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Chapter Twenty-Seven

"Carting your girls around with you, now?" Meller asked as Katya and Lida walked over to watch the building dam. The engineer had hired three dump trucks from the area and some other equipment so the dam was building swiftly. The south side was about seventy percent filled in and the north about halfway with a building mound in the center. Besides the Keldara with hand compactors there were two rolling compactors, which looked somewhat like steam rollers, working the dirt.

"Sort of," Mike said. "I'm teaching Kat to be an assistant. Not for me, not long term, but it's something I think she could do as an occupation if she could keep from knifing her boss in the back. And it's a good way to learn how things work. Lida I'm keeping close as a bonding thing."

It had been three weeks since training, of the militia and the girls, had started and Mike was on his third young lady in as many weeks.

"And you've been doing a good bit of bonding," Meller said, grinning.

"This is a weird situation," Mike said. "At least for me. Not that I'm knocking it or anything. The sex is great."

"Well, fortunately with the training rotation we're not missing Kat," Meller said. "But the moans from down the hall are interesting. I guess she enjoys her new status."

"Apparently," Mike said, chuckling. Meller was not the first to comment on the sounds, by a long stretch. "How long?"

"Two weeks," Meller said in a satisfied tone. "Once we're finished with the main dirt laydown, all we have to do is cover it with clay and start filling. I figure about another two weeks for that. I'm going to turn over to Prael next week and get started on the electric."

"Don't forget my brewery building," Mike said.

"I haven't," Meller said. "Prael's going to start clearing the foundations tomorrow. Father Mahona's going to be in charge of the construction; it's going to be straight Keldara construction for the most part. Vanner's gotten a design for it and he's working with Mother Lenka on the brewing cycle."

"Works for me," Mike said. "I'll need someone to do the sales, though. I'm thinking of getting the Keldara town brew as an example so we can get some sales lined up for when we have our first batch done."

"You're assuming your first brew is going to be good enough for market," Meller pointed out.

"I'm trusting Mother Lenka on that one," Mike admitted. "I think she could get a saleable brew out of a stone. Time to go collect the girls before they distract the workmen too much. I'll be glad to have power from this thing; those generators I had installed are costing like crazy."

"So is this," Meller pointed out. "But it's capital expenditure. You'll have power from it for a century."

"I doubt I'll last that long," Mike said, chuckling.

* * *

"Mike, got something to discuss with you," Nielson said when he got back to the serai.

"Lida, go to classes," Mike said, patting the girl on the butt. "I'll come fetch you later. Katya . . ."

"I'll go finish my spreadsheet," Katya said, nodding.

"Projections on beer sales," Mike said, following Nielson to the latter's office. "Might be cart before the horse, but I figure we can start looking at what we might get."

"And it keeps her occupied," Nielson said, chuckling.

"And it keeps her occupied," Mike admitted. "I'm having a hard time finding work for her."

"Toss her over to me," Nielson said, sitting behind his overloaded desk. "I could use an assistant that can do spreadsheets."

"And her typing's improving," Mike said. "What can I do for you? How's the training going?"

"Good," Nielson admitted. "As far as I can tell at this point. With one exception."

"Gurun," Mike guessed. "What's happening?"

"He's really being . . . put on," Nielson said, frowning. "Not really his fault. Stuff happens and it all gets blamed on him, whether it's his fault or not. Even when it's clearly someone else's."

"Standard thing with the caillean," Mike said, grimacing.

"The problem is it's causing a real rift in his team," Nielson said. "I've spoken to Vil but he just shuts down on the subject. And none of the other team leaders are willing to let him transfer. It's like the whole clan has shut him out."

"They have in a way," Mike said, sighing. "I hate to lose a fighter, but they're not going to accept him no matter what." He thought about it for a second and then shrugged. "I don't know him from Adam. What's he like?"

"Smart," Nielson said, shrugging. "I don't know him well, either, but I've talked to Peters about him and he says he's actually very good. If he wasn't having this other problem he'd consider him for the team assistant slot. As it is . . ."

"Let me talk to him," Mike said, sighing. "Bring him up this evening. If we pull him we'll do it tonight."

"Will do," Nielson said.

* * *

"Kildar," Katya said when he got to his office. "I've prepared the spreadsheet on beer sales and a report on potential distributors I pulled from the internet. Two in Europe and six in America. Also . . . Sergeant Vanner and I disagree on something. I would like you to talk to him about it."

