Rock, Meet Hard Place (Part 2) by Mike Kupari - Baen Books

Rock, Meet Hard Place (Part 2)

Mike Kupari

Disputed Zone
Nagorno-Karabakh Republic

Quiet, unsettling quiet, descended on Shahinyan Street as the firefight abruptly ceased. The last of the Russians was dead, but more would be coming. Even in a war-torn hellhole, a firefight between groups of foreigners in broad daylight warranted investigation. The locals would show up sooner or later, and Antoine and I weren’t equipped to fight off a platoon of pissed-off Armenians by ourselves.

We didn’t have a lot of time. We’d been able to track the Americans back to their hidey-hole, a house in a ruined neighborhood on the outskirts of town, but those damned Russian mercenaries had shown up again. I had guessed that the Russian mercs were working with the Americans, and that they were all working for the Montalban Exchange, but then the Russians started shooting at the Americans and that theory went right out the window.

Driving the point home was the grim-faced American man, splattered with the blood and brains of the dead Russian mercenary lying next to him, defiantly pointing an empty Makarov pistol at me. I wasn’t sure who was who, and the dead Russians scattered around the house sure as hell weren’t going to tell me. That left this asshole, whoever he was. I stood over him, rifle pointed at his face, but held my fire.

“Who are you?” I asked.

He looked tired. I’ve worked with a lot of guys who had spent too long in the business of war, and this man’s thousand-yard-stare was a dead giveaway. “Me?” he asked, resignedly lowering the Makarov. “I’m nobody, not anymore.” He mumbled something about being expendable, and glanced over at the house. “Go ahead, do it. You’d be doing me a favor.”

I should’ve just shot him. My G3 was pointed at his face, the safety was off, and my finger was on the trigger. Killing him would have been the safest thing to do, because there were some very bad people looking for me. Yet I hesitated, slowly taking my finger out of the trigger guard. What I needed more than another dead man on my conscience was answers, and this guy was the only chance at those I was going to get.

“Listen,” I said levelly, lowering my rifle slightly, “you don’t have to die today. I just wanted to ask you a few questions. This can work out so we both walk out of here, alive. We don’t have a lot of time, though.”

“Yeah, no shit,” the man said, distantly. He dropped the Makarov. “Every Russian brodyaga and Armenian henchman is going to be descending on this place in the next hour. You should go.”

I frowned, having no idea what a brodyaga was. “Yeah, no, I think you’re missing what I’m getting at here. You’re coming with me. Get the fuck up.”

He stood up, slowly, leaving the empty pistol on the ground. He kept looking past me, at the house he’d come out of. His clothes, drab, local garb, were stained with blood. He had a chest rig full of AK magazines, but didn’t reach for his rifle as he came to his feet. He looked at me for a long moment, his face a mask. “You’re Valentine, right? The one they’re looking for?”

My stomach twisted a little. Damn it. I’d been made. Coming out here had been a big risk. “I am,” I said, “and right now, your survival depends on you answering one question. Where is Simon Anders?”

A humorless smile split the man’s face. He chuckled like a condemned man laughing at the gallows. “Fucking hell, this is too much.”

I moved my finger back to the trigger and pointed the heavy battle rifle at the man’s face. “Last chance, asshole.”

“You don’t get it, do you? Anders isn’t here. He was never here. This whole thing? It was a fucking setup. He’s put out false trails everywhere. Looks like we both took the bait.”

Again, I hesitated. The simplest answer was that he was lying, trying to bluff his way out of getting his head blown off. Yet, there was something about the look in his eye, the harshness in his voice, and in his bitter resignation that seemed familiar. I remembered that look on my comrades’ faces, after one nearly-suicidal mission or another, as they realized that their only reward for surviving the last mission was to be sent on the next. It’s one thing to know that you’re expendable. It’s another thing altogether to realize that you’ve been expended.

Antoine appeared at my side then. Like me, he was dressed in muted tones, with a tactical vest and a G3 rifle. His rifle, however, was fitted with a 40mm grenade launcher. “We need to go,” he said flatly. “This was an ambush. They knew we were coming.”

“I don’t think so.” I nodded toward my captive. “I think they knew this guy was coming.”

“Who is he?”

