hours of flying. It requires very precise reactions. My co-pilot is a drinker but even she does not before flying.”

“She no longer drinks alcohol and is prohibited from doing so before flying, anyway,” Nielson translated. “Her co-pilot drinks but not before flying. And it is that which we must talk about. The pilots are taking up a supply run to the Keldara. They need someone to load and unload the helicopters.”

“I shall tell… ” Father Kulcyanov paused and sighed. “I am so used to having Oleg task and do such tasks. But he is with the Kildar. We will arrange.”

“He’s tapped out for guys,” Nielson said. “You wanna do your pitch. I’ll translate it as you go.”

“Sir, if I may,” Kacey said as a young woman came up and set down a mug of spring water by her arm. “Thank you. Sir, if I could ask for something. We are going to need these crew on a regular basis. They don’t just load and unload the aircraft. With training they take care of minor maintenance, respond to in-flight emergencies and man the door guns. They are soldiers, sir. However, there is nothing that requires great strength. In the US military many of the aircrews are… women.”

Nielson translated and then waited.

Father Kulcyanov looked at her for a moment and then gave a broad grin. And spoke at length.

“Let me see if I can do this verbatim,” Nielson said, shaking his head. “I didn’t even know he’d been in Stalingrad. Here goes:

“And you wish to use some of the Keldara women for this was how he started. I am one of only two of the Elders who fought in the Great War in the army of the bastard Stalin. He was a godless communist and calling him a pig insults pigs, but he had some things to teach even one such as I. When I saw that women were in the army, even carrying weapons, I was shocked. I was a young man, and very easily shocked. But more than once, especially in Stalingrad, I saw the women fight with as much courage, and ability, as any of my fellow soldiers. Better. You, I think, maybe could have fought with those women, Captain.

“The other elders, none of them, even Devlich who also fought in the War, fought with women beside them. They are having a hard time seeing women as anything more than makers of babies and beer: women are for tending to the fires and warming a bed. But I have seen them fight. And I am no longer shockable. You shall have your girl, Captain Bathlick.”

When Nielson finished translating the young woman who had served the water said something to the elder and Father Kulcyanov answered with a shake of his head.

“Serena I agree with Father Kulcyanov,” Nielson interjected. “You’re still sixteen. Give it a year or two at least. Seventeen or eighteen minimum. But preferably unmarried which makes it tough. Not because of the danger, but because if the unit deploys they may deploy with it.”

The young woman seemed to translate that from Kacey’s perspective and then with a very visible sign of screwing up her courage said some names. Father Kulcyanov grunted and answered tersely without looking at her at which the young woman ducked her head and went back in the back of house.

“She suggested some of the girls and Father Kulcyanov pointed out that he didn’t need an unbroached child to tell him who was who in the Keldara,” Nielson said in a low voice. “And he said it that way, which I’ve never heard an elder say to an unmarried, or, hell, a married female before.”

“Women’s lib only goes so far, huh?” Kacey said.

“More like a very junior enlisted making suggestions to a general,” Nielson replied. “Effectively he was just saying: ‘Teach me to suck eggs, girl.’ And the way that he said it was telling. He used the sort of language he’d have used with one of the militiamen. The girl doesn’t realize it, but she just got a backhanded compliment in that insult. He’s already put her in the category of warrior in his mind, even if he doesn’t realize it. And Father Kulcyanov’s opinion on that score is the only opinion that matters to the Keldara.”

Father Kulcyanov asked something and Nielson answered in the affirmative. Then the old man spoke at length and to Kacey’s ear somewhat ruefully.

“I’m trying not to smile,” Nielson said. “And don’t you. What he said was that when he thought of who would make good women for this position it was the same list Serena had suggested. But two of them are already on mortar teams and he doesn’t want to lose their experience. So… ”

“Gretchen,” Father Kulcyanov spat.