"He's the intel head," Mike said, frowning. "I don't think you should go over his head."

"I thought about that," Katya replied. "But I also think it is important."

"Okay," Mike sighed. "Call him up here."

* * *

"Hey, Kildar," Vanner said when he got to the office. "What's up?"

"I hear you and Katya disagree on something," Mike said.

"Yeah," Vanner said, frowning. "But I was going to bring it up. I'm starting to think her way on it."

"Don't make me pull teeth to find out," Mike said, smiling thinly.

"It's the usual intel mess," Vanner said. "I've started working on a Humint side as well. I got with Vadim and he's feeding me everything that his men pick up along with gossip from the town that the girls pick up. Then I'm piecing that together with what we're getting from intercepts. Katya? You want to cover the rest?"

"The Chechen force that was going into Russia appears to have gotten intelligence that they were to be intercepted by the Russians," Katya said, pulling out some sheets of paper. "We got that from rumors from Nakosta, which is a town south of Alerrso. They also appear to have been told that it was we who told the Russians they were coming."

"Crap," Mike said, shaking his head. "I hate the fucking Russians."

"Agreed," Vanner said. "A Spetznaz team, operating in Georgia by the way, got a piece of them. The Spetznaz reported at least two KIA and some WIA, but they only got a small piece. The group was last reported headed west deeper into Georgia and the Spetznaz were recalled, choppered out. The rest of it is surmise from intercepts. The Chechens change frequencies, but they're really bad at it. They keep coming back to the previous freq, or one that was used recently, and broadcasting. So you get these scraps of intercept that might mean something and might not."

"The leader of the Chechen force that was going into Russia was called Breslav," Katya said. "And we got an intercept, two days ago: 'Breslav, have you reached Turdun.' "

"Turdun's a valley to the southeast," Mike said, frowning. "A couple of small farms. Are they going to raid there, you think?"

"There's an old trail from Turdun to here," Vanner said. "Kat, you got a map?"

"Here," she said, rolling out the old Soviet map. It had been marked up, however, with trails.

"It's a mule trail, only," Vanner said. "But they could set up a rally point in Turdun and then cross it to Alerrso; it ends just below the pass coming in one of the small off-shoot valleys. I've been trying to figure out the movement rate, but I'm not sure. If they pushed after leaving the Russian AO they could be there already. Or they could be still on the way."

Mike sat back and considered the situation for a moment.

"How many?" he asked.

"The Chechen assault force was about two hundred according to rumor," Katya said. "But that number has two separate sources and what the Spetznaz saw of it confirms. And it accords with what the Russians know of Breslav. He's a Chechen warlord with about a hundred to two hundred followers. He calls it a battalion."

"Pretty small battalion," Mike mused. "But larger than I'd like to tackle at this point. Any chance this is disinformation?"

"Could be," Vanner admitted. "But it feels real if it's anything at all. If it was disinformation I'd expect more indicators, especially Humint. All we really have is this one intercept. As far as I know, Breslav never responded. He might have used a sat phone, though. I'm getting side-band twitches on those from time to time. One of the twitches was from the general direction of Chechnya, but inside of Georgia. It could have been Breslav calling in. I didn't get a good fix on it, but it was well inside of Georgia, southeast of Turdun, though. That was yesterday. I can't tell how far from Turdun, though."

"Okay," Mike said. "Prepare a more definite brief. I'm not doing anything important right now. I'll take a team out and do a recon, see if there's anything to it."

"Don't get yourself whacked," Vanner warned.

"I won't," Mike said. "On your way out, ask the colonel to come see me."

* * *

"So, it looks like the Chechens might be coming to visit," Mike said. He'd assembled the full team of instructors along with three of the Keldara hunters who were going to be designated team snipers. He'd waited until Vanner was done with his dog and pony to take over.

"First, I'd like to know where we are on potential defense. Sergeant Heard, how are the ladies coming along?"

"Pretty good," the former MP said. "We skipped the hoo-rah stuff and went straight to weapons training. They've all qualified with small arms and we're working on medium and heavy machine guns at the moment. We still haven't worked on mortars, though."

"Leave the mortars at the serai for now," Mike said. "If we need to use them, we can use our heavy weapons instructors to man them from here and they've got range for the whole valley. Get some equipment up here and dig them in, though. Don't mess up my lawn too much."