“He’s a fucking dead man if he doesn’t start being useful,” I answered, my tone changing slightly. I could tell that Antoine was uncomfortable with the idea of shooting an unarmed man. I was too, to be honest, but the stakes were too high. Anders was working with Katarina Montalban now, and was the last living person who knew what Project Blue was. I didn’t know, at the time, what Project Blue was, but I knew it was big, and I knew it was bad. I didn’t want to do it, but if I had to have Antoine hold this guy down while I cut pieces off of him to get him to talk, then that’s what I’d do. I could tell he was mulling it over; I could almost see the gears turning behind his eyes, looking for a way out.

“My name is Dragic,” the man said, finally. “Frank Dragic. I was sent here by the Organization to track down Anders, but he’s not here. We contacted higher authority and they told us as much. Anders set out bait, and we were sent to spring the trap on the off-chance that he might actually be here. They were just going to leave us to die.”

I lowered my rifle, but kept the safety off. “Which organization are we talking about here?”

Dragic looked at me like I was stupid.

“I mean, I’m pretty sure, but there are, you know, a few different organizations looking for me. You work for Majestic, right?”

He actually laughed. “That’s what the conspiracy nuts call them, but yeah. Majestic. You were Dead Six, weren’t you?”

“I was. Right up until we became inconvenient, and they left us to die.”

Antoine spoke up. “Gentlemen,” he said, his voice deep and serious. “Perhaps now is not the time for swapping war stories?”

“The big guy is right,” Dragic said. “Those Russians we killed? They’re working with the NKDA. Once they realize they all got smoked they’ll come down on this place in force. Either let me go or let’s get the hell out of here.”

I looked over at our ride, a rusty old Russian UAX 4x4. It had been riddled with bullets and was leaking fluids from several places. The two-and-a-half-ton truck the Russians had rolled up in was pretty shot up too, and several of its tires had been perforated. “Do you have a ride? We can call for one, but it’ll take them a while to get here, and I don’t think we have a while.”

Dragic seemed to hesitate. “I do, but it’s been made. The NKDA is looking for it. It’s parked down the street.”

“It’s better than walking,” I said. “None of us blend in, and we just need to get to a place where we can ditch it. I have backup, and they can pick us up.”

“I need to check the house first,” Dragic said.

“Forget it. Let’s get to that car.”

“One of my teammates was in there! I’m not going to just leave him.”

Antoine gave me a look. I sighed. “Fine, let’s go.” Dragic bent down to pick up his AK-47. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, killer,” I said, shouldering my G3. “You just leave that right where it is.”

He stood back up, slowly, raising his hands, but looking at me like I was stupid. “Are you fucking serious right now?”

“What, you think because I decided not to shoot you a little bit ago that we’re besties now? Into the house, you first. We need to get off the street.”

If looks could kill, Dragic would’ve stopped my heart cold with the glare he gave me, but he complied with my command. Leaving the Kalashnikov on the ground, he headed toward the front door of the house. I followed, closely enough to keep eyes on him, but not so closely that he could turn around and grab my rifle. Antoine followed, watching our six.

The inside of the house was mostly barren, save the areas where Dragic and his team had obviously been set up. In one room was a bunch of computers and communication equipment, all of it portable, next to a stack of Pelican cases. In the main room, the one facing the street, a dead man was crumpled beneath a window in a pool of blood.

“JD,” Dragic said, quietly. He exhaled heavily, and looked back at me, a tired expression on his face. “You know, he always was an asshole.” He looked back at the body and shook his head. “That’s it, then. I’m the last one left. I guess going with you is my best bet now.”

It was his only bet, as I was resolved to shoot him if he ran, but I didn’t need to say that. “I’m sorry about your team.”

“There’s something you should know, Valentine,” he said, distantly. “Before he died, JD over there notified higher authority that we had a tentative sighting of you. There’s been a BOLO out on you for over a year.”

My hands tensed on the heavy rifle in my hands. “What did they say when you told them you saw me?”

“A guy who called himself Underhill called us and said he would be en route. He was an old guy, but—”

“I know who he is,” I said, coldly. “How much time do we have before he gets here?”

Dragic shrugged. “Hell if I know. You got some history with this guy? What the hell did you do to piss off the Organization that much?”

“It’s a long story. A really long story. Short version is, I survived being liquidated in Zubara and then escaped their custody later on. They didn’t like that.”