Nielson looked at the old man and said something. The old man shrugged and said something back, looking at the colonel as an old sergeant might look at a new recruit. Oh, one with promise, but…

“And you have your crewchief,” Nielson said, frowning. “Gretchen’s English is pretty good. Probably why he picked her. I hope that’s why he picked her.”

“What was that thing at the end?” Kacey asked. She’d heard the word “Kildar” in there and Nielson, at least, was clearly uncomfortable about her new crew-chief.

“Nothing that will interfere with your mission,” Nielson said with a sigh. “Mine… possibly. But you have a crewchief.”

“Well, one thing I just realized,” Kacey said. “I need to start learning Georgian, fast.”

“Keldara,” Nielson corrected. “It’s as different from Georgian as Russian. But you’ll learn. We all did.”

* * *

Tim looked up and shook his head as Kacey got out of the Expedition followed by a girl in local dress.

“The good news is that she’s damned near a match for Tammie’s size, so flightsuits are covered,” Kacey said. “Chief Warrant Officer Tim D’Allair, Gretchen Mahona. Gretchen, this is Chief D’Allair. He goes by Chief or Gunny.”

“Never could get over getting shafted into taking a warrant,” D’Allaird said, shaking the girl’s hands. He also was studiously trying to ignore her looks. “Do you speak English?”

“I speak fairly well,” Gretchen said. “I am basic trained in weapons, including machine guns. I can fire, strip and fix basic jam. Am strong. Work farm.”

“That’s a start,” D’Allaird said with a sigh. “Boss, we’re about to start loading. Can you scrounge the flightsuits while I get started? While you were negotiating for crewmen I was finding some backs.”

“Okay,” Kacey said. “We’ll be back.”

For the time being all they had in the way of a ready room was a small shack but there was a crate of flightsuits in it so that was the way she headed. The girl could change in there. It would be cold but she figured she could handle that.

“Captain, is a question okay?” Gretchen said as she opened the shed.

“The only dumb question is the one you don’t ask,” Kacey said. “That means if you have a question and we’re not in the middle of something hot, ask it. Always.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Gretchen said. “Am I having rank?”

“You know, I didn’t ask,” Kacey admitted. “But, yeah, for now you’re a buck private. We’ll get the rest worked out later.”

“Good,” Gretchen said. “Thank you.”

“Rank means a lot to you?” Kacey asked as she opened the shed.

“It means are soldier, warrior,” Gretchen said. “If we die in combat, the Valkyr come for us. Are not condemn to Cold Land. Valkyr rarely come for women of Keldara.”

“Interesting,” Kacey said. “You’re Asatru?”

“I am not hear that name before,” Gretchen replied. “And we do not talk much of our Mysteries.”

“I heard you’re like Norse or something,” the pilot said. “I’ve got a couple of friends who worship those gods. The group’s called Asatru in the States. About all I know about it. Can I ask a question?”

“Of course,” Gretchen said. ” You are commander.”

“When you got picked by Father… Kulcycanov?”

“Yes, is Father of Kulcyanov family,” the girl said.

“Nielson said something about the Kildar?” Kacey said. To her surprise, the girl blushed.

“Is nothing,” Gretchen said.

“Is something,” Captain Bathlick replied. “What is it? Specifically, is it going to affect the mission?”

“No,” Gretchen replied then paused. “Is problem with Ritual of Cardane. Kildar is… I am… Is hard to explain. Kildar… has feelings for me.”

“The Kildar’s got his eye on you?” Kacey asked. “Hasn’t he got enough women?”

“Has many,” Gretchen replied, dryly. “There is ritual opening of Keldara women. Kildar has done this many times. Is Keldara ritual; Kildar has never been… happy with it. He has, however, participated in several such rituals. Called Rite of Cardane. I was last to be broached. He… He and I, though, developed… strong feelings for each other. Is under discussion if I should become Kildaran, the… wife of Kildar instead of my current intended. Will not be, Kildar will not interfere, but… ”

“Oh,” Kacey said in a small voice, her eyes wide. Shit, she’s potentially the boss’ wife! “I so have to learn not to ask questions. Case of suits in the corner. Grab a spare helmet. We’ll fit those later. Somehow I’m sure you can figure out the zipper.”