"Will do," Sergeant Greer said, grinning. He was one of the basic instructors but when they went to advanced training he was the designated mortar instructor. "I'll get the ladies to help if you don't mind; no time like the present."

"Works," Mike said. "I'm going to take a small team up to try to see if there's anything to this. Praz, what's your best weapon at about a thousand meters?"

"Seven millimeter," Praz said. "Or fifty."

"Praz, Russell and Killjoy," Mike said. "And the three Keldara. Praz and I will take sniper rifles, the rest will take SPRs. We need to get zeroed in tomorrow. Pack tonight, we'll leave tomorrow night. Accelerate the militia weapons training; they need to be able to do positional defense as soon as possible."

"Will do," Nielson said, making a note.

"Vanner, commo?" Mike asked.

"If you can pack some microboxes along, that would be good," Vanner said. "That way you can keep your transmission power down." The small "black boxes" worked on a distributed network and only weighed two pounds.

"We had a ruck march scheduled for day after tomorrow," Adams said. "We're going to move that around for rifle training, but we can only run three teams through the range at a time. What say we take the other three, with their instructors in charge, and go place boxes behind your route? Do that for two days, take them back and run them through the range?"

"That's going to be a big movement," Mike said. "Take one team and make it look like a training exercise. Send one team up behind us, one south and one up into the hills to the east. That way we'll have full coverage anyway. Rotate the other teams in behind them. Do some patrol training. Set it up and pre-train tomorrow, move out the day after. Get the other teams as dialed in on engagement as possible in three days. Then rotate the first teams out."

"Do we send the first teams out armed or unarmed?" Nielson asked, thoughtfully.

"Armed," Mike said. "I know they're only familiarized, but always bring a gun to a gunfight. No magazine in the well, but full load on their gear. No frags, no heavy weapons. One of the instructors can bring a machine gun if they choose and load up as they please. The Keldara can carry spare ammo."

"Works," Adams said. "We'll get it set up while you're gone."

"Taking one of your girls with you?" Vanner asked, grinning. "Gonna get cold up in the hills."

"Not even Katya," Mike replied.

* * *

As the Expedition rolled to a stop, Mike stepped out trotting and ran to the rear.

"Gear up," he said, quietly. They were less than seven kilometers from the Turdun Valley. Of course, it was on the other side of a high ridge, but the Chechens could have gotten to this point already.

It didn't feel like an ambush, though. It felt . . . right. Like he was back in his element. There was an owl calling off to the west and the trees were moving in a high wind across the pass. It sounded good, like home. He wasn't juggling training schedules or budgets anymore, just going out to find and localize some bad guys. And, with any luck, neutralize them.

He still wasn't sure how to do that, though. The correlation of forces was . . . severe. The Chechen force was filled with experienced guerilla fighters and his militia was severely outnumbered. The trainers, if he centralized them, would be a formidable force, but they hadn't trained together. If he had a Specter or an F-15 loaded with JDAMs he wouldn't think about how to take out the Chechens. He'd sincerely considered calling Washington to scream for help but he figured this was a personal fight. Let the Chechens learn not to fuck with the Keldara.

He shrugged on his ruck and hefted his rifle, stepping aside to let the others load up as he drifted to the woodline. The opening of the trail was clear in the faint light and he didn't even turn on his Night Observation Device. After a moment, though, he keyed on the thermal sight on the 7mm sniper rifle and scanned the woods. Nothing, not even a deer.

"We're geared up," Praz said from the edge of the woodline.

"Lasko, Killjoy, Vanim, Praz, Me, Otar and Russell," Mike said. His voice was pitched low but not a whisper, which would carry farther.

He waited for his position in the team and then rolled in, following Praz into the darkness. The team was camoed up in ghillie suits and floppy "boonie" hats, the latter with strips of glowing tape on the rear. As they entered the woods the light level dropped and Mike flipped down his monocular NOD, using it to find his way through the dark. Through the NOD the team was clear, especially the faintly glowing strips. The Chechens very rarely used NODs so they were probably fine.

The night was clear but high cirrus clouds presaged rain for later. If so, it would just be in the nature of the mission. Rain would actually be good from his point of view; it would make it less likely the Chechens could move fast and less likely the team would be detected. The other two specops types were going to eat rain up and the Keldara needed to learn.