He raised his eyebrows. He didn’t quite look impressed, but I could tell that he either thought I was bullshitting or that there was more to me than met the eye. “No, I bet they didn’t,” he said, chuckling.

I was barely listening. Underhill had been hunting me ever since Exodus helped me escape from Majestic custody at North Gap. No surprise there; after months of torture and twisted mind games, my captors had come to realize that I really didn’t know anything about Project Blue. I was as in the dark as they were. They still couldn’t just let me go, though. I knew too much, I’d seen too much, and that made me dangerous. I’d been inside their black sites, I’d seen faces, known names, and could potentially corroborate other evidence. For an organization built on layers of secrets and lies, having someone like me on the loose was unacceptable. For that reason alone, they’d never stop chasing me.

I was tired of running, though. I was tired of always looking over my shoulder. I had important work to do, trying to find Anders, find Katarina Montalban, and stop Project Blue from happening. It was too important to waste time playing cat and mouse with shadow government operatives. The stakes were too high, and there was no time to waste.

Maybe, just maybe, I thought, if I killed this Underhill guy, they’d finally give up and leave me alone. If they sent their best after me only to have him disappear, or turn up dead, maybe then they’d get the fucking point. I owed him, anyway; he’d murdered Hawk in cold blood. Beside the fact that a government organization had summarily executed an American citizen with no due process whatsoever, Hawk had been like a father to me. Beyond the outrage over the injustice of it, this was personal, and I swore to God that I was going to find a way to kill Underhill myself.

As if on cue, the satellite phone in one of the pouches of my vest vibrated. It was all I could do to not roll my eyes as I pulled up the Velcro lid and checked the phone. Sure enough, it was a text message from Ariel. She denied it up and down, but I swear the girl was psychic.

Status update?

Watching as Dragic rummaged through his safe house, I thumbed a brief explanation of everything that had happened, including how Underhill was on his way.

You’re thinking of staying behind, aren’t you? she asked me. To lay a trap.

I am, I replied, honestly. Ariel was incredibly perceptive, and I’d long since learned that there was little point in lying to my little Oracle. I can’t do what I need to do while being hunted.

It won’t work, she sent back. There was a long pause, more than a minute, before I got the next message. If you try, you will either be killed or captured again. Even if you do succeed, it won’t change anything. They’re afraid of you and they will never quit. If not Underhill, they’ll send men like Frank Dragic after you, one after another.

I can’t keep running forever.

You won’t have to, she assured me. Even via text message, she always seemed so damned confident in everything she told me. Your paths will intersect. But not today. Dragic is a rogue variable. He complicates things. Just get out of there. Please. Come home.

Dragic interrupted my text message conversation. “Are you done? I mean, every armed and angry asshole in the area will be descending on this house in the next hour, but sure, finish your status update or whatever.”

I ignored him as I put the phone away. “I’m going to be honest with you,” I said quietly to Antoine, “I was thinking of laying a trap for Underhill.”

“I assumed as much,” Antoine said. “It was all over your face the moment this man mentioned his name.”

Am I really that easy to read? “The Oracle strongly advised against it. She said it won’t work, and she’s right. The Armenians or Russians or whoever will be here long before Underhill gets here.”

“You should listen to her,” Antoine advised. He didn’t add that any personal quest for revenge would jeopardize my entire team, but I could tell he was thinking it from the intense look on his face. Being responsible for others often means not doing what your base impulses tell you to do.

I sighed again. “You’re right. You ready, Dragic?”

He shouldered a full-looking backpack, probably his bug-out bag, and nodded. “We should go out the back.”

Driving his point home, a big, green military truck rumbled down the street and pulled to a stop in front of the house. Ten men, wearing camouflage uniforms, helmets, and mismatched gear, sporting AK-74s, spilled out of the back, appearing one after another from under the canvas top. That was fast.

“Get down!” Dragic hissed, and we all dropped to the floor. The house was dark, save the light coming in through broken windows. “This way,” he said, crawling on his hands and knees toward the back of the house. Antoine and I followed, scuttling along, trying to get low and stay out of sight.

“Who are these guys?” I asked Dragic.

He looked at me incredulously as he scurried across the floor. “Seriously? They’re the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army. The NKDA I’ve been talking about? Armenian nationals, probably with some Russian volunteers. Did you do any research on this AO before you got here?”