* * *

“I’m still not natural with this bird,” Kacey said, banking the Hind down the narrow valley. “How’s our clearance?”

“Good,” Tammie said, watching the ground avoidance radar. Technically, with the design of the Czech Hind, the pilot could do it all. And Kacey was risking glances at the instruments. But with her current comfort level it made more sense for Tammie to act as, effectively, a navigator while Kacey concentrated on not plowing the bird into the ground. “I think this is as low as we should go for now, but you’re good. LZ is marked in about another klick up the valley. There’s a ridge in the way you’re going to have to negotiate.”

“See it,” Kacey said. The problem with the night vision goggles, though, was that they had virtually no depth perception. “Distance?”

“Six hundred meters, three hundred, start climb.”

“I’m good,” Kacey said, increasing power and touching the collective upwards. The helicopter lurched, not the smooth lift she was trying for but she was missing the ground and that was the important thing. She crested the ridge much higher than she would have liked but she could dial in her technique when she knew the bird a little bettter.

The LZ was clearly marked, fortunately, with what looked like cyalumes laid out in a Y formation indicating wind. She banked left then back to the right and settled towards the ground. The touchdown was smooth, if slow. Slow was still good in her opinion.

“Tell the ladies to start a dumpin’,” she said, breathing in relief.

* * *

Mike walked over to the Hind cockpit and waved in a friendly manner.

“Glad to see you ladies,” Mike said with a grin as pilots opened their canopies. “And you said you couldn’t fly one of these things. O Ye of little faith!”

“This is very damned hairy, sir,” Kacey replied, evenly. “This is high skill flying, sir. I’ve got the skill but I don’t have the time in the bird to feel really comfortable with it.”

“Well, I’m comfortable with your skill, captain,” Mike said. “You’re good or you wouldn’t be here. You’ll get comfortable. You know this mission wasn’t precisely necessary, right?”

“No, sir,” Tammie said, confused. “You needed the supplies, didn’t you?”

“Sure, but only because we light loaded for the first movement,” Mike said. “The main purpose to this mission is because the next one is tougher. You needed the experience and the Keldara have never operated like this with helos. They’ve flown in them but never been resupplied by them. I wanted both groups to get comfortable so when the shit hit the fan neither they nor you would freak. Tomorrow’s mission is way more important. And if you have to supply us on the other side of the mountains, well that’s going to be hairy as shit. So get confident. Fast.”

“Got it, sir,” Kacey said.

“Looks like time for me to odie,” Mike said. “I’ll see you in a few days. Keep the faith.”

“Yes, sir,” Tammie replied as Mike backed out past the supplies. “Is it just me or is that guy, like, charismatic as hell?”

“I’ve got 257 hours in this bird, as of this mission,” Kacey said. “And I’m flying a night, tactical, NOE. You think I’d do that for just anybody?”

“So when are you going to nail him?” Tammie asked.

“I probably won’t get the chance,” Kacey replied. “Damnit. You know the blonde we got as load?”

“Yeah,” Tammie said.


“What?” Tammie snapped. “Doesn’t he have enough women?”

“Long story… ”

* * *

“Hello, Viktor,” Gretchen said as she lifted the first box out of the door of the helicopter. The pilot had not stopped the rotors so there was very much dust but that was why she had been given goggles.

“Gretchen?” Viktor said, surprised. He took the box of rations, though, and tossed it to the next man in line. “What are you doing here?”

“Somebody had to unload the helicopters, yes?” Gretchen said, tossing him another box. “The new crew chief said we may be trained as crewmen. We are privates, now. The pilots are women, why not?”

