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chapter fourteen
Part Nine

The afternoon wore on. Toms reported each incident. The departure of battle clad people from the downed craft and their steady approach towards the cave.

The arrival of the sleek aerocar and the two who climbed from it and began poking around the downed craft.

The return of the three from the first group to the downed craft, and the subsequent explosions and conflict.

Each stage caused Cutter to fret more. None of this was part of the plan but the recon team hadn't reached position yet so at this point they were operating blind. Although he had the first tank move into position behind the two trucks in the cave, and ordered everyone on alert, ready to go if the order came, his gut was telling him these were simply delays.

The fact no immediate threat or notice was being directed to them helped.

However, the arrival of a third vehicle, a medium sized non-descript box of a craft that pulled up behind the still smoldering flat bottom ship, and from which a team of overall suited technicians climbed out to begin work on the downed craft, worried him.

Despite keeping his people on alert for several hours Cutter remained tense until the recon team reported in. They'd made contact with the first group and it was their guests. They were returning without incident.

Cutter didn't ask them about the third vehicle. He would wait for that. Certainly the fact no one was pursuing the first group into the dense foliage was of comfort. He would wait and then see what their guests had to say.

* * *

The sun had set and the sky was rapidly going purple as the last rays began to fade, but Corporal Toms remained at his post. With the dwindling light at least the heat would finally crest and already the air was starting to cool but the climb down would be treacherous in the darkness, a thought Toms pushed from his mind as he watched the three vehicles slowly start to climb skyward and drift away.

At least there had been enough light to capture that image. The General had insisted on it and Toms was pleased it had occurred before darkness set fully. Now came the climb down. A tricky thing under the best of circumstances, made more difficult having to do with the limited view of night vision goggles.

But the General was well pleased with the results and congratulated Toms before the others, something that typically didn't happen. The only person whose eyes the Corporal could connect with following this was the twitchy civilian that had been promoted to officer. He seemed genuinely happy for Toms, a welcome change from the envious avoidance everyone else gave him.

Cutter glanced at the optical comm-unit display. The corporal leading the team was keeping the beam active and aimed at them so Cutter could see that they were only a few hundred metres off. He turned to the Sergeant and nodded him to get the rest aboard, they'd be leaving soon.

Ozeman remained by Cutter's side. Not needing to heed the guidance of a mere Sergeant, and both watched the dark forest intently waiting. Ozeman's head came up first, even before Cutter's display said they had arrived. The rustling of nearby branches was easily heard by the sharper ears of the young officer. But Ozeman refrained from stepping forward.

Heeding his 'gut' Ozeman remained back as Cutter moved to greet the dark and dirty crew arriving with his own. “Yuri, old friend!”

The burly, bearded hulk of a man who stepped in front of the other new arrivals smiled and thrust his hand out to receive Cutter's greeting. They shook hands vigorously as the rest of both the two teams climbed out of the forest glade.

“I thought we'd never get here,” Yuri said with relief while looking for someplace to sit.

Cutter looked into the distance as though still able to see through the darkness to the place where the craft landed, “It did seem like an unnecessarily long walk to take.”

Yuri moved to the side of the cliff and found a reasonably flat rock to sit on.   While he responded he removed his boots and after cleaning and massaging his tired feet he changed socks with a fresh pair from a pocket on his trousers.   “The bitch pilot caused more than few problems, customized systems, bah!”

“Bitch pilot?”  Cutter was curious now.

“We had to charter the flight down, under guise of doing charity run.”   Viktor shrugged, almost embarrassed at how lame the cover had been.   “We thought we were done with outsiders after the first stop, but as you saw, curious people showed up.”

Yuri then rose and tested the new socks as he stood taking some relief in the change.   “Thankfully that has been resolved.”

Cutter knew otherwise but was curious why Yuri didn't.   He looked around and asked, “Where's Podarkin?”

Gritting his teeth at the continual problems that besieged them Yuri shook his head before speaking, “He and two others returned to the craft when our thorn returned.  I wasn't sure he had it in him to end it once and for all but we couldn't chance further discovery.”

Yuri bent down and picked up the pack he'd tossed before sitting.   “All our problems were taken care of in the explosion.”   He slung it over his shoulder and he started toward the cave and presumably their ride, “Alexei's mission was to make sure we weren't followed, its success cost him his life.”

Cutter didn't move, and he didn't take his eyes off Yuri's as he spoke, “He failed.”

All of Yuri's men suddenly stiffened, quickly removed weapons from their shoulder's and took defensive positions aiming them towards the woods and sky.

None of Cutter's people moved, at least none of the ones who were visible.   Inside the caves ten soldiers were on bended knee with weapons drawn and aimed at the heads of the new arrivals.

Cutter stepped forward and handed Yuri the display with the image of the three craft eking skyward for escape, “A repair van of sorts showed up not long after the explosion.   It took them three hours to get the craft flight worthy.”

Yuri looked agog at the display.   His brain froze up, his eyes tightened, so many things had already gone wrong with the mission that he was tempted to give up; despite the fact they'd finally made it to their objective.

“Did they come this way?” Viktor asked almost sheepishly.

“You would've heard the report of our guns if they had.”   Cutter turned and started for the tunnel and his Command Truck.  “Whether investigators will come later is anyone's guess, but we've taken precautions.”

A Corporal held the door open for Cutter, Yuri, Victor, Romanov, Breznicki and Ozeman, who stepped inside.   The rest moved to the second vehicle without being told.

With a nod the Truck started up and they began to move.  Deeper in the tunnel with the two tanks behind them.   One whose gun was facing the direction they travelled, the other turned back to fire on anyone who should follow.

* * *