I had left the Exodus compound in the rocky desert of Azerbaijan in a hurry, upon Ariel discovering information that led her to believe that Anders was on the ground in the disputed zone in the western part of the country. There was no way, I thought, that him turning up so close to one of the few remaining Exodus strongholds could be a coincidence. Antoine, Ling, Skunky, and Shen had all volunteered to accompany me, though the latter three were still at our safe house outside of the city. I hadn’t really bothered to read up on the convoluted politics of this region before setting out, something Ling had also scolded me about. She’d probably get along great with this guy.

Dragic was out the back door as the NKDA squad kicked in the front. I could hear them shouting and the tromp of combat boots on a bare wooden floor as they searched the house. The ramshackle structure wasn’t that big, and they’d be on top of us before we got through the backyard and into the concealment of the foliage beyond.

I looked up at Antoine. “Go, stay with him! Stay low!” Before he could say anything, I rolled onto my back, sat up slightly, and flipped the G3’s selector lever to full auto. The German battle rifle roared throatily as I emptied the twenty-round magazine through the wall in a matter of seconds. When the rifle clicked empty, I rolled back onto my stomach and furiously low-crawled out the back door, into the yard. The angry shouts and one scream told me I’d tagged at least one of them.

A few yards in front of me, across the yard, Antoine took a knee and shouldered his rifle, also a G3. The Armenians in the house blindly fired through the walls, as I had, but they still didn’t know where they were and their little 5.45mm rounds didn’t have the same punch as the 7.62mm from my weapon. Still, some of their rounds got through, ripping through the back wall of the house in little puffs of plaster dust.

I was a few yards out into the yard, still low-crawling, when Antoine opened fire. He fired shot after shot, his rounds snapping angrily overhead, as the NKDA troops were caught in the fatal funnel of the back door. He was joined a moment later by Dragic, who had taken a weapon and a black chest rig off one of the dead Russians. His carbine, some AK type I thought, had no discernable muzzle rise as he fired off burst after burst on full auto.

As I reached their position at the back of the yard, Antoine told me to get down and shouted, “Grenade out!” The 40mm launcher bolted under the barrel of his G3 popped, and a split-second later the round detonated inside the back door of the house. I used the moment to roll to my left side and retrieve a mag from my vest. I pulled back the rifle’s charging handle and locked the bolt open. Rocking in the fresh magazine, I slapped down on the charging handle, sending a round into the chamber and reloading the rifle. Looking back, I saw several dead bodies in the doorway.

I looked up at Dragic, who was reloading the weird AK-type rifle he’d gotten off the dead Russian. “Where’s that car?”

“We can’t get to it now,” he said, pulling a pack of cigarettes off the dead Russian. “It’s five houses down, but it’s on the street. We need to get out of this neighborhood before they cordon it off completely. They’re looking for us now, and none of us can pass for locals.” He nodded toward Antoine. “Especially not the big guy. No offense.”

Antoine just frowned, but Dragic wasn’t wrong. “Lead the way,” I said. “We’ll follow.” Now that he was armed, I wanted to keep him where I could see him. Besides that, he obviously had done a lot more scouting of the area than I had, and knew his way around better. Ling would never let me hear the end of it.

I spoke up, quietly, as we made our way through the overgrown foliage of the crumbling neighborhood. Few signs of life were evident. What locals still lived in this part of town were probably hunkering down because of all the shooting. It looked post-apocalyptic. “If we can get clear of this and get to a safe spot, I can radio the rest of my team and have them come pick us up. They’re holed up in an old barn outside of town.” I didn’t want to head straight there. It was a long walk, in broad daylight, while we were being hunted, and I didn’t want to risk leading the locals to my comrades.

“I think we need to find a good spot to secure until it gets dark,” Dragic said. “The Organization has, or at least had, aerial surveillance of the area, too. Probably a UAV. If it’s still on station, then they’re watching this shit-show from above. Nightfall won’t give us a lot of cover, but we’ll at least be harder to ID on thermal than we are in daylight.” Off in the distance somewhere, the distinct thwup-thwupping of a chopper could be heard, but I couldn’t see it. We’d really kicked the hornet’s nest.

We came to a deserted street. We crouched in the bushes and scanned the area before crossing the danger area that the open road presented. Where houses had apparently once stood, there were only crumbling foundations on overgrown lots. “What happened here?” This looked worse than the usual crumbling infrastructure you see in post-Soviet Central Asia.