“What does Father Makanee think of this?” Viktor asked, grinning.

“He sulks, what else?” Gretchen siad, grinning back. “Women are for cooking and making babies and beer. Not for flying around in helicopters. Much less in combat. Father Kulcyanov has blessed us, though, and our mission. We are soldiers now.”

“Are you going to be in combat?” Viktor asked, worried.

“The crewman mans the machine-gun,” Gretchen said, gesturing to the door gun. “You tell me.”

“Hopefully not,” Viktor replied. “I’d hate to be at your funeral. I would hate to have to deal with… Does the Kildar know about this?”

“I don’t know,” Gretchen said, shrugging. “But I think he likes strong women, yes? So this is good. As to funerals, I think I would hate to be at yours, brother. So I agree to take care and you do so as well.”

“I’ll try, sis,” Viktor replied.

* * *


Dr. Arensky looked at the rip in his shirt and shook his head.

“I wish they’d given us a hammer. There are nails sticking out all over. That’s the fourth rip I’ve gotten in my clothes!”

“For a scientist, you sure are clumsy,” Gregor chuckled from the corner.

Arensky had taken to walking up and down the small room whenever he wasn’t puttering with his cultures or cooking. Both he and Gregor were putting on weight from the latter and he’d decided to fight it by pacing. Gregor hadn’t argued or complained unless he neared the room’s sole door. Unfortunately, there were several nails sticking out of the roughly constructed wall. And he’d managed to find all of them.

“Is there any way you could get me a needle and thread?” Arensky asked, fingering the tear.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Gregor said with a shrug. “Don’t tell me you can sew as well?”

“Who else was going to fix our clothes?” Arensky asked. “Oh, Marina learned eventually. But I didn’t get paid enough to buy clothes just because a collar was worn out or a sleeve ripped. This shirt is nearly ten years old, it’s been mended, even rebuilt, many times. I suppose you can’t even call it the same shirt anymore.”

“You are a wonder, doc,” Gregor said, his eyes still closed. “I’ll get you the needle. I need my socks darned.”

Chapter Twenty-Five

“Fuenf minuten!” the loadmaster yelled, holding up five fingers.

So much for “an English speaking crew”, Captain Guerrin thought. The pilots spoke English, but the only language he and the Ukrainian loadmaster had in common was German. Guerrin had spent several tours in Germany in the course of his career and picked up the language readily. He should have concentrated on Ukrainian.

The good news was that the military attache, who did speak Ukrainian and had been a Hercy pilot upon a time, was along as a passenger. He’d smoothed things out quite a bit and been really helpful with figuring out the slightly different configuration on this bird.

The AN-70s were brand new aircraft, the first new aircraft produced by Ukraine since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. So new the two the Rangers were using were the first the Ukrainians, themselves, had been able to afford.

The original design process had started back in the ’80s, intended by the Soviet military as a replacement for the by then venerable fleet of AN-12 Cubs. With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the accompanying economic disruptions production of the first prototype was halted then started then halted several times. Finally, in 1995 a protype was completed and entered testing. Unfortunately, on one of it’s first tests it collided with its chase plane and crashed, killing all seven of its crew.

However, the AN-70 was “the plane that wouldn’t die.” Antonov produced another protype in 1997 and continued testing with the first production planes coming off the lines, finally, in 1999.

Produced primarily for short-range, high-capacity hauling in underdeveloped countries the AN-70 was a turbo-prop, short-take-off-and-landing bird similar in many respects to the C-130 if considerably larger with a maximum payload of 130,000 kilograms or 100 jumpers vs 20,000 kg or 64 jumpers. It also had one of the most advanced designs of any cargo aircraft in the world with significant use of composites as well as a very high end avionics suite.

Compared to even the newest generation of Hercules’, it was a thoroughbred next to a cart horse. Among other things, it flew more like a fighter than a “trash-hauler.”