They moved slowly up the mountain, getting their gear in position and stopping to check on rattle. The Keldara were good stalkers and trackers, but they were unfamiliar with the gear and needed some adjustment. But by an hour into the mission they were all good, moving up the mountainside like camouflaged ghosts.

When they reached the saddle at the top of the ridge, Mike halted the team and sent Killjoy and Lasko to the top. Killjoy had a set of thermal imaging binoculars for reconning. After fifteen minutes the two came back down and Killjoy got close enough to make a negative hand gesture. If the Chechens were coming they weren't in the Turdun Valley yet. At least, not in view.

There were two trails entering the valley that the Chechens could be using. The left-hand one was more direct, but they could have come in on the right-hand one that was more to the south. However, the two valleys paralleled a ridge running between them. Mike had mentally designated an observation rally point on the top of the ridge. They'd have to find a good hide and be discreet, since they'd be in view of both trails. But that was their target.

He waved the team forward and they moved out, cautiously but quickly. They'd spent about three hours getting to the top of the ridge and they had less than that until dawn. They had to get down into the valley, cross it undetected, and get up on the next wood-covered ridge before dawn. At that point he'd probably call a halt, detail some lookouts and catch a nap during the day.

As it turned out, the trail they were on was more complicated than it looked on the map. After a couple of switchbacks it had entered a narrow defile that was parallel to the slope. The up side of the defile on the north side led into the tree-covered slope but the down side on the south was a high dike of granite. A small stream ran at the base of the granite, obviously unable to penetrate, while the trail, which was fairly wide at that point, followed the stream. The dike of rock led them well off to the east from the direction they were headed and Mike more than once considered trying to climb out of it. However, the walls were granite and smooth with moss from the stream climbing up their sides; getting out would be problematic. Finally, the ridge of rock that formed the defile fell away and the trail cut back to the west, the stream falling through a series of cascades towards the valley floor. At that point, he called a halt since the sun was damned near up. There was a group of large boulders not far from the trail and he figured they could lay up there.

He motioned them to the bivouac and picked a spot for himself. Russell handled the Keldara, making sure the positions they'd chosen were out of sight from the surroundings.

Mike pulled out his poncho liner, all the snivel gear he'd brought, and makings for dinner.

"Have you worked with this, yet?" he asked Lasko, quietly, as he pulled out a folding stove that fit in with his canteen.

"No," Lasko said, looking at the device curiously. "Sergeant Russell gave me one but I don't know how it works."

"With these," Mike said, pulling out a packet of chemical tablets. He set one of the blue tablets on the ground in the middle of the stove, then pulled out his canteen cup. Filling the latter with water he set it in the stove and cautiously lit the chemical tab, shielding the light with his hand. "You don't want light or smoke, but these can't be seen for more than a few yards. You can smell them from that far."

"I noticed," Lasko said, waving at the acrid scent.

"The smell dissipates fast," Mike said. "I've had ragheads walk by no more than fifty meters away and not smell them." He pulled out a pouch of Mountain House chicken and noodles and waved at Lasko. "Go fix your own."

"Shouldn't someone be watching?" Lasko asked.

"Russell," Mike said, waving towards the trail.

"Where . . . ?" Lasko said, then grunted. "I could barely find him." The former Ranger had settled by a bush and his ghillie suit blended him in perfectly.

"Now you know why we're using these," Mike said, waving the enveloping coverage. "They're hot as hell and catch on the brush, but when you wear one you fucking disappear. Go get some chow, you'll be on watch soon enough."

When the water was heated he put the stove away and dumped the noodles in the water. They mixed rapidly and he ate them while they were still close to boiling. As soon as he was done he finished off the water in the canteen, took a piss and crawled over to Russell's position.

"Got it," Mike said, sitting up slowly to look out over the valley.

"Thanks," Russell said, getting up slowly.

"Have Praz do the schedule," Mike said. "I've got first."

"Will do," Russell said.

Mike leaned back against one of the boulders and let his mind go open. It wasn't numb by any stretch of the imagination, just open to the whole environment. He listened to each of the sounds in the environment, categorizing them as his eyes ceaselessly swept the valley. The clouds were definitely moving in; there'd be rain by nightfall. There was one farm in view in the small valley, the usual high mountain setup much like that of the Keldara. This one ran goats, though, and he was a bit worried about that. But they were tending to stay down in the valley today; with the look of imminent rain the goatherds clearly didn't want to be far from shelter.