“Ethnic Armenians, backed by the Russians, have been fighting with the Azeri for this part of the country for years. They shelled the fuck out of this part of the city, and engaged in some serious ethnic cleansing later. This was back in the Nineties. There was a cease-fire, but both sides have violated it over and over.”

The helicopter sounded like it was getting closer, though I still couldn’t see it through all the trees. “We need a vehicle. If they’ve got air support, it’s going to be that much harder to get out of here on foot.”

“Do you see any vehicles around here?” Dragic asked, obviously frustrated. “This isn’t the rich part of town, okay? Most of the people that live here don’t have much.”

“Actually . . . ” I trailed off, peeking my head out of the shrubbery just a little. A smallish van, light blue with a white roof, was headed in our direction. Its rounded contours and utilitarian aesthetic gave it a distinctly eastern European look.

“Un-fucking-believable,” Dragic said. “Okay, here’s what we do. I’ll . . . hey!”

I stood up and stepped out of the bushes before Dragic could finish his plan. We needed a ride right-goddamn-now, and we didn’t have time for this guy to come up with an elaborate scheme. I walked out into the middle of the street, rifle in hand, and stood facing the oncoming van. Antoine followed, pointing his rifle at the vehicle from the side. Dragic reluctantly stepped out a few seconds after that.

The driver was a middle-aged local man, wearing blue jeans and a polo shirt. He slowly raised his hands off the steering wheel. I didn’t point my rifle at him, but Antoine had him covered. Even though I didn’t speak his language, carjacking transcends most language barriers. I jerked my thumb to the side, indicating for the driver to get out. He did so, slowly, flushed white with fear.

I actually felt bad. This guy probably had a hard enough time of things without three foreign assholes stealing his van, too, but this was a life-or-death emergency. As he stepped away from the van, Dragic strode past me. “I’m driving,” he growled, and grabbed the old man by the shirt. He said something to him in a language I didn’t understand. The old man looked terrified, and with shaking hands produced a small cell phone. Dragic grabbed it and smashed it on the ground before shoving the old man away. “Well? Get in!”

Antoine and I jogged over to the van. The big African opened a side door to the rear cargo compartment, which was presently empty, and climbed in. I jumped into the passenger’s seat next to Dragic and closed the door. I handed my rifle back to my teammate while Dragic laid his on the floor between the seats. Getting a good look at it, I realized it was an AK-1-0-whatever, one of those rifles with the counterweight that’s supposed to negate recoil.

“You know,” I said absentmindedly, as he put the van in gear, “I did this exact same thing once in Zubara. It was a French car, if I remember right, driven by a British guy, not a . . . ” I looked around the cabin of the van. “Whatever this is.”

“It’s a Yeraz,” he said tersely, lighting up a cigarette. “That’s what the locals call them. Armenian produced for about thirty years.”

“Yeraz,” I repeated. “Cool. Okay, what’s the best way out of the city?”

“Reach in my bag, the outside pouch. There’s a map of the city. I’ve got a couple of egress routes highlighted, but that wasn’t accounting for the entire NKDA looking for me. Fuck. They’ll have checkpoints everywhere.”

“That’s why I wanted to get us a vehicle.” I pulled the map out of Dragic’s bag, waving the coarse smoke out of my face. “They might have God-knows-how-many dudes scouring the city for us by the time it gets dark. We need to get out of Dodge before they can get their shit together.”

The grizzled mercenary puffed his cigarette and looked at me sideways. “That’s surprisingly solid thinking.”

“Surprisingly?” Asshole.

“To be honest, I’m kind of surprised you’ve lived as long as you have, after seeing how you operate. You just barge in and start shooting. You showed up and fucked everything up for us.”

I chuckled. “Yeah, that’s what I do. Besides, if you know anything about Project Heartbreaker, then you should realize I might know a thing or two about sowing chaos and escaping in the confusion. I helped bring down a nation, once.” I rolled down my window a bit, to clear out the acrid smoke from his cigarette. “And I got away alive.”

"Yeah. Cute. My team's dead and my life's barely worth the cost of a bullet, all because you barged into the middle of my op. I’m glad you think this is funny."