There was also a shit-load of room for the jumpers. They had a hundred and thirty jumpers with them. They could have, would have, cut a few if all they had were a couple of C-130s. As it was, if the mission hadn’t been so high level classified, they could have taken twenty or thirty “strap-hangers” and still rattled around like peas in a pod.

“STAND UP!” he shouted at the nearest jumper, flashing the same five fingers.

All through the aircraft the Rangers started struggling to their feet. Given that they had a rucksack over a hundred pounds in weight on their knees and a parachute on their back, it wasn’t the easiest maneuver in the world. On the other hand, they’d all done it dozens of times so they were up pretty quick.

“HOOK UP!” Guerrin shouted to the lead jumper, making a hooking sign in the air, then did so himself, albeit to the inboard cable.

Four cables ran down the interior of the aircraft, two about a foot from the skin, the “outboard” cables, and two about a foot apart running down the middle, the “inboard” cables. Jumpers hooked to the outboard cables, jumpmasters to the inboard.

Guerrin secured the cotter pin through his static line cable connector and then caught the eye of the lead jumper.

“CHECK STATIC LINE!” A sign of yanking on the static line.

Check to make sure you’re hooked up, check that the opening was “outboard” so just in case it jumped open, against all reason, you’d still have your chute pull out of the bag and open. Check the pin, check to make sure the line wasn’t around anything. If the static line got under your arm, for example, you would suddenly have a piece of nylon rope cutting into your bicep under pressure and screaming by at over a hundred miles per hour. In any airborne unit you saw the guys with “static line arm.”

Getting it around your neck was worse. You didn’t see them much after the jump. Maybe at the memorial service.

“CHECK EQUIPMENT!” A pound on the chest like Tarzan.

He and the assistant jumpmaster checked each other cursorily. Honestly, it was all Pentagon safety bullshit. You’re jumping it, you’d better have checked it. But you had to make the show.

“SOUND OFF FOR EQUIPMENT CHECK!” Lean forward with hand to ear.

The cry was repeated then from the front of the bird the troops sounded off, coming down in a string. The last one, the lead jumper, Specialist Serris, leaned forward and gave him an “Okay” sign and a big grin.


Christ, he’d told that joke once. Guerrin was prior service. He’d done time in the Rangers as an enlisted then gotten out and gone civvie. It was only after 9/11 that he’d come back in, riding an OCS ticket, a few contacts and some luck into a Ranger commander slot.

But “back in the day” as they said, Eddie Murphy was still on Saturday Night Live and doing his Buckwheat routine. Thus the “accent.” They did it all the time on jumps, just for shits and giggles.

He’d told a squad that just fucking once. So much for “opening up to the troops.”

“DOOR CHECK!” he shouted at the Ukrainian load master, pointing at the door. The hell if he could remember the German for that.

The loadmaster opened the door and the captain stepped to the opening. He took a good footing then grabbed the door edges and began his check. There were a lot of ways for a static line jump to fuck up and airborne and Ranger units had managed all of them at one point or another. One of the real killers was having a rough or sharp spot on the door edge. On the leading edge, it meant a cut hand, no big deal. On the trailing edge, though, it could mean a cut static line. And then, well, you had your reserve but bottomline you were fucked. Pull your reserve, dump your gear and hope like hell you didn’t hit too hard.

Modern “steerable” parachutes were designed to drop a standard-weight jumper at nine feet per second. The problem being that gear weights had gone up. So even if you dropped your ruck, you were still looking at thirty pounds over “standard” weights the chutes were designed for. Then there’s the fact that “standard” weight, due to increases in size in the American public and the generally heavier nature of Rangers, were not “standard” in the Batts. And even nine feet per second was damned fast when it was you hitting the ground. About ten percent of the jumpers in any drop, even in training, got injured on impact with the cold, hard earth.

Reserve chutes dropped you at a “standard” seventeen feet per minute.