Lasko came out to join him shortly after he got in position and Mike let the Keldara watch and listen to nothing. He wasn't going to do instruction except instruction in remaining silent and alert. The Keldara, though, had that down from hours of hunting. The two of them stayed side by side for two hours until relieved by Killjoy and Vanim.

Mike woke up to a stirring in the camp at dusk. He'd showed Lasko how to attach his poncho to the poncho liner and had done so himself. He'd been glad for it when a light rain started to fall about an hour before. He hadn't done more than wake up to the rain on his face and pull the poncho up over his head.

It was still raining when the team started to stir but he ignored it. The boonie caps shed most of the rain off his face, anyway. He didn't even bother pulling out his Gortex, just set about making "breakfast" and doing his makeup. He'd given the Keldara a quick class in camouflage makeup the night before and now he had them redo it. It wasn't the method that was generally trained; he preferred a simple tiger-stripe diagonally down the face. Russell did his makeup precisely according to the book, dark makeup on highlights and light on shadows. Killjoy effected the "Braveheart" look, with one side done in dark brown and the other striped. Praz actually made himself up like a figure from Kiss except in camouflage. Mike had never seen that any of the various ways of putting on the makeup made any difference as long as it reduced shine.

As soon as it was full dark they started off, swinging wide away from the farm and keeping to the eastern woodline to cross the valley. There was a swift-flowing stream at the base and they rigged a rope-line across it for the crossing. After that obstacle there wasn't anything hindering them except the woods. They were dark and tangled and the team went in line ahead, cautiously moving through the brush. They were approaching one of the trails the Chechens might use and it wouldn't do to stumble into them.

When they got near the trail Mike called a halt. He had the team array itself in a line parallel to the trail, then he doffed his ghillie suit and most of his gear, designating Vanim and Lasko to bring it up, then ghosted forward silently through the woods to the edge of the trail.

He was just in sight of Praz as he reached the trail and checked it out. There wasn't anything moving in view and no noise, although that would be muffled by the rain. There also weren't any tracks. Given that the rain wasn't heavy yet, there probably would have still been some sign of two hundred guys and some mules moving through.

He waved the team forward, keeping an eye on the trail until they were across, then joining up with them at a rally point on the far side.

From there it was a climb up the ridge. There weren't any useful trails in their area so they had to make their way through the brush. It was heavy going; the hill was steep and the brush thick. More than once they had to form a human chain to get over some obstacle. But by midnight they were on the top of the ridge and looking for a good observation point.

They'd been able to see the easternmost trail most of the way up the hill, but it wasn't until they got to the top that they could see the western one. They stopped for a time when they reached the top and Mike and Praz scanned both trails looking for signs of the Chechens. The rain had increased but Mike ignored it, searching the west trail for any glimmer of heat signs. He picked up a few, but they were all animals. The Chechens weren't here.

It was likely, frankly, that they weren't going to show. The intel was light, to be honest, and there was no real reason for a "battalion" of Chechens to attack the Keldara. Such a heavy attack might force the government of Georgia to finally react. And it was a long way from their real enemies, the Russians. On the other hand, they could be reacting to being stung by the intel Mike had passed. It wasn't smart, but the Chechens weren't usually described as "smart."

However, they weren't here. Vadim had been talking to the farmers in the area and if the Chechens had passed down the valley they couldn't have missed them. Hell, the farm probably would have been a smoking wreck. And there really weren't many trails they could have used to the east. So either they weren't coming or Mike's team was in place ahead of them.

After ensuring their quarry wasn't on the trail, Mike led the team up along the spine of the ridge towards a high prominence. He'd spotted it from their first OP and it looked like a good place to set up, a group of rocks at a high point on the ridge. From there they should have a good view of both trails.

It took about an hour to make it up to the designated OP but when he got there he found it was nearly perfect. Erosion had worn away underlying rock, leaving a series of large granite boulders that had fallen in on themselves. There were even a few dry semi-caves under the rocks and the team crawled into their shelter gratefully.

"Okay, same list as last night," Mike said. "Lasko and Me, then Killjoy and Vanim, Russell and Otar. Praz gets a double day-shift. No fires tonight, not even chem fires."


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