The tone of my voice changed. My left hand habitually dropped to the butt of my revolver. “Fuck you. Don’t act like you don’t know who you were working for. How did you think it was going to end, Dragic? You thought you were going to retire from this someday and die of old age? I risked my life to tell the world about Project Heartbreaker, tell them how we were betrayed and left to die. Even after that, you still kept working for them.

He looked over, giving me an icy glare. “Now you listen to me, kid—”

I didn’t let him finish. “No, you listen to me, you son of a bitch. Your employers didn’t just leave us to die when we were inconvenient. They sold us out, had us liquidated. I watched the woman I loved die in the mud. After they caught me, they didn’t just interrogate me. Hell, they didn’t just torture me, they turned me into a science project. So don’t you fucking dare get on your high horse with me, dude. If I had known you didn’t know where Anders was, I’d have shot you dead or left you for the Russians.”

Dragic didn’t say anything. He puffed his cigarette angrily. He was gripping the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles were white. Every muscle in his body was tense. He was seething with anger. I think that had Antoine not been just behind us, gun in his hand, Dragic would’ve tried to murder me right there.

Too fucking bad. Sooner or later, we all have to face what we’ve done. You can only lie to yourself for so long. When the truth can no longer be denied, it’s a terrible shock. The realization of what you’ve wrought, the consequences of the choices you’ve made, it all weighs on you.

“Anyway . . . .I’m sorry about your teammates. I’ve been there, more times than I like to think about. It was a bad op. You got used, and when you weren’t useful anymore, they threw you away. It’s not right.”

He relaxed his grip a bit and exhaled, heavily, filling the cabin with foul-smelling smoke. “Once you get in, there’s no getting out.”

“That’s not true. I got out. You’re getting out right now. As long as people like me and Anders are still on the loose, I doubt they’ll commit any resources to tracking down a runaway door-kicker.”

“Yeah, well, we gotta survive the day, first. Now check that map and find us a good route out of here.”

# # #

“Hey, kid.”

I kept my eyes on the map of the city. “Yeah?”

“What’s with the revolver?”


Dragic pointed at the .44 hanging from my hip. “The Dirty Harry magnum. Why do you carry that thing?”

“I like it,” I said. “And I shoot revolvers better.”

“Yeah, but it’s huge, and has to weigh a ton. You could carry two Glock 19s for that weight, and have more than twice as much ammo.”

I thought about it. “Yeah, probably.” I looked back down at the map.

“No, seriously. Nobody carries a revolver anymore. They went out of style in the Eighties. A modern gun is smaller, lighter, easier to conceal, has less recoil, can be suppressed, and is quicker to reload.”

“You’re right about that.”

“And for someone in your position, carrying a weird gun like that is fucking stupid. That’s how we ID-ed you, you know. We saw that revolver.”

Hmm, I thought. Maybe a little more discretion wouldn’t hurt.

“So why do you insist on carrying it?”

“Like I said, I shoot revolvers better. And this gun? It’s always kept me alive.”

“That sounds like a bunch of sentimental bullshit to me,” Dragic said. “I once knew . . . shit.”

Dragic’s, snarled expletive and change in tone was enough to get my attention. I looked up from the map and down the road. We’d been driving for almost an hour, having had to change our route and double back more than once. The Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army had mobilized in a rapid fashion. They were setting up expedient checkpoints along every road out of the city. I’d hoped that this road, at least, would get us out of town without being spotted.

So much for that. We came to a stop. Up ahead, an old UAZ 4x4 was parked in the road, blocking one lane. Four bored-looking, but armed soldiers stood around it. One had one of those flashlights with a red cone on it, and was motioning for us to come forward. Antoine ducked further into the back of the van, his rifle in his hands.

“What do we do?” I asked.

“This piece of shit can’t outrun them. If we turn around, they’ll get suspicious. If we go forward, they’ll either capture or kill us. There’s no way I’m going to be able to bluff my way through without getting the van searched. If it was just me, maybe, but with you two?”

“Well, this sucks,” I said. The soldier with the flashlight-cone was getting impatient, waving the glowing implement faster. “We can’t just sit here, either.”

“I can try to gun it,” Dragic suggested. “Run a couple of them over. Maybe we’ll get around that bend before they shoot us up.”

The bend in the road he was talking about was a long ways off. I shook my head. “They’ll start shooting before we even get to them.”