He’d hit with a reserve once. It wasn’t something he wanted to experience again. So he checked hell out of the door.

But the Ukrainians, thank God, knew what they were doing. The molding around the door was as fresh as right out of the factory. Well, okay, it was darned near fresh from the factory. There wasn’t anything wrong with the door.

Door checked he leaned out and looked forward. There were still mountains in the way but he’d seen the approach maps; they were going to be looking at mountains right up until the jump. No problem. The Ranger motto is “The Whole World Is A Drop Zone.” The area they were going into was actually much better than their usual training drops. The stone walls were going to be interesting, but that’s why they had steerable chutes.

He could see an opening in the mountains, though. Probably their valley. Which meant they were close. He ducked back in and looked at the jumpmaster who held up two fingers.




Guerrin shook his head again and leaned back out. The troops had also picked up that he was a UGA graduate. So it naturally became “Bravo Bulldogs.” On a level he should be proud, it was a sign the troops thought well of him. But at moments like this it was a pain.

He could see the valley now. They were high. The birds were going to have to drop like a stone to get them down to anything jumpable. For that matter he noticed the air was pretty damned thin; it was a bit hard to breath.

He popped back in and looked at Serris, hoping he could get this across.

“HANG ON,” he yelled, suiting words to actions by grabbing a stanchion by the door. “WE’RE DROPPING!” He made a motion with his hand pointed down, like an aircraft in a dive.

Serris looked blank for a moment then nodded, grabbing at one of the folded up seats with the hand not holding a static line and shouting to the guy behind him.

“Dreizig seconds!” the loadmaster shouted.

“THIRTY SECONDS!” Guerrin screamed. “HOLD THE FUCK ON!”

Whether the word got back or not, Guerrin saw virtually everyone grabbing something just before the nose of the bird tipped over. And it was a dive, a hard one.


The bird rang with the cry and Guerrin had to grin, even with what felt like his entire last month’s meals coming up in his throat. He could feel his feet half leaving the ground. The pilots were really having fun, that was for sure. Oh, hell, face it, they were all having fun. Even if this was an admin drop it felt like combat, coming in in a “friendly nation’s” bird, nose down and screaming at the DZ. It felt fucking hot.

Guerrin leaned out and he could see they were right on the DZ. Still diving.

“Zehn Sekunden!”

“Serris!” he shouted at the lead jumper. “Stand in the door!”

Fuck the new regs. The way they were maneuvering Serris couldn’t just stand up. He was going to be lucky to make it to the door without sprawling on his face. He needed something to hang onto and the old way, standing in the door, grabbing the edges, was going to work better.

Guerrin took another look out and could see they were flashing over some small town stuck in a tiny valley. Just out the door, practically on the same level as they were jumping, was some sort of castle. Fucking cool.

He grabbed Serris’ hand and practically dragged him to the door, slapping the hand onto the trailing edge as the bird leveled out, hard. Just as it did, the light flashed green.


Serris bailed followed by the stick but Guerrin kept his eyes out the door, keeping count at the same time. There were mountains in their way, coming up fast. He started to raise a hand and then did so as the red light came on.

“HANG ON!” he screamed, grabbing the new lead jumper’s risers as the plane banked up. The jumper, a sergeant from third platoon, lurched into him but stayed on his feet.

“Stand by!” Guerrin called, pointing to the stanchion on the forward side of the bird’s troop door and shoving the sergeant to it. There was no way he could just stand in the middle of the open area, any more than Serris could have.

Sixteen out on his side. They might get more on the second pass. Maybe less, probably more. Thirty-two jumpers, including himself, on his side, just like a Herc. One more pass, maybe two. He had to wait for the assistant JM to go. Probably no way he’d make it out on the second pass.

He’d considered having one of the, many, other qualified jumpmasters in the unit cover the drop. Technically he should have been the first guy on the ground. But the situation on the ground, according to everyone, was pretty together. He had been more worried about the quality of drop support. Thus the fact that he’d be the last guy out.