“I know, goddamn it! We have to do something!

“Pull forward,” I said. “Be ready. If you have earplugs you might want to put them in,” I said, putting in a pair of my own. I drew my .44 Magnum and put it in my lap. “It’s about to get loud.”

Dragic looked at me incredulously, shaking his head. He lit another cigarette, probably the fifth one he’d had since we’d been driving, and put the van in gear. “Fuck me, we’re gonna die.” He wasn’t losing his cool; he was frustrated, but still level headed. It was more resignation than anything else.

I took a deep breath, feeling my heart slow down as we approached the checkpoint. Everything else seemed to slow with it. My senses were heightened, my thoughts clear. I was scared, and I was amped up, but that all got pushed into the periphery. With the adrenaline came the Calm. “Trust me. I’ve done this before.”

Of course the last time I’d done this it had cost Wheeler his life. There was no other way, though. I looked back at Antoine. “Don’t shoot until I shoot.”

We slowly rolled toward the checkpoint. It was late in the day, and we were headed in an easterly direction; the sun was at our back, which worked in our favor. As we drew near, I got a good look at the four NKDA soldiers. All of them wore camouflage. To our left was a young, skinny man with a unibrow. His helmet was too big for him and the chinstrap dangled from the side of his face. He had an AK-74 slung over his right shoulder, muzzle-up. I saw that the safety was on.

In front of us, standing next to the parked UAZ, was an officer. He wore a soft cap with a shiny badge on it. A green pistol belt was fastened around his ample waist. A pistol in a flap holster hung from his right hip. He was fiddling with a radio and wasn’t really paying attention.

On the right side of the road was a more seasoned-looking soldier with a big mustache. He looked squared-away, and held an AKS-74 at the low-ready. He was also wearing a plate carrier—the biggest threat. Next to him, with the flashlight-cone, was another young man, this one with glasses. He had an AK-74 slung across his back.

Everything seemed to slow down as Dragic brought the van to a stop. When Calm, I perceive things like you do when you’re in a traffic accident, when everything seems to move in slow motion. It’s more than that, though. I tend to notice every detail, and I remember everything I see later. It’s an overwhelmingly intense focus that I wish I had better control over, but as is it’s rarely let me down.

Unibrow-guy stepped to the driver’s side window. At the same time, flashlight-cone-guy stepped to the passenger’s side. Both of their eyes went wide as I brought my gun up in both hands, pushing it out over the dashboard. The big, stainless-steel Smith & Wesson roared. Glass fractured as .44 Magnum slugs punched right through the windshield. I fired once, twice, three times, aiming at the veteran NKDA soldier with his weapon in hand. The first round went way low, impacting on his front armor plate. Bullets do funny things when they go through glass. The second shot I pulled to the left, and it clipped his shoulder. The third hit him in the face and blew his brains out the back of his head.

At the same time, Dragic reached out the widow and grabbed unibrow-guy’s uniform collar. He jerked the skinny soldier to the window with his left hand. His right hand came up with a knife and plunged the blade up into his head, under the jawbone. He twisted and yanked the knife out in a spray of blood.

As unibrow-guy and the veteran were both falling to the ground, I shifted my gun to flashlight-cone-guy. He had dropped his light and was backing away from the passenger’s side window, struggling to bring his rifle to bear. He wasn’t nearly fast enough, and he wasn’t wearing body armor. The .44 bucked in my hand as I put a round through his heart.

The fat officer looked up, an expression of shock on his face. He dropped his radio and went for his pistol, but Dragic stomped on the gas. Antoine’s rifle barked from the back of the van. I felt the muzzle blast as the bullet zipped between Dragic and me, punched through the windshield, and struck the NKDA officer in the stomach. He doubled over and started to fall. THUMP! The bumper of the van clipped him before he hit the ground, launching him into the grill of the parked UAZ as we sped past.

Just like that, it was over. Time sped up to its normal rate. I noticed that my ears were ringing despite the earplugs. My hands started to shake. “Is . . . is anybody hit? Everybody good?”

“I’m fine,” Antoine assured me. “Are you injured?”

“No! No.” I was just spun up. My heart was racing now. “Dragic, you okay?”

He looked over at me with an intense expression on his face. He’d been splashed with blood and looked primal. “I’m good,” he said haltingly. “I’m good. Holy fucking shit.