The bird had nosed up then banked, hard. The bank was right so he was looking at sky but looking through the other door, over his shoulder, it was apparent that the pilots were staying pretty low. Low enough that you could practically count the damned pine needles. He’d have been happier with a little more AGL.

Bank, level out, bank another of those screaming dives and…


The Rangers had been able to count, too. He looked over at the assistant JM and shrugged and nodded to him. Up to him to decide if he could make it out on this chalk.

The assistant, Sergeant First Class Jose J Clavell, the Third Platoon platoon sergeant, just nodded and looked back out the door.

Last jumper on Guerrin’s side and he had… a little room. Looking over his shoulder Clavell was… gone.

“Tchuss!” he shouted at the Ukrainian load-master as he threw himself out the door, red light and all. The reason for the red light was clear since the bird lurched upwards just as he was clearing it.

He’d just started to count and then felt the one hardest separation he’d ever felt in his life. The ascending bird had practically ripped his chute cover off. He felt the chute open, though, and looking up he had a good canopy. Whew!

Looking down, though…

“Fuck,” he muttered. Drop altitude was supposed to have been eight hundred feet, above ground level. And it probably had been. But going out late he’d ended up exiting over a damned at least two hundred foot ridge, covered in trees. This was really gonna suck…

* * *

First Sergeant Kwan hit the ground like a sack of shit, as always. He could instruct on a proper PLF, parachute landing fall, and had as a Black Hat in the Jump School in Benning. But he always hit like a sack of shit himself and so far, so good. He’d sustained injuries in jumps but only in cases where a good PLF wouldn’t have mattered worth a damn. Like that one time he hit a fence-post covered in barb-wire. That had really sucked.

This time, though, he could tell it was a good hit. Nice spot. Plowed field. Comfy.

He popped a riser, hit the quick release on his harness and rolled to his feet, scanning the area. No yells for medic, which was a very good sign. He was usually about the last guy down in a drop. If nobody was screaming for a medic it meant no major injuries.

He started to gather his chute and then paused as, through a break in one of the stone fences he saw a cluster of locals headed his way. Women locals by the skirts and blouses, carrying sacks just about the size to pack a chute in.

He stood up and began bundling the chute as the women spread out, one or two towards each jumper. None of them were armed, so he didn’t see a security situation. He wasn’t sure about swarming Rangers with… damn they were good looking! women just after a jump, though.

“His” gal had reached him by the time he had the chute bundled, though, so there was no stopping it now.

“We take,” the lady said in heavily accented English. “Clean, pack, give back. You go. Duty.” She pointed towards a cluster of houses to the south. That was the designated assembly area.

“Okay,” Kwan said, dubiously. “Take care of it. That’s US Government property.”

“Clean, pack, give back,” the gal repeated, grinning. “You go. Duty. Beer.”

“Yeah,” the First Sergeant said, suddenly alarmed. “I’d better get going.” They had better not be serving his Rangers beer already.

* * *

Guerrin swung back and forth, kicking his feet like a kid on a swing and working out the pain in his left arm. He’d taken a hell of a bang coming down through the branches of this… oak by the look of it. But the canopy had caught on the upper part of the tree, leaving him dangling about twenty feet off the ground. There was a procedure to get down but, given that the ground was covered in scrub and rocks, he was already banged up and this was a training jump, he was planning on staying here til somebody came by with a ladder.

He looked up, though, at the sound of an unusual helicopter engine approaching. He couldn’t see much through the trees but it sounded… Well, it wasn’t a Huey and it wasn’t a Blackhawk. Not an Alouette or a Kiowa, either, he knew those. Sounded big, though…

He looked up, though, as it came to a hover overhead, battering him with rotor wash. A fucking Hind? Guerrin had never been around for the Cold War days but things like Hinds still gave him the willies. They were the image of the Soviet war machine that was going to crush the US Army given half a chance. Having one hovering overhead wasn’t pleasing making. Neither was the way it was causing the branches above him to sway.