I exhaled heavily. I couldn’t believe that had actually worked, either.

“You weren’t kidding about being good with that revolver, were you?”

# # #

We drove for probably another hour, putting distance between us and the city. The road was narrow and winding, so it was slow-going. As darkness fell, we learned that the NKDA officer’s fat body had busted our left headlight. Antoine was on the radio with Ling, updating her on our location. We weren’t actually going toward the safe house. We were going to find a secluded spot, ditch the van, and have her come pick us up.

We pulled off the lonely highway, turning north, and followed a dirt road for a couple miles as it plunged into the forest. Finding a good spot, we came to a stop, and climbed out. “Here,” I said, handing Dragic my GPS. “Figure out where we are, exactly, and find a good spot for my team to meet us. They have a four-wheel drive, so they can go off-road if they have to. Antoine and I will push the van into the trees.”

“Good,” the mercenary said, taking the GPS from me. The glow from the screen made his haggard face look even more unsettling. “We should move under tree cover in case the Organization still has a UAV overhead.”

Nodding, I turned my attention to the van. Antoine had already disengaged the parking brake. We both sidled up to the back of the van, put a shoulder into it, and pushed. I was glad to have Antoine with me; he’s big and made of muscle. We were able to get it over the hump at the edge of the road, and from there the van started rolling on its own. I stood back and watched as it rolled a short way down a hill, coming to a stop only when it crunched into a tree. The hill was steep enough that anyone driving by wouldn’t see the van from the road, and the trees were so dense that it wouldn’t likely be spotted from the air.

I wiped my brow on my sleeve and turned to Dragic. “Okay, where do we . . . Dragic?”

He was nowhere to be seen. I immediately knew what happened. Son of a bitch.

“It seems this is where we part ways,” Antoine said quietly.

The asshole had stolen my GPS. “Probably a waste of time trying to go after him. He could get the drop on us too easily if he decides he doesn’t want to be followed.” More than that it was dark, it was getting cold, I was tired, and I’d had enough fun for one day. I looked up at Antoine. “I probably should’ve shot him when I had the chance.”

The big African shook his head. “I don’t think so, Mr. Valentine. I think you stayed your hand for a reason. I doubt he’ll try to return to his former employer.”

I doubted it, too. As near as I’d been able to tell, Frank Dragic hadn’t been a Majestic insider. He was kind of like I had been on Dead Six, hired help, only told what he needed to know and not privy to anything too sensitive. Deniable and expendable. “Underhill will be on the ground here soon enough.”

Antoine actually put one of his huge hands on my shoulder. “Believe me when I say that I know what it’s like to desire vengeance for someone you love. Please, also believe me when I say that going down that road will only get you killed. You may get your shot at this Underhill person yet, but now is not the time. We should regroup with the others and return to Azerbaijan while we still have the chance. We’ve pushed our luck enough.”

“Yeah . . . yeah, you’re right.” Setting my rifle down, I unzipped my tactical vest and dropped it on the ground at my feet. Ripping open Velcro straps, I pulled my body armor off over my head and tossed it aside. My shirt was soaked with sweat and I was suddenly cold. I picked up the tac vest, put it back on, even though it fit loosely without the armor, and slung my rifle. “I guess we’re hoofing it. Let’s get out of here, find a good spot to have Ling pick us up, and call for a ride. Hopefully they can figure out where we are. Oh, and tell her to burn the safe house, too. We’re not going back.”

Antoine nodded and quietly spoke into his radio as we set off into the forest, under the cover of a moonless night.

Copyright © 2016 Mike Kupari

An Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician in the U.S. Air Force, Mike Kupari also served six years in the Army National Guard. He grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and enlisted at the age of seventeen. He has worked as a security contractor with several firms, did a tour in Southwest Asia with a private military company, and is an NRA certified firearms instructor. Mike is recently returned from his second active duty overseas with the U.S. Air Force. His first solo novel is Her Brother's Keeper. He is also the author, with Larry Correia, of military adventure novels Dead Six, Swords of Exodus, and Alliance of Shadows. This story is set in the world of Dead Six series by Larry Correia and Mike Kupari, and within the time frame of the third book in the series, Alliance of Shadows. This story is part two of a two-part story series. The first entry, authored by Peter Nealson, can be found here.