A guy was already sliding out of it on a harness connected to a cable, though, dropping towards him. So much for a ladder, apparently. He’d never been extracted out of trees by a chopper before. Something new every day.

He ducked his head against the wind and only lifted it as he felt more than heard a body come crashing through the branches overhead.

“Captain Guerrin I presume!” the helmeted crewman shouted. The guy had the look of being an oldster. Guerrin couldn’t see much past the helmet, visor and boom mike but the guy was clearly American by the accent. “Care for a ride?”

“Sure!” Guerrin shouted back. “How we going to do this?”

“Not a problem,” the guy yelled. “Done it plenty of times!”

The guy said something into the mike then clambered around behind him. Guerrin felt something click onto his harness then they both lifted for a bit. They paused again and Guerrin realized the maneuver had been intended to take the pressure off his risers. IF they’d popped the connections to the canopy while he was dangling they’d have flown upwards under pressure and who knows what would have happened. Flying risers were no joke. With the pressure he reached up and disconnected one just as the guy on his back disconnected the other.

He felt another lift and ducked his head as they crashed up through the canopy.

“Don’t sweat it, captain, done this plenty of times!” the guy repeated.

“Who the hell pulls Rangers out of trees with a helicopter?” Guerrin shouted back.

“Who said anything about Rangers?” the crewman yelled. “I usually pull pilots out of trees!”

“You’re a parajumper?” Guerrin yelled.

“Well, actually, not in the last ten years! But it’s like riding a bicycle… !”

Chapter Twenty-Six

“First Sergeant… Kwan?”

Most of the company had assembled on a flat open area near the houses of the locals. It was a flat spot slightly lower than the area where the houses were with a short bank separating it from another open area directly in front of the houses.

Quite a few of the locals, ranging from some oldsters that looked on their last legs down to the usual gaggle of kids that swarmed around and American military unit, had come out of their houses to look over the new arrivals. And quite a few of them were damn fine looking women. Most of the company had been around enough, the average was four trips to the sandbox, that they weren’t gawking, much, except at the girls.

Kwan had at first worried about the gathering, not just because Rangers and women went together like iron and magnets, but because in the sandbox a gathering like that read “riot” or a carbomb taking out a bunch of locals. But these folks didn’t seem hostile or worried. They didn’t seem exactly friendly, either. They seemed to be more curious and even judging than anything else. Quiet. Even the kids were making quiet comments to each other, taking the serious tone they were getting from their elders. One of the oldsters, a big blonde guy that was one of those that looked on his last legs, was standing at parade rest and observing them like a general on a reviewing stand. It was nervous making.

Kwan turned to the guy in unfamiliar digi-cam and paused. His nametag read “Nielson” but he was wearing some foreign rank the NCO didn’t recognize. He didn’t even know if the guy was an officer or a civilian advisor or what. But he had an air of authority and on the basis that a salute never hurt the First Sergeant saluted.

“Yes, sir.”

“Pleasure,” Nielson said, returning the salute. “Colonel Nielson, late of the US Army, currently operations officer of this little lash-up. Where’s Captain Guerrin?”

“I don’t know, sir,” Kwan said. “We were just discussing that. He chose to JM the drop, sir. Sergeant Clavell said the CO told him to decide if he could go in the last stick and it looked good. But he came down fucking close to the treeline. He doesn’t know if the CO went out or not or what.”

“Oh, he’s gone from the bird,” the “colonel” said. “The Ukrainians confirmed all jumpers gone before they flew home.”

“So the CO… ”

“One jumper, at least, went down on that ridge,” the local said, gesturing to the north. “He’s probably in the trees. I’ve already sent a recovery team. Where’s the XO?”

“Here, sir,” Lieutenant Robert Imus replied.

“I’ll need to hold most of this until y